Return to About Mormons home

Christians and Christianity

by Roger R. Keller

The Old World origin of the word "Christian" is obscure. Possibly it was first used by pagans in Antioch to identify those who followed Christ. However, by the end of the first century A.D., it was an accepted self-designation among Church members as reflected in the writings of Ignatius (c. 35-c. 107 A.D.). The word is used three times in the New Testament (Acts 11:26; 26:28; 1 Pet. 4:16).

In the new world (Book of Mormon world), there was a similar designation for Church members (Mosiah 18:12-17; Alma 46:13-16; 48:10). "Christian" designated those who were "true believers in Christ" and who "took upon them, gladly, the name of Christ, or Christians as they were called, because of their belief in Christ who should come" (Alma 46:15). Here the term "Christian" referred to those who believed Christ would come, and not only, as in the New Testament, to those who believed he had come.

Perhaps the term first used by Old World Christians for themselves was the Greek word hagioi, meaning "holy ones" or "saints." Latter-day Saints have taken upon themselves this New Testament designation (Acts 9:13; 32, 41; Rom. 1:7; 1 Cor. 1:2; Phil. 1:1). Such terminology is seen in the Book of Mormon (1 Ne. 13:5, 9; 14:12, 14; 2 Ne. 9:18-19; Morm. 8:23; Moro. 8:26), the Doctrine and Covenants (1:36; 84:2; 88:114; 104:15), and the Pearl of Great Price (Moses 7:56).

THE CHURCH of JESUS CHRIST of Latter-day Saints does not see itself as one Christian denomination among many, but rather as God's latter-day restoration of the fulness of Christian faith and practice. Thus, from its earliest days LDS Christians sought to distinguish themselves from Christians of other traditions. Other forms of Christianity, while bearing much truth and doing much good under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, are viewed as incomplete, lacking the authority of the priesthood of God, the temple ordinances, the comprehensive understanding of the Plan of Salvation, and the nonparadoxical understanding of the Godhead. Therefore, the designation "saint" reflects attachment to the New Testament church, and also designates a difference from Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Protestant Christianity in the current dispensation.

In response, and for a variety of other reasons, some Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant Christians have been reticent to apply the term "Christian" to Latter-day Saints. (See Are Mormons Christians? home page) One reason is that the Latter-day Saints claim the only divinely established line of authority is within the Church. If that divine authority was not transmitted after the death of the first Apostles, then the Sacrament, ordinations, credal formulations, and ecclesiastical structures of other Christian groups lack divine sanction. Many traditional Christians see this stance as placing Latter-day Saints outside the Christian family as defined by some confessions of faith and accepted ordinances.

Further, Latter-day Saints claim that God spoke and manifested himself not only to persons of biblical times, but also to the people in the Book of Mormon, and that he continues to speak to his people through revelation today. Thus, Latter-day Saints are not always viewed as "biblical Christians," when that term requires the belief that the canon of scripture is complete in the Bible. To the Mormons, God is still a God of continuing revelation, which means that credal and confessional statements are not final. No one confession, or even all of them together, can fully comprehend the dynamism of God. He is to be heard and his words are to be recorded as he gives continuing divine guidance through revelation. Hence, the LDS canon is open; the Doctrine and Covenants becomes an official, open-ended locus for revelations that affect the whole Church; and revelations continue to come to the living prophets, seers, and revelators of the Church, to be communicated to the members.

Latter-day Saints hold that Christians in the broadest sense are those who base their beliefs on the teachings of Jesus and who have a personal relationship with him. Within that definition they recognize Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Protestant, and Latter-day Saint Christians, with the understanding that Latter-day Saint Christianity is the restored fulness of Christ's gospel. The lives of Latter-day Saints are their affirmations of their Christian faith. As President Brigham Young stated, "If we are not Christlike we are not Christian" (Watson).

Traditional Christianity often defines Christian affiliation as the acceptance of certain beliefs and dogmas. Because Latter-day Saints do not accept certain extrascriptural dogmas—especially those bearing the philosophical overlay of much post-New Testament Christian teaching—some in other churches feel that Latter-day Saints cannot be Christian. They are not "orthodox" in this sense. But for the Mormon, right beliefs (orthodoxy) and right behaviors (orthopraxy) are those congruent with the revealed mind and will of the Lord. Some of the misunderstandings between traditional communities and the Latter-day Saints arise from this issue: whether Christians must first believe traditional, especially credal, dogmas in order to live "correct Christian lives."

An inclusive definition of Latter-day Saint Christianity is in the Book of Mormon: "And we talk of Christ, we rejoice in Christ, we preach of Christ, we prophesy of Christ, and we write according to our prophecies, that our children may know to what source they may look for a remission of their sins" (2 Ne. 25:26). Christ and his atoning sacrifice have been the undergirding message of THE CHURCH of JESUS CHRIST of Latter-day Saints from its inception. Christ has been the central message of all the latter-day prophets and apostles. (See Follow the Prophets home page) They understand that Old Testament prophets anticipated him, New Testament apostles preached and testified of him, Book of Mormon prophets heralded him, and the Doctrine and Covenants presents his word to this generation. Jesus Christ is the living Lord of the Church. Apart from him there is no salvation. (See Teachings About Jesus Christ home page)

President Spencer W. Kimball said, "There can be no real and true Christianity, even with good works, unless we are deeply and personally committed to the reality of Jesus Christ as the Only Begotten Son of the Father who bought us, who purchased us in the great act of Atonement" (Kimball, p. 68). He also expressed the hope that all would come to realize that every LDS prayer, hymn, and sermon is centered in the Lord Jesus Christ. "We are true followers of Jesus Christ; and we hope the world will finally come to the conclusion that we are Christians, if there are any in the world" (Kimball, p. 434).

(See Daily Living home page; Interfaith Relations home page; Christians in Belief and Action by Elder Joseph B. Wirthlin)

Bibliography

Gealy, F. D. "Christian." In The Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible, Vol. 1, pp. 571-72. Nashville, Tenn., 1962.

Grundmann, Walter. "Chiro." Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Vol. 9, pp. 27-580. Grand Rapids, Mich., 1964-1974.

Kimball, Edward L., ed. The Teachings of Spencer W. Kimball. Salt Lake City, 1982.

Watson, Eldon J., comp. Brigham Young Addresses, Vol. 4, p. 5 for July 14, 1861. Unpublished, March 1980.

Encyclopedia of Mormonism, Vol. 1, Christians and Christianity

Copyright 1992 by Macmillan Publishing Company

All About Mormons