Doctrine and Practice

June 23, 2011 | 33 comments
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I enjoyed Alison’s post from a couple of weeks ago, Does Gender Matter?, but I’m a little confused how the pieces fit together. The post appears to accept the nonscriptural, uncanonized Proclamation at face value, stating: “Gender is part of who we are and who we have always been. It is important. It matters.” That makes it difficult to argue for reform of what is identified as a problem: “The church uses gender to delineate authority, callings, and roles.” However, there is a different way to see the issue.

Another way to look at the issue is to first recognize that, in the LDS Church, doctrine follows practice, not the other way around. The 1978 revelation makes this very clear. The 1978 revelation did not make doctrinal pronouncements, it just changed church practice: “all worthy male members of the Church may be ordained to the priesthood without regard for race or color.” Over time, previously accepted folk doctrines (about those not-so-valiant spirits in the Preexistence, etc.) were quietly dropped from official discourse. Doctrinal change followed changes in practice, not the other way around.

If this is the model for change within the Church, what should we expect to happen on the gender issue? I think changes in practice will precede changes in doctrine. We should expect to see women in the Church continuing to assume more leadership roles at both the local and general levels. Then, over time, the LDS view of divine design will expand and, eventually, the “men preside, women defer, as it was in the Preexistence” line of thinking will be quietly dropped. So the Proclamation should not be construed as a barrier to continued progress within the Church. [As discussed in a prior post, it is hard to know exactly how we are supposed to construe the Proclamation.]

Supporting this view of how things work in the Church is the recent demotion of the Priesthood Executive Committee or PEC (with no women) in favor of the Ward Council (with at least three women included) at the local level. An alternative way to bring women into local leadership would have been to just give them the priesthood, then bring them into the PEC, but that would have ruffled a few feathers. Instead, it has been decreed that the Ward Council has now displaced the PEC as the primary body for running the ward. But the effect is essentially the same: women preside. Women now sit in the local council that helps run the ward. It is a practical rather than a doctrinal approach to change, but change it is.

What other emerging practices show that, despite official folk doctrine, the Church is moving forward on this issue?

33 Responses to Doctrine and Practice

  1. chris on June 23, 2011 at 1:40 pm

    “doctrine follows practice, not the other way around. ”

    And then you use the priesthood proclamation to justify such. I’m not sure how you come to that conclusion as being the only possibility. It’s one possibility, but you can’t leave out the other.

    Which was that it was the will of the Lord that every worthy man be ordained to the priesthood, as stated in the Doctrine and Covenants, but the timing of such events was in the Lord’s time – as demonstrated all throughout the scriptures.

    Now, this is certainly a tangent for your post, but when you hinge the evidence on such a flimsy example, and a huge outlier at that, this is what you get.

    I don’t think we are inventing doctrines to follow whatever practices we prefer. We certainly do our best to reason out the “whys” to the doctrinal practices but the “whys” must necessarily always be incomplete as we do not understand and know the reason for all things.

    It’s ironic your statements about PEC and Ward Council, etc. because if you’ve been paying attention for the last 40 years they’ve hit pretty hard on ward council. I don’t think the heart of that message has changed all that much. And I’m not suggesting it was ever implemented as it “should” be or that there was not need for improvement (in both the teaching and the practice of Ward Councils).

    If anything I would argue the current (re)emphasis on councils is that because our practice is not living up to our doctrine.

  2. Adam Greenwood on June 23, 2011 at 1:41 pm

    The church is always moving ‘forward,’ unless we have some higher authority to appeal to, such as late 20tha nd early 21st century intellectual shibboleths.

  3. Alison Moore Smith on June 23, 2011 at 2:14 pm

    I think what Adam is trying to say is that the discussion is tedious and stultifying.

  4. Deeann on June 23, 2011 at 2:24 pm

    Re:” men preside,women defer, as it was in the preexistence” I’m going off on a tangent here, but I always thought the “men presiding” came from the fall and that eventually ( meaning probably the next life) this would not be the case.

  5. Michelle B on June 23, 2011 at 3:54 pm

    I’m stuggling with your statement of “doctrine follow pratice”. I see it as the other way around. I see the revelation on priesthood as a correction of sorts and bringing the Church to practice the true doctrine of “all worthy men should be able to hold the priesthood.” I believe that “all worthy men should be able to hold the priesthood” has always been the correct doctrine, it just either the Church was not ready to practice it or it was never properly practiced.

    Regarding making women more involved in Church leadership, I also see this as correcting the Church to make it more in line of the true doctrine that men and women are equals.

    I think of the Church as a changing entity whose practices can change to better reflect true doctrine. Note that to me Church doctrine and “true” doctrine are not always the same.

    I’ve never heard of “official folk doctrine”. I understand what you mean, but what is the criteria for something to be labeled such?

  6. Dave on June 23, 2011 at 4:27 pm

    Thanks for the comments, everyone.

    Michelle (#5), the term “folk doctrine” is widely used to describe doctrines accepted as LDS doctrine by some or all members of the LDS Church, but which in fact is not “official” LDS doctrine. [The term "official" is in quotes because there is no generally accepted procedure for determining what is or isn't official LDS doctrine.]

    By extension, “official folk doctrine” would be doctrines accepted as LDS doctrine by some or all senior LDS leaders and affirmed publicly, but which in fact are not “official” LDS doctrine. The several explanations given by LDS leaders over the years prior to 1987 as justification for the priesthood ban turn out, in retrospect, to fit this description. The safest way to identify official folk doctrine is retrospectively.

  7. Clark on June 23, 2011 at 4:37 pm

    Another way to look at the issue is to first recognize that, in the LDS Church, doctrine follows practice, not the other way around.

    That’s sometimes true but often it gets complex. Think the relationship of Mormon health codes and D&C 89. It’s true that since tea, coffee, and especially alcohol and recreational drugs were made a requirement for recommend reception that doctrine has tried to make sense of it. However let’s be honest. That explains only about 70 – 80 years. For the previous decades things were much more complex with many prominent leaders drinking all of the above. (And even Elder Talmage trying marijuana)

    So I think that what happens is that particular texts need explaining and we act upon our explanations. But as there arise cultural practices those need explained as well with models created. (Which further generate new practices)

    I suspect that this is going on in gender issues. There are practices that need explained (typically Mormon family structure) but also theology that needs explained (especially with our idea of two sexes in heaven and the common idea of agents and agency in the premortal life). Oppositions in the social arena (say especially the sexual changes in the 60′s through early 80′s) generate theological opposition and often new explanatory models. Likewise theological opposition (say the effects of polygamist apostate groups who elevated Adam/God) led to a partial repression of discussions of the female divine. That then led to changes in practice. Now we have the proclamation on the family which in someways is a move away from that repression and that in turn is engendering (pardon the pun) new discussion of both theology and practice.

  8. Clark on June 23, 2011 at 5:08 pm

    BTW – I think to your other points, especially your last paragraph in the OP, there’s some ambiguity over preside. That ambiguity actually gives a lot of flexibility. I also think that what you highlight gets at more the issue of formal power versus practical or soft power. And how power in any particular instance gets exercised often has far more to do with the personalities involved and the situations they encounter than what formal power outlines. I think the overemphasis on the role of presiding is an example of that.

    However let’s be honest. That’s always been the case. We’ve often had Presidents of the Church who, due to illness, were technically presiding but were having relatively little effect on the running of the Church. One could wax many examples. That’s why I’ve often found some feminist critiques of gender structure so confusing. My sense (and perhaps some would disagree) is that they want formal and informal lines of power to line up and thus make the formal place of “preside” egalitarian while ignoring what went on in practice. (We can all think of very traditional families where the husband technically presided but where most decisions were actually made by the wife) Now I understand the aims of trying to perhaps move these informal lines of power into the light. But I honestly think things get complicated pretty quickly – primarily due to the paradigms we attempt to impose on the structures.

    Deeann (4). I think that’s an excellent point that doesn’t get addressed much. A very strong case from both scripture and even the temple can be made that the current gender relationships are a fallen one that will change. The typical reply by those who see heavenly gender roles paralleling closely current ones is that Heavenly Father presides. However that statement tends to be made on the basis of almost no information about the structure of things in heaven. We know we have a Father but his prime practical interaction tends to be to note his existence and then introduce Jesus. Theologically we just don’t even know who is doing what when in the OT. We had at one point the idea it was primarily the Father and then at other points the idea that theologically it was the Son under the direction of the Father. But it’s at best a highly ambiguous part of our theology.

    Adam (2). I agree. Practice is going to evolve primarily on practical grounds and not because of what any intellectual says or what any feminist makes as a gender analysis. When more formal changes arise it’ll be by the Twelve and they are free to use whatever they want to try and make things more effective.

  9. James Olsen on June 23, 2011 at 5:15 pm

    I certainly agree with those who have recognized the orthopraxic nature of Mormonism, and what’s more I support the focus on practice. Far from being flimsy, your example’s a good one. So’s the Manifesto – a newspaper editorial whose practical import and doctrinal implication were so significant that it was eventually canonized along with doctrinal clarifications of the practical shift. Perhaps most significantly it created a space, a distance, that allowed us to gradually (if ambiguously) shed the centrality of “the Principle,” until today where most of us are quite comfortable denying that orthodoxy necessitates a belief in it.

    But I very much agree with Clark that’s it’s complicated. One thing I think Mormonism shows quite clearly is the interrelated nature of doctrine and practice (contra a lot of traditional notions), and that the influence swings both ways. Doctrine is wholly superfluous outside of its practical upshot (which does not mean that I think doctrine superfluous; quite the opposite). Often the line between doctrine and practice is very fuzzy. In addition, emphasizing certain doctrines within a given cultural context inevitably leads to practical/behavioral change (e.g., Mormon’s editorializing on why the Nephites preached the gospel to their POWs, Joseph Smith’s famous “I teach them correct principles…”, and Pres. Packer’s “the study of doctrine changes behavior faster…”).

    Yes, I heartily cheer the ward level change you point to and fully agree that it will, at least eventually, make significant changes. I think that the change in “practice” that is just as relevant, and likely led to the PEC –> WC change is the shift in women’s social roles in the US, particularly during/after an economic downturn. When all of us are familiar and comfortable with women serving in numerous non-church leadership positions, we’re bound to think differently about their role and potential at church (which doesn’t remove the scandal of why we couldn’t theorize/change without this social shift or at least much sooner).

    Also, the critical shift is often the removal of certain doctrinal obstacles together with the linking of certain (perhaps new) practices with previously established doctrines. This “doctrinal” aspect of the 1978 revelation can’t be overlooked. The revelation inherently contradicted the false folk doctrines (thus at least officially removing them as a barrier) and implicitly linked the practice of ordaining African men to all of our previously established and contemporarily endorsed doctrines on priesthood. Often times former doctrines are critical to proclaiming, justifying, and helping new practices to take hold.

    All that being said, I’m perplexed at why you assume an inherent tension between the Proclamation and more egalitarian practice? This is something I’ve seen elsewhere in the bloggernacle. Can someone help me understand why a very vague but definite commitment on the metaphysically unique and complimentary nature of men and women necessarily detracts from rather than promotes egalitarian relationships?

  10. Clark on June 23, 2011 at 5:38 pm

    James (9) as I touched upon I think the egalitarian argument is based upon there being equal access to formal power (including powerless labels) regardless of what actual power is exercised (i.e. what people actually can achieve) I think this is based upon a really bad understanding of power IMO.

  11. Crick on June 23, 2011 at 6:03 pm

    I think we are too quick to dismiss as “folk doctrines” those things we find offensive or disagree with. The fact that something is widely culturally accepted does not make it doctrine. If so, one wonders if old folk doctrines have been replaced by new folk doctrines.

    It seems to me that the appeal of Mormonism is that it seeks to make God’s actual will known, and therefore answers the tremendous philosophical/religious questions that Joseph Smith and many others have had: 1)Does God exist? 2) If so, what is God’s character and will for us?

    I have lots of opinions about how the world ought to be run, but when it comes to the Church (particularly at the general level) I have always felt it is being run the way it ought to be, at any given time.

    And as for the Proclamation not being canonical, there are many folks who would only need to read the BOM, Bible and PofGP to find quite a few things printed in black ink that they would like to relegate to “folk doctrine” status.

  12. Howard on June 23, 2011 at 6:12 pm

    Yes doctrine follows practice, not the other way around the restored church came about by revealed gospel followed by practice then doctrine was defined. What seems to be in short supply these days is new revelation.

    I expect to see the world’s needy fed and watered by commandment since they have been ignored in favor of buildings, women given the opportunity to hold the priesthood and the sealing ban lifted.

  13. James Olsen on June 23, 2011 at 7:20 pm

    Clark, I appreciate your insights concerning soft vs. formal power and the ways we try to maneuver the two into alignment. But none of this helps me understand how the male/female distinction & complimentarity necessitates an inegalitarian practice. (Apologies to Dave if this is too distracting from the main point of the OP.)

  14. Téa on June 23, 2011 at 8:35 pm

    Maybe we need some of the more eloquent Zelophehad’s Daughters folk to help answer your question, James, but I think ‘preside’ has inherent definitional (and practical) tension with ‘equal partners’.

  15. Clark on June 23, 2011 at 9:56 pm

    James the issue is how we judge something actually is ineglitarian. The judgement is almost always made in terms of formal power and ignoring informal power. So the presupposition of most discussions on this matter is pretty questionable in my view.

  16. James Olsen on June 23, 2011 at 10:33 pm

    Tea – well, just goes to show I haven’t been reading my Proclamation lately – I’d forgotten about that part. Yeah, the word preside’s inherently problematic, at best anachronistic I think, though it’s meaning is being changed (see my post on a reading of Pres. Packer’s GC talk). But bracketing that, I often hear the fact of an inherent metaphysical distinction (the first part of the Proclamation!) as inherently in tension/contradiction with an egalitarian theology. This is the part I don’t understand. I read the first part of Dave’s post as endorsing this view (though I may be misreading that).

  17. Howard on June 23, 2011 at 10:45 pm

    The preside vs equal partners tension isn’t new but better explained in Ephesians 5:21-22 Submitting yourselves one to another in the fear of God. Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord.

  18. Téa on June 24, 2011 at 12:23 am

    Paul never preached ‘equal partners’, Howard, so it doesn’t quite fit.

  19. Cameron N. on June 24, 2011 at 1:25 am

    We don’t know that Tea, we just know it isn’t recorded in the scripture we currently have. =)

    Most people who enjoy the satisfaction that comes from the give and take of a good marriage I think don’t really trouble themselves with the P word, they just work together as a team according to what fits them best, and their strengths and weaknesses, and you get to a state of flow or equilibrium, the Spirit/the Atonement catalyze everything and voila, somehow things work out in spite of weaknesses and gender and the trials of mortality.

  20. chris on June 24, 2011 at 10:16 am

    I think ultimately there is probably not much that can be done on the “preside” front to appease many of the feminists. If you say both the husband and wife preside, then some would want to make sure when are ordained to a specific priesthood office. If you do that, some would want to make sure women were called at least as much as men to be bishops, etc. If you did that, we’d still have the “problem” of the scriptures with Heavenly Father and they’d want to see a “Find and Replace” query done on the scriptures to update them everywhere to read, “Heavenly Father & Mother” 50% of the time and then “Heavenly Mother and Father” the remaining 50% of the time. At some point, some of them will then suggest even having different titles is unequal and discriminatory and Heavenly Father and Mother will just get lumped into some unified term, like say God who just happens to invite all of us to be one with him and receive of all his fulness as wife and husband combined.

    I’m not saying there’s nothing that can be done to improve the how both the men and women in the church operate. I think those who want change would be much more successful if they sought to encourage our practice to live up to our doctrines.

  21. Howard on June 24, 2011 at 12:20 pm

    What is submitting ourselves one to another Téa?

  22. Ziff on June 25, 2011 at 8:40 pm

    Interesting post, Dave. I’m sure this is at least a bit tangential to what you’re asking about, but I see the Church’s changing position on birth control and how many children couples should have as being a situation where doctrine followed practice. Birth control was widely condemned by Church leaders up through at least President Kimball (Benson too maybe?) but ultimately everyone was just deciding without Church input how many kids they would have and whether they would use birth control or not. So the Church now makes its official doctrine that the issue is between the couple and God.

  23. Ziff on June 25, 2011 at 8:41 pm

    Chris (#20), that seems like kind of a bizarre objection. You’re concerned that feminists can’t be appeased by paying lip service to equality, and instead want real equality? Why would that be so strange to you?

  24. Dave on June 25, 2011 at 10:48 pm

    Thanks for the comments, Ziff. I don’t think that is tangential at all — I think the birth control issue is a good example of the process at work, one I didn’t think of while writing the post.

  25. Téa on June 26, 2011 at 4:29 pm

    Howard, the LDS footnote for submitting in that verse indicate “TG Reconciliation”.

    The following verse’s LDS footnote for submit indicates “Esth. 1:20 (20–22) and TG Submissiveness”. The reference to Esther is where Vashti has just been removed as queen:

    20 And when the king’s decree which he shall make shall be published throughout all his empire, (for it is great,) all the wives shall give to their husbands honour, both to great and small.

    21 And the saying pleased the king and the princes; and the king did according to the word of Memucan:

    22 For he sent letters into all the king’s provinces, into every province according to the writing thereof, and to every people after their language, that every man should bear rule in his own house, and that it should be published according to the language of every people.

    So, Howard, I would say that according to the LDS scriptures, Paul is not in anyway advocating husbands submitting to their wives, but speaking of church members unifying themselves.

  26. Howard on June 26, 2011 at 5:12 pm

    Téa I read these two verses with a tension similar to the family proclamation. While Paul is speaking to the members they include both husbands and wives and clearly women are considered equally here with men. Is he excluding husbands and wives from submitting themselves one to another in the fear of God? I see no evidence for that.

  27. Téa on June 26, 2011 at 7:34 pm

    There may be recorded historical instances of such a tension, but this is not one.

    The submitting in verse 21 as described above by the LDS Bible is reconciling a group of church members. Marriage is extratopical to this verse. There is no indication Paul is preaching equal partnership in a marriage–at most he is advocating for equality and unity among the saints in the of God.

  28. Howard on June 26, 2011 at 8:55 pm

    Téa I agree in 21 Paul is preaching equality and unity among the saints but in the fear of God or in spiritual well-being. (See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fear_of_God_%28religion%29 ) Husbands and wives are included. Then in 22 he specifically addresses wives regarding issues as unto the Lord. Marriage being topical or extratopical in 21 is not the issue marriage partners are part of the intended audience. Can you show otherwise?

  29. Téa on June 26, 2011 at 9:23 pm

    Howard, I don’t know how much clearer I can be about it. Verse 21 does not refer to marriage, it does not imply anything about a marriage relationship. It does not say husbands and wives should be equal partners. You’re trying to force an egalitarian marriage reading where there is none. Verses 22-24 are explicit with regard to wives submitting to husbands, husbands ruling over wives. That is what Paul preaches with regard to marriage in Ephesians 5–not equality. Never equality.

  30. Howard on June 26, 2011 at 11:28 pm

    Téa I’m not trying to force anything I’ve been attempting to explain the view point I expressed in 17 so I will try to be more clear by amplifying it here. I see this scripture as falling between Genesis 3:16 he shall rule over thee and the Family Proclamation in a progression. To use your phrase does Christ rule over the church? Doesn’t He typically guide and direct through occasional inspiration and revelation? Wives are to be subject to their husbands as the church is to Christ. It seems to me that 24 falls somewhere between the rule over of Genesis and the preside of the Family Proclamation.

  31. Téa on June 27, 2011 at 12:50 pm

    If I’d realized we were arguing “sliding scale” patriarchy, Howard, I wouldn’t have bothered. If you want to stretch to see Ephesians 5 husband-as-God as progress from Genesis 3/Moses 4, that’s your choice. I’m happy to agree to disagree, and let other conversations continue.

  32. Howard on June 27, 2011 at 1:07 pm

    Téa Wives are to their husbands as the church is to Christ is an analogy or perhaps a ratio but neither set husbands equal to God that is hyperbole and it dilutes my point so yes let’s agree to disagree.

  33. Jon Young on July 7, 2011 at 10:47 pm

    Very well said. I believe rules are only the humble servants of good practice. Doing what is best for all of God’s children should always define, and sometimes change, the rules we live by. This is a very frightening concept for many people. We lose a feeling of security that comes when following the rules without the need to understand or question. For example, if debt and working moms are not ALWAYS wrong, we really have tougher choices to make.

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