I’m sure by now, you must have heard of the controversy.
You remember. Robert Jeffress, the pastor of a mega church in Dallas and a supporter of Republican Presidential candidate Rick Perry, called Mormonism a cult.
(Yes, I know this was a few weeks ago, but I’ve been busy, ok?)
If this is news to you, I hope you get a solid Internet connection underneath the rock you are living under.
In a nutshell, here is what happened: Pastor Jeffress introduced Rick Perry at the Values Voters Summit earlier this month. During his introduction, Jeffress explained that evangelicals ought to support a candidate who is a true Christian and conservative (meaning Perry). Although never explicitly, Jeffress by contrast implicitly said evangelicals ought not vote for a candidate who in not a true Christian or conservative (meaning the rest of the GOP candidates, including Mitt Romney a Mormon). Personally, I found this pretty uneventful. In fact, this kind of introduction seems rather ‘par for the course’ during these election endorsements.
The real controversy came in an interview after the summit with Jeffress. The pastor was asked some particular questions that prompted Jeffress to explain his belief that Mormons are not Christians and that they are in fact part of a cult.
The interviewers (and media in general) got what they were looking for: “Extra, extra, read all about it: Rick Perry’s pastor calls Mormonism a cult!”
From this point on, all nonsense ensued.
This controversy raised an interesting set of questions: Should Christians vote for Mormons? Should religion have anything to do with how a person votes? Is voting based on religions grounds unconstitutional? Don’t get me wrong, these are questions that deserve an answer and many people have assumed that task. But I have a different set of questions I want to make sense of: Is Mormonism a cult? Should Christians use the word cult? Are Mormons Christians?
All the nonsense ensued because people were not defining their terms. When the definition of a word slides from one meaning to another, in mid discussion and without distinction, this is known as the logical fallacy of equivocation. Equivocation frequently occurs when discussing whether or not Mormonism is a cult. Usually what happens is one person means something by cult, while the other person means something else, yet they are use the same word without defining it. “What do you mean by cult” is the central question that needs to be answered before any sense can be made of Mormonism and its relation to the cults.
Is Mormonism a cult?
What is the definition of a cult? Quite frankly, it depends who you ask. If you were to ask someone like Pastor Jeffress, who has been formally educated in theology, then they will mean a theological cult. Properly understood, a Christian cult is a religious group, who claims to be Christian, yet denies one or more of the essential doctrines of orthodox Christianity. For example, from the very conception of Christianity, the view that Jesus is God has been an essential doctrine of the faith. The Jehovah’s Witnesses deny that Jesus is God; therefore, they are considered a theological cult.
But if you ask the average person walking down the street the definition of a cult, I would bet you get something like this: A cult is a group of people who follow a leader that exercises control over mindless and brainwashed followers. They are indoctrinated with extremist views and often kill themselves. Something like David Koresh or Jim Jones and their followers. Typically this is described as a sociological cult.
So, when Jeffress says the word cult, he means the former definition and when the CNN anchor says cult, she means the latter. Same word, different meanings, bona fide equivocation.
Does the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints fit either of these definitions? I think so. For example, an essential doctrine of orthodox Christianity is that there is one God, who subsists in three persons. This is called the Trinity. Mormons deny the Trinity and are henotheists. Henotheists are a group of people who believe in a plurality of gods; yet only choose to worship the ones that pertain to them. Therefore, Mormons believe that the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are three separate and individual Gods for this world. They also believe there are numerous other Gods for other worlds which they do not worship, yet believe actually exist. This is an explicit rejection of an essential Christian doctrine and therefore uncontroversially falls within the definition of a theological cult.
Normally, when people use the word cult, all sorts of negative connotations come to the mind of the rank and file. This is because the sociological definition of a cult is what they are most familiar with. Since it’s obvious that Mormons are not part of sociological cult, the person using the term is often seen as an unreasonable bigot.
Should Christians use the word cult?
This is where Christians ought to be prudent in their language. Christians are, in fact, all ambassadors for Christ. We have a requirement to contend for and defend the faith, all the while with gentleness and respect. Therefore we need to know our audience when speaking. If we are speaking to an audience and we use the word cult, Christians ought to know how there audience will understand the term. If our audience doesn’t understand the distinction between a theological and a sociological cult, why add to the confusion?
Why not instead of saying the word “Christian cult”, just substitute it for “a religious group, who claims to be Christian, yet denies one or more of the essential doctrines of orthodox Christianity” then explain how they deny one of the essential doctrines. This seems to be a better approach. The goal is accomplished since the audience will understand the message properly and eliminate accusations of bigotry. The Christian is still making the distinction intended by what they mean by cult, without all the unnecessary negative connotations.
Are Mormons Christians?
To answer the question I’m going to present some essential beliefs to both the classical Christian worldview and the Mormon worldview:
- Orthodox Christianity professes there is only one God (monotheism).
- Mormons hold there is a plurality of Gods (polytheism or henotheism strictly defined, see above).
- Christianity believes that God has always, for all eternity, been ontologically Divine.
- Mormons claim that Father God was once a man on a different planet and progressed to Godhood.
- Christianity holds that God created the universe ‘ex nihilo’ (out of nothing) and that the universe is finite.
- Mormons believe that God only reorganized the existing matter and the essential parts of the universe have always existed.
- Christianity rejects the Book of Mormon as revelation from God.
- Latter-day Saints believe it is directly from God.
- Mormons believe that Christianity apostatized shortly after the time of the apostles and lost plain and precious parts of the Gospel.
- Christians believe they have not lost the true Gospel.
It seems obvious that the difference between monotheism and henotheism is much greater than that of a denominational difference such as infant verses believer’s baptism. Given the significant differences above (keep in mind this is not a comprehensive list), do these look like the same thing? Does Mormonism seriously seem like just another denomination? For arguments sake, it’s possible that Mormons could be right, however, that would make Christianity false. I don’t think anyone could say that Mormonism is Christianity and vice versa.
Therefore, we can see that if properly defined, Mormonism is a theological cult but not a sociological cult. Even though is Mormonism is a theological cult, Christians ought to be shrewd when using the term, in order to be an effective ambassador for Christ. And finally, Mormons are not the same thing as Christians; they simply hold a conflicting worldview.
All the nonsense could have been avoided. If only we could stop, think, define our terms, ask the right questions and articulate our views properly a lot of heartache could have been avoided.
But then again, that doesn’t sell newspapers.