Why do non-LDS churches consider the LDS Church non-Christian?

(This started out as a comment to this post, in reply to Adam G., but became so lengthy that I decided to make it a post of its own. For purposes of this post, “LDSC” refers to the LDS Church; “CC” refers to the Catholic Church; and “NLDS” refers to non-LDS Christians.)

Why do the non-LDS churches reject the LDS Church as non-Christian? I suggest that it’s based on things which strike at the heart of the other churches: Namely additional scripture, new revelation and ongoing, authoritative prophecy.

The NLDS had gone through centuries of conflict over precisely these issues: The true content of the scriptures and the weight, if any, to be given to non-scriptural authorities. In other words, how do Christians know what to believe? The Reformation may have started out as a reformation, but it finished, i.e. the rupture was made complete, over issues of authority. The Protestants could not be welcomed back without submitting to the teachings of the Popes and the Councils, the authority of which the Protestants by-and-large rejected.

The CC asserted that it was of the very essence of the Christian Church to have extra-scriptural authority, as well as Apostolic succession and a valid priesthood and sacraments; and virtually all the Protestants rejected precisely those things, asserting that the only essential things were faith and the Bible. Note that these things were held to be essential to the Christian church, such that groups which held the opposite view, to that extent were held not to be true Christian churches. Thus the CC was held not to be the true Church of Christ but the whore of Babylon; and the Protestant churches were held not to be true Christian churches but mere gatherings of people who might profess faith in Christ but who reject the very Church he had founded, as well as his lifegiving sacraments.

Fast-forwarding to the appearance of the Mormons, where do they fit into this divide? To the Protestants they smack of papist extra-scripturalism and hoodoo (i.e. sacramentalism); and to the CC they are yet another Protestant, or at least Protestant-like, sect which rejects the Church of Christ and sets itself up as its own magisterium.

The Protestant distrust of Mormonism is not a new stick specially cut to beat Mormons with, but is based on the same principles which caused them to reject the CC and go their own way in the first place. And the CC’s rejection of Mormonism is based on the same principles by which Protestant groups were judged to be not genuine churches but mere agglomerations of people claiming to be followers of Christ.

The LDSC, seemingly, comes in hoping to please both sides, but instead reminds both sides of each other. This is the reason it “catches it from all sides”, so to speak.

I submit that this was not surprising to Joseph Smith. He knew how Protesants viewed Catholic principles, and perhaps knew how Catholics viewed the Protestant tendency to continually re-interpret the Gospel. He must have known full well that both sides would react with revulsion. His attitude seemed to be basically, “bring it on”.

The modern LDSC, I suppose, having been around now for one and three-quarter centuries, wants to say, “Come on. We’ve been here this long and have shown ourselves to be good people. We’re not persecuting you or corrupting your youth. Accept us already.” There has been such a liberalizing and democratizing trend among all Christians, that Mormons perhaps have been encouraged to expect this to happen. Indeed I think that to a large extent it has. Which makes the holdouts appear all the more bigoted and unreasonable. (The holdouts, by the way, happen to be the more conservative adherents of their various faiths.)

The difficulty, though, for many Christians, is that the LDSC hasn’t changed the principles upon which it was founded, which formed the basis for their initial negative prejudices. It still insists on calling its additional scriptures scripture, and still holds open the possibility of new and ongoing revelation leading God-knows-where: Even if Protestants could reconcile themselves to existing LDS doctrine, that doctrine is still liable to change or be added onto (unlike Catholic doctrine, to which they have had five centuries to acclimate themselves). And the Catholic objection to considering the LDSC a genuine Christian church is unchanged as well: No Apostolic succession, valid priesthood or sacraments, especially the Mass.

So there we are!

All of the foregoing has addressed the question of whether the LDSC is a genuine Christian church. Whether individual Mormons are truly Christian is a separate question, which I have answered for myself here and here (see also this post): Basically, I can’t see much ground for denying that Mormons are Christians in some sense, i.e. by the broadest possible definition, and for that reason won’t quibble about referring to them as Christians; even though by a stricter and what I consider the most proper technical definition, I would say they are not (due to most likely not receiving valid baptism — a criterion which I apply to members of some other Christian denominations as well).

I admit I have a hard time seeing how Protestants can justify denying the title of “Christian” both to Mormons and the LDSC. The Catholic arguments are of no use to them, and I don’t see any objective Protestant standard which clearly excludes them, the Protestants themselves having abandoned the Apostolic succession and undermined the idea of an authoritative interpreter of the scriptures. Thus all they have in my view are subjective opinions (which, however, they are entitled to after all).

That’s what they get for leaving the One True Church!

In closing I will just suggest that drawing lines of division is not always an act of hatred. For example from the LDS point of view, it’s necessary to assert the Great Apostasy in order to make known the need for restoration. If all this is true, then telling people about it is an act of love. By the same token I believe that for many Protestants, it’s necessary to insist on the non-Christian (as they see it) nature of the LDSC for the sake of not giving false comfort: No one would be happier, I have no doubt, if Mormons were true Christians or were to become true Christians; but they can’t be told of the need to become Christian without also being told that they are not so currently. And for a Catholic, too, the succession, priesthood and valid sacraments are so precious and essential, that to treat them as if they were not needed by Mormons (or Protestants) to be a true Christian in the fullest sense, would be inexcusable and certainly not an act of love.

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10 thoughts on “Why do non-LDS churches consider the LDS Church non-Christian?

  1. @A This seems mostly reasonable from a Roman Catholic perspective – except in one place:

    “Even if Protestants could reconcile themselves to existing LDS doctrine, that doctrine is still liable to change or be added onto (unlike Catholic doctrine, to which they have had five centuries to acclimate themselves).”

    I would suggest that having a doctrine that is liable to change and to be added to, is actually a distinctive characteristic of Roman Catholicism wrt other Mainstream Christian denominations – and indeed the major cause of the Great Schism c1000AD; since when there have been big changes in Roman Catholic doctrine – most recently with Vatican II.

    And this is also something that is broadly shared with the CJCLDS – at least in practice, although the interpretation of what happens is almost the opposite.

    You probably know the joke: “Catholics all say their Pope is infallible, but nobody really believes it. Mormons all say their Prophet is fallible, but nobody really believes it.”

    To the outsider, the results are not much different!

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  2. Thanks, Bruce. I dispute whether any doctrines were added or changed at Vatican II, but we can leave that discussion for another time.

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  3. I have no big objection to any of this. One quibble:

    “Basically, I can’t see much ground for denying that Mormons are Christians in some sense, i.e. by the broadest possible definition, and for that reason won’t quibble about referring to them as Christians; even though by a stricter and what I consider the most proper technical definition, I would say they are not (due to most likely not receiving valid baptism — a criterion which I apply to members of some other Christian denominations as well).”

    There is no particular reason that I can see that you shouldn’t be able to say the same about the “LDSC.” It would certainly be odd to have a religion whose members were Christian but that itself wasn’t.

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  4. As quoted previously, Pope John Paul II wrote, “On the other hand, the ecclesial communities which have not preserved the valid Episcopate and the genuine and integral substance of the Eucharistic mystery, are not Churches in the proper sense; however, those who are baptized in these communities are, by Baptism, incorporated in Christ and thus are in a certain communion, albeit imperfect, with the Church.” [http://www.ewtn.com/library/curia/cdfunici.htm]

    A church is either objectively tied to the one Church founded by Christ through Apostolic succession and the sacraments, or it’s not. Whether an individual is objectively tied to the one Church of Christ through faith and baptism, is not so cut-and-dried.

    Individual Catholics, I believe, have the option of deciding for themselves whether to insist at all times on the strict definition of a Christian church, or to use the term “Christian” more loosely in casual conversation, as I have decided to use it more loosely in applying it to Mormons and the LDSC. Whether to do the one or the other is a prudential decision and a matter of opinion which may depend on the situation at hand: In technical discussions you may insist on the strict definition, and in casual conversation maybe not. Some Catholics may decide that it’s better to use the strict definition all the time, and some that it’s better to use the loose definition all the time. I can’t make a blanket statement as to whether such people are right or wrong since again, it’s a prudential matter.

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    • JPII isn’t using ‘the broadest possible definition.’ In fact, that definition is narrow, sectarian, and technical. A good deal many churches that everyone recognizes as Christian wouldn’t be ‘Christian’ under that rubric.

      In other words, I stand by what you say. You haven’t offered a good basis for not conceding that the Mormon Church is “Christian in some sense, i.e., by the broadest possible definition.”

      —-
      “A church is either objectively tied to the one Church founded by Christ through Apostolic succession and the sacraments, or it’s not. Whether an individual is objectively tied to the one Church of Christ through faith and baptism, is not so cut-and-dried.”

      I’m intrigued by this. In your post, it sounds like you’re saying that no Mormon is a Christian by what you consider to be the correct, technical definition, but here it sounds like you’re not so sure. Would be interested to hear more.

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  5. You write, “JPII isn’t using ‘the broadest possible definition.’ In fact, that definition is narrow, sectarian, and technical.”

    We seem to be having a misunderstanding. My quoting JP2 was in response to what you had said in your last prior comment, “It would certainly be odd to have a religion whose members were Christian but that itself wasn’t.”

    My quoting JPII was meant to show how it’s possible that members of a church could be technically Christian even if their church technically was not. (I’m sure JP2’s definition does sound narrow and sectarian to you. Yet from my perspective it sounds natural and even obvious.)

    You write, “In your post, it sounds like you’re saying that no Mormon is a Christian by what you consider to be the correct, technical definition, but here it sounds like you’re not so sure. Would be interested to hear more.”

    I don’t think I have said that “no Mormon is technically a Christian”. I have argued (elsewhere) that since Mormon baptism is invalid, Mormons, generally speaking, technically are not Christian. But that was a general statement which assumed that they had only received Mormon baptism. It’s possible that a person could have received valid baptism before having received Mormon baptism. Since my argument was based on Mormon baptism being invalid, it seems that a person like this could be a Christian in the technical sense (though of course a heretic).

    Baptism after all has a permanent effect. It’s not erased when someone adopts heretical beliefs.

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  6. I realized I didn’t really answer your question why I won’t concede that the Mormon Church is “Christian in some sense, i.e., by the broadest possible definition.” The answer is, I will.

    Let me take a minute to categorize my various positions: On the one hand I’m talking about (1a) what the Catholic Church considers to be a Christian church, and (1b) what it considers to be a Christian person. On the other hand, (2a) what I personally am willing to concede may accurately be called a Christian church, and (2b) what may accurately be called a Christian person, using the broadest possible definition of each.

    1a is “the ecclesial communities which have preserved the valid Episcopate and the genuine and integral substance of the Eucharistic mystery”, and of course the priesthood.

    1b is, basically, a person who professes faith in Christ and has been validly baptized.

    2a is any church which professes faith in Christ.

    2b is any person who professes faith in Christ.

    To be clear, I do subscribe to 1a and 1b; I consider these to be the strictest and most proper definitions.

    Nevertheless as to 2a and 2b, as I posted previously: ‘[T]there are other definitions of “Christian” that people use. It may be argued (as I have heard done) that the most common understanding of the term is simply, “a follower of Jesus of Nazareth”. This usage adopts the Protestant idea of a Christian, that what makes you a Christian is a profession of faith in Christ. Period. No sacraments needed. While I admit that this is a fairly common understanding since we are a historically Protestant country, as a Catholic I have to reject it as an incorrect [because incomplete] understanding. Nevertheless, if we sometimes are to use words as they are commonly understood, and not always according to their strict definitions, then I can’t necessarily quarrel with this use of the term. If in a certain context it’s understood that this is the sense in which it is meant, then of course it would apply to Mormons.’

    Now to elaborate a bit: In all honesty, when I first started pondering these things I wanted to be able to say that doctrinally (setting aside baptism for the moment) Mormonism was not Christian, while Protestantism was. This was because Mormonism not only got more things wrong, it also got them, as I thought, quite radically wrong. But when pressed on it, I could not put my finger on any one teaching that disqualified it as Christian. To be sure, were I to map out a spectrum, on which I placed all the various churches in order from least Christian to most, I would put Mormonism at the extreme left end. But when pressed, I find I am not able to reasonably justify pushing it right off the page.

    By the same token, my intuition was fully ready to believe that Mormonism was not Christian because it professes a different Christ. But again when pressed, I have to admit that that argument is metaphysically confusing at best, at least at this point in my understanding — involving questions such as what proportion of your knowledge about a person has to be accurate before you can say that you know the person himself; or perhaps rather, how many things someone has to get wrong about a person that you think you know, before you can be sure that he knows not the same person.

    So I have to admit that I don’t have a bold line to draw in terms of belief which knocks Mormonism completely off the Christian spectrum.

    Of course there is more to Christianity than belief alone. The bold line that I have no trouble drawing between authentic Christianity and Mormonism — and this applies to Protestantism as well — is that of Apostolic succession, priesthood and the sacraments, particularly the Mass. And as to individual Mormons, the bold line is valid baptism.

    Why only baptism in the case of individuals? Because it’s the sacrament of initiation into Christ’s Body. Once you are baptized, there are other things that the Church commands you to do, and Christians are more or less culpable for ignoring or disobeying her commands. But while the other sacraments are necessary to accomplish what each of them accomplishes, baptism alone (together with faith in Christ) suffices to make you a Christian. A baptized person who believes in Christ may be a good Christian or a bad one, obedient or disobedient, a heretic or orthodox, but he’s a Christian nonetheless.

    I can’t say that I’ll never change my mind, but in the current state of my cogitations, this is where I am.

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  7. Should I understand then, that for you, Apostolic succession, priesthood and valid sacraments/ordinances are not essential to genuine Christianity? That baptism, specifically, does nothing in particular which is essential?

    I know that in some specific sense, you believe the LDS Church is THE Church of Christ. Yet you’re willing to say that pretty much any church which professes belief in Christ is a genuine Christian church. It seems then, that you must believe there is a real distinction between the Church of Christ and other genuine Christian churches, since only Mormons are members of the former but all professing Christians are members of the latter. Or do you believe there is more than one genuine Church of Christ?

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