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.