With the LDS Church’s General Conference this weekend, I wanted to take a minute to discuss one of the most illuminating General Conference talks I have ever had the pleasure of hearing. Spoken by Elder Ronald E. Poelman of the First Quorum of the Seventy, it covers the difference between the Gospel and the LDS Church, how tradition and cultural norms can be misconstrued as gospel principles, and the extreme importance of free agency and questioning. Even though it is from 1984, it resonates even more today.
Both the gospel of Jesus Christ and the Church of Jesus Christ are true and divine. However, there is a distinction between them which is significant … Failure to distinguish between the two …. may lead to confusion and misplaced priorities with unrealistic and therefore failed expectations. This in turn may result in diminished benefits and blessings and, in extreme instances, even disaffections.
The Gospel and the LDS Church are two distinct things with two distinct purposes. Elder Poelman states that while the Gospel is an unchanging guide binding us to God, the Church is a delivery system meant to distribute the Gospel. However, misplaced priorities and understanding about the two can lead to devastating consequences: diminished blessings and even disaffection. What kind of misunderstandings? Well…
Traditions, customs and practices may even be regarded by some as eternal gospel principles. … Those who do not conform to these cultural standards may mistakenly be regarded as unorthodox or even unworthy. … It is important, therefore, to know the difference between eternal gospel principles which are unchanging, universally applicable and cultural norms which may vary with time and circumstance.
Cultural norms are not Gospel and the traditional way the Church has functioned does not necessarily mean that is the way it is meant to function in perpetuity. Indeed, it is not enough to simply obey church rules. They must be questioned.
Every church member has … the need and obligation to obtain (a personal witness regarding gospel principles and Church practices) by exercising his free agency … Without such assurance, one may feel confused and perhaps even burdened by what may appear to be simply institutional requirements of the Church. Indeed, it is not enough that we obey the commandments and counsel of Church leaders.
An unhealthy focus on institutional requirements or cultural norms, especially without questioning and receiving a witness that such things are necessary, can become a burden for those in the church — as well as the church itself. Those who do pray and receive a witness that things should be done differently are also an integral part of the church.
When we understand the difference between the gospel and the Church and the appropriate function of each in our daily lives, we are much more likely to do the right things for the right reasons. Institutional discipline is replaced by self discipline. Supervision is replaced by righteous initiative and a sense of divine accountability.
As we question the Church and receive Gospel wisdom from Church leaders, institutional discipline is replaced by self discipline. The need to be supervised by the Church also wanes as our own sense of accountability to God and our fellow brethren here on Earth grows. Indeed:
As individually and collectively we increase our knowledge, acceptance, and application of gospel principles, we become less dependent on Church programs. Our lives become gospel centered.