The Gap Between Doctrine and Culture

When Moses came down from the Mount, he found that the people had pretty much lost it, and had gotten into some rough territory. It didn’t go well for them…

When you’ve been around awhile, you see trends come and go. Lately I have been seeing a resurgence of conversation about “Church Culture” and “Church Doctrine,” and how the seeming gulf between the two has caused many to lose way in their faith.

But is it really a thing? Is there really a gap between “Church Doctrine,” and “Church Culture?”

Well, yeah. Duh.

There has been as long as I can remember. In fact, I can only recall two instances in the history of forever that there hasn’t been a gap – or even a gulf – between Doctrine and Culture.

The first was the Church in the City of Enoch. Those folks managed to get to that amazing place where, “…the Lord called his people Zion, because they were of one heart and one mind, and dwelt in righteousness; and there was no poor among them.” (Moses 7:18) Pretty cool, and they were rewarded for closing the gap by being lifted to heaven.

The second instance was among the people in the Americas after Christ visited them after his death and resurrection. The Church came together and had a successful run of almost two hundred years where, “there were no contentions and disputations among them, and every man did deal justly one with another. And they had all things common among them; therefore there were not rich and poor, bond and free, but they were all made free, and partakers of the heavenly gift.” (4 Nephi 1:2-3)

“And it came to pass that there was no contention in the land, because of the love of God which did dwell in the hearts of the people.” (4 Nephi 4:15) “There were no robbers, nor murderers, neither were there Lamanites, nor any manner of -ites; but they were in one, the children of Christ, and heirs to the kingdom of God.” (4 Nephi 4:17)

It was a sweet ride, while it lasted. Even though it eventually fell apart, it was proof positive that the gap between doctrine and culture can be closed. (Personally, I haven’t seen that in my lifetime, but there’s always hope.)

What are “Doctrine” and “Culture” anyway? Doctrine is most simply defined as, “Doctrine is the word of God taught by Jesus Christ and by His prophets.” (Eyring) For a deeper dive into what it is and isn’t, look here, and here.

But what is “Church Culture?” That’s a little trickier, because it isn’t canonized. There isn’t a “Church Culture Handbook of Instruction.” The reality is that the optimum “Church Culture,” is what the Nephites and City of Enoch achieved. It was collective, but it only happened as each person individually achieved their own level of parity with the doctrines.

Perhaps an easier way to define “Church Culture” is to describe it as an attempt to paint a Church-wide generalization of behavior, attitudes, traditions, teaching and the condition of the hearts of the individual members. Essentially a broad brush stereotype of millions of saints around the world.

That doesn’t really work, does it? Because Zion begins with the individual. Elder D. Todd Christoferson said, “Zion is Zion because of the character, attributes, and faithfulness of her citizens.” (link)

Because of this, the gap between “Doctrine” and “Culture,” is then determined by the gap between how we as individual members are living as compared to the ideal, represented by the doctrine. How are we doing? Are we closing the gap? Is the gap buttressed with traditions and ideologies that really should be discarded?

In my case, yes. I haven’t reached the “ideal” of the Doctrine. It’s proving to be a lifelong effort. Why? Because I am flawed. I am mortal. I am a sinner.

The gap between “Church Doctrine” and “Church Culture” exists precisely because we are flawed saints, working our way towards Christ.

Which casts a curious light on a statement I have read, repeatedly, over the years: “I love the Church Doctrine, but hate the Church Culture.”

Ouch. Before we dig into that, let’s take a look at the first bit, “I love the Church Doctrine.” Often it is said as a pretext, as in “I love the Church Doctrine, but…” (As Pee-Wee said to Simone, “Everybody has a big but.”)

“I love the Church Doctrine, but…” is usually followed by something like, “but…I disagree with the Church’s stand on abortion, women and the priesthood, social issues, etc.”

Much easier to just say, “I love some of the Church Doctrine.”

One of the more frequent “buts” is this, “I love the Church Doctrine, but I don’t believe the doctrine about the Lord’s servants speaking for Him.” (D&C 1:38)

Many will then proceed to take a carving knife to the Doctrine and customize a version of the doctrines that is more palatable for them. Hypothetical: I decide to leave the Church because I don’t like parts or it, or have had legitimately horrible experiences in it. So, I proclaim that “I can be religious without attending a Church.” In order to do that, I will need to redefine my love for the Doctrine to no longer include the concept and ordinance of the sacrament. Slice and dice.

Paul explained it this way,“For the time will come when they will to endure sound doctrine; but after their own lusts hall they heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears; And they shall turn away their ears from the truth and shall be turned unto fables.” (2 Timothy 4:3-4)

Okay, back to “I love the doctrine but hate the culture.” (This is the entire point of this post:)

If you hate church culture, your hatred is actually aimed at the lives of millions of flawed church members trying to find their way towards Christ. Why? Because that’s what the “Culture” is made up of: the lives of the saints. It is truly one of the most judgmental statements I have ever heard, and the irony should not go unnoticed. I’m one of those flawed people, and, apparently, so are you. (See, that’s me being judgmental.)

One of the grand ironies I’ve heard is when people defend leaving the church because members were too judgmental.

Lately, I have seen many talking about how “Church Culture” has given people cause to leave the church. It is tragic, but understandable. Sometimes the behavior of the flawed members of the church can – and does – overpower the love for, or testimony of, the doctrine.

There are many scared, scarred, wounded, souls who carry pain from the attitudes, treatment, and judgment extended to them by Church members – inflicted unintentionally AND intentionally. There are many who have been emotionally abused by flawed members, flawed leaders, flawed preaching, flawed analogies. Even evil members.

For example: There ARE racist Church members. That is a fact. But racism is not doctrine, or even cultural – it exists in individual hearts. “Racism is probably the most familiar source of prejudice today, and we are all called to repent of that.” (President Dallin Oaks)

These things are real, and need to be done away with, but to categorically condemn a contrived “Church Culture” because of the flaws of the individual is disingenuous at best, strategically corrupting at worst, and lacks mercy.

If you are struggling because of interaction with flawed – or even evil – church members, don’t let go of the lifeline to the doctrine. It isn’t found anywhere else! We need you. We all need the ordinances of salvation which only exist in the church.

Often when “Church Culture” is spoken of, it is in a negative light. However, that point of view is very limited. The members of the Church do amazing things. There is so much love, charity, compassion, mercy, forgiveness, humanitarian work, service, teaching and inspiration that happens every single day. It is glorious. It is amazing. That Christ-like behavior needs to be shouted from the mountaintops whenever “Church Culture” is discussed. SO MUCH GOODNESS! It is that very type of culture that closes the gap between doctrine and culture that is causing so many to lose heart, and lose their way.

The fingers pointing from the Great and Spacious Building want us to focus on the negative by creating cultural stereotypes, and talk about how terrible they are. Perhaps a more worthy discussion would be about how we can overcome those traits, individually, and close the gap between ourselves and Christ’s doctrines. When that happens, the collective “Culture” becomes more like Zion.

One heart, one mind.

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  1. When our son left the church he said, “I don’t have any problem with the doctrine, but the members are all hypocrites.” My response was, “That’s true. We are all hypocrites in the literal sense because none of us lives up to our highest ideals.”

    That’s the reason we need the church and its doctrine. None of us can do this alone. We need the Savior and His doctrine to make us into the kind of beings who can live with Him and our Father. We cannot and never will perfect ourselves. He is the author and finisher of our faith. We offer ourselves, and He completes us.

    When our daughter left the church, she also had problems with the “culture” as well as some of the doctrine. I have watched both of our children leave the safety of the tree to join the wanderers in strange roads.

    It has been a beautiful experience to see how my Savior has wept along with me. Ironically, their leaving has strengthened my faith in the Savior and the Doctrine of Christ. It has strengthened my determination to remain faithful to His laws and ordinances. It has blessed me to the point that my heart is full of the love my Father and My Savior have for these two children of His.

    I offer this to anyone experiencing the heartache of a loved one leaving the faith that you love with all your heart: He is there, weeping with you. He is there drawing them back. Let Him love you. Let His love flow through you. He is faithful and ever so close. His atoning sacrifice covers all of this. It is infinite, without end, deep, and wide as all eternity. Hold on.

  2. Many years ago I saw a life-long member drop all activity in the church because he over heard what someone said about some business dealings he had made (legal & moral, BTW)…I was shocked he would allow that to affect him that way.
    After that I decided that I would never allow what somebody said to pull me away from the gospel – if you would, Satan will have no difficulty finding someone to do it…& it might well be me, because yes I’m mortal & have been known to stick my foot in my mouth! (A long-time convert who didn’t grow up with “church culture”.
    Also I know someone who was raised in the Church in Utah who is driven crazy by people who refuse to see the need to stop local “traditions” of how things have “always” been done & policy changes or even reiterations put out by the Brethren…
    I’ve been known to comment that some things are cultural & NOT doctrine & wouldn’t translate well for instance to say, Africa

  3. Thank you so much for the reminder that church ‘culture’ can be positive, not just negative, as it often is. As a convert to the church, I grew up in a very ‘Mormon’ influenced area, and as was mentioned in an earlier comment, it took a long time to filter through what was church doctrine, and what was just ‘done’. I can now appreciate some of those things for the good and the love they showed, but also to let go of the cultural expectations because they are not doctrinally sound. My multitude of wards through the years also helped me to take what brings me closer to the Saviour and Christlike behaviour in and leave the rest out. Everyone is doing their best on that path, aren’t they? Thank you again for this timely post.

  4. I remember the first time someone introduced me to the concept of “church doctrine vs. church culture” – it was revolutionary for me. And it has actually helped me stick to my testimony through challenges.

    For example, when I was a young woman, the age that females could begin serving a mission was still 21 and as I advanced through high school and into college at BYU-I, the sentiment was expressed (said and unsaid) that girls who served missions only did it because no one would marry them. THAT is church culture. NO WHERE is that stated in our doctrine. It was never preached in General Conference, not in any manuals or handbooks, not in a verse of scripture. But, still, I saw several of my friends accepting marriage proposals from young men who they didn’t feel entirely confident in because they could feel the clock ticking closer to their 21st birthday and apparent spinsterhood. When that brilliant friend of mine (a returned missionary, herself) enlightened on “church culture” it was such a relief to me. It’s helped me pull apart threads of disillusionment and decipher for myself if it’s actual doctrine from Christ or his prophets or if it’s just the accepted societal “norm”. And, over the years, I’ve found that when I’m struggling with something, if I can tease it out and break down where the culture ends and the doctrine begins, I can find things to believe and sustain in the doctrine.

    Also, a reminder: pioneer treks, Ward parties, and even seminary and mutual aren’t required for Salvation and Exhalation.

    1. Your comment about peer pressure to marry struck a cord with me…except in the opposite manor.
      A few years ago (the oldest FOML is over 30), exactly a month after I returned from my mission, I became reacquainted with a young woman whom I had not seen since I was 7 and she was about 5. (we didn’t know it at the time, but later discussions showed that we had met before. Que: Saturday’s Warrior) She lived in one of the local stakes, but actually lived two farming towns over, on the edge of the farthest stake. A month after we re-met, we started dating.

      At that time a large number of YSA were returning home from their missions and the YSA branch in our community was ballooning. (I have a photo of 13 of us, Elders and Sisters, all in the Provo MTC at the same time)
      I should point out that at the time there was 1 high school, 2 stakes and 2 partial stakes in my town, so we had a lot of the same friends even though we didn’t really know each other. The YSA from the more distant towns, moved into town to attend the community college and just to be around more YSA, which is why she was there.
      After church on Sunday, we would have our linger-longer, and then usually get together again at somebody’s apartment. The day after my first date with this young woman, I made a wager with a friend of mine that I would not marry until he got home from his mission (with her sitting there to hear it). He was slated to go into the MTC in 3 weeks.

      2 weeks later, I proposed.

      This is where the peer pressure takes a funny turn. She struggled with accepting my proposal!!! Not because of how quickly I asked, but because all of the young men were returning home, and now all of the young women were old enough to go on missions. There was a sudden self-induced push for them to go on missions, and if they didn’t, why not?

      We both had strong confirmations that we should spend eternity together and getting married was the right thing to do. But the pressure to postpone it was also there, even though she was only 19 and would have to wait two more years before she could go.
      My grandfather passed away unexpectedly a few hours after she tentatively accepted my proposal. I was gone for a week to his funeral in California.

      When I got back, we knew that we should ignore the peer pressure.
      We went to General Conference on our honey moon (and actually made it into the Tabernacle for the Sunday afternoon session.) I dropped off a Philly Cheese Steak Sandwich at the MTC in Provo to pay my bet.

      Since then, she has been instrumental in the conversion and baptisms of 18 people, in 3 different countries and 9 different states.
      I believe that sometimes we do let the negative side of our culture get in the way of what the Lord wants us to do. We just have to learn to listen to what He wants.

  5. A profound invitation to repent as a perpetuator of culture. Consistent with Sister Aburto’s observation that WE are the Church. (My EC always taught our children to never let anyone, or any group, come between them and their covenants… and she was speaking specifically about other members of the Church.)

    I taught EQ last week and tried to say something like this – and was nowhere near as poetic. Thank you.

  6. Yes! Such an important post. I love your positive take on the many, many wonderful and good members who do make up every ward in the church. Everyone is bringing their culture into a ward (and every family has their own unique “culture”) so like you said, people who complain a out church culture are, in reality, dissing on and judging their fellow ward members. Because everyone make up a church in any given area.

    Every ward has a flair and style with traditions that make up ward activities or ways of doing things… because every single state or province in any country is different and has its own culture, too!

    Case in point: I’ve lived in the South Pacific, Canada, and Europe (with a short stint in Turkey). Let me tell you, the church is so different everwhere (but the manuals and handbook are the same). Some areas follow doctrine and standards more, some less, and some not much at all. Is that “church culture” or regional culture? In my experience, there is absolutely no broad, single church culture.

    Also, just over a year ago my husband and I sold our home and have been living and working from an RV around America. We’ve visited countless wards all over the place. Every state is so different with its own state and regional culture. It’s definitely not a “Utah thing” or a “Mormon” thing as some might say. So when someone complains about a church culture, it’s really them not realizing that it’s a local culture as well. There are major differences in every single place–regardless of one’s ward.

    If they were to move, they’d quickly find out that there is always something different or quirky EVERYWHERE. P.s. I could also share the massive differences between strength of wards and those that had a culture of teaching doctrine and standards like For the Strength of Youth vs
    advocating for change and the world’s cultural lens. Fascinating! Yet the work of God continues regardless of cultural differences. The main thing is the culture of Zion–something most good hearted members are striving for all over the earth.

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