I love words – I love to read, write, talk – but I think words leave out almost everything. That [is] frustrat[ing]… feeling that what we can share with other people is so much more limited than what we actually experience… (link)– Jaron Lanier
Oh, Lord, deliver us in due time from the little, narrow prison, almost as it were, total darkness of paper, pen, and ink; – and a crooked, broken, scattered and imperfect language. — Joseph Smith (History of the Church 1:299)
I’ve thought a lot about the confines of language in the last several years. Having a thought and expressing that thought such that another person understands it perfectly are two very different things.
I have grown concerned over the years at what I see as intentional or unintentional “stumbling” or “getting stuck” on a word. Isaiah 29:21 speaks of being “offenders for a word” and I think this is a similar idea.
It’s hard to not be offenders for a word because we think with words, so thinking about words themselves is like thinking about thinking. It’s hard to do.
Worse yet, there are strong incentives to want to be “offenders for a word.” We often define our self and group identity by the very words we use. Mormons and non-Mormons alike are guilty of doing this. 
But for someone serious about understanding another group, there is no substitute for ridding oneself of “word-offense” or “wordism” as I sometimes call it. 
Consider this list of questions:
- Do Mormons worship Jesus or do they not worship Jesus?
- Was polygamy rescinded or suspended in the LDS Church?
- Was polygamy a central doctrine or peripheral doctrine to the LDS Church?
- Is polygamy “doctrinal” in the LDS Church today?
- Do Mormons “practice polygamy in their temples” today?
- Do Mormons believe in predestination?
- Are Mormons monotheists, polytheists, tri-theists, or henotheists?
- Do Mormons believe in an “Eternal” God?
- Do Mormons believe in a finite or infinite God?
- Do Mormons believe God is a man?
- Do Mormons believe man can become God?
- Do Mormons believe in an omnipresent God?
- Do Mormons believe Jesus is God?
- Do Mormons believe the “oneness” of the Godhead/Trinity is a “oneness of purpose?”
- Do Mormons believe they are justified by grace and works or justified by grace and not works?
- Do Mormons believe it’s possible to earn salvation?
- Do Mormons believe baptism is required for salvation?
- Is the LDS Church a cult?
I have thought a lot about questions like the above and I’ve come to the realization that I can honestly answer those questions any way I choose because it all depends on how one defines the terms being used.
Indeed, I believe that 80%+ of all anti-Mormon issues and a large percentage of disaffected Mormon issues are really simple word-offense: a refusal to try to understand the underlying thought the speaker was attempting to express through words.
Now call me crazy, but I suspect that the underlying thought the person is trying to express is probably more important than the specific words chosen to express it. How could anything but the underlying thought matter?
Case Study 1: The Meaning of the Word “God”
Let’s take a seemingly simply example. Is Jesus God? What’s the answer to this question? The problem is that I can’t answer this question without assuming or applying some sort of context to the words being used.
Mormons often use the word “God” as a name for the Father. So if I’m talking to another Mormons and I say “Jesus is not God” I probably simply mean “Jesus is not the Father” – a point no Christian of any denomination I know of would argue with me.  So at least in one sense of the word “God,” Jesus is not God.
But I know from sad personal experience that I have to be careful when saying something like that in front of a Born Again Christian for fear of setting them off into an attack about how Mormonism doesn’t teach Jesus is God. But Mormons do believe Jesus is God. 2 Ne 26:12 states “And as I spake concerning the convincing of the Jews, that Jesus is the very Christ, it must needs be that the Gentiles be convinced also that Jesus is the Christ, the Eternal God” To borrow Catholic language to express myself more clearly, Mormons believe Jesus is not just “the Son of God” but He is “God the Son.”
So Mormons both believe Jesus is God and isn’t God. A contradiction? Hardly. I will prove it:
Do a little exercise with me. Grab a dictionary and pick a word at random. Nearly any word will work, though a few won’t. Here is the word I picked: Justice
Notice how there are little numbers under the word, each with a separate definition. It turns out the word “justice” has multiple meanings – just like almost every word has multiple meanings.  Recognizing that words have multiple meanings is the key to healing our word-offense ways.
In truth, the meaning of words can shift a little or a lot between groups/cultures, over time, and even for a single individual based on the context of the conversation. (See also link) A failure to acknowledge this truth is at the heart of all word-offense.
Despite having thought about “word-offense” for years now, I still constantly find myself falling into it. I’ve found that it’s easy to get confused over use of a word in a different way that I am used to. And it’s easy to become offended over that “misuse” of a word because, of course, I assume my definition of a word is the “correct” one and so if someone else uses the word differently, they must be trying to deceive me.
Let’s use a related real life example: let’s suppose that Mormons were to define the word “God,” from their religious context, like this (in order of usage frequency): 
- The Divine Nature or Godhead (Godhead means “divine nature”) as a single unit that is made up of three persons: the Father, the Son, the Holy Ghost
- The Father
- Any other member of the Trinity or Godhead individually
- The whole group of exalted beings that have become “one” with the Godhead.
- Any individual exalted being that has reached “oneness” with the Godhead.
So are Mormons monotheists, polytheist, tri-theists, or henotheists?
If I concentrate on definition #1, Mormons are definitely monotheists. If I ignore definition #1 and concentrate on #2 and #3, now Mormons seem more like henotheists. If I concentrate on definition #3 alone Mormons are tri-theists. If I concentrate on definition #5 to the exclusion of all other definitions, Mormons might technically be called polytheists. In other words, Mormons are all of the above, depending on which definition of “God” you are referring to. (Their protests aside, this is also true of all Trinitarian Christians as well. )
Using John 1:1 as an example. A Mormon would likely read this verse as “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God (definition #2), and the Word was God. (definition #3)” To have any chance of understanding what a Mormon, or anyone of any religion, – or for that matter scripture itself – means when they say “God” one must first make an attempt to understand how the writer used the word. 
Joseph Smith put it this way:
“I have a key by which I understand the scriptures. I enquire [sic], what was the question which drew out the answer, or caused Jesus to utter the parable? … To ascertain its meaning, we must dig up the root and ascertain what it was that drew the saying out of Jesus.” (Teaching of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 276 – 277)
But the Words Get In the Way
So now that I’ve openly admitted that Mormons (and all Christians) are, in some sense, polytheists, you might wonder why I so strongly deny this and actively argue against referring to Mormons (or other Christians) as polytheists.
The reason is that while Mormons might truthfully be termed polytheists (or henotheist, or tritheist) in a limited sense, these words do not express the truth about Mormon beliefs in equal weight and understanding.
For example, when most people think of “polytheism” they think of classic Greek polytheism where there are multiple gods with separate wills that are at cross purposes. These polytheistic gods fight with each other over dominion and attempt to assert their will on each other. Mormon theology is night and day from classic polytheism and has much more in common with Trinitarian beliefs. So calling a Mormon a “polytheist” will inevitably cause serious a misunderstanding about Mormon beliefs unless a lot of care is taken to explain the full nuanced belief.
By comparison, calling Mormons “monotheists” gives a pretty good approximation of exactly what Mormons believe. So I assert that it’s appropriate to call Mormons monotheists but inappropriate to call them polytheists except with the greatest of care to clarify your meaning.
Self Definition Vs. Labeling or Defining Others
And then I believe there is a moral issue here too. The moral demands of self definition are very different than the moral demands of how we define others.
To explain myself better I will use the example of Muslims referring to Catholics and Protestant Christians as polytheists. Are Muslims correct to refer to Christians as polytheists? Based on my arguments above, clearly in a sense Christians are polytheists and in another sense they are monotheists. But when Muslims make such an assertion, do they bother to explain that very important nuance? To me, that’s the important point. Since Muslims do not typically take the time to explain in what sense a Christian might be called a polytheist or in what sense they might be called monotheists — and more over they do not explain that Christians are primarily monotheists and self define as monotheists! — I am forced to assume the real intent is to mislead, not clarify, and as such is an act of intolerance. Is it the Muslims who don’t believe as the Christians do who gets to decide which words best convey an undestanding of the Christian religion? 
In part 2, we’ll tackle if Mormons worship Jesus or not.
Notes: I tried a real life experiment that I think is worth repeating for yourself, if you are curious. See if you get the same results I did.
Try asking a group of “orthodox” Christians if they believe they have to have good works to be saved. The answer will be likely be an overwhelming “no way!” Now ask the same group if they have to “be bringing forth good works to be in the state of being saved.” Now you may find that you get an overwhelming “absolutely!” And yet that’s actually the same question worded in two ways. The real difference is that the first question used the catch phrase “good works to be saved” which orthodox Christians have been trained to deny as part of their group identity.
You can play the same trick on Mormons. Ask a Mormon if they are saved by the “grace (or graciousness) of God alone.” “Not on your life!” you’ll likely be told, because “we have to have works to be saved!” Now ask that same group of Mormons if God owes them salvation if they do good works. “God doesn’t own me anything!” you’ll probably be told. It would seem that denying the catch phrase “grace alone” is part of Mormon group identity. I invented the word “wordism” to describe someone that gets caught up in a word or phrase to the point of denying others with it. I also called such a person a “wordist” because they often based their intolerance of others on what words another person uses. But it turns out that these terms were actually coined before by Bob Whitaker, though he used the terms a differently than I do. Specifically he saw “wordism” as uniting around a certain set of words in the same way nationalism is uniting around everyone being from one nation. I’m not sure I want to be associated with Whitaker and besides my using the same terms differently then he will only lead to further wordism – so I’m going to use the term “word-offense” to replace “wordism.”  After all, Paul often uses “God” to refer to specifically the person of the Father. (1 Cor 1:30; Rom 15:6; Rom 5:1; Rom 7:25; Rom 10:9; etc.) And of course Jesus spoke the same way without the slightest blush. (John 8:42; Matt 19:17; etc.)  I once mentioned to a friend in my carpool that it’s hard to get through a Sunday school lesson about how “God is just” because no matter how much effort you put into defining your terms upfront, some people in the class will assume you mean “God is good” (as per definitions 1 to 4) while others in the class will assume you mean God metes out punishments equally” (as per definition 5-6) while others will assume you actually meant that God will handle people appropriately according to their circumstances (the correct word here is “equity” but people often use “justice” for this. See also definition 11.)
My friends eyes suddenly went wide. He told me that the day before, in his Sunday school class, there was a gentleman who kept insisting that “God is just.” But when people in the class agreed that God did indeed mete out punishment according to law, the gentleman would get confused and again insist “No, God is just!” I ultimately take full responsibility for this definition. I am a believing Mormon and this is how I define the word “God.” Other Mormons might have a slightly different definition or might feel the order of usage is different. In particular, I think many Mormons might feel they’d like to see the order of definition #1 and #2 inverted.  All Trinitarian Christians could be considered polytheists through equally selective use of their definitions of the word “God.” In fact, this is the very reason why Muslims call Christians polytheists
The Athanasius creed bans referring to the members of the Trinity separately and numerically as “God” because Christians don’t want to be polytheists in any sense of the word. (The end result is a provable logical contradiction.) Muslims don’t buy this argument and call Christians “polytheists” anyhow, which is what Christians are in a very limited sense. But in a more correct sense, Christians are monotheists too. However, I’m uncomfortable with Muslims calling Christians polytheists, for reasons I’ll explain later in my article. Now a creedal Christian might be tempted to say “well I have only one definition of ‘God’.” But that isn’t true. Look carefully at Matt 19:17: “And [Jesus] said unto him, Why callest thou me good? there is none good but one, that is, God…” It is not possible to make sense of the Bible without a clear understanding that the word “God” has more than one meaning depending on context. This is just a true for a Catholic as for a Protestant as for a Mormon. As a Mormon I ask only for the same courtesy all Christians give themselves.
Another exercise for the reader: given the flexibility of the Mormon definitions of the word “God,” try to find any scripture in the Bible that disproves the Mormon believe in a plurality of gods. It can’t be done. All such attempted arguments are actually a form of word-offense. They are merely a refusal to admit to all possible understandings of the Biblical text.
Some verses even unexpectedly assist Mormon theology once we look at the original language. Consider Deut 6:4 “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God (definition #1, #2, or #3?) is one Lord:” It turns out that the word translated “one” is the Hebrew word “echad” which literally means “one unity” (though as with most words, it can carry more than one possible meaning.) Thus this verse, in the original Hebrew might be literally rendered “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God (definition #1) is one unity.” Of course orthodox Christians will argue that the difference between themselves and Mormons is substance theology, and that since they believe in substance theology they believe in “one God” in some sense more so than Mormons believe in “one God.” As I’ve explained elsewhere, I don’t buy this argument at all. Bottom line for me: Mormons, Catholics, and Protestants all define “God” as being multiple persons. There is no logical basis for claiming that substance theology somehow enhances that “oneness” in a meaningful and scriptural way.
So in the end, this is the very same moral issue as with Muslims defining Christians. Our Protestant and Catholic neighbors are often guilty of intolerance towards us in this manner just as Muslims are often intolerant to Christians in this manner. No group has a right to define another group differently then how they define themselves unless they take great care to clarify the nuances of meaning. Simply refering to Mormons as “polytheists” with no explanation (or without a sincere attempt to understand) is immoral behavior.
Of course, to be fair, Mormons are often guilty of intolerance to other Christians by mispresenting Trinitarian beliefs, so I’m claiming no special righteousness for Mormons here.