Boundaries and Maintenance in Big Tent Mormonism

August 26, 2014    By: Matt W. @ 7:19 am   Category: Apologetics,Bloggernacle

A great friend and I were discussing “Big Tent” Mormonism over the weekend and it was a great conversation. Alas the school year has begun and he’s a teacher. So I am hoping we can continue the conversation here. Let me restate some of the discussion, and also carry it forward a bit.

1. The Church is not the same as God’s Family. We are all Children of God, and thus members of God’s Family. The Church is a faith community (a community built on shared faith demonstrated in thoughts and action), and not everyone shares that faith. The Church is a subset of God’s Family.

2. Following on #1, it’s Big Tent Mormonism, not Open Range Mormonism. Even Big Tents have outer boundaries. This is beneficial for people inside and outside the church, as people inside who want to get outside can leave and vice versa, whereas there would be no option to come, stay, or leave within an open range.

3. The challenge is in defining what those boundaries are. There is a lot of discussion on where the edge of the tent is or ought to be. I think 99% of the discussion on the blogs could be defined as discussion on this periphery. This is also why it is difficult to be on the periphery, because to some people you are outside of the tent, and to other people you are inside. Ultimately, I think we are all of the periphery in one way or another.

4. To illustrate this point, my co-blogger Jeff G. is a great example. Jeff G. currently continually posts about how revelation trumps reason, and how divine vesture of authority in appointed leaders supersedes intellectualism. For many, this is out of bounds, and they debate him heavily on this. For others, this is wholly in bounds, and they laud him. Jeff himself is setting up a definition of what is and is not in bounds, and his interpretation of the boundaries creates a strong reaction in others to the boundaries.

5. The boundaries of our faith are a sort of Venn diagram where there are millions of circles that overlap, but that do not perfectly fit one another.

6. I think aligning these circles is part of creating Zion. I think the church is better served by acknowledging this diversity at the periphery and focusing on the common beliefs that form the part where the circles in the diagram overlap.

7. Building on common beliefs is tricky though, because what’s in bounds for one is not in bounds for another.

8. My friend proposed Givens’ 5 things from “God Who Weeps” as this center. I think that is a good list. I’d propose that another good list is McConkie’s Pillars (Jesus is the Christ, Joseph was a Prophet, The Book of Mormon is what it claims to be, Priesthood Power and Priesthood Authority is real). I’d even propose Covey’s 6 Events points.

9. For many, the Church has become other because they feel like the talks coming from General Conference, the Ensign, the Prophets and Apostles and other General Authorities falls outside of the boundaries for them. This causes them stress. This stress can either be a check for them to realign their circle or a call to disregard the items out of their circle, a call to challenge the misalignment of the circles, or a push out of the tent altogether, via either inactivity, name removal or excommunication.

10. So where does this leave me? It leaves me with my discussion over this weekend. When we say the church is true, we do not mean that the church is correct in all things. We do not mean the church is correct in any matter at all (Though I feel it is). What we mean is that the Church is God’s. It belongs to God, it was established by God and it is directed by God through its human prophets. It is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, fully being Christ’s Church, but also fully being the church of latter-day saints, the people’s church.

11. This past Sunday we had a lesson on Job. In Job, I see two lessons that I can apply here. First is God’s response to Job. God tells Job his ways are not Job’s ways and that he is God. He does not explain himself to Job, he merely defines himself and defines Job’s life as his will. I think this is how I understand the Church as well. Like Job’s life, the Church has challenges and struggles, sufferings and agonies, but I believe it is God’s will. The other lesson from Job is that of Job’s friends. When God speaks to them, he condemns them and tells them Job has been more correct than they were all along. Job has spoken right as he attributed his struggles to God, where his friends attributed his struggles to himself. I think we can learn from this, as we work through our own struggles as well as interpreting the struggles of others. I like what Michael Austin says in re-reading Job, that we need to listen “compassionately to those who criticize, contradict, or seek justice from God or from the human institutions that claim to represent Him. God can take care of Himself; our responsibility is to take care of each other” (Re-reading Job, p. 132).


  1. Excellent post! Regarding the following comment:

    “When we say the church is true, we do not mean that the church is correct in all things. We do not mean the church is correct in any matter at all (Though I feel it is). What we mean is that the Church is God’s. It belongs to God, it was established by God and it is directed by God through its human prophets. It is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, fully being Christ’s Church, but also fully being the church of latter-day saints, the people’s church.”

    This is in itself a definitional “boundary” you have set up (one I think is reasonable), but I don’t see you explicitly identifying it as such. Perhaps I missed it.

    Observation: It seems like a lot of discussion about boundaries relies on people’s idiosyncratic beliefs, cultural attitudes, etc.

    How about we more explicitly rely on the “boundaries” discussed in scriptures and in statements by members of the First Presidency? After all, we as church members have agreed the scriptures are authoritative, and we raise our hands to sustain the Church leaders.

    I recognize that it will still be a complex task to define what boundaries are based on the scriptures and modern church leadership, but at least we’ll reduce idiosyncratic name calling and such here in the bloggernacle.

    Comment by PP — August 26, 2014 @ 8:37 am

  2. Matt,

    I love the idea of a (multi-dimensional) venn diagram! I think it allows me to nicely unpack the big difference that I see between a democratic notion of truth and a theocratic notion.

    Within a democratic mindset, truth is basically whatever withstands criticism from the most diverse perspectives. In other words, truth is whatever has the biggest overlap of circles. In this model, everybody is on equal footing, contributing and critiquing their own and each other’s circles in order to hone in on the truth.

    Within a theocratic mindset, truth is one particular circle, regardless of how many other circles do or do not over lap with it. In this model, the main circle has ordained a select few to speak to the rest of the circles (where ever they are) and gather them toward the one circle that matters.

    It’s not unreasonable for this ordained few to signal to the rest of the church that various circles are not to be followed and it’s not unreasonable to think this signal might come in the form of church discipline.

    Comment by Jeff G — August 26, 2014 @ 10:30 am

  3. Jeff G.

    God is not a theocrat. :)

    Comment by Martin James — August 26, 2014 @ 10:51 am

  4. Who governs the church, God or the people? Sounds pretty theocratic to me.

    Comment by Jeff G — August 26, 2014 @ 10:57 am

  5. Jeff,

    I gave you a more thoughtful answer on the Ned post, so here I can give my flippant one. Why should I believe you since you are not an authority?

    By whose power do we bind God?

    Why do you call it democratic truth when what mean mean by truth is that it doesn’t change depending on a vote? Truth is what a democracy can’t change. And its what doesn’t change when you stop believing in it.

    Comment by Martin James — August 26, 2014 @ 11:03 am

  6. I said truth from a democratic mindset. Truth is absolutely taken to be immutable within that mindset, since it is very much taken to be the primary weapon against the will of authority figures….

    Which leads me to your other point: What makes you think that we have any right to bind God and His will rather than accept and follow it like the scriptures say? I am not saying that His will isn’t constrained by anything at all, but He is under no obligation to obey us any more than any other king is so bound by his subject.. Yes, He is bound when we do what He says, but not by us.

    I probably won’t pursue this thought in this thread any more. I already take up too much of the blog with my posts. The last thing I want to do is threadjack the posts of the other bloggers.

    Comment by Jeff G — August 26, 2014 @ 11:27 am

  7. Ok.

    It never would have occurred to me that you might think we bind him.

    Authority figures have wills but God governs?

    Are you quoting the the third chapter of Neitzsche or what?

    Which thread should be our change of venue?

    Comment by Martin James — August 26, 2014 @ 11:40 am

  8. To me, big tent Mormonism is less about what or whom to believe, and more about all being welcome to join with us as they sort these things out for themselves. I don’t care if someone has a testimony of the historicity of the Book of Mormon, or the temple, or living prophets, or which hot drink is okay and which is not. If something about Mormonism speaks to you and you find the spirit here, then you should be welcome to learn and serve and worship along with the rest of us. This goes for investigators and members alike.

    Comment by CAS — August 26, 2014 @ 12:43 pm

  9. PP- glad you enjoyed the post. Good Point, for me it is a belief that the Church is God’s.

    In that the issue with saying “let’s just focus on the modern general authorities and the scriptures” is that our interpretive lense for what those statements mean could end up with radically different results. One example include what the word of wisdom says in scripture vs. How it is interpreted by modern prophets and apostles. (No hot Drinks vs No Coffee and Tea). Another Example is Paul saying it is good not to Marry. I could go on, but I think you get my point.

    Comment by Matt W. — August 26, 2014 @ 2:16 pm

  10. Jeff G- I don’t disagree, with the caveat while truth is absolute and knowable, and it can be agreed that God knows it perfectly, It need not follow that those whom God has ordained also know all truth perfectly or that they are perfectly teaching the truth. Further, God may also freely inspire anyone he sees fit to find truth (example, an inspired scientist may make a medical discovery, the constitution can be an inspired document, etc.). Finally, those who are ordained to deliver the message have to deal with each individual understanding the message as they receive it. Thus the call for charity at the end of my post.

    Glad I could give you a metaphor to play with.

    Comment by Matt W. — August 26, 2014 @ 2:28 pm

  11. Excellent post Matt! Your description helps visualize and important and complex problem.

    Jeff G,
    #2 If we add another circle for the Lord we would likely find that it areas of overlap and areas of non-overlap with you one main particular circle. If we were to substitute the Lord’s circle for your main circle how do you imagine he would deal with the other circles? Wouldn’t this set the example for how your one main particular circle should interact with the others?

    Comment by Howard — August 26, 2014 @ 2:36 pm

  12. CAS: I understand that sentiment. I think if an unrepentant child molester finds something in mormonism that speaks to them, then we need boundary maintenance. If someone feels privileged to get up in testimony meeting and berate others and mock their beliefs, then we need boundary maintenance. I love the idea of big tent mormonism, but I think we can all agree there still needs to be some sort of boundaries. We may disagree on where those boundaries are, but I think we can agree that even in Big Tent Mormonism, we have to have some form of boundaries.

    To me, an analogy is Gun Control. No one thinks Joe Bob should be allowed to have a Hydrogen Bomb at his house. The idea is ridiculous. Thus at some level, everyone thinks there should be some form of arms control. However, as you get to a more nuanced view, it’s a bit more fuzzy where the line is drawn between what is and is not acceptable in terms of a weapon in the home.

    Comment by Matt W. — August 26, 2014 @ 2:42 pm

  13. I would suggest that we look at the nine core doctrines as outlined in the “Come, Follow Me” program as the center circle.

    In an ideal world the boundaries would be extremely clear. However, it seems inevitable that those peripheral borders adjust from time to time. Sometimes, the tent is bigger than at other times. When the boundaries change, someone is going to be caught offguard.

    I am curious, has anybody been in a testimony meeting where someone mocked Church teachings? I think the price to the person doing the mocking would be large, in a social sense.

    Also, I do not think the prohibition against nuclear weapons keeps Joe Bob from having a hydrogen bomb. The cost and complexity keep him from getting one. The guns that are commonly traded are simpler and cheaper. That is what makes them ubiquitous even when they are prohibited.

    In a similar way, some heresies exact a larger social cost than others. I suspect that many excommunications are avoided simply because people are unwilling to accept the social cost of teaching beyond the clear doctrines of the Church. The little heresies that have small costs can be harmful to the body of the Church, though. It is more difficult to police those.

    Comment by DD — August 27, 2014 @ 9:55 am

  14. Thanks for the post, Matt! I always enjoy our discussions. It’s definitely something that has been on our minds for awhile, since you once asked the following question on my own blog:

    “Where do those boundaries go and who gets to set them.”

    Armand Mauss’ theory of “retrenchment” would suggest that the boundaries of the Church/big tent stakes are indeed in constant flux, albeit gradual, and over time they expand and contract.

    I have spoken with secondary sources who confirmed that even the Quorum of the Twelve necessarily on the same page with where those boundaries should be. Obviously President Uchtdorf has been very inclusive, but not all of the Twelve have been fans of his “European inclusiveness”, as it was put to me. It was also relayed to me that even he, Uchtdorf, is being marginalized to a degree by some in the Twelve with more seniority. My respect for him has only risen since learning this, and that with President Monson’s dementia, and President Eyring in the office only a few hours a week (he’s taking care of his wife who has severe Alzheimer’s), President Uchtdorf is apparently carrying the majority of the load of the First Presidency.)

    If not even the 15 see eye to eye on how big the tent should be, there is certainly room for those of us down in the trenches to politely disagree on how wide the boundaries should be. The trick is to love each other regardless of our differences.

    Comment by Clean Cut — August 28, 2014 @ 1:26 pm

  15. *NOT necessarily on the same page

    Comment by Clean Cut — August 28, 2014 @ 1:27 pm

  16. PS:

    I found this to be VERY interesting (and spot on). Page 70 from chapter 4, Armand Mauss’s latest memoir, writing about correlation during a period of what he came to call “retrenchment”:

    “I recall being pleased originally with the new FHE and CES initiatives of the church leaders, since they seemed likely to enhance and strengthen both family life and systematic religious instruction around the church. However, I was increasingly restive and concerned about certain other signs indicating that a new postwar generation of church leaders was moving to magnify and intensify its control not only over organizational processes, but also over the religious and intellectual life of its members and individuals. In particular, a revitalized ‘correlation’ effort (rather dilatory since the 1920s) began gradually to centralize operations of the entire ecclesiastical organization, including all the accessories, under the apostles and the First Presidency, with operational authority confined to the priesthood ranks. Although not apparent during the 1960s, at least not to the rank and file, this ‘correlation’ process was gradually to have certain consequences and implications (some no doubt unintended) during the succeeding decade: for example, reduction in the status and power of LDS women, both in their ecclesiastical and in their domestic roles; reduction in the tenure and authority of local bishops, stake presidents, and mission presidents; standardization and reduction in the intellectual rigor of church publications and instructional materials for the auxiliaries (such as Sunday school); declining tolerance in the priesthood leadership for independent intellectual activities of members that it could not control (publications, symposia, study groups, ‘firesides,’ and so on); and the interposition of a large paid, professional civil service-like bureaucracy between the members and their lay priesthood leaders in the planning and implementation of the ‘correlated’ policies and teachings from headquarters.”

    Comment by Clean Cut — August 28, 2014 @ 1:32 pm

  17. The Whole 1st Pres vs Q12 thing seems over dramatized to me. I haven’t seen a credible source on the Monson Dimentia bit. Peggy hasn’t covered it,to my knowledge, and I think she’d be all over that. I message her on FB though, so maybe she knows something. Even if true, I think it is over dramatized.

    On the other hand, when the temple in San Antonio was dedicated, I remember L. Tom Perry talking about how different the members from the quorum of the twelve were on certain topics and that they did not make decisions without unanimity of those present.

    Of Course, I also think the whole “Correlation is the devil” meme is also over dramatized.

    Comment by Matt W. — August 29, 2014 @ 7:26 pm

  18. I totally agree with the over dramatized bit Matt. But it does not take much of an excuse to create wiggle room for those so inclined. Any possibility or extreme example will do.

    Comment by Eric Nielson — August 30, 2014 @ 9:51 am

  19. Im all for wiggle room. I just don’t think when uchtdorf gives an amazing talk in conference on love and compassion that the rest of the leadership of the church acts like petulant children.

    Comment by Matt W. — August 30, 2014 @ 10:09 pm

  20. “I remember L. Tom Perry talking about how different the members from the quorum of the twelve were on certain topics and that they did not make decisions without unanimity of those present.”

    Elder Ballard talked about this recently in his CES talk:

    “Let me also observe that none of the Twelve are shrinking violets. We each have strong personalities. So when we are unified in a decision, you can rest assured that we have counseled together and come to that decision after much prayer and thoughtful discussion.”

    … and Pres. Eyring has shared some similar sentiments as well.

    Comment by michelle — September 1, 2014 @ 10:40 pm

  21. and p.s. to me this is part of the reason why I tend to agree more with what Jeff G. has said about who decides on the boundaries. While it’s true that people will see and hear and process what the leaders say in different ways, still I think that it’s important to realize that the ultimate boundaries (the ultimate pillars) that those leaders are ordained to teach are not in flux. What ebbs and flows at the periphery is the individual personal experiences and personal journeys navigating what to do and whether to believe about/in those things. What’s interesting about that is that it’s a collective, organic thing, but that organicness doesn’t take away from the reality that boundaries and pillars do exist. I think what people do with those pillars is the heart of the plan, the heart of agency, and a key reason the Atonement exists — because we are here to learn by experience what to do with what God has done and does for us.

    And I think that peripheral-yet-central, individual-yet-collectively-organic process should be honored fully, while being understood for what it is (and where its limits are). To me, it’s sort of that line between personal revelation and prophetic revelation that Elder Oaks talked about. To me, understanding that tension and the boundaries and purpose of each of those things is so important.

    Comment by michelle — September 1, 2014 @ 10:53 pm

  22. I elieve that expanding the Big Tent out means changing our culture and what we focus on in our Sunday meetings. For example, if a young women’s group is constantly focusing on modesty, and the young women who are in there just feel so dandy and proud about being modest, how is a visitor or less active person going to be feeling in that environment. My 4 year old niece is already criticizing my 3 year old daughter for immodesty because that is what her mom is deciding to focus on.

    Likewise, when I was a missionary, we were required to have a person smoke-free and coffee-free in order to be baptized. There was a LOT of potential people we lost because we didn’t just bring them into fellowship, focusing on the big picture, and letting them get to a point where they could give those things up for temple worship. And may I add–the Word of Wisdom wasn’t given as a commandment.

    In short, I could name a million things that we have created as a cultural “hedge” around the law. If we are to extend out the big tent, it will require a change in our culture as well as what and how we teach.

    Comment by Pierce — September 19, 2014 @ 9:55 am

  23. Matt, I just came back to re-read this again. Really great post. But let the record include this link you shared with me:

    Better than “Big Tent Mormonism” or “Open Range Mormonism”, I’m really loving this idea of “Expanding Grid Mormonism”.

    “Joseph Smith imagined the Church as a city laid out in an orderly grid…
    …that would expand its boundaries as it welcomed more people in…
    ..In this city people would live in harmony, but tend to individual stewardships tailored to personal needs and strengths…
    ..and celestial law, not cultural tradition, would guide the affairs of the people–ensuring justice and mercy…
    …so…maybe instead of “Big Tent Mormonism” we could say “Expanding Grid Mormonism”… or IDK…use the word the Lord used: “Zion”.”

    Love that.

    Also, I love the Michael Austin quote you ended with: “God can take care of Himself; our responsibility is to take care of each other.”

    Good stuff.

    Comment by Clean Cut — November 21, 2014 @ 1:27 pm

  24. Everyone should follow Enid of Facebook. You off Monday? We should catch up.

    Comment by Matt W. — November 22, 2014 @ 10:38 am