For the past several months, I have been pondering an op-ed piece David V. Mason wrote, "I'm a Mormon, Not a Christian" (New York Times, June 12). Mason, who sees himself "about as genuine a Mormon as you'll find" and "emphatically not a Christian," seems so radically different from how I see myself -- as emphatically a Christian while also being a very genuine Mormon.
The problem with the debate over whether Mormons are Christian is that it is essentially rhetorical. That is, one can define Christianity either so narrowly or so broadly that it is meaningless. By the definition of some Christians, even Jesus would be difficult to classify as Christian. "Christian" is not an appellation with which one is born or reborn, but rather what one becomes through allegiance to Christ and fidelity to his teachings by actively loving and serving as he taught.
Usually when Catholics and Protestants explain why they don't consider Mormons to be Christian, they cite the difference between their beliefs and those of Latter-day Saint about the Trinity, but as Bishop John Shelby Spong argues in "The Sins of Scripture," the Catholic and Protestant creed about the Trinity, which was formulated at the Council of Nicea in 325, "far from falling from heaven in three neatly-organized trinitarian paragraphs, complete with punctuation ... were adopted amid raucous debate, with all the wheeling and dealing, the compromises and power plays that accompany every decision-making convention, whether it is primarily political or ecclesiastical."
Although claimed to be scriptural and in accord with the teaching of Jesus as understood by his apostles, according to Spong, the creed "affirmed a trinitarian formula that the apostles had never even imagined."
For Mormons, using differences over the Trinity to exclude them from Christian fellowships seems arbitrary. Protestant and Catholic churches are not united on a number of doctrinal issues, including celibacy, the necessity of baptism, ordination of women, the nature of the Eucharist, infant baptism, universal salvation, priesthood authority, homosexuality, divorce, the inerrancy of the Bible, original sin, free will, predestination, the Day of Judgment, and, not surprisingly, grace and works, and yet they do not use such differences to exclude one another from the Christian family.
Another issue some Christians use to categorize Mormons as non-Christian is the question of the infallibility and inerrancy of the Bible. Although Latter-day Saints consider the Bible to be the word of God, we also honor other sacred texts as scripture -- as do some other churches.
For example, the Greek and Roman Churches accept the deuterocanonical books of the Bible (the Apocrypha) as scripture, whereas most Protestant churches do not. Some Christians accept as scripture some of the texts found of the so called "lost gospels," the Dead Sea Scrolls and other extra-biblical sources -- and yet generally are not disparaged for doing so.
This reminds me of Ambrose Bierce's definition of "scripture" in his Devil's Dictionary, "The sacred books of our holy religion, as distinguished from the false and profane writings on which all other faiths are based."
In a lecture I gave at Graduate Theological Union last December titled, "Are Mormons Christian?" I stated, "No other word ("Christian") so accurately defines Mormons."
As Nephi, a Book of Mormon prophet, declared, "We talk of Christ, we rejoice in Christ, we preach of Christ, we prophesy of Christ" (2 Nephi 25: 23, 26). And despite what some Christians contend, the Christ Nephi speaks of and whom Mormons worship is Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God, the Savior of the world as found in the New Testament.
Mormons consider it ironic that they believe in such core Christian beliefs as the Virgin Birth, the Atonement, and the Resurrection and yet are not considered Christian, whereas many mainline Christian clergy and members who no longer hold such beliefs are considered so. .
I contend that all religions, Christian and otherwise, would do better to focus on what we have in common and to seek fellowship with all who seek to live Jesus' two great commandments: "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind" and "Love your neighbor as yourself." As he said, "All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments."
Robert A. Rees, Ph.D., teaches at Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley.