I like to think that I understand most of the criticisms that are leveled at the LDS Church, but there is one that has always baffled me: The claim that Mormons are not Christians because they do not believe that Jesus was born to a virgin.
The argument confuses me for two reasons. The first is that in my experience with other Christian denominations, only the Catholic church puts much emphasis on the Virgin Mary, other than during the Christmas season. The second is that it is so demonstrably, laughably false.
Currently, when people of other Christian denominations try to sell the notion that Mormons aren’t members of the Christian club, they argue that the reason is that Mormons reject certain “foundational” Christian doctrines, most notably the Holy Trinity and the virgin birth. I’m not sure when these two doctrines became the litmus test of Christianity, but I suspect that is because the argument is less about defining Christianity than it is about defaming Mormonism.
The odd thing is that in my visits to and discussions with other Christians, the Virgin Mary comes up rarely in months that aren’t named December. That certainly is consistent with the New Testament, in which Christ’s virgin birth is addressed very briefly (in only three of the four Gospels) as a miraculous fulfillment of Isaiah’s Messianic prophecy. Christ himself, at least so far as we know, made no mention of his mother’s virginity in connection with his claim to be the Son of God. Certainly the miracle was important, but it was not a centerpiece of New Testament Christianity.
Mary’s virginal status became more important to Christianity after the apostles died, and it quickly developed into a form of veneration. That veneration came to be a bone of contention for many in the faith, and it was one of the doctrines attacked in the Protestant Reformation. For that reason, it is at the very least curious that Protestants attempt to define Mormons as non-Christians for the reason that Mormons supposedly don’t give Mary her props.
But even if you accept the Virgin Mary as a core doctrine of Christianity, the claim that Mormons reject Christ’s virgin birth is ill-informed to the point of being goofy. I understand that critics of the LDS Church can’t be bothered with reading the Book of Mormon before rejecting it as heretical, but you only have to get twenty little pages into it before you find out that this notion of Mormons rejecting Jesus’s virgin birth is..well…nuts.
Early in the Book of Mormon, a prophet named Nephi, who lived about 600 years before the birth of Jesus, receives a vision regarding the life and ministry of Christ. (Sorry, folks, but it’s true. The Book of Mormon is about Christ right from the beginning.) Like Isaiah, he sees many aspects of Christ’s life, except that Nephi’s vision is more chronologically complete and considerably more detailed. As with many Old Testament visions, an angelic visitor acts as a “guide” (for lack of a better term) for the vision.
Nephi sees in his vision “the city of Nazareth; and in the city of Nazareth I beheld a virgin.” The angel asks Nephi to describe what he sees, and he answers: “A virgin, most beautiful and fair above all other virgins.” (1 Nephi 11:13-15). The angel tells Nephi that “the virgin whom thou seest is the mother of the Son of God, after the manner of the flesh.” (1 Nephi 11:18).
Nephi then sees Mary “carried away in the Spirit; and after she had been carried away in the Spirit for the space of a time the angel spake unto me, saying: Look! And I looked and beheld the virgin again, bearing a child in her arms.” (1 Nephi 11:19). So, Mary was a virgin before the birth, and after the birth she was still a virgin. And the child in her arms was “the Lamb of God, yea even the Son of the Eternal Father.” (1 Nephi 11:21).
Now, in case you are worried that I’m making all of this up, spend about two minutes on www.lds.org and run a search of the library there. You will find a host of references in general conference addresses, Church magazines, and lesson manuals to the virgin birth. One concise example is from a 1991 statement from Ezra Taft Benson, who at the time was the President of the Church: “God was the father of [Christ’s] fleshly tabernacle, and Mary—a mortal woman and a virgin—was His mother. He is, therefore, the only person born who rightfully deserves the title ‘the Only Begotten Son of God.'” (“Jesus Christ: Our Savior and Our God,” Liahona (Dec. 1991), emphasis added).
I’m not sure how we could be more clear on this point.
If you find that Mormons get a bit prickly when our Christianity is challenged, this discussion about the Virgin Mary should help you to understand why. When people insist upon ascribing beliefs to us that we do not hold, it strains credulity to accept that the accusations are made in good faith. If you honestly inquire about what Mormons believe and still conclude that we aren’t Christians, I will be baffled, but I’ll get over it. Chances are that you and I are merely defining the term differently. We might disagree, but at least the disagreement is a fair one. Maybe even a friendly one.
But when someone distorts our doctrine and then attacks a creature of his own creation, that most certainly is not fair. Christ disagreed with the Pharisees, but He told the truth about them. He never resorted to distortions or mischaracterizations about what they believed. In my opinion, those who claim to follow Him should follow His example in this, as in everything else. Maybe that’s expecting too much, but I certainly hope not. Christians should be able to discuss their Christianity while still acting like Christians.
If we can agree to that, we might be on to something.