The LDS Church as a Living System

Poor Wayfaring Man

In the spirit of adjusting my perspective to account for fundamental attribution error, I’ve been trying to see people in the context of their situational and environmental influences, rather than simply judging the quality of their character. Because members of the LDS Church are part of a system with a stated mission that includes regulating their behavior, their relationships with each other, and their relationships with the outside world (i.e., “Perfecting the Saints”), I think understanding that system can probably go a long way toward explaining why they do some of the things they do. I think in most cases they are people with good intentions, making the best calls that they can, constrained in various ways by their roles in the system.

So, what is the nature of the LDS Church system? It is organized legally as an “unincorporated religious association” under the laws of the State of Utah, holding several subsidiary corporations which perform various essential functions of the organization (such as money-processing,1 intellectual-property-holding, real-property-holding,2 for-profit business, etc.).

The Church’s legal status, like that of corporations, partnerships, and other business organizations, is founded on what is traditionally called a “legal fiction” in which the law considers it to be a living entity–a person–who can act and interact with other legally recognized “people” (both natural living humans and other business entities). Individual humans undertake roles within the Church organization, and the actions they take within those roles are taken on behalf of the organization, and are considered legally to be the actions of the organization, not the individual (with a few exceptions for certain crimes, etc.). Thus, while acting within their role, the individuals operating the Church are generally free to worry about the legal rights and obligations of the Church, without worrying about themselves.

This detachment that people who run the Church can achieve–laying aside their own interests and moral sensibilities in order to promote the interests of the Church–may go a long way toward elucidating the behavior of Church leaders, but I’m not sure that it adequately explains the behavior of the members, who aren’t always in the position of operating the Church.  Maybe there’s more to the system than just legal concepts.

Recently, I’ve been wondering just how fictional the Church’s existence as a living entity really is. Is it more than just “alive” for legal purposes?

There is no clear scientific definition for the phenomenon of being “alive” that can easily answer that question. To describe “life”, some scientists have developed a general “living systems” theory, which describes the essential characteristics of things that are commonly considered to be “alive”, like cells and organisms, as well as other systems into which living things are organized, like ecosystems, countries and societies. Living systems theory identifies 20 distinct functions (relating to the processing of matter/energy and information) that characterize living systems. Interestingly, an examination of most business entities (including the LDS Church) reveals that they actually comprise all 20 functions.

Perhaps thinking about the Church as both a living legal entity and a living system can make it easier to understand the people who are part of it.



  1. The Corporation of the President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints []
  2. The Corporation of the Presiding Bishop of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints []

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