I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about Christianity and religion in general lately. I’m trying to figure out what was going on when I was a full-believing Mormon, and how to compare that to the religious lives of others. I came up with some simple (i.e. over-simplified) categories of roles people play while involved in an organized religion like Mormonism. I found them helpful in providing a way of understanding my Mormon experience and comparing it with others without worrying too much about theology. I see four roles people play in organized religion:
Prophet: receiving spiritual guidance from the Spirit of God.
Priest/Clergy: administering teachings within a community. Teaching, preaching, helping, managing, setting policy, etc.
Member: special attachment, loyalty, and duty to particular community or group
Disciple: a devotee seeking to practice the principles taught by the prophets.
I admit it’s an over-simplified model; there are a bunch more roles that come into play: e.g.,Saint, Missionary, Theologian, Convert, Skeptic, Monk, Mystic, etc. And I am probably not using the terms in a completely standard way. But for me it’s a start on trying to grasp all the dynamics involved in living a faith.
It seems to me that these roles are distinct, yet can be present in one person in concert and at various levels of intensity. They can also be competitive. Mormonism– perhaps to its strength–gives each of these roles to almost every member:
Prophet: Mormon obviously believe that there are men that can speak authoritatively for God now, but they are also taught to cultivate an attitude of prophecy– explicitly told that each member is entitled to revelation. The doctrine of the Gift of the Holy Ghost makes the role of prophet central to every Mormon’s life.
Clergy/Priest: Mormonism gives most members the opportunity to be clergy. Every male member is in the role of priest or clergy and are generally given– or should be given– specific responsibilities to administer in the congregation. Women also have ecclesiastical/pastoral roles, if limited to areas not involving ordinances. There are low barriers to entry into ecclesiastical roles– no diploma is required. High levels of responsibility are offered to lay members without any training. Many times callings are given in spite of abject lack of qualifications (the prophet role at work). Generally willingness to do the work is the only requirement.
Member: Mormons make a big deal about being a member of the church. Membership solidifies a community, makes members feel distinct from the world, and makes being a part of worldwide community not subject to question once you meet the criteria. Mormons have all kinds of groups– each with a membership dynamic. The dynamic permeates to the most basic relationships. Family membership– being a eternal part of a distinct family group–is not only approved by God, but integral to the purpose of life. Most members wear their membership like they wear their citizenship. It is a role that they own and that they are ordained to be. The dynamic is akin to citizenship, which may be part of the reason that patriotism is strong in Mormonism.
Disciple: Mormonism is very practical. A good Mormon wants to be good. Mormons generally read the scriptures like a handbook for life. The goal is to “liken the scriptures” to your life. I have heard it said that because everybody will have the chance to be baptized, the Scriptures are ultimately not much more than a method of convincing people to keep the commandments. Not a common belief, but it demonstrates how living the religion, rather than simply belonging or believing is part of the aim of Mormonism. Mormons differ from some Christian disciples in that they don’t generally have the cult-like devotion to Jesus or anybody else really. Being a disciple is a matter of contract with God. Discipleship is practiced for the self as well as for God. Mormons are taught that God is bound when we do what he says. (a remarkable thought actually.) Mormonism discipleship incorporates minor elements of asceticism (fasting, Word of Wisdom), monastic life (Missionaries).
A visit to a Mormon congregation will reveal all of these roles– and the various members’ emphasis on the roles– in different degrees. A Bishop is a sort of prophet for his ward as well as a priest and a disciple. Every member has pastoral responsibilities as a visiting or home teacher. The preaching is done by members. The doctrine of the Gift of the Holy Ghost combines membership with a prophetic role– giving it deep spiritual significance. Discipleship– arguably the most difficult role for a Christian– is generally taken very seriously.
For those that can bear the confines of Church culture (e.g. gender roles, legalism, conservative politics,homophobia, etc.) it can be a very fulfilling place to practice Christian religion. It can lead to a very rich religious life allowing the believer the spiritual benefits of the many roles. Because they are well-defined–and essentially thrust on people–it pushes them outside their comfort zone and can lead to personal and spiritual growth. It also creates a close-knit community of disciples. It forges a strong identity that persists independently of practice or belief. It leads people to found and foster strong families, generally focused on virtue.
Of course there are downsides to the Mormon approach. Mormons are wont to get stuck in roles that they are not suited, at the expense of their happiness and spirituality. I know Mormons who are so stuck in trying to be a prophet–at least in their own lives–that they live in a literal hell of personal compliance with arbitrary rules in order feel be worthy of the Spirit. Some are far to ready to consider their personal feelings to be divine. I know some that are stuck in the role of priesthood leader and judge, and miss the point of Christian love and forgiveness. Mormon focus on membership can lead some to exclusivity and pride, at the expense of discipleship. Mormon discipleship lacks a personal element and can devolve in transactional religion– playing quid-pro-quo with God. And sometimes it’s all too much to balance. A common Mormon complaint is that there are too many things to do; religious roles often crowd out family roles– especially when professional responsibilities are added to the mix. (Mormon women often express how liberating it is not to have to fill the role of priest.)
Evangelicalism probably offers a lot freedom but perhaps higher barriers to entry to some roles. You generally don’t have to worry about being a prophet, priest, or even a member. When the roles are not thrust upon you, it seems you can pick those you most like or are most suited to fulfill. The doctrine of grace that can be readily embraced lifts a lot of the heavy weight of discipleship, and actually frees people up to only do what they want to do. (Of course this allows people to choose very shallow levels of activity, which could be seen as a strength or a weakness of the faith.)
I think the freedom from defined role allows Evangelicals to incorporate passion into their religion better. Evangelical seems to allows most to approach God as themselves, and not in relation to a role they should fulfill. Evangelicals may also simply have time to praise. Its easier to take an hour or so and stand and sing praise songs to Jesus when you don’t have a Sunday school lesson to prepare (and several to listen to), a home teaching assignment, a welfare assignment, a talk to give, a job to work, a bunch of kids, and a church leadership calling.
Recognizing the dynamics of the benefits and drawbacks of defined roles– both chosen and imposed–leads me to all kinds of questions: Is there a better balance between individually chosen roles vs. institutionally defined roles that could be struck in Evangelicalism and Mormonism? How could Mormonism benefit by allowing members to de-emphasize certain roles without judgment, and allowing people to chose their roles more? Could Evangelicals benefit from more roles that are imposed on them by others? As an individual, what roles would be best for me to act in and which would be best for my family and others?
Maybe these sorts of questions can lead us to think more collectively and creatively about how Christianity works across Mormon and Evangelical traditions, how it could work better for us, and how we could work better for it.