The church seems to have replaced the tribe as God’s pattern for organizing his people–or has it? When God covenanted with Abraham, the covenant was with Abraham and his descendants (Genesis 17:7-8+). This covenant was to be fulfilled in part through Abrahamâ€™s righteous leadership as a father: â€œAbraham shall surely become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him . . . For I know him, that he will command his children and his household after him, and they shall keep the way of the Lord, to do justice and judgment; that the Lord may bring upon Abraham that which he hath spoken of himâ€? (Genesis 18:18-19). From the time of Abraham until the time of Christ, the nation of Israel was a people chosen of God, defined by descent from Abraham and Sarah, through Isaac and Jacob, and by a tradition of parentsâ€™ teaching children the way of the Lord, as they were commanded (e.g. Deut. 4:9; 11:19-21). Israel was not merely a group of people who shared beliefs about God; they lived together, shared a language, a culture, a government; they were a nation.
Christ taught clearly, however, that he was more interested in the works of Abraham, justice and obedience (and as Paul taught (Rom 4:13-16), Abraham’s faith), than in blood descent from Abraham (John 8:39). Christ died not just for the Jews, but to â€œgather together in one the children of God that were scattered abroadâ€? (John 11:52). The children of God were not organized into any one nation; they were divided and scattered, but the gospel was to be preached to all nations (Matt 24:14, 28:19). The church thus was formed, and governed by metaphorical fathers, to heal the disunity and waywardness of the human family. By following Christ we could all be adopted into his family and be united as a single nation (Gal 3:7, 29; Acts 17:26).
One way to read what Christ did, in restructuring his kingdom on Earth, is to see it as a move away from the tribe approach to human fellowship, to a more abstract, more egalitarian (more modern?), more cosmopolitan structure: the church. And since the time of Christ, overall, there has been a trend of increasing distinction between church and nation (though there was that bit about Constantine a few centuries out!). However, it seems to me that embodied in Mormonism, and implicit in Mormon scripture, is a different view of things.
Since its beginnings, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has defined a people held together by familial and quasifamilial ties. Under Brigham Young, the Church spent some years as an essentially independent, theocratic nation in what later became the state of Utah. It is strengthened as a community today by such programs as “home teaching”, and the church-funded Brigham Young University. The importance of family relationships is theologically and sacramentally expressed in the doctrine of eternal marriage, and in the sealing ordinances conducted in temples.
The church has come to seem more church-like and less tribe-like since the time of Brigham Young. The gathering to Utah has been replaced by “gathering” to the stakes of Zion, i.e. not much more than gathering for church meetings each week, wherever one may be. Church auxiliaries that incorporated a significant part of the Saints’ cultural and recreational life have been pared back. We might see this as a somewhat late compliance with the general Christian trend toward a more abstract, more modern, churchy approach to God’s saving work.
And yet we are taught at church that no success can compensate for failure in the home. Recent years have seen a major surge in temple-building. Though they are built by the corporate church, temples host a quite distinct kind of worship from that of Sunday church meetings, and temple worship emphasizes the ties of the human family. The paring back of auxiliaries and consolidation of church meeting schedules is explained as a way of leaving more room for families to perform their function. Could it be that the tribe has always been God’s preferred structure for his kingdom?
Though it was formed as a vehicle of the new covenant, of Christâ€™s higher law, in light of its teachings and practices the CJCLDS is arguably just a helper organization to another, older and superior in purpose: the human family, the family of God.