How to Distinguish Doctrine from Policy + Why There Is More Than One Type of Church Doctrine

Policy Doctrines

Policy doctrines are Church teachings related to the application of core or supportive doctrine. Gathering to Missouri in Joseph Smith’s time, paying 10 percent tithing in our time, the current role of Seventies, or mission ages can all be considered policy doctrines. Church policy is always authoritative, but it inevitably changes as the Church gives new teachings that adjust, expand, and react to the situations of the membership. These are “the organization, programs, and procedures [that] will be altered as directed by Him whose church this is,” as President Boyd K. Packer said.16

Policies are sanctioned teachings of the Church, and therefore a type of doctrine. They cannot be lightly dismissed as “just a policy.” They can, and sometimes do, affect salvation and exaltation. One could not dismiss Abraham’s command to circumcise all his male family as a sign of the covenant as “mere policy.” This wasn’t an eternal, unchanging teaching. In fact, it was done away with by the New Testament Church. However, if one of Abraham’s male household wasn’t circumcised, he wasn’t part of the covenant and was “cut off from his people” (Genesis 17:14). The same argument can be made for nearly the entire law of Moses, particularly its rituals and sacrifices, that were necessary to adhere to for proper standing before God but were later done away by Christ.

In our day, the Word of Wisdom is a modern example of a binding policy doctrine that affects salvation. Restrictions on tea, coffee, and wine have not been in effect in all dispensations, yet because the Lord foresaw “evils and designs which do and will exist in the hearts of conspiring men in the last days” (D&C 89:4), He provided a new doctrine for the “benefit” (D&C 89:1) of the Saints. This doctrine has taken many shifts in expected implementation, and eventually by 1933 the Church Handbook of Instruction required members to strictly follow the Word of Wisdom to be able to enter the temple.17 Today, persons cannot be baptized unless they “live the Word of Wisdom.”18

There are other policy doctrines that have a spiritually binding effect on Church members, such as saying the sacrament prayer word for word or paying 10 percent tithing. Other policy doctrines that are authoritative teachings but more subjective to personal implementation may be Church doctrines such as family home evening on Monday nights or the recommendation to wear a white shirt while administering priesthood ordinances.

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Each of these, however, is an authorized teaching of the Church centered on application of core and supportive doctrines. Through their priesthood keys, prophets have the authority to create binding Church policies on earth that are honored in heaven (see D&C 128:9). The Church Handbook of Instructions 1 and 2 contain many policy doctrines of the Church (each member has access to Handbook 2 through the gospel library or online).

Esoteric Doctrines

Esoteric doctrines are truths that are only partially known or revealed. The word esoteric implies teachings that are understood by only a small group of people. Its synonyms are words such as obscure and ambiguous. Not all doctrines have been revealed, and there are also doctrines no longer taught that may be true but are not necessary for our understanding now. The Prophet Joseph Smith explained, “It is not always wise to relate all the truth. Even Jesus, the Son of God, had to refrain from doing so, and had to restrain His feelings many times for the safety of Himself and His followers, and had to conceal the righteous purposes of His heart in relation to many things pertaining to His Father’s kingdom.”19 Joseph himself lamented, “I could explain a hundred fold more than I ever have, of the glories of the Kingdoms manifested to me in the vision, were I permitted, and were the people prepared to receive it.”20

As M. Gerald Bradford and Larry E. Dahl stated about “doctrine” in the Encyclopedia of Mormonism, “There are many subjects about which the scriptures are not clear and about which the Church has made no official pronouncements. In such matters, one can find differences of opinion among Church members and leaders. Until the truth of these matters is made known by revelation, there is room for different levels of understanding and interpretation of unsettled issues.”21

There are greater doctrines that were and are known to prophets, that are not known to us, such as those contained in the sealed portion of the Book of Mormon (see Ether 4:2–4). These esoteric doctrines are true but are not declared openly. In some cases, esoteric doctrines are referred to as “deep doctrines” in a somewhat negative tone. Yet we are told that one day we will read the sealed portion of the gold plates in hopes that it will bring us closer to Christ (see Ether 4, 5). The Lord promises that to the obedient He will “give the mysteries of my kingdom” (D&C 63:23), even to the point of giving “things which have never been revealed” (Alma 26:22). Indeed, the Lord says it is His “delight” to give faithful seekers “the hidden mysteries of my kingdom” (D&C 76:5, 7). Generally, we seek and contemplate esoteric doctrines in private. We do not proclaim them publicly or officially, although they may be true. Seekers rely upon prophetic keys to declare the Church’s official, authorized doctrine.

Look at the following image to see how this model of different “types” of Latter-day Saint doctrines can be used, in this instance, to better understand and teach about baptism:

In all types of doctrine—whether core, supportive, policy, or esoteric—the Lord can always reveal more. We believe that God “will yet reveal many great and important things pertaining to the Kingdom of God” (Articles of Faith 1:9). This implies that new ideas, altered concepts, expanded teachings, and additional knowledge will be given, thus requiring doctrine to be flexible. This does not mean that some doctrines cannot be eternal or immovable, just that certain concepts have yet to be revealed and may alter as new perspectives are gained. The very notion of a living Church and continuing revelation suggest that most authorized teachings reflect current understanding and expediency, not eternal finality.

Lead image from Getty Images

1. See George Albert Smith, Conference Report, April 1908; The Messenger (Salt Lake City: Aaronic Priesthood Department), August 1961, No. 62; Joseph Fielding Smith, Answers to Gospel Questions, Vol. I (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1966), 151.

2. See Spencer W. Kimball, The Miracle of Forgiveness (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1969), 243–44.

3. See Joseph Fielding Smith, Doctrines of Salvation, Vol. 2 (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1958), 31–32.

4. See Brigham Young as cited in Wilford Woodruff Journal, 5 Aug. 1855.

5. See J. Reuben Clark, Church News, 23 April 1960, 3.

7. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th ed., s.v. “doctrine.”

8. https://www.mormonnewsroom.org/article/approaching-mormon-doctrine.

9. See Dieter F. Uchtdorf, “Christlike Attributes,” Ensign, November 2005; D. Todd Christofferson, “The Doctrine of Christ,” Ensign, May 2012; Robert D. Hales, “Come Follow Me by Practicing Christian Love and Service,” Ensign, November 2016.

12. “Fundamentals of Gospel Teaching and Learning,” Gospel Teaching and Learning: A Handbook for Teachers and Leaders in Seminaries and Institutes of Religion (Salt Lake City: Intellectual Reserve, 2012), 10–37.

13. David A. Bednar, Increase in Learning (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2011), 151. On another occasion, before he was a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, then BYU–Idaho President David A. Bednar taught, “Doctrine refers to the eternal, unchanging, and simple truths of the gospel of Jesus Christ” (“Teach Them to Understand,” Ricks College Campus Education Week devotional, 4 June 1998, 4).

14. Search “Never change” on LDS General Conference Corpus to see some examples, such as J. Golden Kimball, CR 1912; Joseph Fielding Smith, CR 1920; Rudger Clawson, CR 1930.

15. Boyd K. Packer, “Revelation in a Changing World,” Ensign, November 1989.

16. Boyd K. Packer, “Revelation in a Changing World,” Ensign, November 1989.

17. See Robert J. McCue, “Did the Word of Wisdom become a commandment in 1851?,” Dialogue, vol. 14, no. 3, 66–77; see also Steven C. Harper, The Word of Wisdom (Orem, Utah), 2007.

18.    Preach My Gospel (Salt Lake City: Intellectual Reserve, 2004), 204.

19. As cited in Robert L. Millet, “What Is Our Doctrine?,” Religious Educator 4, no. 3 (2003), 17.

20.    The Joseph Smith Papers, History, 1838–1856, volume D-1 [1 August 1842–1 July 1843].

21. M. Gerald Bradford and Larry E. Dahl, “Doctrine: Meaning, Source, and History of Doctrine,” in Encyclopedia of Mormonism, ed. Daniel H. Ludlow (Macmillan: New York, 1992), 1:395.

  • Do you sometimes wonder what is and isn't Church doctrine?
  • Have you heard something unsettling about Church history and wanted to know if it's true?
  • Do you want to deepen your study on a gospel topic but don't know where to look other than Google?
  • Do you seek to reconcile how to follow modern yet mortal prophets?

If you said yes to any of these questions, then you are a latter-day seeker.

The purpose of this timely book is to aid you by providing essential skills to seek learning by study and faith. These chapters don't tell you what to think, but help you figure out how to think. The book aims to increase your capacity to be a disciple-scholar. Using relevant doctrinal and historical examples—coupled with engaging visuals and approaches—each chapter teaches models, steps, and frameworks to help you learn by study and faith.

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