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We, Distinct from Our Teachings

Derek challenges the reader to examine the dissonance between actual teachings in the church, the culture surrounding it and the community of believers by looking at three pertinent examples. He argues that we are often not clear enough about what mean when we use the term “church.” Through an exploration of the teachings about acceptance, use and marriage, Derek seeks to start a conversation in which people learn to see what is taught in distinction from what is culturally absorbed. -Editor

Consider this: when you think about the New Church, when you comment on it or complain about it, when you praise it or when you hate it, to what specific reference point is your action directed? In other words, what is the object of your complaint, praise, or thought? Is it the people in the community around you? Is it the doctrine itself? Is it an interpretation of that doctrine? Often the concept of the New Church is lumped into a conglomerate whole and we fail to challenge ourselves to define and delineate its separate aspects. In my view, there are three primary components of the Church: the teachings, the organization, and the culture. As people of the larger New Church society, we need to recognize these as distinct elements in order to build a healthier community, and ultimately, to better align them.

Think: where do they not align? Where has a cultural trend supplanted a doctrinal teaching? In such an instance, would we even be aware of the shift, or in our oversimplification of the definition would we be blind to the difference? Let’s take a closer look at how this pertains to a few specific and fundamental New Church principles: acceptance, use, and marriage.


What a beautiful and powerful teaching. In this world of boundaries, hierarchies, and wars, the New Church teaches acceptance: that anyone of any religion can go to heaven, that no one stands higher than their neighbor. But in our various communities, we can close ourselves off to the rest of the world. We can harbor insidious fears of “outsiders” or anything that could come in and effect a change. Have you heard of “drag-ins” (or “dragons”)? It’s not funny. What we laugh off stands between ourselves and our teachings. What about your last name? “Who are your parents?” Curiosity and an underlying sense of tradition drive us to propel a culture of inter-connectedness and exclusiveness. The “who are your parents?” question is usually preceded by, “I hate to do this, but…” or “Sorry to play the game, but…” But do you hate it and are you sorry, or do you love it? It’s a joke isn’t it? It’s just “the way it is” and it’s funny. Are we really satisfied with just the way it is, when it has a strong influence over “outsiders” feeling more outside? Put yourself in their position, and try to feel welcome.

Do you, in some way, consider yourself higher than another because you’re in the New Church and are firm in your belief that you are blessed by it? But “the neighbor” is not discerning. The neighbor is not only the convenient friend you choose, but also the prostitute, criminal, and beggar. Or the Buddhist, Catholic, and Muslim. Can we accept another without endorsing their lifestyle? I don’t know, but I think it’s more dangerous not to. And we are taught to be accepting.


Anyone who went through some part of a New Church school system understands the weight of the doctrine of use. Our lives in this world and the next have purpose and meaning to the extent that we are of useful service to those around us, to our society, and to God. This starts with bettering ourselves. But as an organization and a culture, has our interpretation of use become too narrow? Is a minister more useful than a plumber? A politician more useful than a cleaner? A father more useful than a bachelor? On a community level, the idea of use seems to be equivalent to action-oriented volunteering. Helping free of charge means that you’re being a useful member of society. Someone who gets paid to perform a service should offer it for free in order to support an event or group. But some can afford to volunteer more than others. Are they more useful people? These are fine lines. Of course volunteering is a wonderful action, and some groups necessarily rely on it, but in our culture do we gauge a person’s worth by black and white definitions of use?

I think that the teachings about use are much more complicated and in many cases subtler than our cultural understanding allows. Use weaves in and out of our lives and throughout our daily routines. And we think we can turn it on and off by our actions. Can we even point out where it takes effect and where it leaves us? Maybe in a smile to another, or in performing our job well, or in calling a friend. Maybe it’s too subtle even to identify. But in our culture and the organization of our church, is our portrayal of use too simple, or even a corruption of the truth? Is it incongruous with the doctrine, and are we content to call them the same?


We are taught that marriage is the sacred union between a man and a woman that can last to eternity. It is another beautiful teaching that draws people to the New Church. But because these teachings are so ingrained in us, do we find ourselves twisting the doctrine? In the culture of the New Church, do we expect people to get married? Is it okay to be single? Is it okay for a man to be single, but not a woman? There seems to be an expectation that women in their twenties or thirties should be married. And they should have children or be planning for them. Does the doctrine tell us that we need to get married or give ourselves a timeframe? Does it tell us that it’s more important for a woman to get married than a man? Does the organization or the school system put too much pressure on young people to be looking to marriage, to the point that they feel inadequate or excluded when they don’t get married?

What about divorce? We live in this world, and a person can make a mistake, or evolve into a different person than they were, or think they know someone better than they actually do. Divorce is a sad but prominent part of our culture, within our country and within our church communities, and there are many reasons for it, but is it a sin? Do we find ourselves judging those who get divorced? What if we think it was their fault as opposed to their spouse’s? The doctrine teaches us regeneration – that everyone has a chance to change for the better – but we hold grudges. We assume we know the story and form our opinions. We gossip about it. By building a strong sense of marriage into our culture, have we inadvertently divorced ourselves from the doctrine?

Here are the questions, and there are many more. I could have riddled this with quotes and evidence, but I don’t want to pretend to have the answers. I’m just a part of this culture, with a stake in the organization, and a person who believes in the teachings of the New Church. And so this is my view and my dissatisfaction. It’s a part of my pursuit in life to better align ourselves and our culture with what we believe. I hope that you’ll consider these points and the dangers of defining the various aspects of the Church as one. Maybe next time someone complains about or praises the Church, you’ll stop them to ask, “Do you mean the community or the organization? Or do you mean the teachings?” Maybe you’ll ask yourself, or maybe you’ll ask me.

Derek Rose

Derek lives in Bryn Athyn, Pennsylvania, where he spends most of his time daydreaming and wondering when and why he grew up.

Reader Comments (4)

I so often want to ask people exactly that: "Do you mean the community or the organization? Or do you mean the teachings?" Personally, it gives me perspective and peace when I remember to separate my dissatisfactions into those categories. This article makes me want to refocus my energy on reading the teachings and figuring out what I think of them, because that is the heart of it.

So, thank you very much.

March 5, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterChara Odhner

Another distinction that can be made is between the Sacred Text (Swedenborg's Writings) and the doctrinal ideas drawn from it. I think your three categories are very useful - and the main point of your article. However, as a theolog I spend a fair amount of time trying to figure out what a text means so that I can turn it into doctrine (teaching in the context of people's current lives and understandings). The Writings distinguish between the Word and the doctrine of a church. It seems to me that what you refer to as "culture" is a different thing than doctrine. Perhaps it is doctrine that has been streched, changed and allowed to sink into the unconsciousness of the way people live.

I suppose my point in raising the distinction is to emphasize that reading, seeing, knowing and using the truth are all vital parts of life. But, obviously, people will see and use it in different ways. This is why you can have one set of texts and hundreds of different doctrinal positions on those texts.

For the purposes of your article, I think the question very much remains: "what do you mean when you refer to 'the church'? The teachings? The organization? Or the cultural practices and understandings which have grown up?"


March 5, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterBrian

Thanks for the response Chara.

Brian, I very much agree. Each of the categories I defined can (and should) be further subdivided. This article is a little ridiculous in how broad-brush it is. Each paragraph or sentence could be its own essay. But the idea is to get out of the details that we can get wrapped up in and blinded by, so it remains intentionally high-level and in some cases vague. I have to say though, of all that I didn't include, the one concept that kept coming back to me was the distinction between the text itself and the interpretation of that text. It was just too huge to bring in here and would have made this even more ridiculous. So thank you for bringing that up. I think it's a crucial topic.

March 6, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterDerek

If I could "like" this article, i would. I agree that defining our terms is key to sorting through confusion, frustrations, and problems within the New Church - the organization, the culture, and the teachings. In a society that is becoming increasingly specialized, the Writings of the New Church are especially important and helpful in clarifying what is true... while they are general in some areas, they are SO SPECIFIC in others, such as the language of angels and written materials in heaven, etc. I find myself repeatedly amazed about how much more there is within the teachings of the New Church each time I open one of the books to read.

March 10, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterErin Schnarr
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