“Policy” and “Doctrine”, This Time with Venn Diagrams!

Here’s the circle that represents everything taught by church members, from the uncontroversial (like faith and repentance) to the bizarre  (“King Arthur lost the priesthood for not listening to Merlin”):

Doctrine (4)

Now let’s add another circle for things taught by General Authorities. Every GA is a member of the church, so this circle is entirely encompassed by the first:

Doctrine (3)

Now another circle for things taught in General Conference. Most conference talks are given by General Authorities, but some are not (e.g. talks given by auxiliary leaders):

Doctrine (2)

Now let’s add one more circle for the words of the prophet (he’s always a General Authority, and some of his words are delivered in General Conference):

Doctrine (1)

We could add many more circles — one for apostles, one for scriptural teachings, one for things taught recently, one for things taught repeatedly. But most importantly, we can add one more big circle to identify the parts of each which are true:


Some things taught by church members are true, some are not, and some truth is not taught by church members…and so on, through all of the circles.

So where is doctrine and where is policy? Is policy the orange circle, and doctrine the overlap of the purple and blue circles? Is doctrine the overlap of the orange and green circles? It depends on who you ask. For me, doctrine is the blue circle — everything taught by any member of the church.

37 comments for ““Policy” and “Doctrine”, This Time with Venn Diagrams!

  1. I don’t know if I agree with your definition of doctrine, but I think the Venn diagrams are well done, and useful to boot.

  2. The doctrine of whom? The term is positively meaningless without further qualification. Almost all of the circles you have drawn are the doctrine of somebody.

  3. According to your Venn diagram, everything taught in General Conference by people who aren’t General Authorities is true. Are you sure about that?

  4. I love the Venn diagrams! But I do agree with Nat Whilk that the blue “Truth” circle ought to move just a bit to the northeast – maybe up a bit would do it.

    And I’m still thinking about doctrine vs. policy.

  5. I’m not sure “policy” is something that is “taught.”

    When the Church recommends that a person wait a year after baptism to go to the temple, is that a Church “teaching?”

  6. A doctrine is a teaching of person or party with regard to a particular principle. A policy or rule is a guideline of a person or party that is intended to reduce both principled and pragmatic considerations to a consistent set of practices. The church teaches any number of things that are not doctrines of the church, because they do not enshrine a particular principle. The birth date of Joseph Smith, for example, is taught by the church, but it is not a doctrine of the church.

    In addition, in order to make the distinction between policy and doctrine concrete, we must conclude that “thou shalt not steal” isn’t – strictly speaking – a doctrine either. It is a commandment. As a commandment it bears a closer relation to a formal practice than it does to a formal principle.

    Presumably, God issued the command to refrain from stealing due to some principled evaluation of harms, duties, and consequences. In the courts on high, that determination may have been derived from a harm doctrine, and perhaps some sort of property doctrine. By normal standards though, the resulting commandments, laws, statutes, policies, guidelines, and rules are not doctrines – rather they are instructions derived from doctrines.

    A policy tells you what to do. A doctrine tells you why.

  7. According to the final diagram, things taught by auxiliary leaders in General Conference are always part of the Truth. I had suspected this, but it is good to have authoritative confirmation.

  8. Bob and Nat, thanks for pointing that out. I tell you, making those diagrams gets harder than I thought it would be once you get past three circles. I’ll try and come back with an updated version later :)

  9. Dane, is the region outside your “Truth” circle a region of “non-Truth”?

  10. Sure. It represent statements like “The earth is flat”, “Global warming is a Jewish conspiracy”, and “Chipotle makes great burritos”.

  11. Church doctrine isn’t necessarily in any of those circles. Church doctrine includes things taught that have been voted on and accepted by the body of the church as such.

  12. Ellis,

    I wasn’t aware that the Church got to vote on doctrinal issues. I thought the Lord made it known to prophets, who relay it to others, and then everyone is left to accept or reject. But I didn’t know “doctrine” was dependent on the outcome of a vote. We don’t get a vote on policy either. We get to accept or reject, but the Church and the Lord will just go ahead with what they want regardless of how I might feel about it.

  13. My favorite result of your diagram is that almost all of what the prophet teaches the church outside of GC and even some of what he teaches over the pulpit in GC is not true – i.e, in the same category as “chipotle makes a great burrito”!

  14. Thanks James. In line with that observation, the ultimate takeaway point I hope you all leave with today is that any Venn diagrams I draw are basically true and pure doctrine, representing essential truth. Stick to the Venn diagrams and you will never be led astray! ;)

  15. Rob Perkins, do you care to expand on your #12, or are you just going to leave it as a statement of judgment, indicating your superior perceptive capacity without enlightening the rest of us from our benighted state?

  16. I think the biggest take-away from the post and the comments is that we all have different definitions of doctrine and policy. Another one is “the gospel.” Just knowing that my definition of gospel/doctrine/policy may be different from another’s helps me avoid miscommunications.

    I view doctrines, policies, and rules the same way Mark does in #7. “A doctrine is a teaching of person or party with regard to a particular principle. A policy or rule is a guideline of a person or party that is intended to reduce both principled and pragmatic considerations to a consistent set of practice.”

  17. The problem with ven diagrams is that they have a visual impact due to the relative areas of the different regions that has no relationship to the amount of the “thing” they describe. One square millimeter of untruth taught by a prophet could represent a single poorly worded statement or a thousand outright lies, and you can’t tell from the diagram. it is a topological construct, a mapping of the universe of discourse onto a plane, that requires judgement and understanding to use properly.

  18. I agree that Venn diagrams are limited, but I think you’re interpreting them incorrectly if you’re reading into the geographic area of any section. Venn diagrams are designed to show whether and how sets intersect. If two circles in a Venn diagram overlap, it indicates that those two sets share one or more members. However, the size of area overlapping doesn’t indicate the number of members shared.

  19. Dane, I regret not getting into more detail; I’d forgotten that that can be an irritant and a distraction moved me on to the “next thing” in my day. I apologize for that.

    Since we’re all “seeing through a glass, darkly”, as the KJV puts Paul’s words, enumerating the contents of the “Truth” bubble is problematic at best.

    I also disagree on the equating of “doctrine” with “things taught by church members”. I think of doctrine in a far more organizational sense. That of “things taught by church members, which are consistent with both scriptures, teachings of leaders, and the common consent of the Church”. That reduces to a set of things that includes some of the bubbles you have in your diagram, but complicates the picture by also including stuff taught in the scriptures.

    Otherwise, we’re left considering something like the “White Horse Prophecy” to be doctrine, and I’m just not willing to go that far. In an organization as large and diverse as the Church, then, we arrive at the nonsense of calling things like the WHP both doctrine and non-doctrine, since I am a member of the Church and there are members of the Church which believe that the WHP is a Church teaching. This is why I can’t agree with you on that, and one reason why I think the diagram is too simple.

  20. Okay, thanks for the expanded explanation. I think the WHP is a great test case. That’s the one about the “constitution hanging by a thread”, right? I would consider that a church doctrine, even though I think it’s a false teaching. It’s commonly taught and believed, and even acts as a distinguishing feature church beliefs in politics. In other words, I believe that the WHP has been more influential on church members than many actual, canonized revelations. In the same sense, I would say that Mormon Doctrine is doctrine, and that it has more currency among many church members than the scriptures themselves, i.e. if a church member comes across contradictory passages in the scriptures and Mormon Doctrine, many will prefer the passage in Mormon Doctrine to the one in the scriptures. Again, this isn’t to say that I think that’s a good thing, just that it’s a real thing, and it means that Mormon Doctrine acts functionally as doctrine among church members.

  21. 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.

    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.


  22. I don’t disagree that there are Church members who treat Mormon Doctrine with greater primacy than they treat the scriptures, and I don’t disagree that the WHP is a similar case.

    Yes, that’s the one with “constitution hanging by a thread” in it. However, if we do use it as a test case, then we enter a realm where a “Church doctrine” is simultaneously openly held by a decreasing number of Mormons, mostly those living in or fundamentally connected to the Utah Pioneer-descended subculture, and openly denied by Church leaders, most of whom also come from that subculture.

    Those same leaders just as openly received a common-consent sustaining by members who don’t recognize that open denial, and that leads to an incoherency, if we use your definition, since Church leaders actively teach against the use of anything like it as a substitute for deep-meditative scripture study, a partially charismatic epistemology which I think is unique to Mormonism, and an orthopraxy dedicated around a hierarchically organized and sacrificial use of personal time and treasure.

    I agree that Mormon Doctrine is claimed by a subset of Mormons to contain doctrine, but that the title is most unfortunate, since it’s a falsehood. It’s swiftly becoming a total anachronism, something that lost its usefulness to me when I was not quite finished with my own mission as a young man. And yet, I still maintain a good-standing membership in the Church, complete with Temple recommend.

    In short, could we pick a different word than “doctrine”? I’d prefer to reserve that for a far less general intersection of teachings. Something like “operative belief” or “folk teaching” or just “teachings”?

  23. Jonovitch, I think your definition of doctrine is good (in the sense that it provides a useful, clear test for determining if a specific statement is doctrinal). It’s got some quirks (for example, the Word of Wisdom is not a commandment according to your definition), but my main question is, where did you come up with your definition? Is it just some criteria that you created, or do you have an authoritative source for it?

    Rob, have church leaders denied the WHP? As for your main point, I’m open to other definitions of doctrine, but I haven’t seen any yet that weren’t either (a) uselessly ambiguous, or (b) just some guy’s arbitrary definition (i.e. “things I agree with” — see Jonovitch’s comment above).

  24. Dane, you made me think about how I came to this definition. I’ve looked back in my mind and narrowed it to a few sources:

    1. I think it was first informed by lectures and conversations I had with Stephen Robinson. He’s not a fan of the “folk doctrines” that tend to bubble up from the lower parts of the church membership. True doctrines come from the top down, he said.

    He told a story of when he was much younger, he asked himself what the actual doctrines of the Church were. So he tossed out everything he had been taught as a child and started from scratch by going straight to the source: the “Standard Works.” If he didn’t find a teaching somewhere in there, it was likely “folk doctrine” that had bubbled up from somewhere else. (I really liked the imagery of a gurgling bog that this phrase conjured in my mind.)

    Possibly because of this, I’ve become sensitive to claims of “I heard a general authority say something once in conference I think.” In my book, if you don’t have a solid source, keep your mouth shut. And if the thing can’t be directly traced back to the scriptures (in context), that person’s probably guilty of gurgling.

    2. I think my opinion is also partially informed by a Truman Madsen lecture (from one of the Joseph Smith tapes I’m sure we all listened to on our missions). He told a story about how some apostles in the early days of the Church defected and went off in different directions. I remember him saying (very dramatically of course) “always follow the majority of the quorum” or something like that.

    His point was that individual men, no matter how high their calling, are still individuals, with personal viewpoints, opinions, experiences, etc. that shape their teachings. Some of them might not line up with the core teachings of the Church as found in the scriptures — and that’s where they get themselves (and others) into trouble. But if you stick with the main body of the apostles, you will be safe.

    There are too many examples of apostles and prophets saying things in the past that ended up being wrong, whether they were speaking in an official capacity or not. These days, I think our current apostles are painfully aware that every single word they utter will be zealously parsed, so they are a little more careful to stick to the core doctrines. Still, you can sometimes catch hints of political leanings or even favorite folk doctrines if you listen carefully.

    My point is, when you get a group of 15 highly intelligent, broadly experienced, deeply spiritual men to sit in a room and come to a unified consensus about ANYthing, it’s a pretty safe bet (and it probably required a hefty dose of divine intervention to get them there). It would be really, really hard for all 15 of them agree on a bit of folk doctrine without at least one of them questioning objecting to it somehow.

    I remember an anecdote about a meeting of the 15 apostles, where despite long discussion there was still an unsettled feeling that they weren’t truly unified, so the matter was tabled until later. Rather than make a decision and move on, it was decided to wait a while and keep discussing until they were all of one heart and one mind. (I admit, I don’t have the source at hand, but the illustration serves the point, and I’ll find a citation if really necessary — I think maybe Elder Eyring?)

    3. Every manual I’ve come across, especially the teaching improvement one, recommends teaching from the scriptures. I take that seriously. When I teach a class, we’re going to dig in and read. And then read some more. Whether the 10-year-olds or the adults. Pure doctrine is found by drinking from the source. If it can’t be backed up by the official Church canon, it’s probably not official Church doctrine.

    So I guess I can’t think of any “official” source for my definition (wouldn’t that be circular logic?). But I think I’ve cobbled together a pretty convincing argument over the years.

    In the end, I think the most accurate definition of “official Church doctrine” would be pretty straightforward: (1) things that are taught; (2) by members of the Church in a Church setting; (3) that have the unambiguous, unanimous approval of the Church’s highest governing bodies (speaking as one, with one voice as they collectively represent the will of God); and which (4) agree with and are based in the official canon.

    More practically speaking, I think if something is printed and copyrighted by the Church (NOT by Deseret Book), and it has the signatures of the First Presidency (literal or figurative), you’re off to a good start. Stuff like “Strength of Youth” and “True to the Faith,” for example. To Ardis’s point in the other thread, I’d probably say “dating at 16” is not really doctrine because it fails the canon test, whereas “baptism at 8” definitely is doctrine, because it’s clearly in D&C 68. Not sure if every bit of minutiae would hold up to the above test, but it’s kept me out of trouble so far.

    If you wanted to talk about “folk doctrine” you could start to include the semi-authoritative, pseudo-doctrinal books and journals and other Deseret-Book garbage that people like to speculate and froth over. But “official Church doctrine” is just that.


  25. P.S. In the past I’ve said Talmage’s “Jesus the Christ” is about as close to scripture as any other book. It was written inside the temple, by an apostle, and reviewed and vetted (chapter by chapter) by the rest of the apostles. You don’t get much more authoritative than that. It’s not quite canon, but it’s darn close, and you probably wouldn’t go wrong by reading it carefully.

  26. I have been involved with this debate before and often. Not an easy discussion and there is no way to reduce it to something as certain as a Venn diagram or mathematical construct. But, going back to Dane’s earlier post, I now use the word doctrine in its technical sense–to mean the teachings of the church. Not the teachings of any church member in church, but the teachings of the church. That means if you are not seeing it in the church publications and manuals or getting it over the pulpit at conference, it is not really a “teaching,” i.e., doctrine of the church. Of course, this means that both doctrines and policies can and have changed as we gather more light and knowledge.

  27. There’s a common thread in these discussions about building our doctrine on the foundation of the standard works. I don’t agree with that. I think one of the great keys of Mormonism is that it acknowledges the weaknesses of the standard works — they are valuable, but not impregnable. Granting primacy to the standard works means silencing women in the church and forbidding them to cut their hair, or any number of other obscure practices that we recognize as not doctrinally necessary or valid. Fortunately, we temper the letter of the law with reason and tradition.

  28. Dane, I agree that the standard works are not the end of official Church doctrine, but they are indeed the foundation and the core of it. Of course everything needs interpreting, and to do that for us today, we have modern prophets, seers, and revelators. Collectively those prophets (all 15 of them) steer the Church away from outmoded practices and navigate us safely through modern traditions and reasoning.

    My point was simply that sometimes one of those individual prophets might get something wrong (as has happened in the past, even in print, even in General Conference), and that members need to be careful to not develop a cult of personality around only one or two of the prophets, rather to heed ALL of them, collectively, as their *unified* voice speaks God’s will to us (whether through ancient scripture or modern revelation), the collective body of the Church.

  29. Dane, In response to whether or not church leaders have denied the WHP – they have at least made a statement recently about it (beginning of last year) which reads: “The so-called ‘White Horse Prophecy’ is based on accounts that have not been substantiated by historical research and is not embraced as Church doctrine.” – Though, I too, know many members who base their politics on it. Sad to build politics on something like that, it is.


  30. Dane, I think only a facile reading of the standard works leads to dangerous conclusions, especially when other passages in the standard works correct such things as silent women. Clearly, for that example at least, that passage was positioned for a certain culture and time, otherwise Deborah’s behavior in Judges is not reconciled. Symmetrically, we might interpret the vision of Peter more symbolically, and still eschew the eating of pork, as the Muslims do.

    Fortunately, the D&C is also a standard work, and there is enough “use your head!” in that book to invite the use of reason and temporal sensibility in our orthopraxy. But, orthopraxy is not necessarily doctrine either.

    Then, too, you have the Church’s statement about the WHP: It “is not embraced as Church doctrine.” That means that Church leaders don’t agree with the notion that all things Church members teach each other is doctrine. They’ve even made it a point of implication in that statement that historical research is one of the touchstones of support for a doctrine. And, certainly, the quiet abandonment of the idea that the Lamanites are “the principal ancestors of the American Indians” speaks to refuting notions many Church members still hold as true, but which the leaders no longer choose to steward.

    So I think we ought to choose a definition of the word “doctrine” which is in at least rough accord with those kinds of leaders’ statements, that deny that certain ideas are doctrine, even if there are Mormons who say so.

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