Have you ever noticed that churches with similar belief systems can still have widely different practices and traditions? This may be overwhelming or uncomfortable for someone exploring a new religion for the first time, even if they have the same foundational tenets that the religion teaches. But why is this?
Often, the confusion stems from churchgoers blending doctrine and culture so seamlessly that it's challenging to discern where one ends and the other begins. To better understand a certain religion and its nuances, it's important to know what sets church doctrine and culture apart and how they influence each other.
What Is Church Doctrine?
Doctrine refers to the official teachings and beliefs of a religious group. These are often found in sacred texts, creeds, or official documents, and they provide the foundation for what the religion believes. These doctrines are considered essential to the faith and are taught with authority by religious leaders.
For example, many Christian denominations believe in the Trinity, which is one God in three persons: the Father, the Son (Jesus Christ), and the Holy Spirit. While they function in different roles, they are all fully and equally God and share the same divine nature.
However, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, also a Christian religion, believe that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are three separate beings, each with their own purpose and divinity. The Father and the Son have bodies of flesh and bone, while the Holy Ghost is a spirit.
These distinct beliefs highlight a fundamental difference in doctrine even within Christian churches.
What Is Church Culture?
Church culture relates to the customs, traditions, and practices that evolve within a religious community over time. Local customs, historical events, or personal preferences of the congregation often influence their culture.
For instance, in Hindu temples, the ringing of bells during worship is a cultural practice to ward off evil, even though it's not a mandated doctrine.
In many Christian congregations, people dress in their "Sunday best" when attending church services. This tradition can be viewed as a sign of respect toward God and the sacredness of the worship service. However, this practice largely stems from cultural norms and societal expectations rather than specific religious doctrines.
How Do Church Doctrine and Culture Influence Each Other?
Even though doctrine and culture are different, they aren't isolated. Culture can influence how doctrine is understood or practiced. For example, while the Bible might not explicitly talk about celebrating Christmas with trees and gifts, this cultural practice has influenced how many Christians pay homage to the birth of Jesus.
Conversely, doctrine can also shape culture. The Islamic doctrine of fasting during Ramadan has created a rich culture of nightly communal meals (iftar) and special prayers.
Why Can Confusing Doctrine and Culture Be Problematic?
Problems arise when church culture is mistaken for doctrine. Someone new to the faith might assume that a cultural practice is a mandatory belief and feel pressured to follow it.
Mistaking culture for doctrine can also lead to disputes. For example, if one group thinks wearing hats during worship is necessary (doctrinal) and another group sees it as optional (cultural), it could cause unnecessary conflict.
Overemphasizing cultural practices might distract from core doctrinal teachings. For example, if more focus is placed on how a festival is celebrated rather than the spiritual significance behind it, the essence of the doctrine may get lost.
Religious communities must recognize the distinction between doctrine and culture. While both are essential in shaping the identity and practices of a religious group, blurring the lines can create misunderstandings and conflicts. By respecting both concepts and understanding their unique roles, congregations can focus more on learning pure doctrinal teachings and choose whether they want to adopt cultural traditions.