Tuesday, February 08, 2005

Gospel, Doctrine, Administration, Culture, and Tradition

A couple of posts in some of my favorite blogs (here and here) have once again moved me to write. This time, it’s about something that bugs me a lot. These posts talk about a phenomenon of adaptation of Christianity to suit the needs or wants of humanity, rather than humanity adapting its needs and wants to the purity of the gospel of Christianity. Check them out. They’re good posts.

But the problem comes along because so many people don’t see the differences between the five elements I listed in the title of this post. When the lines between any of these elements get blurry, people start to get on shaky ground, IMHO.

Let me look at them for a minute:

GOSPEL That’s the purest of all revealed (and even unrevealed) truth. This is the gem we’re all supposedly seeking. This is the truth and joy that God has and wants to share with us. It truly sets us free. It never changes.

DOCTRINE Is, to me, God’s instructions to help us learn and implement the gospel. It very rarely changes. When it does change, it’s with a new and clearer understanding. For example, the Mosaic Law, in my mind, contained the doctrine of animal sacrifice. Its purpose was to help us learn about the atonement. When its purpose was fulfilled in the actual atonement, the doctrine was changed to that of the sacrament. But the underlying gospel of the atonement didn’t change.

ADMINISTRATION Is the practices and processes that we humans put into place to try and live the doctrine and the Gospel. Often divinely inspired, it is readily adaptable to the needs of the community. A good example is the Family Home Evening. The Gospel has been on the earth for thousands of years, and existed for eons before that. The doctrine of a father and a mother loving their family and teaching them the ways of the gospel has been around since Adam. The administrative practice of Family Home Evening is, in the history of the world, a very recent thing. People have been raising righteous families for centuries without it. But, that’s what a Prophet of God told us we need to be doing in our time, and it has shown to work very well.

CULTURE Is how a group of people think, feel, and respond as a group. It’s the common bond that any group of people have with each other. It’s manifest in attitudes, mores, and actions. It helps define a people.

TRADITION is heavily tied to culture and vice versa. It involves our way of acting in regular rituals (not necessarily “rites”, or religious rituals). It could be as simple as whether or not your family opens presents on Christmas Eve or Christmas morning. I grew up in a ward that had a New Year’s party with a talent show, every year.

Here’s the challenge with all this. These five words are all used to explain two things: How we do what we do and why we do it that way. The problem is that we don’t always apply the right word to explain the particular act.

For example. We all know that when the Sacrament is administered, it should be done by priesthood holders wearing white shirts and ties. They hold the trays a certain way, and move down the aisles a certain way. Why do they do those things the way they do? Is the wearing of a white, button-down collared shirt with a dark, yet conservative necktie a part of the Gospel? Is it part of the Doctrine? I submit that at the first ministration of the sacrament, neither Christ nor the apostles were wearing white shirts or ties. Is it Administration? Yes. In this day and age, the instructions are that those that pass the sacrament should wear white shirts and ties. It certainly is a part of our LDS tradition and culture.

But now, let’s export that to another country, where the traditions don’t include white shirts and ties. Should they be expected to conform? Will their Sacrament be less accepted by the Lord if they don’t?

Let’s look at other issues, like the music of the church. All of the hymns are based on western culture. The melodies, the harmonies, the structure has its roots in Western Europe. So, is our hymn book Gospel, Doctrine, Administration, Culture, or Tradition? Clearly it teaches and supports the Gospel and the Doctrine. It’s endorsed by the Administration. It’s an integral part of our American church culture. It’s a part of our tradition. But if a Sacrament meeting in Kenya were to have other music, would it be less spiritual?

And then what about our weekday music? Our styles of dress? Our ways of celebrating events throughout the year? Our individual personalities?

All too often we take parts of our tradition and our culture (and even our own personal likes and dislikes), and we say to ourselves (even on a subconscious level), “This is comfortable to me. It makes me feel good. This is where the Spirit communicates with me. This is what “spiritual” feels like. So therefore, MY traditions, and MY culture is therefore SPIRITUAL. Since it is spiritual, it therefore must be GOSPEL.”

From there, it’s only mental gymnastics to get to: “Since my traditions and culture, my way of doing things are GOSPEL, they must then be the way that YOU must do and think and feel as well.”

Truly, the true Gospel is for the whole earth. The Doctrine is for the whole earth. Even, the administration, by nature of the inspired hierarchy (one prophet/president with the keys to the gospel on the earth), is for the whole earth. But the cultures and the traditions are not. They are flexible. They are NOT mandated by God on High, but instead have been reinterpreted by man on earth.

The church is not a democracy. It should not bend on issues that are doctrine. While we can discuss and debate these things as much as we want, those aren’t gonna change.

But we need, both individually and as a people, to be more flexible in our reflections of diverse cultures, without sacrificing our dedication to a pure gospel, with divinely taught doctrine, and a divinely led but human Administration.

Mark Hansen


  1. Great comments! Thanks for picking up the thread. It's all too easy to write from one perspective and not be altogether clear as to what was presumed from the writer's point of view. You and Cam have filled in the blind spots nicely.

  2. I haven't had time to read the other articles yet, but the first thing that came to my mind was the organization of the Seventy. The composition and "deployment" of the Seventy has changed over time, but the mission and scriptural charge for that office has never changed in it's essence.

    Same with Area Presidencies, Assistants to the Twelve, Regional Representatives, etc. These are all ways the church has effectively shaped the administrative body of the church and the administration of the Gospel, while adhering to the directives for priesthood offices as outlined by scripture (or Gospel/Doctrine).

    Good stuff.

  3. I agree wholeheartedly. As a musician, you are well aware that the Spirit can be felt through far more than the 300 some odd hymns in our hymn book.

    Customs change from region to region. The truth carries forth. I was moved to tears once when I heard a baby blessing in Spanish yet I didn't understand a word of it.

    We are too easily hung up on customs. As we stretch our minds to reach beyond these differences, we mature spiritually.



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