Church Doctrine is a ubiquitous idea among Mormons, but in some ways it is quite mysterious. Mormons regularly invoke the idea of Church Doctrine to differentiate between those teachings and practices that have some claim on them and those teachings and practices that are merely opinions or suggestions. For example, Heber might claim that evolution is a false and evil teaching. Brigham then responds by saying, â€œThat is just your opinion. That is not Church Doctrine.â€ Likewise, Brigham might suggest that the Word of Wisdom properly understood requires abstention from all meat. Heber then responds by saying, â€œThat is just your interpretation. That is not Church Doctrine.â€ The clear implication in both exchanges is that were the opinion or practice in question Church Doctrine it would have a claim on Heber or Brigham that it does not otherwise have.
My conclusion is that Mormons lack a clear rule that allows them to identify what is or is not Church doctrine. The various possibilities â€“ teachings that have been formally added to the Standard Works, statements that have been formally accepted in general conference, statements that have been made by prophets and apostles in the appropriate context, etc. â€“ all turn out to be over- or under-inclusive when examined in detail. To be sure, all of these proposed rules are useful in orienting us toward Church Doctrine, even if they are not fool-proof methods for identifying it. Nevertheless, we do have unambiguous cases of Church Doctrine. It is clearly Church Doctrine that Jesus Christ is the savior of mankind and that Mormons should not drink coffee or alcohol. Rather than relying on a rule of recognition for identifying Church Doctrine, Mormons rely on a hermeneutic approach. We determine what is or is not Church Doctrine by offering interpretations â€“ stories if you will â€“ that seek to make sense of clear instance of Church Doctrine against the huge backdrop of Mormon scriptures, teachings, history, and practices. In offering this interpretation we seek to present Mormon texts, practices, and history in the best possible light, not for any apologetic purpose but rather because in seeking for what is normative we reject interpretations that we would regard as normatively less attractive. This does not mean that Church Doctrine is simply a matter of what we think is best. It is not. It is a matter of charitably interpreting Mormon practices, texts, and experience.
Because this is a complicated and inherently normative task, the precise contours of Church Doctrine are always contestable. This does not mean that there are necessarily no right answers to the question of whether or not something is Church Doctrine. Nor does it mean that we lack some clear instances of Church Doctrine. It simply means that we are unlikely to arrive at a formula that will allow us to answer definitively the question in every circumstance. Rather, than relying on an intellectual formula, the Church seems to cope with the potential problems of doctrinal disagreements ethically and institutionally. Ethically, we are told not to contend in anger about the points of Christâ€™s doctrine. Institutionally, the practical difficulties of doctrinal disagreement can be resolved by the fiat of whoever has the stewardship for a particular institutional setting. Thus, doctrinal discussions in a ward Sunday School class are â€œmanagedâ€ by an ethic of being charitable to one another in our disagreement, and by the bishopâ€™s ability to direct teachers to teach in a particular way or else to release them from their calling. Neither of these coping mechanisms, however, requires that we have a formula for incontestably laying to rest what is or is not Church Doctrine in every case.