Friday, 18 January 2008

Are Christians Mormons?

From the earliest days of Mormonism they have made clear that their church is a restoration of the church Christ established in the first century, and that had gone into apostasy following the death of Christ and his apostles. This much has always been clear. To this extent Mormons have always regarded themselves as Christians.

Traditionally, however, Mormons have had no problem in being called Mormons, indeed in calling themselves Mormons. John Taylor (d.1887) third Mormon president, once edited a Mormon newspaper in New York City entitled “The Mormon”. James E Talmage (d.1933) Mormon apostle, in commenting on a Congress of Religious Philosophy in 1915, spoke in the Salt Lake Tabernacle saying, “The Mormon Church was the only Christian organisation there present that had a definite...philosophical basis to proclaim.” His remarks were later published in a pamphlet entitled “The Philosophical Basis of Mormonism”.

Bruce R McConkie (d.1985), Mormon apostle, famously published the book “Mormon Doctrine”, an A-Z of Mormon doctrine, in 1958. As recently as 1979 Leonard J Arrington (d.1999) and Davis Bitton (d.2007) both Mormon scholars, wrote a popular history of Mormonism entitled “The Mormon Experience, A History of the Latter-day Saints”. And, of course, there is The Mormon History Association, which was founded by Arrington in 1985 and one of whose members was Davis. This is not to mention the world famous Mormon Tabernacle Choir, and these are a handful of myriad examples over the 178 year history of the Mormon Church.

I joined The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the early 1970’s and, at that time, what was emphasised in the name of the church was “Latter-day Saints”. Much was made of the word “Saints” and the so-called Restoration was, in part, a restoration of the true understanding of the word. Where traditional Christianity had grown to venerate particular Christians to a seemingly semi-divine status and called them “Saints”, the Latter-day Saints had restored “Saints” as the name given in Bible times to Christian believers. “Latter-day” was also emphasised in order to distinguish believers of the latter days from those of the former days and, thus emphasise a distinctive of the “Restored Church”. If a Mormon objected to being called “Mormon” at all it was to say, “I am not a Mormon. I am a Latter-day Saint!

In objecting to the epithet “Mormon” Mormons would, and still do, point out that “Mormon” is a nickname and, giving the full name of the church, insist that they are Christians. However, “Christian” was almost certainly originally a nickname. I Howard Marshall, in his Commentary on Acts11:26 in the Tyndale series writes that:

"The ending of the word (Christianos) indicates that it is a Latin word, like ‘Herodian’, and that it refers to the followers of Christ. ‘Christ’ will then be understood as a proper name, although its original use was as a title, ‘The Messiah’, for Jesus. The verb ‘were called’ implies in all probability that ‘Christian’ was a nickname given by the populace of Antioch...It is likely that the name contained an element of ridicule (c.f. Acts 26:28; 1 Pet.4:16). The Christians preferred to use other names for themselves, such as ‘disciples’, ‘saints’ and ‘brothers’."

It is worth noting that Christians also called themselves ‘followers of The Way’ (Acts 24:14; 9:2).

Mormons, then, are effectively exchanging one nickname for another. Of course, these epithets serve, as Marshall suggests, in distinguishing one group from another. The name ‘Christian’ distinguished followers of Christ, even though originally used in derision. In the same way, ‘Mormon’ distinguishes those people who follow the teachings peculiar to Mormonism and, as much as they wish to be known as Christians, it is a very helpful distinction. Why, then, are they now eager to blur that distinction?

In the past twenty years or more the emphasis has changed. Where the name of the church has in the past been presented as “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints”, with the emphasis on “Latter-day Saints”, it has changed to “The Church of JESUS CHRIST of Latter-day Saints”. This is the official logo of the church now and you only have to look at the entry for the church logo in the online encyclopaedia Wikipedia to see this change in emphasis. Indeed, many will have noticed that in much Mormon generated writing these days The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is often referred to as "The Church of Jesus Christ". This is in accord with the Mormon Church's "style guide" issued to members of the press and published on their web site. Mormons are effectively telling people, “This is how you should refer to us, how you should speak of us”.

I have been impressed by how apparently seamlessly, and efficiently, this approach has been adopted by Mormons in all their writing and speaking. It does, however, create several problems, both for Christians, who find it singularly offensive that the Mormons should attempt to appropriate the name exclusively to themselves, and for Mormons themselves, whose use of the convention often serves to confuse rather than inform.

I have come across statements that speak of the differences between “Christians” and “The Church of Jesus Christ” and I wonder if Mormons have realised how very peculiar the juxtaposition will sound to people outside the Mormon Church, and especially where I am, outside the geographical areas where Mormonism predominates (i.e. the rest of the world). Of course, I know the chequered history of the Mormon Church’s name, and I am fully aware of what their “style guide” is trying to do, i.e. if people hear something often enough they come to accept it as fact.

But this very odd juxtaposition of “Christians” and “The Church of Jesus Christ” would lead most people to think that Mormons had produced a tautology. That they were discussing the Church of Jesus Christ distinguishing itself from itself, since most would define the Church of Jesus Christ as the sum of Christians, and a Christian as a member of the Church of Jesus Christ.

I am interested in what has been seen by many as a cynical use of terminology. Perhaps Mormons feel that just because I am a Christian that doesn't mean I am a member of The Church of Jesus Christ, which they clearly equate with the Mormon Church. In thinking about where Christians fit, and indeed where Mormons are trying to fit these days in the great scheme of things, there should be an attempt at achieving clarity. Are we to make a distinction between "The Church of Jesus Christ" and "The Christian Church"!? If so, how would you define and justify that distinction? There is no warrant for it in Christian Scripture and even convention does not allow for such a distinction to be readily understood.

I am trying to understand where I fit if, as a Christian, I do not belong to The Church of Jesus Christ. What are the implications of such a distinction as Mormons are attempting to make? I am a Christian and, therefore, consider myself a member of the Church of Jesus Christ. Does that make me a Mormon, and if I am not a Mormon and, by implication, not a member of the Church of Jesus Christ, am I not a Christian?

It used to be so easy. Mormons were Mormons who considered themselves Christians but emphasised distinctives by calling themselves "Latter-day Saints". Christians were Christians who considered Mormons as non-Christians and emphasised distincitves by calling them Mormons. Even Mormons called themselves Mormons! Now Mormons want to be Christians in the sense of being "another denomination", calling their church "The Church of Jesus Christ" and, in the process, blurring distinctions that once were so dear even to them.

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