On the Proper Usage of “Policy” and “Doctrine”

We’ve enjoyed (or endured) countless discussions about which church teachings are “doctrines” and which are merely “policies”. Here’s my two cents: “policy” and “doctrine” aren’t opposites — they’re not even on the same axis. Doctrines are beliefs that are taught (in fact, the word “doctrine” comes from the Latin for “teachings”, suggesting that any belief taught in the church is, at some level, doctrine). Policies are organizational practices.

Some doctrines are policies, some policies are doctrines, some are both, and some are neither. Determining that a particular teaching is policy doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s not also a doctrine.

  1. Both Doctrine and Policy: Baptism by authority. It is both taught and practiced.
  2. Neither Doctrine nor Policy: Raisin Bran is the best cereal ever!
  3. Doctrine but not Policy: The 10th Article of Faith. It is taught and believed in the church, but we have no organizational practices associated with the teachings contained in it.
  4. Policy but not Doctrine: …hmm…now that I think about it, perhaps every policy is necessarily a doctrine. After all, if it’s not taught, how can it be practiced?

So the next time someone tells you that the priesthood ban or polygamy or some other controversial historical topic was “just policy”, don’t accept that as justification for ending discussion on the topic. Perhaps it was “just policy”, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t also doctrine.

59 comments for “On the Proper Usage of “Policy” and “Doctrine”

  1. Oh there are LOTS of policies that are not doctrines. For example, how long does a young man serve a mission for? 18 or 24 months? That’s not doctrine, that’s a policy. Or do you need to have two men teaching a primary class? Or a couple? Can a single female teach? All that is policy but is not doctrine.

    Simply being taught in church is not sufficient for something to be a doctrine. It has to come from a canon source. i.e. the scriptures, the prophet speaking to the church as a whole. Something way official than just taught at church. And this is where the the problem creeps in. Policies are rather easy to spot. But teasing the policy from the doctrine can be tougher – in some cases.

  2. I can see that policy is how a doctrine is lived but I also see advice and counsel, not necessarily being doctrine-like Celestial Marriage is a doctrine but it is advice you get married while young.

  3. I disagree. There’s a word for canonized teachings; it’s “canon”. Not all doctrines are canon, but all canon is doctrine. Not all doctrines are policy, but all policies are doctrine. That men serve missions at 19 and women at 21 isn’t eternal, unchanging truth, but it is doctrine.

  4. You’ve given one definition of “doctrine,” Dane, but that isn’t necessary the same definition intended by people who say that something is or was a policy but not a doctrine.

    That something is taught doesn’t necessarily make it doctrine. Uncountable thousands of Mormons teach “I never said it would be easy; I only said it would be worth it,” but that doesn’t make it doctrine. Millions of LDS children have been taught to sing “Popcorn Popping on the Apricot Tree,” but that doesn’t make it doctrine. I’ve been in church classes in the past couple of years where a teacher taught that the earth is only 6,000 years old; that Adam had spirit fluid in his veins before the fall; that King Arthur lost the priesthood because he didn’t listen to the prophecies of Merlin the Magician; that Mulek had an older sister who escaped captivity in Babylon, wandered west, became Queen of Ireland, and sailed to the New World; that airplanes can’t find LAX if the lights on the LA Temple’s Angel Moroni statue happen to be burned out; that John the Baptist retracted his testimony of Jesus Christ at the end of his life; that Jesus Christ was in the tomb for three days and three nights; and that there are angels who voluntarily declined to receive mortal bodies because they choose to serve God in a “higher” way. Those things were taught, but none of them are doctrines.

  5. Ardis, as the current SS president, I’ve been asked to have a backup lesson ready to go if called on. I think I’ll just print out your last comment on a 3×5 card and keep it in my suit pocket.

  6. Ardis, let me engage you on this point, if you will. Your examples highlight what I see as the real issue with defining doctrine. All of the examples you gave sound as ludicrous to me as they do to you. By my standards of “acceptable doctrine”, they don’t measure up. The problem is that each church member uses different standards to determine whether a belief is “doctrinal”. In practice, I find that “doctrine” ends up meaning “things I agree with”, and it’s not a useful definition. I’ve seen various attempts at defining “doctrine”, e.g. anything taught in General Conference…[recently?]…[repeatedly?]…[by a prophet?]…[or apostle?]. But the problem is that these are arbitrary definitions. Another church member might use “anything said by a general authority” or “anything sold at Deseret Book” or “anything I find inspirational in a forwarded email”. Each of those is obviously weaker than the one preceding it, but ultimately the definition is the choice of church member. So I stand by “doctrine is anything taught in the church” because it’s the only useful definition I can come up with. From that base definition, we can further qualify “doctrine” in whatever ways we find useful, e.g. scriptural, inspirational, reasonable, agreeable-to-me, etc.

  7. To put it more succinctly, I would say that “doctrine” refers to anything taught in the church, while “true doctrine” refers to doctrines that represent eternal truths. However, since we don’t have an objective measuring stick for ascertaining truth, “true doctrine” ends up meaning, “doctrines I agree with”.

  8. I suppose I have an impractical concept of doctrine, impractical because it can’t be measured against an objective standard like any of the tests you suggest, Dane (i.e., taught in conference, repeatedly, recently …). It can’t be measured against a standard because it IS the standard. It’s whatever is true, and it’s what remains true whether it is taught in conference or not, or forwarded in email, or whether I believe it or doubt it or completely disbelieve it.

    That means that something can be taught by the Church in as official a manner as possible and still not be completely doctrinal, if it is incomplete, or if there is a misunderstanding or false assumption on the part of the teacher. (Before anybody jumps me for being apostate or radical or whatever, let me say that I think there is an obligation by faithful — as in “loyal” as well as “full of faith” — members to accept and live by what is taught, even if there is the possibility of an incompleteness or misunderstanding. The Church taught that blacks could not hold the priesthood, and it was not acceptable for anybody to teach or act otherwise, even if? though? it may have been a doctrinal error. [I have to say “may have been” because although I know we have no record of a revelation, I am still unwilling or unable to blame the restriction solely on Brigham Young’s personal bigotry — because we don’t know of any other reason doesn’t preclude the possibility that there was one.])

    And I am fully cognizant that this is one big circle. I can’t propose a useful definition of “doctrine” for all of the problematic reasons you note. I just don’t want to accept your original definition, because I really don’t think it’s the definition in the minds of people who pit “doctrine” against “policy” in the priesthood issue, among others. There’s more than one way to define doctrine, as you note. Plugging your definition into the priesthood debate misrepresents the point of view of those who have argued that point.

  9. “that King Arthur lost the priesthood because he didn’t listen to the prophecies of Merlin the Magician”

    Awesome! Was that totally off the cuff, or did Parley P. Pratt’s second cousin’s great-grand-daughter’s hairdresser’s father’s mission president say that once?

  10. I’m glad then, because your #11 is great. You’re right, I am hijacking the word “doctrine” here. I justify it as an attempt to make the word a useful term in discussion. I think that when people say, “That’s not doctrine, it’s just policy,” what they usually mean is, “That’s not true doctrine…”

    Part of the reason I think it’s worth hashing out comes from my recent post on whether General Conference addresses count as “scripture”. The comments on that thread made me think that we could have a lot less argument if we agreed on what our words mean. I don’t expect to sell everyone on my broad definition of “doctrine” here, but perhaps it will be a useful reference point for some discussions in the future.

  11. :) We had a substitute teacher in Relief Society who is deeply into British Israelism. This came during the Joseph Smith lesson on temple worship. She has a whole thing worked out about Joseph of Arimathea taking Mary Magdalene and her/Jesus’s daughter to England and building a temple there. (I don’t quite get the anachronism with Merlin, but then I don’t claim to be an expert on the subject.) There was a handout. I saved the handout.

  12. The huge problem is that people have varying ideas as to what is doctrine. Fair twice has defined it as the scriptures plus revalation given to the prophet, presented at conference and voted for by common consent. Until that time it is not the “official doctrine” of the Church

    Is something said by a prophet or general authority doctrine? No.
    However if a general authority says something, we pray and ponder about, and the answer we get is that itis the doctrine of God and our futue actions are to be based on that belief.

    Is a prophet or general authority infallible. No. Both Brigham Young wrote and Joseph Smith spoke about this very carefully. Only when it is prophecy presented and approved as mentioned above do we treat anything as infallible.

    Look at Michael R Ash “What is Official LDS Doctrine” released in 2003
    and George Cobobe “The White Horse Prophecy”. I remembered the names and titles but I could only get to them again by Google. The bizzare thing is that I must add Fair is not doctrine

  13. I’m so glad someone finally broached this subject, it has bothered me since I joined the church and have been endlessly reminded of President Hinckley’s comment to Larry King that “we don’t teach that doctrine” regarding the question of men becoming Gods.

  14. Ardis, what about goblins, elves, sprites, and fairies? BRM put them in Mormon Doctrine v1, but it was hard to find the associated policy. (Credit to Ardis for teaching us at ZD)

  15. In my opinion, there is no real distinction between doctrine and policy. Every attempt that I have encountered to distinguish the two breaks down on close scrutiny; the most common being the old saw “policies change but doctrines do not,” only useful in retrospect and meaningless for analyzing current questions.

    If you are willing to accept that doctrines can change with revelation just as polices can, then the distinction becomes unimportant. Who cares ether or not ___ was doctrinal if doctrines are subject to change? I believe that belief in an open cannon and continuing revelation requires acceptance of the notion that doctrine may change.

  16. In order for church doctrine to be true it must be revelation. Revelation can be found in the standard works or the words of a sitting President of the church.

  17. I think comment #16 is the most reasonable definition. However, I haven’t seen anything officially added to the canon of the Church or voted on my the membership for a LONG time.

    My best definition of something that is doctrine is something that is eternal. For thousands of years, prophets have taught things like the atonement of Christ, honesty, avoiding adultery, serving our fellowman, etc. These are doctrinal things.

    Other things seem to change with the times and opinions of whoever is in charge, and are more of a policy. For example, I look at the prohibition on wine as a current policy. The only canonized revelation we have on wine tells us it is to be used in the sacrament. The sacrament prayers that we make priests repeat if they get one word wrong were all revealed with the word “wine” in them. Christ implemented wine in the sacrament. The current policy came around the time of Prohibition in the United States. There was never a doctrinal change. There was never anything canonized to change this. So it is a policy and is NOT an eternal doctrine. Even Christ and Joseph Smith drank wine.

  18. Sgarff:

    We believe in an “open canon”, but when was the last time anything was actually added to our canon. We had a declaration in 1978. Prior to that, it’s been a LONG, LONG time – probably since before almost every currently living Church member was born.

  19. One can’t just use the term “doctrine” in the abstract, the way so many members of the church casually do. The doctrine that counts in this context is the doctrine of the church. It is not that hard to figure out what the doctrine of the church is – if something is widely taught in official church publications as a religious precept or principle, it is a doctrine of the church. If something is not widely taught in official church publications as a religious precept or principle, it is not.

    Even if the President of the Church gets up in conference and announces a new revelation, it does not become a doctrine of the church until it is affirmed and repeated by other leaders as religious precept or principle and reduced to written form in an official church publication. And then it only remains a doctrine of the church as long as the leaders of the church make a continued effort to keep teaching that precept or principle from year to year.

    D&C 107:27 is the basis of the cardinal rule here. The doctrine of the church is the consensus teaching of the presiding quorums of the church, as presently constituted. Something may be the mind of the Lord, the the will of the Lord, and the power of God unto salvation, but until it becomes the published consensus of the presiding quorums, it is not a doctrine of the church.

  20. Mike S, The revelations in D&C 137 & 138 were canonized in 1976. First as part of the Pearl of Great Price, then moved to the Doctrine and Covenants three years later. That is a pretty big deal, in my opinion.

  21. Some of the distinction is made on high levels. David O. McKay controversially thought the priesthood ban was policy, not doctrine. One of his counselors thought this meant it could be changed without revelation, but that’s not how McKay viewed the distinction between the two.

  22. I agree with Lon’s first paragraph (though not the canon limitation). To me there is something wrong with your definition of “doctrine.” It seems abundantly clear to me that whether we require people to serve missions for two years or 18 months or six months or three years or some other period of time is a matter of policy, not doctrine. It has been changed in the past based on circumstances, and is widely understood to be changeable in the future by the church bureaucracy based on changing circumstances. Equating “doctrine” with anything the Church “teaches,” and then saying that the Church “teaches” two-year missions for men and 18-month missions for women, and that therefore those practices are “doctrines” of the Church, just doesn’t work to my ear. Something is missing in your formulation.

  23. I’ve been thinking about how difficult it can be to clearly discern between doctrine and policy (thanks a bunch, Dane) — there is a significant difference, I believe, but the difference isn’t always obvious.

    For example, two somewhat similar (on the surface, at least) teachings are that children should be baptized at age 8, and young people should not begin to date before age 16. One is a doctrine, backed up by several explicit scriptural passages as well as continual reinforcement from modern-day prophets and apostles; the other is policy, supported by wisdom and experience and reinforced in writing and over the pulpit. One is viewed as an eternal law dictated by God himself, and I don’t think any Latter-day Saint contemplates its ever being changed. The other, although promulgated by leaders whom we believe are inspired and enshrined in official publications, is ultimately based on cultural concerns, and I suspect that virtually no one would think it apostasy to say that the age of dating might be raised or lowered some day, based upon cultural conditions. (In some cultures even today the Church may not encourage dating even at 16 when it goes against cultural norms.)

    The trouble with distinguishing between doctrine and policy comes when people confuse “For the Strength of Youth” with eternal truth, divine commandments, and canonized scripture, or when someone starts citing scripture as evidence that the dating age is canonical, or raises a disregard for the advice of wise teachers to the level of sin rather than foolish risk-taking or the first step on the road to disregarding other prophetic advice.

    Both baptism-at-8 and no-dating-until-16 are taught in the Church. It’s impossible for me to see them in the same category. (I know we’ve been over this, Dane; I’ve just been thinking of examples from current life and from our history.)

  24. Okay, let me phrase the question a different way. To those of you arguing that doctrines are teachings that meet certain criteria (Stan, Howard, Mike S, Mark D) — what does it signify for a certain teaching to be counted as “doctrine”? As Sgarff pointed out (#19), doctrines that meet those criteria are still open to change. What is the advantage of calling out that specific subset of teachings as “doctrines”?

    Mark D, let’s go with your “doctrines of the church” phrasing. I would say that D&C 89:8 (prohibiting tobacco) is clearly a doctrine of the church. That principle is taught regularly at all levels of the church, from general conference to local wards. It is enforced in baptismal and temple recommend interviews. In contrast, D&C 88:124 (specifically, the “early to be, early to rise” part) is not. We rarely talk about it, and you’re not going to face disciplinary action for staying up past midnight, even if you do it every night. Does that mean that 89:8 is true, but 88:124 is false? If not, then what’s the advantage of calling out 89:8 as doctrine, but not 88:124?

  25. Ardis, I love your examples of baptism-at-8 vs. dating-at-16. How about being ordained to the Aaronic priesthood at 12? In your scheme, is that a doctrine or a policy? To me, it seems more important that the 16-year-old dating mark, but it’s not unchanging like 8-year-old baptism.

  26. Ardis, re #15: Can you scan a copy and put it online? Or e-mail? I have to speak in church in a week and I need something good…

  27. Dane L, whether something is true or not has no necessary connection to whether it is a doctrine of the church. Something becomes a doctrine of the church when church leaders decide that a principle is important enough to teach on an ongoing basis, and they continue to do so. That includes publication in the scriptures.

    D&C 88:124 has a prima facie claim to be a doctrine of the church because it is part of a modern revelation canonized by the church. Once something is canonized, it becomes part of the body of revelations that members are asked to study on a daily basis.

    It is a bit of a stretch to claim without further evidence that something included in a work that the church publishes on an ongoing basis as the Doctrine and Covenants is not in actual fact a doctrine of the church. A lesser doctrine to be sure, but a doctrine nonetheless.

  28. Dane, I see that purely as a policy, with the age having zero doctrinal importance. We know when and why the 12-year-old deacon policy was instituted, and it was never claimed to be anything but a way to induct young boys into the priesthood and its responsibilities at an age when they were ready to assume some duties and susceptible to establishing lasting ties to the brotherhood. It’s more important than the 16-year-old dating mark, IMO, only because the priesthood is more important than dancing and movies — I doubt anyone would blink twice if the age were changed to 11 or 13 or anything else because it’s an arbitrary, institution-driven point in time.

    Related to that, I was surprised to learn recently that boys must be ordained before they can do baptisms for the dead. The priesthood isn’t a requirement for a candidate’s baptism in life and plays no role in baptism on the part of the proxy, and for a long time boys as young as 8 were proxies for temple baptism without, of course, holding the priesthood. I’ll take it for granted that there are sufficient reasons for that policy, but it is policy rather than doctrine.

  29. In addition, strictly speaking, I don’t think baptism at age eight can be considered a doctrine of the church because it is not a religious precept or principle as such.

    The doctrine of the church is that children shouldn’t be baptized before they are mature enough to understand what is going on. Whether that is age eight or age eleven is immaterial, so far as the principle is concerned. Baptism at age eight is a canonized policy, or in other words a statute of the church. The doctrine is the underlying principle.

  30. Ardis, #32- A friend wrote this elsewhere, but it fits here.

    “If there’s one thing Mormons excel at, it’s enshrining the status quo and assuming that if we do anything, there must be a good reason for it, and if there’s a good reason, it must have been revealed as the only way to do it, and if so, then it must have always been that way in all dispensations. And a lot of people’s faith can be shaken when it turns out not to always have been that way, which unravels that chain of reasoning back from that point until you doubt the premise, i.e., that any of it was revealed at all.”

  31. Plowing through the comments, but I need to point out to Kelly (#17) that Pres. Hinckley did NOT say we don’t teach that we can become like God. He said we don’t teach that God (the Father) used to be like men. He was asked about the first part of that statement, NOT the second part – and that get misrepresented all the time.

    This example is a good one when it comes to showing how some stuff gets embedded as “doctrine” even when it hasn’t been taught or stated as such. Pres. Hinckley never said it, but I’ve read things posted by literally hundreds of people who believe he did.

  32. 34: Ben S, that’s the greatest possible justification for the study of church history I have ever read.

    33: Mark D., I am aware of no support from scripture or prophets for your claim that “children shouldn’t be baptized before they are mature enough to understand what is going on,” unless it’s a twisted and idiosyncratic back-formation from the condemnation of infant baptism and the modern policy — applicable only to the special case of mentally challenged people and never formally applied to immature but normal eight-year-olds — that persons who are not accountable do not need baptism. If we stretch the definition of “doctrine” as far as you’re stretching it here, there is no doctrine because you paint it, as Dane has said, as “anything I agree with.”

  33. I would refer everyone to Lester E Bush’s “Mormonism’s Negro Doctrine: An Historica Overview” in the Spring 1973 Dialogue as a key example of confusion over policy and doctrine. By showing that the denial of priesthood was policy and not doctrine it, in many people’s view, made it much easier for people to oppose it and defend that point of view.

  34. Ardis, Moroni 8:8-12 and D&C 20:37 provide ample evidence for the principle I referred to. How, where, and why it is applied isn’t particularly relevant.

    Naturally, any actual policy is going to be based on consideration of a variety of factors, both principled and pragmatic. The principle I referred to is just one of them.

    It takes an extraordinary amount of mental effort to imagine that something I offer as an example amounts to an actual definition. In the real world, they are quite different. So please don’t make silly arguments to the contrary.

  35. Wow. I thought we had some minor confusion about defining doctrine. Now I’m thinking that it’s just a hopeless mess. So, instead, let me just hand out awards so you can all feel like your time here hasn’t been a total loss:

    Mark D. — “Master of Emphasis through Italics Award”.

    Stan Beale — “Most Publications Cited Award”. Next time include hyperlinks and you can get the Prestige-added version :)

    Ben S — you get the “Ardis Award”, on account of having Ardis say nice things about your comment. Oh, and it was, in fact, a great comment, so I’ll give you the “I Win This Thread Award” as well.

    Ardis — hmm…since I already gave out the Ardis Award, you can have the…ummm…oh, here we go — the “Merlin Award for Obscure Doctrinal Contributions Award” (yup, there’re two “Awards” in that one!)

    Ray — you get the “I Know How to Read Source Quotes Award”.

    Kevin Barney — you can have the “Doesn’t Work In My Ear Award”. Let me know what I can do to fix that for you!

    All the rest of you, come back and play again!

  36. And Dane, I know this is not my show, but I do think *you* need an award as well. May I present to you, after careful consideration, the “Doctrine or Policy: consensus there shall never be” award. And I really do commend you for bringing it up with a fresh look. It actually added to my understanding of the complexities by reading the post and comments.

  37. Ardis- I’d really like to see your King Arthur handout! Can you post it on your blog? Probably not. Just e-mail it? Thanks.

  38. Ardis–Can I add my name to the list for the Arthur handout? :-) sonny.bigler(the sign)gmaildotcom. Thank you! Sounds too fun!

  39. Hey, I didn’t offer to distribute it! It’s nuttiness, and not even coherent, well done nuttiness. I kept the handout more as evidence that I hadn’t dreamed it up than because it was any good, even as an oddity. I won’t be posting or emailing it anywhere, sorry.

  40. Well Ardis, if you insist on keeping such an entertaining piece of literature to yourself, perhaps you would be willing to provide the name of your supplier so everyone can go directly to the source. Maybe the even have updates!?

  41. So our Stake is having Elder Shayne M. Bowen of the 70 for Stake Conference this weekend and I asked him this question about Policy and Doctrine, he simply said “Doctrine changes behaviour” so that left me wondering now well, so does policy…because if you say it is a policy in the Church to only wear white shirts while participating in the Sacrament then I will have the behaviour of only wearing white shirts but then if someone says it doesn’t matter then that affects my behaviour as well.

  42. Plowing through all these comments, mostly seeimng to me to be well meaning and sincere, over such as important topic as church doctrine, I am deeply disturbed and saddened that i don’t see almsot anyone looking to the church, the scriptures, or church leaderrs, for solid definitions – msot seem to be willing to jsut rush of with their own definition for so crucial a term . AS few refernce the scriptures – I see no reference to the following excellent resource – Institute course Rel 430 and 431 – Doctrines of the Gospel – here are worthwhile excerpts

    “Doctrines of the Gospel, Religion 430–31, is a course designed to help you systematically study the principles and doctrines of the gospel of Jesus Christ from the four standard works of the Church. Hence, your basic texts are the Holy Bible, the Book of Mormon: Another Testament of Jesus Christ, the Doctrine and Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price. This student manual is a guide to help you study the scriptures and to provide a basis for classroom discussion.”

    “Every chapter has two sections, Doctrinal Outline and Supporting Statements. In the first section, Doctrinal Outline, the subject is divided into a number of statements, which in turn are further divided into still more specific statements. Scripture references for each doctrinal statement build on each other in a logical and sequential manner. The second section, Supporting Statements, consists of commentaries from Prophets and Apostles in this dispensation.”

    Having laid this kind of groundwork, and established a common definition, then fruitful discussion and meaningful exchange fo dieas can begin, instead of a Tower of Babel-like town hall free for all.

    Venn diagrams are nice conceptual tools – a picture can be worth 1000 words. However,if the meaning attached to the word if different to different people in the discussion, the result is still chaos and confusion, rather than the desired further light and knowledge being sought.

  43. Bro. Boyd, if everyone had the same knowledge then we would not progress, but we are trying to get further light and knowledge from other people who have an opinion and you have to plow through all the comments to find out what you can learn, its an exchange of ideas

  44. sorry for the typos above

    I meant to say that I saw only a few refernces to the scriptures in the comments, and few, if any quotes from church leaders – no quotes from past or new Church leadership handbooks – this is sad – when such references are so easy to find.

    It appears most of the people in this dicussion are apparently unwilling to look for authoritative church sources and refer to them as a standard before rushing in to offer their own apocryphal opinions, based on their own personal definitions, often not well-defined.

    If we truly looked to and used the scriptures and the authorized teachings of the church and church leaders, then we wouldn’t have to worry about the seriousness of King Arthur losing the Priesthood [if he even existed, if he aven had it, etc.]

  45. Read my comment on #48-how more recent then like 4 hours ago do you want from a current GA?

  46. Cameron – your “quote” of a GA would thus be part of the “few” quotes

    I provided the reference the the Institute Manual and a two paragraph quote from that

    Reference to Michael R Ash “What is Official LDS Doctrine” released in 2003 is excellent, and seems not to have generated any comments that Isee with a quick once -thru

    Check that one out – good stuff

  47. Chuck, I think the main reason you don’t see many quotes in this discussion is that we’re facing a bootstrapping problem. Until you decide which sources are doctrinal, it doesn’t make sense to invoke those sources. For example, you reference an institute manual, but unless we determine beforehand that institute manuals (or church education resources) are doctrinal, then it doesn’t make sense to use them as a foundation for defining doctrine. Same thing with Michael R. Ash (here’s a link to his essay that you mentioned: http://www.fairlds.org/FAIR_Brochures/What_is_Mormon_Doctrine.pdf ). He has good points, but he’s not a doctrinal authority. He’s just some guy like you and me, doing his best to make sense of things.

  48. Ardis, I confess I have very little patience for people who are greater authorities on what I believe than I am.

  49. I really liked this discussion (even without the charts). Too many Church members don’t understand what “official Church doctrine” is. At the risk of being redundant, here is a copy/paste of the comments I wrote on the “with charts!” version a few minutes ago:

    – – – – –

    There seems to be a persistent lack of understanding among Church members about this.

    1. Official Church doctrine == the Standard Works plus the collective, unified statements of the entire First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve. (Yes, it also needs the vote of the general membership, but once something passes the FP + Q12, the rest is pretty much a technicality.) I know this goes against the simple-but-sloppy idea that the Ensign *is* modern scripture, but that’s just tough. What about Sunday School and priesthood teachers’ manuals? I’ve seen too much garbage in them to include them wholesale, either. See point 2.

    2. Stuff taught in church does NOT necessarily equal official Church doctrine, including stuff taught in General Conference by apostles and prophets. In other words, don’t let yourself follow individual statements of individual authorities, now matter how popular or intriguing they are. Instead, follow the collective wisdom of the unified quorums — only then will you be on truly solid ground. It might be a strict definition, but it’s also safe (and accurate). While it’s true a prophet doesn’t have to say “thus saith the Lord” to create scripture, not everything that comes out of a prophet’s mouth is gospel truth.

    (See debates about “Mormon Doctrine” or the Journal of Discourses for plenty of fodder regarding the first two points. Devout followers of McConkie and Young might disagree, but just because it sounds cool and doesn’t directly contradict scripture, that does NOT make it official Church doctrine.)

    The first two points are usually where I stop, but since we’re talking about policy, too, here’s my take on that:

    3. I think Church policy is usually best described as a set of man-made rules (probably by a committee) because someone, somewhere, at some time did something stupid. The Church Handbook of Instructions does NOT equal scripture, and not adhering to (or agreeing with) a policy is not necessarily the same as sinning. [Edit: the same concept applies to the “For the Strength of Youth” guide, for example, as Ardis mentioned above.]

    Please tell a friend. It would help us all if Church members understood these distinctions better.

    4. Whether any of it is “true,” we’ll all find out a whole lot more in the next life. Right now, we don’t know nearly as much as we think we do. For safety, clarity, and sanity, I stick to points 1 and 2 (and I deal with point 3 as necessary) as I search for more of point 4.


  50. A policy is practice, something you DO. Things you DO don’t have a truth value. Stealing pears and throwing them at a wall can be good or bad (moral value), but stealing pears can’t be true or false. Same goes for baptizing 8 year olds, etc. These policies, the things we DO, are presumably based on beliefs (which can be true or false) but a policy can’t by itself be true or false.

    A doctrine (at the very least) is something that can be true or false. That God is three persons in one substance is a false doctrine; that God the Father, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Ghost are three separate beings is a true doctrine.

    Presumably a good number of church policies are based on church doctrine. But my guess is that there are a lot of policies based on purely pragmatic grounds: such and such a stake implemented program x, and they got lots of results, so the church tries it out elsewhere; if other stakes get similar results, they implement it in more places, etc. That doesn’t mean such policies are TRUE (since, as I said before, policies CAN’T EVEN BE TRUE), but they are effective (or whatever) and so that is what Church leaders want us to do.

    That seems like a significant difference that hasn’t been pointed out, yet.

    re: #48 the new church handbook specifically says you do not need to wear a white shirt to bless and pass the sacrament (I have no idea what the old one said). I rarely wear a white shirt to church, so I’m touchy about that sort of thing.

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