Friday, March 12, 2010

Culture vs. Doctrine: Conformity is not a Swear Word

I have been thinking quite a lot over the past several years about a few issues that seem to fall into the same basket—women wearing pants to church, women longing for the priesthood, two-hour block meetings, lesson correlation, who says prayers in what order—and proposed behavior in regards to these issues. These issues trouble me because although I can agree with the dilemmas inherent in these issues, I most strongly do not agree with most of the grassroots actions proposed by complainants.

To clarify, let me use one recent example of what I mean. A woman posts a link about wearing pants to Church and the conflict that has been caused by it, listing her reasons for wearing pants despite knowing the conflict and discomfort it is likely to cause. Many other people vent their spleens about how backwards and anti-woman no-pants-wearing-at-church-rules are, some sharing stories about injustices suffered, others sharing stories about how it made no difference. Some imagine up saucy rejoinders to say to any unfortunate leader trying to correct such behavior, others belabor the notion that dress-wearing is cultural bias, not salvational doctrine. (With the automatic assumption that anything cultural is worthless.) Wearing pants to church becomes a symbol of intelligence and strength. And, usually, anyone who might proffer an opinion that it is less than appropriate to wear pants is perceived as backwards, suppressed, or other such adjectives. (Please note that this example is about a principle, not about pants. Frankly, Scarlett, I don't care if a woman wears pants to Church. To me, if it really is a symbol of true strength and intelligence, no one would feel the need to flaunt it and make it into a status symbol.)

I came across a rather interesting scripture that I think applies to situations like this where people feel a need to flaunt their actions which are against ambient culture.

"If any man think that he knoweth any thing, he knoweth nothing yet as he ought to know. But if any man love God, the same is known of him.

"As concerning therefore the eating of those things that are offered in sacrifice unto idols, we know that an idol is nothing in the world, and that there is none other God but one. For though there be that are called gods, whether in heaven or in earth, (as there be gods many, and lords many,) but to us there is but one God, the Father, of whom are all things, and we in him; and one Lord Jesus Christ, by whom are all things, and we by him. Howbeit there is not in every man that knowledge: for some with conscience of the idol unto this hour eat it as a thing offered unto an idol; and their conscience being weak is defiled.

"But meat commendeth us not to God: for neither, if we eat, are we the better; neither, if we eat not, are we the worse. But take heed lest by any means this liberty of yours become a stumblingblock to them that are weak. For if any man see thee which hast knowledge sit at meat in the idol’s temple, shall not the conscience of him which is weak be emboldened to eat those things which are offered to idols; and through thy knowledge shall the weak brother perish, for whom Christ died?

"But when ye sin so against the brethren, and wound their weak conscience, ye sin against Christ. Wherefore, if meat make my brother to offend, I will eat no flesh while the world standeth, lest I make my brother to offend."

Basically, this is teaching that although you might know that a particular practice is ridiculous from an eternal standpoint, and has no bearing on eternity, that it is a sin against Christ to actively work to flaunt that knowledge in the face of those who do not have the same understanding.

To use another example, I design the ward bulletin. Every week, I take the various bits of information and put them together. Two weeks in a row, I was told that the "Smith" and the "Brown" couples would be speaking. The first week, I put Sister Smith before Brother Smith on the agenda, the second week, I put Brother Brown before Sister Brown. They switched themselves (I suppose because of the cultural practice that dictates women speak before men.) It bothered me because it seemed to be a slap in the face. (It is a pet peeve of mine when people assume unspoken instructions.) However, after thinking a great deal about it, I realized that it was nothing more than my own pride that was bruised. It doesn't really matter who speaks first, and if they want to arrange it that way, it harms nothing in an eternal sense.

I understand that this principle can be taken too far the other way. Conformity for conformity's sake has a place, but in moderation. One could drive oneself batty trying to match everyone's expectations. However, like everything else, there is a balance. Culture may be wrong, but if squabbling over a petty cultural false conception means that another person will be filled with anger and/or mimic your behavior out of rebellion, it is not worth it.

Sometimes (but not always) Christ's purposes are better filled by simply conforming. After all, He may have rubbed the lawmakers of His day the wrong way by disobeying their made-up spiritual laws, but He very rarely made a point of it unless they first came after Him. Look at Ammon. By judiciously conforming, he changed the course of spiritual history for his entire people.


  1. Excellent points. Good job on this post.

  2. I'm glad no one in my ward thinks that it is necessary for a man to speak last or say the closing prayer. That's just stupid, not cultural.

  3. Great post! Those verses really teach a valuable lesson that more people need to hear.

    And as Elder Maxwell once said, Noah had no problem with conformity among the people once the rains started. (Paraphrase)

  4. Very relevant scripture there.

    Flaunting is an unattractive habit, theologically or not.

    I do, however, believe that there is a place, and a necessity for people to challenge accepted practice. Without that challenge, our culture can become stagnant and lifeless.

    The trick is to educate and inform, without becoming aggressive or superior about it. It is all in the attitude - wear pants to church, but do it matter of factly, and don't make it a rallying point.

    It is a silly and irrelevant issue, and if we treat it as such, then other people are more likely to see it as such. If we use it as a rallying point, the cultural investment in the pants becomes as big a problem as the cultural investment in the skirt.

    After people have been gently convinced of their liberties, they will no longer serve as a stumbling block to them.

    (Of course, I must admit, sometimes it is fun to tip the boat right over every once in a while, just to keep people on their toes... :D)

  5. Great thoughts.

    As much as some may deny it, this comes down to obedience, the first law of the gospel. Rebelliousness is not a virtue, it makes a person an enemy to God. "Stirring things up" is another way to describe contention, which is of the devil. The gospel is vibrant and life-giving not because people challenge it but because of the atonement of Christ. Zion is a people of one heart and one mind living peacefully together, not everyone doing their own thing with their own agenda to stir up intellectual debate.

    Men speaking last and/or saying the closing prayer is a cultural tradition in some areas. Some people who live in, or grew up in, those areas carry that tradition with them when they move or go on missions. They then, erroneously but innocently, teach it to others. It is a cultural habit that is fading away. Just because we might not understand it doesn't make that person stupid, unrighteous, or chauvinist. I'm grateful that the brethren have made statements to correct it, and hope that the word gets spread quickly. I give priesthood leaders the benefit of the doubt that when they learn the truth they will abandon the practice.

  6. Thanks for your thoughtful post.

    I had a missionary companion who used to quote the verses you did, and it was a great lesson to me way back then and still is now.

    Interestingly in areas where there are many new members, some of the conformity issues are pressured from the other side of the pipe, so to speak, and new members learn our cultures and traditions over time. Having a vibrant and growing membership allows us to determine the essential things and focus on those.

    (I'm intrigued that the bishopric member who provided you speakers didn't also specify the order in which they speak.)


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