I recently had a comment about the question “Are Mormons Christian?” and how this was the wrong question to ask. I felt it would be quite helpful to see how Robert Millet and Greg Johnson deal with this question. This is a transcript from a portion of the public dialogue hosted by the Christ United Methodist Church, in Utah, on February 19, 2007 (audio available). I’m only providing one segment of the conversation (50:24 – 1:06:40) and I hate to cut it off since during the segment following this the tables are turned and Johnson is asking Millet a difficult question. I would encourage readers to listen to the audio since often a transcript cannot convey the feelings and tenor of the conversation. I’ve also edited the conversation for length and also because audio quality makes some spots hard to hear, but I hope it is faithful to the overall presentation and would encourage listening to the audio. (Note: Some ellipses indicate omitted material but some simply indicate abrupt transitions in speech).
Millet: Knowing how I feel about Jesus. Knowing how many of my dear dear friends feel about Jesus. Knowing that my life has been given to him, do you know how difficult it is for me to have someone say to me, as I did… Stephen Robinson and I were asked to visit with some representatives for the Southern Baptist Convention in Kansas City several years ago. We taught doctrine for about eight hours and at the end of the eight hours, one of the younger men in the group turned to both of us and just said, “Steve, Bob, if you would just accept Jesus as your Savior!” And I remember thinking I don’t even know how to answer that. Since then I thought, you know, the feeling I had was one of, I felt like turning to him and saying, “Well, if I could just convince you to accept that the bible is the word of God!” I know he would have said, “What? I do dummy.” I’ve felt much the same way when people have said to me, yeah but you’re not Christian. On what basis, I’m not talking of you personally, but on what basis might persons who are Evangelical or of other mainline Christian faiths might conclude that Latter-day Saints are not Christian given the way we’ve been talking?
Johnson: That’s a tough one. I actually like to refer to on our website for anybody who might be interested…and we have by permission from the book publisher an article that Dr. Craig Blomberg the co-author of “How Wide the Divide”, was able to insert into a book that was written a couple of years ago called “New Mormon Challenge.” It’s a group of scholars who are engaging in with Mormon theology in a contemporary way…
The title of the chapter is “Is Mormonism Christian?” which is a change in the focus of the question which is often “Are Mormons Christians?” I’ve said to you that I think more and more, there was a time, I think, that the average Evangelical, maybe there are some that would still hold this stronger position, but the average Evangelical would say, Mormons can’t be Christian period, they just believe too many different things about what the bible teaches and who Jesus is and what the teachings of the Christian historic faith are, they can’t be Christians. I would say that in the last five or ten years you would hear more Evangelicals saying, “I’m not saying no Mormon can be a Christian, there may be some that have a genuine relationship with Jesus Christ, but the theology of Mormonism is still so different from traditional biblical Christianity that the doctrines of the Mormon Church themselves cannot be considered Christian although I can’t say that not all Mormons are Christians.” You will hear that transitional attitude.
Millet: So, Greg, from that sense then one of the reasons Mormons are considered to be not Christian is because their theology is either deficient or inappropriate?
Johnson: Yes. That would be the strong position of the Protestant Evangelical community that there are some teachings about who Jesus is, and what the historic Mormon teachings are, that would make this something different than true Christianity. Now, follow my line of thinking here because, one, I think that we do a tremendous service to one another, when we use labels and what we call ‘conversation stoppers.’
A great ‘conversation stopper’ is if I walk up to you on the street and say, “Hey do you know that Mormons aren’t Christians and that you’re going to hell?” The average Mormon that I have seen experience that kind of conversation often says right there, “Thank you! Help me to come to know Jesus the way you want me to come to know Jesus.” (Laughter)
Millet: So they don’t say, thank you, I look forward to seeing you there? (Laughter)
Johnson: They don’t. They don’t say that either. Now, there might be some examples, but I would say, generally speaking, human nature does not respond well to that kind of assault. I have felt that we need to engage more in ‘conversation starters.’ If Protestant and Evangelicals takes ought with particular Mormon doctrines, I think we ought to start with, “You know that’s interesting, you are a Latter-day Saint, I am a born again Evangelical Christian, my understanding is that there might be some differences in the way you look at who Jesus is and in the way I look at Jesus. Can we talk about that sometime? I think that would be a fabulous experience to talk with you about what you believe about Jesus and what I believe about Jesus and maybe we might find some similarities but maybe we’ll find some differences and let’s be honest about that too.” I feel like it’s not healthy, I don’t think it’s a biblical place to meet, I would go back to James, I don’t think it is our place to judge any person’s soul. Some people ask me, so is Bob going to come over to our side? Maybe we’re gonna get him. And people think maybe Bob is going to sway me back into the LDS faith. The heart of that question is that unless we can convert each other and persuade each other, to take one label and replace it with another, then we are lost or we’ve been defeated somehow.
Millet: Or that there is no benefit to doing this if we can’t convert one other to our faiths.
Johnson: So I would call upon Protestant Christianity to not use labels. I like Salt Lake Theological Seminary that looks at Mormonism as a culture and encourages through video project they have called Bridges, they encourage people to say you know Mormonism, the term cult is so filled with pejorative baggage…does it really help us to use that kind of label? I don’t think it does. I don’t refer to Mormon people as members of cults. I don’t think that’s healthy. I understand Mormonism is a distinct culture, with a very unique understanding of theological questions, a culture of family a tradition of history that goes back in 177 years from the days of upper-state New York into Kirtland, Ohio and into Nauvoo, Illinois and out West and we have to appreciate that there is all of that, and understand that in a typical Mormon person’s life there is much about what whole experience that is appealing to them and very significant and I just don’t think it helps for to me to come in and say, well you know you’re not a Christian. That was told me to me as a Latter-day Saint and I wasn’t very appreciative of it frankly. So, that is one question, ‘conversation stoppers’ and ‘conversation starters.’
Now let’s take it to the next level. Do I as an Evangelical think Mormonism is a Christian faith? I don’t, and I don’t for a couple of reasons. One, it has never called itself or described itself in the larger historic Christian church as either Protestant, Catholic or Orthodox Christian. If one understands the historical Christian claims of the Church of the Christian faith you do know those are the three main segments of Christendom. Mormonism started in 1820 and 1830 officially by saying we are not part of that tradition and we are distinct from that. We go back to the very first days of Christianity within the first one hundred years and we are restoring that which is lost. So, I think that…I don’t see Mormonism in light of historic tradition by its own statement, by its own definition.
Millet: Let me pose this to you Greg and I think some of you can identify with this. Can you see that that explanation to me is very helpful? And I would not consider Mormonism to be a part of the traditional Christian world per se. On the other hand, I know you understand why and I’m fine with that, and many of our friends [understand why]. What worries me is not you and the theologian, what worries me is the man or woman in the pew, or even worse the man or woman on the street who hears, “Well, Mormons aren’t Christian.” I mean, the question is what immediately comes to mind if you don’t know anything about them? Does that mean: Oh they must not accept the New Testament. They must not believe in the divinity of Jesus. They must not believe he rose from the dead, and they certainly must not believe he offered a substitutionary offering on our behalf through the Atonement. See what I’m saying?
Johnson: You know well that I was interviewed on a Canadian Christian radio program here in the states and I was on the phone and I had made some of the cases for better relationships between the Evangelical and Mormon communities and an irate woman called in and said, “You know I just think this is ridiculous, you’re so chummy with the Mormons you can hardly tell that you even believe they’re different, and you know they don’t even believe Jesus died on the cross!”
And so I paused and I said, “Madam, where do you think, that they think he died? (Laughter) And she had no answer! And she said, “Well, I’m not saying that they don’t say he died on the cross, but they don’t believe the same things we do about what he did when he died for us.” And I said, “Fair enough! Okay question, the second one, the first one was terrible. Because what you did is you incited something that’s not true. They do have a view of the historical figure named Jesus Christ that walked this planet 2000 years ago. They have a sense of that person. They don’t believe their Jesus is a guy named Jesus who was born in Chicago a hundred years ago. They would think that the person they’re believing in when they say they believe in Jesus, they would think of the guy in the New Testament. That’s the person they say they would believe in. So why do we insist that they don’t believe in that historical figure?”
Millet: That’s an important point Greg, and while you hit a good point, that is there are theological differences as to how we might view Jesus, I think when a person says to me you believe in a different Jesus, my tendency is to ask, “Well, do you mean that I believe in a different historic Jesus?” And the answer has to be well, no. My Jesus, the Jesus of the Latter-day Saints was born in Bethlehem under Caesar and grew up in Tiberius’ time and died under the direction of Pontius Pilate. So, historically we are talking about the same person. What we are really talking about difference-wise are the differences in theology between what we believe and what the later Christian church put together in the church councils.
Johnson: Well, that and more. It’s totally fair to talk about who we believe Jesus to be. Was he born of a virgin or not? What was his pre-existent state? Does he have a beginning or is he eternal? What is his relationship with us or with this creation? What’s the association between the Creator God and the creature? Those are things we have to talk about, and if you are offended when an Evangelical comes to you, as a Latter-day Saint, and says, “Well, I just think that your idea of Jesus being the literal Son of God the Father is just not biblical to me.” If you just say, “Well, you are just judging me and that’s not fair.” I think that it’s fair for them to ask that question. That’s a historical theological distinction that Mormonism has with the larger Christian world. So have the conversation, be polite by all means and get it right…
We’ve just had a great conversation with grace and works and certainly we would want to follow it up with who Jesus is and we are talking about this whole label of Christianity. But I really feel that it does us no good as human beings to simply; You can go to a class, you can watch a video, read a little tract, get a little book, and it can kind of teach about how bad somebody else’s religion is, and you feel very vindicated that these people aren’t even Christian. Now, I know tracts have their place; they’re brief communications and maybe a starting place for some. But I think the very way that we approach one another and the way we teach one another to label one another is very harmful. And in this community, in Salt Lake City, we need to rise up together as Mormons and Evangelicals and say we are not going to be lazy any more, we are going to do better, we’re going to afford each other the respect, courtesy and dignity, the right to believe differently as we so choose to believe, and we’re going to do it with grace, and kindness and civility and biblical love, because that will make Salt Lake City a different kind of Community, and its not by…Bob and I talk about how we feel we offer something a little unique, because in ecumenism which is a word I think Evangelicals and Latter-day Saints are a little nervous of, if it means trading to the lowest common denominator in theology.
Millet: Yeah, [for example] if you give away, if you get rid of the trinity I will get rid of baptism for the dead.
Johnson: Can we go for another doctrine? I’d be willing to trade something but not that. (Laughter). But, I think really aren’t we saying to the extent that we work harder at this and not take if you will just a basic liberal attitude and say, let’s just all get along and we’ll sing cumbaya and if you want to believe the rock is God fine, and I want to believe the grass is divine. We can all have beliefs like this, this is America, but I think we’re actually saying is that we can even be a better community even acknowledging our differences by the way we treat one another.
Millet: And another thing too. Like you say the former is that simple, just to pronounce I love everybody I accept everything. It is hard work is to say, no I have different beliefs but I want to know where you are coming from, help me understand.