Why do some protestants claim that Mormons are not Christians?

A few protestant critics insist that Mormons are not Christians.  If asked to give reasons for this claim, they will generally present a list of doctrines which they claim Mormons believe, and then insist that anyone who believes these doctrines cannot be Christians.

In short, the critics use a private or personal definition of “Christian.”  When they say “Bob the Mormon is not a Christian,” they do not mean that Bob does not believe that Jesus is the Son of God, or that salvation can only come through Jesus, or that Jesus showed us the proper way to live.  What they mean is, “Bob is not my kind of Christian.”

When critics make the claim that LDS are not Christian, they typically will present a laundry list of doctrines and practices that they believe put LDS outside the category of “Christian.”  At its base, this claim is an excellent example of the “no true Scotsman” logical fallacy.

Jesus Christ

Member of the Church believe Jesus Christ is the Son of God.

There are two problems with this approach.

The First Problem

The first, and most important, is that it is confusing.

When most people hear the term “Christian,” they think of a person or group whose beliefs or practices are founded on the life and/or teachings of Christ.  That is, all groups whose religion is founded on Jesus of Nazareth have been classified as Christian since the term was first coined in the first century, regardless of specific beliefs and practices. If critics do not use Christian in this generally-understood sense, then the claim that Mormons are not Christians is misleading–it implies things that are not true about what Mormons believe.

“Christian” has always included such wildly diverse groups as the Ebionites, the Marcionites, and the Christian Gnostics of ancient times, along with Unitarians and Coptic Christians in modern times.  Critics may believe that LDS are “false Christians” or “heretical Christians” or “hell-bound Christians”–such terms are, after all, a matter of opinion and without standard definitions–but neither belief nor practice can exclude any group from the family of Christian religions and denominations if that group claims to be founded on the life or teachings of the first-century Jesus of Nazareth.

If critics wish to use “Christian” to communicate that Mormons have different doctrines than they do, that is fine–but, they should make it clear that they are using the term in a private, somewhat unusual sense.

The Second Problem

The second problem with the critics’ approach is the beliefs or doctrines with which they disagree have also been held by many other Christian believers–including the very earliest Christians.  Since these other believers have not been excluded from being “Christians” even though their beliefs do not match modern protestant critics’, it is a double standard to turn around and insist that those same beliefs mean that Mormons aren’t Christians.

Some differences in Mormon doctrine and conservative protestantism include:

  • Mormons do not accept creedal trinitarianism as set out by the Nicene creed, which dates to A.D. 325.
  • Because of different understandings about God, some Christian critics accuse the Mormons of worshiping a “different Jesus”  It would be more accurate to say that critics and Mormons believe different things about Jesus of Nazareth, but both worship him.
  • Mormons do not accept creation out of nothing, or creatio ex nihilo–a doctrine which did not appear in Christianity until “the second quarter of the second century” in a gnostic thinker.[1]  Even some modern Christians argue that this doctrine should be rejected.
  • LDS do not accept the conservative protestant view of  original sin.
  • LDS heed the teachings of Joseph Smith and other modern prophets.
  • LDS reject such Calvinist doctrines as predestination to salvation or damnation or the total depravity of man.
  • Mormons also have teachings which differ from many forms of “traditional” Christianity, such as:
  1. premortal existence
  2. temples and vicarious work for the dead
  3. eternal marriage and families
  4. scripture which they use in addition to the Bible
Mary and the Resurrected Jesus Christ

Mormons believe that through the atonement of Jesus Christ, all humanity will be resurrected.

Unfortunately for the critic, these beliefs which they do not accept have been held not just by the Mormons, but by other Christians as well, including the early Christians of the first and second centuries.  These Christians:

  • were not Nicene trinitarians, since the creeds were not yet formulated
  • did not teach creatio ex nihilo
  • did not consider “the Bible” to be the sole authoritative scripture, since it was not compiled until centuries later
  • considered some writings to be authoritative which many modern Christians now reject
  • followed living prophets (the apostles)

One might debate whether these Christians were ”correct” or ”complete” in their beliefs, but can the critics seriously exclude them from the family of Christians?

Conclusion

The critics essentially create a definition of “Christian” that includes their brand of Christianity, and excludes others with whom they disagree.

Many organizations without a theological axe to grind have properly classed Mormons as Christians.

If a critic says that Mormons are not Christian because of doctrinal differences, a Mormon would cheerfully agree that they do not share all the beliefs of conservative protestantism.

If, however, a critic means to imply that Mormons do not share the Christian belief that Jesus is the divine Son of God and the Savior, Mormons will feel obligated to disagree in the strongest terms, because they have promised to follow Jesus, to worship him, and to make him the center of their religious life.

There are better ways to highlight differences in belief than redefining the term “Christian.”

References

[1] Gerhard May, Schoepfung Aus Dem Nichts: Die Entstehung Der Lehre Von Der Creatio Ex Nihilo (Arbeiten Zur Kirchengeschichte, Vol 48) (Walter De Gruyter Inc, 1978), 63-85; as quoted in Robert Louis Wilken, The Christians as the Romans saw Them (Yale University Press, 2003), 88–89.