The Church and the Tribe

December 15, 2004 | 16 comments
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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 Abraham’s righteous leadership as a father: “Abraham 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 parents’ 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 “gather 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 Christ’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.

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16 Responses to The Church and the Tribe

  1. David King Landrith on December 15, 2004 at 6:47 pm

    You seem to forget Ruth, the Moabitess. She’s the convert from whom Jesus was descended.

  2. Clark on December 15, 2004 at 7:46 pm

    I’m not sure I buy that Ben. If anything the ideal Patriarchal order is built around a very tribal like view of life. Yes, we don’t fight among tribes, so many of the negative aspects of tribal life are removed. But it seems incorrect to suggest it based upon some “cosmopolitan” view.

  3. Jack on December 15, 2004 at 9:17 pm

    Clark,

    I think the idea is to gather the entire human family into one “tribe”. The Church becoming more “churchy” serves as an interface with a cosmopolitan world that really isn’t ready for that kind of oneness. However, increased focus on temple worship must inevitably yield a more “tribal” view of the Kingdom among it’s members, wouldn’t you say?

  4. Rosalynde Welch on December 16, 2004 at 1:05 am

    Ben, in my Ultimate Fantasy Ward, you and Jim F. are co-gospel-doctrine teachers! (With Melissa and Kristine as RS teaches, of course!)

    I like the way you think about Christ’s restructuring of the kingdom of God. The tribal organization seems to evoke intense loyalty to leader and deity; the faith-relationship of Jehovah to the tribe of Israel in the OT, for example, seems principally to consist in loyalty, or the lack of it. The tribe also seems an inherently agonistic organization–a small group in a large and hostile world. But the tribe depends on a patrilineal transfer of power that seems to have disappeared from both the institutional church and the nuclear family (and good riddance, I say!).

  5. Dave on December 16, 2004 at 1:39 am

    Ben, I think you’re right that the Church lays the foundation for thinking in terms of lineage by way of genealogy, sealings, and patriarchal blessings. That narrow, descent-related use of the term “‘tribe” or the use of lineage-thinking is good to the extent it supports families, but it has been a doctrinal disaster in thinking about the priesthood ban. While the policy was changed in 1978, the lineal or racial thinking that lay behind it was not repudiated. Popular Mormon thinking still often reflects the idea that blessings and curses follow race and lineage. There shouldn’t be any difficulty in downgrading this lineage thinking and emphasizing instead the New Testament view that we are all one in Christ, being neither Jew nor Greek, bond nor free, etc. (see Gal. 3:26-29, which you cited above). Paul’s teaching seems like a clear repudiation of the narrow version of tribal thinking. Of course, there are other views represented elsewhere in the scriptures as well. Maybe converts like to think God is no respecter of persons while those who trace their line back to Brigham Young like to think that qualifies them for a few extra blessings.

    In the broader sense, I think the Church continues to become less tribal and more cosmopolitan (borrowing Clark’s term), except to the extent that “the mainstream” in society is outside the boundaries of acceptable Mormon living. For most purposes, it is this broader sense of being Mormon that members identify with. We feel a sense of fellowship with other Mormons, regardless of their lineage. I’ve never known a single member to identify themselves in general conversation by the Israelite tribe mentioned in their patriarchal blessing or by reference to the common ancestor of their family clan. It’s only in certain doctrinal contexts that the lineage idea really comes into play.

  6. Clark on December 16, 2004 at 1:52 am

    I agree with some of Dave’s comments, although I think I reject the overall thrust. The reason we are all one in Christ is that we all become his sons and daughter. Further that rebirth is fundamentally conceived of along tribal lines. This is especially true in the Book of Mormon where Nephi describes the atonement in terms of images that are very tribal. Nibley, in one of his finest essays I believe in Approaching Zion, discusses this in terms of being embraced by the bendoin sheik and brought into his tent. Even the symbolism of the restored gospel is tribal in nature. The temple notion of sealings with a sealing going back to Adam in terms of Malachi’s prophecy is essentially tribal in nature.

    I personally think that unless you view most LDS theology in terms of both adoption and tribe, that little makes sense. Once you start viewing it in those terms, a lot make sense and you can see a lot of unity through all of the scriptures. In particular there is a lot of unity between the Book of Mormon and what are called Joseph’s latter “Nauvoo innovations.”

    Now a lot of this isn’t completely functional at the moment. We probably have to await future revelations. But as Jack pointed out, the whole thrust of the gospel is to make humanity a single tribe. That can be seen as cosmopolitan. However I think the way we conceive of cosmopolitan today really is something else. It is the loss of any sense of tribe. One might almost suggest it can become a kind of nihilism. I think that some of the “prophets” warning against modernism, such as Nietzche but more particularly Kafka warn about this dehumanizing aspect of modernism. We’ve lost our sense of tribe and thus our sense of family and community.

  7. Rob Briggs on December 16, 2004 at 2:24 am

    “But the tribe depends on a patrilineal transfer of power that seems to have disappeared from both the institutional church and the nuclear family (and good riddance, I say!).”

    Unless you happen to be Navajo in which case the linkage is matriarchal and matrilineal. There are other examples of the same besides the Navajo.

    In other words, it doesn’t have to be patrilineal. In your Ultimate Fantasy tribal organization, Rosalynde, you could make it, er, “equilineal” (I making up words here). In other words, I think you could structure descent so that both male and female lines participated.

  8. Rob Briggs on December 16, 2004 at 2:36 am

    “We’ve lost our sense of tribe and thus our sense of family and community.”

    Clark, this is a particularly American phenomenon with our horizontal (geographic) and vertical (class) mobility. A sense of extended-family identity still exists in Scotland and Ireland, for example, even though they share many affinities with us lads over here. And it still exists in the many parts of the developing world.

    So we Americans seek community in the strangest of places, like internet blog sites.

  9. Jack on December 16, 2004 at 2:55 am

    “But the tribe depends on a patrilineal transfer of power that seems to have disappeared from both the institutional church and the nuclear family (and good riddance, I say!).”

    I’m not sure this is the case Rosalynde. And I’m not sure that what I’m about to say is exactly the case either, but I don’t think the “restructuring” that has been spoken of on this thread means a complete undoing of the “patrilineal transfer of power” that we associate with tribalism. Rather, I think perhaps it is subsumed by a higher priesthood. For example, the High Priest has a right to officiate in the office of Bishop which office is regularly bestowed by virtue of lineage. We must submit to the “priesthood lineage” as it were, which by virtue of the keys of the office of High Priest stands in the place of the patriarchal order and is thereby justified in managing the affairs of the “cosmopolitan” church.

  10. Rob Briggs on December 16, 2004 at 3:51 am

    Rosalynde, take your pick. Jack answered with doctrine, I answered with anthropology.

  11. John David Payne on December 16, 2004 at 10:49 am

    Don’t mean to threadjack, but there is an interesting discussion of what it means to belong to a church, and more particularly what it means to be a Christian over here. Interestingly, it all started with this post about a former seminary teacher being disfellowshipped.

    Sorry for interrupting, I just wanted to call attention to a non-Mormon blog spending so much time on a question that interests us and makes frequent reference to our church. Maybe this belongs on Notes From All Over.

  12. Jack on December 16, 2004 at 11:48 am

    “what it means to belong to a church”

    I think with regard to Christ’s church, ultimately it means to belong to a family.

    I agree with Clark. He says:

    “I personally think that unless you view most LDS theology in terms of both adoption and tribe, that little makes sense. Once you start viewing it in those terms, a lot make sense and you can see a lot of unity through all of the scriptures.”

    I would add that I believe the current administative structure of the church, though not designated by lineage, may be viewed as a “priesthood” family and, indeed, is quite effective precisely because of the “tribal” aspects of it’s operations. Typically we feel a strong sense of loyalty to those who have stewardship over us and an increased sense of caring for those who are within our own stewardships. I know of no other relations that get as close to the joy and pain of blood relations than those that are generated by virtue of priesthood keys. And please, don’t think for a moment that this excludes women. The auxilaries are upheld and sustained by virtue of those very same keys – to which *all* are reguired to submit.

  13. ed on December 16, 2004 at 2:34 pm

    I believe that, under any reasonable model of human mating, every human being alive today with any recent European or Asian or African ancestry (i.e. nearly everyone) is descended from Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

    Here’s a link explaining some of these ideas:

    http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/prem/200205/olson

    I find this idea very interesting, and I think it’s non-intuitive and under-appreciated. What I can’t figure out is what it does to our doctrine. For example, do we all have the right to be bishops because we’re all literal descendents of Aaron? Or does descent only matter along a patrilineal line?

  14. Ben Huff on December 16, 2004 at 4:44 pm

    Hey, thanks for the great comments! Lots of great ideas for further development here.

    That narrow, descent-related use of the term “‘tribe� or the use of lineage-thinking is good to the extent it supports families, but it has been a doctrinal disaster in thinking about the priesthood ban.

    Well, false doctrine is false doctrine. False ideas of how parents or husbands are supposed to exercise leadership can be implicated in abuse. False ideas of how to spread Christianity fueled slavery and centuries of wars. I don’t think this is a special problem for the tribal conception of the kingdom of God.

    Maybe converts like to think God is no respecter of persons while those who trace their line back to Brigham Young like to think that qualifies them for a few extra blessings.

    Look, having family in the church, particularly if they are faithful and loving, is a blessing. Spiritual truth and error and weakness and strength is often passed down family lines. Insofar as we are conceived in sin, sin takes root in our hearts, and insofar as we are raised in righteousness, it is that much easier to be righteous. There are exceptions to the general trend, but they are exceptions. This is not to say that someone deserves some further reward in heaven or privilege on Earth just based on their lineage, any more than we are punished for Adam’s transgression.

    Yes, the church has been becoming more churchy in many ways. But I don’t think this is necessarily a trend that should or will continue. In part perhaps it is necessary to maintain unity as the church becomes increasingly international. But much of the churchiness of the church I think should be read as a matter or making space for the tribal features of the community to become more vigorous, not (as you seem to suggest, Dave) as a signal that we should be less tribal about our spirituality. In part I think the churchiness of how Mormons think of their faith is a distortion as so many church members buy into the American culture of mobility. As right as it may be for many converts to break or diminish ties with their non-Mormon families, when those ties would pull them away from the church, still there is a very large cost we pay when we take rootlessness as the norm.

    Thanks for pressing this line of objection, though, Dave; it is precisely because what you say makes a lot of sense, and I think reflects a broad trend in church culture, that I feel it’s important to talk about the tribe like I’m doing here.

    If we think we learn the gospel primarily at church on Sunday, then there is something wrong. Parents have the primary responsibility to teach it, and the primary ability to do so. It can’t be done well in a couple of hours of group meetings per week. I worry that too often people think of the church, seminary, and BYU as the primary way their children will learn the gospel. If it is, a whole lot of them won’t learn it terribly well. I think we need to pay more attention to the tribal conception of spiritual life.

  15. Ben Huff on December 16, 2004 at 4:55 pm

    Paul’s teaching seems like a clear repudiation of the narrow version of tribal thinking.

    Yes, it does seem that way. But remember Paul’s context! He was trying to overcome a very distorted way of thinking of spirituality in terms of the tribe. The church can and does and should serve as a corrective where the human family is disfunctional. But to see things in terms of church or tribe, or “narrow” (by which you mean something like racist) vs. “wide” (cosmopolitan) conceptions of the tribe is a mistake. There are a variety of false notions of the tribe, but we need the true one, and it is not opposed to the church, but it is distinct and contrasts with the church. I’m with Clark: cosmopolitanism (in the contemporary American sense) tends to mean rootlessness, and nihilism is close behind. The correct notion of tribe is not racist, but I think it is “thick”, not generic and churchy.

    Paul was reacting to the errors of the Jews, and so while what he taught was true, we need to be careful not to be misled by his choices of empasis. I suggest that the Book of Mormon, and the teachings of Joseph Smith, represent a more balanced and fuller view of how the church and tribe should relate, because the new covenant was not seen as being in conflict with the old in the Book of Mormon. That is because the old covenant had not been misunderstood among the children of Lehi, for the most part, the way it was by the Jews in Jerusalem.

  16. Ben Huff on December 16, 2004 at 5:06 pm

    So, (for clarity) I suggest that what Christ and Paul were doing in the old world was trying to move the Jews from a false (racist, Pharisaical) understanding of the tribe to a true understanding of the tribal form of spiritual life, using the church as a corrective influence and interim community — not simply replacing the tribe with a church.