The April general conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints brought a slew of significant changes to policies and programs of the church worldwide, but not necessarily to its core doctrines.
This is sometimes difficult to distinguish. For many both within and outside of the church, the doctrines and the resultant culture that spring from those teachings seem synonymous.
But why make this differentiation? Some might argue that the culture of the church — service locally and abroad, ministering to the community, striving for healthy, clean living, dedication to hard work, etc. — already leads LDS people to good citizenship.
But Daniel Judd, interim dean of Brigham Young University’s college of religious education, said in a recent interview it is very important, especially for members of the church, to distinguish between LDS church doctrine and “Mormon” culture. Much of the culture is wonderful, he said, but some parts of the culture can lead members to harshly judge themselves and others, seeking for a perfectionism that is not realistic in this life — nor is it a part of church doctrine.
“Our doctrine is beautiful, profound and healing,” he said. “But our culture can become distorted.”
He added that the Book of Mormon, one of the church’s standards of doctrine, teaches the doctrine of God’s grace and healing power, and the love of the Savior Jesus Christ. “Mormon” culture can sometimes lack the peace and grace found in the scriptures, and can be a factor in mental and emotional problems for its membership.
Casey Griffiths, assistant professor of church history and doctrine at BYU, discusses this very topic of learning the difference between doctrine and culture with his religion students at BYU every semester. Griffiths believes the prophets and apostles of the church want the rising generation to understand this distinction for themselves.
“Elder David A. Bednar has taught that the core doctrines of the church are relatively few in number,” Griffiths said recently in an interview. Referring to a general conference talk by then-President Boyd K. Packer, he explained that “the doctrines of the church do not change. But the policies and procedures change all the time.”
President Henry B. Eyring, second counselor in the First Presidency, hinted at potential future policy and program changes in a Sept. 15 presentation to members in the Seattle, Washington area with Russell M. Nelson, the president of the church.
“God is an unchangeable god,” Eyring said speaking to about 49,000 people at Safeco Field in Seattle. “But as the Church moves to every nation and people, and in the last days, we can expect and take joy in new messages coming from God through the prophet. The gospel will not change, but we will need personal revelation to feel the hand of the Lord when practical ways of doing things are changed by the Lord through his prophet. It will also take personal revelation to be able to see that a new way of doing things is better than the ways we have enjoyed.”
Recent policy and program changes, including how members minister to each other and how men are organized within congregations, are meant to direct its members to the core doctrine of the church, said Brent Top, BYU religion professor and former dean, in a recent interview.
“President Nelson — even from his first press conference — has been emphasizing the covenant path,” he said. “In general conference, you’re going to have talks that are universal, regardless of culture.”
Top likened the difference between church doctrine and culture to an old handcart wagon wheel. The hub of the wheel is the most important part of the wheel — tying it to the wagon, holding everything together and giving it strength. He explained that the hub is the gospel of the church.
Echoing Griffiths, Top explained that the core doctrines of the church within that hub are very few, and center specifically on Jesus Christ and his atonement and resurrection.
“It is He that gives strength to all other things,” Top said.
The spokes of the wagon wheel are important as well, but Top cautioned that without the hub “they are basically just kindling, just sticks.” He likened the spokes to the principles and ordinances of the church, including faith and baptism.
“The only way they have power is to be anchored in Jesus Christ,” Top said, adding that the spokes — the principles and ordinances — are meant to lead people back to Jesus Christ.
Surrounding all of this is the rim of the wagon wheel. Top explained that just as the rim holds the whole wheel together so it can fulfill its intended purpose, without the hub and spokes it would collapse. In the church, he likens its programs to that rim. The policies and programs of the church “are intended to lead us to the hub,” he said, and enable to the church to move along on its intended path.
“But they have no saving power,” Top said, adding that, just like the recent change from visiting and home teaching to focused ministering, this “packaging” has changed through the years and adapted to the church’s needs at given times.
“As the church becomes more of a global organization, church leaders are working to reduce and simplify church teachings to the core doctrine to make it fit with different cultures,” Griffiths said.
All the professors interviewed agreed this focus on the core doctrine of the church helps its members as they come to the gospel from disparate lands. Griffiths added that he’s noticed recently that in general conference, when apostles reference an important moment in American history to make a spiritual point, they couch that with a small history lesson so it can be understood better by members of the church worldwide.
In another example, he’s also noticed there are less general conference references to the Mormon Battalion — a time when church members enlisted to assist in the Mexican-American War. Because of the strength of the church’s membership within Mexico and South America, he feels the leadership of the church is sensitive to interpreting history from just an American point of view.
As the church grows in different countries abroad, he explained that church leadership wants to be sensitive to different cultures, and to focus on sharing the universal gospel truths with global members, without wrapping it up in American culture.
Judd experienced this firsthand when he served as a mission president for the Ghana-Accra mission from 2011 to 2016. He was set apart, or given a formal blessing to start that service, by Packer, and in that blessing, Judd explained that Packer specifically “counseled me not to take Utah and American culture to Africa, but to preach and teach the gospel of Jesus Christ.”
“I was sent to represent and teach true doctrine. Yet in doing so, the people of Africa helped me understand more that faith in Christ really is, and what grace really is. I’ll be forever grateful for that,” he said.
Judd, Top and Griffiths believe that the prophet and apostles of the church are encouraging all members to follow this same path — to move away from some of the purely cultural tenets of church membership and believe in and represent the true core doctrines of the gospel. But the expectation is there for the individual members to seek those doctrines themselves.
“At general conference, there is not going to be a flashing light saying, ‘This is doctrine,’ or ‘This is policy,’ or ‘This is culture.’ The expectation is for us to be knowledgeable of Jesus Christ so we can make that interpretation for ourselves,” Top said.