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Do the LDS, Baptists believe in the same Jesus Christ?

SHARE Do the LDS, Baptists believe in the same Jesus Christ?

Which God - or more specifically - which Jesus do you worship?

That's the crux of the question that Southern Baptist messengers will discuss as they knock on doors along the Wasatch Front, seeking to share their faith in Jesus Christ - as they understand him.In preparation for their annual convention at the Salt Palace this week, 10,000-plus messengers have been told that the Christ worshiped by members of Utah's majority faith is not the biblical figure of historic Christianity.

A training video prepared by Southern Baptist leaders, titled "The Mormon Puzzle," draws the conclusion that members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have carefully cultivated a media image that leads people to believe they are Christian, when in fact they are not.

Latter-day Saints do believe in the Jesus of the New Testament - but they don't believe he became part of the Trinity after his earthly ministry. Rather, according to The Encyclopedia of Mormonism, they maintain that Jesus continues to live as a distinct and separate being from God, the Father - both of them having bodies of flesh and bone.

Mormons say this understanding enhances - rather than alienates - their Christian faith in the truth about God, who they believe literally "created man in his own image," as found in Genesis 1:27.

Southern Baptists just don't see it that way.

"The Christ that the Mormons speak about is not, in our minds, identified with the Christ identified solely in the scriptures," said Tom Elliff, president of the Southern Baptist Convention.

"When we (Mormons and Baptists) try to talk about a belief in Christ, we're really comparing apples with oranges. We're not talking about the same Christ. It's a different Christ" altogether, he said.

Mormons won't argue with that. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has never held a belief in the Trinity. In fact, in the Pearl of Great Price - a book Mormons revere as scripture - church founder Joseph Smith expressly states that two distinct personages - God and Christ - appeared to him as a result of his prayer asking which church was right. He was told to "join none of them, for they were all wrong."

That day in the spring of 1820, the differences that would most distinctly separate Mormonism from all other Christian churches were manifest.

"We must not become disagreeable as we talk of doctrinal differences," LDS Church President Gordon B. Hinckley said in the church's April General Conference. "There is no place for acrimony. But we can never surrender or compromise that knowledge which has come to us through revelation and the direct bestowal of keys and authority under the hands of those who held them anciently."

"Let us never forget that this is a restoration of that which was instituted by the Savior of the world. It is not a reformation of perceived false practice and doctrine that may have developed through the centuries."

Ironically, it is Mormons' claim to be the restoration of Christ's true church - rather than just another branch of historic Christianity - that has prompted some Southern Baptist leaders to cast it as a "cult" rather than merely a different form of Christianity.

"In a Baptist mind, you don't have to be a Baptist to have eternal life. That's not quite the case in the Mormon mindset; to them, Mormonism is the true church," Elliff said.

"Baptists would say that the way to eternal life is through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ alone," Elliff said. "Baptists do not rely on what we call `extra-biblical authority.' By definition, extra-biblical authority is one of the attributes of a non-Christian belief. The inclusion of other works (of scripture) or the opening of the scriptures so that even today a man could speak and it would be as authoritative as scripture - Baptists do not hold to that . . . .

"The definition of a cult, per se, is not a definition derived by Southern Baptists alone. The wider Christian faith - including many evangelical groups - has a definition of what they would consider to be a cult," Elliff said.

Because Latter-day Saints accept scripture in addition to the Bible, believe that a prophet continues to get revelation from God, claim the same priesthood authority as New Testament apostles, and reject the doctrine of the Trinity, Southern Baptist leaders in general say they are non-Christian.

Yet William Merrell, vice president for convention relations, doesn't go quite so far. "I wouldn't say that all Mormons are not Christians. I wouldn't even say that all Southern Baptists are Christians. What I would say is that Mormon theology is not considered a part of Orthodox Christianity - and there is a big difference. A personal relationship with Jesus Christ is the distinctive characteristic of a Christian."

And such a distinction can only be determined within a person's own heart, he said.

Merrell's comments represent a less-strident position on the issue - one with which at least one high-profile Southern Baptist agrees.

In response to a question by the Deseret News last fall, former President Jimmy Carter characterized some conservative Southern Baptist leaders, who "are trying to act as the Pharisees did, who were condemned by Christ, in trying to decide who can and cannot be considered an acceptable person in the eyes of God. In other words, they're making judgments on behalf of God. I think that's wrong."

He said such leaders have "become narrow in their definition of what is a proper Christian or certainly even a proper Baptist."

Since that interview, Carter has used the peacemaking skills he honed in bringing Israel and Egypt together at Camp David in 1978 to bring conservative and moderate leaders of the Convention together.

According to the Associated Press, members of the two factions - who split in 1979 when the conservatives clearly took over leadership of the SBC - signed a "declaration of cooperation" forged by Carter in April. Elliff, on the conservative side, was one of the signatories to the agreement, which says the two groups need to work together in spreading the good news of the gospel, despite their theological differences.

Because conservatives retain control of the SBC, actions during the Convention this week are expected to reflect their agenda - out of which the current debate over whether Mormons are Christians arose.

Moderates are uncomfortable with the rigid positions conservatives take on the inerrancy of the Bible and some other theological questions.

But unless a surprise candidate for president is nominated, moderate positions will continue to be pushed to the back burner. Paige Patterson, the only announced candidate for president of the SBC, is expected to be elected during voting scheduled Tuesday.

Patterson, who is president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C., is widely regarded as one of the chief architects of the current conservative movement within the Convention.