Who is a Christian?
With two Mormon contenders for the 2012 GOP presidential nomination and Dr. Robert Jeffress’ recent comments about Mormonism being a cult, the Church of Latter-day Saints is again in the spotlight for its theological beliefs. But the question of whether Mormonism should be labeled a cult is not an easy one to answer. It is a question that even leading theologians are wrestling with.
“I don’t side with those who feel the word 'cult' needs to be retired, but I do think it is important to explain how the word is being used in a given context,” Bill McKeever, founder of Mormon Research Ministries, told The Christian Post in a telephone interview. “We are talking about Christianity, not moralism.”
Indeed, Christian apologist and founder of the Christian Research Institute Walter Martin classifies Mormonism as a cult in his major 1965 text Kingdom of the Cults.
Yet, Paul de Vries, president of New York Divinity School, was hesitant to use the term in connection with Mormonism.
“What’s wrong about Mormons doesn’t make them a cult. I think there’s something wrong with what they believe – I think there’s something wrong with what Catholics believe – but I don’t consider them to be a cult,” de Vries told CP.
Fuller Seminary President Richard Mouw, who has spent the past 11 years dialoguing with Mormon theologians and working to foster better understanding between Evangelical Christians and Mormons, wrote last month in a CNN column that he would not classify Mormonism as a “cult,” but also resisted to state whether he thought Mormons were Christians, only saying it is a “complicated question.”
Not long after, Evangelical Portal Managing Editor Timothy Dalrymple wrote in an Oct. 19 post on his blog on Patheos.com: “It profits us nothing to call Mormonism a cult.”
“If all we mean is that Mormonism claims to be Christian but really isn’t, then let’s call Mormonism un-Christian, or false Christianity. Given the way the world understands the term, it makes no sense to call Mormonism a cult. Let’s find another word,” Dalrymple urged.
Even R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary – the flagship school of the Southern Baptist Convention – was questioned after his statements in a March 3 podcast briefing in which he avoided using the term "cult" in relationship to Mormonism.
In another podcast, dated July 26, 2007, Mohler stated, “I believe that Mormonism is a prime example of what the Apostle Paul warned the Church to reject – ‘a Gospel contrary to the one we preached to you’ (Gal. 1:8-9).’” Taken together, those statements suggest that Mohler does indeed think Mormonism is a cult.
However, James Beverley, professor of Christian Thought and Ethics at Tyndale University, was more cautious in an interview with the CP. “Evangelical Christians should be careful in judging, as the Lord taught (Matthew 7:1-6). We should apply the word ‘cult’ very carefully since it is such a loaded term,” Beverley said.
“It is difficult to overstate the power of the word cult,” he notes in his book, Nelson’s Guide to Illustrated Religions. “Once a religious group is labeled as a cult it becomes very difficult to break down the strong barriers of suspicion created by that single four-letter word.”
Beverley said the differences between evangelical Christians and Mormons are biblical.
"Mormonism departs from biblical teaching in its view of God, Jesus, salvation, and the nature of the church,” he said. “For Mormonism, God used to be a man and grew up to be God. For Mormonism, Jesus is the product of Elohim (the God of this planet) and wife. For Mormonism, salvation is largely by works. For Mormonism, the true church is basically the LDS church. Sadly, this is basically a false church started by a false prophet Joseph Smith, who proved by his criminal acts and his lies about polygamy that he was not fit to be a spiritual leader."
Beverly added, “the contrast between Mormon views and biblical teaching is often stark and plain.”
Phil Roberts, president of Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, affirmed Beverley’s statements in an article on his school’s website that reads: “Mormonism has been, is, and probably always will be a radical departure from biblical faith.”
Roberts listed three elements “that everyone must be clearly aware of when it comes to Mormonism. These elements make it an aberrant expression of the Christian faith.”
Those three elements are helpful in examining the differences between Mormon beliefs and biblical truths.
First, Roberts said, “Mormonism radically redefines and doctrinally reconstructs the Christian faith.”
“There is no major doctrine of the faith, whether it be God, Jesus, salvation or inspiration of the Scriptures that Mormonism has not severely and completely altered and changed from its original intent…”
Second, Roberts claimed Mormonism “radically redefines the Christian worldview.” And, as McKeever told the CP, they like to use “Christian” terms.
“We are talking in a different language. They (Mormons) have become masters at using our language,” McKeever said.
Thirdly, Roberts said, “Mormonism is disingenuous in its approach to proselytization.”
“While claiming to be true to the Christian faith, Mormonism has seriously redesigned and recreated it,” he wrote. “The whole basis of the church is built on the [passage in] Joseph Smith’s religious autobiography. Joseph Smith claimed that God and Jesus commanded him not to join any church because ‘they were all wrong … their creeds were an abomination in his sight; that those professors [members] were all corrupt.’ ”
Therefore, Roberts asserted, “Mormonism, in fact, has set itself apart from mainstream Christianity.”
Alan Gomes, professor at Talbot School of Theology, agreed. "Mormons, however, do qualify as cults of Christianity because they claim to be Christian – indeed, to be the only true Christian group on earth."
Other key issues where the Bible and Mormonism significantly diverge are their basis of salvation by works, not faith, and the continuing revelation of Scripture and the belief that God was once a man, said Kurt Goedelman, founder of Personal Freedom Outreach, a Christian education organization.
The bottom line lies in Mohler’s concluding post in a 2007 Beliefnet blog debate titled, “Mormonism Is Not Christianity.”
“Mormonism is not just another form of Christianity – it is incompatible with ‘traditional Christian orthodoxy,’” Mohler wrote.
Roberts would agree, writing that “Mormonism is clearly, absolutely, completely, and thoroughly a ‘religious cult.’”
Dr. Richard Land, The Christian Post's executive editor and president of The Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, explained in a CNN interview in October that, “When we use the word ‘cult,’ that’s a theological definition of a movement that claims to be within the confines of the Christian faith and clearly is not within the confines of the Christian faith. It is a new religion.”
Land acknowledged that Mormons are “middle-class, moral, respectable people. They are anything but a cult in a cultural and social sense.” But although he does not prefer the word “cult” to describe the LDS Church, it is “theologically accurate” to use that word, he said.
The evangelical leader, however, prefers to describe Mormons, as found in his Oct. 18 editorial in The Christian Post, as “the Fourth Abrahamic religion – the first three being Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. In this formulation Mormonism would be analogous to Islam with Joseph Smith analogous to the prophet Mohammad and the Book of Mormon and analogous to the Koran.”
“Mormonism is a new religion and not a particular branch of the Christian faith,” Land concluded, highlighting that a 2011 LifeWay Research study found that a significant majority of Protestant pastors do not accept Mormonism as Christian.
Editors’ note: This is the second in a multi-part series examining cults, Christianity and belief systems that claim to be Christianity. The Christian Post will be looking at several belief systems that are commonly associated with Christianity and providing expert opinions and research on those belief systems. While the CP recognizes the issue of semantics when using the words “cult,” and “Christianity,” for our purposes, we are defining those belief systems outside of Christianity whose proponents claim to be Christian to be "cults."