Distinguishing Doctrine and Practice

Marshmallows

It is my experience, both personal and observed, that we can create our own faith crisis by putting our faith in the wrong things. Some things must be unchanging, true, and good. Other may not be. Our faith is constructed from childhood with simplistic stories, but that which we can understand as a child is often much different than reality.

Some people are content with simple faith. Others find that it cannot bear the weight of reality; a foundation of gingerbread and marshmallow is crushed under the weight of real bricks. The problem comes when we are not prepared for the resulting (and necessary) crisis and reconstruction as we mature in our faith.

Our process of replacing simplified teachings and folklore is exacerbated by informal and official church teachings that present(ed) the gingerbread as if it were stone. I like to think of stucco covered marshmallows that have the appearance of rock, but cannot bear any weight. When these are crushed, questions of credibility amplify an already complicated and emotional experience.

Helpful Scaffolding

I think it can be helpful when we have the right tools to evaluate, repair, and reconstruct our faith. One of these essential tools is an understanding of the materials (doctrine and principles) we have to work with. Just because something is taught by the church, its leaders, or by trusted members does not mean that it merits a place in the structure of our faith. Too much fanciful folklore passes as “truth” because we want to believe it.

In a class environment I usually begin by telling three stories that point out the fallacy of relying on things that are not secure, mistaking myth for reality, and the risk of not allowing for necessary movement.

Michael Goodman is a BYU religion teacher, author, and committee chair for the new institute cornerstone course, The Eternal Family. In an LDS Perspectives podcast, Goodman defines doctrine as having the following characteristics.

  • Unchanging
  • Salvific
  • Currently taught by all 15 apostles

This is a reasonable construct but, as Goodman acknowledges, “doctrine” is often overused. In fact, I would say that “doctrine” is used far too loosely to be a practical term when used in isolation. Also, the fact that he includes “currently taught” implies that there is change in church doctrine, nullifying the “unchanging” characteristic.

While there is often value in simplicity, I’ve found it helpful to expand on Goodman’s construct with the following two of my own characteristics:

  • The teaching has basis in revelation or scripture.
  • The teaching conforms to the first law in heaven, love.

(This is still a work in progress and I would welcome examples and feedback.)

The following descriptions risk the use of an analogy to the structure of a building with the particular components in parentheses.

Christian Fundamentals (Foundation) — Christ was born as a mortal, lived an exemplary life, atoned for our sins, was resurrected, and is our advocate with the Father. (3 Nephi 27, Acts 10:36-43, 1 Corinthians 15:1-4) The foundational Christian values are love and change (repentance).

Church® Doctrine (Footings) — Unchanging* (see below), essential elements of our faith that have basis in scripture and revelation. These are closely tied to Christian Fundamentals, this includes the principles behind ordinances and sacraments that have unique flavors in our theology.

Church Principles (Walls) — Elements of our faith that are given the weight of unchanging doctrine, such as the Word of Wisdom, race-based restrictions, role of women, and polygamy. These elements have and will continue to change, but not without some serious pain. The church’s LGBTQ position and the role of women are active issues in this class. 

Church Practice (Paint) — This would be the official “how” of church, where the doctrine and principles are implemented. The manner and language of all ordinances fall into this category. It would also include meeting format, organizational structure, and programs.

Church Policy (Flooring) — Handbooks 1 and 2. I include this as a separate category because most members don’t interact with the church at this level, but it underlies all of our activities.

The temple recommend interview questions demarcate the boundaries of personal assent and conformity to church doctrine, principle, practice, and policy.

Opinion (Furniture and Decorations) — This is the realm of personal faith. Talks, sermons, lesson manuals, folklore, and books by church authorities and others operate in this space. It is a noisy environment. Taken together, Opinion may communicate doctrine, but not in isolation.

History (Roof) — All of the above are contextualized by the cultural environment at the time they occur. Leveraging scripture without historical context is dubious, as is the application of any modern sermon or historical event. We also have limited knowledge of history, especially individual history, and limited capacity to communicate it. Often, we just don’t know what happened, why, and when. This is a bad place to put your faith.

*Unchanging

Can church doctrine change?

I think that the answer has to be yes, church doctrine can change.

The church is a mortal institution and the condescension of God must accommodate our limited and variable capacity. Consequently, “truth,” even “eternal truth” must be displaced by greater truth if we are to make this earth a heaven. (See Matt 6:10. This is a Jewish concept; our mission is to make heaven on earth rather than escape earth.) It seems that our understanding of doctrine (or what we think is doctrine) must necessarily evolve.

One could argue that the idea that God has spoke and need not speak again is an attempt to limit the bounds of God. Elements of this are found in both traditional and restoration churches. I don’t think it is a humble position. In my view, church doctrine must change, but it cannot do so on the time scale of political or cultural whim.

The issue of prophetic reliability comes up in this category and is deserving of a longer discussion. As a starting point, I would refer you to Seems Like Revelation.

Church® Doctrine

Descriptions of LDS church doctrine can be found in a couple of spots on the church website and in the Seminary Doctrinal Mastery Core manual on the Gospel Library app. (Library > Seminaries and Institutes > Seminary > Doctrinal Mastery Core Document > Doctrinal Topics)

The website lists seven basic doctrines. The seminary manual lists nine.

  • God Head
  • Plan of Salvation
  • Atonement of Jesus Christ
  • Dispensationalism (Apostasy and Restoration)
  • Prophets and Revelation
  • Priesthood and Priesthood Keys
  • Ordinances and Covenants
  • Marriage and Family
  • Commandments

The content under these doctrinal descriptions are relatively broad and may include some interpretation and opinion.

Comparison Table

A mark in the cells below indicates that the particular quality is required for an issue to fall into the particular class. The table becomes a little ambiguous if used rigidly.

CategoryUnchangingSalvificCurrently Taught by Q15Basis in Scripture or RevelationShows Love
Christian Fundamental (Foundation) X X X X X
Church Doctrine (Footings) X* X X X X
Church Principle (Walls) X*   X    
Church Practice (Paint)     X    
Church Policy (Flooring)          
Opinion (Furniture)          
History (Roof)          

*See the Unchanging section below.

A few caveats that Goodman points out:

  • Just because the Brethren are united in teaching something does not make it doctrine.
  • Subjects that are not doctrine may still be very important.
  • Something that is not a doctrine does not mean that it was not given by revelation. For example, policies and practices may be inspired, but should not be considered doctrine.
  • Non-doctrinal subjects may be true and even eternally true.
  • Dismissing someone’s concerns by stating, “That’s not doctrine, you don’t need to worry about it”  or, “That is not pertinent to your salvation,” doesn’t resolve what may be an important issue, especially if we have given the issue too much weight in our faith.

Examples

Baptism

Is baptism a doctrine, principle, or practice?

The answer is: Yes.

From the audience: “Now your being obtuse. (Can I say that in public?)”

Ordinances are church practices that ratify (or demonstrate our individual assent to) principles or covenants that are based on Christian fundamentals or church doctrine. The are conducted or administered by recognized church authorities.

As an ordinance, baptism has not always been practiced in the same way. But the principle on which it is based is a fundamental Christian element, even salvific, and is defined by church doctrine.

The sacrament (or communion) is similar.

Priesthood

Is priesthood a church doctrine?

From the audience: “Hmm. Do you really want me to answer?”

As was alluded in the descriptions above, it is a bit more complicated than a dualistic answer can address.

Priesthood is often defined as the power given to men to act in God’s name in the service of His children. Who is authorized to exercise the priesthood has (and will) change. We also tend to conflate  authority, power, and leadership responsibility, but that is a discussion for another time.

Word of Wisdom

Doctrine, principle, or practice?

Originally given “not by commandment or constraint” as a “principle with promise” (D&C 89:2-3), it has taken an interesting position in our church practice. Proper care of your body is a Christian principle. The how of the principle is variable.

The Word of Wisdom correlates well to 19th century medicine and it’s evolution to the current standing as a requirement is complex.

Has it changed? Yes.

Will it change? Yes, just like any practice changes. Practices must retain their value for the current generation or we risk losing them and those that follow.

What else could we categorize as doctrine, principle, or practice? Temple worship, conference talks, historical accounts, and more. Nearly all will be more complicated than a newspaper headline or tweet will allow.

Joseph’s First Vision

What about our foundational stories like Joseph Smith’s vision; doctrine, principle, or practice?

Missionary pseudo-logic draws a line from the Book of Mormon, through Joseph Smith and his theophany, to the “truth” of the church restoration, and validity of current church leadership. Investigators are asked to read and pray about the Book of Mormon and then use that answer to accept everything else. I really don’t think that such a single-point testimony is wise, at least not for long, especially if there are some stucco covered marshmallows in the foundation.

In the classification that I have presented, the first vision falls into the Opinion classification; a personal experience of Joseph Smith that occurred in a particular historical context. In fact, each of his accounts of the experience has it’s own historical context.

Is it an important event that lead to the foundation of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints?

Most definitely.

Is it true?

Like the original experience was to Joseph Smith, answering that question is a part of your own personal journey. I would suggest that a more important question, and the one that Smith asked, is: “What is my standing before God?”

Conclusion

Watch out for stucco covered marshmallows. Think carefully about what you hold onto as a foundational element of your faith.

Be suspicious of simplistic or shallow narratives, whether you like them or not. Truth is always more complicated than we want it to be.

Allow change and movement (even wrong-ness) to occur in the periphery of your faith so that the structure can remain intact.

Don’t give up your agency to someone else. You get to decide what you believe and in what you will place your faith.

Not everything that is important in your life needs to carry the burden of “truth.”

Don’t impose your truth on someone else. Allow others to find satisfaction in their lives and learn more when they are ready.

Enjoy the journey,

Eugene

Some Quotes

Class dismissed.

From the audience: “And I was having such a good … nap.”

Okay, since you slept through the good part, here are a few interesting quotes. Enjoy.

Neil L. Anderson:

There is an important principle that governs the doctrine of the Church. The doctrine is taught by all 15 members of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve. It is not hidden in an obscure paragraph of one talk. True principles are taught frequently and by many.

October 2012, General Conference

LDS.org:

Not every statement made by a Church leader, past or present, necessarily constitutes doctrine. A single statement made by a single leader on a single occasion often represents a personal, though well-considered, opinion, but is not meant to be officially binding for the whole Church. With divine inspiration, the First Presidency … and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles … counsel together to establish doctrine that is consistently proclaimed in official Church publications. This doctrine resides in the four “standard works” of scripture …, official declarations and proclamations, and the Articles of Faith.”

Approaching Mormon Doctrine – LDS.ORG – Newsroom

Joseph Smith:

I say to all those who are disposed to set up stakes for the Almighty, You will come short of the glory of God. To become a joint heir of the heirship of the Son, one must put away all his false traditions.

The great thing for us to know is to comprehend what God did institute before the foundation of the world. Who knows it? It is the constitutional disposition of mankind to set up stakes and set bounds to the works and ways of the Almighty. … That which hath been hid from before the foundation of the world is revealed to babes and sucklings in the last days [see D&C 128:18].

https://www.lds.org/manual/teachings-joseph-smith/chapter-22?lang=eng

Joseph Fielding Smith wrote:

It makes no difference what is written or what anyone has said, if what has been said is in conflict with what the Lord has revealed, we can set it aside. My words, and the teachings of any other member of the Church, high or low, if they do not square with the revelations, we need not accept them. Let us have this matter clear. We have accepted the four standard works as the measuring yardsticks, or balances, by which we measure every man’s doctrine. You cannot accept the books written by the authorities of the Church as standards of doctrine, only in so far as they accord with the revealed word in the standard works. Every man who writes is responsible, not the Church, for what he writes. If Joseph Fielding Smith writes something which is out of harmony with the revelations, then every member of the Church is duty bound to reject it. If he writes that which is in perfect harmony with the revealed word of the Lord, then it should be accepted.

Joseph Fielding Smith, Doctrines of Salvation, comp. Bruce R. McConkie, 3 vols., (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1954–56),203–204 , As quoted.

One thought on “Distinguishing Doctrine and Practice”

  1. I think the word “doctrine” gets thrown around loosely, where Christ used the word in a very specific way in 3 Nephi 11:

    “Behold, verily, verily, I say unto you, I will declare unto you my doctrine.” (verse 31).

    And then he elaborates on what that is for the next seven verses before concluding with:

    “Verily, verily, I say unto you, that this is my doctrine, and whoso buildeth upon this buildeth upon my rock, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against them. And whoso shall declare more or less than this, and establish it for my doctrine, the same cometh of evil, and is not built upon my rock; but he buildeth upon a sandy foundation, and the gates of hell stand open to receive such when the floods come and the winds beat upon them.” (verses 39-40)

    If Christ was so specific about His doctrine, how do we reconcile that with Elder Oaks remarks in last General Conference that official doctrine “is taught by all 15 members of the first presidency and quorum of the twelve.”

    Is Oaks using the word in a different way than Christ did?

    “Let us not teach or use as official doctrine what does not meet the standards of official doctrine.” Oaks said. I remain unclear on what the “standards of official doctrine” are.

    What concerns me more is that there might be such a standard. That would constitute the equivalent of a “creed” that Joseph Smith was so against.

    Joseph remarked that the Methodists “have creeds which a man must believe or be kicked out of their church. I want the liberty to believe as I please, it feels so good not to be trammeled. It does not prove that a man is not a good man because he errs in doctrine.” (Rough Stone Rolling, Bushman) (History of the Church, vol 5, pg 340)

    Joseph felt that creeds set limits, “and say ‘hitherto shalt thou come & no further’ — which I cannot subscribe to.” He explained that the difference between the Christian sects and The Latter Day Saints was that the sectarians “were all circumscribed by some peculiar creed, which deprived its members the privilege of believing anything not contained therein; whereas the Latter Day Saints had no creed, but are ready to believe all true principles that exist, as they are made manifest from time to time.” (Rough Stone Rolling, Bushman, p. 285)

    I’ve always held to the thought that we have no ‘orthodox’ creed in Mormonism. We welcome all truth, from whatever source. We have the following statements in our scriptures:

    “We claim the privilege of worshiping Almighty God according to the dictates of our own conscience, and allow all men the same privilege, let them worship how, where, or what they may.” (11th Article of Faith)

    What is the difference between “official doctrine” that Elder Oaks is teaching and a fully fleshed out creed as we see in other faith traditions?

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