Sunday, February 15, 2009

What is "the church"?

Let's have a poll, shall we?

The last few weeks have gotten me pondering how many different things we* mean when we say "the church." So when you think "the church," what is the first thing that comes to your mind? Which did you mean the last time you said "the church"?

1) The kingdom of God on earth, the church that will "come forth out of the wilderness of darkness and shine forth fair as the moon, clear as the sun, and terrible as an army with banners" (D&C 109:73). The Atonement, the plan of salvation, the church as it has always existed in eternity and through each dispensation from Adam to Jesus and now Monson.

2.1) The prophet, apostles, scriptures, doctrines, and revelations. The church that teaches and instructs, provides direction and truth from Heaven.

2.2) The prophet and apostles themselves. The brethren. They are imperfect, but we are assured that the Lord will not allow them to go astray.

3.1) The organizational bureaucracy that includes not only that beautiful pyramid structure MBA's get glossy-eyed about, but auxiliaries, departments, councils, quorums, and, above all, committees. The meetings, the structure, the rules, the programs, the handbooks and restrictions. The order of things. "We believe in meetings...."

3.2) Organized religion - a socioeconomic political organization that starts wars, oppresses minorities, and opposes scientific progress. (I meet enough people in Ithaca who believe this it seems necessary to include it.)

4.1) The members, imperfect though striving, around the world. "The church is not a museum for perfect people." They come from diverse backgrounds, heritages, languages, and cultures, but share a common belief in our Savior Jesus Christ and His gospel restored to earth in these latter days. The global church.

4.2) "Utah Mormons," who sadly are never mentioned by Californians, Ithacans, or 2/3 of BYU students without contempt and derision. (The 1/3 from Utah refer to "Idaho Mormons" instead in the same vein. I don't know who the saints in Pocatello mock.) In class last week, they were portrayed as: white, Republican, lots of kids, bad drivers, and jello-eating. "Mormon culture." Joy specifies "green jello and carrots with mayonnaise on the top."

4.3) The members who are not as spiritually enlightened as I am. This is the church that doesn't understand free agency as well as I do, or the role of grace and works, or my favorite hobby doctrine.

There's also one other definition, but I've never seen or heard anyone confuse this definition with the others:
0) A building, usually of brick, with a few particularly recognizable architectural styles, divided into predictable sets of rooms, where members gather for worship and social activities. ie - "The church is down the street." Visitors, it should be noted, are always welcome at the church for Sunday meetings.

These are the definitions that I could come up with. Which do you mean most often when you say "the church"? Which most recently? What other definitions have you heard? Feel free to combine them or give them percentages or any other free-form response you want. Post a comment.

What "the church" believes and teaches depends a great deal on which of these you mean. I'm thinking it might facilitate understanding if we were a bit clearer about which we mean. Personally, my first thought is some mixture of 1 and 2.

* - By we, I guess I am implicitly assuming fellow latter-day saints (ie - Mormons, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints). People from other faiths might well have varients on these themes or other themes altogether.

1 comment:

Desi said...

Very interesting post. It is amazing to me the differing descriptions that are available in differing contextual forms. I use the term "the church" mostly when I'm talking about the basic beliefs understood to be held by the main body of LDS members. Sometimes I use this form of the word when I am trying to decide if I agree with "the church" as a whole, or to see where I fit.

Living in TX has made me see a little more about the differences between the various wards and stakes of "the church." Down here, they concider anyone from AZ, CA, UT, ID to be "Utah." They lump almost everyone from the western states into the Utah catagory. I grew up in CO, and hadn't heard that state counted as Utah Mormons before.