I like referring to non-Mormons as “Gentiles.” Gentile is one of those Mormon terms that has come on hard times. It is seen as being archaic and offensive, perhaps even faintly ridiculous. (“It is so silly for Mormons to call Jews Gentiles.” Chuckle. Chuckle.) One will search Church publications in vain for its recent use to refer to non-Mormons outside of the context of scriptural quotations. Today, we are encouraged to use the less loaded “non-member.” I respectfully dissent for two reasons.
First, using the word Gentile defines church membership in a certain way. The word pops up quite a bit in the scriptures, where it is used to refer to those who are not part of the covenant people of God. In this sense, it invites Mormons to see their Mormoness in national terms. We are not merely an association. We are a people, a nation. Yet it is a peculiar kind of nation, one where membership comes via covenant and adoption rather than birth. (In this sense it is a very American conception of nationhood, as well as being a very Biblical one.) In contrast, “non-member” seems much more like the language of a club. It does not invoke the same imagery of peoplehood. Mormoness becomes more like joining the Elks Club, rather than cosmic adoption into the household of God.
Second, using the word Gentile defines the non-Mormoness of others in a certain way. In the Old Testament the word we translate as “Gentiles” is “gowy.” In the New Testament it is “ethnos.” In both cases it means something like “the nations.” Our English word “Gentile” has the same root, going back to the Latin word “gentes” which meant something like “tribes” or “nations.” (For example, the law of nations in Roman Law was called the “jus gentium.”) Tribes and nations suggest a rich notion of identity. We assume that a foreign nation has customs and ideas of its own, things to teach us and experiences that we could benefit from. In contrast, “non-member” is simply a negation. It implies that they are not us, but nothing more. To be sure, the idea of a foreigner can be dangerous. We can see them as the bad-guys in a way that a mere “non-member” is never a bad guy. On the other hand, a mere non-member offers nothing. He is simply a non-. I would much rather have the risk of an Other with the dignity of an identity.