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The Exclusion by Definition

by Stephen E. Robinson

What is a Christian? The term is found three times in the New Testament (Acts 11:26; 26:28; I Peter 4:16), but it is not defined in any of these passages. According to Webster's Third New International Dictionary the term Christian may be defined in a number of ways, but the most common is "one who believes or professes or is assumed to believe in Jesus Christ and the truth as taught by him: an adherent of Christianity: one who has accepted the Christian religious and moral principles of life: one who has faith in and has pledged allegiance to God thought of as one whose life is conformed to the doctrines of Christ." The second most common meaning is "a member of a church or group professing Christian doctrine or belief."

Under either of these two most common definitions in the English language, Latter-day Saints qualify as Christians. Moreover, these are the definitions that most Latter-day Saints themselves would use in applying the term Christian to other denominations. Thus, even though Latter-day Saints feel very strongly it theirs is the true Church of Jesus Christ, they still accept Protestants and Catholics in all their varieties as Christians because these denominations believe in Jesus as the Christ and attempt to follow his teachings, however differently they may interpret them. While it is true that there are doctrinal differences, sometimes serious, between Christian denominations, it is generally accepted that each follows Christ as it best understands him. As the dictionary indicates, this is the way that most people use the term Christian, as a generic noun that tolerates doctrinal differences and denominational variations among those who believe Jesus Christ to be the Son of God and the Savior of the world. If one understands the term Christian in this way, then the charge that Mormons* are not Christians is a serious charge indeed.

*Both here and in the pages to follow I shall occasionally use the popular term Mormon for the sake of clarity, for nuance, or for proper context, even though the correct term is Latter-day Saint. (See Mormonism)

Nonstandard Definitions

Most of the time, however, those who make this charge are not using the term Christian with this definition in mind at all. He who defines a term controls a term. For example, if the Latter-day Saints defined the term Christian to mean "one who believes in the divine calling of the Prophet Joseph Smith and in the inspired nature of the Book of Mormon," then they would be technically correct (based on their own private definition of the term) in concluding that only Latter-day Saints are Christians. It is unlikely, however, that the rest of the world would agree with such a parochial and distorted definition, and Latter-day Saints would likely (and rightly) be accused of trying to stack the deck through the manipulation of language. For Mormons to define Christians as "people who believe what Mormons believe" and then conclude that non-Mormons aren't Christians would be nothing more than to say that non-Mormons aren't Mormons --without any consideration for what they may or may not believe about Jesus.

In fact, this manipulating of terms is exactly what some do in excluding the Latter-day Saints from consideration as Christians. They define Christian not in the generic sense of common usage, but in a narrow sectarian sense that excludes anyone whose doctrine differs from their own. Individuals who wouldn't tolerate a denominationally exclusive definition of the term Christian if it excluded them will often accept such a tactic if the tables are turned and the trick is played on someone else. Thus on the surface these individuals seem to be making the very serious charge that the Latter-day Saints do not believe in Jesus Christ or do not attempt to follow his teachings, but in reality they are only saying that the Latter-day Saints understand Jesus Christ differently and worship him differently than they do.

Any way you look at it, this game is rigged. If you define a Christian as one who believes in the fundamentals of conservative Protestantism, for example, then only fundamentalist Protestants will be Christians. If you define a Christian as one who accepts the leadership and authority of Pope John Paul II, then only Roman Catholics will be Christians. If you define a Christian as one who accepts the authority of Archbishop Makarios or of Pope Shenouda, then only the Greek or Coptic Orthodox, respectively, can be Christians. Playing this kind of word game is like defining a duck as an aquatic bird with a broad, flat bill, short legs, webbed feet, and brown feathers, and then arguing that female mallards are ducks but males are not because the latter's feathers are the wrong color.

Of course there certainly are those who define Christian denominationally in just this way in order to exclude Latter-day Saints and anyone else whose feathers are the wrong color, just as there are those who define human being as necessarily meaning "male," or "Caucasian," or "Anglo-Saxon." There is usually little that can be done to get such individuals to change their definition to include the whole class and not just those with "the right colored feathers," but we can point out to them the logical fallacy of using nonstandard definitions or an overly specific taxonomy for exclusionary purposes.

It is ironic that one version of the exclusion by definition tactic was used against ancient Christians by pagan opponents who, according to Wayne A. Meeks, "often denounced the new cult as 'a superstition' and its members as 'atheists.' '' (1) No matter how much Christians protested the unfairness of this charge, insisting that they worshipped God, their persecutors countered that Christians did not worship the gods- that is, the right sort of gods, the pagan gods--and were therefore "atheists." With this specialized definition of atheist, all the charge really meant was that Christians worshipped God differently than pagans, but the slander gave the impression to the masses--as it was designed to--that the Christians were godless and irreligious. Of course this made hating and persecuting the Christians much easier and made it much more difficult for the Christians to get a fair hearing. This same tactic is now being used against the Latter-day Saints by other Christians who don't like the way we worship Christ and would therefore deny us the title of Christian.

Excluding More Than the Latter-day Saints

If the term Christian is understood to mean someone who believes that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God and the Savior of the world, and who believes that the Old and New Testaments contain his teachings, then the Mormons are Christians. It is simply a matter of historical record that the Latter-day Saints affirm all these propositions. Although the Latter-day Saints may differ in details of doctrinal interpretation (that is, have different colored feathers from other kinds of Christians), they certainly share the basic taxonomic similarities of the class.

On the other hand, if the term Christian is defined in a sectarian way to mean "those who believe as we do," then the sect in question might be able to say Mormons aren't Christians (using the term in their private, nonstandard sense), but all this statement really means is that Mormons aren't Baptists, or Pentecostals, or whatever --and we already knew that. The charge in this case is certainly not as serious as it would be if the excluders used the common definitions. But their use of customized definitions makes their charge against the Mormons not only trivial but useless. It certainly has no bearing on whether Latter-day Saints believe in Jesus Christ.

What the average "Christian" (used here in the inclusive sense) reader needs to bear in mind, regardless of his or her own denomination, is that those who exclude by definition usually exclude considerably more people than just the Latter-day Saints. If one allows the term Christian to be defined in a nonstandard way to mean evangelical Protestantism, for example, then Mormons are indeed excluded, but so are Roman Catholics, Greek Orthodox, and most other kinds of Protestants -- any duck whose feathers are not exactly the right color. Even among the most conservative Protestants this same exclusion has recently been used to declare as "heretics" and non-Christians such evangelists as Pat Robertson, Robert Schuller, and Oral Roberts --anyone at all who disagrees with the narrow sectarian view. For those who employ this exclusion, the "family of Christian churches" is usually very small indeed. Their operating definition of a Christian is "a member of the true church [my church]," or "one who believes what I believe." Not even the Latter-day Saints, who feel very strongly that theirs is the true Church, would define being a Christian in such a limited way.

On one occasion, when I was in the East lecturing on this topic to a group of ministers from various denominations, one person in particular kept insisting that Mormons were not Christians and that for this reason everything I had said was invalid. So I asked him--with Roman Catholic parish priests in the audience--if Roman Catholics were Christians in his understanding. He replied that they could be, but that they usually weren't, because they believed in salvation through the sacraments of the Catholic church and not through a "being saved" experience alone. I asked him again--with a Greek Orthodox priest present in the audience--if the Eastern Orthodox were Christians. He answered, "Only if they believe what Christians [that is, his kind of Christians] believe." Then I asked him if liberal Protestants who do not accept the fundamentalist Christian theology were Christians. "Absolutely not," was the reply. "They are traitors to the cause of Christ."

While many of the ministers present at that meeting would have agreed originally with this man's statement that Mormons were not Christians, they quickly became incensed when the same charge, on the same grounds and for the same reasons, was levelled against them. In fact, all this particular individual was saying is that Mormons, Catholics, Orthodox, and liberal Protestants alike are not Christian fundamentalists. The hidden premise in his argument was that if one did not believe what he believed, then one was not a Christian. But surely if this hidden premise and the reasoning based upon it are to be rejected when applied to other Christian denominations, then they must be rejected when applied to the Latter-day Saints as well.

Fundamentalists and other sectarians are free, I suppose, to define the word Christian any way they want to for their own purposes. They can define themselves as the only genuine Christians in the whole world and then shut everybody else out, as long as the rest of Christendom understands that that is how they are using the language, and that coming from them the assertion that "Mormons aren't Christians" simply means "Mormons disagree with us."

Christianity by Consensus

Now, it could be argued that the term non-Christian should be applied to anything not found, taught, or believed within the family of Christian churches, but this assertion meets with certain difficulties. First of all, it begs the question. Shall the Latter-day Saints be considered as part of the family of Christian churches that might be surveyed to determine what is "Christian"? Whether one says yea or nay, one must assume in advance the results of the survey. Begging the question is assuming in advance the results of the proposition supposedly being tested--the proposition being, in this case, "Are Latter-day Saints Christians?"

Second, the New Testament tells us that Paul most assuredly knew things, believed things that could not be shared with some Christians (see 1 Corinthians 3: 1-2) or with any other Christians at all (2 Corinthians 12:2-4). Did his knowing and believing things not taught in the Bible, things unknown to other Christians, render Paul a "non-Christian"? Surely not. This specialized definition of Christian simply doesn't work.

The New Testament itself does not present a very narrow view of who was a disciple and who was not. In Acts 18:24-28 we read about Apollos, who was "instructed in the way of the Lord" but incompletely. Eloquent as Apollos was, his doctrine was defective until Aquila and Priscilla "expounded unto him the way of God more perfectly." Yet there is no indication that he was not considered a Christian before he was set straight. Similarly, Paul found "certain disciples" near Ephesus who were so imperfectly taught that it was decided to baptize them over again (Acts 19:1-7). Nevertheless, imperfect as their understanding was originally, they, like Apollos, were called disciples, even though certainly there was room on their part for doctrinal improvement. The Christians at Corinth were so immature that Paul couldn't teach them the meat (the heavy doctrines) of the gospel at all; nevertheless Paul still addressed them as Saints (1 Corinthians 3:2; 1:2).

The letters of Paul make it absolutely clear that the law of Moses is fulfilled in the gospel of Christ and is no longer binding as a requirement for salvation. Thus most would consider this a "Christian" doctrine. Yet in Acts 21:20 we read that James said to Paul, "Thou seest, brother, how many thousands of Jews there are which believe; and they are all zealous of the law." These believers were not thrown out of the Church, even though they did not yet understand the fundamental doctrine of how the law was fulfilled in Christ. On the contrary, James even suggested to Paul a public relations maneuver designed to soothe their Jewish-Christian sensibilities (Acts 21:23-24). Even though their doctrine was defective, they were still counted as "believers" and tolerated, even coddled, in the Jerusalem Church. Now, if Paul, the champion of grace, could put himself to great trouble for the sake of Jewish Christians whose doctrine was, in part, in conflict with his own, should not modern Christians of all denominations who disagree with each other be cautious about labelling those with doctrinal differences as entirely "non-Christian' '?


In summary, most of the time the charge that Latter-day Saints are not Christians has absolutely nothing to do with LDS belief or nonbelief in Jesus Christ, or with LDS acceptance or rejection of the New Testament as the word of God. (See LDS Belief in the Bible) If the term Christian is used, as it is in standard English, to mean someone who accepts Jesus Christ as the Son of God and the Savior of the world, then the charge that Mormons aren't Christians is false. However, if the word Christian is used in a sectarian sense to mean belief in Christ or in the New Testament according to a particular denominational view, then the charge is trivial and uninformative; it is merely another way of saying Latter-day Saints don't agree with the denomination making the charge. Typically those who define Christian in this latter sense exclude not only Mormons but also any individual who may disagree with them, whether that individual puts his faith in Jesus Christ or not. All but the narrowest ideologues ought to be able to detect the logical fallacies involved in the exclusion by definition.


1. See Wayne A. Meeks, foreword in Robert M. Grant, Gods and the One God, vol. I of the Library of Early Christianity (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1986), p. 13.

(See Response to Criticism home page; General Criticism home page; Are Mormons Christians? home page)

Are Mormons Christians?, Chapter 1

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