A Catholic friend wrote this question:
If Mormons believe that Jesus is just the son of God and not God, then wouldn't that make you non-Christians since being a Christian is believing that Jesus is God?
This week the Catholic church selected a new Pope. This has generated a lot of public interest on the subject of religion and Catholicism. Ironically, yesterday I heard on the radio a debate about whether Catholics could be considered Christians. A Baptist gentleman was claiming that Catholics are not Christians because they offer prayers to the Virgin Mary and other Saints, and because they believe in 'hard grace' (his phrase). That is, they believe you have to actually keep the commandments and not simply confess belief in Christ. In his view this meant they could not be considered Christians.
This kind of bantering back and forth about who is or who is not really a Christian is truly unfortunate in my opinion. The word has lost its objective meaning. I will get to the question of whether or not Mormons believe Jesus is God momentarily, but first I should like to address the question "What is a Christian?". For if we cannot all agree on the meaning of the term, we will get nowhere.
What is a Christian?
In the most general sense, a Christian is one who professes to believe in and follow Jesus Christ. That's it. That is how the term is used in Acts 11:26 - the only time the term appears in the Bible. Some will say - 'No, you must agree with the Baptist notion of being saved by grace alone to truly be a Christian', and others will say 'You have to believe in the Catholic idea of the Holy Trinity to be a Christian'. Well, that gets us into differences of denominations and we're just not all going to agree.
The term Christian ought to be an unbrella term for all those who profess to believe and follow Christ. From there we should speak in more descriptive terms. I agree with C.S. Lewis when he addressed the same question in his classic book "Mere Christianity". I enjoyed it so much I decided to include the entire thought. I planned to trim it up - but there's just no doing that to Lewis.
Far deeper objections may be felt - and have been expressed -against my use of the word Christian to mean one who accepts the common doctrines of Christianity. People ask: 'Who are you, to lay down who is, and who is not a Christian?' : or 'May not many a man who cannot believe these doctrines be far more truly a Christian, far closer to the spirit of Christ, than some who do?' Now this objection is in one sense very right, very charitable, very spiritual, very sensitive. It has every available quality except that of being useful. We simply cannot, without disaster, use language as these objectors want us to use it. I will try to make this clear by the history of another, and very much less important, word.
The word gentleman originally meant something recognisable; one who had a coat of arms and some landed property. When you called someone 'a gentleman' you were not paying him a compliment, but merely stating a fact. If you said he was not 'a gentleman' you were not insulting him, but giving information. There was no contradiction in saying that John was a liar and a gentleman; any more than there now is in saying that James is a fool and an M.A. But then there came people who said - so rightly, charitably, spiritually, sensitively, so anything but usefully - 'Ah, but surely the important thing about a gentleman is not the coat of arms and the land, but the behaviour? Surely he is the true gentleman who behaves as a gentleman should? Surely in that sense Edward is far more truly a gentleman than John?' They meant well. To be honourable and courteous and brave is of course a far better thing than to have a coat of arms. But it is not the same thing. Worse still, it is not a thing everyone will agree about. To call a man 'a gentleman' in this new, refined sense, becomes, in fact, not a way of giving information about him, but a way of praising him: to deny that he is 'a gentleman' becomes simply a way of insulting him. When a word ceases to be a term of description and becomes merely a term of praise, it no longer tells you facts about the object: it only tells you about the speaker's attitude to that object. (A 'nice' meal only means a meal the speaker likes.) A gentleman - once it has been spiritualised and refined out of its old coarse, objective sense, means hardly more than a man whom the speaker likes. As a result, gentleman is now a useless word. We had lots of terms of approval already, so it was not needed for that use; on the other hand if anyone (say, in a historical work) wants to use it in its old sense, he cannot do so without explanations. It has been spoiled for that purpose.
Now if once we allow people to start spiritualising and refining, or as they might say 'deepening', the sense of the word Christian, it too will speedily become a useless word. In the first place, Christians themselves will never be able to apply it to anyone. It is not for us to say who, in the deepest sense, is or is not close to the spirit of Christ. We do not see into men's hearts. We cannot judge, and are indeed forbidden to judge. It would be wicked arrogance for us to say that any man is, or is not, a Christian in this refined sense. And obviously a word which we can never apply is not going to be a very useful word. As for the unbelievers, they will no doubt cheerfully use the word in the refined sense. It will become in their mouths simply a term of praise. In calling anyone a Christian they will mean that they think him a good man. But that way of using the word will be no enrichment of the language, for we already have the word good. Meanwhile, the word Christian will have been spoiled for any really useful purpose it might have served.
We must therefore stick to the original, obvious meaning. The name Christians was first given at Antioch (Acts 11:26) to 'the disciples', to those who accepted the teaching of the apostles. There is no question of its being restricted to those who profited by that teaching as much as they should have. There is no question of its being extended to those who in some refined, spiritual, inward fashion were 'far closer to the spirit of Christ' than the less satisfactory of the disciples. The point is not a theological or moral one. It is only a question of using words so that we can all understand what is being said. When a man who accepts the Christian doctrine lives unworthily of it, it is much clearer to say he is a bad Christian than to say he is not a Christian.
from the preface to Mere Christianity - by C.S. Lewis
Do Mormons believe Jesus is God?
We believe there are more Gods than one. The bible teaches us about at least three, God our Heavenly Father, his divine Son Jesus Christ, and the Holy Ghost. These three constitute the Godhead. See my writings about the Trinity for more information about this. Jesus is not his Father. He was sent to the earth by his Father to do the will of his Father (John 10:17-18). We believe as the bible teaches, that Jesus was born of the virgin Mary, that his Father is God in heaven. Jesus is the only begotten physical Son of God. From his mother, Mary he inherited mortality, and from his Father, God, he inherited the power over death (among other traits).
Jesus to us is not simply a literary figure, nor was he simply a great teacher and leader. We believe that Jesus, under the direction of his father, created the Earth and all the known planets and stars in the heavens (Heb 1:2, John 1:3-10, Heb 11:3, Doctrine & Covenants 76:24). We believe he was the God of the Old Testament, refered to as Jehovah. He was the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. He is the bread of life (John 6:47-51), and the living water. He was chosen and annointed from the very beginning, before the world was created. He condescended to come into the world, to be born and raised in the most humble circumstances to fulfill his sacred mission. He had all power over the elements, and even power over death itself. He performed miracles, and lived a perfect sinless life. We believe he suffered for our sins, died on the cross for all mankind, and was raised the third day as a resurrected and perfect being. We believe he rules at his Father's side today, and will for all eternity (Heb 1:3). He will be our judge at the last day (John 5:22-23). He is our Savior, and no man will ever become saved in the Kingdom of God unless he accepts and has faith in Jesus Christ.
Wherefore ye must press forward with a steadfastness in Christ, having a perfect brightness of hope, and a love of God and of all men. Wherefore, if ye shall press forward, feasting upon the word of Christ, and endure to the end, behold, thus saith the Father: Ye shall have eternal life.
Book of Mormon, 2 Nephi 31:20
This is the doctrine we profess. In addition to this doctrine, the actual name of the 'Mormon' church is The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (to distinguish it from 'former-day' - or the saints during New Testament times). We are baptized in the name of Christ, we speak in church and offer prayers to God in the name of Christ. Each week we attend Sacrament meeting, where we partake of the sacrament - the bread to remember his body, and the water to remember his blood shed for us. We bless our children, heal the sick, and perform all priesthood ordinances in the name of Christ. We study the Bible, as well as other scriptures that teach and testify of Christ.
And we talk of Christ, we rejoice in Christ, we preach of Christ, we prophecy of Christ, and we write according to our prophecies, that our children may know to what source they may look for a remission of their sins.
Book of Mormon, 2 Nephi 25:26
In short, the entire mission of the Church is to bring souls to Jesus Christ. That is what we are all about. There is no other reason for the church's existence. That is the purpose of the Book of Mormon, and it was the purpose of the prophet Joseph Smith, and all the prophets and apostles who have lived since he founded the church.
Other Resources on this Subject
Are Mormons Christians? (2007) Article posted to the Newsweek / Washington Post religion blog "On Faith". Dec 10, 2007.
The Only True God and Jesus Christ Whom He Hath Sent (2007) Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, LDS General Conference, Oct 2007.