“Doctrine” is one of those funny words where it seems inevitably to shift in meaning even within a single discussion. I’ll confess whenever I hear it spoken of I often put myself on guard. Not because I don’t have a fair bit of confidence in doctrine but because I suspect the discussion will inevitably equivocate between idealized doctrine as what we’ll one day believe and what is normatively taught at any particular time. Throw in the disagreements about what constitutes doctrine in either category and things get confusing quickly.
There’s a lot to keep straight in all this. Consider normative doctrine or what the Church practically believes. Do we go by what the majority of members believe? Probably not a wise bet since I’m often surprised just how ill informed the typical member is of even basic scriptural narratives and practices. It’s useful to know the variety of beliefs among the laity, but it’s almost impossible to know how many people believe what — especially when usually our only reference is what gets said in the wards we attend and the people we know. Do we go by what more informed members believe? The problem there is that there’s often a bit of a confirmation bias. Even when we get past that we have the problem of what constitutes being informed. There’s then also again the problem of a larger range of beliefs among the informed than one might at first expect. Do we go by what gets said through Church vehicles? The problem there is that many tend to think certain venues, such as CES instructors, tend to bias certain Church figures at the exclusion of others. There have over the years been problematic articles in the Ensign (although far less than critics portray) although that’s a nice way of figuring safe beliefs. Do we go by what BYU says? Again though there are problems there not to mention big divisions between various groups.
When it comes to what we should believe rather than what is normative things get even trickier. I’ve noticed that most people have a loose hierarchy where scriptures are seen as most trustworthy, then Joseph Smith, then respected recent general authorities, and finally old general authorities with statements from the early Utah period typically coming in last. These aren’t fully followed of course. There are lots of things it doesn’t appear Joseph taught that most people believe, like the idea that we are literally children of our heavenly father and mother. In the King Follet Discourse Joseph taught that children who die young are resurrected as children to be raised again – a “doctrine” I don’t know many people subscribe to. Typically when the King Follet Discourse pops up in a church publication that section is removed or caveats added.
It’s interesting that many doctrines seem inferred rather than having a clear revelation. I don’t think that makes them any less a doctrine. For instance our views on gender seem to have been solidified in the Proclamation on the Family. Nearly everything in it was standard doctrine before it’s release. Yet the mere fact the Prophet put it in that form gives it far more weight than it had before. Arguably people are far more trusting of the Proclamation than they are the King Follet Discourse or Sermon in the Grove.
Jim Faulconer once said that Mormons are far more focused on practice than doctrine. I think there’s a lot of truth to that. For as much as we talk about doctrine, in practice we don’t focus on it much. I don’t particularly care what my Bishop believes about the theology of the King Follet Discourse. It just doesn’t matter and isn’t what I look to him for. Likewise if I were to discover my home teacher has some odd idiosyncratic theological notions, I might be amused, but with some exceptions I don’t think it’d affect things much at all. That’s not to say I don’t think theology matters. It often does and often shapes our practices. Would we act socially the way we do if we didn’t have a theology of life as a test and families as the key to divinity? Probably not. Theology shapes practice. Given all the blurriness with regards to doctrine it’s often surprising just how much we all do agree upon though. Maybe I’m wrong, but I suspect the places theology is more disagreed upon tend to be the doctrines whose implications affect practice the least. There are exceptions of course. But I bet most of the places theology is seen apostate are also the theology that affects practice in ways most are disturbed by.
So I throw things out to you. What do you mean by doctrine? What we will ultimately believe? What we now believe? And how do you decide what counts?
 Jonathan Stapley over at BCC has had several great posts about this.