Can Mormonism change?

I’ve been debating my brother about some issues surrounding same-sex marriage on my blog (no link; still trying to remain anonymous). In the course of that debate, a few ideas popped up that I think people here might enjoy. This is a good one having to do with religions changing. My brother insists that religions “can” change. I agree, but for different reasons…

Frankly, I have no problem with religions changing. In fact, much of my sociological theorizing is all about how religions change. The only reason this is an issue for some religions is because of the religions themselves. Here are the problems laid out in premise form using Mormonism specifically:

  1. Mormonism claims to be god’s church.
  2. Mormon leaders claim to be guided by god in determining religious doctrine.
  3. Mormons claim god is the same yesterday, today, and forever.
  4. The Mormon religion changes. This is more than just structural change; there are also changes in doctrine and policy.

Now, from a logical standpoint, if (2) is true and (3) is true, then (4) cannot be true. Alternatively, if (4) is true, then either (2) is not true, or (3) is not true, or neither of them is true. Thus, from a logic standpoint, when Mormonism changes doctrine, it undermines some element of Mormon belief, as illustrated by the logic as laid out above. If I’m wrong, please point it out by illustrating which of the 4 premises above is wrong.

How can Mormonism deal with this potential problem? Simple. Redact and/or modify number 2 as follows, “Mormon leaders do their best to interpret god’s will in determining religious doctrine and Mormon policy, but some times they get god’s will wrong.” While a critic, like myself, would point out that this makes the leaders of the religion no better than Joe Blow and this is just “an out” for making mistakes, it is also “AN OUT” for when they have to change things later on. Mormonism would have to deal with the fallibility of the leaders, which is kind of an issue, but change would no longer be an issue. Currently this is accomplished through a tortuous process known among apologists as “retroactive humanizing”: Whenever a prophet said something that was absurd (e.g., Brigham Young said there were people living on the moon and the sun), apologists say they were speaking as men, not prophets. How do you tell the difference? Simple, whatever is believed to be doctrine today was divinely inspired, until it is no longer believed, then it was the guy speaking as a man and was not divinely inspired. It’s about as disingenuous as my approach, but much more deceitful since it involves re-writing history. In my approach, the leaders would simply admit to being wrong sometimes, which is a big no-no in Mormonism.

From a later post, I felt obligated to clarify “doctrine” as there was some confusion here:

Maybe this is an issue of defining “doctrine.” As I see it, doctrine is the beliefs of the religion. Practices are either rituals of a religion or behavioral regulations (the code of sins). Changing practices in light of technological change makes sense. Here’s an example:

  • Doctrine: Keep the Sabbath Holy.
  • Interpretation for practices in 1800: Do not work for pay on this day; with few exceptions this was possible (e.g., ship captain couldn’t avoid doing so, nor could politicians or military personnel at times, but most others could).
  • Interpretation for practices in 2008: Do not work for pay on this day, unless you have a job that (1) requires it, and (2) the job is necessary for modern society to function (e.g., doctor, EMT, pilot, bus driver, electric plant technician, etc.). Today, there are lots and lots of exceptions!

The point here is that the practices can change in light of changes in society, but doctrine should be eternal. Here’s what the Encyclopedia of Mormonism has to say about “doctrine”:

The word “doctrine” in the scriptures means “a teaching” as well as “that which is taught.” Most often in the Church it refers to the teachings or doctrine of Jesus Christ, understood in a rather specific sense. Scripturally, then, the term “doctrine” means the core message of Jesus Christ—that Jesus is the Messiah, the Redeemer. All other teachings are subordinate to those by which all people “know how to come unto Christ and be saved”—that is, to the “points of doctrine,” such as faith, repentance, baptism, and receiving the gift of the Holy Ghost. At one time, stressing the preeminence and foundational nature of this message, Jesus taught, “And whoso shall declare more or less than this, and establish it for my doctrine, the same cometh of evil, and is not built upon my rock” (3 Ne. 11:40)… Thus, the “doctrine of Jesus Christ” is the only teaching that can properly be called “doctrine.” It is fixed and unchanging. It cannot be modified or contradicted, but merely amplified as additional truths that deepen understanding and appreciation of its meaning are revealed. It is the basis on which the test of faith is made, and the rock or foundation of all other revealed teachings, principles, and practices.

Note the distinction between “doctrine” and “practices.” Doctrine is unchanging; practices change. Here’s where this idea becomes particularly interesting. When Mormons stopped practicing polygamy, did they redact Section 132 of the D&C and change their doctrine? When Mormons allowed blacks the priesthood, did they change the Pearl of Great Price to remove the whole notion of blacks being cursed? In both cases, the answer is “NO”! Why? Because to do so would be to change “revealed doctrine,” which is a big no, no. You can change practices. You can change how you interpret doctrine. But you can’t change doctrine.

Now, returning to my premises. If, as I have stated, 1, 2, and 3 are all correct, then 4 should never, ever happen. The LDS religion avoided it when stopping polygamy and discrimination against blacks. But if doctrine changes, then either 1 or 2 are invalid. 4 has happened (e.g., Brigham Young’s Adam-God doctrine is a great example; and he specifically stated it was a doctrine necessary for salvation, meaning it meets the criteria of doctrine). By that measure, either 2 or 3 is invalid.


I'm a college professor and, well, a professional X-Mormon. Thus, ProfXM. I love my Mormon family, but have issues with LDS Inc. And I'm not afraid to tell LDS Inc. what I really think... anonymously, of course!

You may also like...

25 Responses

  1. Guy Noir Private Eye says:

    (a simplification?)
    P; I enjoyed reading your essay.

    as far as I’m concerned, all indicators are Away from any acknowledged change(s); No Doubt change will continue, but it will be denied & minimyzed as ‘non-consequential’.
    LDS, Inc denies ANY delineation between culture & doctrine, it puts everything into a blender and stirs.
    This discourages introspection or applying logic to practices & policies.
    The management style is there to stay at the COB.

  2. Steven B says:

    On your premise #3, “god is the same yesterday, today, and forever,” I think we have to qualify that with the assumption that we know for sure what God said in the past.

    In the case of homosexuality, for example, much of the doctrine of the church goes back to Old Testament times, where the people lived in a theocracy. Those scholars who study OT law note many similarities in the Law of Moses to codes of law from neighboring societies. The logical assumption is that Moses codified his law based on cultural norms and laws widespread throughout the middle east. What is notable is that the Mosaic law tends to be a kinder and gentler law, but is notwithstanding still very much rooted in the laws of the time and culture.

    So in a theocracy, whatever laws are on the books, automatically become the will of god, regardless of their origin.

  3. profxm says:

    Steven, I’m not sure I understand your point. Are you saying that the origins of some of the laws in the OT may not be divine? If so, how do you know which are and which aren’t?

    If you meant something else, I’m missing it. Can you clarify?

  4. Seth R. says:

    The idea that just because God “never changes,” the human institutions that He sanctions must never change as well is a logical fallacy.

    Extremely common logical fallacy, but a fallacy nonetheless.

  5. profxm says:

    I’m not sure I understand what you’re saying, Seth. Are you saying my premises are wrong because you understood them to mean that I was saying the religion as an organization changes? Or are you saying my premises are wrong because you understood them to mean that I was saying the religion’s doctrine changes? If it is the former, I’m not saying that. If is the latter, then I’d like to know how that is a logical fallacy.

    If god is constant, then god’s teachings should be constant. The organization that teaches god’s constant teachings doesn’t have to be constant, but the teachings should be. I fail to see how that is a logical fallacy.

  6. kuri says:

    Scripturally, then, the term “doctrine” means the core message of Jesus Christ—that Jesus is the Messiah, the Redeemer. All other teachings are subordinate to those by which all people “know how to come unto Christ and be saved”—that is, to the “points of doctrine,” such as faith, repentance, baptism, and receiving the gift of the Holy Ghost.

    If we accept that quote as an accurate definition of “doctrine,” has the Church’s doctrine ever changed? Doesn’t that narrow definition mean that all changes so far are “policy” changes, or at most changes in “subordinate teachings”?

  7. Guy Noir, Private Eye says:

    but Seth:
    Remember the earlier statements (references not at hand) where LDS leaders (prophet?) said that the Temple endowment wouldn’t (ever?) change?
    When leaders paint themselves in… They’ve become textbook experts at obfuscation!

  8. Steven B says:

    Are you saying that the origins of some of the laws in the OT may not be divine? If so, how do you know which are and which aren’t?

    Yes, I am saying that some of the laws were simply adopted into the Mosaic code for the Hebrews, from the laws widespread in the culture.

    For example, compare this lex talionis provision of the Code of Hammurabi, with Ex. 21:23-25, Lev. 24:19-20, Deut. 19:21.

    Code of Hammurabi:
    If a seignior has destroyed the eye of a member of an aristocracy, they shall destroy his eye.
    If he has broken a(nother) seignior’s bone, they shall break his bone.
    If a seignior has knocked out a tooth of a seignior of his own rank, they shall knock out his tooth.
    (Driver and Miles, The Babylonian Laws, p. 175)

    Do we believe the concept of an eye-for-an-eye is God’s law for mankind? Was it simply a temporary law? Did it even come from God? I don’t know. I suspect not.

    Similarly, when Moses presented the Ten Commandments, the instruction to not covet was couched in language which seems to imply a view that women are considered property of the husband, much as is his house or cattle.

    Were the Ten Commandments divinely given to Moses? Perhaps. Were they written in stone by the finger of God. I very much doubt it, unless we want to make God complicit in the subjugation of women for the past 4 thousand years.

  9. Steven B says:

    If we put this discussion back into the context of “some issues surrounding same-sex marriage,” then I would say that we are dealing with matters that have taken preeminence to what you have described as the core doctrine of the church. In this case the church has taken the position that salvation and redemption through Christ are subordinate to exaltation through heterosexual fecundity.

    As such, the church functionally excludes a significant portion of its members from full participation in the blessing of the gospel.

  10. Seth R. says:

    Why shouldn’t God’s doctrine change? It’s geared toward the human condition after all. Seems like occasional change is in order.

  11. Seth R. says:

    Furthermore, the changes that have happened have not been, as far as I’m concerned, all that particularly core.

    Polygamy doesn’t count because we still believe in that.

  12. The idea of core doctrine is a hard target to hit, especially if someone else can move it around at will or make it arbitrarily small. (I’m not accusing you of this, Seth.) However, the changes involved in dropping the Adam-God doctrine, the Law of Adoption, and the Lorenzo Snow couplet all seem rather core theology for Mormonism.

    I see no reason why these doctrines should change with the changing human situation. Either Adam was God the Father, or he wasn’t. Perhaps this doctrine may be held confidential from time to time, but given that it was openly taught for a time and that we are aware of it now, why retract that doctrine?

  13. profxm says:

    Steven B… I think we generally agree. A couple points to make. First, if we assume that the OT is a historical-cultural artifact and not a divinely inspired work of divinity (which is the secular interpretation), that enters into a religious understanding that is more in line with liberal Christianity and is certainly not that of fundamentalist Christianity or even mainstream Mormonism (though there are some Mormons who believe this way, they aren’t your typical Mormon). I’m perfectly fine with that interpretation, but it does change things when it comes to arguing the finer points of Mormon doctrine as you are adopting a perspective that is outside the major streams of Mormon thought.

    Seth, if god is defined as “changing,” then I could understand his doctrine as changing. But if you consider god as unchanging (though I know you have a distinct perspective on god’s perfection, which frames it as not static), then why would god’s teaching change? That doesn’t make sense to me.

    As far as core doctrines changing, you’re right that polygamy didn’t technically change (though I guarantee you couldn’t get a general authority to currently admit that the LDS believe in polygamy for a non-Mormon audience). But other quasi-core doctrines have, as Jonathan just pointed out.

    If we take as core the Articles of Faith, have any of these changed? As I read them, about half have either changed or are variously ignored.

    For instance, #6

    We believe in the same organization that existed in the Primitive Church, namely, apostles, prophets, pastors, teachers, evangelists, and so forth.

    The organization of the religion has certainly changed over time, as have the names used here (e.g., pastor = bishop; evangelist = missionary). I don’t think this is a big one, but if it is a fundamental tenet of Mormonism that there is a specific organization to god’s church, then that shouldn’t change. It has, but we’ll say this isn’t a big deal.

    But what about #7,

    We believe in the gift of tongues, prophecy, revelation, visions, healing, interpretation of tongues, and so forth.

    When was the last time you heard speaking in tongues in sacrament meeting? I know Mormons have reinterpreted this to refer to “facilitation of foreign language speaking ability by missionaries,” but that’s not what it originally meant. If you want to see whether this has changed, break out in tongues in your next sacrament meeting and see what happens. Then return and report. 🙂

    And then there’s #8,

    We believe the Bible to be the word of God as far as it is translated correctly; we also believe the Book of Mormon to be the word of God.

    I don’t know Steven B, but if he is an active Mormon and at all representative of a growing number of Mormons, than literal interpretation of the Bible has changed.


    We believe all that God has revealed, all that He does now reveal, and we believe that He will yet reveal many great and important things pertaining to the Kingdom of God.

    This, too, has changed. Obviously the Adam-God doctrine is an example, but take any number of examples that have been turned into “prophets speaking as men rather than as prophets.”


    We believe in being subject to kings, presidents, rulers, and magistrates, in obeying, honoring, and sustaining the law.

    I’d say Mormons still generally claim to believe this one, but only when it’s convenient. If they have to disobey the law for a “higher purpose,” so much for the law (e.g., Mountain Meadows?). Ditto for #13:

    We believe in being honest, true, chaste, benevolent, virtuous, and in doing good to all men; indeed, we may say that we follow the admonition of Paul—We believe all things, we hope all things, we have endured many things, and hope to be able to endure all things. If there is anything virtuous, lovely, or of good report or praiseworthy, we seek after these things.

    Mormons are honest when it is convenient; less so when it is not.

  14. Seth R. says:

    God’s teachings would change when his people do. Simple enough.

    “Either Adam was God the Father, or he wasn’t.”

    Agreed, but that doesn’t make the notion necessarily “core” or even important.

  15. Seth R. says:

    For my six year old, her father’s “doctrine” of “stay away from the power tools” will not necessarily be a “core doctrine” when she is 21.

    And the almost equally “core doctrine” of “be in bed by 8:30 PM” will not necessarily be in force when we go to visit grandma’s house next week.

    Embrace change. It’s a good thing.

  16. Agreed, but that doesn’t make the notion necessarily “core” or even important.

    There you go, moving the target. 😉

    I can see things like tithing, Word of Wisdom, polygamy, temple ceremonies, etc. changing because they involve human behavior that might need to change given the situation. I can see clarification of old doctrines that were previously only couched in parable or never openly revealed (e.g. eternal families).

    I can’t see why the Adam-God doctrine needs to be flatly disavowed precisely because it has so little impact on human behavior. A change in the human situation doesn’t require a change in this doctrine because it never much affected how we relate to the world. Why could this possibly need to change?

  17. Seth R. says:

    “There you go, moving the target.”

    If you wanted your religion to be simple and provide clear-cut answers, you shouldn’t have questioned it in the first place.

    But here we are.

  18. Guy Noir, Private Eye says:

    MY experience was that they (leaders) GAVE UP honesty in a divorce in favor of comforting my (now former) wife. Several lds told me: “Well, divorce court is Liar’s court, you shouldn’t expect Honesty”
    IOW, Lowering the bar!

  19. Guy Noir Private Eye says:

    the Best change Mormonism/leaders-members could make would be to give up a portion of Mormonism and teach ‘enforce’ Basic Christian concepts-principles-Values (as they do LDS church practices).
    Don’t hold your breath…

  20. Guy Noir, Private Eye says:

    Seth (#4):

    BUT: in LDS theology, God is presented as one who doesn’t change (I still remember the hymns) ‘O thou who changest not….’

    LDS practice, on the other hand, has made significant compromises with individuals’ needs, birth control & cremation come to mind in what I once thought as ‘bedrock’ basics of our life choices – fundamental principles.
    I haven’t heard a talk or message (first-hand or through my DW) concerning b.c. for Years!

  21. Seth R. says:

    I already explained myself Guy. If you aren’t going to listen the first time, I see no reason to repeat myself.

  22. profxm says:

    Guy said, “the Best change Mormonism/leaders-members could make would be to give up a portion of Mormonism and teach ‘enforce’ Basic Christian concepts-principles-Values (as they do LDS church practices).”

    Replace one oppressive, mythical, fictional belief system with with another… Just what the world needs.

  23. Seth R. says:

    Variety is the spice of life profxm.

  24. Lancaster says:

    Interesting quote via Orson Scott Card: “I was reading recently a book entitled Roots of Modern Mormonism. The author, Mark Leone, a sociologist, had studied several wards in eastern Arizona, turning on Mormon society a carefully unbiased eye . . . Leone said that Mormonism has remarkably little firm doctrine; that the variance of belief within the Mormon Church is very wide; and that while Mormons are convinced that they have the complete revealed truth from God, in fact, they have very few beliefs that are universally agreed upon.”

    I agree completely with Leone. “Changing” the church is like trying to change a fog bank. It would blow to nothingness in the slightest wind. What is interpreted as the enforcement of doctrine is the leadership of the church taking care to pacify the true believers who keep the whole thing running.

  25. Guy Noir, Private Eye says:

    pro (#22) I was referring to the ‘Core Values’ of Christ-Like living: Honesty, Kindness, Mercy-Compassion, etc.
    Which package they arrive in (after 40 yrs of the hierarachal, authoritarian life in Morland)is of virtually No Interest to me…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.