Category: Cultural Commentary Written by Jim Denison
As we continue our series on my top 5 faith and culture stories of 2011, let's ask today: Is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints a cult? Can Christians vote for a Mormon candidate? What does the mainstreaming of Mormonism say about our culture? The answers to these questions will take more space than my typical essay--I hope the following information is helpful.
If by "cult" we mean the popular caricature of a manipulative group that practices mind control and exploits its members, the Mormon church clearly does not qualify. However, scholars use the word differently. According to Walter Martin's definitive The Rise of the Cults, a "cult" by definition claims a founder other than Jesus, follows a book other than the Bible, accepts beliefs that are outside orthodox Christianity, and seeks salvation in ways other than by grace through faith.
How do Mormon beliefs stack up against this definition?
There is no question that Mormons claim to be Christians. But what do they believe about God? Their movement was founded 1800 years after Christ by Joseph Smith (1805-44). He taught that "God was once as we are now, and is an exalted man, and sits enthroned in yonder heaven" (King Follett Discourses). According to Smith, "The Father had a body of flesh and bones as tangible as man's" (Doctrine and Covenants 130:22). His physical intercourse with Mary resulted in the conception of the physical Christ (Journal of Discourses 1:51; 4:218).
Do Mormons follow a book other than the Bible? In addition to Scripture, they consider the Book of Mormon to be "another testament of Jesus Christ" revealed by Jesus to descendants of Israel living in early America. They also follow Doctrine and Covenants and Pearl of Great Price, compendiums of theology and prescribed practices.
Do they accept beliefs outside orthodox Christianity? Smith taught plural marriage as a "new and everlasting covenant" (Doctrine and Covenants 132:1, 4), though the church repudiated polygamy in 1890. They baptize for the dead, believing that this action can speed the progress of the deceased in the afterlife.
Do they seek salvation in ways other than by grace through faith? Mormons believe that baptism purges their Gentile blood and replaces it with the blood of Abraham through the Holy Spirit. In this way they become the actual offspring of Abraham (History of the Church 3:380). They believe in three levels of glory: the telestial kingdom (for those who have no testimony of Christ); the terrestrial kingdom (for those who fail the requirements of exaltation); and the celestial kingdom (reserved for members of the Mormon church who will become "gods"; Doctrine and Covenants 132:20).
Are Mormons Christians? That depends on the degree to which they accept the non-biblical teachings of their faith regarding God and salvation. I have known Mormons who assured me that they have asked the Lord Jesus Christ to forgive their sins and become their personal Savior and Lord. Many Mormons I have met do not know the doctrines of their church I have discussed today. However, I have also met Mormons who believe that their progress toward the celestial kingdom depends not on Jesus' sacrifice but on their missionary work and other church activities.
Should the Mormon beliefs of Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman influence Christians as they decide which presidential candidate to support? Our decision should be informed by our answers to two questions. First, to what extent do Romney and Huntsman accept the non-Christian elements of their faith? Second, to what degree would decisions made by the president be impacted by uniquely Mormon beliefs?
What does the mainstreaming of Mormonism say about America? "Pluralism" is the belief that many religions lead to God. According to a recent survey, two-thirds of evangelicals under the age of 35 believe non-Christians can go to heaven, even though Jesus clearly said, "No one comes to the Father except through me" (John 14:6).
I predict that we'll see an escalation of pluralism in the new year as our culture's rejection of absolutes becomes even more pervasive. But just as all roads don't lead to Dallas, all roads don't lead to heaven. Are you on the right one? Are you praying for someone who isn't?