Are Mainline Protestants Christian? — A guest post by Stephen H. Webb

This post is a part of the interfaith blog roundtable on at Patheos, hosted by Chris Henrichsen, on the question, “Are Mormons Christian?”

That, to me, is a better question than asking if Mormons are Christian. By better I mean better in every way. Asking if Mormons are Christians feeds into old prejudices and stereotypes. It does little to shed light on Mormon theology, and it puts individual Mormons on the defensive. It is also a supremely uninteresting question, sort of like asking if the Pope is Catholic.  Anyone who knows a Mormon knows how devoted they are to building the kingdom of God on earth and how devout they are in worshipping Jesus Christ. On the other hand, asking if Episcopalians, Disciples of Christ, Methodists, and Presbyterians are Christians has some real substance to it. These Protestant mainline (which is a nice way of saying “mainstream”) traditions are on the ropes. They each have significant minorities that call into question the theological wisdom, as well as orthodoxy, of their denominational leaders. And they have been losing members by the millions over the past several decades.

Now you don’t have to tell me that there are a lot of nice people in the Disciples, Episcopal, Methodist, and Presbyterian churches. I was a Disciples of Christ for many years, and everyone I met in that denomination was really, really nice. Of course, Mormons are known for being incredible nice as well, and we know that niceness isn’t a particularly impressive marker of Christian identity.

Let me throw out three such markers: passion for the great themes of Christian thought, a missionary mindset, and a commitment to Christian unity. First, by passion for Christian thought I don’t necessarily mean theology, although good theology should be the culmination of such passion. I mean that the mind should be as oriented toward God as the heart, and that churches need to be grounded in not just the Bible but also the grand topics of the Trinity, Christology, and so on. Mormons love theology, at least the ones I have met, but mainline Protestants not so much. Mainline seminaries keep cutting back their theology courses. More fundamentally, the mainlines seem to have just grown bored with talk about the Trinity and Christology. They’d rather talk about social issues instead. They no longer have a passion for the great themes of Christianity.

Let’s face it: If I were given a random conversation partner to spend a few million years in Heaven talking theology with, would I draw from the Disciples of Christ or the Mormons? It’s an easy call.

Second, everyone knows about Mormon missionaries, but when is the last time that a Methodist or Presbyterian has invited you to church? Maybe they just think their churches don’t have that much to offer anyone any more.

Third, by Christian unity I don’t mean ecumenical agreements but Christians looking out for each other. I’ve been involved in a lot of debates in higher education over the years, and I have rarely experienced Christian unity with my brothers and sisters from the mainline denominations. To a person, they are completely invested in the institutions that pay their salary. They do not identify with Christian students or faculty on campus, do not support students in Bible studies, do not take public positions on religious issues (except when they join in with likeminded colleagues on safe, liberal issues), and do not show any interest in theology in their own specialized research. They have no sense of Christian unity in the workplace. Their loyalties are clear. When push comes to shove, they side with the man, not The Man.

I was once in a faculty committee meeting with several professors who happened to be Presbyterian. We were told the private college we taught at might fund a chaplaincy program. I was excited, since we didn’t have any such thing. The Presbyterians drew the line. Yes, our students would benefit from it, and they needed it, but what about the atheists on campus? Wouldn’t they be offended? And how could we advertise for a chaplain without inviting everyone, including pagans and occultists, to apply? Their obsession with tolerance and relativism killed the program.

The Mormons I know, on the other hand, are quick to extend a hand of fellowship to anyone who follows Christ. They are used to standing up for unpopular causes. They have a loyalty to the church that trumps employers and governments. And they know that being a Christian requires a little bit of courage.

Am I over generalizing? Sure, but I think the question I have raised is much better than the question about whether Mormons are Christians. If you want to talk about Mormons, a better question is this: What kind of Christian are they? And what can the rest of us learn from them? For that, I’ll have to ask you to read my book.

Stephen H. Webb is the author of Mormon Christianity: What Other Christians can Learn from the Latter-day Saints (Oxford University Press, 2013).

  • arty

    Touche, Professor Webb. My first inclination, as well, was to dispute the wisdom of the question. Anecdotally supporting your point (since I’m a college professor myself):

    A few years ago, I overheard a student on my campus query our local Methodist pastor about the age-old problem of theodicy. The student had discussed the matter with me, prior, and I’d suggested he read “The Brothers Karamazov,” which would give us something specific to talk about. when the student asked the Methodist pastor about it (and the student was clearly in searching mode), the pastor said, “oh, well, that’s something people have wondered about.” and totally blew him off.

    If the student had said, “What do you think of John Shelby Spong?” you can bet he’d have gotten an earful though. What a missed opportunity. The Mormons I know, for all the other ways I disagree with them, don’t miss those kinds of opportunities.

    • now a mormon

      I had a similar experience as a searching young person when I asked my Congregationalist minister what the Congregational church taught on a particular topic. His answer –obviously and patently condescending and manipulative even to me at age 15– was “What do you believe?”

    • Undercat

      You know, the only people I hear talk of Spong are Catholics or evangelicals criticizing mainliners. I grew up mainline (ELCA) and joined the Episcopal Church as an adult when I returned to faith, and for two bastions of liberalism, the vast majority of people that I’ve had contact with, clergy and laity alike, affirm the historic creeds (though granted, many will make an exception and question the Virgin Birth). I suspect that most people in my parish don’t even know who Spong is, let alone agree with what he says.

      • MainlineP

        Thank you for articulating the real world of “mainline” congregations, including TEC and ELCA. My experience is the same. Sure, I know who John Spong is and was, as a retired bishop, but his ideas are not mine nor those of most in our congregation. Many I suspect have never heard of him. Prof. Webb needs to leave cloistered academia, and see how “mainline” pastors and their flocks actually worship. His opinion piece is biased propaganda and a barely veiled push to sell his book. Webb and his host, Mr. Rocha ought to admit that without a culture of huge families (Mormons), and vast immigration (much of it undocumented aliens) both LDS and the RC churches would also be suffering steep slides in membership.

        • SamRocha

          As for the RCC side of things, it is not a US Church, obviously, so membership here or abroad makes very little difference to the total membership of the RCC.

  • RaymondSwenson

    Thank you, Professor Webb, for your refreshing perspective. I found your book Mormon Christianity both intellectually engaging and a very enjoyable read, two qualities that don’t always appear together in the field of theology. And as a lifelong Mormon, I would like to commend you on taking the time to describe Mormon beliefs accurately, something that is a rare quality in even those books that have positive things to say about the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

    I noted that you point out in the book that there are a number of denominations that are, with no controversy, accepted as Christian that have eschewed belief in the Nicene formulation of the Trinity specifically because it goes beyond the Bible. It is not really that unusual to find a Protestant theologian who favors a “social Trinity” as Mormons do.

    In my reading over the years, I have learned that a number of the specific beliefs of Mormons that are the favorite targets of the who want to read us out of the Christian club are actually shared with other denominations that no one questions as to their Christian status. That includes the teachings of the Russian.Orthodox Church my mother was raised in in Japan, specifically theosis, the belief that the saved will become like Christ and thus like God. Mom told me that the Mormon version of theosis sounded utterly familiar to her. The Orthodox theological essays on theosis cite the same Bible passages Mormons do, plus they quote the early pre-Nicene Church Fathers like Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyon, who said that “God became man so that man could become God.”

    Those who attack Mormon belief in salvation of those who have died before hearing the Christian gospel seem to have forgotten that for centuries the Catholic Church taught and depicted the Harrowing of Hell that occurred between the death and resurrection of Christ. Peter’s own epistles refer to Christ’s salvation extending to the dead, giving specific meaning to Christ’s promise to Peter just before the Transfiguration that the keys he would be given would prevail against, that is, unlock, the gates of hell.

  • Thomas Johnson

    As a Mormon, I think this is a great question you are raising.

  • John W. Morehead

    I have appreciated your prior work on a theology of divine embodiment that you did in interacting with Mormon theology. (Interested readers can see this in dialogical fashion as Webb interacts with Catholic philosopher Frank Beckwith and Mormon religious diplomacy advocate Charles Randall Paul at Sacred Tribes Journal:

    This new volume offers a more expansive agenda for readers. I look
    forward to reading it and taking your thesis under consideration as
    Evangelicals and Mormons interact with it at the Foundation for
    Religious Diplomacy.

  • Collin

    I certainly do agree that you’re over-generalizing; my experience with Christians has been quite the opposite.

  • Melody

    As far as I’m concerned, Mormons are Christians. So are Methodists, Presbyterians, etc. We’ve been on the receiving end as Catholics as far as others speculating out loud if we are “really” Christian, because we worship Mary and stuff, that I really hate it when people get into parsing who is in and who is out. So-called mainline Protestants are all over the map as far as the manner in which they witness to Christ. So are most denominations. If they say they are Christians, I believe them, because I want them to believe me when I say that I am.
    Mark 9:39-41 “But Jesus said, “Do not hinder him, for there is no one who will perform a miracle in My name, and be able soon afterward to speak evil of Me. For he who is not against us is for us. For whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because of your name as followers of Christ, truly I say to you, he will not lose his reward.”

  • Matt McLaughlin

    Asking if Mormons are Christian and Zionist was necessary in the American 2012 election due to Mit Romney’s submition to Zionism and his permission for modern Israel to hit Iran with bombs.

  • Akos Tarkanyi

    Gal 1, 8-9