Spoiler alert: doctrine and culture may not be the same

This article appears as part of the article series “Inclusion, activity, and the Church.” All articles related to the series are included under the Church Inclusivity tag.


In the past few years, I’ve had many conversations with members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints about various practices or beliefs of the Church. At some point in many of these conversations, someone will say something along these lines:

“There’s a difference between Church culture and Church doctrine.”

Many members who are well enough into adulthood to be self-aware of their own beliefs and behaviors in relation to others in the Church appear to have come to this conclusion. In pursuance of this idea that culture is different than doctrine, many develop their lifestyle and faith around this framework.

The difference between culture and doctrine is rarely, if ever, openly addressed by the Church proper – at least not in a very thorough way. Yet this idea appears to be a strongly held belief by many young adults.

If Church leaders aren’t teaching this as a concept, why are so many members adopting this as a belief? And if this axiom is true, how does one know the difference between culture and doctrine? Does this understanding make critical impact on worship? Is it critical to personal spiritual development and closeness to Deity? If so, is this not something that requires exploring?

Statistically I don’t know what percentage is or is not subscribing to the idea, and believe me, I’ve met plenty of members my age who don’t care as much about figuring out the culture-doctrine distinction. Yet one reason I raise these questions is because I find this parsing out of culture and doctrine to be a popular movement among my age group.

Within this idea is an area of potential opportunity for those looking to be inclusive to the oncoming generations. That is, the opportunity to make adjustments that are inviting to young members. For if there are differences between culture and doctrine, and if many young members are discontent with the culture less so than the doctrine, then is the culture something that can (and should) be adapted? Are most members who struggle with the Church struggling more with the culture than the doctrine?

According to core belief about eternal truth, the doctrine will not change. But the culture surrounding it is not static. The culture of worship and church society is quite different in each era and area of the Church – different in Nauvoo pre-pioneer than in Salt Lake City after Official Declaration One; different in South America today than in Europe as the Saints piled into ships to come to Zion; different in the intermountain American West than in the urban areas of the Northeast. The culture changes, even if ever slowly, and – whether we like it or not – is likely to change throughout our lifetimes.

Culture is significant to church membership, even if we are unaware of the culture in which we are participating. A unique church culture – whether churchwide or geography specific – is not inherently bad and can often be gratifying and unifying. After all, being around people who share many core beliefs makes life that much easier, and being around people with commonalities often leads to distinct culture.

However, developing and strictly enforcing culture can box some people out. Established doctrine will theologically box people out, certainly, but church membership isn’t just about theology: it’s also about belonging, lifestyle, society, emotions, connection, spirituality, personal development, support, friendship, love, family, opportunity, and many other things. All can be connected with doctrine, yes, but culture plays a huge role – perhaps an even bigger role –  in each of these human needs, and sometimes the ties to doctrine are not direct or self-evident.

Well… at least not everyone agrees they’re evident.

What do you think? Is there a difference between culture and doctrine? Why does it matter? Should it matter to the Church? What are those differences? Is there something to be gained from being aware of the relationship between culture and doctrine?

At a minimum, I believe something significant is in this discussion.


One thought on “Spoiler alert: doctrine and culture may not be the same

  1. I think you articulate a really important conceptual parsing that could relieve some pressure from the grappling generation.


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