Catch an October 29, 2013 Viewpoint on Mormonism podcast by clicking The Name of Christ’s Church
By Eric Johnson
Most Mormons believe their church (the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS)) should be considered Christian since it has Jesus’ name in its official title. In his book written in 1991, LDS author Stephen E. Robinson summed up this idea when he asserted:
“…Is not the name of our church The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints? Do we not worship Christ? …The Utah Saints shook their heads and wondered how it was possible that anyone could seriously doubt that the Latter-day Saints were Christian” (Are Mormons Christians?, pg. vii).
The Book of Mormon says that the true church must have the name of Christ in it. 3 Nephi 27:8 reads:
“And how be it my church save it be called in my name? For if a church be called in Moses’ name then it be Moses’ church; or if it be called in the name of a man then it be the church of a man; but if it be called in my name then it is my church, if it so be that they are built upon my gospel.”
If we are to use the rule found in Third Nephi 27, are we then to assume that the church the apostle Paul addresses in 1 Thessalonians 1:1 was in a state of apostasy? After all, Paul refers to it as “the church of the Thessalonians”! Consider also that Paul refers to the body of believers in Corinth as “the church of God which is at Corinth” (See 1 Corinthians 1:2).
Another point is that the LDS Church’s title has not always had Christ’s name since its foundation on April 6, 1830. The Mormon scripture Doctrine and Covenants 20:1 reports that the original name of the church was the “Church of Christ.” In 1834, the name was changed to “The Church of Latter-day Saints” (History of the Church 2:63). This took place at a priesthood conference at which Joseph Smith was present. The vote was unanimous. Note that the name of Christ was completely omitted. This was the church’s official title until April 26, 1838 when it was changed again to its current name.
According to former LDS Apostle LeGrand Richards, a millennium and a half of the “complete apostasy” of Christianity necessitated a name change. Richards said that “the designation `Latter-day Saints’ was given to differentiate between the members of the church of Jesus Christ in this dispensation and those of the church established by Jesus in the meridian of time” (A Marvelous Work and a Wonder, pg. 130).
Richard Lloyd Anderson, a professor of religion and history at Brigham Young University, attempted to explain the 1834 change. He says, “This alteration was not seen as a deemphasis of Christ; on the contrary, it was done in hopes that the name of the Church would more clearly reflect the fact that Christ was at its head” (A Sure Foundation, pg. 195). How dropping the name of Christ in order to “reflect the fact that Christ was at its head” seems confusing at best.
Dr. Anderson feels justified by the fact that, even though the official title of the church omitted the name of Christ, it was still known in the minds of many as the Church of Christ and so he argues that the church’s name had really never changed. Not all are in agreement with this conclusion as is seen by the writings of Book of Mormon witness David Whitmer:
“In June, 1829, the Lord gave us the name by which we must call the church, being the same as he gave the Nephites. We obeyed His commandment, and called it the Church of Christ until 1834, when, through the influence of Sydney Rigdon, the name of the church was changed to `The Church of the Latter Day Saints,’ dropping out the name of Christ entirely, that name which we were strictly commanded to call the church by, and which Christ by His own lips makes so plain” (Address to All Believers in Christ, pg. 73).
It would be easier for Anderson to admit that the LDS Church spent much of its first decade without having the name of Jesus in its title. Does this make it an apostate church? If the Mormon answers “no,” then the argument made today based upon 3 Nephi 27:8 is moot.
This name, Anderson adds, is “descriptive of divine restoration” indicating “Jesus is at its head.” With obvious pride, Anderson believes that “…the full title, `The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,’ is striking by comparison to the names of the scores of churches that obscure their Christianity under the label of their founders or of some characteristic belief or aspect of church organization” (A Sure Foundation, pg. 196).
Many Mormons may feel like Anderson because they misunderstand why the Christian Church has so many denominations. It is important for the Christian to point out that most denominations agree on the essential issues such as who God is and how mankind can receive eternal life. While these groups would agree on these essential issues, there is freedom in the “peripheral issues” on which Christians may “agree to disagree.” (For an example of this freedom, see 1 Corinthians 8:1ff and 10:14ff.) Besides, although there is much talk that all Mormons agree on everything, we have yet to find two Latter-day Saints who agree on every single theological doctrine. So, while many Mormons are willing to have this freedom, they criticize the Christian denominations and say that their “divisiveness” is a symbol of an apostate church. Needless to say, this is a ridiculous assumption.
Neither the title of a church nor a name a person may by called (i.e. Christian, evangelical, fundamentalist, etc.) can define true Christian belief. Rather, John 1:12 says, “But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name.” A person is a saved individual if he or she has faith in the God and Jesus Christ of the Bible.
We find it hypocritical of Mormons who condemn Christian churches for not having the name of Christ in their official title when their church has not always had that distinction.