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.