The young man shifted nervously on my doorstep, his cheerful face belying his anxiety. He wore the customary white short-sleeved shirt and black tie and carried a backpack. He had just knocked on my door and just discovered that I was a pastor.
“Oh good!” he said. “It’s always great to meet fellow Christians.”
He was a young man on his requisite mission, the rite of passage of sorts for the LDS Church.
This is new, I thought. I had not heard Mormons call themselves Christians before.
“Why do you call yourself a Christian?” I asked.
“Because we follow Jesus Christ, the son of the heavenly Father.”
“Have any of the Mormon beliefs changed in the last several years?”
“No,” he said, “not really.”
“Then I don’t think you’re any more Christian than you used to be.”
“Well, we believe the same things other Christians believe.”
He began to list out some bullet points of the Christian faith, things nearly every evangelical would agree with—the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost are all real persons, for instance. That Jesus died on the cross to atone for sins and rose again and ascended to heaven.
For a moment, I was sort of shocked. Maybe things actually were changing in the Mormon church. The desire to be considered evangelical seemed new, but maybe it brought with it some theological reforms, as in the apparent turnaround in the formerly heterodox Worldwide Church of God.
You may be inclined to think so too. Today in the evangelical marketplace, Mormon figures sometimes play subtle yet significant roles. Christians share videos of Mormon singers and teaching on social media. Mormon families participate in local Christian organizations (there are several Mormon kids in the “Christian youth theater” with which my daughter used to perform shows). And many Mormons, of course, stand side by side with Roman Catholics and evangelical Protestants in opposing many social ills like abortion and pornography, etc.
The push to be considered evangelical is a real push. But it comes at the cost of some doctrinal obfuscation. So are Mormons becoming evangelical Christians? What do we make of those sweet folks across the street with the awesome kids and neighborly spirit? If anybody is a Christian, wouldn’t they be?
I decided to go deeper with my LDS visitor, asking him pointed questions about distinct beliefs that have historically defined evangelical Christianity. Here are significant things Mormons have always and still believe:
1. Jesus isn’t God.
Mormons call Jesus the Son of God and say lots of things about him that the Bible says – that he was born of a virgin, that he died to atone for sins and rose again, etc. – but they also say he is a created being, directly contradicting biblical orthodoxy. They also say that he “inherited divine powers” from the Father. Mormons deny the historically Christian teaching that Jesus Christ is equal with the Father in essence and substance. On that note . . .
2. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit aren’t equally one God.
Mormons affirm a conception of the Trinity – what they typically call the Godhead, interestingly enough – but deny the traditional understanding of God’s triune nature. They say that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit share one purpose or will but do not share the same essence or substance. They say the three persons of the trinity are “separate personages” that share divine attributes, but deny that they are co-equally and simultaneously distinct persons who are together one God. Mormons believe God literally birthed the “spirit-children” Jesus and the Holy Spirit.
3. God was created.
You have to dig a bit deeper into their doctrine to get to some of the stuff they don’t widely publicize, like this key teaching for instance: the God we worship as our heavenly Father is not an eternal, uncreated being. Mormons believe God was once a man of flesh and blood, a created being, who ascended to divinity. Joseph Smith taught that there was even a “God” above the God we know as God the Father, who created the man who eventually became the God we know as Father. This is obviously in direct opposition to historical Christian orthodoxy, which affirms the Bible’s claim that there is no God but God and that before anything else ever existed, the great I AM existed.
4. Christ’s atonement redeems everyone and grace is a reward for those who obey him.
In a kind of strange two-part confusion about Christ’s atoning work on the cross, Mormons believe in a kind of universalism in which everyone who dies will be “saved” by Christ’s work, although they do teach that there are also four different eternal destinies for resurrected persons—godhood for faithful Mormons, a kind of lower heaven for unfaithful Mormons and people who only accept God after they die, a temporary place of suffering for wicked people who reject Mormonism, and an eternal place of suffering for the devil and people who received the Holy Spirit but then denied it. If you find that difficult to follow, you should consider what they teach about salvation. Mormons superficially affirm salvation by grace but how they define grace (and faith) muddles the biblical and evangelical understanding. 2 Nephi 25 (in the Book of Mormon) says that “we are saved by grace, after all we can do.”
In other words, for the Mormon, grace is a reward for faithful effort. For the biblical Christian, however, grace that is deserved is not grace at all. Grace is given to the undeserving, those who could never earn God’s favor or rewards. Grace empowers faithful obedience, yes, but grace also precedes it. Mormons get the gospel/law distinction wrong.
There are other interesting departures from orthodoxy to be found in LDS teaching—what they believe about the Bible and ongoing revelation, what they believe about pre-existing human beings, about Jesus coming to North America to minister to the Native Americans, etc.—and lots of questions to suss out about Mormonism’s prophetic and historiographical claims. (The historical record is not kind to the former, when you begin to honestly appraise the character of Joseph Smith in particular, and the archaeological record is not kind to the latter.) But the bottom line is that on four very key points of Christian orthodoxy, Mormonism utterly fails the test.
After I quizzed my new missionary friend on these key tenets and finding that we believed some very, very different things about them, he still wasn't willing to admit Mormonism should not be considered Christianity in any theologically meaningful sense of the word. He wanted to call his companion (who was stationed at the front porch of the house next door) for backup. I encouraged him to do so. Because I knew if these Mormons were to be considered Christian, they'd need to believe the biblical gospel, and I was eager to share it with them both.
I know too many Christians are prone to throwing around the "heresy" word in a willy-nilly fashion at anyone who disagrees with them. Preachers who talk about social justice or have rock-and-roll worship on stage are called "heretics." But the word has an historical legitimacy. It does apply to some beliefs that depart from the faith once delivered. And the historical record of creeds and councils of the Christian church is clear, as is the word of God from which they are deriving their theological guardrails: if you deny the traditional doctrines of the deity of Christ and of the triune Godhead and mess with salvation by grace, you are indeed a heretic.