Let me tell you a story: Doctrine, policy, and practice

So when I initially thought about this series of blog posts, I thought I was going to take a phenomenologist view and just recount the stories with minimal interpretive comment. Having thought about this some more, I’ve decided that a) I’m not sure it’s possible to tell stories that happened to you without introducing your interpretive framework and b) even if it is possible, it’s far less fun. Hence, the title of this post points toward the moral that I’d like you to draw from the story (which makes me no kind of phenomenologist, because phenomenologist don’t believe in stories having morals).

Once, when I was a zone leader (aside: I hate when stories start like this, because it sounds like braggadocio, but I promise it’s relevant here. Also, I know that it’s a mission story like a solid 78% of stories in Mormondom, but I promise it’s a good story), the assistants brought to zone leader council an idea for the restructuring of our multi-zone conferences. Previously we had had car inspections and training, a morning session of instruction, then lunch and an activity, then an afternoon session. The assistants proposed that we have no morning session, just the usual car training, followed by a brown-bag lunch and an extended afternoon session. The other zone leaders and I presented (I thought cogent) arguments against such a restructuring, but one of the assistants replied, “Well, will you pray about it? Because we have.”

The discussion ended then and there, because what do you say to that? What can you say? “Elder So-n-so, I refuse to believe that the Lord gave you revelation about when we should eat lunch at multi-zones”? I remember sitting back in my chair and seething because with these two sentences everyone’s concerns and counsel (and it’s not called zone leader council for nothing) were instantly quashed.

There are several morals I could draw from this story, but here’s the one I’m interested in right now. Sometimes we like to elevate practices to the status of doctrine (right, Professor Bott and/or Brigham Young?). This is on the whole a bad idea.  When we start speaking of practices as doctrine, frank discussion of such practices becomes socially inhibited. This chilling effect produces a sort of feedback, further elevating the perceived status of the practice and further inhibiting discussion, and suddenly we’ve institutionalized a thing that has no sound backing in the actual doctrines of the church. And then we start playing the eisegesis game, and then we get in real trouble.

Now, it’s true that (most) (good) policies and practices in fact have a foundation in the doctrine. However, some of them don’t, and these should be allowed to be the subjects of open and honest discussion about their validity going forward.


2 thoughts on “Let me tell you a story: Doctrine, policy, and practice

  1. Spencer, I have SO thought about this very same thing before! Not quite as articulately and thoughtfully as you have written it here. In particular, your last link, the one about women praying in general conference. I’ve never been in a ward where women were not allowed to say the prayers in Sacrament meeting, but I have ALWAYS wondered where on earth leadership got the idea that priesthood holders should be the ones to end the meeting, and it’s a very similar question. One that had to be explicitly addressed in the General Handbook to say that women and men could say both prayers in any meeting. That’s a simple example of how somewhere along the line, some practice somewhere got adoped and nearly set in stone. I (personally) really think that is one of the ways apostasy starts, not as some big doctrinal disagreement that requires a split from the main church, like Martin Luther, but as some practice that got so set in stone and changed and changed and changed and voila, hundreds of years later without a prophet to clarify and lead, it’s become something different from what the doctrine was intended to be. Does that make any sense? Even that particular discussion of women praying in general conference, while changes are not immediate (some have been very gradual in the past couple centuries), the fact that there ARE changes and clarifications to stuff like genders praying at all indicate to me that there is an effort to keep on track with doctrine and not simply practices. Dunno if any of that makes sense.

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