About 30 years ago I gave a HP Group (RIP) lesson on Policy Vs Doctrine. This was not in the lesson manual, but one that I made up. It was so successful that I only got through half the lesson, and they gave me the next week to finish it.

First I handed out a definition sheet

>Doctrine  (D): Eternal gospel truths that never change, backed by Scripture

>Conventional Wisdom (CW)  This category is for those “doctrines” or teachings which can’t be solidly backed up by Scripture, but on which the brethren have appeared to be in agreement.

> Unanswered question (Q)  Doctrines on which there is not a consensus among the brethren.

>General Policy (GP): Rules/regulations that are set by Salt lake to help us with doctrine.

>Local Policy (LP): Rules/regulations set by local authorities, sometimes based on doctrine, sometime on tradition.  Changes from time to time, place to place.

>Tradition (T):  Things we do “because we have always done it that way” Based on culture/tradition etc.  Often confused with D, GP, LP.

Then I gave a list of subjects, and each of the class members were to select am item from the above definitions and place it by each subject. Below are the subjects, with my take on what they are. Remember this is 30 years old.

Baptism  (D)

Clean shaven men.  (LP)

We call each other “Brother” and “Sister”,  and use last names. (T) 

Polygamy (polygyny) is practiced in the celestial kingdom   (CW)

We meet in a 3 hr block on Sunday  (GP)

We observe the Sabbath on Sunday   (CW)

Using right hand to take the sacrament  (T)

We don’t use the cross in our worship. (T)

Word of Wisdom  (D)

Implementation of Word of Wisdom  (CW, GP, LP)

Using right hand to sustain   (T)

Bishop partaking the Sacrament first  (T)

Principle of  tithing, home teaching, temple attendance, fast offerings. (D)

Implementation of  tithing, home teaching, temple attendance, fast offerings. (GP, T, CW) 

Deacons wear white shirts  (LP)

Men wear dress shirts and ties,  women dresses,  to church (T)

In the hereafter there is (no) movement between kingdoms  (Q)

God is living in (or out of) time  (Q)

Women wear only one earring, and men none (T)

What has happened since then? We got this interesting article from Gregory Prince in Dialogue.

Within weeks of his return from South Africa, McKay met privately with Sterling McMurrin. In the course of their conversation, and to McMurrin’s surprise, McKay told him that the church position on ordination of blacks was “policy,” not “doctrine,” and that the practice would someday be changed.8 The distinction between “policy” and “doctrine” in McKay’s mind was crucial, yet was misunderstood at the time by McMurrin, and much later by Hugh B. Brown, Harold B. Lee, and others in McKay’s inner circle, resulting in a crisis shortly before McKay’s death.


McKay chose his words carefully, and it is clear in retrospect that his use of the word “policy” did not mean the practice of priesthood denial could be reversed merely by administrative decision. Indeed, he always affirmed, both in public and in private, that it would take a revelation for such to occur. However, he also affirmed that such a revelation could occur, and therein lay the distinction in his own mind. To him, a policy could be changed, albeit in this case only upon receipt of a revelation, whereas a doctrine could not be changed. The subtlety of that difference was not appreciated by his colleagues.

McKay clearly did not receive such a revelation. What is less clear, however, is that he sought such divine intervention unsuccessfully. One general authority recalled his saying privately that he had prayed and pleaded with the Lord, but “I haven’t had an answer.

Prince, G. A. (2002). David O. McKay and Blacks: Building the Foundation for the 1978 Revelation. Dialogue, Pages 147–148

So what do you think of McKay’s distinction between “policy” and “doctrine”? He seems he is saying that even some policies require a revelation from God to change. Do you think this is the same distinction that the Q15 makes today? If this is the case, then for the Q15 doctrine are the foundational truth claims of the Gospel, and everything else is policy, even if it has been around since the beginning. Since so little has been revealed, that makes almost everything we have in the handbook policy.

This then sheds some light on the Nov 2015 “Policy of Exclusion” (POX). It is well documented that Pres Oaks first announced and then rescinded the policy while claiming revelation. Using Mckay’s definition, that fact that Oaks claimed revelation implementing or rescinding a policy does not automatically make something “doctrine.” So the November policy was literally “policy,” and was never “doctrine.” Does this change your view of the POX and its implementation?

So then what is left to be counted as “doctrine”? Elder Andersen took a stab in a conference talk where he said:

There is an important principle that governs the doctrine of the Church. The doctrine is taught by all 15 members of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve. It is not hidden in an obscure paragraph of one talk. True principles are taught frequently and by many. Our doctrine is not difficult to find.

Oct 2012 GC

But Elder Oaks and Elder Maxwell didn’t seem to have a very good handle on what is doctrine and what is policy when it can to the the exclusion of blacks from he priesthood:

AP: Was the ban on ordaining blacks to the priesthood a matter of policy or doctrine?

MAXWELL: Well, I don’t know. It certainly was church policy and, obviously, with some considerable commentary from early church leaders about it. It’s difficult commentary from early church leaders about it. It’s difficult for me to go beyond that.

OAKS: 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… I’m not sure I could justify the difference in doctrine and policy in the fact that before 1978 a person could not hold the priesthood and after 1978 they could hold the priesthood.

AP: Did you feel differently about the issue before the revelation was given?

OAKS: I decided a long time ago, 1961 or 2, that there’s no way to talk about it in terms of doctrine, or policy, practice, procedure. All of those words just fled you to reaffirm your prejudice, whichever it was. The only fair, just way to think about it is to reaffirm your faith in the prophet, and he says you don’t do it now, so you don’t do it now. And if he says tomorrow that you do do it, then you do it.

AP news story

Our own leaders seem not to know what is “changeable policy” and what “unchangeable doctrine”. Does it make a difference? Or is everything changeable policy if the Q15 unanimously vote to change it, and if what was thought to be doctrine requires modification, does it then change to become a policy?