Latter-day Saint leader Russell Nelson trumpets ‘Church of Jesus Christ,’ but so do many other Christian faiths

(Illustration by Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

The LDS Church just amped up the religious rivalry around who owns the name Jesus Christ.

Last August, Latter-day Saints embraced their prophet’s mandate to use the faith’s official name — The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — as a public and private push to recognize the Savior who they believe leads their church.

Outsiders, researchers and reporters respected the religion’s right to self-identity, and many strived to follow its preferred style guide, some even eschewing the popular term “Mormon” to describe the 16 million members.

Recently, though, the Utah-based church replaced its official website, lds.org, with a new domain name, simply churchofjesuschrist.org, without the “Latter-day Saints” ending — a move some Christians find confusing, curious or downright offensive.

After all, scores of churches have “Christ” in their names, and many online domains are similar as well.

Consider national and international denominations like United Church of Christ, Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), and Church of God in Christ. There are small congregations such as the Church of Jesus Christ in Washington, D.C., the Church of Jesus Christ in Kingsport, Tenn., the Church of Jesus Christ in Peridot, Ariz., the Church of Jesus Christ in Dyersburg, Tenn. — and the list goes on and on.

Several are even offshoots of the mainstream LDS Church and track their origins to Mormonism’s founder, Joseph Smith.

Besides mistaking one group for another, there is the question of priestly authority.

Joseph Smith and his fledgling followers founded their church in 1830, asserting it to be the restored gospel of Jesus Christ; indeed, calling it the only true church with divine authority to act for God.

(Photo courtesy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Joseph Smith's first vision.

In recent years, the church has not “honked about that so much,” says the Rev. Jeffrey R. Silliman, a lifelong Utahn and former pastor at Mount Olympus Presbyterian Church in Millcreek.

Silliman was OK with Latter-day Saints using the full name of their church more often, he says, to help others recognize their connection to Christ.

But the new domain name, Silliman says, “offends me.”

“It accentuates that the rest of us are not the church of Jesus Christ,” the Presbyterian says. “It’s an attempt to assert the church’s claims.”

For his part, Richard Mouw, president emeritus of the Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif., finds it hard “to get worked up over this.”

Many churches, Mouw explains, “‘own’ labels expressing identities that the rest of us also claim.”

For example, he says, “I consider myself ‘orthodox.’”

"Catholic" is a good term, Mouw says, for “anyone who sees herself/himself as a member of the universal church.”

So Latter-day Saint authorities, says the religious scholar, author of “Talking With Mormons: An Invitation to Evangelicals.” “are not doing anything particularly offensive simply by employing this label.”

All of those other churches, though, purposely send signals with their nomenclatures.

“The Stone-Campbell movement wanted to be known as ‘Disciples [of Christ]’ because they saw themselves,” Mouw says, “as initiating a movement that was lifting the yoke of a lot of structures and creeds that had accumulated in Christianity.” "Adventists" wanted to “send the message,” he says, “that they put a very strong emphasis on the Second Advent [or Second Coming].”

So, what is the message the Salt Lake City-based church is trying to send by dropping “Mormon” and “LDS.” Mouw wonders what it is about those terms that the authorities worry can be misleading.

“This does not strike me as taking a step away from those of us who are not LDS but who also see ourselves as belonging to the Church of Jesus Christ,” Mouw says. “Nor do I see this as — and this will certainly be the cynical reaction of some others — a deceptive move.”

The evangelical theologian rather sees it as “affirming continuities and commonalities with the rest of us. I choose to see the decision as of a piece with the recent friendly meeting with the pope.”

During that historic exchange, Latter-day Saint President Russell M. Nelson did not tell Pope Francis anything about Mormonism’s doctrine of a “Great Apostasy,” that Christ’s church disappeared for centuries until Smith “restored” it.

(Photo courtesy of the Vatican) Pope Francis welcomes President Russell M. Nelson to the Vatican on Saturday, March 9, 2019.

At the same time, the Roman Catholic Church, with its 1.2 billion members, believes it is — and has been since the beginning — the repository of Jesus’ teachings and the legacy of faith built on the apostle Peter’s “rock.”

After the recent meeting of prophet and pope, Nelson acknowledged theological differences, but he noted the two focused instead on similar social goals: safeguarding religious liberty, defending the family and enhancing global relief.

Nelson wanted to emphasize the two faiths’ commonalities, not their opposing assertions about authority.

For Latter-day Saint leaders, it has become crucial for the world to know of their church’s connection to the Christian Redeemer.

Some years ago, when the church studied how it was perceived, Mara Einstein, professor and head of media studies at Queens College, City University of New York, notes that there “was confusion about whether the Mormons believed in Jesus.”

Making the domain name “Church of Jesus Christ,” she says, “would put any confusion around that to bed.”

To the media expert, “this move sounds more like the ‘we’re just like you’ strategy.”

She says The Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square (which changed its name last fall from the Mormon Tabernacle Choir) “has always had an appeal beyond Salt Lake City.”

But recognition of the full name of the church, she says, has “been more limited.”

Daniel P. Stone, of The Church of Jesus Christ (Bickertonite), endorses the Utah-based faith’s new domain name, with all its implications.

“What Nelson is doing is admirable,” Stone writes in a recent Salt Lake Tribune opinion piece. “He doesn’t want his people to be considered Mormons, but latter-day followers of Jesus Christ.”

But Stone warns fellow Bickertonites to get ready. The Salt Lake City church’s domain name, churchofjesuschrist.org is very close to their own, thechurchofjesuschrist.org. Only “the” differentiates the two.

“I have a feeling,” Stone writes, the Bickertonite website “is going to be getting a lot more traffic.”