Are Mormons Christians? A Response to Ben Witherington

A few days ago, Ben Witherington addressed the question of whether Mormons are Christians, and concluded that they are not. I've tackled that question before and have gotten tired of repeating the arguments. This is a discussion in which almost no one changes their mind, so engaging in it is usually futile.

Witherington's comments, however, are smart and he pushes enough of the common buttons that he deserves a response. Perhaps some who are genuinely undecided about the question can be helped by what he says along with a Mormon response. So I'm taking up the question one more time.

The first step is to point out that the answer to the question depends on what the question means. Is the question, "Do Mormons share the beliefs of traditional Christians?" If that's the question, then the answer is "Not all of them," and we've not been shy about saying how we differ. (But more about our beliefs later.)

But if the question means instead, do Mormons recognize Jesus as the God of the Bible (both Old and New Testaments), who was born to the virgin Mary, lived and taught in Galilee and Jerusalem, suffered and died for the sins of all humankind, was buried in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathaea and then resurrected on the third day, to rise and sit at the right hand of the Father, and to return someday to rule and reign over the earth, then the answer is yes. (See for example Alma 7:9-14.) And we've also not been shy about saying that.

There are other ways of defining the word Christian, and Mormons fit all but the most narrow of them. The answer to the question whether Mormons are Christian depends completely on what the questioner means by Christian. However, though the answer depends on that meaning, most often the answer will be yes—and when it is not, it is probably because Mormons disagree with the particular definition of what it means to be Christian.

If someone were to ask me if I can cook, the answer would be yes. But suppose they say, "By cook I mean create the kind of avant garde haute cuisine that José Andrés and Ferran Adrià create." "Well," I might say, "by that definition I can't cook. But in spite of that, I can cook." That person's use of the term cook is reasonable in its context, but it would be odd for him to insist that I can't cook, without qualification. That is much like what happens when people ask the question whether Mormons are Christian.

The next step is to recognize that Mormons don't understand themselves primarily in terms of beliefs, so it is a mistake to focus on this or that belief in trying to understand us. For Evangelical Protestantism in particular and Christianity in general, belief defines religion, though that is a tenet that has come into favor primarily since the Reformation. Mormons, however, are more interested in orthopraxy than orthodoxy.

Of course beliefs are relevant and important, but Mormonism is a religion of practice in which beliefs have the importance and meaning that they do as part of practices. (I've written about that here, here, and here and published several relevant print pieces.) Doing what Mormons do is what makes a person a Mormon, much more than believing what Mormons believe.

The broadest understanding of what Mormons do could be described as making and keeping covenant with God. Those who try to understand what Mormonism is simply by referring to beliefs that have been put forth in the past or even that are presently held deeply misunderstand us if they don't understand those beliefs as important to the degree that they are part of understanding religion as covenant, and religious practice as keeping covenant. Apart from that, we feel comfortable allowing a wide range of beliefs amongst us.

For Witherington and many others, belief is central to one's religion. I'm not saying that he would say that Christian practices are unnecessary or unimportant. Nor would he think that covenant is irrelevant to being a Christian. But whereas Mormons believe that practices are fundamental and beliefs make sense from within those practices, I bet that Witherington believes that beliefs are fundamental and practices follow from them.