3 Nephi 14:24-27 – 3 Nephi 15:1-10 — LeGrand Baker — culture vs. doctrine

3 Nephi 14:24-27 – 3 Nephi 15:1-10 

24 Therefore, whoso heareth these sayings of mine and doeth them, I will liken him unto a wise man, who built his house upon a rock—
25 And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell not, for it was founded upon a rock.
26 And every one that heareth these sayings of mine and doeth them not shall be likened unto a foolish man, who built his house upon the sand—
27 And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell, and great was the fall of it.

My dear friend Beverly Campbell has been involved in Church affairs on the highest level for most of her life. Her devotion to the church and its leaders is absolute and unquestioned. She has said to me several times, and I have repeated it even more: “I know a thousand reasons to leave the Church, but only one reason to stay—It’s True! ”

That is the situation, plain and simple: It’s True!

I have been studying church history all my life and if I were to judge the truthfulness of the gospel or the validity of the Church by stories about some of the people who have been its members or among its leaders, I could probably come up with an easy thousand reasons without even going beyond 19th century church history. And then the reasons would multiply as we got closer to the present. (For example, I remember, when I was a boy, the mummers of amazement that rippled through the chapel when it was announced from the pulpit that a letter from the First Presidency contained instructions that women could now be called on to say the opening and closing prayers in sacrament meetings. That change in church policy really rattled some people’s lingering Victorian notions of cultural and priesthood propriety!)

The point is this: there is no legitimate rationale that can outweigh these facts: The gospel IS truth; the priesthood and its ordinances ARE real; and the church tends to be as correct as contemporary human culture will permit. There are excuses, of course: unanswered questions, hurt feelings, and sometimes sin on our own part. But even then, when one “leaves the church” he somehow insists “the church left him.” Occasionally that seems true because the differences appear to be irreconcilable, when one’s sense of right and wrong—or one’s prejudice—comes in conflict with church practices or doctrine. But in time and with patience those wrinkles will be ironed out. I know people who left the church because black men were not given the priesthood, and then after that, others who left the church because they were.

Just as the Law of Moses had to work within the larger ancient Near Eastern culture, so Mormonism has to work within the many cultures where our members live. Within those diverse cultures, Mormonism is a mostly coherent subculture with its own established practices and policies. Sometimes some members dogmatically represent those policies as doctrine. There is a danger there. As the larger culture changes some church policies can be changed also. The spiritually mature among us can distinguish between cultural norms, and Mormon sub-cultural policies, and true doctrine, but not everyone can make those distinctions. For people who have defined church policies as doctrine, their testimonies may be shaken when the policies are changed.

In every era of church history, there have been major issues that call people’s fundamental beliefs into question—the beliefs they grew up with and still tenaciously hold dear. In our past it was polygamy. More recently it was whether every worthy man could hold the priesthood. {1} Now it’s about gay rights. There will always be something to test our spiritual resilience.

In 3 Nephi, to some Nephites, when they were told the Law of Moses was fulfilled, the issue may have been even bigger than any of those our church has faced, and that is what the Savior addressed next.

1 And now it came to pass that when Jesus had ended these sayings he cast his eyes round about on the multitude, and said unto them: Behold, ye have heard the things which I taught before I ascended to my Father; therefore, whoso remembereth these sayings of mine and doeth them, him will I raise up at the last day.
2 And it came to pass that when Jesus had said these words he perceived that there were some among them who marveled, and wondered what he would concerning the law of Moses; for they understood not the saying that old things had passed away, and that all things had become new.
3 And he said unto them: Marvel not that I said unto you that old things had passed away, and that all things had become new.
4 Behold, I say unto you that the law is fulfilled that was given unto Moses.
5 Behold, I am he that gave the law, and I am he who covenanted with my people Israel; therefore, the law in me is fulfilled, for I have come to fulfil the law; therefore it hath an end.
6 Behold, I do not destroy the prophets, for as many as have not been fulfilled in me, verily I say unto you, shall all be fulfilled.
7 And because I said unto you that old things have passed away, I do not destroy that which hath been spoken concerning things which are to come.
8 For behold, the covenant which I have made with my people is not all fulfilled; but the law which was given unto Moses hath an end in me.
9 Behold, I am the law, and the light. Look unto me, and endure to the end, and ye shall live; for unto him that endureth to the end will I give eternal life.
10 Behold, I have given unto you the commandments; therefore keep my commandments. And this is the law and the prophets, for they truly testified of me (3 Nephi 15:1-10).

While the specific issue the Savior addressed here is not one that concerns us now, the principle is very timely and exceedingly important.

The unqualified relevance to us is in the Savior’s words, “Behold, I am he that gave the law, and I am he who covenanted with my people Israel…. Behold, I am the law, and the light. Look unto me, and endure to the end, and ye shall live; for unto him that endureth to the end will I give eternal life.” He gives no well-thought-out rational argument. He simply says, “I am the law.” There is no other argument needed to justify the changes he has made.

That was the whole issue and there was not any other. The Savior gave the Law of Moses to enable the people to individually be brought to salvation while they were WITHIN the restraints of their ancient Near Eastern cultural. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is true, but it also has to function within cultural restraints. As we have seen, when the restraints change, the policies can also be changed. However, salvation is always an individual matter. The Church provides us with the scriptures, the priesthood and its ordinances, and with many systems of support, but in the end each of us must learn to recognize and live the truth of the gospel notwithstanding the larger cultural conditions that impose themselves upon us. Because it is still true that “the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house,” and it is also still true that only if we have an individually secure foundation will we be able to survive.

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FOOTNOTE

From a sociological point of view, polygamy had an underlying importance that was not just about multiple wives and children. During the 1870’s and 80’s polygamy was a rallying cry—a kind of “tribal” identity that had to be sustained so that the “tribe” could remain a cohesive, definable, and a self-identifiable unit. That self-identity was necessary for the church’s survival while the federal government was trying to dismantle it. Congress disincorporated the church; took away its property (including temples) and put it in receivership to be disposed of. Federal officials jailed all the leaders they could capture; and Congress was discussing a federal disenfranchisement law like the one in Idaho. Polygamy became the symbol of Mormon resistence. Then, in 1888, Wilford Woodruff and the chairman of the National Republican Party met and struck a deal that would undo those congressional actions and make things normal again for the Church. In exchange, the national government got the Manifesto which was the Mormon bargaining chip. The church agreed to discontinue making NEW polygamous marriages. That was all the church gave up. Existing polygamous marriages were left in tact, the church was reincorporated, and Mormons were now defined again as legitimate Americans. In fact, the Church lost nothing. The doctrine of eternal marriage was not changed, but the practice of polygamy had run the course of its usefulness because after 1888 the focus of church policy turned to expansion rather than survival.

The other issue was similar. The Jim Crow laws were still enforced in the 1940’s and 50’s, and not challenged until the 60’s and 70’s. If the church had given black men the priesthood before it did, segregation laws would have required that we have black wards and black stakes, and white wards and white stakes—just like there were white and “colored” Baptist, Methodist congregations. That kind of segregation would have violated everything that is Zion. So the Mormons had to wait until American culture would permit a black man to be the bishop of a white ward before the Lord could instruct the prophet: “Now is the time.”

The necessity of these and other changes, and correctness of their timing are easy for us to see in hindsight, but at the time they gave real consternation to some members of the Church. The situation now is the same as it was in 3 Nephi: The Savior made the law and only he has the ultimate authority to change it.

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