Last month, Russell Nelson, president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, announced that God had impressed upon him the urgency of casting off the nickname “Mormon.”
Non-Latter-day Saints in the 19th century used the “Mormon” moniker disparagingly to identify members of the organization founded by Joseph Smith, whose followers came to embrace the name as a badge of honor. Even so, Nelson argued that “Mormon” does not do justice to the name that God, in 1838, gave Smith for his fledging religion.
“The Lord has impressed upon my mind the importance of the name He has revealed for His Church, even The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,” Nelson said in a statement. “We have work before us to bring ourselves in harmony with His will.”
Other acceptable names, according to Nelson, include “the Church,” “Church of Jesus Christ,” and “restored Church of Jesus Christ.”
Response to Nelson’s revelation was swift and varied. Church members largely rallied behind their living Prophet, Seer, and Revelator, although some Latter-day Saints scholars and bloggers acknowledged the uphill battle the church faces in changing the habits of members and non-members alike.
News outlets weighed in on the decision, including the Salt Lake Tribune, the Washington Post, and the New York Times. Views on social media ranged from head-scratching confusion to open ridicule.
But why insist on such a long name? Nelson is clear: That’s the name God gave Joseph Smith for the restored church. Other church members noted that this move has been tried before, with little momentum to propel it. But perhaps now the push will succeed.
One Latter-day Saint argued that Nelson’s announcement is strategic, seeking to better align the church with orthodox Christianity by including Jesus Christ in its name. There is, he noted, widespread sentiment against “the Church.” Many critics describe it as a cult – a counterfeit form of Christianity. So, restoring Jesus Christ to the church’s official name could blunt some critics’ attacks.
While Nelson’s call for a name change has created a stir, we should not fail to grasp a crucial point: The church’s new president (installed in January) is pursuing a refreshing clarity that evangelical Christians should applaud.
Nelson’s church was established on the premise that all of Christianity fell into complete apostasy after the death of the apostles, and God chose Joseph Smith to restore the true church. Nelson is simply trying to rally the faithful around his church’s distinctive claim.
We should thank him for this.
For decades, the church formerly known as Mormon has successfully engaged in a public relations campaign to align itself with orthodox Christianity – at least in the public eye. It offered free copies of the King James Version of the Bible, promoted Christian values, and freely used familiar Bible terms like “salvation,” “resurrection,” and “eternal life.”
Perhaps that’s one reason evangelical and mainline Protestant denominations have proven to be such fertile ground for conversions to the church Joseph Smith founded.
Put simply, far too many people are convinced the “Restored Church of Jesus Christ” is just another Christian denomination – perhaps a bit more curious than Episcopalians and Pentecostals, but well within the theological strike zone.
But now comes an opening for evangelicals, thanks to Nelson and his alleged revelation. Specifically, we should embrace two actions.
First, elevate the teaching of sound doctrine in the church. Knowing what we believe and why we believe it is foundational to the Christian faith. For example, when we know who the real Jesus is, it’s easier to identify counterfeit Christs like those professed by Latter-day Saints and Jehovah’s Witnesses.
And when we grasp biblically sound definitions of terms like “salvation,” “resurrection,” and “eternal life,” we are better prepared to counter those who proclaim “another Jesus … a different Spirit … a different gospel” (2 Cor. 11:4).
Second, challenge the exclusive Latter-day Saints’ claim to be the one true church. As its 15th president, Gordon B. Hinckley, once wrote, “If the First Vision [in which the Father and Son told Joseph Smith all of Christianity is apostate] did not occur, then we are involved in a great sham. It is just that simple.”
There are many good reasons to doubt the validity of this vision. First, there are numerous conflicting accounts given by Smith himself, until he settled on the official story published in the Pearl of Great Price.
Second, there is no evidence that the true church has ever fallen into complete apostasy. Apostasy is something that individuals, not the entire body of Christ, commit. Further, Jesus guarantees the church’s perseverance until He returns (Matt. 16:18; 28:19-20; Eph. 5:25-27).
Third, if Latter-day Saints cannot prove complete apostasy, they must admit there is no need for their church.
By declaring itself the one true church, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has given evangelicals an opportunity to draw clear distinctions between biblical Christianity and its most successful counterfeit. Let’s welcome the invitation.