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?

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12 Responses

  1. Elizabeth Neipp says:

    I think of “policy” as being along the lines of, “order of operations” which would be affected by different cultures as well as responding to changes in secular society and individuals. Traditions, closely related to policy but not necessarily found in the Church Handbook of Instruction, would be how things are carried out on local levels. Doctrine would be something like the nature of the Godhead, the necessity for ordinances, the role of Christ as our savior, the need for a restoration because of the apostasy, love thy neighbor, belief in personal and continuing revelation, eternal nature of the family, faith, hope, charity, obedience, and so on.

  2. Andrew R. says:

    Along similar lines to Elizabeth.

    Before we can decide is Doctrine changes we need to define what a Doctrine is. I don’t believe Doctrine changes. I do believe that the way in which we live changes with each dispensation (and I don’t mean just the 1,000 year dispensations).

    So whilst the ordinances of salvation are doctrinal in their nature – ie we need them. How they are administered changes. The current Initiatory ordinances and the endowment are clear examples of this. However, the underlying covenants remain the same.

    Some of the things in your list are clearly not Doctrines. Dietary limitations have changed with circumstances through the various dispensations, for instance.

    So if we can define an Eternal Doctrine then it will not change. But we have very few of those.

  3. Glenn Thigpen says:

    I think that the Articles of Faith do a pretty good job of laying out basic Doctrine although they actually do not define what doctrine is. Of course the teachings on Temple ordinances are not included and the three degrees of glory. I believe that all of those, in a nutshell, comprise the core doctrines of the LDS church. How these doctrines and ordinances and practices are controlled and administered do change, but I have really seen no change in those core doctrines.


  4. Janell says:

    I think in the Church, doctrine can usually be considered the current teachings of the living apostles and prophets. In the case doctrine absolutely (thankfully) changes. There are clear examples of living prophets teaching plural marriage and race restrictions and the Adam-God doctrine as doctrine, no ifs, ands, or buts. Then of course those same things are later denounced by living prophets (and become “policies”) no ifs, ands, or buts. I found the book “This Is My Doctrine” by Charles Harrell a great resource for following the path of various doctrines through the scriptures and dispensations of time, as you have mentioned doing. I don’t understand how the idea that doctrine (in the context of how we discuss it in church) doesn’t change can be justified.

    Personally, I think that in order for a concept to be true doctrine of the gospel of Jesus Christ that it must be unchangeable, and it must apply universally to every person born on this earth, as the atonement of Christ applies universally. Thus far, the only contenders I’ve come up with are agency and love.

    • Andrew R. says:

      Just taking the few you mention let’s just examine them in the light of Doctrine and Change.

      Plural Marriage
      Was a Doctrine, still is a Doctrine. We stopped practising con-current living marriage and sealing. So the policy and practice changed. However, we still seal multiple wives to husbands in eternal sealings. So the Doctrine still exists, and hasn’t changed. Only the way in which we practice it currently. Unless the Church disavowed all multiple sealings this doctrine remains extant.

      Race Restrictions
      In this case it is either a Doctrine, or it isn’t. And I think that depends. If it was Doctrinal that certain individuals would not get the opportunity, due to race, to receive the priesthood then that is still doctrine. BY clearly taught that they would one day all get the priesthood, and they have. So the Doctrine stands.
      If it was wrong, and should never have happened, it equally wasn’t Doctrine. And a false Doctrine, resulting in false practice has been abolished.
      Either way Doctrine didn’t change.

      Adam-God Doctrine
      This is probably the hardest. The only really explicit sermon from BY trying to explain this I believe is quite ambiguous. Clearly Michael/Adam is seen as a God for us. Equally the concept of Adams and Eves staring off humanity in creation is not limited to this earth. We stopped teaching it in the same way that we no longer teach theories on the priesthood ban.
      Again whether it is doctrine or not we do not know. Either way, Doctrine didn’t change. If it has any underlying truth it is a misunderstood Doctrine. If not, it never was Doctrine.

      A change of Doctrine would be to remove some part of a Doctrine, or change it.

      The Creation – The Fall – The Atonement
      As we understand it the Doctrine of the Fall is universal and also individual. So we all Fall. We come to earth (are created in our second estate) as Terrestrial Beings. As we reach accountability we begin to sin, and in this sin we Fall. Only through the Atonement may we have the effects of our sin taken away and be recreated.

      Changing any part of this process – specified by the Doctrine of Christ – Faith, Repentance, Baptism, Receipt of the Holy Ghost and Enduring (in our covenants) to the end – would change the Doctrine.

      So if the Church said that once a person had been Baptised and Confirmed they were saved – keeping of covenants no longer required – as some other denominations believe, that would be a change of Doctrine. We just have to believe and be baptised and we are Christ’s.

      Yes, we change policies, practices and application constantly. But the underlying Doctrines (scant as they are) do not change – so far as I can tell.

  5. nrc42 says:

    I think most Mormons agree that doctrine never changes. But the fact is that there are many things that were once taught to be doctrine that are no longer considered to be doctrine. This is chalked up to a “perfect doctrine, imperfect leaders” excuse, but the fact remains that church leaders in the past couldn’t reliably determine what was and wasn’t doctrine and neither can church leaders now. The idea of a constant unchanging doctrine can only be theoretical because in real life what is considered “doctrine” changes all the time.

    • Ziff says:

      Well said, nrc42. It’s all post-hoc. We think stuff is doctrine until it changes, and then we decide that it wasn’t doctrine after all.

  6. acw says:

    The chart at this link about doctrine-> principle-> application/policy is something I’ve thought a lot about: The thing is, in the church we will talk about “the doctrine of the family” which bothers me because our definition of marriage has changed a lot more than most! But if we say instead: the doctrine is that God defines marriage relationships, and then the principle is polygamy (1856) or marriage is between a man and a woman (2017) , and the application/policy becomes how we manage temple sealings or gay members, then that works better for me. That way, doctrine is consistent and eternal even when principles and applications of them change.

  7. Ellen says:

    Hi- nrc42- I agree with you, things that we call “doctrine” change. So we need to use a different word for things that change. And reliably determining what IS doctrine is the sticky part.
    Janelle- that’s where my thoughts are. Love and agency. Those seem to be the only fundamentals to me.
    acw- that was an interesting link. I especially like the discussion of applications. Seems like it’s so easy to judge others by their applications or lived practices. And surely that’s not a good idea.
    Andrew- I am having trouble following your logic. Can a “true” prophet teach “false” doctrine?
    Thanks everyone for participating in the discussion!

    • Andrew R. says:

      I think a “true” prophet can express doctrine and principles poorly, and in a way not understood out of context (ie not in the setting).

      This is one of the reasons that we are asked not to share what visiting authorities say in one location across the globe. Elders Holland and Ballard have spoken in North Europe and the UK in the last couple of years. Both have spoken to our needs, Area Plan and specific situations. What they say carries weight for those who have heard them speak – and the Spirit will have given light to our understanding. However, what they said is not universal, and my not translate to other areas.

      So I am not convinced that BY taught false doctrine. I am certain he preached in a way we can not fully understand what he was trying to say.

    • Andrew R. says:

      Nothing I call “doctrine” has changed. But I limit doctrine to a very small set of Church teachings.

  8. Leonard R says:

    Andrew referenced what I believe is doctrine, but then also added things which are not doctrine.

    In 3rd Nephi 11, Christ tells that his doctrine is that the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost bear record of each other, that we must believe in him, repent, and be baptized.

    He then adds that declaring more or less than this as doctrine comes of evil.

    I don’t think this means that we don’t know, believe, teach, hold as true, etc., other things. Rather, that the central truth – and the only truth which is doctrine – is the Godhead and redemption through faith in Christ, evidenced by baptism.

    Everything else is commentary. Useful commentary, to be sure. But there is the doctrine that I believe is eternal.

    I don’t believe polygamy (or any other teachings on marriage), priesthood (restrictions or otherwise), church structure, ordinance structure, policies, teachings, etc., are doctrine. They are church belief, church practise, whatnot. They are all subject to change (and all have been).

    Which again is not to say that those things aren’t true. But they aren’t doctrine, and much pain, sorrow, and most of al, disunity and dissembling, could have been avoided throughout history and today if we kept this in mind….

    Well, at least that’s my two bits. 😉

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