Culture At Large

What beliefs define a true Christian?

Andy Rau

The Atheist vs. Believer debate spectacles (and accompanying books) that have captured national attention over the last few years have been interesting, but I much prefer the more subdued type of religious debate: polite, reasoned point/counterpoint essays, in this case about the question of whether or not Mormonism should be considered Christian.

Those two essays (one arguing that Mormonism is Christianity, the other dissenting) are well worth reading—and I'd love to hear which of the two approaches you find most convincing. (I know we've got some Mormon readers out there; please share your thoughts!) But what's stuck with me about this polite little debate is actually the unexpected approach the Mormon apologist takes. Rather than trying to prove to Protestant critics that the various unique tenets of Mormonism are true or compatible with traditional Christianity, he instead takes a different route:

Are Mormons Christian? By self-definition and self-identity, unquestionably so. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints affirms that it is a Christian-faith denomination, a body of believers who worship Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, and who witness that salvation is possible only by his atoning blood and grace. By the simple dictionary definition of a Christian as one who believes in or worships Jesus Christ, the case is compelling. To the title Christian a critic of Mormonism may add any modifiers he deems appropriate—unorthodox, heretical, non-Nicene, different—but blanket assertions that we are not Christian are a poor substitute for informed argument and dialogue.

In other words: the Mormon faith may or may not contain errors and unbiblical doctrines, but ultimately it must be considered Christian because it advocates a belief in the saving grace of Jesus Christ, a core doctrine of such importance that anything beyond that belief, orthodox or heretical, is ultimately irrelevant.

What's your immediate reaction to that?

It got me thinking about how I define what is and isn't Christian. (Mandatory disclaimer: obviously God is the only one who decides who is and isn't a true Christian. But the question is important for us to consider because, among other things, it makes a difference whether evangelicals approach Mormons as fellow Christians who believe in some unorthodox doctrines, or as followers of a completely separate faith.)

Is belief in the core Gospel message—that Jesus Christ died to save us from our sin—enough to trump all other errors and mistaken ideas, or are there doctrines outside the basic Gospel message important enough that you can't be a Christian without believing them?

Many of us might point to the Apostles' Creed, Nicene Creed, or similar documents if we were asked to clarify what beliefs define Christianity. But are all of the beliefs listed in those widely-embraced creeds necessary to be a Christian? Which, if any, of those beliefs could you discard as "optional," and which are non-negotiable? Could you accept everything in those creeds, and also believe something else that negates your professed Christian faith?

How do you approach this question? How does your church approach it? Where do you ultimately draw the line between "Christian" and "not Christian"?

Completely unrelated side note: the version of the Nicene Creed that I learned growing up included the phrase "...who spake by the prophets." Nowhere else have I ever encountered "spake" as the past tense of "to speak," but the grammar geek in me always loved that.

Topics: Culture At Large, Theology & The Church, The Bible, Theology