Rules are lazy and create conformity, but they are practical for large groups of people; the higher the percentage of people for whom the rules create a societal benefit, the more useful the rule is.  Different leaders have different standards for what percent of a group “needs” the rule before they will apply a rule; the 80/20 principle is often applied (80% of the people need to be kept in line), but it may feel childish and condescending to those who don’t “need” that rule.  There’s an expression that “the exception proves the rule,” but the more exceptions are warranted the less effective the rule is.  We also have behavioral rule codes (called standards).  And where there are rules or standards, there are individuals in a group that don the police cap and watch for law breakers.

Conversely, individual agreements are often more powerful and more personal but take longer and are harder to track and measure.  In the church we also use agreements (called covenants), although we essentially make them one-size-fits-all which makes them more like rules.  We claim to be a covenant-making people, but maybe we are really just a rule-making people.  Let’s compare:

Standards

  • promote an ideal
  • shotgun approach, one size fits all
  • creates a law and then hedges about it
  • compel compliance – consequences are not natural, but are enforced by society
  • rely on conformity

Covenants

  • they reflect diverse needs; personal circumstances apply
  • based on principles, not checklists
  • they align with values
  • they are more subjective and based on personal choice
  • the only consequences that apply are between the covenant-makers and any natural consequences that exist

So, which is better?  Can you create a church based solely on individual covenants rather than standardized requirements?  I’m reminded of people who write their own wedding vows, something I’ve seen a few times in real life but mostly in the movies where pretty much nobody uses standard wedding vows anymore, and they all sound like they were written by Erma Bombeck.  They are funny, off-beat, and heart-warming all at once.

It can also be observed that some of the “standards” we have as LDS are actually subjective in terms of how they are applied (e.g. tithing).  However, there’s not much subjectivity, and there are a lot of rules that don’t have a lot of subjectivity (e.g. chastity, Word of Wisdom, temple recommend questions); additionally, local leaders often like to apply their own personal definitions of standards to their congregations.  We also seem to be more focused on clearcut rules and standards for the youth (the White Bible for missionaries and For the Strength of the Youth pamphlet).

Perhaps this is a personal preference thing.  For many, traditional uniform standards may seem more legitimate for their familiarity and ability to build a shared community.  For others, making a more personal covenant will feel more relevant and binding.

  • Do you prefer standards and knowing where the lines are or do you prefer personal covenants and subjectivity ?
  • Do you think there should be more personal leeway with standards or do you think orthopraxy is key to Mormonism?
  • Do you think the 80/20 rule applies to the church standards or some other percentage?  For example, a statistic I’ve read states that 1 in 7 people who drink become an alcoholic (actually much higher than I would have thought).  That’s obviously much lower than 80%, but perhaps the perils of drinking (broken families, drunk driving accidents, beer bellies) make the lower percentage an acceptable threshold.
  • Are personal covenants more thoughtful and personal and therefore more binding to those that make them?
  • Is it right to apply societal consequences to create conformity when consequences don’t follow naturally?
  • Are standards necessary to create a uniform culture of believers and to make it clear what to expect from our community of saints?
  • Should we emphasize personal covenant making more than we do as a church?  Does the focus on high standards reduce the likelihood that members want to make incremental personal covenants?

Discuss.