J. Stapley’s recent post talks about how we as a people tend to sanctify any and all procedural decisions made by the institutional Church. As a result, he says “we can become burdened by the worst of our past culture.” Call it the “Sacred Status Quo” rule, described by someone on the Bloggernacle as follows:
“If there’s one thing Mormons excel at, it’s enshrining the status quo and assuming that if we do anything, there must be a good reason for it, and if there’s a good reason, it must have been revealed as the only way to do it, and if so, then it must have always been that way in all dispensations.”
We’re supposed to “be one,” and “love one another,” and avoid “contention,” and “build up Zion.” We’re supposed to defer to our inspired leaders who’ve been given stewardship over their flocks, and who sacrifice an immense amount of time to serving us. Obedience keeps things running smoothly, and it’s the least we can do. At the same time, expectations for obedience aren’t always realistic. We Mormons are great at backing such things up using scriptures. This post provides the top three scriptural justifications for culturelag, i.e., the continued presence of unnecessary or outdated policies and procedures. I describe the stories, list some of the rhetorical purposes they’re used for, and describe a few problems resulting from such usage. Especially in cases where Church norms have no reasonable justification, it usually boils down the simple concept of obedience.
1. The Adam “after many days” Justification (Moses 5):
The Story: The Lord commands Adam to offer the firstlings of his flocks in sacrifice apparently without telling him why. “And after many days an angel of the Lord appeared unto Adam, saying: Why dost thou offer sacrifices unto the Lord? And Adam said unto him: I know not, save the Lord commanded me” (Moses 5:6). The angel tells Adam the offerings are in similitude of a future Messiah, Adam and Eve are blessed.
Rhetorical Purposes: Teach that some commandments which seem unjustified, unnecessary, even random, actually result in hidden blessings. To point out that some commandments aren’t ends in themselves, but are actually object lessons for a wider purpose. To imply that is perhaps more virtuous to obey without knowing the reason for a particular commandment than if a reason were given.
Problems: The verses never explain why many days passed before Adam gets clued in. A legitimate reason is eventually given for the sacrifices, in that they represent the most important gospel principle ever. With many church policies, the mystery comes at the end, not the beginning, contrary to what we see in the Moses account. For instance, we know why a beard ban was originally in place, but the changing culture has not resulted in a changing policy. The reason is now mysterious.
2. The Naaman “some great thing” Justification (2 Kings 5):
The Story: Naaman, captain of the Syrian hosts, is struck with leprosy. The prophet Elisha instructs him to bathe seven times in the river. Naaman “went away in a rage” until a servant asks: “If the prophet had bid thee do some great thing, wouldest thou not have done it? how much rather then, when he saith to thee, Wash, and be clean?” (2 Kings 5:13).
Rhetorical Purposes: Some commandments aren’t a big deal at all. Complaining about them is childish. Small and simple things can result in wonderful blessings. Obedience shows humility.
Problems: Assumes that any and all commandments are equal to Elisha’s command. Trivializes the personal feelings of the person being asked to comply. Can be used to justify any number of demands which don’t seem like a big deal to the demander, but which may be a very big deal to the demandee.
3. The “Abrahamic Test” Justification (Genesis 22):
The Story: The Lord asks Abraham to do the unthinkable: to kill his only son. As we typically read the story, Abraham is deeply sorrowful but deeply eager to obey God. At the last moment an angel appears to stop him. A ram is provided and all go home safe and sound. (Although you’d think Isaac would be a little freaked out after this.) The “Akedah,” or binding of Isaac has been interpreted in many ways by many cultures. Mormons use it in various ways, one of which being to teach the principle of obedience in the face of what seems like a crazy command.
Rhetorical Purposes: Prove loyalty. Trivialize the present command (it’s not like I’m asking you to kill your son here). Justify what appears to be irrational commands. Give the sense that the more you want to resist a particular command the more crucial it is that you obey it.
Problems: Can be used to justify practically anything. Abraham doesn’t actually have to kill his son. Don’t we have enough hardships to deal with in our lives without having to manufacture additional little loyalty tests for each other?
BONUS: Uzzah Steadies the Ark (2 Samuel 6):
The Story: David and his crew load up the Ark on a new cart. While in transit the oxen manage to give it a good shake. Uzzah reaches out and steadies it to prevent it from falling onto the threshing floor, violating 1 Chr 15:2 where only the Levites are allowed to touch the Ark. Uzzah is struck dead.
Rhetorical Purposes: Teach that God is very serious about some commandments. Even your good intentions don’t justify a violation of these commands.
Problems: This example is trotted out at times when a suggestion is made that the Church could do something differently. The implication is that anything the Church does originates with God, and if we want to change it, even with good intentions, God won’t look kindly on it. But many of our practices have cultural or unclear origins and might not be the will of God. For those who want to preserve the status-quo, this story allows them to sidestep the good intentions and logic of anyone asking for a change without even considering if the practice in question is in fact of God. It is a great discussion ender.
(Note the first three stories involve positive commands whereas the bonus example, supplied by John in the comments below, represents a negative command.)
Sure, there are some great runner-up scriptures like Isaiah 55:8 or D&C 1:38. But the power in these three examples is that the rhetorical points are couched in stories rather than being simple declarations. I’m not contending that homiletic usage of these passages is always invalid, or that it always results in these particular problems. I think each of these stories can be useful to stress the importance of obedience and faithfulness, to remind us that the willingness to suspend judgment can in fact be virtuous, as blessings are not always immediately evident. On the other hand–and here’s the real problem–they can also be used to coerce people into doing things they don’t want (and shouldn’t have) to do. They can be used, in other words, to practice unrighteous dominion, a possibility about which we’ve received explicit warning (D&C 121:39).
Now I ask you, BCC readers: What scriptural stories might be employed to offset these particular usages?