The news is abuzz with the question of Mormonism, cults, and Christianity.
A cult is often understood as a religious group with strange beliefs out of the cultural mainstream (which many today increasingly consider biblical Christianity). Since "cult" is difficult to define, scholars tend not to use it.
However, the question of what beliefs characterize Christianity is not a new debate, and is one we should not shy away from if words and definitions matter.
Many people are shocked at the idea that some pastors believe Mormons are not Christians-- "judgementalism" is decried and "intolerance" proclaimed. Yet, as that may be new news to some, the view that Mormons are not Christians is historic and very widely held view.
In 2007, LDS spokesman Michael Otterson provided a forthright article in the On Faith section of the Washington Post / Newsweek. He explains,
The question, "Are Mormons Christian?" is a good starting point for this discussion. When some conservative Protestants say Mormons aren't Christian, it is deeply offensive to Latter-day Saints. Yet when Latter-day Saints assert their Christianity, some of those same Christians bitterly resent it. Why? Because both sides are using the same terms to describe different things...
When someone says Mormons aren't Christian... he or she usually means that Mormons don't embrace the traditional interpretation of the Bible that includes the Trinity. "Our Jesus" is somehow different from "their Jesus." Further, they mean that some Mormon teachings are so far outside Christian orthodoxy of past centuries that they constitute almost a new religion.
Otterson is correct here. For evangelicals and others, "Christian" is more than a self-identified label. It is hard for people in tolerant America to hear, "I know you SAY you are a Christian, but you are not." Yet, basic to evangelicalism (and historic Protestantism) is that some people are Christians, some people are not, and not all people who think that they are Christians actually are.
"Christianity" is not based on what you say about yourself or your beliefs. "Christianity" must be connected to how your beliefs agree with the beliefs of biblical Christianity.
With Mormonism becoming a major topic of discussion, about a year ago LifeWay Research decided to ask Protestant pastors their view. According to our random sample, most pastors feel strongly Mormons are not Christians. After several reporters asked if we had some data, I decided to release it. You can download the full report here: Protestant Pastor Views of Mormonism.
The survey polled 1,000 American Protestant pastors asking them to respond to the statement, "I personally consider Mormons (Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints) to be Christians." It's a forthright question some will find offensive, but it will be an increasingly important question.
Three-quarters of Protestant pastors (75%) disagree with the statement, "I personally consider Mormons... to be Christians," including 60 percent who strongly disagree and 15 percent who somewhat disagree. Just 11 percent somewhat agree, 6 percent strongly agree and 9 percent do not know.
In other words, the view that "Mormons are not Christians" is the widely and strongly held view among Protestant pastors. That does not meant they do not respect Mormons as persons, share their values on family, and have much in common. Yet, they simply view Mormonism as a distinct religion outside of basic teachings of Christianity. Many of these pastors may know Mormons consider themselves Christians, but Protestant pastors overwhelmingly do not consider them such.
I know this is an unpleasant question to many, and one that some will use as a hammer on evangelicals, but let me encourage a different view.
The fundamental issue is: how divergent can your views be and still be a part of a faith group (in contrast to forming a new one). Can you believe, for instance, that Muhammad is not the prophet and still call yourself a Muslim? The vast majority of Muslims would say you cannot. For Christians, calling yourself a Christian while not believing that God has always existed as the triune Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is as inconceivable.
This is not simply a conservative evangelical Christian view. Methodists have said "the LDS Church is not a part of the historic, apostolic tradition of the Christian faith." Even Roman Catholics (hardly conservative Protestants) don't recognize LDS baptism.
As I said before, a cult is difficult to define. But Christianity has been defined a certain way for centuries. There is no reason to be shocked that devout Christians consider those with a different view of Christ as non-Christians. In the current cultural climate it may be uncomfortable, but it is anything but shocking.
Ed Stetzer, Ph.D., is President of LifeWay Research and LifeWay’s Missiologist in Residence. Ed is a contributing editor for Christianity Today, a columnist for Outreach Magazine and Catalyst Monthly, serves on the advisory council of Sermon Central and Christianity Today's Building Church Leaders, and is frequently cited or interviewed in news outlets such as USA Today and CNN. Ed is Visiting Professor of Research and Missiology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois, and Visiting Research Professor at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. Ed blogs daily at EdStetzer.com.