Separating Culture from Doctrine

[ 16 ] Comments

by Becca

This series is part of our Questions and Insight section. We welcome guest submissions for this ongoing series. If you would like to submit a post, or if you have a question about whether something is culture, policy, or doctrine and would like us to discuss, please visit our Contact or Submit page.

Carrots n JelloIn the aftermath of the presidential elections of the United States of America, the movements of activists such as the “Wear Pants to Church Day” and various letter writing campaigns, the change in minimum age requirements for missionary service, and jokes about green jello with carrots, I thought it would be the perfect time to address the tendency we have in the Church to confuse culture, policy, and doctrine.

separating doctrine from culture (4)

A religion professor I had once at BYU for a Doctrine and Covenants class drew a triangle on the white board like the one in the image above. The idea she presented was that the doctrine of the gospel of Jesus Christ is quite limited, and comes from one source – Jesus Christ. The policies are much more broad and include more than the doctrine, although policy is based on doctrine. Culture is influenced by policy and doctrine, but also frequently goes farther outside the lines of policy and doctrine, sometimes originating from who knows where.

The Doctrines of the Gospel

Christ explained His doctrine to the Nephites after His resurrection,

This is my doctrine, and it is the doctrine which the Father hath given unto me; and I bear record of the Father, and the Father beareth record of me, and the Holy Ghost beareth record of the Father and me; and I bear record that the Father commandeth all men, everywhere, to repent and believe in me.

And whoso believeth in me, and is baptized, the same shall be saved; and they are they who shall inherit the kingdom of God.

And whoso believeth not in me, and is not baptized, shall be damned.

… And whoso believeth in me believeth in the Father also; and unto him will the Father bear record of me, for he will visit him with fire and with the Holy Ghost. …

Verily, verily, I say unto you, that this is my doctrine, and whoso buildeth upon this buildeth upon my rock, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against them

The doctrine is basically the plan of salvation. Every principle of the gospel fits perfectly into the plan. The doctrine does not specifically dictate every action or thought. In April 2012, Elder D. Todd Christofferson taught us about the doctrine of Christ and explained that “this doctrine is pure, it is clear, it is easy to understand—even for a child.”

The prophet Joseph Smith taught,

The fundamental principles of our religion are the testimony of the Apostles and Prophets, concerning Jesus Christ, that He died, was buried, and rose again the third day, and ascended into heaven; and all other things which pertain to our religion are only appendages to it.

Elder Christofferson also taught us how doctrine is received in the Church. He discussed prophets, seers, and revelators, and reminded us of the ninth article of faith, which says, “we believe [God] will yet reveal many great and important things pertaining to the kingdom of God.” That revelation is received through prophets, seers, and revelators in the appointed way that Christ has organized His Church on this earth.

This clarification, which is probably my favorite quote from that entire session of conference, was offered in Elder Christofferson’s talk,

At the same time it should be remembered that not every statement made by a Church leader, past or present, necessarily constitutes doctrine. It is commonly understood in the Church that a statement made by one leader on a single occasion often represents a personal, though well-considered, opinion, not meant to be official or binding for the whole Church.

We must be careful not to assume something is doctrine just because it came out of the mouth of a Church leader. Elder Christofferson went on to relate a story about Brigham Young, who after giving a riling sermon about defiance to the army the government was sending, later spoke again and “said that Brigham Young had been talking in the morning, but the Lord was going to talk now. He then delivered an address, the tempo of which was the opposite from the morning talk.” Thus, a prophet is a prophet only when he is speaking as such. We can receive personal spiritual confirmation of the inspired nature of a statement from our Church leaders, and need not wonder if something was or was not a doctrinal statement. But we have to do some work to figure it out for ourselves.

Actual doctrine never changes. God does not change. However, we may not be fully able to receive all of the doctrine that God has for us, or we might not always understand the doctrine that we have. When Christ restored His Church in this dispensation through the prophet Joseph Smith, He did not give Joseph everything all at once. The doctrine of the priesthood, the doctrine of eternal marriage, the doctrine of proxy baptism and other temple work did not come until later. Doctrine was given “line upon line.”

Policy and Inspiration

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is not the gospel. Elder Donald L. Hallstrom pointed that out in his General Conference address in the same conference as Elder Christofferson’s talk. He said,

Sometimes we use the terms gospel and Church interchangeably, but they are not the same. They are, however, exquisitely interconnected, and we need both.

Elder Hallstrom’s subsequent description of the gospel, or doctrine, of Jesus Christ reads similarly to the scripture quoted from 3 Nephi. He more or less described the plan of salvation, including our premortal existence, the atonement, and eternal families. But Elder Hallstrom reminded us that “the purpose of the Church is to help us live the gospel.” In my diagram above, I would say that the gospel of Jesus Christ lies squarely in the doctrine section of the triangle. The Church fits more into policy, although as Elder Hallstrom pointed out, the Church and the gospel, or I would say the policy and the doctrine, are “exquisitely interconnected, and we need both.”

Church policy is based on doctrine, or on an understanding of doctrine. However, the policies are not necessarily doctrine – they can change, based on revelation and inspiration – but Church policies are supposed to help us live the doctrines of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Elder Hallstrom said,

Some have come to think of activity in the Church as the ultimate goal. Therein lies a danger. It is possible to be active in the Church and less active in the gospel. Let me stress: activity in the Church is a highly desirable goal; however, it is insufficient. Activity in the Church is an outward indication of our spiritual desire.

The purpose of the Church is to bring us closer to Christ, through His gospel and doctrine. In fact, in the Church Handbook of Instructions states that “The Church provides the organization and means for teaching the gospel of Jesus Christ to all of God’s children. It provides the priesthood authority to administer the ordinances of salvation and exaltation to all who are worthy and willing to accept them.”

An Inspired Culture… Mostly

Just like the policies of the Church are based on doctrine, so, mostly, is the culture of our Church based on policy and doctrine. But that is not always the case. Even when a good part of our culture is based on policy and doctrine it is always helpful to remember that it is not doctrine.

When we get so distracted trying to fit in to the culture of the Church, and trying to be active in the Church, we miss what is really important, and that is the gospel, the Sausage and Egg Casserole -- Father's Day Food 6-21-09 4doctrine, up at the tip of the triangle – the plan of salvation – and really nothing more, since “all other things … are only appendages to it.”

The culture can definitely be a good thing, as it is often the first experience someone has in being exposed to the Church. They notice that their neighbors are always friendly, bringing over treats, helping out without any thought of reciprocation. Then they find out about the compassionate service committee, the Relief Society, and Priesthood Quorums. Then, if they start to study the Book of Mormon and learn about the gospel, they learn about the gospel principles of charity and service.

James recently wrote a post about contributing positively to Mormon culture. One of our readers commented that Mormon culture is fluid, changing wherever you are in the world, that is, the Mormon culture of a stake in Brazil is going to be different from the Mormon culture of a stake in Ohio, and that will be different from the Mormon culture of a stake in Utah. With this much variation, you can know that the culture is definitely not doctrine. Even the policies change sometimes in different parts of the world, because the needs of the members of the Church are different. But the doctrine of the gospel is the same no matter where you go.

So it is with these thoughts in mind that we begin our Separating Doctrine from Culture series. This will be an ongoing series, and open to questions or guest posts.

If you have a question about something – if you want to discuss whether something is culture, policy, or doctrine – submit your question using the link in our header on the home page. If you would like to write a post about a cultural aspect of the Church – especially if you live outside of the “Mormon Corridor” (Utah, Idaho, Arizona, Southern California, and parts of Nevada, Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, Southern Alberta, and even Juarez, Mexico) and especially if you live outside of the United States of America – please consider writing a post. We would love to get a more global look at our global Church.

  • What aspects of Church culture where you live do you think accurately represent doctrine?
  • How do you influence the Church culture where you live?
  • How do you separate culture and doctrine?
  • How do you know if something is doctrine, policy, or culture?

About Becca

Becca is just a woman, mother, daughter of God, trying to figure things out. She blogs at My Soul Delighteth and Real Intent.

16 Responses to Separating Culture from Doctrine

  1. Sundy DeGooyer says:

    Amen! I love the clarifications and the diagram! Thanks!

  2. Bonnie says:

    Great thoughts. Teasing apart “the traditions of our fathers” is a life-long task, and one that teaches us every bit as much as the formal instruction we receive. I quibble with the diagram, because it looks like doctrine is founded on policy which is founded on culture, since the foundation is the bottom. I like that your professor noted that there are a few basic doctrines that everything depends upon, but to me they are more like a prism through which light comes. If there were a light source at the top and a doctrinal prism, then the light would first create policy and then create culture, growing more broad in its reach.

    And I think Mormon culture can be described multiple ways. Brigham Young foresaw a future rich culture focused on the arts, while many of us interpret culture to mean the accepted practices and norms of our little peculiar people. Being wholly different connotations, it’s probably wise to separate them somehow. Stephanie Meyer is most definitely not my Mormon art culture representative, and jello with vegetables is not my Mormon norms culture representative.

    I think you do a nice job of suggesting that Mormon norms are not the negative they’re usually ridiculed to be. They are, truly, our first taste of discipleship. In that way (thinking of the pyramid as a process of personal growth instead of a structure of the gospel), the pyramid does work. We access doctrine often after being intrigued by and wrestling with culture, and then policy.

    • Becca says:

      I love your comments, Bonnie, and I particularly like the idea of the prism – that is a great way to look at it.

  3. ji says:

    Yes, there are differences between doctrine and culture. But I think one speaks too rigorously in saying that doctrine NEVER changes. Yes, doctrine does change, usually when revelation calls for it. For example, I think it is doctrine that the priesthood is available to all worthy men — not mere administrative policy — but the doctrine can change if/when revelation calls for it. On the other hand, sending missionaries out at age 18/19 is administrative policy — revelation may or may not have been involved, and the change was wholly within the policy discretion of the leaders of the Church.

    I know there are general authority quotes that say doctrine doesn’t change, but it does. Plural marriage was for a time, a doctrine, commanded by God himself. God commands and God revokes, as seemeth him good.

    • Becca says:

      I would be deeply concerned if what I am describing as doctrine changes. But we probably have differing opinions on what is doctrine and what is man’s understanding of doctrine.

      I don’t believe that plural marriage, itself, is a “doctrine”. The doctrine is celestial/eternal marriage – or, rather, the “new and everlasting covenant of marriage”. Polygamy was a part of the new and everlasting covenant of marriage, but it obviously wasn’t the new and everlasting covenant of marriage (if it was, then we wouldn’t have the new and everlasting covenant of marriage today – but we do). Just because a policy changes doesn’t mean that the policy was wrong. It could be that it was the thing that was necessary at the time it was policy. The new and everlasting covenant of marriage never changed when polygamy was revoked, just as the priesthood never changed when the 1978 revelation was received. The revelations didn’t change the doctrine, in my opinion, they either revealed more doctrine, or they simply changed how the Church administered that doctrine. But that’s just my view, and my opinion. :)

      • Paul says:

        Becca, I think you’ve got it right. And, as you said in the OP, sometimes our understanding of doctrine is not yet complete without further revelation.

  4. Brittany says:

    This conceptualization of policy as separate fom doctrine is really helpful to me. I agree with your assessment in the comment above that doctrine doesn’t change–if we think it did, ot’s because we are confusing doctrine with policy.

    Policy often changes over time as the culture of the world changes. Some of the rules about and counsel to women in the Bible sound misogynistic to modern ears (Exodus 21:1-11, Ephesians 5:21-24), but those things are policy about women and not doctrine about women. The doctrine about women is that women are of equal value to The Lord as men. We can hope that more doctrine on women will be revealed, especially, in my opinion, with reguard to Heavenly Mother’s role in the plan of salvation as we understand it.

    • Becca says:

      I like your comments about policies being specific to certain cultures and times. I really feel like being able to purify the doctrine from all the things that are policy and culture can really help us focus on the most important parts of the gospel. I’m not saying policy is irrelevant or shouldn’t be followed or is created based on the whims of our leaders – I do believe that policy, whether inspired or not (though I believe more often than not it is inspired), serves God’s purposes.

  5. Ray DeGraw says:

    “Doctrine”, at the most basic level, means simply “what is taught as normative at any given time”.

    “Eternal doctrine” is teaching that never changes – within a framework someone accepts as “true”.

    When you look at the totality of our scriptural canon, there is very little that is eternal doctrine – and pretty much all of it can be summed up in the following, in my opinion:

    1) “I am a child of God” – and even that hasn’t been eternal in the details.

    2) “Love one another.” (So much non-eternal doctrine falls within this eternal doctrine.)

    3) “I am the way, the truth and the light.” (within Christianity)

    4) The universal need for faith, repentance and communing with God. (even baptism and the specific nature of an ordination surrounding the Gift of the Holy Ghost isn’t omnipresent in our scriptures)

    When you look at it that way, “culture” encompasses much, much more than we tend to think automatically.

    • Becca says:

      Indeed.

    • Julia says:

      Ray- I love this way of describing, which I would say, is the eternal salvation doctrine.

      Becca- I think understanding that culture is a “way in” to wondering about doctrine. That power to cause curiosity was brought home to me in a conversation recently.
      I was recently having a conversation with a woman who grew up in Spain, and has a favorite Spanish hymn that for her sums up the salvation part of the church’s doctrine. When I hadn’t heard it, she offered to figure out which hymn it was (in English) so I could listen and then we could talk about it. When she found out that it was written in Spanish, and had not been translated into English, she was shocked. She said that for her, hearing a friend sing that song, had been the beginning of her testimony. Realizing it was a cultural part of the church there, but not part of the culture here, or doctrine everywhere.

    • Bonnie says:

      Ray, I don’t think doctrine is merely what’s taught as normative at any given time at all. It must go deeper than that or it is merely policy. But I do agree that there is little that is truly doctrine. On the facebook page, one of our authors reminded us of the following from Elder Bednar (Ricks College Edu. Week, 1998):

      “First, understand and love the doctrine of Christ. As I travel around the Church, I find the word ‘doctrine’ is not very well understood. Sometimes we think doctrine refers to weird, abstract, mysterious subjects in the gospel of Jesus Christ. As I refer to doctrine, I am not talking about how many light-years it is to Kolob and who lives there.

      Rather, doctrine refers to the eternal, unchanging, and simple truths of the gospel of Jesus Christ. There are several key words in that definition: eternal, unchanging, simple, and truth. Doctrines are never altered. They never vary. They will always be the same. You can always count on them.

      There is, for example, the doctrine of the Atonement. There is doctrine related to priesthood and priesthood keys. There is doctrine related to continuing revelation and the pattern whereby our Heavenly Father communicates with us and we communicate with Him. These are eternal, unchanging truths of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

      There are also principles. Principles are doctrinally-based guidelines for what we ought to do. Therefore, if there is a doctrine of the Atonement, then the first principle of the gospel is faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. Repentance is the second principle or doctrinally based guideline for how we should live. Both of these principles are linked to the doctrine of the Atonement. Brothers and sisters, doctrine answers the why questions of our lives. Principles provide us with direction about the what and the how. May I suggest that in the times in which we live, only the restored gospel of Jesus Christ has the answers to the why questions that matter the most.

      Susan and I have lived in the mission field all of our adult lives, and we have encountered marvelous people in other denominations who do many of the right things but do not fully understand why. It concerns me as I see young people in our Church who know all the correct things they should do and do not have a clue as to why. They have a check-list mentality. “Say my prayers morning and night. Read the scriptures.” Why do they do these things? ‘Because I am supposed to. Because the prophet said. Because my mom and dad will jump my case if I don’t.’

      May I suggest that each of these activities is related to the doctrine of revelation. We pray every morning in a meaningful way to invite the companionship of the Holy Ghost. At the end of the day we report and give an account of our stewardship in our evening prayer. We express gratitude for the companionship of the Spirit and the direction we received. We also study the scriptures daily to feast upon the words of Christ, to again invite the Spirit, and to receive instruction and direction. These things are related to the doctrine of receiving revelation. But do we do these things without an understanding of what they are linked to doctrinally? Do we understand why? If we do not understand the why, then the power available to us through the doctrine of Christ will not be evident in our lives.”

      • Ray says:

        Bonnie, that’s exactly why I draw a distinction between “doctrine” and “eternal doctrine” (or, “the doctrine of Christ”). I’m a stickler when it comes to word choice (trying to be as precise as possible), so if a word can be qualified into a phrase (“eternal” doctrine), the word itself (“doctrine”) means something more expansive than the qualified phrase.

        Thus, Elder Bednar is choosing to define “doctrine” as “eternal doctrine” – and I am totally fine with that. It’s just not how most people define “doctrine” (and that lack of precision causes HUGE problems in the Church), so I personally draw a distinction between the two.

      • templegoer says:

        Bonnie, thankyou for that, I will be sharing it with my 17 year old son tonight.
        With reference to the post, I’ve never been comfortable with mormon culture, but have a deep witness of the truth of the doctrine, what I see as the profound and foundational beliefs that have converted my soul as found in the ‘Articles of Faith’. Each time I read the book of Mormon the spirit bears witness to my soul that this is true.
        However I’m not instinctively a group person and find it difficult to get enthused about any particular piece of artwork because it has been done by a mormon. Likewise I find it difficult to limit my cultural choices to Disney or uplifting, although I do enjoy resolution and redemption.
        I generally loathe mormon food which seems to have a preference for that which comes out of the can rather than that which comes out of the earth, and enjoy the human body in it’s many forms other than pornography. I have a small family by LDS standards and am a private person, and I’ m happy in theory for my children to make their own choices, not wanting to encumber them with guilt-at least that’s my narrative of our family, my kids might tell it different.
        My world does not stop for General Conference , although I love the wisdom expressed and the course corrections that can ensue, and I’m currently more interested in the living than the dead. I don’t think dancing should be done from the waist up.
        I’ve never met any of the people on ‘I’m a Mormon’ and I respect them for the struggle it must have been for them within the mormon culture to be able to do things that they love to any standard of proficiency. In my day we had to make choices-either you were in or you were out. That meant that either you attended all your meetings and had no other interests other than serving others, or you were out. My kids did not like that message, it offered them little vision of a life they wanted to live. In fact, it was a little bit dour.
        Geographically, I don’t have the privelege of immersing my kids in the culture-I also see that it is a powerful protection until we can develop testimony for ourselves. But I also love the multicultural diversity that surrounds me. I don’t see it as ‘the world’ although I can be heard sometimes referring to it in the same way as any mormon might-a shorthand for all that I disapprove of and don’t want my kids to involve themselves in. Neither do I see ‘the church’ as the only vehicle for creating community, and see as much community built around a local pub or club, dance group or community choir or garden or school.
        This makes me pretty much an outsider, so I’m thrilled to meet others who are comfortable questioning their implementation of the gospel in their family and cultural lives. It helps me to know that it’s my church too.
        On the other hand, I think it’s important that I try not to define myself by difference, and I do try to participate in visiting teaching and friendships on an individual basis, focusing on the commonality we have as fellow saints. Sometimes I feel better about this, sometimes worse.

  6. Julia says:

    (Last part of my previous comment didn’t post, not sure why)

    Realizing that song wasn’t doctrine threw her for a loop. We ended up talking about the doctrine in the song: we are children of eternal parents, we lived before we came to earth, we can live with our Heavenly Parents and earthly family after we die.

    The rest of the things in the song were beautiful, but most of then led back to one of those truths, or was a cultural outgrowth from them. So I really see how culturally doctrine translates to policies, and then to cultural elements, which may be pretty varied in each culture. I think that’s important to remember when the culture is across language barriers, but even more important when it is across life experiences, even when people share a language and zip code.

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