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.