As I’ve listened to conversations regarding the latest church policy regarding SSM, I have been increasingly frustrated by discussions over the distinction between doctrine and policy. Some members seem to use this distinction as a cudgel in order to claim that they sustain prophetic leadership without actually agreeing with Church policy. In this mindset, doctrine’s come from God, but policies are purely man made or arbitrary. But this is a gross distortion of reality.
I believe that an accurate conception of church policy is essential in order to truly remain rooted in the Gospel while living in a society which is deeply opposed to church doctrine and policy. Church policy can best be understood as a divinely inspired, and at times commanded, application of the Doctrines and Principles of the Gospel.
Elder Bednar has most powerfully articulated the distinction between Doctrines, Principles, and Applications. He has done so from his days as Rick’s College President, but did so most powerfully in his recent books Learn in Faith and Act in Doctrine.
Doctrines are core truths of salvation which are foundational and unchanging, such as the plan of salvation and the atonement. There are relatively few doctrines. These doctrines answer the question of why? Why are we here? What is life for? Etc.
Principles derive from doctrines and answer the question of what? They provide basic guidelines to life and are also unchanging. Elder Bednar points to the fourth article of faith which discusses the principles of the Gospel of Jesus Christ as an example. A principle such as repentance explains what we are to do, but does not necessarily lead to a specific and universal application in all circumstances.
Finally, applications are the concrete ways that we implement Gospel ordinances and principles in our lives. These applications vary and are based on individual circumstances. They answer the question of how we are to live Gospel principles. One example given by Elder Bednar is a principle which Elder Oaks taught to Aaronic Priesthood holders that they should not distract members of the congregation from their worship through behavior, attitude of conduct. Elder Bednar notes that the specific atire which will distract is culture specific and is an application of the general principle of non-distraction.
Laying out these categories helps to reveal what church policies truly are. Doctrines and principles distilled into uniform rules of application.
It seems obvious at first glance, but this is actually quite significant. There are many areas of the Gospel where we are only taught principles rather than given concrete applications. For instance, we are not given a fixed list of Sabbath does and dont’s. In these many areas, we are free to determine our own list of applications. But there are certain principles where the Lord and his Apostles have seen the need for uniformity of application in the church throughout the world.
One example is in the temple recommend interview. Temple worthiness is a principle that the Lord has seen fit to reveal a specific set of questions as a policy that a bishop can apply to determine worthiness. Could these questions change tomorrow? Yes, they have over time. That is the nature of a Gospel application, it can be changed and fit to cultural circumstances. But nevertheless, these policies are significant precisely because the Lord has deemed them important enough to set up a uniform application.
The Lord and his apostles attempt to avoid setting up rigid lists of applications. God does not want to compell us in all things. And the more specific the commandment, the more we are held accountable for failing to live up to it. Therefore, those areas where the Lord has set up stringent requirements such as regarding ordinances, and church discipline seem to be some of the areas where we need to pay the most attention and also where we can expect to see the most direct divine revelation.
A couple of important but less obvious points. First of all, as Elder Bednar notes, divine doctrines are relatively few. Many of the most significant ones were restored by the Prophet Joseph Smith in the early days of the restoration. While there may be additional doctrines, we should not be surprised that our Prophet and Apostles reveal little new doctrine. Instead, they are primarily tasked with determining applications of divine doctrine and principles in an ever changing world. And those applications that are most critical are those that will be codified as policies
Second, almost everything in the church that we interact with on a day to day basis is a policy or application. If we dismiss the value and the inspired nature of policies and applications, then we are dismissing the value of things such as the word of wisdom, temple worthiness standards, the church welfare program, tithing, the words of the ordinances we administer, etc. All of these are divinely inspired applications of doctrines and principles.
The fact that we got the Word of Wisdom from a “thus saith the Lord” revelation, or the words of certain ordinances from the mouth of Christ himself shouldn’t lead us to conclude that other modern policies are less divinely inspired or necessary. Indeed, our modern leaders have repeatedly testified of the inspired and revelatory nature of many modern policies and programs. For instance, President J. Reuben Clark made it clear that “the setting up of the [welfare] machinery is the result of a revelation by the Holy Ghost to President Grant, that it has been carried on since that time by equivalent revelations which have come to the brethren who have had it in charge.” (See also)
Of course, I am not suggesting that every jot and tittle of the church handbooks have that level of importance or significance. Certainly, some policies, such as whether percussion instruments are allowed in sacrament meeting, are not of eternal signification. Yet, even such mundane applications and rooted in eternal Gospel doctrines and principles. For instance, the principle that the music and other aspects of our services shouldn’t detract from the spirit. And the closer we get to matters of eternal salvation, to questions of membership, and ordinances for instance, the more quick we should be to assume the hand of the Lord in crafting that policy.
For me, realizing that most of what we have in the church is an application of divine doctrine and principles was a real eye opener. Gospel doctrines and principles do not always fit together neatly or without tension (see e.g. my recent discussion of justice and mercy). In most matters, we are tasked with prayerfully determining how to resolve these tensions and what applications to make. But the Lord reveals to his disciples inspired ways to resolve those tensions and to apply doctrines and principles to larger scale policy. When our leaders speak through policies, rather than being skeptical or assuming that the policy is man-made or uninspired, we should see them for what they are, inspired attempts at helping us to apply Gospel principles to real world challenges.