What do we mean when we use the word doctrine? Is doctrine eternal, unchanging?
I have been teaching gospel doctrine for three and a half years now, and that has pushed me to learn a great deal. Of course, nothing prevents me from studying diligently all on my own, but a deadline really, really motivates me. Old Testament–fascinating and disturbing. New Testament–my favorite. Book of Mormon–tragic. And now, this year, Doctrine & Covenants and Church History. I was rather dreading this year because, well, polygamy. I hate it. Also, lacking a pioneer heritage, I have long felt apart from the covered wagon stories. However, I have enjoyed this year much more than I expected. I am pleased to report that the curriculum is greatly enhanced by new online resources, many from the Joseph Smith Papers Project. We haven’t gotten to the “p word” yet, but we will.
The thing that I really want to talk about, though, is change.
What is really known about the gospel in Old Testament times is quite sparse. How people lived the gospel, even sparser. A mishmash document, no doubt reworked and translated poorly and subject to any number of editorial whims and transcription errors over thousands of years surely isn’t the best instruction manual. The New Testament is still really, really old and worked over, but at least the source material is closer to the events described. While we believe the Book of Mormon is correctly translated, it has little to say about how we live the gospel in the restored church today.
What comes to me over and over while preparing my lessons is the realization that the actual “living the gospel” that we aspire to now is nothing like what it was in times past. In all the standard works, there is little to nothing in common with many of the aspects of our present lives as Latter Day Saints. Even with our most recent book of scripture, The Doctrine and Covenants, where we have so many primary documents, factual information, and first person accounts, it is very different from the modern church. So much of what I have learned in my lesson preparation seems strange and foreign compared to our current practices: baptism, covenants, temple worship, sabbath observance, priesthood, marriage, family life, dress standards, dietary restrictions, fasting, tithing, missionary service and on and on. Many of these things have changed in my lifetime.
I don’t bring this up as a criticism. We are living in a different culture than the people in our scripture stories. Living in Utah, I often hear some version of “doctrine doesn’t change.” If that is true, then none of those traditions and practices can be doctrine. As Elder Uchtdorf recently taught us, “the Restoration is an ongoing process,” so surely we can look forward to many more changes in the way we live our religion. So what do we mean when we use the word doctrine?
Can doctrine change? Are there any unchangeable doctrines? What is the difference between doctrine, policy, tradition or practice? What does this mean for how we practice our religion?