What does it mean to call someone a Christian?
In response to my review of Mormonism: The Story of a New Religious Tradition by Jan Shipps, a subscriber to my blog asked me if George Romney is a Christian. It took me a paragraph to respond, but the conclusion I offered was “Yes, but…” The question deserves a fuller response.
A good place to begin is with the origin of the term Christian. Acts 11:26 reports that in Antioch “the disciples were first called Christians.” At that time, the more commonly used terms were disciples and saints, but gradually Christian came to be the standard term for describing people who identified themselves with Jesus.
Four factors are involved in fleshing out this term.
High regard for Jesus: A Christian is someone who holds in high regard the person who appears in the four gospels as wisdom teacher, healer, exemplar, prophetic preacher, and representative of spiritual power.
Readiness to affirm certain ideas about Jesus: From early times, followers of Jesus have developed a set of theological ideas that describe how Jesus is related to the One God of the Bible, to ordinary human beings like the rest of us, and to the reconciliation of the people of the world with God. These ideas have been developed in innumerable ways, and they are held with widely differing degrees of certitude. Despite this variation, they are part of the definition of who is called a Christian.
Participation in a community of like-minded people: While the religious life always has a strongly personal and private dimension, there is also a larger community of people who follow a similar pattern of life and religious practice. Christianity is one of the major faith traditions that emphasize the corporate aspect, which means that ordinarily people who are called Christian are regular participants in a church.
Practitioners of a Christ-like way of life: In the New Testament “followers of the way” was a phrase sometimes used to refer to the people who gave their allegiance to Jesus. While the specific disciplines of a Christ-like way of life have changed over the years, character, morality, prayer, worship, and ethical behavior have always been included in the expectations of people called Christians.
These four factors can be precisely defined and insisted upon rigorously, in which case the definition of a Christian is narrow, and the title is given only to people who hold orthodox theology, belong to one of the historic forms of the church, and live according to currently recommended patterns of “the Christian life.”
In contrast, these four factors can be held in a relaxed manner. When doctrines pertaining to Jesus, church participation, and life practices are understood in a broad and inclusive manner, the result is that many people can be called Christian whom the closely defined ecclesial systems would be unwilling to include.
When the question is asked concerning Mormons, most people would be willing to say that there is an allegiance to Jesus, a strong and commendable way of life, and participation in a church-like community. The uneasiness arises at three points: a theology about God and Jesus that is significantly different from that held by most Christians in traditional churches, the use of a large body of recent writings (including The Book of Mormon) as of canonical value comparable to the Bible itself, and an ecclesiology (doctrine of the church) that differs significantly from the ecclesial doctrines of most other churches.
The question that people have to answer for themselves is whether the Mormon respect for Jesus and Jesus-like way of life substantiate their claim to be Christian despite the significant differences in theology about God, Jesus, and the church. Or do these differences move them so far outside the circle of Christian faith that they need to be referred to by some other name?
Early in the New Testament period, the followers of Jesus still thought of themselves as Jews because they used the Jewish Bible (what has come later to be called the Old Testament), worshiped the God of Abraham and Moses, and maintained a way of life that was consistent with Judaism. By the end of the New Testament period, however, most people recognized that the followers of Jesus—despite their continuity with major elements of Judaism—had become something else. It no longer was reasonable, either for Jews or for Christians, to claim that Christians were simply Jews with a difference. They had become something else.
At this point in my understanding of Mormon faith and life, I have no difficulty in saying that Mormons are “Christians, but with a difference.” Will the time come when the “difference” becomes the important identifier?
I don’t know. Whatever name they bear, Mormons are an important presence in the religious landscape of our time and deserve our respect.