The internet is abuzz with the announcement that the Mormon church has once again requested that people stop calling it the Mormon church. Instead, the new style guide on the now-ironically-named Mormon Newsroom suggests that if one seeks to shorten the name of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (because let’s be real, that doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue), they should refer to it as the “Church of Jesus Christ” instead.
This directive is unlikely to be followed, largely because it is at odds with the way this term is understood in Christianity generally, and will be confusing rather than clarifying for the public.
But why? And how is the term “the Church of Jesus Christ” understood within the broader Christian landscape? Here’s a brief historical and theological reflection on the topic.
Historical Emergence of “the Church of Jesus Christ” in Mormonism
Mormonism is an outgrowth of the Restoration Movement of 19th-century America, in which a group of Christian leaders–most notably Alexander Campbell, Walter Scott, and Barton Stone–determined that the state churches of Europe had apostatized from the “primitive” New Testament church and sought to “restore” it. As part of this “restoration,” they concluded that the name of the church should simply be “the Church of Christ” or a variation of it. (It is worth noting that Sidney Rigdon, who shaped much of early Mormon teaching and was suspected as early as 1831 of writing the Book of Mormon, was a prominent leader in the Campbellite movement before his affiliation with Mormonism.)
Thus, in 1830, when the Mormon church was organized, it was called the Church of Christ. But because of the Restoration Movement, there were a lot of Churches of Christ floating around at the time. So it tried out several names before settling on The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1838. This name, the church claimed, was given by revelation (see D&C 115:4).
Since then, the Mormon church has made a big deal out of the fact that its full name is the Church of JESUS CHRIST (of Latter-day Saints). They use it to argue that they should be classified as a Christian denomination. Growing up, I was taught in Sunday School that this is how you know it’s the true church. Setting aside for a moment that the New Testament church was actually called the Way in the Book of Acts, Those Other Churches, the False Ones, with names like Lutheran or Presbyterian or Catholic, are clearly NOT the Church of Jesus Christ because they don’t even refer to Jesus in their names.
A Key Distinction
This isn’t the first time the Mormon church has attempted this rebranding. It seems to circle around every decade or two. In 2001, Dallin Oaks insisted that Mormons could use the abbreviation of “the Church of Jesus Christ” because “no other major Christian body in the United States had laid claim to it.”
Of course, there’s a reason for this. And it reveals an important distinction between the way Mormons and orthodox Christians understand the nature of the church.
Unless they have participated in interfaith conversations, my experience is that Mormons tend to believe that each denomination makes the same claim they do–to be the “one and only true church.” Indeed, for Mormons, the assumption is that the true church must be contained within denominational borders, and so the seeker’s task is to discover “which one is right.” As such, they view each denomination as a separate religion. On my mission, I remember saying things like, “There are 33,000 different Christian religions!” (This number is probably exaggerated, though several thousand denominations do exist.)
What Mormons miss is that Christians within those denominations do not understand themselves as adhering to a different “religion” from one another. Instead, they understand themselves as being adherents of the same religion: Christianity.
For Christians, denominations are different expressions of one faith. Each expression is seen as belonging to the catholic (little “c,” which means “universal”) church of Jesus Christ. In other words, any single denomination is not THE Church of Jesus Christ; rather, the Church of Jesus Christ is the global body of believers across time and space. It would be incorrect and frankly offensive for any single denomination to refer to themselves as “the Church of Jesus Christ,” which is precisely why no major Christian body uses it.
This is more than a semantic issue. It has important theological implications that are lived out in concrete ways. Take, for example, the question of baptism. Christian churches accept one another’s baptism because of the biblical notion of “one Lord, one faith, one baptism” (Eph 4:5). Regardless of our particular denominational affiliation, we share the same baptism into the life and death of Jesus Christ, and through our baptism are made children of God and sisters and brothers to one another.
This is an expansive view that acknowledges that God’s work in Jesus Christ is much bigger than the particular set of teachings and institutional structures that make up any one denomination. The Body of Christ has many parts, and each is necessary (see 1 Cor 12:12-27). The Mormons’ claim that they, and only they, comprise the church of Jesus Christ puts them at odds with the Christian understanding of what this means, and is one reason Mormons are viewed with suspicion by the rest of the church.
So You’re Saying Divisions Are Okay?
A critique of this perspective might be to argue that this means divisions within the church are acceptable. But simply because Christians understand themselves to be part of the global body of Christ does not mean that the divisions within Christianity are no big deal. They are real and scandalous and reflect human sin. I believe the church is called to repent of these divisions, and I pray daily for the unity of the church.
Many denominations are intentionally engaged in ecumenical dialogue to better understand our differences and find agreement. Several large denominations (including mine) work to create full communion partnerships with others. This means that, although the denominational bodies do not officially merge and theological differences remain, they mutually agree that there is nothing church-dividing in these differences and can even exchange clergy. This is a model of Christian unity that honors the Holy Spirit’s activity in different cultures, languages, and expressions that have given rise to these differences, while working through them with love. In a world that is becoming increasingly post-Christian, it is clearer than ever before how foolish and prideful our divisions are. I have hope that the church will continue to be led by God to live into our baptismal unity in ways that are creative and healing.
But acknowledging the scandal of the church’s divisions does not negate the reality that the church of Jesus Christ, with all its flawed human members, is bigger and more expansive than the borders of any one human institution. The Mormons’ push to claim this term for themselves will ultimately prove unsuccessful because it fails to account for the mysterious and gracious promise of unity in God’s love that anchors the church of Jesus Christ in all its expressions throughout the world.