What’s the Big Deal About the ” Mormon ” Name Change?

What’s the Big Deal About the ” Mormon ” Name Change? August 25, 2018
Salt Lake Temple, Salt Lake City Temple Square; picture taken by Paul Louis Metzger

By Paul Louis Metzger and John W. Morehead                                                    Earlier this month, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints issued a statement informing its membership and the rest of the world about a name change. According to Russell M. Nelson, their President and Prophet, as well as an official church style guide, the first reference should be the full name of the Church (“The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints”), and “the Church” or the “restored Church of Jesus Christ” should be used as shortened references after that. Of most surprise is that the terms “ Mormon ,” “Mormon Church,” and even LDS, are now inappropriate references. A short time after the statement was issued, President Nelson stated that this should be understood as a correction rather than a change to the Church’s name.

On the one hand, changes to the name of the Church previously known as Mormon have taken place several times in its history, especially between 1830 and 1838, with a revelation in their Doctrine and Covenants scripture mandating the full name emphasized in the recent statement by Nelson. But on the other hand, this correction and emphasis is especially confusing. In 2010 the Church launched a national media campaign called “I’m a Mormon”, and in 2014 the Church produced the Meet the Mormons documentary film. Then there are lingering questions about what to call the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. And it’s not just outsiders who are confused. Many Mormons are as well, as this article by Jana Riess demonstrates.

But there are additional questions that arise beyond confusion about nomenclature and marketing. As evangelicals who practice a respectful way of engagement with Mormons, who seek to write about them in ways that fairly represent what that faith is all about, and who are involved in public dialogues with them, we also have theological concerns about the name change.

First, is related to confusion with other churches, whether Protestant or Catholic. The immediate referent to “the Church” could easily be lost, particularly in a conversation. This may lead to confusion as to what is being referred to in relation to historic Christendom. And what of the differing variations on Church of Christ, United Church of Christ, and other restorationist or primitivist churches?

Second, the disavowal of “LDS” is particularly strange. At times they have preferred LDS Church over Mormon Church, but then used “ Mormon ” as a branding and marketing strategy. But even with a move away from “Mormon,” why also “LDS” since that is directly connected to the longer version of their name, while also providing a point of connection to their doctrinal distinctives? This leads to the third point.

Three, what are evangelicals to make of the name correction in reference to doctrinal distinctives and the process of dialogue that has been going on for many years? Conservative evangelicals have long been wary of similarities between “Mormonism” and evangelical Protestantism and may interpret the correction as an attempt at subterfuge for evangelism. How can we respond to such concerns?

We can appreciate The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ desire to position itself in greater proximity to the broader Christian tradition, even while it continues to claim that it represents a restoration of ancient or original Christianity (a view we strongly disagree with based on significant differences over such important doctrines as the Trinity, Christ’s eternal pre-existence, and their view of exaltation). According to Patrick Mason, chair of Mormon studies at Claremont Graduate University, the church wants to create a clear separation between itself and the word “Mormon” for a few reasons, including the following:

“Mormon is a long-standing nickname for the church and for the movement, but the church leadership has always been concerned that the nickname has obscured the fundamentally Christian nature of the church and the religion,” Mason told CNN. “Especially since they’re so many people who’ve criticized the church and have done so historically for not being Christian or orthodoxly Christian. The church leadership really wants to emphasize the fact that it is a Christian church.”

No matter how good its intentions are, we fear that the recent name change will convey to outside and critical observers a spirit of arrogance and presumption on the one hand and dis-ingenuousness on the other hand. Here we revisit points made earlier in this post.

The concern over the appearance of a spirit of arrogance or presumption relates to the first point noted above: how would Roman Catholics, for example, take to the idea that all people—not just adherents of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints—must refer to it as “The Church.” For so much of its history, Roman Catholicism has viewed itself as “The Church” for a variety of reasons, including Rome’s prominent connection to the apostolic community. How does this recent move in Salt Lake City promote good will and charity between various faith traditions within Christendom?

The concern over the appearance of dis-ingenuousness relates to the third point noted above: many evangelical Christians have a long-standing suspicion that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints covers up significant differences between itself and historic orthodox Christianity in the attempt to convert Protestants, as well as Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox.

Having noted these concerns, which we highlight for the sake of cultivating greater understanding (including safeguarding our Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints friends from misunderstanding) and building further trust, it is important that we who are evangelical Christians not resort to name-calling because of a name change. As 1 Corinthians 13:7 indicates, love always hopes and perseveres. While the Bible also encourages all of us to be discerning and watch our doctrine and practice closely (1 Timothy 4:16), we also need to watch out on behalf of our neighbors of other faith paths, seeking to understand them even as we would hope to be understood. Besides, the way the evangelical label is looked down upon in so many quarters today, we who are evangelical Christians might end up changing our name as well! Names do matter, but all the more important are relationships that put flesh and blood and stories to names. Words and names only have meaning in the context of community. And so, it is important that we who identify with evangelical Christian orthodoxy continue to cultivate trust and community with our friends from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Otherwise, we discredit our Christian name as well as our evangelical claim that our movement emphasizes personal relationships.

John W. Morehead is the Director of the Evangelical Chapter of the Foundation for Religious Diplomacy, and project leader of the Multifaith Matters Collaborative Inquiry Team. Paul Louis Metzger serves with him at FRD as Senior Research Fellow and a Charter Member of its Evangelical Chapter, as well as at Multifaith Matters.

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