Not long ago I read a stunning (and scathing) response in a blog post by a Christian woman who was furious with those taking exception with the “Christian” convictions of a well-known Mormon media personality.
“If only you would get on your knees and pray asking God to give you the wisdom and the discernment you need, you would see and know [this Mormon] is the real deal,” she wrote. “But instead you...ridicule him and the Mormon church...[rather than] doing your own research.”
Mormonism is ultimately no different from other Christian denominations, she insisted, like Baptists and Methodists who teach the same thing about Jesus the Mormons do. Questioning Mormonism’s legitimacy as a Christian denomination, she added, is uneducated, mocking God, and borderline Satanic. Those who do should be ashamed of themselves and ask God’s forgiveness.
She ended her indictment with these words: “I only ask one thing. Before you go condemning someone, go to God and ask for HIS [sic] explanation of things.”1
Sound advice, it seems to me (advice she might have followed herself).
This woman is not alone. Not only is her view the view of many Christians, but it’s the claim of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) itself, at least at the moment.
Are they right?
What’s In a Name?
The answer to the question “Is Mormonism a Christian denomination?” hinges entirely on the meaning of two words: “Christian” and “denomination.”
The word “Christian” has become almost infinitely flexible of late. Since precision is necessary to say anything meaningful—and since questions about denominations are theological ones—I will use the word “Christian” in its ordinary, historical, theological sense.
I will use the phrase “classical Christianity” to refer to the form of Christianity recognized by that name for nearly two millennia. It has distinctive doctrines distinguishing it from other religions and also from other sects that bear a superficial resemblance because of shared vocabulary, yet differ at some defining doctrinal point.
I am not assuming, here, that classical Christianity is true Christianity—that it faithfully expresses the most primitive (i.e., ancient) understanding taught by Jesus Himself. That is my conviction, but I’m not addressing the issue here. I’m simply trying to be clear on terms.
I will also use the word “denomination” in its standard sense. A religious denomination is a subset of a larger religion. It holds to all the distinctives of the parent group—the sine qua nons, or bare essentials—and differs from other denominations of that group only in secondary or tertiary ways.
If an alleged denomination denies some defining doctrine of the larger group, or if it advances a unique doctrine of its own that is inconsistent with a central teaching of the parent religion, then it is not a denomination of that religion. It is a separate and distinct religious group.
For example, mainstream Mormons reject as legitimately Mormon those groups who continue to practice plural marriage.2 These factions may share many things in common with “orthodox” LDS, yet they promote a central practice that deviates sufficiently from core Mormon theology to disqualify them as LDS “denominations.”
A denomination is Christian, then, if 1) the denomination shares the core doctrines that historically distinguish Christianity from other religions, and 2) the denomination has no core doctrines at odds with the core doctrines of classical Christianity. Their basic worldviews must overlap at their defining points.
Note that the similarity critical here is shared foundational doctrines, not shared religious terminology. This is important. Religious words and phrases can have radically different meanings to different groups.
If Mormonism is a denomination of Christianity, then everything doctrinally central to classical Christianity is also central to LDS theology, and nothing doctrinally central to LDS theology is inconsistent with classical Christianity.
Is this the case? Is classical Christianity and the teachings of the LDS fundamentally the same (as the blogger asserted)? Are the differences between LDS and Baptists basically the same kind of differences as between Baptists and Methodists? Or is Mormonism a separate religion that shares religious vocabulary with the others, but not their foundational belief system?
I’m not asking if Mormonism is true right now. I’m asking if it’s Christian in the classical sense of the term. Let’s see.
Separate, but Equal?
To answer this question, I purchased the most up-to-date, authoritative guide to Mormonism available LDS Beliefs—A Doctrinal Reference3 issued by LDS book publisher Deseret Books.4 Entries are arranged alphabetically by topic. Here is what I found under the heading “Christian”:
A Christian is one who accepts the scriptural, prophetic, and Spirit-delivered testimony of the divinity of Jesus of Nazareth. A Christian believes...that [Jesus] is the Son of God and God the Son...[who] took upon himself the burden of the sins and sufferings of all humankind and made forgiveness and deliverance available through faith on his name and through acceptance of the terms and conditions of his gospel; that he rose from the dead...A Christian is one who acknowledges his or her sin and weakness and recognizes that peace and happiness and salvation come only through applying the atoning blood of Jesus Christ. A Christian knows full well that there is no other name by which salvation comes except the name of Jesus Christ (109-110).
This sounds stellar, at first glance. No problems here. Under the entry “God,” we find this description:
God is the only supreme governor and independent being in whom all fullness and perfection dwell; who is omnipotent, omnipresent, and omniscient; without beginning of days or end of life...God is infinite, while men and women on earth are finite (262).
Again, everything seems in order, until you glance over to the facing page and read more details under the heading “Godhead.”
The Godhead consists of three personages: God the Eternal Father, Jesus Christ the Redeemer, and the Holy Ghost. [Joseph Smith] referred to these three as God the first, the Creator; God the second, the Redeemer; and God the third, the Witness or Testator. The Father has a body of flesh and bones as tangible as man’s...These three are separate and distinct personages and beings. This understanding...stands in stark contrast to efforts on the part of traditional Christian thinkers to maintain the ontological oneness of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (263) [Emphasis added].
What? The Godhead consists of three separate and distinct gods: first, second, and third? The Father has a body of flesh and bones as tangible as man’s? Suffice it to say, this is a vastly different understanding of God than found in classical Christianity.
Now you see why I warned that shared religious terminology can be misleading if the doctrinal content is not the same. It simply is not enough to say, “We believe in Jesus,” even when a string of orthodox theological terms are tacked onto the confession.
The earliest debates in Christianity were about the nature of God and the person of Jesus. They were meant to distinguish classical Christianity from the theological corruptions of look-alike contenders.5 Ancient Arians, Ebionites, Gnostics, and Pelagians all “believed in Jesus,” yet all were opposed by the early church as non-Christian sects with theological poison in their veins.
Even in Paul’s time there were conflicting characterizations of Christ, with false notions gaining a footing in the church. That’s why he warned of “another Jesus” and a “different gospel” (2 Cor. 11:4).
Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” then, “Who do you say that I am” (Matt. 16:13-15), because the details mattered. “Those who worship God,” He told the woman at the well, “must worship Him in Spirit and truth” (Jn. 4:24).
As to the Mormon characterization of God, I will disregard the clear contradiction on facing pages of LDS Beliefs that God is “infinite, while men and women on earth are finite,” yet has “a body of flesh and bones as tangible as man’s.” Instead, the important thing you need to notice is the explicit distinction made between LDS beliefs and those of “traditional Christian thinkers.”
The distinction, it turns out, is massive.
The One or the Many?
Nicea was the very first creedal line in the sand distinguishing primitive, apostolic Christianity from imposters who shared theological terminology, but not theological content. Yet LDS Beliefs labors to distance Mormonism from the Nicene formula.
The Mormon Godhead consists of “three beings” who each “possess all of the attributes of godliness in perfection,” that are “a divine community” sharing “no mystical union of substance.” Instead, they “are as distinct in their persons and individualities as are any three persons in mortality” (263-264).
Not only is this an explicit rejection of Nicea, it is also is an explicit affirmation of polytheism. Note, “God the first...God the second...and God the third” are “separate and distinct beings.”
To be fair, Mormonism denies this charge: “The LDS belief in...three beings within the Godhead...is not to say that we are polytheistic” (263). However, also to be fair, this assertion is hard to take seriously.
Polytheism—from poly- (many) and theos (god)—is the belief in or worship of more than one god. There is nothing ambiguous about this word. Anyone can do the math. Mormonism is polytheistic, in spite of any complaints to the contrary.
The explanation offered on how Mormonism avoids a contradiction in its own theology—both one God and three Gods—appears under the heading “Monotheism”:
In the ultimate and final sense of the word, there is only one true and living God...We believe in one God in that we believe in one Godhead, one divine presidency of the universe...three Gods...three beings...and these three constitute the Godhead, and are one (436).
Note the qualification. Mormonism is “monotheistic” in the sense that three distinct Gods comprise what was earlier referred to as one “divine community.” “Their unity of purpose and operation is such as to make their edicts one, and their will the will of God” (264).
However, the assertion of divine oligarchy does not rescue Mormonism from the charge of polytheism. A belief in multiple, distinct gods is polytheistic, even if the LDS refuses to call it that. Religious groups are free to define their own beliefs. They are not free to redefine the English language.
Again, I want to emphasize I am not trying to determine which view is correct, but rather to show that these views are radically different.
Mormonism explicitly denies the foundational sine qua non of classical Christianity, the Nicene Creed, by asserting polytheism in its place. So how in good faith can they continue to claim to be a denomination of Christianity when they deny the core?
The correct answer is, ultimately, they are not. They are a distinct religion meant to replace classical Christianity. It is why Mormonism was founded in the first place.
The Genesis of “Restoration”
As a 15-year-old in Palmyra, New York, Joseph Smith sought wisdom from God regarding which Christian denomination was the true and accurate one. Members of his family were Presbyterian, but he was leaning (at the time) toward Methodism. According to his testimony, two personages appeared to him, the Father with the Son, who told him he “must join none of them, for they were all wrong...that all their creeds were an abomination in his sight; that those professors were all corrupt...[teaching] for doctrines the commandments of men...”6
According to Joseph Smith, a “Great Apostasy” had corrupted the church from the outset. As the “prophet of the restoration,” Smith would restore what had been lost—the very Gospel itself—and establish the one, true “restored church,” the LDS. Indeed, LDS stands for “latter-day saints.” Mormons are the saints of these latter days, not those who had for 2,000 years been commonly called “Christians.”
Of course, a Christianity without the true Gospel could not be considered true Christianity. Worse, this necessarily makes classical Christianity at theological odds with Mormonism. This conclusion cannot be avoided.
Joseph Smith claimed God told him the current Christian creeds were “an abomination,” that those who professed them were “all corrupt,” their doctrines mere “commandments of men.” The Apostle Paul wrote, “Even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to what we have preached to you, his is to be accursed” (Gal. 1:8).
If Joseph Smith’s divine mission was to restore the lost gospel, then the gospel classical Christians have been preaching would be “another gospel,” a gospel that Paul cursed. By force of logic, if we take LDS claims seriously, then Mormonism could not have any legitimate kinship with classical Christianity since the historical church has promoted a different gospel, a corrupt gospel, and a cursed gospel for two millennia.
Oddly, LDS Beliefs denies this. Under the heading “Only True Church” (referring to Mormonism) the authors claim this “does not mean that men and women of other Christian faiths are not sincere believers in truth and genuine followers of Christ. It does not mean we believe that most of the doctrines in Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, or Protestant Christianity are false” (461) [Emphasis added].
Forgive me, but this statement strikes me as misleading in the extreme. No explanation is given as to why other Christian denominations could be “genuine” followers of Christ “in truth” when Joseph Smith calls their creeds “abominations.” How could it be true? The very existence of Mormonism dictates the opposite.
Correcting the Corruption
One of the critical doctrines unique to Mormonism and central to the renewal is eternal marriage. The phrase “family values” has a very different meaning to Mormons than to classical Christians. Under the heading “Marriage” we read:
Latter-day Saints have a unique understanding of how ’the family is ordained of God’ because of our belief that we lived in a family setting as spirits before we came to earth...We lived in the family of God, where we were taught, reared, and nurtured by Heavenly Parents...(211).
Mormons value marriage and family above all else because God Himself had a wife and a family, too, with each of us as His children in the pre-existence. Family, then, is the divine, eternal order. As God’s offspring, “All men and women...are literally the sons and daughters of Deity [sic]” (441).
This is not just a radically different understanding of marriage compared to classical Christianity. It is a radically different understanding of salvation:
We understood that the plan of salvation provided the means whereby we could be united as families throughout all eternity in a state of perfect happiness and joy...[Mormon parents desire] the building of a home and family and of a kingdom of their own; to the laying of the foundation of eternal increase and power, glory, exaltation and dominion, worlds without end...Salvation is a family affair...Full salvation consists of the continuation of the family unit in celestial glory. Those for whom the family unit continues have eternal life; those for whom it does not continue do not have eternal life, for heaven itself is but the projection of a righteous family into eternity (211-213) [Emphasis added].
Classical Christians have never held to “eternal marriage” for two very good reasons. First, Jesus denied it (Matt. 22:29-30). Second, the church never taught it. Yet it is central to the Mormon understanding of eternal life. It “is a requisite for exaltation in the highest glory or kingdom of God” (407).
If Words Mean Anything
Our question has been a simple one: Is Mormonism just another Christian denomination? I take the word “Christian” in its ordinary, historical, theological sense—what I’ve called “classical Christianity”—as I do the word “denomination.” Any denomination of Christianity would, by definition, share its core doctrines and promote no beliefs at odds with those doctrines.
By these criteria, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is not a denomination of Christianity. It denies doctrines central to classical Christianity, and Christianity denies doctrines central to the LDS. Though it has collected some of the “doctrinal debris”—to quote Elder Maxwell (463)—left over from the Christianity of history, Mormonism is a completely different religion.
Indeed, with the exception of shared moral values, I am not aware of a single major theological doctrine of Mormonism that overlaps classical Christianity at crucial junctures. The two religions differ on the basic nature of God, the person of Christ, the extent of special revelation, the fall, man, eternal marriage, the priesthood, the afterlife, the atonement, sin, salvation, and Satan.
Do not be confused. If Mormonism is Christian, then classical “Christianity” is not.