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


Have you ever heard something and wondered, “Is that Church doctrine?” For example, suppose you were in a Church class studying the passage where God teaches Moses there are “worlds without number . . . and by the Son I created them, which is mine Only Begotten” (Moses 1:33). Someone asks, “If Jesus created multiple worlds, did Jesus’s infinite Atonement redeem God’s children on other earths?” What would you say? Is that true? Is it a sanctioned Church teaching? How would you know? 

Or, as another example, have you ever heard the teaching that Latter-day Saints are supposed to take the sacrament with their right hand?1 Is that correct? (All in favor, raise your right hand!)

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Perhaps you are reading a volume of teachings from a past Church leader and you come across some statements that are very different from what the Church teaches now. If doctrine never changes, how do we handle that? Were past leaders wrong for teaching it, or are we wrong for altering the teaching? Maybe you have heard someone say something like, “I once heard that [fill in a General Authority’s name here] said that [fill in a reported teaching here], so that makes it doctrine.” Is that how doctrine is determined? If not, how do we view individual statements by General Authorities? How can we differentiate between an official position of the Church and an individual “opinion” of one of its leaders? How do we handle statements by General Authorities that seem to contradict one another, such as statements by Spencer W. Kimball2 and Joseph Fielding Smith3 saying there is no progression between kingdoms in the next life, but Brigham Young4 and J. Reuben Clark5 saying it is possible? Questions such as these and many others are important for seekers who desire to accurately learn, understand, and articulate Church teachings.

Expanding the Definition of “Doctrine”

The simplest definition of “doctrine” is “something that is taught” or “teaching, instruction.”7 Based on this premise, any endorsed Church teaching is a Church doctrine. Authorized teachings can come in various types, from the eternal, to the personal, to commandments, to policies, to explanatory teachings. The Church itself seems to suggest that there are different types of “doctrines” in its 2007 essay “Approaching Mormon Doctrine”: “Some doctrines are more important than others and might be considered core doctrines. For example, the precise location of the Garden of Eden is far less important than doctrine about Jesus Christ and His atoning sacrifice.”8 Modern prophets sometimes use adjectives before the word doctrine, such as “essential doctrine” or “fundamental doctrine,” inherently implying there are central doctrines but also doctrines of a different nature.9

Although some in the modern Church are accustomed to defining doctrine only as an “unchanging truth of the gospel,”12 this is a more recent historical movement. That definition of doctrine is, itself, a new doctrine. Defining Church doctrine only as eternal truths of the gospel is very helpful in some situations, but it can also unintentionally negate authoritative doctrines that have changed, such as the sacrament, baptisms for the dead, the Word of Wisdom, or the gathering to Missouri in Joseph Smith’s time. It can also omit how to categorize noneternal, explanatory Church teachings such as the Great Apostasy, the sealed portion of the Book of Mormon, the Urim and Thummim, miracles, the gathering of scattered Israel, Aaronic Priesthood, intelligences, the Second Comforter, Zion in Independence, or Christ’s Second Coming. Thus, it may be helpful to organize different types of doctrines in our seeking related to authorized Church teachings.

Types of Latter-day Saint Doctrine

The following images provide a suggested framework to help understand different types of [Latter-day Saint] doctrine:

Let’s seek to understand each of these categories of Church teachings or doctrine.

Core Doctrine

Using the same phraseology of the Church’s 2007 statement on doctrine, there are teachings that could be termed “core doctrines” or “eternal doctrines.” In the words of Elder David A. Bednar, these are “gospel doctrines [that] are eternal, do not change, and pertain to the eternal progression and exaltation of Heavenly Father’s sons and daughters.”13 When we sometimes say the “doctrine” never changes, what is often meant is that the gospel never changes—meaning faith in Christ, repentance, baptism, receiving the Holy Ghost, and enduring in the covenant to the end (see 3 Nephi 27:13–21 and D&C 33:11–12). This unchanging gospel is sometimes referred to as “the doctrine of Christ” (see 2 Nephi 31:21, 33 Nephi 11:32–35; 33 Nephi 27:13–21, D&C 33:11–12). The doctrine of Christ, or His gospel, was taught as an unchanging doctrine of the Church early in the Restoration.14

Other eternal truths that do not change may include the nature of God, the eternal makeup of the Spirit, the universal Resurrection, and the work and the glory of God to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of His children (see Moses 1:39).

The Church’s founding “Articles and Covenants,” found in Doctrine and Covenants 20, contain a succinct declaration of core, timeless doctrines, beginning in verse 17 with, “There is a God in heaven, who is infinite and eternal,” who “created man, male and female, after his own image” (v. 18) and “gave unto them commandments” (v. 19). However, by departing from His ways, humankind “became fallen” (v. 20). “Wherefore, the Almighty God gave his Only Begotten Son” (v. 21) so that through belief in the Savior’s divine sacrifice and through the covenant of baptism, mankind “should be saved” (v. 25). Those that “worship the Father in his name, and endure in faith on his name to the end” (v. 29) will receive both “justification” (v. 30) and “sanctification through the grace of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (v. 31). Such truths are at the heart of what has been taught, is taught, and will yet be taught in all dispensations. Such plan-of-­salvation truths are what President Boyd K. Packer referred to when he said there are “doctrines” which “will remain fixed, eternal.”15

Supporting Doctrines

Many doctrines strengthen our belief in and elaborate on the core doctrines. For example, if a core doctrine is that God exists, understanding His corporality will help us better comprehend His nature and, in turn, deepen our faith in Him. While understanding and believing in Christ’s Atonement is core and essential for salvation, teachings that discuss the details of how He suffered (like bleeding from every pore) and what He suffered (all the pains and sicknesses of humankind) are not necessary to know in order to be saved, but they serve to expand upon the core concept of Atonement and redemption. Supporting doctrines help us elaborate on the eternal doctrines of salvation, often providing explanations of “how” such teachings function.

An example of a core, eternal doctrine is that Jesus Christ will return to earth and reign as its rightful king and lawgiver. It has been further revealed as a supporting doctrine that a righteous city of New Jerusalem will be built, and Christ’s people will be gathered to prepare for His return. Other supporting doctrines related to the Second Coming are that there will be a great gathering in Adam-ondi-Ahman to prepare for Christ’s millennial rule, that when Jesus returns to the earth the Mount of Olives will split, that the Jewish people will recognize the Lord as the Messiah (see D&C 45:51–53), that Satan will be bound, and that there will be a thousand-year period of peace. These teachings may not be essential for salvation, nor have they been taught in all dispensations, but they elaborate upon, expand our understanding about, increase our faith in, and provide potential “hows” to the core doctrine of Christ’s return to reign over earth. This supporting ring of doctrine has the potential to include many explanatory doctrines of the Church.

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.”


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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