What are Doctrines, Principles & Applications?

Aug 1, 2013
3 min read


Ever find yourself thinking “I’m not quite sure I really know the definition of that word”? If not, then you are amazing and I applaud you.

I’ve found it to be valuable to quiz yourself continually as to your knowledge concerning the meanings of words. Here on oneClimbs, I’ve written a few articles trying to clarify common misconceptions about the meanings of certain words. Don’t even get me started on Latter-day Saints use of the word “peculiar“. Understanding the true meanings of words will often bring refreshing insights that are hidden behind a veil of misconception.

A few days ago, I was discussing a particular study method with a friend and one step in the process was: “identifying and understanding doctrines and principles”. So as I commonly do, I asked myself “so what’s the difference between a doctrine and a principle”. The more I thought about it, I realized that I didn’t have a clear definition for either in my mind.

I decided to go back to a book that a friend gave me for Christmas called  “Act in Doctrine” by David A. Bednar. On pages xiv-xv in the Preface he defines what doctrines and principles are and then notes a third essential element: Applications. I’ve boiled down his descriptions into the following simplified versions:

  • Doctrines: eternal truths revealed by God.
  • Principles: doctrinally based guidelines for the exercise of agency.
  • Applications: actions we take in response to doctrines and principles.

Elder Bednar points out that “Our tendency as members of the Church is to focus on applications. But as we learn to ask ourselves, ‘What doctrines and principles, if understood, would help with this challenge?’ we come to realize that the answers always are in the doctrines and principles of the gospel” (pg. xv)

Doctrines answer the question of “why” and Elder Bednar suggests that the doctrine of the Atonement explains why Jesus is our advocate with the Father. He writes that principles answer the question of “what”; some examples are repentance, baptism, service, charity, etc. Applications answer the question of “how”, and provide the specifics of how something needs to be done. While the Church does teach applications, like in the case of ordinances and administrative duties, etc., it is necessary that many applications are individually personalized to us by the Spirit.

For instance, the doctrine that God is our Father and that he is willing to commune with us requires that we learn the principle of prayer. The Church offers guidelines on how to appropriately address Heavenly Father but it does not tell us what to say. Likewise, the principle of Sabbath Day observance does not have a long list of rules, we are expected to find our own applications by listening to the guidance of the Spirit.

This is where I think we make the largest mistakes in our gospel instruction. Instead of focusing on the doctrine and principles in our teaching, a teacher can be tempted to teach their application as the gospel truth. If perhaps one day you happened to pray to God while facing east and wearing flip-flops and had an amazingly profound experience, you should not teach that everyone should pray facing east and wearing flip-flops.

If you feel that caffeine is the reason that coffee and tea are against the Word of Wisdom, you probably should not be teaching that as doctrine. By focusing our understanding on doctrines and principles, we will be assisting the Spirit to teach the proper applications that are individually necessary.

What do you think?

  • Do you have any experiences with focusing more on doctrines and principles than applications?
  • Do you find that your teaching is mostly “application based”?
  • How do we teach doctrines and principles effectively?


  1. When teaching any gospel lesson I always begin with explaining my desired outcome. I invite students to ponder this question throughout the lesson: what am I going to do because of what I’ve learned today? Then, I promise them that they will receive promptings about things to do or change. It’s remarkable to see the changes people experience through this course, and it’s entirely between themselves and the Lord.

    I think that’s why focusing too much on specific applications is suboptimal; applications are deeply personal. It goes back to the oft repeated idea taught by President Packer that true doctrine changes behavior. Doctrine and principles are, as I’m coming to see, the very building blocks of application. Focusing on application, at the expense of doctrines and principles, is like training a chef and then depriving them of ingredients, while maintaining the expectation of a wonderful feast. How unfair when we, as leaders, are then disappointed with the results!

    Anyhow, thanks for the wonderful post. It has given me lots to chew on.

    • Very good points. I think the key problem is that we misunderstand what doctrines and principles are. I think we confuse applications with doctrines or principles!

      That’s a great way to start a lesson though. I like how you focus on them taking the initiative to listen for the Spirit giving them promptings about things to do or change. In this way, each experience at church can be transformative with the Spirit playing a key role.

      This is going to be a subject that I’m going to address further in a later post. You look like you have had some great experiences with this way of teaching, if you’d be willing to put something together on how you teach I’d like to post something like that here on oneClimbs.

      • I feel like I’ve been very blessed in my experiences as far as teaching in the church goes. I’d certainly be interested. I’ll send you an email and we can discuss a little more about what you’re looking for.

  2. Preston Wheiler

    I was just googling doctrine vs principles and your blog came up. Where would you say that church policies fit into this discussion… if at all? I have been trying to find a good answer to the “God never changes” argument, since church policies have changed over time (from the removal of the Law of Moses in Jesus’s time, to polygamy, to the newest policy updates regarding children in homosexual homes) and your post has helped me start to make sense of it. I believe that certain truths never change (doctrine and principles, as you have noted) so it would seem church policies fit under the applications column… but maybe on more of a church-wide application? Can ‘applications’ be more than just personal, such as ‘family’, ‘ward’ and ‘church-wide’? If you happen to see this post, I’d be curious what your thoughts are on this. Thanks!

    • I agree with you that policies would fit into the Applications category. In regards to the “God never changes” comment, this is probably one of the most misunderstood ideas we grapple with.

      While it’s true that God does not change, he does seem to allow mankind a lot of leeway in figuring out how to best live according to his laws. There are many times in scripture where the righteous start to drift into wickedness and prophets are not sent to correct them until they are well down that road.

      Abraham 4:8 says, “And the Gods watched those things which they had ordered until they obeyed.” God only intervenes when he sees us personally, as a church, or as a nation approaching destruction.

      I think a lot of people have as a premise the idea that just because God is leading you, he will prevent you from making any mistakes or from making a choice that isn’t perhaps the most effective or correct one. He doesn’t do that with us personally, so why would he do that with the leadership of the church?

      Being led by God means that while everything may not be peaches and cream, while he will allow us to make mistakes even if we do them with the best intentions, he will not ultimately let us fail if our intent is pure.

      God gave us scripture and basic principles, but he does not tell us how to do every single little tiny thing. That would violate our agency and frustrate the point of being here. So we have to live with decisions that from time to time don’t appear to be the best because they may very well not be. On the flip-side of that coin, there may be decisions made that are absolutely correct, but because we lack higher knowledge they appear wrong, unfair, or out of step.

      So to sum it up, God doesn’t change and if you look to the doctrine and principles in scripture, you will find that this is the case. As far as what man tries to do to live in accordance with those doctrine and principles, you will find mankind struggling to figure out how to best do that. God gives man talents and then departs on a long journey to see how they manage what he’s given them. He prunes, grafts, and dungs his trees, and then he leaves for a time to see how they grow. In time he returns and makes adjustments if needed, but in all this, we are all being tested.

      Our modern age has presented us with some tough situations. Imagine trying to come up with one way of doing something that pleases everyone – good luck. Policies come and go, they shift and evolve as our understanding and needs change. I think this can be a very good thing, but it isn’t without it’s downsides.

      As far as the children in homosexual homes policy, I don’t understand all the particulars enough to have an opinion on it. I don’t think that our leaders take these things lightly and what may appear as harsh in one sense may be because we are not considering all the factors.

      The Law of Moses was given to Israel at a time when they proved themselves to be ill-prepared for a higher law, it was never meant to be permanent. Note that the Jaredites, who lived on earth at the same time as the Israelites probably never practiced the Law of Moses because they were separated from the rest of the people long before that time.

      Polygamy is one of the hardest things to understand. I’ve studied it quite extensively and I have about three or four theories regarding it and am unable to settle on one. Personally, I agree with President Hinckley about it not being doctrinal (“As far as we’re concerned,” Hinckley said, “it’s behind us, a long ways… I condemn it as a practice because I think it’s not doctrinal.”), and furthermore I agree with the Book of Mormon that it is an abomination. I state that as my opinion and my opinions are subject to change based on new evidence. Generally, I don’t believe that those who practiced it were evil per se. I’ve studied them and feel that they were genuinely doing what they thought was right. In the early days, they saw the church as the repository for all truth, that all truth was out there in the world waiting for us to gather it in. I think this practice was one of those things that got scooped up in the beginnings of the restoration.

      Unfortunately, I don’t think they took the Book of Mormon as seriously as they should have. In fact, the Lord himself said so:

      “And your minds in times past have been darkened because of unbelief, and because you have treated lightly the things you have received—Which vanity and unbelief have brought the whole church under condemnation. And this condemnation resteth upon the children of Zion, even all. And they shall remain under this condemnation until they repent and remember the new covenant, even the Book of Mormon and the former commandments which I have given them, not only to say, but to do according to that which I have written—” (D&C 84:54-57)

      What were some of those former commandments?

      “…for they have not forgotten the commandment of the Lord, which was given unto our father—that they should have save it were one wife, and concubines they should have none, and there should not be whoredoms committed among them.” (Jacob 3:5)

      and again:

      “And now, this commandment they observe to keep; wherefore, because of this observance, in keeping this commandment, the Lord God will not destroy them, but will be merciful unto them; and one day they shall become a blessed people.” (Jacob 3:6)

      are we sure this was a commandment?

      “Wherefore, my brethren, hear me, and hearken to the word of the Lord: For there shall not any man among you have save it be one wife; and concubines he shall have none;…And now behold, my brethren, ye know that these commandments were given to our father, Lehi; wherefore, ye have known them before; and ye have come unto great condemnation; for ye have done these things which ye ought not to have done.” (Jacob 2:27,34)

      So yes, from here the implications get very nuanced. I haven’t written anything on this subject on my blog because I’m still studying it, I have for years and I can’t see the end of it. The historical record has holes and inconsistencies that I don’t think will ever be filled; there are many things we will probably never know.

      That said, it leaves us with the scriptures and that is where I base most of my study. D&C 84 speaks of the Book of Mormon as a “new covenant” and that the former commandments therein are still in effect, which makes perfect sense if it was written for our day. We should say and do according to that which Jesus says HE has written.

      This is why going back to doctrine and principles gets us to a place of safety. Now, we have a large church with millions of people in a rapidly changing world. Everyone wants everything right now, but that is a dangerous game to play, that’s where bad decisions happen faster than they ought to. I can’t imagine how hard it must be to be an LDS apostle in this crazy century. It must be terribly difficult to provide leadership in such times where there are so many challenges. Mass communication, instant information, mass moral redefinitions, etc. The world today is like a magician with quick hands distracting you over here while he sets you up for an illusion over there.

      I try to spend most of my time in the doctrine and principles, that’s why you don’t see me covering very many controversial topics on this blog. There is a reason they are controversial, it’s because information is lacking, there isn’t enough information to nail down a clear interpretation, so any well-presented wild speculation can seem reasonable, even my own.

      I prefer to dwell on more solid ground and I’m perfectly fine not understanding or having an opinion on every single little thing. As I have exercised patience, I have found that gradually things begin to unfold on their own and answers come in their own interesting ways.

  3. Thank you for your article and insights.
    I was searching for the ‘doctrine, principle, application’ explanation for a Teacher Council Meeting discussion I’m preparing & this will fit right in.

  4. Kevin McKinley

    I thank you for this wonderfull writing. I am a convert and of late it has been heavely pressed upon me to search out an understanding of the difference between Doctrine and Principle. I like to understand things well enough to be able to easily explain it someone else that may ask me the same question. Your explanation has helped me to do just that.

    I was reflecting on the Doctrine that the human body is a holy creation. The Principal of following The Words of Wisdom regarding hot drink to protect that Doctrine and the application of determining what that constitutes (i.e ice coffee yes or no) to follow that principle. Sure hope I got that right.

    • God bless you, Kevin, for your faithfulness and desire to seek him out when so many are distracted and have lost their way.

      I’m pleased to hear that you found this post useful. I think you are right on with wanting to understand things well enough to explain them. In fact, that is one of the prime reasons I started this blog, I wanted to be able to clearly explain the things I was learning. I also believe that you don’t really know understand something unless you can explain it to another.

      Your application of doctrine and principles as it pertains to the body and the Word of Wisdom seems solid to me. Principles grow out of doctrines and often not just one. Doctrines can also build on doctrines.

      The doctrine that the human body is a holy creation is true, but why is it a holy creation? Because it serves a sacred purpose. What is that purpose? To fulfill God’s plan for the exaltation of his children. Why does God want to exalt his children? Because he loves them, with the love of a perfect parent. See how you can keep unfolding doctrines? This unfolding opens up other principles as well.

      You are correct that applications are related to HOW we apply the principle. The Word of Wisdom says it is “a principle with a promise.” The Word of Wisdom actually illustrates many principles. It shows that some things have good uses as food, while others are not for our bellies but are for washing our bodies or treating medical conditions. Most of these items listed are plants which is interesting.

      There is also guidance on WHEN certain things should be used. All wholesome herbs in the season thereof, and the flesh of animals in times of need such as famine, winter, or excess of hunger. If we understand the principles and the underlying doctrines, then the Holy Spirit will teach us applications and this is how we walk the path under the guidance of God and his word.

      I pray that God’s wisdom may attend you on your journey. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

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