Response Page | Offenders for a Word

Does the New Testament Define "Christianity"?

Several leading anti-Mormons cite as their mandate for a crusade against The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints the two verses of Jude 3-4, wherein the New Testament admonishes them to "earnestly contend for the faith which was once delivered unto the saints. For there are certain men crept in unawares, who were before of old ordained to this condemnation, ungodly men, turning the grace of our God into lasciviousness, and denying the only Lord God, and our Lord Jesus Christ."68

But how does this apply to the Mormons? Do the Latter-day Saints somehow deny the Father and the Son? Not according to the first Article of Faith, which specifically affirms belief in both. Are the Latter-day Saints peculiarly prone to "lasciviousness"? Where is the evidence for a claim like that? It seems quite clear that the admonition of Jude 3-4 for followers of Christ to "earnestly contend for the faith" against "ungodly men" cannot refer specifically to Mormons or Mormonism. And, in fact, since the Mormons don't really fit Jude's description particularly well, it seems rather difficult to apply these verses to them at all.

So, having established the negative proposition that Jude 3-4 does not apply to the Latter-day Saints in any obvious way, we must ask ourselves what the occasion for Jude's exhortation actually was. The answer to that question is significant. A reading of the entire epistle makes it clear that Jude's concern was at least as much ethical as theological. The people he opposed were encouraging "lasciviousness" [aselgeia, or "sexual transgression"]. His target was a group of Christians, antinomians, who rejected authority and understood divine grace as sanctioning flagrant immorality.69 This appears to be rather an odd analogy to use on the Mormons, whom our "experts" tend to consider too concerned with "works-righteousness" and too devoted to a priesthood.70 After all, haven't the Latter-day Saints long insisted that sexual sin was second only to murder or to the denial of the Holy Ghost in its seriousness? (See Alma 39:5.)

It is apparent, then, that Jude 3-4 does not legitimize a campaign against the Mormons. Instead, it calls upon believers in Christ to combat immorality and to condemn sin--the very position taken by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. If anyone today stands in need of the kind of rebuke suggested by Jude 3-4, it would have to be someone who exaggerates the role of grace. And someone like that is more likely to be found among the critics of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints than among the Mormons.

Other prominent writers against the Latter-day Saints and others who diverge from conservative Protestant orthodoxy vaguely cite the Bible as a whole as the basis and justification for their efforts. P. B. Smith, a Canadian writer, will serve to illustrate this position.71 "The Christian Bible," Smith writes, "is insistent upon the ground rules and the necessity of testing any group of people who call themselves Christians: 'Beloved, believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God: because many false prophets are gone out into the world. Hereby know ye the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesseth that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is of God: And every spirit that confesseth not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is not of God: and this is that spirit of anti-Christ, whereof ye have heard that it should come; and even now already is it in the world. . . . Hereby know we the spirit of truth, and the spirit of error' (1 John 4:1-3, 6). Whatever else this passage says, it indicates that everybody who uses the name of Jesus Christ is not a Christian."72 But this is precisely what the passage in question does not say. The word "Christian" is neither defined in it nor even mentioned. Only one doctrinal standard is laid down: The spirit of truth will not teach gnosticism or docetism--early Christian heresies which denied or downplayed the reality of Jesus' physical body-but will affirm the actual incarnation of Christ; it will not teach that Christ
was only spiritually the Son of God, or that he did not have an actual body of flesh and blood. "Whosoever shall confess that Jesus is the Son of God, God dwelleth in him, and he in God" (1 John 4:15).

Do the Latter-day Saints deny that Jesus is the Son of God? No, for the first Article of Faith and literally hundreds of passages in their scriptural books teach his divine Sonship in the most explicit terms. Do they deny that he had a real body, a body of literal flesh and blood? Absolutely not. Indeed, fundamentalist critics of Mormonism have usually argued that it views the advent of Christ in too carnal terms.73 Given their complaints on that score, anti-Mormons certainly cannot deny that Mormons regard Jesus as the Son of God. How, then, can they apply 1 John 4 to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints? They cannot. It is entirely irrelevant.

"Who is a Christian?" asks Frederick Sontag. "When one considers this question, the most interesting thing to note is that Jesus did not say much about it."74 But, in fact. Professor Sontag understates the case. If one is looking for explicit treatment of the word "Christian," Jesus said absolutely nothing on the question.

The striking thing about the New Testament's use of the word "Christian" is its infrequency. Indeed, the word appears only three times, and never in the mouth of Jesus.75 (The term "Christianity" is completely absent.) And close examination of those three occurrences will easily show that they offer no grounds for expelling Mormons from Christendom.

In Acts 11:26 we are told that "the disciples were called Christians first in Antioch."76 Here, the use of the passive verb--they "were called Christians"--allows us to infer that the term was first used by non-Christians.77 That is to say that the Christians did not, at first, call themselves by that name. In fact, as E. H. Trenchard notes of the biblical evidence, "In early times this name was mainly used by outsiders or by enemies."78 It was "originally used as a pagan designation."79 "It is a characteristically Gentile appellation," declares P. F. Bruce, "and would never have been devised by Jews."80 Instead, the term "Christian" was modeled on such words as "Herodian" and "Caesarian," already in circulation, probably on the mistaken assumption that the title "Christ," a Greek translation of the Hebrew "Messiah," was a proper name like "Herod" and "Caesar."81 "Christian" probably meant nothing more complicated, originally, than "Christ's people" or, perhaps, "partisans of Christ."82 (In the United States, we have frequently called people "Jacksonian democrats," or "Freudian analysts," or "Marxists," or "Darwinians." The history of Christianity is amply supplied with "Augustinians," "Pelagians," "Lutherans," "Calvinists," "Mennonites," and the like. All of these titles occur on the same principle as "Christian.") Who were these people who first were called "Christians"?

What was the composition of the Church at Antioch, which drew that designation from outsiders? For one thing, it included "prophets" (Acts 13:1).83 (This should give some critics of Mormonism food for thought, for they often claim that Jesus Christ is the final revelation of God, and that there can consequently be no prophets after him. Yet here, the first congregation of Jesus' followers to receive the title of "Christian" is characterized, precisely, by Christian prophets.)

Many of the congregants in the Antioch branch were Hellenistic; the group was deeply involved with the Gentile mission and heavily influenced by Pauline teachings.84 Outsiders probably began to notice that Christians were not merely another sect of Jews because the church at Antioch did not require circumcision of converts.85 But to leave it at that would be to commit a gross oversimplification. The careful presentation of John P. Meier on the subject shows clearly that there were, among the "Christians" of Antioch, believers along the whole spectrum of attitudes toward the Jewish law. Paul's was not only not the only influence at Antioch, it was not the dominant one.86 Why is that fact important? Simply because Mormons are often expelled from Christendom because they do not accept the supposedly Pauline doctrine of salvation by grace alone. But neither, it seems, did members of that Antiochene congregation who were the very first in the Old World to receive the title of "Christian."

Amid the various theological strands that characterized Antiochene Christianity, loyalty to Jesus Christ was the unifying thread. This is of the utmost significance. Concluding his study on Unity and Diversity in the New Testament, James D. G. Dunn points out "the surprising extent to which the different unifying factors in first-century Christianity focus again and again on Christ, on the unity between Jesus the man and Jesus the exalted one. And when we ask in addition what both unifies and marks out the distinctiveness of first-century Christianity, the unifying strand narrows again and again to Christ alone. As soon as we move beyond it, as soon as we begin to attempt to fill it out in word or practice, diversity quickly becomes as prominent as unity. And the more we attempt to add to it, the more disagreement and controversy we find ourselves caught up in. In the final analysis then, the unity of first-century Christianity focuses (often exclusively) on Jesus the man now exalted, Christ crucified but risen."87

What made a person a Christian in the first century, and what makes a person a Christian today, is, simply, a commitment to Jesus Christ. Such commitment is central to the religion of the Latter-day Saints. It is evident in their hymns, their scriptures, their prayers, and their religious rituals. Clearly, then, there is nothing in Acts 11:26 that will justify a denial that Mormons are Christians.

In Acts 26:28, Agrippa II makes his famous reply to Paul: "A little more, and your arguments would make a Christian of me."88

This statement occurs after a brief speech by Paul at Caesarea, in which the apostle relates to Agrippa and Festus the story of his conversion.89 The doctrinal content of Paul's speech is slight, but that slightness is itself deeply significant: Paul bears witness that Jesus had been foretold by the Jewish prophets, that he suffered and rose from the dead, and that it is through Jesus that forgiveness may be obtained. Paul describes his mission as that of summoning people to "repent and turn to God, and do works meet for repentance" (Acts 26:20). There is no evidence that the apostle's speech at Caesarea mentioned original sin, or a metaphysical trinity, or salvation by grace alone, or ex nihilo creation, or any of the other doctrines for which, as we shall see. Mormons are expelled from Christendom by zealous critics. Yet Paul does not deny Agrippa's perception of his minimal theological statement as a summation of "Christianity" (Acts 26:29).

If Paul's statement to Agrippa and Festus is accepted as a scriptural test for the Christianity of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Mormons pass easily. Do they believe that the Jewish prophets foretold the coming of Jesus Christ? Emphatically yes. Indeed, the three books of scripture revealed through the Prophet Joseph Smith offer prophecies of the advent of Christ that are far clearer and more specific than anything found in the present text of the Hebrew Bible. Do Mormons believe that Jesus suffered and rose from the dead? Absolutely! "The fundamental principles of our religion," Joseph Smith said, "are the testimony of the Apostles and Prophets, concerning Jesus Christ, that He died, was buried, and rose again the third day, and ascended into heaven; and all other things which pertain to our religion are only appendages to it."90 Do Mormons believe that it is through Jesus Christ that forgiveness may be obtained? The third Article of Faith should leave no doubt of that. Nor should literally scores if not hundreds of passages in the scriptures of the Latter-day Saints. Do Mormons believe it their duty to summon people to "repent and turn to God, and do works meet for repentance"? Without a doubt they do. (See, for example, D&C 6:9; 11:9; 14:8; 18:14, 41; 19:21, 31; 36:6; 44:3; etc.) Do Mormons call upon their hearers to do good works? Indeed they do, and this is one of the charges which their critics inconsistently bring against them, claiming that it shows them to be non-Christian. In fact, the Latter-day Saints meet Paul's minimum statement of Christianity remarkably well. If there is anyone who should be doing some soul-searching on this point, it might well be those who condemn The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for teaching that men and women must "do works meet for repentance." Acts 26:28 cannot plausibly be used to purge Mormons from Christianity.

It will be noted that in neither of the two instances discussed above is the term "Christian" found in the mouth of the Apostle Paul. Instead, it is found in the mouths of unbelieving outsiders. This is significant, since, as we have mentioned, it is often against the standard of allegedly Pauline teachings that Mormonism is weighed in the balance and found "non-Christian."91 If Paul himself did use the word "Christian," there is no New Testament proof that he did, and no scriptural indication whatsoever as to how he might have used it. Thus, there is no Pauline definition of the term and no Pauline reason to deny that Mormons are Christians. Enemies of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who seek biblical justification for banishing it from Christendom will have to look elsewhere for ammunition, and they have only one more chance:

1 Peter 4:16 represents the last relevant New Testament passage.92 Yet it is virtually without theological content, merely assuring the believer that he need not worry if he suffer as a "Christian." Persecution is contrasted with suffering "as a murderer, or as a thief, or as an evildoer." And even here, perhaps, we are to think of "Christian" as an identification made by persecuting outsiders, just as "murderer," "thief," and "evildoer" might be judgments rendered by a Roman court.93 It is, says F. F. Bruce, "by implication used by non-Christians."94

We might also note that being "Christian" here probably has a behavioral aspect. After all, suffering "as a murderer, or as a thief, or as an evildoer" clearly would flow from something the sufferer does. A person is not punished merely for holding the theoretical belief that murder might be acceptable. (In an instance like this, faith without representative works is legally irrelevant.) A thief is not merely a believer in the abstract redistribution of wealth. Both of these are "evildoers," and it is as evildoers that they suffer or are punished by the law. If Peter really meant that suffering as a "Christian" was analogous to suffering "as a murderer, or as a thief, or as an evildoer," is it not logical to infer that he saw "Christianity" as expressing itself in behavior? So do the Latter-day Saints! It is Mormon insistence upon the necessity of repentance and good works which, as we shall see below, leads many anti-Mormons to deny that the Latter-day Saints are Christian. If, for this offense, they are thrust from the Christian fold, they may well find Peter already outside the wall. This is not bad company to keep.

Manifestly, the charge that Mormonism fails to meet the New Testament definition of "Christianity" is utterly groundless, for the simple reason that no such definition exists. The word "Christianity" does not even occur in the text. On the other hand, of course, the term "Christian" does occur, albeit rarely. It, too, remains undefined, although its context in the three places where it is to be found allows us perhaps to infer some very basic notions about how New Testament writers used it.

How does Mormonism fare, following an exhaustive survey--not hard to manage!--of the rather sparse biblical data on this question? The Latter-day Saints do extremely well. They meet every criterion. By every New Testament standard. Mormons are Christians.

A test case will make this completely clear: Robert McKay, a dedicated anti-Mormon who is based in Oklahoma, tells us that one must be "bom again" in order to be a Christian. He bases his assertion upon John 3:7.95 "The New Testament definition of a Christian is one who has been bom again," he says.96 But there is a problem here, as the alert reader can easily see by now. The problem is that John 3:7 does not mention the word "Christian"--and, thus, can hardly be said to "define" it or to lay down conditions for its use. Indeed, the word "Christian" does not occur in the gospel of John at all, nor, for that matter, in any of the four gospels. Robert McKay's insistence that the New Testament defines the word "Christian" leads us to wonder if he might have a different New Testament than we have, one perhaps outfitted with more verses, additional chapters, or extra books. For we can find no definition of the term in any New Testament passage known to us.

The claim of anti-Mormons that the New Testament itself clearly excludes The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints from Christendom is hereby shown to be baseless, to be totally without foundation. In a very real sense, the entire overall question of whether Mormonism is Christian is already decided, and nothing more need be said. But charity is an important biblical virtue, and so we should, perhaps, permit the critics to have their say. Still, it should never be forgotten amidst all the names and dates and details which will follow that, by the (admittedly rather vague) standard of the New Testament, the Latter-day Saints have been demonstrated to fall within Christianity. No issue discussed below can call that demonstration into question.

68 The passage is used, for example, by J. 0. Sanders (1962): 5, and Martin (1955): title page.

69 Compare the interpretations of W. J. Dalton, "Jude," in Puller, Johnston, and Keams (1975): 959a-960e; Alexander and Alexander (1977): 644; D. F. Payne, "Jude," in Bruce (1986): 1590-92; Blair (1975): 339-42; T. W. Leahy, "The Epistle of Jude," in Brown, Fitzmyer, and Murphy (1968): 2:378-80.

70 See below. Mormons could plausibly argue that a better analogue for Jude's "filthy dreamers" would be their saved-by-grace-alone, no-need-of-church-or-priesthood fundamentalist Protestant critics. But no Mormons have, to our knowledge, made such an argument.

71 P. B. Smith (1970): 9-10.

72 P. B. Smith quotes all of 1 John 4:1-6. We have edited it for the sake of  brevity. A glance at the original will show that the meaning has not been affected.

73 See below. Spittler (1962): 24, describes the speculations of one or two early Mormon leaders on the subject as "a blasphemous stench." (For good measure, he throws in the adjective "deceptive," as well.)

74 Sontag (1986): 113.

75 It occurs four times in the Book of Mormon.

76 The book of Acts is frequently dated to near the end of the first century (so H. Wansbrough, "Acts of the Apostles," in Fuller, Johnston, and Keams [1975]: 822d). Dillon and Fitzmyer place it a.d. 80-85. ("Acts of the Apostles," in Brown, Pitzmyer, and Murphy [1968]: 2:165). Trenchard, "Acts," in Bruce (1986): 1266, prefers to puts its writing "before a.d. 64." J. A. T. Robinson (1977): 72, no hesitant controversialist, opts for "about 62."

77 See Dillon and Pitzmyer, "Acts of the Apostles," in Brown, Fitzmyer, and Murphy (1968): 2:190. They dismiss as "not cogent," however, evidence for the view that "this title was first used by Roman officials, who sought to distinguish Jesus' followers from Jews"; cf. W. Grundmann, "Christos," in Kittel and Priedrich (1974): 9:537; Trenchard, "Acts," in Bruce (1986): 1288.

78 Trenchard, "Acts," in Bruce (1986): 1288.

79 So P. D. Gealy, "Christian," in Buttrick (1962): 1:572. Gealy reports the theory that the Christians were deliberately named after Nero's Augustaniani youth gang, who were active in Antioch. Christianas, he notes, is an odd Greek form, and probably a Latinism.

80 Bruce (1972): 232, 267-68.

81 Bauer (1957): 865; W. Grundmann, "Christos," in Kittel and Priedrich (1974): 9:536; Dillon and Fitzmyer, "Acts of the Apostles," in Brown, Fitzmyer, and Murphy (1968): 2:190; Munch (1967): 106; Bruce (1972): 231-32, 267-68; J. P. Meier, "Part One: Antioch," in Brown and Meier (1983): 35 n. 81.

82 These translations are suggested respectively by Bruce (1972): 232, and Polkinghorne, "1 Peter," in Bruce (1986): 1561. Trenchard, "Acts," in Bruce (1986): 1288, has "Christ's men."

83 As did the congregation at Jerusalem (Acts 11:27).

84 Differing views of the mission of Jesus led to a dispute between certain Jerusalemite and Antiochene Christians on the subject of circumcision; cf. Acts 15:1; Munch (1967): 107; Bruce (1972): 231, 266, 282-85, 288.

85 So, among others, J. P. Meier, "Part One: Antioch," in Brown and Meier (1983): 35 n. 81.

86 See J. P. Meier, "Part One: Antioch," in Brown and Meier (1983): 24.

87 Dunn (1977): 371-72 (emphasis in original).

88 Following the Jerusalem Bible, which reproduces well the sense of the Greek. (The NEB here is periphrastic, and too wordy.) On this "slightly humorous retort," see H. Wansbrough, "Acts of the Apostles," in Fuller, Johnston, and Keams (1975): 840i; Bruce (1972): 268; cf. Dillon and Fitzmyer, "Acts of the Apostles," in Brown, Fitzmyer, and Murphy (1968): 2:211. Trenchard, "Acts," in Bruce (1986): 1311, rejects the King James rendering of Agrippa's exclamation-"Almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian"-on "textual and exegetical grounds." Instead he follows the translation of F. F. Bruce-"In short you are trying to make me act the Christian!"-and characterizes it as a "slightly cynical evasion"; so, too, Alexander and Alexander (1977): 568; Munch (1967): 245.

89 As elsewhere in ancient writings, it is unlikely that the speeches of Acts are verbatim transcripts. Rather, they are likely to be the compositions of "Luke." But they probably conform quite well to the occasion and to the character of the speaker, and "reproduce an authentic picture of apostolic Christianity." See H. Wansbrough, "Acts of the Apostles," in Fuller, Johnston, and Keams (1975); 822a- c; cf. J. A. T. Robinson (1977); 100. If the report of Agrippa's use of the term "Christian" is authentic-which cannot be demonstrated-the word was in circu- lation by A.D. 57-60. For chronological information on this incident, see J. A. Fitzmyer, "A Life of Paul," in Brown, Fitzmyer, and Murphy (1968); 2:221; H. H. Rowdon, "The Historical and Political Background and Chronology of the New
Testament," in Bruce (1986): 1045; "Bible Dictionary" in Latter-day Saint edition of the Bible, s.v. "Chronology"; Alexander and Alexander (1977): 467.

90 TPJS, 121.

91 Citing Galatians 1:9, J. 0. Sanders (1962): 20 alleges that "there is no identity whatever between Paul's Gospel and that of the Mormons. It is without doubt another gospel." Sanders is too sure of himself. Anderson (1983) is a fine Mormon interpretation of the Apostle to the Gentiles.

92 J. A. Fitzmyer, "The First Epistle of Peter," in Brown, Fitzmyer, and Murphy (1968): 2:362-63, assigns this letter to ca. A.D. 64. W. J. Dalton, "1 Peter," in Fuller, Johnston, and Kearns (1975): 950f, and F. J. Polkinghome, "1 Peter," in Bruce (1986): 1551, place its composition A.D. 62-64. J. A. T. Robinson (1977): 66- 67, argues that we can date 1 Peter "with a fair degree of accuracy in the spring of 65." Based on this approximate consensus, we have a reasonably clear terminus ante quern: The adjective "Christian" was being used by early A.D. 65. And perhaps, if Acts 11:26 is accurate, and if, therefore, Peter's use of the word is later, it was in use several years before that. Tacitus's Annals were written ca. a.d. 116. Annals XV, 44 puts the term Christianas in the mouth of the Roman mob during Nero's great fire. However, given ancient historiographical method, it would be reckless to assume-though it is not impossible-that Tacitus precisely reflects the linguistic usage of 19 July, a.d. 64.

93 A similar use may possibly occur in The Martyrdom of Polycarp 3:2; cf.
Polkinghome's brief discussion, "1 Peter," in Bruce (1986): 1561, of the list of offenses given in 1 Peter 4:15. As B. Reicke observes, the list seems to designate "unlawful and not simply immoral activity"; cf. Reicke (1964): 125. To Fitzmyer, "The First Epistle of Peter," in Brown, Fitzmyer, and Murphy (1968): 2:368, on the other hand, the term "Christian" in 1 Peter 4:16 "implies in this context a compati- bility with Christ in suffering."

94 Bruce (1972): 268.

95 The Utah Evangel 34 (May-June 1987): 4.

96 The Evangel 38 (October 1991): 4.