What is Church Doctrine? One Possible Theory…

Church Doctrine is a ubiquitous idea among Mormons, but in some ways it is quite mysterious. Mormons regularly invoke the idea of Church Doctrine to differentiate between those teachings and practices that have some claim on them and those teachings and practices that are merely opinions or suggestions. For example, Heber might claim that evolution is a false and evil teaching. Brigham then responds by saying, “That is just your opinion. That is not Church Doctrine.” Likewise, Brigham might suggest that the Word of Wisdom properly understood requires abstention from all meat. Heber then responds by saying, “That is just your interpretation. That is not Church Doctrine.” The clear implication in both exchanges is that were the opinion or practice in question Church Doctrine it would have a claim on Heber or Brigham that it does not otherwise have.

My conclusion is that Mormons lack a clear rule that allows them to identify what is or is not Church doctrine. The various possibilities – teachings that have been formally added to the Standard Works, statements that have been formally accepted in general conference, statements that have been made by prophets and apostles in the appropriate context, etc. – all turn out to be over- or under-inclusive when examined in detail. To be sure, all of these proposed rules are useful in orienting us toward Church Doctrine, even if they are not fool-proof methods for identifying it. Nevertheless, we do have unambiguous cases of Church Doctrine. It is clearly Church Doctrine that Jesus Christ is the savior of mankind and that Mormons should not drink coffee or alcohol. Rather than relying on a rule of recognition for identifying Church Doctrine, Mormons rely on a hermeneutic approach. We determine what is or is not Church Doctrine by offering interpretations – stories if you will – that seek to make sense of clear instance of Church Doctrine against the huge backdrop of Mormon scriptures, teachings, history, and practices. In offering this interpretation we seek to present Mormon texts, practices, and history in the best possible light, not for any apologetic purpose but rather because in seeking for what is normative we reject interpretations that we would regard as normatively less attractive. This does not mean that Church Doctrine is simply a matter of what we think is best. It is not. It is a matter of charitably interpreting Mormon practices, texts, and experience.

Because this is a complicated and inherently normative task, the precise contours of Church Doctrine are always contestable. This does not mean that there are necessarily no right answers to the question of whether or not something is Church Doctrine. Nor does it mean that we lack some clear instances of Church Doctrine. It simply means that we are unlikely to arrive at a formula that will allow us to answer definitively the question in every circumstance. Rather, than relying on an intellectual formula, the Church seems to cope with the potential problems of doctrinal disagreements ethically and institutionally. Ethically, we are told not to contend in anger about the points of Christ’s doctrine. Institutionally, the practical difficulties of doctrinal disagreement can be resolved by the fiat of whoever has the stewardship for a particular institutional setting. Thus, doctrinal discussions in a ward Sunday School class are “managed” by an ethic of being charitable to one another in our disagreement, and by the bishop’s ability to direct teachers to teach in a particular way or else to release them from their calling. Neither of these coping mechanisms, however, requires that we have a formula for incontestably laying to rest what is or is not Church Doctrine in every case.

23 comments for “What is Church Doctrine? One Possible Theory…

  1. Nehringk
    February 20, 2007 at 12:15 pm

    There is an intersating article by Robert Millet titled “What Is Our Doctrine?” I believe it was published in the Religious Educator about three years ago. It made some good points along these lines.

  2. February 20, 2007 at 1:24 pm

    It is clearly Church Doctrine that Jesus Christ is the savior of mankind and that Mormons should not drink coffee or alcohol.

    I consider it a policy rather than a doctrine that we should not drink coffee or alcohol. The Church has lots of official policy, which is clear precisely because we have stated it explicitely in the Church Handbook or made it part of the temple interview, or something like that. I think it is very useful to make a distinction between doctrine and policy, with doctrine being restricted to truth claims about matters which do not change over time and policy being practices and commandments which are suited to our current needs. (The truth claim may change (which is an actual change of doctrine when it happens), but it is doctrine if it is about a matter that does not change.) Often, a policy is based on a doctrine, but the two can always be separated meaningfully in my experience. This distinction leads me to view doctrine in one of the way you would consider “under-inclusive,” but I am very comfortable under-including doctrines so long as I can have official policy as necessary.

  3. bbell
    February 20, 2007 at 1:30 pm

    How about this.

    I know Mormon Doctrine when I see it or hear it. Not to make fun of your post but its a really complicated topic.

    This complexity makes all of us full of opinions………….

  4. February 20, 2007 at 2:11 pm

    Jacob: Do you think that the distinction you make actually tracks the way in which the term “Church Doctrine” is used by Latter-day Saints? I am fine with saying that certain doctrines are based on unchanging eternal truth and many are not. However, I am not sure how useful it is to start making these sorts of distinctions before we have some handle on what we are looking at and how we discover it. Hence, I would prefer to keep the notion of Church Doctrine very capacious, so as to include most everything that has some claim to authority over us as Latter-day Saints. Let’s figure out how to find this stuff, and then we can start drawing differences and distinctions. If we start at the other end with a bunch of distinctions we run the risk of downing in a welter of categories that ultimately don’t tell us all that much about what we are doing.

    bbell: “This complexity makes all of us full of opinions”

    I didn’t make the complexity. Indeed, I am trying to simplify it by providing an account of how we actually use the term.

    Nehringk: I have read the Millet piece, which I think is important in that it acknowledges both the complexity of doctrine and the fact that not everything ever taught or believed by a Mormon is authoritative on all of us. My problem with the piece is that ultimately he offers few concepts with much traction on figuring out what might be authoritative. Instead, we get a couple of essentially homilitic stories showing how understanding the scope of Church Doctrine can help certain kinds of spiritual struggles. Fair enough. How exactly do I figure out what Church Doctrine is again…..?

  5. HP
    February 20, 2007 at 3:00 pm

    Nate, I don’t understand how you have figured it out here. You don’t seem to be implying that there is very much content to “church doctrine.” Further, you seem to be saying that Church Doctrine isn’t a matter of what we know, but of how we treat each other, which I would take to be more a concern of practice than doctrine.

    But maybe I am not getting your definition of doctrine here.

  6. Last Lemming
    February 20, 2007 at 3:13 pm

    I consider it a policy rather than a doctrine that we should not drink coffee or alcohol.

    The policy/doctrine dichotomy is not the same as the opinion/doctrine dichotomy that Nate mentions in the original post. The key distinction that interests me (and, I think, most readers) is whether or not something is binding on me. Whether the prohibition of coffee and alcohol is a policy or a doctrine, it is clearly binding on me since I can be denied a temple recommend if I don’t comply. The counsel to avoid R-rated movies, in contrast, is not binding on me, and therefore is not (as I see it) doctrinal, but rather the (mostly wise, but frustratingly arbitrary) opinion of the GAs.

  7. February 20, 2007 at 3:27 pm


    While I will concede that we are fast and loose with our language (I don’t think the distinction I suggest always tracks perfectly with the use of the word doctrine in the LDS vernacular), I think the distinction is very much a part of the way we think about things, even if most people haven’t spent enough time deconstructing things to notice that this distiction accurately captures two senses in which they already use the word doctrine. A little bit of precision in our language would go a long way in removing confusion.

    I can appreciate your hesitancy to start creating a bunch of distinctions and categories, but I don’t think you need a lot of distinctions and categories. There are only a couple of crucial ones in my mind. You suggest that we start by understanding how we use the word doctrine and then create categories and distictions after we have done that. I agree with your approach and it is the process that led me to the distinction I have proposed above.

    The only other thing I think we must be very careful about is separating which question we are asking when we ask “what is doctrine?” In the post, you give the example of people people arguing about the official Church doctrine on evolution. They may be asking a question about “is evolution the process by which humans came to be?” or they may be asking the question “must I reject evolution to be a good Mormon?” or they may be asking the question “what is a reporter justified in saying when communicating the Church’s stance on evolution to the world?” A failure to distinguish between these questions causes no end of confusion and strife. Answer them one by one and there will be a lot of agreement. Answer them all at the same time and everyone ends up talking past each other.

    With my original distinction of doctrine vs. policy and some care in regard to what question we are actually asking, I think pretty much all the arguments over “what is doctrine, what is not” can be dealt with in a straightforwad way.

  8. February 20, 2007 at 3:37 pm

    Last Lemming,

    If all you are concerned about is whether something is binding on you in the sense you mentioned, you will have a very easy time. The only things that are binding on you in that way are things you are asked about specifically in a worthiness interview.

  9. Rob Osborn
    February 20, 2007 at 4:09 pm

    I think one possible solution to the issue is to not try and determine what is or isn’t Mormon doctrine but to instead define what is the doctrine of Christ-

    16 And it shall come to pass, that whoso repenteth and is baptized in my name shall be filled; and if he endureth to the end, behold, him will I hold guiltless before my Father at that day when I shall stand to judge the world.
    17 And he that endureth not unto the end, the same is he that is also hewn down and cast into the fire, from whence they can no more return, because of the justice of the Father.

    (Book of Mormon | 3 Nephi 27:16 – 17)

    Everything we teach sould be based upon the true gospel of Jesus Christ which is mentioned above in those scriptures from Christ’s lips himself. Any other teaching that cannot stand with and adhere to what Christ taught is not a true doctrine.

  10. m&m
    February 20, 2007 at 4:13 pm

    I think I recall Pres. Packer saying that doctrines don’t change. I think there are many teachings we could examine since the Restoration and find haven’t changed. I think this is part of the value of the RS/PH manuals…they show the consistency and repetition of concepts that have been taught since the church was restored. There is sometimes emphasis on how things have changed over time, but I think sometimes we forget how much hasn’t.

    In a more general sense, I think the law of witnesses is a valuable tool to consider, both when repetition happens between leaders at a given time, and also between leaders across decades (even centuries). From Elder Eyring:

    The Apostle Paul wrote that “in the mouth of two or three witnesses shall every word be established” (2 Cor. 13:1). One of the ways we may know that the warning [counsel] is from the Lord is that the law of witnesses, authorized witnesses, has been invoked. When the words of prophets seem repetitive, that should rivet our attention and fill our hearts with gratitude to live in such a blessed time.
    (Henry B. Eyring, “Finding Safety in Counsel,” Ensign, May 1997, 24)

    We could debate about whether this kind of repetition constitutes “binding doctrine” but at some point such discourse feels more like splitting hairs to me. If authorized leaders are being consistent in their teachings, I think we ought to be “rivet[ing] our attention” — and having confidence that those messages are indeed from the Lord. To me, the question of whether these things are doctrine or policy or teachings or whatever else we might label them matters less in that kind of circumstance…I just take them as messages from the Lord that He wants me to hear. Having confidence that a message comes from the Lord in this way helps me worry less about what is “doctrine” and what is “policy” or whatever else, and focus on what the Lord wants me to both know and do in order to be most happy and close to the Lord in these crazy times.

    Anyway, this is an approach that hasn’t disappointed me yet! :)

  11. Last Lemming
    February 20, 2007 at 4:34 pm

    The only things that are binding on you in that way are things you are asked about specifically in a worthiness interview.

    Technically true, but not really that simple. Take for example the TR interview question about sustaining the leaders of the Church. From that we can deduce that it is Church doctrine that members should sustain their leaders. But there is little definitive guidance on what that means. Have you followed D-Train’s adventure with his former bishop over on Unofficial Manifesto? His bishop interpreted D-Train’s opposition to the Federal Marriage Amendment as a failure to sustain his leaders. D-Train interpreted it as disagreeing with the brethren’s opinion. While this might seem like an easy call to most bloggernacklers, it demonstrates that just using worthiness interview questions to define doctrine does not provide a real answer to the underlying question of doctrine versus opinion.

  12. February 20, 2007 at 5:04 pm

    I don’t think that I have suggested that Church Doctrine is without content. I certainly don’t believe that to be the case. I think that actually Church Doctrine is incredibly rich and poses a host of obligations on me. My point is simply that the discovery of Church Doctrine is a not a mechanical process of looking it up, rather it is a process of providing the best possible interpretation of what we know of the whole of Mormon teachigns. M&M’s point seems fully consistent with this. We take some doctrines much more seriously on the basis of repetition and continuity, even though answering the questions of “How much repetition?” and “How much continuity?” necessarily involves judgment calls that cannot be reduced to arbitrary forumlas without “hair splitting.” This, however, means that at a theoretical level Church Doctrine is inherently contestable at the margins. This is NOT the same as saying it is vacuous. We seem to function very well despite the contestablity, and I think that the Church has very good coping mechanisms that have relatively little to do with fixing doctrine precisely.

  13. Visorstuff
    February 20, 2007 at 5:05 pm

    I see a huge difference between what you call “church doctrines” and church teachings, church policies, church practices and church culture. When I taught at the MTC, we were counseled not to teach “doctrine” because many of the things we believe as doctrinal are not. Take the debate about a third part (one of three divisions – see D&C 29) or one-third (33 percent) being cast out of heaven. We simply don’t know all of the intricate details of most doctrines, and the church bases many teachings on the corporate understanding of the doctrines.

    The doctrines are taken from the standard words, they don’t change, but our understanding of them and what they are, and what principles are based on those doctrines can change quite a bit. So can the church’s understanding of those doctrines change, resulting in new principles and policies, etc.

    The understanding of doctrines can change quite easily, however, church culture and individual understanding of them take a much longer time to change. Church teachings on a particular topic is what we as a people have been asked to abide by – the current teachings of the current prophets.

    In saying this, I do think that church teachings are often misunderstood by church culture, resulting in even more misunderstanding of the doctrines of the gospel. This is one reason why the church is so hesitant to say “this is official doctrine,” but rather they say this is the current teaching of the church and what the prophets over time have said. And another reason why correlation is so important – we teach doctrines, church teachings and powerful principles packaged for application (thanks Elder Scott) with correlation, and leave the study of true doctrine to the individual – as none of us can be exalted without knowing the doctrines. As LeGrand Richards and Joseph Smith used to say, it’ll be a long time after we die until we have the knowledge we need to be exalted.

  14. February 20, 2007 at 7:02 pm

    “The doctrines are taken from the standard words, they don’t change, but our understanding of them and what they are, and what principles are based on those doctrines can change quite a bit.”

    So, to pose a philosophical problem, for the purposes of the realm of this world in which we act, understand things, and live our lives, is there a difference between the unchanging ideals of doctrine and the doctrine as we understand it?

    My impression is that Nate’s saying no; all the doctrine that we have is the doctrine that we understand. Because of this difficulty, we must be constantly willing to tweak our beliefs and tell different stories about them as we try to understand God better.

  15. HP
    February 20, 2007 at 7:40 pm

    I didn’t mean to imply that you thought it was without content. I just meant that this doesn’t appear to elucidate doctrine or how it is derived. Instead, it gives us a method for discussing it.

  16. maria
    February 20, 2007 at 10:12 pm

    Members of the the LDS church aren’t the only ones who struggle with defining their church’s doctrine, and, more importantly, the role that said doctrine should play in defining devout members’ behavior. I sat in my Catholic Social Thought class today for two hours as a priest, a former nun, and devout Catholic criminal law professor debated the Catholic Church’s position on the death penalty. You’d think it would be a pretty one-sided debate, given everything JP2 said in Evangelium Vitae and other more-traditionally-binding texts (see , paragraphs 2-4, 7-10, 39-43, 52-57). Yet, the process by which “thought” develops into “doctrine” in the Catholic Church is much more complicated than simply issuing an official-looking statement. Compelling theological arguments exist on both side of the debate (http://www.st-joseph-foundation.org/newsletter/lead.php?document=2003/21-4). Catholics, much like members of the LDS church, are thus asked to prayerfully consider the issues for themselves, and then to act according to the dictates of their own conscience.

    So a thought that I have been stewing on this afternoon is that the quest to determine black-letter doctrine might never yield fruit…but that maybe the process of engaging ourselves about these questions and seeking to connect with God more individually and authentically is what this is all about.
    Phew. That was scary. I’ve never dared to comment on a Nate Oman post before.

  17. February 20, 2007 at 10:19 pm


    I agree that Mormonism lacks an easily formulated rule of recognition. But that is often the case for legal systems where positivist frameworks are still seen as workable.

    If Mormon doctrine is hermeneutical, could it be that there is still one right answer about what doctrine is, and the ambiguity and complexity is just a matter of epistemics. I think if asked, and not pushed to specifics, most Saints would intuitively say our doctrine is determinate. Hence the constant invocation of (unsatisfactory) rules of recognition.

    I guess I am asking whether you think Mormon doctrine is ever fixed and determined and just not easily known, or is the mystery you reference also metaphysical?

    I have suggested before that your conception of mormonism has a Dworkinian element to it, and I think this post fits my characterization.

    Your emphasis on normative interpretation sounds very much like Dworkin’s theory of law as constructive interpretation (or “principled coherence”). Essentially, a judge synthesizes the whole of the intuition’s history and asks what moral principles “fit” the institution. Then the judge asks which principles best justify the institutional history from the standpoint of political morality. This sounds very much like charitably interpreting Church practices, texts, and experience. But what in Mormonism is the ultimate justification? For Dworkin, it’s about justifying coercion. For Mormonism, what does “charitably” mean? Do you just mean in a way that portrays our tradition as good and noble, or do you mean charity as the love of Christ? I like the latter.

    It may be that knowing our doctrine is a “Herculean task” (again to apply/stretch Dworkin). But I think the idea of “the gospel” jives better with a metaphysically determinate doctrine with epistemic problems than it does with one that is necessarily indeterminate and contextual.

  18. Rob Osborn
    February 21, 2007 at 2:03 am

    If one starts with absolutes and then builds off them, he can determine to a certain point what a “true” doctrine is. For example- Jesus Christ is our savior. All mankind may be saved by obedience the laws and ordinances of the gospel. Those two statements are absolute “true” doctrines. Trying to teach that all will be damned except eternally married couples though would not be considered an absolute “true” doctrine.

    A lot of the problems do stem off of the varrying viewpoints of scriptural interpretation. Alma and other like prophets in the Book of Mormon viewed the spirit world a place where no repentance is granted- once your dead you are lost forever if you have not repented. Section 138 and other scripture references however state that repentance very much is granted to the rebellious in the spirit world. Which one is an absolute “true” doctrine then if they are both scripture and were viewed by both peoples as a true doctrine? What this shows me is that sometimes even scripture can be recorded outside of establishing absolute true doctrines.

    So I guess the question we are really after is what is true and what isn’t? There are certain absolutes in mormon doctrine and mostly they hinge off of the specific things Christ himself is recorded as saying such as -” He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned.”

    (New Testament | Mark 16:16)

  19. Visorstuff
    February 21, 2007 at 12:13 pm

    Rob – you bring up a good point, but your examples are not both doctrines – rather principles. There are not “exceptions” to doctrines – but there are to principles. And with almost everything in the church, there are exceptions to nearly every rule (and as Elder Packer points out, we shouldn’t try to be the exeptions).
    For example, “al mankind may be saved by obedience the laws and ordinances of the gospel” is true, unless you are a child who dies before the age of eight or unaccountable, and then it gets into gray area about what they ”have” to obey or not. Do they need to be baptized? And what about Jesus? He is part mankind, but was already a god and exalted prior to his birth. There is much of this doctrine we just don’t understand – so we call it the “law of obedience.” And we study and follow it and go as far as we can in understanding, and then we put it on the shelf and wait until more light on the doctrine is revealed. Again, I’m not sure church doctrine is an accurate term, rather gospel doctrines and church teachings.

  20. February 21, 2007 at 12:58 pm

    Ian R.: I think that you are absolutely right that my vision of Church Doctrine has a strong Dworkinian flavor to it, although I would not want to push the analogy too hard. It is a good analogy, but no more than an analogy.

    That said, even Dworkin believes that “hard cases” have correct answers even if we lack clearly determinate methodologies for determining what they are. Put in simpler terms, the fact that we inevitably disagree doesn’t mean that one of us isn’t wrong. Furthermore, the existence of “hard cases” does not mean that there are not also easy cases. I think that there are lots of really easy cases of Church Doctrine. Indeed, I think that it is the brute existence of these easy cases — rather than a determinate methodology — that makes us think that Church Doctrine is relatively determinate. I’ve got no problem with this perception, so long as we don’t let it trip up our thinking when we try to approach the question of Church Doctrine more abstractly.

    As for the metaphysical question, I don’t really know. I do think that there are right answers the questions of church doctrine. I am not sure whether this is because I think that church doctrine is a reflection of metaphysical absolutes or because I believe that contestable interpretive issues have right answers. I tend to believe that Church Doctrine is a human artifact, a made thing, rather than a reflection of eternal verities. On the other hand, I think that it is much, much more than simply a human artifact. I think that Spirit of God is at work in the Church and its Doctrine, and that Church Doctrine provides us with a channel into the mind of God unavailable anywhere else.

    maria: I like your suggestion that we find God in the struggle of interpretation, but I don’t want to say that the struggle is all there is. The Islamic jurists have a concept they lable ijtihad, which means something like a whole-souled struggle to interpret the sacred texts to find the will of God. The classical jurists understood ijtihad as form of worship in and of itself. They also, however, believed that there really right answers to juristic question, and that the judge (qaddi) who imposes sentence contrary to shar’ia would be held accountable before God, even when the answer was unclear and the qaddi had engaged in the most rigorous ijtihad. As a result, while there were many learned men who engaged in ijtihad in the abstract, the greatest jurists were loath to act as actual judges because they realized that more was at stake then mearly ijtihad. I am not entirely happy with all of the details of this approach, but I like the spirt of the classical jurists. Interpretation is a form of worship, but there is more at stake than simply interpretation.

  21. Ian
    February 21, 2007 at 1:39 pm

    Thanks for letting me play along Nate. Pushing analogies into the absurd is a favorite vice of mine.

    I agree that there is a right answer.

    March 7, 2007 at 9:25 am

    Pls, what\’s the opposite of church litrarily

  23. Test
    March 30, 2007 at 2:14 am



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