Recently, Tad Callister wrote a article for Church News. While I’m not sure what the difference is between the Church’s Web page and the “Church News” section, it seems very official. Maybe the News section is retired GAs, and the Church web site is for current GAs?
Anyway, Brother Callister (not Elder anymore) gave an interesting take on principles vs rules. First he starts out with the famous Joseph Smith quote:
“I teach the people correct principles and they govern themselves.”The Gospel Kingdom , p.323
A basic summation of his article is that principles are the best way to do things, but sometimes we need help, and when we do, rules are created. He gave an example of a child wanting to watch TV on Sunday. The priciple is “Keep the Sabbath Day holy”. But if the child chooses to watch TV that is not appriate, he then says that rules need to be made.
He concluded his article with:
We use principles whenever we can so as to maximize the agency and growth of our children, but if they cannot “handle” principles, then we implement the fewest rules necessary until they arrive at that point.
I have a hard time reconciling that sentiment with the rule driven Church I grew up in. Granted many of these were rules based on principles, and made up not by the Church, but by the local leaders and parents trying to implement the principles. But what is the church if not its people/leaders?
I had a bishop in the early 1970’s that asked us during TR interviews if we drank Coke. The principle: Word of Wisdom, our bodies are temples, eat healthy, etc. Today bishops ask if you drink coffee/tea. This is a rule because evidently the church doesn’t think we can interpret the principle on our own. If we did, many would drink tea instead of Mountain Dew.
Our Church Handbook is filled with rules, but in the latest changes, seems to be moving away from “don’t do this” and more towards words like “discouraged” or “warns against”. I would guess in the past that some over zealous Bishops were disciplining members for not keeping these “rules”, so much so that in the recent changes to the handbook announced last week, they had to add the following statement.
“A few policies in this section are about matters that the Church ‘discourages.’ Church members usually do not experience membership restrictions because of their decisions about these matters. However, all people are ultimately accountable to God for their decisions.”section 38.6
Another policy is that surgical sterilization is discouraged. I’ve read where some say this is a step forward, as the handbook use to say that you needed to “consult with your bishop” before pursuing a vasectomy. I can just imagine how that conversation would go!
Me: Bishop, I’m thinking of getting a vasectomy.
Bishop: Well, you come to the right place. Will you be getting a ligation or cauterization?
Me: Which is better?
Bishop: Cauterization has a much lower failure rate as many studies have shown.
Me: Well then I’m definitely going with that method! I’m so glad I came to discuss this with you!
So what do you think, does the LDS church have too many rules? Are they treating us like children watching bad things on TV, in need of rules? Is the new handbook a step in the right direction, leaving more up to the member, even if it is “discouraged”? Have they reached a happy balance, with lots a broad principles, and just enough rules to keep us headed in the right direction?
It’s not just the rules but it’s also the whims and things proclaimed from the past.
Meaning that a memo sent out about oral sex in the 70s still affected my marriage in the 2000s because “a general authority / prophet once said”
It’s almost impossible to untangle it even if it’s disavowed , wording softened or the like
We have become a church of rules and dos and donts
Here’s a complete transcript of the conversation I had with my Bishop before my vasectomy in 1993.
And we all lived happily ever after, whatever the Handbook might have said.
Tad Callister’s argument of principles vs rules is disingenuous. It can be summarized like this: We won’t tell you the rules unless you break them, but they’re there the whole time.
There is some sloppiness in our use of words, both among us today and also over history. When one uses a word like principle (or rule, or doctrine, or policy, and so forth), he or she has his or her own understanding and intention (or maybe he or she just used the word imprecisely) — but others may have different understandings or definitions of the same word, and all of these may differ from that of Orson Pratt (or anyone else long dead).
Added to this is another common communication problem: one may say something intending to share it as a principle, and someone else may mis-interpret and mis-apply what was said as a rule or doctrine — this error becomes egregious when that someone else then tries to impose what he or she erringly sees as a rule on others.
Another problem is the loss of context. One may say something that is “true” in a particular context (such as consolation to the mourning, admonition to the slacker, warning to the careless, doctrine to the student, correction to the errant, counsel to the child, and so forth) — but that true statement, taken from its original context and applied in another, might no longer be true.
All of these are common communications problems, and all have been with us since the beginning of history. Charity, patience, and understanding are needed in our human interactions. Certainly, no one should make another an offender for a word.
These same problems existed when Jesus was among men. There is a place for hedges around the law, but we err if we cannot tell the difference between the law and the hedges.
I have always been a bit puzzled by the proscription against a vasectomy.
In the old handbook 1, the instruction to consult a bishop before surgical sterilization was strange in part because the handbook was not readily available to the general membership. No bishop ever asked me if I was planning to have a vasectomy. No church leader ever told me I would need to discuss it in advance. Not that I would have asked anyway, but the only reason I knew it was in the handbook was because of social media.
I haven’t read the new handbook in its entirety. From what I have seen so far, I’m not sure there is a doctrinal principal underlying the discouragement of surgical sterilization. It is discouraged, but left to the couple to prayerfully consider, with the understanding that sometimes a surgical sterilization is medically advisable. I’m struggling to think of a doctrinal principle that would mean non-surgical birth contraception is okay but surgical sterilization should only be done when medically necessary. It’s not coming to me.
I definitely agree that we should be more focused on principles than rules. But here is the challenge in the Church.
President Dallin H. Oaks stated in an interview: “I don’t know that it’s possible to distinguish between policy and doctrine in a church that believes in continuing revelation and sustains its leader as a prophet.”
This rationale becomes a stumbling block for leaders and members who elevate handbook rule up to and in some cases above pure doctrine.
In contrast, BYU Professor Hugh Nibley wrote:
“The worst sinners, according to Jesus, are not the harlots and publicans, but the religious leaders with their insistence on proper dress and grooming, their careful observance of all the rules, their precious concern for status symbols, their strict legality, their pious patriotism… the haircut becomes the test of virtue in a world where Satan deceives and rules by appearances.”
The scriptures warn against teaching for doctrine the commandments of men…
Callister’s words came four days after the church’s announcement about updates to a several hundred page rule book.
As has been mentioned, general access to the Handbook is a recent event. Prior to that, we did have to rely on general and local leaders and church publications. The seminary manuals were one of the best sources of the “rules”.
A few notable examples I read in the seminary manuals in the 1970s taught against: “artificially curtailing” the number of children a married couple had. Also organ transplants and cremation (presumably, determined in class and verified with older generations, to make resurrection less difficult for God). When Pres. Nelson became an apostle shortly after I return from my mission, one of my first thoughts was “I wonder if he performed heart transplants?”, thinking that that could be a serious issue.
Artificial insemination was added as that technology developed. As the handbook became available, we and our mid-thirties son and his wife were shocked to learn that IVF was strongly discouraged and only to be undertaken after consulting one’s bishop. They had been struggling over a decade with infertility and had made the very prayerful and expensive decision to try IVF. To learn after the fact that it was not something that was in the realm of their “own business” added to the burden of the unsuccessful attempts.
As many of these issues evolved from prohibited to discouraged – and some to no longer being mentioned – I took note. As other societal issues became more widespread, they were added to the handbook – often very strongly at first. For example, the inability to baptize a child born in surrogacy without 1st presidency approval is new. It’s seeming more geared toward taking measure of and possibly punishing the parents, than anything in the best interest of the child.
Ultimately I determined (while a TBM) that, as societal sensibilities evolved, what was once shocking and scary became better understood and even reasonable. The prophets of my youth were born in the 1800’s – contemporary concepts and developments that I took in stride quite naturally were marvels indeed to them. Some of these issues were judged to be dangerous to belief and the well being of the members and (with proper scriptural proof-texting) could be against the will of God. Some were, I suppose.
So my take on the question of “Principles vs. Rules” is that the moderating changes are not so much that we are going back to Joseph’s wonderful ideal, but that the “harsher” positions are no longer tenable. Therefore the admonitions for these practices become increasingly softened and may even one day just disappear.
Th e surrogacy change sounds like it’s a way to punish LGBTQ+ parents who try and have a child via that method.
I don’t see any policy about children born to surrogate mothers needing First Presidency approval for baptism. Rather, the handbook says they are not born in the covenant and therefore need to be sealed to their parents, which requires First Presidency approval. Everyone I know who has had a child by surrogacy and applied for First Presidency approval for sealing has gotten it. This doesn’t punish LGBTQ+ parents who have children by surrogacy (any more than they were already being punished by the church, that is).
Thank you, Rita.
Does the LDS church have too many rules? Completely. As I have made friends from other religions this has become all the more apparent. I can’t think of a mainstream Christian denomination that has just as many rules. While orthodox Judaism and Islam have more rules, their non-orthodox variants, which comprise most adherents, are less rule-based. Religion for many is not much more than a cultural identity with a lifestyle that tends to be slightly more conservative with regards to sex and diet than that of the average secularist.
Dallin Oaks also recently said in GC that it his job as a Church leader to teach general principles, and that it is our job to decide whether our own circumstances vis-a-vis a particular rule or teaching merit an exception to that rule. He also added, please do not come to me or other Church leaders asking advice about whether to strictly obey or to allow yourself an exemption. That is your responsibility to decide.
I am sure that he was not talking about people seeking to justify major things like adultery or child molestation or fraud. I am pretty sure that what Pres. Oaks was addressing was the compulsive need of so many Church members to get our leaders to approve of EVERYTHING that we are doing, down to the last jot and tittle. (A good example is, what are permissible sexual practices in the marriage bed. I am pretty sure that Pres. Oaks does not want the Church to deal with that, unless the situation is non-consensual and/or involves force. That is not to say that Oaks believes anything goes. I am sure he is more conservative than I am). The way I see it, he wants to get the Church out of the business of approving everything that is put forth by members.
I am sure other commenters on this post can cite me examples of prying and intrusive local Church leaders, but I thought Oaks was pretty clear — and he is hardly liberal. I think that the Church is s-l-o-w-l-y becoming less rule-bound.
“A few policies in this section are about matters that the Church ‘discourages.’ Church members usually do not experience membership restrictions because of their decisions about these matters. However, all people are ultimately accountable to God for their decisions.”
This is code for “members are free to decide for themselves, but only the truly righteous and obedient members know exactly what the *correct* principle is, and they will receive eternal blessings for following it to the letter.” There is a not insignificant portion of Church members who will read between the lines of the new handbook and interpret it to mean “absolutely NO vasectomy for you, lest you jeopardize your eternal salvation and that of your posterity!”
The problem with rules in the Church is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Generations of Church members are used to being given exact instructions on every little thing (i.e. being “commanded in all things”) that they can’t really think for themselves. So they keep coming up with more rules to keep them pacified. It’s absolutely maddening for those of us with natural tendencies toward scrupulosity/OCD.
But I’m OK with the most recent round of changes to the handbook, in which the Church takes much softer positions on certain issues. To me, it is indicative of a Church that’s gradually coming to terms with the fact that it doesn’t have control over members’ lives as much as it used to.
A resounding yes! to what Jack Hughes wrote.
My own comments, and I apologize in advance for any snarkiness:
One of Boyd Packer‘s favorite themes was following the “unwritten law”’of the Church, in which he asserted that the onus is on members to try and and figure out what the Church wants them to do, rather than have the Church spell it out, and then pro-actively attempt to do it.
Well, D&C 58: 26-27 DOES say that men should be actively engaged in a good cause, not be commanded in all things, and should on their own seek to bring about much good.
If I try to be charitable, I can perhaps think that this is what Boyd Packer was getting at. But over the years, he made it very clear that his pre-occupation was with STYLE, the manner in which Mormons did things. And he was promoting his own style of formality that was so extreme that there was no room for humor. (The formality was so intense that Packer, more than anyone else, insisted on “thee” and “thou” in prayers to show formality and reverence, even though the words were used to denote familiarity in KJ English, and are represented by “you” in modern English. His emphasis could not affect Church language in German, which still uses the informal “du,” “dir, “ and “dich” in prayer. But, because of his emphasis on formality, the Sacrament Payer in Mandarin Chinese changed from the familiar 你 (ni) to the respectful 您 (nin), which is extremely stilted. Nin is used in all prayers.)
I think the Church’s ever-so-gradual transition to a less rule-bound culture is that the “Packer Approach” has, IMO, pretty much failed. Committed Church members don’t argue the point, they just increasingly follow their own moral compass. The Church is trying to catch up.
Beards are a case in point. Once a source of controversy and a reason to deny a temple recommend, they are increasingly worn by men in the Church. I have a bearded friend who was called to be Bishop, and told by his SP that he had to shave off his beard. My friend replied, “I am sure that there are many men in the Ward who are more qualified than I to be Bishop.” This was polite code for, if you don’t like my beard, find someone else. The beard stayed, and the SP left things alone. Gotta love it. Maybe the Church will someday join the 20th Century, 20 years after it ended, and allow male temple workers to wear beards. I mean, if women in the Church Office Building can wear slacks, then ANYTHING is possible….:
A series of trivial points, but they show that the Church is beginning to realize, as Hughes has pointed out, that it has less control over people’s lives, and therefore needs to pick and choose its battles on fewer, more important rules. Too many rules breeds a contempt for rules In general; better to have far fewer, that have a stronger chance of being followed.
Maybe The Church of Jesus Christ of Pharisaical Saints Is slowly becoming more Christian.
Taiwan, I can hardly believe I’m writing this, but don’t be too hard on BKP about “language of prayer” For that, you can as well look to Dallin Oaks (April 1993) and many others: “The men whom we sustain as prophets, seers, and revelators have consistently taught and urged English-speaking members of our Church to phrase their petitions to the Almighty in the special language of prayer. President Spencer W. Kimball said, “In all our prayers, it is well to use the pronouns thee, thou, thy, and thine instead of you, your, and yours inasmuch as they have come to indicate respect.” (Faith Precedes the Miracle, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1972, p. 201.) Numerous other Church leaders have given the same counsel. (See Stephen L Richards, in Conference Report, Oct. 1951, p. 175; Bruce R. McConkie, Ensign, Jan. 1976, p. 12; and L. Tom Perry, Ensign, Nov. 1983, p. 13.)”
That 1993 talk was footnoted as “helpful instruction” in a 2003 Church News article by Russell Nelson A selection from the 1993 talk was repeated as a “Message” in the January 2006 New Era. It showed up again in ldsliving in a September 2016 article. LDS Living Magazine is a division of Deseret Book. Deseret Book is a wholly owned subsidiary of Deseret Management Corporation, the holding company for business firms owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I don’t think the “language of prayer” is going away any time soon, even if I have a private mental celebration any time I hear somebody ignore it (or the unwritten order of things) in favor of using language meaningful to them.
Wondering: thanks for additional sources for the thee, thou usage. I just remember Boyd Packer bring so blasted grim about the thing.
Someday, someone is going to speak from his heart and sincerely give the following Sacrament Prayer, and it will not be blasphemous: hey, Heavenly Pops, ‘sup? You know, I’m really down with all the neat things you’ve done for me. Thanks, bro’!
Half of the congregation will die laughing, the other half will die of outrage, and the Bishop will tackle the prayer-giver.
God does have a sense of humor.
Something that stood out to me in Br. Callister’s article:
“But what if a child does not make the right choice, and he or she chooses to watch an inappropriate movie? Then, like the Lord did with the law of consecration and law of tithing, we may need to step back and implement some rules until the time of spiritual maturity is attained. Perhaps the lesson to be learned is this: We use principles whenever we can so as to maximize the agency and growth of our children, but if they cannot “handle” principles, then we implement the fewest rules necessary until they arrive at that point.”
He couches the argument in a parent — child framework, which is problematic. It seems to assume that the Church (as parent) will always be right and we (the children) will always be wrong when there is a difference of opinion. That infantilization of adult members of the Church is a problem.
Ignoring the parent — child framework, though, I think Br. Callister really hits at one of the big sources of tension in this whole framework. How to handle situations when the Church and the member come to different conclusions based on the same principles. As noted, the problem with the parent — child framework is the assumption that the Church will always be right and any error in moral judgement must be on the members’ shoulders. However, if you use a peer-peer framework where the Church and the member have equal opportunity to be right (and equal opportunity to be wrong), now we have to really wrestle with what to do. (I think this is what the principle of common consent is supposed to do — when a large enough portion of the membership rejects/questions/refuses a revelation/policy, it is supposed to indicate to the leadership that something about whatever they have presented is not right.) The hardest part of teaching correct principles and letting us govern ourselves is that we just might make different moral judgements than the Church does, and the Church might just have to let us make those judgements (as peers and not as immature children).
God deals with principles. Churches deal with rules. I embrace the former. I have become very resistant to the latter.
Taiwan Missionary, I loved your friend’s response to the SP about his beard. If more people spoke up like this, things would change quicker!
If Abraham was told to sacrifice his only son and despite Abraham’s moral aversion to such a thing based on his own experiences and yet still put his will and wishes secondary to God’s and you can’t even willingly follow a basic “rule” from your Bishop or the Church, how are you ever going to ever feel right about sitting next to Abraham in the Grand Council in the Celestial Kingdom? What are you going to do when you disagree with the council? Go off and start your own following? Like someone else we know? Even Christ, the greatest of all said, “Not mine, but Thy will be done.” THAT’s the example we need to follow. Follow the rules to the best of our abilities and when Christ sees we’ve complied the best we could without justification and rationalization and we understand that we still fall short, then the last become first and those who put their will first will become last.
Dan, Abraham was sure killing his son was asked of him by God himself. Most rules – like the “no-beard-rule” – would fall under the more unsure denominator “manmade” and is arbitrary. Where did God ever say beards were bad in the scriptures?
Follow God, not men. Unless you know with certainty what they say and require of you is inspired by God himself. That is the discernment we need to develope. Blind obedience is a cowardis kind of obedience.
In response to Dan K.
One day (back in the day of Home Teaching), our home teacher came over to visit. He was, at the time, in the Stake Young Men Presidency. During the conversation, he had the following conversation with my son, who was twelve at the time.
Him: I’d like to ask you do something. Will you commit to it?
Son: I don’t know, what is it?
Him: I’m not going to tell you until you commit.
Wife and I thinking: (Yikes, this is uncomfortable, but let’s see how this plays out).
Him: So, will you do it?
Him, in disbelief and frustration: Um. . .
The rest of us: (Silence.)
I’ve thought back on that experience many times. We were/are so proud that our son responded the way he did, that he showed his independence, that he didn’t further a destructive and immoral culture of abuse by those in power.
Any person, including God, who feels the need to get some sort of ego boast or power justification by such actions is not a someone I will follow. It’s petty and destructive. The Abraham story is a dang confusing and difficult one, and I’m not sure we have the whole story at all.
Now, having said that, let me share another experience. As a missionary, we were teaching a young man who’s girlfriend was considering an abortion. We explained the situation in relation to his baptism and wished him luck as he decided what to do. He was very worried about the financial costs, but understood the seriousness of the situation. I promised to myself that if they had the baby, I would help them financially to provide for it. (Not that I had/have many resources, but compared to their situation, I had in great excess). The next time we met, he said that he told her he didn’t want the abortion, but that she had gone ahead and had one anyway.
Now, I knew that if he made certain choices, he would get certain ‘blessings.’ And I didn’t tell him about those blessings or the action required for it. But I wasn’t playing a game with him. I wasn’t being manipulative. I wasn’t being abusive. I didn’t dangle some power or authority or incentive over him. That’s how I see God. He gives us principles and lets us figure things out. in fact, most of the New Testament can be seen as one big decimation of the ‘rule-following’, Old Testament attitude so commonly embraced by either/or, zero-sum thinkers.
There is no evidence of Abraham’s existence except tales handed down among mostly illiterate and superstitious people with a tribal stake in their truth. As an allegory, how do we know that Abraham’s willingness to murder Isaac was not the WRONG answer and that he failed the test? In this existence, I have my own moral compass, my conscience, my knowledge on which to build my life. From that I have crafted principles that work for me. Some of them overlap with the principles of various religions, even the LDS church. To follow rules dogmatically is to sacrifice my own self awareness and self determination, and I don’t believe any God would honor that choice.
Yes. Yes. Yes.
After years of struggling with the Abraham story, I decided that if God were to instruct me to do something I knew to be wrong, I would defy God, even if it meant suffering for eternity. No authority should be great enough to convince us to do something that is morally reprehensible.
Brian: That story is both terrible and a perfect encapsulation of what is wrong in the Church today. Maybe it’s always been there. But if we are supposed to be in the business of creating future gods, I don’t think blind obedience is part of the recipe.