Missions are a great place to learn about the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We are taught much in Primary, Young Men’s, Young Women’s, and Sunday School. The understanding we receive serves as a good foundation for the knowledge we gain over eighteen months or two years spent immersed in the Gospel. There are many lessons that I learned on my mission. One of the most important came just before I returned home after two years of service.
I was assigned to Powell River, British Columbia which is part of the Nanaimo Stake. It sits on the extreme west coast of Canada. The only ways to get there are by ferry and airplane. Three weeks before I came home, the Nanaimo Stake held a stake conference. The visiting authority was Elder James C. Perry, an Area Authority Seventy. Along with the regular sessions of stake conference, he asked that all the missionaries serving in the stake meet with him for an hour on the Sunday morning. This was a special meeting. He did not have any planned messages or training for us. Instead, he said that we could ask him any question at all about the Church and the Gospel.
I do not remember all of the questions that were asked. I do remember that my companion asked how we could stay active after returning home from our missions. This was a rather important question for me- I was the soonest to leave. Elder Perry gave some examples of what not to do when we got home and then gave us three words: Doctrine, Principles, and Applications. He then laid out their significance in our lives. I would like to do the same.
To the world, a doctrine is a basic belief of a group of people that is written down. Examples are constitutions of nations, rules of sporting organizations, or even rules of a card game. These beliefs only hold effect over our lives as long as we choose to follow and adhere to them. If we want to change or make up our own rules to Monopoly, Uno, or the targeting rule in NCAA Football, we can. There is nothing made by man that cannot be changed.
In the Gospel of Jesus Christ, doctrine has a different meaning. A doctrine in the Church of Jesus Christ Latter-day Saints is absolute truth. Full Stop. There is such a thing as absolute truth in this world.
Pontius Pilate, Governor of Judaea and judge at the trial of Jesus, asked the Saviour “What is truth?” It is an important question to ask. Truth is the divine set of laws that govern the operations of the universe and the Gospel.
Where can we find this doctrine? To find out, I would like to share a story about a young Italian man who lived in the early 1900s. His name was Vincenzo di Francesca. After growing up in Sicily, he moved to New York City like many of his countrymen. Always interested in gospel learning, he earned a degree as a protestant minister and began to work as a pastor. One day, as he was walking through streets of New York, Vincenzo came across a dirty and worn book sitting in a rubbish bin. He said that the pages were so dirty that no words could be read, and the title page was missing. There was not even a title on the cover. Vincenzo was curious about the book so he picked it up and took it home to clean it.
The first thing he was able to read was a testimony by three men who testified that the words in the book were of God and true. Once the rest of the pages were clean, he began reading. Vincenzo read the entire book and took up the challenge to pray to God about the truthfulness of the book. This is what he said:
I felt my body become cold as the wind from the sea. Then my heart began to palpitate, and a feeling of gladness, as of finding something precious and extraordinary, bore consolation to my soul and left me with a joy that human language cannot find words to describe. I had received the assurance that God had answered my prayer and that the book was of greatest benefit to me and to all who would listen to its words.
Vincenzo knew that this book with no name held truth and doctrine from God. He knew that Nephi, Alma, and Helaman were prophets sent to teach doctrine. He resolved to share his new found knowledge with the people of his parish, and did so for four years.
The other ministers in his denomination were not pleased with this. He was teaching people from something other than the Holy Bible, and that was not to be tolerated. In a formal disciplinary meeting, Vincenzo was ordered to burn the book with no name. He refused saying that he feared God and knew he had received a witness of its truth “which I feel again in my soul as I defend his cause now.” The other ministers felt they had no choice and revoked his license to teach in their congregations.
Over the next three decades, Vincenzo never gave up on his quest to know what the book was and what church used it in its teachings, even after he returned to Italy. In 1930, he discovered that the book was called the Book of Mormon and that a “Mormon Church had been established in 1830.” He was able to communicate by letter with church leadership, including President Heber J. Grant but was unable to get baptised until January 1951 because of the government policies at the time and World War II.
Doctrine is found in the scriptures. They are the words of God to us, written down for our benefit. Conference talks also serve the purpose of scriptures today. We are able to look through them to find the absolute truth Heavenly Father has given us. Doctrine does not change.
Two of the most important pieces of doctrine are, God loves His children (see 1 Nephi 17), and Jesus Christ took upon Him the sins, pains and afflictions of this world so we would be eligible to return to God’s presence in the Celestial Kingdom (Alma 7:11-15). From Genesis down to Revelation, and from the First Book of Nephi to the most recent General Conference, these doctrines and others have been taught by the prophets.
Truth was and is given to us by Heavenly Father through revelation. President Henry B. Eyring, speaking General Conference in April 1999 talked about how Alma taught the people the doctrine of the Gospel when they were facing an upcoming war. He said:
The word of God is the doctrine taught by Jesus Christ and by His prophets. Alma knew that words of doctrine had great power. They can open the minds of people to see spiritual things not visible to the natural eye. And they can open the heart to feelings of the love of God and a love for truth.
We know that God is unchangeable. He himself has said that he is “the same yesterday, today and forever.” We also know that He cannot lie. Therefore, what He says is truth. As President Eyring said, doctrine is taught by Jesus Christ and His prophets. Doctrine and Covenants section one reads in part-
Search these commandments for they are true and faithful, and the prophecies and promises which are in them shall all be fulfilled. What I the Lord have spoken, I have spoken, and I excuse not myself; and though the heavens and the earth pass away, my word shall not pass away, but all shall be fulfilled, whether by mine own voice or by the voice of my servants. it is the same. D&C 1:37-38 (emphasis added)
The word of God is truth. Truth is Doctrine. Doctrine is unchangeable.
When we speak of principles in the church, we are speaking of policy. Principles are different from doctrine. Principles are based on the doctrine we have received from God through His prophets. The purpose of principles is to point us in the right direction and guide us along the Covenant Path back to our Heavenly Father.
We can find the principles of the Church in the General Handbook: Serving in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The Handbook, outlines the policies that organize the administration of the Church and also the ministering within it. It is important to know that the whole Handbook is available to read at the link above. All church policy is easily accessible to everyone.
As discussed above, doctrine does not change. Truth cannot be changed- it is immutable. Policy however, can change. It can change without harming or changing the doctrine. The only time policy in the Church changes is after the will of the Lord is sought by the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and the change is approved by God. Nothing in this Church happens without His consent.
One of the doctrines I mentioned above was that God loves His children. Nothing can change that. He will always love us- no matter what we do. Over the millennia, He has reached out to us, encouraging us to follow His commandments. The way He has done this has changed over the centuries. He gave Moses a list of commandments that the Children of Israel had to follow. These commandments would point the people to the Messiah and His Atonement. Today, President Nelson encourages us to follow the Covenant Path.
To supplement the work of the prophets, Heavenly Father has called upon the single young adults of the Church to serve missions- “to say nothing but repentance” unto the people (see D&C 6:9). Many may remember when a missionary policy was changed in General Conference. Prior to 2012 the minimum age of missionaries was 19 for men and 21 for women. These had been the ages for decades. It was so ingrained in Church culture that it seemed to be unchangeable. Then came the announcement at the beginning of October General Conference. President Thomas S. Monson announced that the ages of missionary service were to be lowered to 18 for men and 19 for women. Those watching on television could hear the gasps and hushed conversations of those in the Conference Center. This policy change has led to increased numbers of missionaries serving, which in turn led to increased numbers of people joining the Church.
This change in policy did not change the doctrine of the Gospel. We still teach that God loves His children. We still encourage people to join with us in feeling that love.
We should not be taken by surprise when Church policy changes. It is divine evidence that the Church is growing and maturing. We can see this in the way the church has used temples. Today the temples we build are for us to receive our endowments, get sealed for eternity to our spouses and children, and to perform the ordinances of salvation for our ancestors. In Kirtland, the temple did not serve that purpose. The people were not ready for the sacred nature of the sealing and endowment ordinances. The temple was instead used as a place of learning- a Gospel University, and worship. The members of the church were taught the Gospel of Jesus Christ and strengthened in their testimonies in a building dedicated to God and sanctified for the teaching of the gospel. By the time the saints moved to Nauvoo, they were ready to receive the sealing and endowment ordinances. The Nauvoo temple was the first temple that these ordinances were performed. As the church grew in numbers and strength, the Lord revealed more and authorized changes to church policy.
Application of Doctrine and Principles is the trickiest thing to do. This is how things within our lives and within the church are implemented. I mentioned that the principles found in the Handbook were guidelines, pointing us to Christ. These principles, except on very few occasions, are not hard and fast rules. The Handbook says this on the first page of the introduction:
The Lord taught, “Let every man learn his duty, and to act in the office in which he is appointed, in all diligence” (Doctrine and Covenants 107:99). As a leader in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, you should seek personal revelation to help you learn and fulfill the duties of your calling.
Studying the scriptures and the teachings of latter-day prophets will help you understand and fulfill your duties. As you study the words of God, you will be more receptive to the influence of the Spirit (see Doctrine and Covenants 84:85).
You also learn your duties by studying the instructions in this handbook. These instructions can invite revelation if they are used to provide an understanding of principles, policies, and procedures to apply while seeking the guidance of the Spirit.
We are encouraged to seek revelation in what we do. The Handbook is a guide not a taskmaster. The role of the Handbook is to set the Lord’s boundaries and then allow us the opportunity to adapt according to our circumstances within those boundaries.
Elder Perry explained to us in our missionary meeting that we as members of the Church can tend toward focusing on the application rather than the doctrine and accompanying principle. In the thirty-second chapter of the Book of Alma, we read of Alma, Amulek and others travelling to the land of the Zoramites to preach the gospel to a people who had fallen away from the gospel.
The Zoramites still believed in God and prayed to Him. They chose to change how they used their prayers. Their church leaders taught them to say the same prayer and what to say. The leaders encouraged the people to pray standing on a platform called the Rameumptom. In the prayer the people spoke, they mentioned God but the focus was on how awesome the Zoramites were. They were separated from others, chosen to be the best there ever was and ever would be (see Alma 31:15-21). This contrasts markedly with how we are taught to pray in the Church today.
We are taught to be humble before Heavenly Father when we pray. We are not any better or worse than any of our brothers and sisters around the world. We all have claim and access to the Love of God. In our prayers we give thanks for our blessings that we have received- remembering the counsel to give thanks to the Lord (see 1 Thessalonians 5:18). We are also taught that we can ask God for help. It is easier to receive revelation when we go to the Lord to ask for His counsel. We have been told that when we ask with real intent, we will have truth revealed to us.
The Zoramites incorrectly applied the doctrine prayer after they dissented from the Nephites. When they did this, they lost sight of the doctrine of prayer. Prayer is not self-aggrandizement, but rather a time where we can show gratitude and ask for Heaven’s help.
When people focus on the application of a doctrine or principle rather than the doctrine itself, it can be hard for them to adjust to new guidance and policy changes announced by the prophet.
In 2018, it was announced in General Conference that the Home and Visiting teaching program would be discontinued and replaced by the Ministering Program. This was a major shift in policy. Home Teaching had been around since the early days of the Church. Everyone knew what was to be done- go to the homes of the members of the church and share a message from the First Presidency every month. This new program did away with all of that.
Ministering is the higher and holier way to reach out to the members of the Church. The change was a raising of the bar. We were called to reach a little higher and be more doctrinally based. The doctrine we are encouraged to follow is found in Mosiah 18:8-10. In these verses, Alma sets out the doctrine of Ministering. We are to “bear one another’s burdens,” “mourn with those that mourn,” and “stand as a witness of God at all times.” This could not be done just by visiting once a month and sharing a message. To do these things, we need to look for opportunities to serve.
To this day, there are discussions on what Ministering really is. Some members of the Church still seek for the rigid rules and regulations that govern Ministering- they are looking to limit the effectiveness of it. We have been asked by our church leaders to move away from the rigid form of Home and Visiting Teachers and expand our vision. Ministering is, dropping off a birthday card, shoveling a walkway, walking an old lady across the street, speaking in church, sending a text message, praying for a friend in need of guidance, and even sitting and listening to someone.
When we understand the doctrine and principles of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, we will seek to apply them according to His will.
How Does it All Fit?
With the Lord hastening His work, it can be hard to separate what is Doctrine, Principles and Applications. I like to think of these three as a finished house. The Apostle Paul, in his epistle to the Ephesians used a house as a metaphor as well when he said:
Now therefore ye are no more strangers and foreigners, but fellowcitizens with the saints, and of the household of God; And are built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief cornet stone; In whom all the building fitly framed together growth unto an holy temple in the lord; In whom ye also are builded together for an habitation of God through the Spirit.
We (the Church) are built upon a foundation of apostles, prophets, and most importantly- Jesus Christ, our Saviour. The building is fitly framed because of that foundation and it becomes a temple through its setting on that foundation.
The doctrine of the Gospel is the foundation of the house. We learn of the doctrine and build our own solid foundation when we search the scriptures and talks from General Conference. Knowing and acting upon the words of the prophets sets a firm foundation. If you have ever had the chance to look at the ruins of ancient civilazations, most of what you are seeing is the foundations of their buildings. Foundations are, of necessity, the strongest parts of homes because they have to hold the weight of the rest of the structure. Without a strong foundation the building will fall. The same is true of our testimonies- we must look to the doctrine and understand it.
The principles that form the guidelines and policies of the Church are like the framing of the house. They set out the Lord’s boundaries but allow us to make up the interior floorplan in a way that will fit our circumstances. In “The Family: A Proclamation to the World” we are told that “circumstances may necessitate individual adaptation” as families seek to follow the doctrines of the gospel. When we keep within the boundaries the Lord has given to us, we will find it easier to build upon the doctrinal foundation.
Applying the principles and doctrines of the Gospel of Jesus Christ is like putting the finishing touches on a home. They are the result of prayerful consultation with Heavenly Father and the revelation given to us. Each of us has our own circumstance and tread the Covenant Path at different speeds. For one person, scripture study is reading and understanding one or two verses a day; while others read and ponder on multiple chapters a day. One is not better than the other, they each have their own method of applying the doctrine of coming unto Christ.
When changes in the Church are announced, we should not jump to conclusions that the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles are changing fundamental doctrine. The Lord said that He would “hasten my work in its time.” (D&C 88:73) Each change is an opportunity for us to learn and grow in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. As new changes are released, we need to remember that it is policy that is changing and not the doctrine. Take time to learn the doctrine behind each change and see that the principle agrees with it.
Once we learn about the new principle, it gives us a chance to renovate our testimonies and become more “fitly framed together.” In the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.