Is Mormonism a Cult or a Christian Denomination?

Tuesday, October 11th, 2011

This past week there was a huge political flap about a Baptist minister named Robert Jeffries over his claim that Mormonism is a cult and that Mitt Romney should not be considered a Christian.  The remark set off a firestorm because this was the ground for encouraging people to not vote for Mitt Romney. All of the major GOP rivals for the nomination immediately released statements that they regarded Romney, and fellow Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints members, as Christians and that religion should not be an issue in the GOP nomination.

My own view is that whether a candidate is a Christian or not is only one of a myriad of considerations which one must weigh in an overall decision to vote for or against a candidate.  I would never say that someone being a Christian carries no political weight for me at all. However, I would also not say that someone being a Christian or not carries the entire weight in my decision.

The more interesting part of the discussion has to do with whether the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints should be considered a cult or just another denomination or branch of Christianity such as Methodism, Lutheranism or, for that matter, Eastern Orthodoxy. What makes all the diversity of denominations or branches of global Christianity share a “family resemblance” despite our differences is that we are all built on a common confession rooted in the Council of Nicea and, in particular, the Nicene Creed.  The Nicene affirmation is the ground of unity upon which the entire global church is built.  This is why it is known as an historic, ecumenical creed.  It is, of course, true that there are dozens of churches (especially those who identify with fundamentalism) which boldly proclaim that “we have no creed but the Bible” and would not recite the Nicene creed in their services.  However, if you look carefully at their church covenants or statements of faith, they fully resonate with Nicea.  Furthermore, as Protestants, they trace their heritage back to movements which fully resonate with Nicea.

This is why Arianism back in the fourth century was declared a heresy or a “cult” at the Council of Nicea in 325 even though they ardently claimed to be Christians.  They, like modern day Jehovah Witnesses and Mormons, do not fall within the “family” of Christianity primarily because they rejected orthodox Christology.  The Arian claim that “there was a time when he was not” is, of course, the same stumbling block which is fallen over by both Jehovah Witnesses’ and Mormons.  The former (JW) is a closer version of Arianism (though JW deny the personality of the Holy Spirit which Arius accepted), whereas the latter (Mormons) is a more complex, nuanced view due to the insertion of the Book of Mormon (rather than merely the New World Translation of the Jehovah’s Witnesses).  Suffice it to say here, Mormons do not believe in the eternal pre-existence of the eternal second person of the Trinity.  Mormons believe that He existed eternally only in the way that generic “matter” is viewed as eternal.  Any movement that does not affirm the eternal pre-existence of the second person of the Trinity is sub-Christian, regardless how fervently they declare that Jesus is God and that He is the sole savior of the world.  At root, Mormonism is about a man becoming God; Christianity is about God becoming a man.  Thus, Mormonism has, quite rightly, not been considered a Christian movement.

Comments

  • Fr Symeon says:

    “At root, Mormonism is about a man becoming God; Christianity is about God becoming a man. Thus, Mormonism has, quite rightly, not been considered a Christian movement.” Certainly true, and even more, historic Christianity proclaims that “God become man that man might become god,” as expressed by St. Athanasius, who defended the Faith at the Nicene Council. Mormonism teaches the heresy that we can become gods in nature. Only the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is God by nature since the Persons share One uncreated essence. In truth, we creatures become “gods” by participation in the grace of God, transfigured by the radiant glory of the Holy Trinity. As it has been expressed, “We are called to be by grace what Christ is by nature.” The denial of the eternal pre-existence of the Son and the assertion that man can be a god in essence/nature are both great heresies that distort our understanding of salvation.

  • According to my Mormon friends, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints does, in fact, believe in the eternal pre-existence of Jesus Christ. I note that you don’t actually reference any part of the Book or Mormon or other sources to support your contention that the Mormons don’t believe in the “eternal pre-existence of the eternal second person of the Trinity.” With such a highly-charged issue as this, and with your background as a respected scholar and teacher, shouldn’t you supply more than just your blind statement?

  • […] Is Mormonism a Cult or a Christian Denomination? Timoty Tennent, Asbury Theological Seminary At root, Mormonism is about a man becoming God; Christianity is about God becoming a man. Thus, Mormonism has, quite rightly, not been considered a Christian movement. […]

  • […] Asbury seminary president Timothy Tennent: Is Mormonism a Cult or a Christian Denomination […]

  • Bill Adams says:

    I am no scholar, but simply, Jesus asked Peter “who do you say I am? Peter answered “the Christ of God.” There is the rock on whom He built His Church.
    Nothing Christian about a man becoming God. That is pretty simple too!

  • Great final summary: “At root, Mormonism is about a man becoming God; Christianity is about God becoming a man.”

  • JAy. says:

    “Is Mormonism a Cult or a Christian Denomination?”

    Is there a third option? I would not consider Mormonism to be Christian, as you have succinctly stated in your post. However, I think that classifying Mormonism as a cult may be under-estimating its legitimacy as a religion as well.

    After all, would we consider Buddhism, Taoism, or Janism to be a cult?

  • Bor says:

    • Here are the characteristics of a cult:
    • Small? The Church of Jesus Christ (LDS) has 14 million members in 132 countries. In America, there are more Mormons than there are Presbyterians or Jews.
    • Excessive devotion? Mormons are devoted to the Savior, but in appropriate measure He would approve of.
    • Unethical techniques? Ask the pie-throwers to name one.
    • Control by isolation? Even if Mormons wanted to, this would be impossible with 14 million members in 28,000 congregations throughout the world.
    • Control by threats? Again, evidence? Mormon missionaries may be exuberant, but do not threaten.
    • Dependency on the group? The Mormon Church is just the opposite. Mormons want members to be self-reliant and independent so they in turn can help others.
    • Powerful group pressure? Only if that’s the way the critics prefer to define love.
    • Strange? Guilty as charged. Mormons plead guilty to all the strange things that were done by Christians in New Testament times that were lost during the great falling away in the aptly named Dark Ages, among them temple worship, vicarious baptism for the dead, definition of God, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit as separate but united in purpose, salvation requiring both grace and obedience to commandments, prophets and apostles, unpaid clergy, and continual revelation to guide His Church.

    • mth says:

      I see several comments in here about “I know some mormoms, and they tell me…” Here’s the scary truth of LDS. Many of the members don’t really know what goes on and what is truly believed by the core LDS church. The rituals and secracy and excommunication of members for not paying tithe is absolutely NOT christianity. I know there is no such thing as perfect christians or perfect christian faith, but LDS, at its core, is definitively non-christian. One writer brought up the book of mormon as valid text to reference. Sorry, but a book written according to the ramblings of a 15 year-old boy literally, and I do mean literally, pulling it out of hat is a bit ridiculous. Having said that, yes, I have read it, have you? Claiming even the native americans are really Jews and the bazarre genioloby it uses that has absolutely zero connection with reality. And we’re supposed to blindly believe that it is really the additional word of god as spoken through this boy. It contradicts half of the bible and ignores the other half.

    • Thanks for this article Tim. There are countless ways to define a cult. The Baptist speaker from Dallas tried to draw a distinction between what he called a “cult” and a “theological cult.” The reason he is wanting to make this nuanced distinction is that the term is so loaded and so filled with preconceptions among so many people in the modern milieu: Jim Jones and the Branch Davidians and the Japanese Subway bombers, etc. Clearly, over 150 years of the Mormon presence in the American story leads to ample empirical data to confirm that these people are not a threat to be violent to anyone. As to the theological side of the issue, it always amazes me that many of us feel obligated to affirm through negation. God is the judge and we will all stand before Him on the final day. As all of our reactions should be missiological and relational before anything else my question is how such assertions actually build relational and missiological bridges with people who use such labels to describe themselves. Perhaps this seems to some to represent an artful dodge: in actual fact, our first and primary concern should be not to create stumbling blocks in our relational and missiological encounters with those who have yet to know Christ. Christian van Gorder

    • papabryant says:

      @ Bor, many of your points are interesting and valid, but in the last section you make some claims that don’t hold up.

      Temple worship ended with the destuction of Jerusalem. Pagan temples were later confiscated, but the usage changed drastically in the process.

      Baptism of the dead was not a part of orthodox Christianity. There were groups that did it, but they were either labled apostates or brought back in line by the Church.

      Both the salvation and continuing relelation quotes are problematic in terms of Mormonism’s claims to follow ancient Church doctrine. See James Holding’s book the Mormon Defenders for a more detailed analysis of how Mormons have misinterpreted key scriptures leading to those doctrinal differences than I could give in so short a space. Suffice to say I think you are – probably unintentionally – begging the question here.

      I have LDS relatives, and I know that, in terms of being good citizens and neighbors there is nothing wrong with Mormons. Romney would probably be a nice guy to have a beer with…. if Mormons went out to do such things. My problem is with his policies and the way the Republican establishment is trying to ram him down the throat of the voters. We won’t go further there.

      I would prefer to voter for an more orthodox Christian; but in the absence of such a candidate I would voter for a qualified Mormon. Mormonism is a cult, in the sense of diverting from the True Faith, but I have talked to Holding, who told me there is some movement in LDS theological circles questioning some of the core doctrines separating Mormons and Christians. The LDS may be shifting in the right direction.

  • Kyle Potter says:

    I appreciate your point, Dr. Tennent, and I agree. However, I don’t know why you find it interesting to use that word “cult.” The LDS religion was specifically founded to be outside the tenants of orthodox, historic Christianity. Mormons know that, and orthodox Christians know that. (Actually, I guess not, that’s the point.) The term “cult” as used by sociologists doesn’t apply, and as used by theologians, most religions have a cult. I participate in several cults, as a matter of fact. One for each of my favorite saints, and don’t forget Jesus.

    But seriously, when I read history and liturgical studies, “cult” means “ritual devotion.” I’m aware that in the 1970s, that word was really important so people could have scares about shaved heads and reprogramming, but today, it doesn’t seem to carry the water people would like it to carry.

  • Bob Evely says:

    Keep in mind that even when the apostles were still living (i.e. Paul in his final writings, and Peter in his final writings) the church was in apostasy. Paul wrote that all had turned away from him. And when he returned to Jerusalem the final time he was opposed not by unbelievers, but by believers who were zealous for the law. Organized religion today … whether it be LDS or mainstream “orthodox” Christianity … has lost its way. It is up to individuals within the Body of Christ to seek for themselves and to examine God’s revelation to mankind (the Bible in its original form, with a skeptical attitude toward mainstream Bible translators) for him/herself; with a heart to serve as Christ’s ambassadors in the world. Do not expect to find spiritual truth in any organized church, denomination, seminary, author, teacher, preacher, etc. If all had turned against the apostles even when they were still living, at what point do we think the organized church finally got it right and began proclaiming the truth?

    • Dear Lord,
      Thank you for giving us the world we live in today. Thank you for your love for all mankind. I want to to pray for Timorhy Tennent for your grace and strength for his courage to be your man in a society that believes we should choose to follow anything our warmed minds and hearts lean towards. He will be getting attachs but may he hold on to his faith and the truth of your revelation. Please God give him peace and may he not waiver even if the whole of his indulgent society go beserk. Soverign Lord, honour yourself in the work of this man of God. Amen

  • A blog entry is not the best forum for a full academic study. However, for those who wish to delve deeper into primary sources by Mormons themselves, see:
    1. Joseph F. Smith, Doctrines of Salvation: The Sermons and Writings of Joseph Fielding Smith
    2. Bruce McConkie, Mormon Doctrine;
    3. Bruce McConkie, Promised Messiah;
    4. James Talmage, Jesus Christ: A study of the Messiah
    5. Latter Day Saints Doctrines and Covenants.
    If you would like to read more detailed responses from a Christian perspective, see authors such as Richard Abanes, David Reed and Andrew Jackson.

  • I appreciate your article, Tim. It’s funny how in the public debate, it is framed as an issue of prejudice or open-mindedness, not one of beliefs. What should be a public discussion about beliefs–vital both to Mormons and orthodox Christians–has become in the media instead a discussion that sounds like an only thinly veiled accusation of bigotry. People who care nothing for our Christ and his church are suddenly bullying Christians to change their criteria for identifying the faith. We should not let media pundits make that decision. Thanks again for your courage, clarity and compassion.

  • Anil Mathai says:

    Dr. Tennett, your conclusion is correct, Mormonism has rejected Orthodox Christianity and therefore can not be considered Christianity. Thanks for your bold stance to scripture! Anil

  • Kari says:

    Please dont post your rediculous link on my blog wall. You are saying that my I am not a true christian? I believe in Christ, my whole life and family is centered around Christ’s teachings, I love, I forgive, I hope just like everyone else does and you have the nerve to call us non christian. Are you God to make that judgement call? Seriously.. Its 2011!!! We are over the “picking on the religion” thing. Its time to grow up and just realize that we live in a free society were we have the freedom of choice including religion …. What you say is “bull”… Mormons are christians (they are more christian than most) … So you have to believe in the trinity to be a “true christian” huh? There are thousands and thousands of references in the old and new testament showing more than 1 being, God, Jesus Christ and the holy ghost. Maybe instead of writing what you don’t know. Maybe it’s time to step in a Mormon church and actually find out what we believe before being GOD yourself and stating things you know nothing about. This is my challenge to you. I want you to spend the next year going to a Mormon church (the one that is in your area, look it up on maps.lds.org) and truly finding out what it is about. Pray, read the Book of Mormon with real intent, ask if it is right. If after a year you still have your doubts on if the Mormon church is christian then go ahead and write your new post. But I think you will find you heart and your whole opinion will change. Good luck to you!

    • Kyle says:

      Hi Kari, it is a little frustrating and a little funny at the same time how often you and other Mormons read blogs like this one and write a long post completely off the mark of what the blog actually said. Dr. Tennent said nothing about government control. The post is about what to call Mormons from a truly Christian perspective (which would be false Christians, or antichrists to use the Apostle John’s language — “they went out from us because they were not of us”). I am sorry to engage with you in a little light ad-homonym, but I challenge you to spend one hour reading a blog before you post on it.

  • Dr. Tennant:

    It is a matter of record that the UMC does not recognize Mormon baptism as a Christian baptism.

    I think that requires some rethinking regarding Mormonism as a cult rather than a Christian denomination.

    Pax,

    Sky McCracken+

    • Kari says:

      sky,
      So you are saying that Mormons are considered a cult because “you” don’t recognize the Mormon baptism as a “matter of record at UMC”. Sound Absurd? Yep It sure does. So I guess all religion should be classified as a “cult” then right? If you look at the reverse and apply your own philosophy then ALL religious denominations should be considered a cult rather than a christian denomination because the Mormon church does not recognize any other baptism but its own (yes you have to get rebaptized in the Mormon religion from EVERY religion). Just want to clarify? Does that sound even more absurd to you? It’s time to get past all this 3rd century ideas that have no basis in today world. The word “cult” is so harsh. The Mormon church would NEVER use that word to describe any of the churches. In fact you will NEVER hear the church downing other religions EVER.

      We are living in hard, sinful times. The dividing line is getting ever more black and white. It’s time for all religious people to band together to fight this evil in this world. Not fight as in what all this negative energy is doing but fight the good fight through the power of prayer as a whole religious community (all religion) to heal this world. Yes we are all different, we believe different, but we all believe in the power of god and the atoning sacrifice of our lord Jesus Christ. What a powerful motivator to band together instead of “talking” about other religions like they are terrible. We all believe baptism in a different way and each religion is different in many ways. Each sect of the catholic church is slightly different, each sect of the baptist church is slightly different, and so on… No wonder why people are all confused in this world. No one has a anything straight when it comes to what truly is Gods plan. I guess no one will really know until death or the second coming. That’s one thing we all have in common!! We will ALL die and we will ALL finally find out the truth or we WILL see the lord come again and then EVERY KNEE SHALL BOW!! and we WILL find out the truth.

      One last quote:
      At some moment in the world to come, EVERYONE you will ever meet WILL know what you know now…They will KNOW that you knew. And they will remember whether YOU offered them what someone OFFERED you.” ~~~

      Just remember this quote and know that I offered 🙂

  • […] Some of the responses to items in the news are revelvant to the conversation on this thread: Is Mormonism a Cult or a Christian Denomination?. The key points for our discussion are the assertions: What makes all the diversity of […]

  • Let me clarify a point about my blog entry. The title of the blog (Is Mormonism a cult or a Christian denomination) was taken from the comments made by the pastor in the news that week. I do not feel it is essential to call Mormonism a cult. What is essential is to say that Mormonism is not a Christian movement. This is a historical point, not a personal one. It has nothing to do with how much we love and respect Mormons and their stellar contributions to our society, including, quite possibly, giving us the next President of the United States. The point, rather, is that historically the church affirmed that Chalcedonian Christology reflected the orthodox position. The entire Nicene Creed was written to collectively “close the door” to Arianism as a legitimate Christian option (even though the Arians were, for the most part, wonderful people). Since Mormonism (as well as Jehovah Witnesses) flows from the Arian stream rather than the Chalcedonian stream, then it must not be considered a Christian movement. Whether someone calls the LDS a cult or another religious movement does not really matter to me. I think I actually prefer the latter. However, it is important that people recognize that every branch of Christendom (Roman Catholic, Protestant and Eastern Orthodox) has, by affirming the Nicene Creed, rejected Arian Christologies as legitimate expressions of Christian orthodoxy.

  • […] Asbury Seminary President:  Timothy Tennent – Mormonism is not a Christian movement. […]

  • Chris says:

    Thanks for this post, Dr. Tennent. However, in addition to Mitt Romney’s Mormonism, I also wonder about the “Christianity” that many other politicians in the United States (both on the Right and on the Left) espouse. That is, we have plenty of politicians who claim to be orthodox, Bible believing Christians, on the one hand, but who promote policies that do not line up with the teachings of Jesus on the other. To me, this should also be among the considerations that we must weigh in an overall decision to vote for or against a candidate.

    I wonder if you could provide some insight here. Thanks.

  • Hi Tim – Thanks for this post. Concerning the “more interesting part of the discussion”, there are a number of similarities between Mormonism and cults that fit within the ancient and more modern sociological definitions of the word cult. As you mention above, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, does not recognize the Nicene creed. Rather, adherents rely upon the very personal and revelatory experience of Joseph Smith in the woods near his home where he learned of his (and by extension us) relationship to the Father and the Son, Jesus Christ.

  • […] do not recognize Mormon baptism as Christian baptism. Instead of me explaining why we believe this, I’ll let the president of Asbury Theological Seminary explain it. He’s much more informed and articulate than I am. Be sure to read the comments, too. Very […]

  • Charlotte says:

    What if God gets to decide who is a Christian?

  • […] not recognize Mormon baptism as Christian baptism. Instead of me explaining why we believe this, I’ll let the president of Asbury Theological Seminary explain it. He’s much more informed and articulate than I am. Be sure to read the comments, too. Very […]