When I was in high school, my mother became the school nurse. As she is considerably more social and talkative than I am, she quickly became more well-known among the student body than I was. At one point, one of the students who frequently visited her heard her say that she was a Mormon. This student was caught by surprise. “What?” she said. “I thought you were Christian!” My mother nodded. “That’s right. I am.” She then had to give the usual explanation of how we believe in Jesus Christ and the Atonement, etc., which most people tend to accept at that point unless they are feeling particularly ornery.
Despite the hatred and misinformation surrounding the claim that Mormons are not Christians, I can certainly understand the reasons for this common dichotomy, however false it may be. I remember how, as I child, I used to lie on the living room carpet on weekends and flip through the channels. It was common to stumble across them. Some would shout angrily as they pounded their cross-shaped pulpits. Others would welcome the crowd onto the stage one at a time, at which point they would touch them on the forehead and cause them to become overwhelmed by an otherworldly power that made them fall neatly backward into the arms of…well…bouncers. Others just half-spoke-half-sang their sermons while they swayed back and forth. Others would try to build and maintain energy in their congregations by demanding that everyone say “Amen!” after every sentence. If the “Amen!” was not energetic enough, they would say, in kind of a passive-aggressive way: “Can I get a better AMEN?!” Then there was the vocabulary I had never before encountered, with words such as “Jesus-aaah!” Maybe this is an unfair depiction of Protestant worship on the whole, but it is the honest truth of how I perceived it as a child. Anyway, they had their different styles, but they all had one thing in common: They were all professional performers. At the age of six, I could see that clearly, and it repulsed me. Where was the sincerity I had come to expect from church? At my church, everyone took turns speaking, and though they were sometimes awkward, the sermons came from the heart. We had leaders, but they did not act like that. I thought Christians were silly. They and I were very different.
I think I was eight years old when I made some comment about what I perceived to be the silly worship practices of Christians, at which point my brother corrected me. “We are Christians,” he said. The obvious etymology of the word “Christian” then dawned upon me. A Christian is one who worships Jesus Christ. I worship Jesus Christ. I am a Christian. Begrudgingly, I had to admit that the weirdos I had seen on television were somehow part of some larger group to which I belonged. However, I did also realize that most of my friends from school belonged to this group as well, and I was fine with that. Pretty soon, I found myself correcting my friends when they said that I was not a Christian. I was a Christian. I worshiped Jesus Christ. At the age of nine, I started reading the Book of Mormon on my own, and I sometimes brought it with me to school. I would point to the subtitle of that book: Another Testament of Jesus Christ. We were different, but we had important similarities. I made peace with that idea.
My church has often been accused of trying desperately to be accepted by “mainstream Christianity”, whatever that is. One interesting note about that accusation is that many of those who make it, while agreeing to disenfranchise “the Mormons”, will also refuse to accept each other much of the time. Methodists and Baptists may accept each other as Christians, but what about Catholics? Now, that is a matter of debate. Adventists? Now we are getting really controversial. The truth is that we Latter-day Saints just want to be seen as what we are. We are not Catholic, Protestant, or Orthodox, but we are Christian. (The most correct subset name would be “Restorationist”.) We do not want to be labeled as “mainstream”, but we do not mind at all cooperating with “mainstream” churches when it makes sense to do so.
It is true that the leadership of our church has sought to make it clear that we are Christians, and most of our members seek to do so as well. However, not all do. One New York Times contributor, an active Latter-day Saint, once actually argued that, just as the truth of Christianity grew beyond Judaism centuries ago, so has our faith grown beyond Christianity now. Citing the issues we have always had with “mainstream” Christianity, he makes it clear that he is not in the same group as Baptists, Lutherans, Catholics, and Episcopalians – and does not want to be. While I certainly sympathized with him to some degree when I read this, I could not help but feel that his arguments were still a bit ill-founded, as, while I was not a Jew and therefore could not be termed Jewish, I was a follower of Christ, and was still therefore a Christian. Also, while the term “Mormon” does not actually make etymological sense when used in this way, the term “Christian” does.
Another issue that bothered me about said New York Times article was the author’s readiness to be called a “Mormon” after having rejected the title “Christian”. After all, “Mormon” is not the correct term for members of my church. Some people seem to think that the Book of Mormon gets its name from the name of our religion, but this is not actually true. Mormon was an ancient prophet who, with the help of his son Moroni, compiled the sacred records of his people into a single work. When Moroni finished his father’s work, he gave it his father’s name. Those who initially used the word “Mormon” to refer to people of my faith were our detractors and persecutors. We simply have not fought the term “Mormon” much because, while inaccurate, it is not offensive in any way. The correct term for someone who belongs to my faith, however, is Latter-day Saint.
But here is where this discussion of terms and labels really gets interesting: You see, just as the term “Mormon” was imposed on those of my faith by those who hate us, the term “Christian” actually has a similar origin. As is related in Acts 11:26:
And the disciples were called Christians first in Antioch.
The word “Christian” was coined as a derisive term for those who followed the teachings of Jesus and who believed that He was the Christ, and this seems to have happened after Jesus’ death and resurrection. There is no record of Jesus using the term “Christian” during His ministry. In fact, other than this statement about the word’s origin, there is only one other instance of its use in the Bible (1 Peter 4:16).
So what did the followers of Christ call themselves? In the Acts 11:16 reference mentioned above, they are referred to as “the disciples”. However, this is a non-specific term, as there were certainly many religious and philosophical leaders at that time, all of them with their own disciples. So what did they call themselves?
The epistle to the Romans is addressed “To all that be in Rome, beloved of God, called to be saints.” The epistle to the Corinthians is addressed “to them that are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints.” Ephesians? “[T]o the saints which are at Ephesus”. Philippians? “[T]o all the saints in Christ Jesus which are at Philippi”. Colossians? “To the saints and faithful brethren in Christ which are at Colosse”.
Who were these “saints”? The Catholics have come to convince us that a saint is some sort of super-Christian, but I do not think that this is accurate. I think it is clear that these epistles were not written for the benefit of an elite cadre of especially holy people who stood separate from the main body of believers. Rather, these epistles are quite clearly directed at the Church in general, making no distinction between “elite” believers and “normal” believers. So why are they addressed to the “saints”? This is because a saint, in the biblical sense, is someone who has been “sanctified in Christ Jesus”. That is all. There is no distinction between Christians and super-Christians. There are only those who have accepted Christ’s Atonement and those who have not. The true term for someone who believes in and lives by the Old and New Testaments should therefore be “Saint”.
So, when it is all said and done, I have to say that I think the whole discussion about whether or not Mormons are Christians is technically unimportant, as both of these terms are essentially nicknames given to their respective groups by outside – even belligerent – parties. The real question, then, is this: Are the Latter-day Saints truly the modern version of the saints of biblical times, as their name implies?