What It Means to Be Christian

So for a whole year Barnabas and Saul met with the church and taught great numbers of people. The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch.
Acts 11:22-26

And those who did belong to the church were faithful; yea, all those who were true believers in Christ took upon them, gladly, the name of Christ, or Christians as they were called, because of their belief in Christ who should come.-
Alma 46:15, The Book of Mormon


Here are some ways Americans of one religious stripe or another have defined the word “Christian.”

And as Christianity furnishes a regulative principle for both mind and will, teaching us what to believe and what to do, faith no less than works must characterize the perfect Christian.
– John Keating, New Advent Encyclopedia (Roman Catholic), “Christian.”

The question of the Samaritan was: what will happen to this man if I don’t stop to help him?  Ultimately the thing that determines whether a man is a Christian is how he answers this question. . . . Every true Christian is a fighting pacifist.
-The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr., VI:250, 258.

The phrase “born again” in Scripture literally means “to be born from above”—a spiritual rebirth. A Christian is a man, woman, or child who has experienced a spiritual new birth through the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit.
– Franklin Graham, “What Is A Christian?”

God does not leave the heart a vacuum. He cleanses the temple, and beautifies it with holiness, and then before astonished angels and men proclaims his entrance into his redeemed purified temple, saying: “Ye are the temple of the living God.”  How amazing! Yes, the heart of every true Christian is the living temple of the living God, where He who was once the incarnate Deity lives, moves, and works: as God hath said, “I will dwell in them and walk in them.” Truly holiness is power!
-Phoebe Palmer, Four Years in the Old World (New York: Foster and Palmer, 1866) 591.

The growth of ignorance in the church is the logical and inevitable result of the false notion that Christianity is a life and not also a doctrine; if Christianity is not a doctrine then of course teaching is not necessary to Christianity . . . Christian education is the chief business of the hour for every Christian man.  Christianity cannot subsist unless men know what Christianity is.
-J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1923) 177.
And here are the ways some Mormons have answered the question.

“True believers in Christ, both in America among the Nephites and in the old world beginning in apostolic times, were called Christians . . . As the day of the great apostasy set in, the term Christian continued to be applied to the supposed followers of Christ, even though in reality they had departed from the true doctrines.”
-Bruce R. McConkie, Mormon Doctrine 2nd edition (Salt Lake City, UT: Bookcraft, 1958) 132.

In the interview with me, the reporter seemed honestly puzzled as he asked, “How could someone not consider you Christian?” I knew he was referring to the Church, but my mind somehow framed the question personally, and I found myself silently asking, “Does my life reflect the love and devotion I feel for the Savior?” . . . I testify that as you love Him, trust Him, believe Him, and follow Him, you will feel His love and approval. As you ask, “What thinks Christ of me?” you will know that you are His disciple; you are His friend.
-Neil L. Andersen, “What Thinks Christ of Me?” General Conference, April 2012.

So what, then, is a Christian?  We have here a number of metrics.

1) Belief in correct doctrine.  Both Machen and McConkie emphasize this point, as does, to some extent, Keating.  The Book of Mormon seems to as well, though, two interesting subpoints are in order before we throw all these people onto the same boat.

A) It probably goes without saying that McConkie and Machen disagreed rather strenuously about what correct doctrine was.  Machen was the intellectual heavyweight of early Protestant fundamentalism (or, as he would prefer it, Protestant orthodoxy), while McConkie served a similar function for a particularly rigorous late-twentieth-century brand of Mormonism.  Meanwhile, the Book of Mormon passage does not actually specify any doctrines about Christianity which it is important to believe, except that Jesus existed and would come (the verses are written before Christ’s birth in the Book of Mormon’s timeline); this was certainly necessary but not sufficient for McConkie or Machen.

B) However, it is nonetheless significant that there is such broad consensus among our completely arbitrary panel that doctrine is important.   After all, there’s no particular reason why theology should be essential to any given religion, and the fact that it is so central to Machen and McConkie says as much about the mid-twentieth century as it does about Mormonism or Protestantism: this was an age in which science had made the ability to rationally explain and justify something a gauge for its worth, and both American Protestantism and Mormonism are still struggling with that heritage.

2) The working of the Holy Spirit.  Palmer. Graham.  This is the heritage of American evangelicalism, ultimately derived from the Protestant Reformation, which taught that human beings were utterly incapable of contributing anything to their own salvation, and were thus utterly dependent upon the grace of God.  The experience of that grace through the Holy Spirit was “conversion,” and it actually remade human nature, either suppressing or eradicating the evil the fall had entwined into human nature and making it possible to do good and love God.

Mormons, who reject the premise of human incapacity, rarely approach anything like this notion, and instead tend to speak of the Holy Spirit in terms of point 1: it communicates information.  It confirms propositional truths unverifiable any other way – the veracity of the claims in the Book of Mormon, for instance, or the reality of Joseph Smith’s divine calling.  It offers advice and counsel and guidance.  It is this confirmation rather than any sort of metaphysical transformation which makes one a Christian within Mormonism, by providing information which makes it possible to make a true decision for Christ.  For evangelicals to whom being Christian is an altered state of being, not simply a resolution, Mormons are missing the point.

3) Christianity as a way of life.  Machen is a bit suspicious of this, but contemporary Mormonism, at least in the person of Neil Andersen, is entirely on board.  Indeed, this is the way that Mormons generally respond to Protestants who accuse them of a lack of Christianity: following the ways Mormons think about the Holy Spirit as discussed in 2, Christianity to most Mormons reflects a commitment to following the teachings and example of Jesus Christ.

Interestingly enough, this way of thinking about Christian identity, which downplays detailed and accurate belief in favor of Christlike living, draws Mormons into procedural, though not perhaps substantive, congruence with activist Christianity of the sort King espouses.  It’s difficult to peg King as a theologically “liberal” or “conservative” Christian (James Cone has argued with some force that he owes much more to the black church tradition than to the theology he read in graduate school), but it’s true that among historically white denominations the argument that Christianity has more to do with behavior than belief has found the most traction in the liberal Protestant tradition.  This is only one way among many that Mormonism tends to complicate Protestant dichotomies.

One final quotation:

Today I quit being a Christian.  I’m out.  I remain committed to Christ as always but not to being Christian or part of Christianity.  It’s simply impossible for me to belong to this quarrelsome, hostile, disputatious and deservedly infamous group . . . In the name of Christ I refuse to be anti-gay.  I refuse to be anti-feminist.  I refuse to be anti-artificial birth control.
-Anne Rice, on Facebook, July 29, 2010

Rice’s statement is a rather clumsy and blunt expression of a deep and important truth: being “Christian” is always political.  What one believes about what it means to be Christian expresses what one believes about what is important or valuable about human existence.  When Mormons and evangelicals picks sides in this argument, then, they are saying as much about themselves as about their interlocutors.

  • http://joelsmonastery.blogspot.com Gerald Smith

    I have to disagree with point #2, wherein you state the HG is primarily just a transmitter of information. We believe that the Holy Ghost is the key to sanctification – being made holy. In Mosiah 5:1-4, we find that the Holy Ghost moved upon King Benjamin’s hearers and changed them so that they “no longer desired to do evil, but do good continually.”
    While we do not believe in the depravity of mankind, Mormons do believe in the natural man, who must become spiritual through the Holy Ghost.

    • http://patheos.com/blogs/peculiarpeople Alan Hurst

      I’ll second Gerald’s comment. There is a lot of emphasis on the Holy Ghost as communicating information, but I don’t think our discourse is limited to that–think from the old missionary discussions: “The Holy Ghost purifies us and makes us clean,” or the description of confirmation as baptism with fire and the Holy Ghost.

      And as Gerald points out, to the extent we do limit our understanding of the Holy Ghost to receiving information, we’re not living up to our own scriptures. I don’t even think Moroni 10:3-5 ought to be understood as being just about information, though there I’ll acknowledge that probably the way most Mormons talk about it does understand it in terms of information.

      • http://patheos.com/blogs/peculiarpeople Alan Hurst

        Hmm, and it strikes me we also have this thread of ideas about our ordinances needing to be sealed by the Holy Ghost, which isn’t informational, but I confess I’ve never really known what to make of those quotes.

  • Matthew Bowman

    Guys – thanks for this, and I certainly think you’re on to something.

    1) One reason I emphasize the information aspect is that it’s one thing that I think makes Mormons particularly distinct from evangelical Protestants; it’s a point of dissension frequently raised in interfaith discussions.

    2) I also think you’re both right about the tasks charged with the Holy Spirit in the BoM; however, I’d argue that this way of talking about it are not nearly as well developed in everyday Mormon discourse or more formal Mormon theology as are words like “confirmation” and “guidance” and “truth.” So when Gerald says “We believe,” I think he’s assuming a uniformity of discourse a bit more well developed than actually exists. Certainly I’d like to see more thought put into concepts like ‘sanctification’ and ‘sealing;’ what we need is a really good work of Mormon pneumatology.

    • http://patheos.com/blogs/peculiarpeople Alan Hurst

      Let me get right on that…

      (Heavens, it would be fun to be a full-time theologian. Minus the whole starvation part.)

  • http://www.withouthavingseen.com Ryan Haber

    Interesting article. One thing that interests me is the pretty complete elision of the central doctrine shared by all orthodox Christians: Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant. That central doctrine, of course, is the Trinity, and its concomitant doctrine of the Incarnation. Specifically, Christians believe that God is three divine persons in one being, co-equal and co-eternal, the Son eternally begotten of the Father, and the Holy Spirit proceeding eternally from their union, none subordinated by nature to any of the others: an eternal communion of love. Jesus Christ is God the Son, fundamentally different than humanity, which is part of his creation, having taken on human nature without losing anything of the divine nature, and born of a virgin.

    As far as I know, Mormons do not believe any of these two doctrines. My question is: Is that so?

    The New Testament, anathematizes particularly harshly anyone calling himself Christian but denying the second doctrine. Additionally it anathematizes in the same harsh terms anyone who claims to add to divine revelation. Many Christians consider the Book of Mormon and the surrounding body of beliefs to be just such a claim. My second question is: Is it not?

    Lastly, Mormons, along with all religious innovators growing out of Christianity, have always claimed to be recapturing something Christianity’s origins after “most Christians” when astray. Can anyone here name a specific belief, held by the Church before this supposed apostasy, that was abandoned or changed after the supposed apostasy? When naming the specific belief, I will be gratified if anyone provides citations to specific writings to demonstrate their point.

    Hopefully it is clear that I do not bear Mormonism any animosity whatsoever – much less Mormons. I am a Catholic and the grandchild of immigrants, so fresh in my mind is transmitted memories of being an alien. Nowadays, for that matter, many of us feel increasingly… unwelcome?… in our own land. It is a matter of course for me, then, to always give the benefit of concern to minorities. Also, I am certainly going to vote for Mitt :) – not that it matters, since I live in Maryland, where my vote will certainly be buried under two or three Obama votes. Oh well.

    Thanks in advance for any answers anyone can provide.

    • Matthew Bowman

      Hi, Ryan. Thanks for your comment. Four replies:

      1) As to the Trinity, it’s probably incorrect to say that Mormons do not believe in _any_ of the various doctrines you’ve named (as it’s incorrect to say that the doctrine as you’ve stated it is shared among Catholic/Protestants _and_ Orthodox; it’s my understanding the filioque clause of the creed has caused some dissension).

      Mormons believe that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are three separate beings, certainly, and that the Father and the Son are possessed of bodies of flesh and bone and the Holy Spirit a body of spirit. It’s also true that Mormons have generally taken this doctrine as impetus to scorn traditional Christianity for the supposedly incomprehensible doctrine of the Trinity. However, more recent Mormon theologians have drawn upon the Orthodox theologian Richard Swinburne and the Catholic Stephen Webb, among others, to draw Mormon theology into conversation with social trinitarianism and Heavenly Flesh Christology. The premise here is that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit together are an emergent One God greater than the sum of its parts, everlasting and interdependent; Mormons certainly could agree with that.

      2) As to the Incarnation I should refer you to Webb’s discussion of Mormon Christology in his recent book Jesus Christ: Eternal God (a nice summary is here (http://www.firstthings.com/article/2012/01/mormonism-obsessed-with-christ). Suffice to say Mormon Christology remains somewhat underdeveloped theologically, but Mormons certainly believe that Jesus is uncreated, the Eternal Son of an Eternal Father, born on earth to the Virgin Mary to redeem humankind. The ontological question is a bit sticky; many Mormons believe that humanity and God differ in degree rather than kind and that humans may one day join the divine concert. Other Mormons are more skeptical and see humanity existing on a different ontological plane from divinity. In either case, Mormons certainly worship Christ as God.

      3) As to your question about “adding” to divine revelation – the standard Mormon answer is that this particular passage is part of the Revelation of St John, which was of course written before the Bible was assembled, and that therefore it’s referring particularly to that revelation rather than the then non-existent Bible.

      4) And about the apostasy: most Mormons today would point to 1) the Trinity, which in the creedal form you’ve enunciated does not exist in the Bible, and 2) Mormon sacraments, like sealing and the endowment, performed by the priesthood authority Mormons believe was restored to Joseph Smith (though of course it’s true Catholic and Orthodox churches certainly claim the same authority). Mormon apologists have done _extensive_ work attempting to locate these particular rites in psuedographia and other early Christian documents and have found enough scraps to fill volumes; not all scholars, Mormon and otherwise, find this sort of work convincing, though, so I’ll leave that up to individual readers to judge.

      Thanks for stopping by, and for your friendliness!

  • LaurelhurstLiberal

    Correct doctrine seems pretty important to me. If you read the epistles, you can see that the apostles were intensely concerned with both correct doctrine and correct action. And the early history of the church is full of struggles to correct one misconception after another.

  • Larry

    You might think that, after all this time, pertinent questions about beliefs and doctrines, etc., would have all been answered. The only real conclusion that can be drawn is that this is all man-made and changes in various ways to remain relevant to society. It always amazes me that we can find new interpretations of scripture to explain the current state of the world. I suspect many of these changes would be most trying to many early believers. Will there ever be a day when the christian religions get it right, or do we just stagger alone with new interpretations every generation?

  • Christian J

    Mormon apologists have done _extensive_ work attempting to locate these particular rites in psuedographia and other early Christian documents and have found enough scraps to fill volumes

    Matthew, I appreciate your breakdown very much. Relating to this particular comment, can you refer me to the top of the list of these “scraps”? I’m one of the Mormons you cite as not being particularly convinced of the available evidence relating to our apostasy/restoration claims.

    • Matthew Bowman

      Christian, if you’ve never looked at him before, find any one of Hugh Nibley’s volumes. Temple and Cosmos tries to locate LDS temple rites in the ancient world, for instance.

  • David Hoffman

    Although I am proficient at reasoning and verbal expression, I have not found verbal reasoning, theology or doctrine of value in comprehending who is a Christian. Inward experiences and Divine grace have enabled me to realize that Christ Spirit exists, and to have some direct knowledge of what it is. Christ Spirit is God’s loving willingness to intimately touch, guide and heal us, and to make us into purer vessels and agents of God’s own essence of infinite compassion and justice.

    I don’t believe that God cares in the slightest whether or not we understand this deep spiritual call and promise through a trinitarian metaphor, or whether or not we believe in materialist cosmology, in evolution or creationism, or even in some other controversial mythic creation narrative.

    Do we seek attunement and allignment with God’s infinite compassion and with God’s passion for justice? If we do, then we are by definition seeking Christ to the best of our capacity. That is my understanding of what constitutes being Christian.

    Out of respect for people who choose to view and label their compassion and their passion for humanitarian justice in some different way, I refrain from claiming that they are Christian. Nevertheless I don’t differentiate them from myself in terms of their standing with God or God’s acceptance. Therefore I add another criterion – that a Christian is one who knowingly identifies her/his aspirations to deeper compassion, and to fuller enactment of humanitarian justice, as arising from – or as inspired by – the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth.

    Jesus taught that his family are those who do the will of his father. He gave a variety of illustrations of what such a spiritual path would entail. He presented most of this as a devout Jew speaking to other Jews. Therefore he used Jewish custom and scripture as key referents.

    Paul formulated a set of additional doctrines and interpretations which that he sincerely believed, and promoted as being, litmus tests for bona Christian faith, as approved and accepted by God.

    Subsequent sectarian theorists extended these doctrinal appendages further yet, in dozens of directions. Most of Paul’s and subsequent theologians’ work constructed exclusionary boundaries around what beliefs are permissible for a “true” Christian, and what beliefs are indispensible to “true” Christianity.

    Through it all, God grieves (like any loving parent would grieve), at the heinous spectacle of her/his children villifying, hating, abusing, tormenting, oppressing and killing one another.

    This entire body of ethnocentric, communalist and sectarian polemics is irrelevant and disinformational as to who is or isn’t Christian, and as to how one attains communion with God.