Doctrine vs. Practice

In theory, there should be a very clear-cut distinction between the doctrine and the practice of a church. Doctrine comprises the core beliefs that are typically considered to be religious truth, and therefore unchangeable. How a church operates and practices those beliefs often changes with interpretation and the shifting moral norms. This is very easy to pick out when dealing with historical changes. The challenge is in separating current practices from the doctrine they are founded upon.

While doctrine is usually considered unchangeable, changes in practice can re-cast doctrines in a different light, or otherwise change the interpretation of the doctrine, which can sometimes lead to doctrinal shifts over time. This can make it even trickier to separate the two.

An additional way in which things get obfuscated is people making up pseudo-doctrine to account for a particular practice. This regularly happens when trying to justify current practices that don’t necessarily stem directly from doctrine, and such false doctrines often persist long after the practice they were invented to justify is discontinued.

For example, prior to 1978, black men were not ordained to the priesthood in the LDS Church. While there is at least one documented case that I know of where the founder of the Church, Joseph Smith, ordained a black man to the priesthood, it was determined that this should not happen early in the history of the Church. For many years afterwards, particularly as the modern civil rights era came along, members often felt they had to justify this practice. They often turned to non-doctrinal statements made by Church leaders assuming and promoting it as doctrine. Pseudo-doctrinal justification that was widely circulated include:

  • Blacks were “fence-sitters” in the pre-mortal war in heaven
  • Black skin marks the posterity of Cain and so, those who are spiritually cursed or inferior

Both of these are false doctrines twisted from true ones in order to justify a racist practice. When the practice was changed in 1978 by an official declaration, it was made clear that these justifications were false. The declaration re-emphasized the doctrine that “all are alike unto God” who has no “regard for race or color.” Another true doctrine that could be read between the lines as responsible for the practice in the first place is that this is an imperfect church in an imperfect world with imperfect men to guide it. There will occasionally be practices either corrupted by or adapted to this environment. My personal belief is that there is great significance in this period of discrimination as having coincided with the years leading up to the Civil War and ending not long after the height of the Civil Rights era. Admittedly, that still doesn’t make the discrimination right.

This is just one illustration of why it is so important to be able to recognize the difference between doctrine the practices; so that when we are faced with an imperfect practice supported by pseudo-doctrine, we will be able to find the obscured truth that will guide us closer to God while still accepting the imperfect. Changes to practices are an important part of progress.

There are two other LDS practices with associated doctrine that I wish to discuss. The first is relatively easy to accept, the second might be harder for some people. I will first discuss the Word of Wisdom, and then polygamy.

The Word of Wisdom (see D&C 89) was introduced in 1833 as a “principle with a promise”. It was a code of health given to the Church advising against tobacco, alcohol and “hot drinks” (clarified as coffee and tea), and encouraging the consumption of grains and vegetables. It was originally given specifically NOT as a commandment. As such, it is fairly straightforward to separate the current practice of the Church, requiring compliance with key points as prerequisites for both baptism and temple attendance, from the doctrine, which is simply that of blessings promised for compliance and the principle that God cares about what we do to our bodies.

With the current practice being so obviously extrapolated from the original intent of the doctrine, it is subject to change. In fact, there is an indication that it will change to some degree in a prophecy related to the Second Coming. In Mark 14:25 it states that when the kingdom of God comes, Christ will drink with us from the “fruit of the vine.” As wine is currently forbidden by Church practice, an exception will eventually be made.

On the other side of things we have the doctrine of polygamy. Polygamy was formally introduced in 1843 and was a common practice, especially among the leadership of the Church, until 1890, when it was ended by “manifesto.” Polygamy had generally become embraced by the members of the Church at that time, partly because there were many widows as well as an overpopulation of women due to the persecutions the Church had endured before migrating West, and it was seen as an effective way of caring for them. The declaration discusses the political and legal pressure that the Church was under at that time as result of the practice. The Church was also lobbying for statehood. Wilford Woodruff, the President of the Church at the time, conclusively ended the practice. Existing marriages were left intact, but no new ones were allowed.

In subsequent addresses to the Church, President Woodruff expressed his ultimate willingness to submit to the will of the Lord in this matter. Significantly, he did not back down from or negate the doctrine upon which polygamy was allowed, to the contrary, he expressed the necessity only of stopping the practice, “that the Devil” — who was seen as the driver of the political pressure — “should not thwart [the work of the Church].”

This position on polygamy has not been changed to this day. We do not allow it, but we still teach that those who practiced it did so in accordance with the commandment of God. Additionally, the sealing ordinance, which is the Mormon version of marriage, is for “time and all eternity”, and was performed for polygamist unions. This is one of the most sacred ordinances of the Church; these unions can never be nullified by a change in practice. As such, the doctrine of polygamy as a God-sanctioned union will forever be a part of the Church.

There are some very important caveats to the doctrine of polygamy. A man cannot simply decide to take an additional wife; he must be directed through the proper line of authority to take one. (This is the reason the practice could be effectively stopped.) It was also required for the first wife to consent to all additional wives.

That being said, because the cessation of polygamy was a change in practice, not in doctrine, it could be reversed. As it is such a foreign concept to most people today, we members of the Church spend a great deal of effort distancing ourselves from our predecessors’ practice of it. To the extent that, if it were someday reinstated, I suspect this would be a dramatic trial of faith for many of us.

Change is a part of life, and enables progress. I believe these three examples effectively show how understanding the difference between doctrine and practice is not only important in understanding a church, but in understanding how change can occur. Moreover, as a member of a church, it is important to be able to recognize pseudo-doctrine to avoid being misled, to avoid passing it on, and to understand where change can be effected, that we might progress together.

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About thelogicalmormon

Devout Mormon. Graduate of MIT. Father. Technologist.

7 responses to “Doctrine vs. Practice”

  1. Kim-Melissa Christensen says :

    I comment here to correct what I believe are some erroneous points.

    I state at the outset that based on previous discussions I’ve engaged in on the subjects I outline here, I don’t expect to find a great deal of agreement with my counter-points.

    Nevertheless: I focus my comments on your points on the Word of Wisdom referenced in D&C 89. You state: “It was a code of health given to the Church advising against tobacco, alcohol and other “strong drinks” (clarified as coffee and tea), and encouraging the consumption of grains and vegetables.”

    The points of disagreement I have here is your assertion that:
    1) “It was a code of health given to the Church advising against …”, “tobacco”, Agreed;

    2) “Alcohol”, Disagree;
    3) “and other “strong drinks” (clarified as coffee and tea)”, Disagree;

    4) “and encouraging the consumption of grains and vegetables.”, Agree.

    The relevant text of D&C 89 is as follows:
    “5 That inasmuch as any man drinketh wine or strong drink among you, behold it is not good, neither meet in the sight of your Father, only in assembling yourselves together to offer up your sacraments before him.

    6 And, behold, this should be wine, yea, pure wine of the grape of the vine, of your own make.

    7 And, again, strong drinks are not for the belly, but for the washing of your bodies.

    8 And again, tobacco is not for the body, neither for the belly, and is not good for man, but is an herb for bruises and all sick cattle, to be used with judgment and skill.

    9 And again, hot drinks are not for the body or belly.”

    Also Relevant: “17 Nevertheless, wheat for man, and corn for the ox, and oats for the horse, and rye for the fowls and for swine, and for all beasts of the field, and barley for all useful animals, and for mild drinks, as also other grain.”

    I assert that the prudent and wise use of wine and “barley … for mild drinks, as also other grain” is permitted by the gospel, but is arbitrarily forbidden by Church practice. You even note that in Mark 14:25 it states that when the kingdom of God comes, Christ will drink with us from the “fruit of the vine.” I further assert that the use of tea and coffee are arbitrarily forbidden by church practice but permitted by the gospel.

    As you note, Joseph Smith received the Word of Wisdom in 1833. In Daniel Webster’s 1860 edition of Webster’s Dictionary he not only defines words, but also key phrases of the day. A testimony that the American language has evolved over the past 150 years is manifest by how differently Webster defines vocabulary in 1860 and how we define those same words today. Webster defines some interesting terms that are relevant here:

    “Wine: Fermented fruit of the vine.”
    “Strong Drink: Fermented or Brewed and Fermented beverage distilled.”
    “Sacrament: Eucharist. A celebration of our Lord’s last supper”
    “sacraments: The evening meal. To partake of our sacraments is to partake of the evening meal.”

    “Mild Drink: Brewed and Fermented beverage of grain.”

    It is my assertion that the meaning Joseph Smith attributed to words are more closely aligned to Webster’s definitions than the meaning we tend to attribute to those same words. Note the difference in meaning between the words “Sacrament” and “sacraments”. In today’s world there is no such delineation in LDS society, or anywhere else for that matter.

    The prohibition to tea and coffee was an arbitrary response made by Brigham Young after Smith’s death, when pressed to define what “Hot Drinks” meant.

    It is my assertion that the Lord is a pretty smart guy. I believe he means exactly what he says. I don’t think he meant tea and coffee, I think he meant “Hot Drinks”. I don’t think he meant the wise and prudent use of Wine, Ale or Beer, I think he meant distilled beverages. Strong Drink in the terminology of 1833. Whiskey, Vodka and Tequila are forbidden, wine and ale to be used with prudence and wisdom.

    Today we have now accumulated thousands of scientific studies, studying millions of people. Based on those studies we have learned this: If you consume a beverage or eat a serving of food that has a temperature 10% greater than your normal body temperature, (about 45C, or 115F and hotter), your risk of mouth, throat and stomach cancer increases by over 10,000 percentage points. Hot Drinks are bad. Hot Food is bad. Hot is bad.

    Thousands of studies have revealed amazing health benefits from the use of coffee and tea, especially Green Tea. The results of those studies stand in stark contrast to the arbitrary pronouncement made by Brigham Young under pressure of Saints who needed their hand held. Mormon urban legend for over a century has asserted that caffeine is banned and the use of Coke and Pepsi were damning offenses. On Wednesday September 5, 2012 the LDS Church posted a statement on its website saying that “the church revelation spelling out health practices does not mention the use of caffeine.”

    Thousands of studies have revealed amazing health benefits from the use of two glasses of beer or wine each day, particularly when used not as a beverage, but as a beverage supplement to a meal. The American Heart Association, the American Dietetic Association, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, the American Diabetes Association all show scientific evidence that consuming two glasses of wine or ale each day is more beneficial than complete abstinence.

    The Path here however is straight and very narrow. The detrimental health effects of consuming three drinks a day out-weighs the beneficial effects of consuming one or two drinks a day. For this reason, none of the above agencies advocate those that do not drink to start drinking, but the evidence stands that consuming two drinks daily is a more healthy practice than complete abstinence.

    It is also striking that the LDS people, who are prolific meat-eaters, are such enthusiastic meat-eaters in the face of verses 12 and 13. That counsel is:

    “ 12 Yea, flesh also of beasts and of the fowls of the air, I, the Lord, have ordained for the use of man with thanksgiving; nevertheless they are to be used sparingly;

    13 And it is pleasing unto me that they should not be used, only in times of winter, or of cold, or famine”

    If Latter-Day Saints are to do that which is “pleasing unto me” it would appear that our next big evolutionary step will be to adopt a predominantly vegetarian diet.

    Thank You for giving me the opportunity to comment.
    This is a great Blog. Kim.

    • thelogicalmormon says :

      Ah, yes. I should have re-read the section before summarizing it. I have corrected what I consider to have been incorrect. I understand the nuances surrounding wine, but did not want to get into them, as this wasn’t so much a post about the Word of Wisdom as it was about how that practice has evolved.

      Your points about strong drinks versus mild drinks are interesting. Perhaps I’ll revisit them at some point. In any case, you have illustrated the point of my post quite effectively as it relates to extrapolating practice from doctrines. It is difficult to do at times, and can cause a lot of confusion. Ultimately, as long as we are doing our best to practice what we believe to be the spirit of the doctrine, we are on the right track.

  2. Willy Dahms says :

    The notion that one should avoid wine or beer is a fairly recent thing, and I think that the reason that European nations, in particular, don’t subscribe to it is that they’ve had large populations for far longer than they’ve had decent sanitation, and under those circumstances, water was something to be avoided, as it frequently contained all sorts of disease-inducing bacteria. Beer and wine were, and still are, in large extent, the usual accompaniment to meals. My recollection is that the Bible proscribes drunkenness, but not drink.

    • thelogicalmormon says :

      Willy, I definitely understand that side of the issue. The Word of Wisdom is not part of general Christian beliefs; it is specific to Mormonism, and as Kim commented, the current interpretation and required practice is more strict than even the Mormon scriptures recommend. Which is why it makes a good example.

      I do agree with you, though, and in trying to follow the spirit of the doctrine here, one of my rules of thumb is to avoid making a habit of consuming anything addictiing.

  3. Dave says :

    You might want to edit for the benefit of future readers (and your own credibility as a Mormon) that Wilford Woodruff was president of the church at the time the “manifesto” was issued. To your credit, I can see where the names Wilford Woodruff and Woodrow Wilson could be mixed up ;).

    Otherwise, a nice little intro to thinking about practice vs. doctrine. It gels with thoughts I’ve been having for a while now (off and on) on the “doctrines of Mormon culture” and doctrine in the scriptures/church.

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