Saturday, February 28, 2009

Are we Latter Day Pharisees?

The Seer Stone is pleased to announce an addition to its authorship.  Nate also attended law school with us and is a practicing attorney, therefore making the Seer Stone a tri-fecta of overhanded lawyers in the Houston, Dallas, Austin triangle.  We anxiously look forward to his posts and insights.     -The Seer Stone-

LDS Teachings and the Culture/Doctrine Divide, Part I

Over the past two years I have served as a ward missionary and have also been assigned to teach the Gospel Principles class.  While teaching this class, I have found that it is very important to become acutely aware of the differences between actual church doctrine versus what I will refer to as church cultural teachings.  It is especially important to be able to explain these differences to new converts/investigators, as they may become easily offended by an offhand remark which, although is usually well intentioned, is negatively received.

One example comes from a class I attended on the subject of keeping the Sabbath day holy.  The lesson manual discusses the principle of keeping the Sabbath and stresses that the saints should prayerfully consider their actions, and come to their own conclusions regarding appropriate activities.  Understandably, new converts (and maybe some life-long members which we will not name) might not be the type of people that roll out of bed, put on their church clothes, and then read scriptures until their 1:00 PM meetings begin.  As such, comments in class regarding the only proper Sabbath observance (from the type of person that won’t eat chocolate because it has caffeine – which is expressly forbidden by the word of wisdom?) can sometimes be counterproductive and even damaging…especially to people who are in need of fellowship.

There are a host of principles that we are meant to prayerfully consider and come to our own conclusions about, e.g. aspects regarding tithing, fasting, fast offerings, word of wisdom, R-rated movies, etc.  These teachings are in perfect accord with Joseph Smith’s statement made when commenting on how he is able to govern such a large amount of people in harmony, he simply said: “I teach them correct principles, and they govern themselves.”  (“The Organization of the Church,” Millennial Star, Nov. 15, 1851, 339).  Clearly, according to the scriptures we should not need to be commanded in all things (see D&C 58:26).  However, if we were to combine church cultural teachings with doctrine, I submit that it would nearly be as though we are “commanded” in all things.

I am certain that we all know of many good members that are a little “looser” on some principles than others, and we have no doubt that they are still pinnacles of integrity.  Why is it then, that some members of the church often come off as being --- for lack of a better word --- pharisaical, when it comes to these principles? (on a side note, if you agree that this can happen…is it necessarily a bad thing?)  I think it is clear how this happens.  We hear certain teachings in, for example, a conference talk.  We happen to respect, and maybe even love the person talking.  And while these teachings are not “doctrine” per se, they still may be true, or they at least contain truth. 

For example, President Hinckley, a man that I personally stand in awe of any time I contemplate his life, gave his ‘body is a temple’ talk a few years back.  In this talk he drew very clear bright line rules: no tattoos, 1 pair of earrings for girls, none for guys, etc.  These guidelines are now even published in the current For the Strength of Youth pamphlet (which has First Presidency acceptance…and as a result is most likely regarded as doctrine by most members, youth leaders, bishops, etc.).  I see how these guidelines are wise, but when it comes down to it, if it is not some sort of a defilement of your body to poke a hole in your ear if you are a girl…how is it different if you are a guy?  It makes me wonder: was President Hinckley having a ‘thus saith the Lord’ moment, or is it more likely that a 90 year old man who grew up in a different era and thinks that kids these days look dumb…just like his own mother/step mother might have thought about him (remember the videos of the Beetles where parents thought they were punks for their long hair; and don’t get me started on that Elvis guy and his provocative dancing).  I would argue that it is much more likely the latter.  However, if not already, give it one more generation and this will be seen as rock solid doctrine and non-compliance will be frowned on at the least (it is getting that way now for white shirts, facial hair for leaders, etc.).

So, what do you think?  Are LDS people fostering a culture that is potentially damaging to its members and investigators?  Are we on a path where we will look at certain qualities in a person and make judgments based on cultural quasi-doctrine?

In my next segment, I will focus on a particular doctrine (the Word of Wisdom) and illustrate the cultural modifications of its principles, and show in what ways we have potentially stopped allowing the saints to govern themselves…and how we potentially look down on people for not practicing the culturally accepted version of the law.


Evgenii said...

Welcome to the Seer Stone. I am typing from my phone so I will be brief. I think we are somewhat pharisaical in our own ways. If you cut out the cultural aspect of the church, it becomes quite narrow in it's mission in a good way. A few years ago elder oaks gave a great talk a out how cultural traditions are good except when they conflict with the gospel. A majority of members now live outside of the us and I doubt they trouble themselves with all that happe a in the us, especially with things like prop 8.

Jeremy said...

I think the following verses sum up what you are trying to convey:

34 Wherefore, verily I say unto you that all things unto me are spiritual, and not at any time have I given unto you a law which was temporal; neither any man, nor the children of men; neither Adam, your father, whom I created.
35 Behold, I gave unto him that he should be an agent unto himself; and I gave unto him commandment, but no temporal commandment gave I unto him, for my commandments are spiritual; they are not natural nor temporal, neither carnal nor sensual.

-D&C 29:34-35-

To my knowledge, it wasn't a sin to stay out until 1am with my girlfriend. Ending the date around 10:30pm was a temporal suggestion by my parents. But this suggestion kept me from violating the spiritual law of chastity.

As the Lord stated, we are agents unto ourselves. We have been given certain basic spiritual commandments that, in my opinion, are supplemented by a plethora of temporal commandments given by our modern-day leaders to aid us in acting for ourselves. I certainly am not against them, but I agree that it runs the risk of becoming "doctrine" just as what happened to the 600+ laws of the Law of Moses.

Nate said...

Jeremy, that is essentially my point. And I think the parental example is a really good way to think of the leaders of the church in some cases.

What they say is wise and contains truths. As a parent though, I am naturally over restrictive on my children for the sake of their protection. However, there is a point where the restrictions are counterproductive to my protectionist goals.

I don't think the brethren reach this point in their talks alone, but it happens after we have given the ideas even greater weight than originally intended. After that we start believing things like staying out past 10:30 is, in itself, bad. This makes us more prone to judge people for staying out past 10:30.

I wouldn't say this is a huge/widespread issue...just one that i've seen. So I wonder what to do about it, and whether it is even a bad thing (maybe it helps bring us to a higher standard).

Nate said...

BTW...I'll try not to ruin your site.

--no promises though.

Evgenii said...

Are you guys sure that this isn't setting a precedent for us to question all commandments whether they come from the Lord or from an old man's experience. We could extend that logic to the church's position on Prop 8 or race relations prior to 1978, that they were simply a reflection of their own culture. While I accept that is true, we have to draw a line somewhere when the prophet says something (earrings, etc.) when do we attribute it to being just an old man's opinion?

Doug & Laurel said...

I stumbled across your blog on LDS BLOGS. I thought you mighe be interested in a site my wife and I just built called, which uses simple, explanatory videos to explain the Mormon faith. Feel free to feature any of these videos on your blog, or just share them with non-member friends. We're hoping these videos will be missionary tools to help members share their beliefs. Anyway, sorry to spam your comments section. I couldn't find any contact information for you on your blog.

- Doug & Laurel

Nate said...


I'm not sure I'm setting that precedent...but if I was, would that be bad? Shouldn't we search it out for ourselves and gain our own insights? I believe that is the point of life, and what our Father intended.

We don't just toss it off as some old guy's opinion. After all, the "old guys" we are talking about are servants of the Lord and are generally wise. However, absent a 'thus saith the lord', similar statement, or presentation for common consent...we take it as wise counsel from a wise man and do with it as we may (hopefully to the benefit of us/mankind).

--that last part is what I am presently concerned with.

Anthony E. Larson said...

As someone who has worked for 40 years to help the Saints understand their own prophets, scriptures and temples, I must confess that I find most of my fellow Saints are as willing to reject some of the prophets' teachings as the Pharisees were. Additionally, we tend to fixate on some instruction and commandments while completely disregarding others. I know this is not an opinion that many members acknowledge or even perceive. But from my vantage point, I see it clearly. So in my opinion, your perception is correct, but the tendency is far greater than you note. The sin of the Pharisees was that so much of what they knew to be true just wasn't. I think that history will judge us equally harshly.

Evgenii said...

Nate, I think your standard really limits what we have to work with.

You said "...absent a 'thus saith the lord', similar statement, or presentation for common consent...we take it as wise counsel from a wise man and do with it as we may".

Using that standard, can you tell me any scenario during President Hinckley's presidency when one of these two thresholds was met. For that matter, when was the last time that we even had one, perhaps with accepting the version of scriptures as we have them now (circa 1979) or the Official Declaration #2? If we have been left the last thirty years with counsel from wise old men but no revelation, we are seriously in a bad position.

These are the three different categories as I see it (my views are guaranteed to be correct until proven wrong!):

1) Situations where cultural mormonism dictates right and wrong. Such examples that come to mind are drinking Diet Coke (in or out of Clown mugs); taking the sacrament with the right hand; or even believing that evolution goes against the Gospel. You and I find common ground on this I think. These beliefs are based on some random statements by church leaders or John Bytheways of the world and really get a hold of people, when in reality we should pray for our own guidance.

2) "Thus saith the Lord', similar statement, or presentation for common consent". The standard set forth in D&C and scripture. Hasn't really happened as much recently with prophets that don't wear beards (the bigger the beard, the more such prophecies are given, exception for JS).

3) Situations where is comes from the 1st presidency or president of the church, is published in church publications (Strength for Youth) and becomes a standard for service in the church. It is confusing where cultural mormonism merges with this, but if we rely on #2 above as the only bright line rule that is for the whole church, we could disregard such counsel as coming from out of touch old men.

Let me also add that I agree with you that at the end of the day, for all three points above, we ultimately need to get our own answer through prayer. For #2, there shouldn't be that much dispute about what your answer is going to be. My concern with your original thought is that under #3, people will come to a conclusion contrary to the president and because it doesn't fit #2, will easily disregard it.

We agree on almost everything, but my concern is for the other situations where we come to a different conclusion than the president. Last example and I'll be quiet, at least for a while. Last November I didn't agree with Prop 102 (AZ's Prop 8). I went to the Stake Conference, listened to Pres. Packer explain the church's position, thought about it, and came to a different conclusion. I wasn't actively going against it, I just thought that the arguments for it were not justified by the explanations given. It was never set out as a thus saith the Lord or approved by common consent. It was clearly a #3. Though I didn't support it and disagreed with it, I still voted for it because I came to the conclusion that the Lord inspired or provided revelation to the church leaders that we needed to vote for it.

Nate said...

So far Hans, I stand by my standard...and your prop 102 example proves my point.

You took it as wise counsel and did with it as you may. I don't believe you perceived it as a commandment on how to vote.

I did the same when pres Hinckley challenged us to read the BoM. I recognized inspiration and acted.

Wise could = inspired; but does inspired necessarily = commandment?

Let me put it to you this way: Would I be sinning if I went and got a tattoo? And along the point of my post: would you look down on me for getting one?

Some members definitely would.

nates fav. sister said...

I found this quote that kind of reminded me of your post. Especially the part about "being distrubed by every wind of the doctrine."

“… What does it mean to enter into the rest of the Lord? Speaking for myself, it means that through the love of God I have been won over to Him, so that I can feel at rest in Christ, that I may no more be disturbed by every wind of doctrine, by the cunning and craftiness of men, whereby they lie in wait to deceive; and that I am established in the knowledge and testimony of Jesus Christ, so that no power can turn me aside from the straight and narrow path that leads back into the presence of God, to enjoy exaltation in His glorious kingdom; that from this time henceforth I shall enjoy that rest until I shall rest with Him in the heavens.”

Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph F. Smith, 425

The bottom line to me is, when you love the Lord, you love your neighbor, even if they bring treats on fast sunday. (or get tats...BTW, what are you getting Nate?) So rather than worry about the speck of cupcake in the teachers eye (treat on FS joke) I want to get the mote out of my own eye.

....just my opinion....

Nate said...

Hey sis,

I wouldn't say that I'm disturbed in the slightest by any wind of doctrine. Nor am I particularly disturbed by non-doctrine posing as doctrine (I generally abide by those because it is a good idea).

I'm disturbed by the possibility of people not recognizing the difference, and the potential effects of that phenomenon.

I'm not getting a tat. But if I did it would be a big heart that said mom.

--and I like the mote in my eye ;) it makes it look like I am winking at people.

nate's fav. sister said...


I'm not saying that YOU are "disturbed" ...well in the sense from the quote, I am saying that people who tend to get caught up in judging others, for the very same thing you are talking about, are looking to feel morally or spiritually superior, and are being deceived by Satan who wants us to not live in unity and be at peace with our brothers.(or sisters)

My case in point was a teacher who brought cupcakes on Fast Sunday. An uncomfortable buzz was humming throught the halls when a lady said to me, "Maybe I'm wrong, but I just think that treats on fast sunday are wrong,... don't you?" I responded in my nicest voice,"don't eat 'em..." (I might have lost a friend...seriously)

Think about it, when we are "established in a knowledge and testimony of Christ" we love others, including their imperfecions, and instead of judging their actions we look to perfect ourselves.

I think this is the way we combat the effects of what you are talking about. Because really, we can't go around correcting others behavior because 1)they probably woundn't hear it anyway, and 2)we wouldn't be able to be a good influence to anyone because no one would like us.

I wouldn't just look at instruction from the Prophet as "wise council from and old man" that dimishes what the Prophet is. He is the inspired leader that we sustain and agree to follow. You are right that it is up to us to interpret how wil will implement his teachings in our lives. If you get a tattoo, are you following the I judge you...not for that(j/k) Why? Because my responsibility is to follow the prophet, just as it it yours. If I judge you, I am saying that I don't need mercy or the Atonement, which, I do.

(BTW, mine says "Nate rocks!" with a lightning bolt running through it.)

Jason Steed said...

Maybe another way to frame this is as a difference between Doctrine and Policy. (I capitalize the words only for emphasis.)

For example, keeping your body holy might be construed as the Doctrine, which is articulated more fully in Section 89 of the D&C. But how we are instructed to abide by that doctrine, at any given time in history, is the Policy -- so at one time drinking beer is acceptable, at another time it isn't.

Similarly, being wholesome, upright, and modest in our words an appearance might be a Doctrine -- but what that means, exactly, in our daily lives (e.g., what clothing is acceptable, etc.) changes from time to time, as a matter of Policy.

Thinking about it this way enables us to understand why teachings might change from time to time, while maintaining the notion that doctrines are unchanging and eternal.

Most of the time -- 99% perhaps -- we should listen to the counsel of our leaders and follow the Policies that they set out for us, as these represent the "righteous" way to live for the time in which they are controlling. But at the same time, recognizing the difference between Doctrine and Policy can also enable us to think critically about Policies without shaking our testimonies of Doctrines and leaders.

Because the fact is, sometimes a Policy might just be wrong or bad. For example, I like to think that "all righteous males hold the priesthood" is a way to articulate a Doctrine -- but for 100 years or so there was a Policy in place that denied that priesthood to blacks. The Doctrine didn't change. It was just that historical and cultural norms were such that leaders fell into implementing a Policy that -- though it seemed good or justifiable at the time -- was actually bad or wrong.

After all, our leaders are fallible. They are righteous men, but they are only men.

Again, I'm not advocating widespread criticism of Church teachings -- I think our default position should always be to take Policies as good and right. But maybe the Doctrine/Policy way of thinking can be useful as we study Church teachings and struggle to gain testimonies and govern behavior...?

Jason Steed said...

Perhaps it is better to say that the Doctrine regarding the priesthood is that "righteous males hold it." (Not "all" righteous males.) The Policy of OT times held that only Levites held it. The Policy of most of the 20th c was that only whites held it. Now the policy is that all men hold it. But the Doctrine never changed.

As for gay marriage -- I think taking a particular stance on a particular bill in a particular state at a particular time is a matter of Policy, not Doctrine. Certainly there is Doctrine that says gay marriage is wrong -- but that's a spiritual law. The decision to support or oppose a secular law is not Doctrine -- it's Policy. (In other words, there is no Doctrinal requirement that we make secular laws align with spiritual laws.)

The reason I point this out is to offer that it might be understandable, and maybe even acceptable, for an individual to object to the Policy of supporting/opposing a piece of legislation -- whereas it is certainly not acceptable for an individual to object to the Doctrine of heterosexual marriage. Put another way: I might be OK with secular laws that allow gay marriage, while still embracing the spiritual law that marriage can only truly be between a man and a woman. And it might be OK for me to feel this way, because I'm only "going soft" (so to speak) on a Policy -- I'm not contradicting Doctrine.

Does this make sense?

Nate said...

That's a good way to think about it Jason. I think the problem becomes that at some point you can no longer tell where the one category stops and the other begins.

I think earlier generations found that distinction more easily. For example, we can read historical accounts showing times where the church came out and said 'vote for X' and many people did the opposite. I have a hard time seeing a point where the majority of the church would do that now...which when it comes down to it, is probably a good thing.

Your post also touches on my next segment...I hope to have it out by the middle of next week.

Anonymous said...

Eagerly awaiting your next post Brother Nate!