Culture vs. Doctrine

When God begins a relationship with a people, he takes them as they are. They don’t start out perfect; they start out full of false traditions that need to be weeded out over time. They also come with the culture in which they were raised. God doesn’t change that culture, but works with the culture the people have to move his purposes forward.

Abraham married his half-sister Sarah. Jacob married sisters Rachel and Leah (albeit against his will). While these were acceptable practices in their culture, a few hundred years later under the law of Moses both of these were unacceptable (Leviticus 18:9 and 18:18). Did God change his mind on what was acceptable to him? Was God still trying to figure out what his eternal doctrine was? Of course not.

Today most Westerners think marrying a first cousin is unacceptable, whereas some other cultures think it is not only acceptable but preferable. Abraham’s culture was different than Moses’ culture. Those were both different than Lehi’s culture. And the culture during Jesus’ ministry was yet again different, just as our culture today is quite different from all of them. We must not make the assumption that because God tolerated a cultural aspect that he endorsed it. Or worse yet, that God revealed that cultural aspect as doctrine and we should all embrace that specific cultural element or risk alienating ourselves from God.

Slavery is a great example of shifting cultural standards and how God deals with that. The Bible uses the word servitude much more frequently than slavery. For that sake of this post, let’s assume they are synonyms.

When Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery, it wasn’t a brand new concept. They didn’t have to explain to the Midianites what slavery was. Slavery already existed, it was part of their culture. God didn’t reveal it to the sons of Jacob.

When God brought Israel out of Egypt and began to organize them in the wilderness, they already had an established culture that included slavery. They themselves had been the slaves! God didn’t wipe their cultural slate clean and reveal a completely new Israelite culture. You can compare the law of Moses to other ancient near Eastern legal systems like the Code of Hammurabi to see that Israeli culture and laws were quite similar to the rest of the Semitic people in that period. God worked with them the way they were, cultural baggage included.

Law of Moses on Slavery

The Law of Moses has some specific rules on slavery, but they are to protect the rights of the slaves and prevent abuse.

Exodus 21:2-3
If thou buy an Hebrew servant, six years he shall serve: and in the seventh he shall go out free for nothing. If he came in by himself, he shall go out by himself: if he were married, then his wife shall go out with him.

Exodus 21:26-27
And if a man smite the eye of his servant, or the eye of his maid, that it perish; he shall let him go free for his eye’s sake. And if he smite out his manservant’s tooth, or his maidservant’s tooth; he shall let him go free for his tooth’s sake.

Interestingly, even though the law of Moses permitted slavery, it was against the law of Moses to return a runaway slave.

Deuteronomy 23:15-16
Thou shalt not deliver unto his master the servant which is escaped from his master unto thee: He shall dwell with thee, even among you, in that place which he shall choose in one of thy gates, where it liketh him best: thou shalt not oppress him.

Shortly before the Babylonian captivity, the kingdom of Judah’s unwillingness to obey these commandments by freeing the slaves were one of the reasons for their punishment at the hand of the Babylonians. Read Jeremiah 34:8-32 to see that when the people covenanted to release their servants then changed their mind and brought them back into subjection, the Lord swore destruction and captivity upon the kingdom of Judah. Obviously there were other factors involved as well, but Jeremiah 34 specifically calls this out as a deciding factor.

While the Lord tolerated slavery within Israel, he insisted that liberty be proclaimed and that the servitude be limited in duration with protections for those enslaved. He never commanded slavery or promoted it as a divine institution.

Book of Mormon Teachings on Slavery

In the Book of Mormon, Limhi’s people were willing to become the Nephite’s slaves rather than remain under the rule of the Lamanites. Yet they didn’t know that king Benjamin had eliminated slavery in his kingdom.

Mosiah 2:13
Neither have I suffered that ye should be confined in dungeons, nor that ye should make slaves one of another, nor that ye should murder, or plunder, or steal, or commit adultery; nor even have I suffered that ye should commit any manner of wickedness, and have taught you that ye should keep the commandments of the Lord, in all things which he hath commanded you

Alma 27:9
But Ammon said unto him: It is against the law of our brethren, which was established by my father, that there should be any slaves among them; therefore let us go down and rely upon the mercies of our brethren.

King Benjamin wasn’t violating the commandments of the Lord by prohibiting slavery. It never was a commandment. The only commandments God gave put limits on that cultural practice. If the practice was eliminated in the Nephite culture, it was a cultural change, not a doctrinal change.

New Testament Teachings on Slavery

In the New Testament period, slavery was also part of the Greco-Roman culture the members of the church lived in. Specific guidance is given to both slaves and slaveowners on how they are expected to implement slavery within the bounds of the gospel.

Colossians 4:1
Masters, give unto your servants that which is just and equal; knowing that ye also have a Master in heaven.

Ephesians 6:9
And, ye masters, do the same things unto them, forbearing threatening: knowing that your Master also is in heaven; neither is there respect of persons with him.

Nowhere does God command: Thou shalt own slaves. What he does command is that if your culture permits slavery, be fair and just.

D&C Teachings on Slavery

D&C 101:79
Therefore, it is not right that any man should be in bondage one to another.

One could look at this and say it contradicts the Bible because both the Old Testament and New Testament tolerate slavery. Toleration is quite different than requiring or condoning something. Notice what this verse says:

D&C 134:12
12 We believe it just to preach the gospel to the nations of the earth, and warn the righteous to save themselves from the corruption of the world; but we do not believe it right to interfere with bond-servants, neither preach the gospel to, nor baptize them contrary to the will and wish of their masters, nor to meddle with or influence them in the least to cause them to be dissatisfied with their situations in this life, thereby jeopardizing the lives of men; such interference we believe to be unlawful and unjust, and dangerous to the peace of every government allowing human beings to be held in servitude.

It is governments that choose to allow slavery, not God. D&C 134 does not state that we should petition those governments that don’t allow Biblically-sanctioned slavery to convince them to allow it. Slavery was tolerated, not required or even desired.

As part of his campaign for the US presidency, Joseph Smith proposed an economic solution to ending slavery in the US (selling government land to raise money to buy slaves from their owners). Rather than trying to promote and reinforce slavery, Joseph was trying to peacefully end it. Rather than trying to end slavery by force, Joseph desired to end it by a peaceful economic transaction that was agreeable to both parties.


I specifically chose slavery as the example because it is, for us today, such an abomination. We now know it is wrong and continue to fight against slavery in all forms, sexual slavery being a notable example today. I don’t think we would find many faithful people trying to argue that because the Bible contains rules for slavery, we must adopt that same culture and reintroduce slavery in order to be obedient to God’s commandments. But do faithful people pick other examples from the Bible and insist we must adopt those cultural standards in order to please God?

There are several questions we need to ask ourselves.

When reading scripture, what is only applicable in the cultural setting in which the scripture was received and what is an unchanging doctrinal truth? Rules on marriage and divorce change throughout the scripture. Can I pick the one I like the best and say that is the eternal truth that we all must obey today? What about rules on clothing and modesty? The Old Testament commands to not mix wool with linen. The New Testament says women should cover their hair. Are we all offending God today by not obeying these scriptural rules?

Which of our cultural norms today are we elevating to the status of doctrine? Does every man worldwide have to wear a white shirt and tie to church lest they offend God? Or would God accept the service of someone in traditional African clothing just the same as someone in American 1950s business clothing? Does God only accept Northern European hymns accompanied by organ or piano, or would he also accept songs of praise from cultures where drums and wind instruments are normal and the tempos and intensity are not as subdued? Are only American marriage and divorce procedures acceptable to God, or are other cultural practices, including the paying of dowries, just as acceptable to God?

As we all search for truth, these are some key questions we need to ask ourselves frequently to ensure we’re not straining at gnats and swallowing camels. God didn’t command Joseph to dress like an ancient Israeli; Joseph kept wearing the traditional clothing of his American culture. God didn’t command Joseph to adopt the marriage practices of ancient Israel; Joseph followed the norms of his American culture. Had Joseph been living in sub-Saharan Africa and God chose to begin his work there, the culture of the church would have been dramatically different…but the doctrine would have been the same.

The challenge for us is discerning between culture and doctrine.

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