Divine Doctrines and Policies

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.

16 thoughts on “Divine Doctrines and Policies

  1. What’s revealing about the conversations online is in most cases you can’t tell if the person complaining is an active faithful member of the church or not. Shouldn’t that tell you something about how much credit we should give to their position?

  2. I prefer to discuss the difference between doctrine and policy as being similar to the difference between strategy and tactics.

    In warfare, you need both strategy and tactics. Neither, alone, is sufficient. You don’t have people claiming to comply with the overarching strategy, yet violating the tactical plan.

  3. I really appreciate your calm reasoning. As a lover of the Church and the Gospel, I tense up before reading articles hoping they don’t broadside me with anti comments. I enjoyed this article.

  4. After a recent health crisis that kept me from being a temple worker for a couple of years I was able to return as an ordinance worker in the Provo Temple. Even though I had worked in various temples for more than 15 years, I had to spend a day training, not to learn the ordinances, which I have memorized fairly thoroughly, but to catch up on policy changes. Without exception these changes in policy have been made to good effect. One increases reverence, another efficiency, yet another helps those who are disabled serve as workers. I view policy changes such as these as being in the category of improvement and maintenance. Over the years some policy announcements by the church have taken me by surprise because I wasn’t really thinking about the issue. Once I gave serious thought I quickly identified the need and efficacy of the change. Perhaps the most difficult for me personally was the change of stewardship regarding the Relief Society. For more than 100 years Relief Society had been semi-autonomous. Support for the organization and its activities came from bazaars and other external means of raising money. As one example, nurseries for Relief Society meetings (held during the week) were frequently provided with paid teachers who were often members of another congregation meeting in the same chapel. Charitable activities, compassionate service, were funded from the organization’s own reserves. In 1967 this policy changed. The semi autonomous nature of Relief Society was ended and they were brought fully under priesthood stewardship. This meant we no longer raised our own funds but relied on whatever was provided in the ward budget for our activities. Work meetings no longer focused on providing items we could sell at bazaars (like the now infamous clusters of resin grapes, fancy quilts and assorted crafts) but were oriented toward learning homemaking skills.
    I went from being the paid nursery leader for another ward to being a volunteer nursery leader for my own ward. It was a new position with few resources and an amateurly produced manual. Some predicted that the change of policy would inevitably result in the end of Relief Society as a meaningful organization. They were wrong. I will spare you reminiscences of the reaction to other major changes such as the correlation of the curriculum and the enhancement of Tithing as the means of supporting the church. I was thrilled by the organization of the quorums of the seventies which replaced the Assistants to the Twelve with a much more powerful and scripturally supported structure. Overall these changes of policy are one of the reasons I am convinced of ongoing revelation to our leaders.

  5. Meg’s comment about strategy and tactics is dead on. During World War II, the Japanese frequently had excellent local tactics in service to a very bad overall strategy with disastrous results (Midway, Guadalcanal, Leyte Gulf). Conversely, the Germans often had bad local tactics (Arras, Dunkirk, Battle of Britain) in the service of what was often a brilliant overall strategy. In fairness to the Germans, a lot of the tactical problems arose from the Lead Nutjob’s meddling.

    Her comment made me think of something I hadn’t thought of in years and maybe had never fully considered. When you look at tactics, there are two major classifications. Auftragstaktik, or German for recon-pull, was the primary German mode of operation, particularly during the blitzkrieg battles. Think of water flowing around obstacles. The high command gives overall directives and the local units figure out how to best execute them by finding and exploiting weak spots in the enemy defenses. It led to another phenomenon known as the Kesselschlact or cauldron battle. The fast units would isolate large pockets of enemy units, which would then be fully surrounded by large, heavily armored units (the cauldron), and then destroyed or captured. When given the autonomy needed, this form of warfare is devastating as the Wehrmacht demonstrated time and again.

    The other form of tactic control is Befehlstaktik, or German for command-push. This was and is the standard Soviet means of combat. Three battalions to a regiment, attack with two on the line and one in reserve. Push the reserves in the direction of the battalion that is making gains, even if the other battalion on the line is being destroyed. It is a very messy, bloody way to conduct a war. In our own history, Grant was more of a command-push thinker, i.e., Cold Harbor. Sherman was more of a recon-pull type, i.e., march to the sea. Patton was a rare one who combined elements of both and used the appropriate tactic when required.

    When fog or war is prevalent, recon-pull is absolutely vital, because as Rumsfeld was famously mocked for saying, “you don’t know what you don’t know.” The more information you’ve got, the more command-push becomes the better mode of operation.

    In today’s world, many on the periphery of the church think that they have to operate as the reconnaissance for the church since the leadership is ossified and out of touch with the times. As a result, they head off in recon-pull mode, thinking that they’re going to help lead the church as it executes its strategy. There will absolutely be a Kesselschlact however it is the Adversary, lying in wait to deceive, who will be the one that surrounds and wipes out the “recon” units. When you’ve got a Father who sees the end from the beginning and for whom there is no fog of war, Befehlstaktik is the only option that makes sense. Besides, he’s already sent out the ultimate recon unit in the gift of His Son.

  6. The way the policies are written with respect to homosexuality and same sex marriage, I wish leaders had included them in earlier sections of the handbook since the underpinnings for those policies are so fundamentally doctrinal. I think some members think since they fall under “policies,” and policies change from time to time, that there is a crack in the door open for the eventual acceptance of homosexuality and same sex marriage. I’m surprised by the number of members who eventually get around to reading the policies and then pick and choose, cafeteria style, what policies they agree with and those they don’t. Things change. People change. Culture changes. But your point is well made that fundamental doctrines of the church do not change.

  7. In light of this way of thinking, what do we do with the policy that resulted in the priesthood and temple ban?

  8. Jack of Hearts, I suppose it depends on your theory regarding the origin of the Priesthood ban. I personally believe that the ban was a divinely inspired policy necessary for the time to allow the Church to survive and thrive in a racist and racially divided society, but that over time the folklore and false doctrinal explanations that developed made it so that a clear revelation from God was needed in order to change the policy. But that’s just my take on it, and I know that there are many others out there.

    See e.g.,



  9. Daniel,

    Your view on the priesthood ban is pretty much in line with mine. I note that there is sound biographical information to indicate that the Lord had a prophet ready and eager to accept a revelation ending the ban in David O. McKay, but did not give him such a revelation, suggesting that there really was divine timing involved.

  10. Along these lines is my post about the Northfolk 17 contrasting the terrible pain and damage invoked by political means of achieving equality versus the rejoicing in the Mormon community when the band was finally removed.

    Seen in this way, We can see that Mormons will not revert to racism. In contrast, the quality that has been achieved by political means is fragile.

  11. Make that Norfolk 17.

    When I say equality achieve my political means is fragile I referred to the situation we’ve seen in Ferguson.

  12. The veneer of civilization has always been extremely thin and is easily damaged or destroyed. Isaac Asimov wrote a short story, “Nightfall”, in the early ‘40s that is still considered to be one of the best commentaries on how easily societies tear themselves apart. It was later enlarged into a book, but the short story is better. “Nightfall” is our family’s code word for zombie apocalypse, societal collapse, end of the world, etc.

    Another good book is “One Second After”, although it is a much more sober and somewhat terrifying study on what follows societal collapse. If I remember correctly, the author is a military history professor and the afterward was written by a military specialist in EMP warfare.

    Both stories rely on an outside source for the cause of their destruction. Heaven knows we don’t need a lot of help tearing ourselves to pieces. Witness the “#F- – – Paris” hashtag coming from Black Lives Matter because a bunch of Parisians had the audacity to get themselves murdered and get in the way of the whine-fests that the campus SJW types were throwing.

  13. I have a question about your interpretation of the bible. Matthew 12:31-32 says those who committed blasphemy against the spirit will never be forgiven (in this time or later). If someone has committed this blasphemy, do they have no chance of redemption? I feel like I always hear Christians say that anyone can go reach salvation, but this passage seems to never been mentioned or addressed.

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