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Have Your Doctrines Changed?

Could you please tell me how to explain why Mormon doctrine has changed so much since it's founding, despite verses in the Bible and Book of Mormon that say God never changes? 

W. John Walsh
Jeff Lindsay

by W. John Walsh

One of the favorite misrepresentations used by anti-Mormons is to falsely claim that the teachings of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints today are not the same as the teachings of the Church in the past. In other words, some critics claim that we have changed fundamental principles of our religion. They make this false claim in an attempt to discredit our assertion that Jesus Christ personally restored his Church and gospel to the earth.

Obviously, if the gospel as taught by the Church today is not the same gospel as taught by Joseph Smith, then this causes problems for the Church. If true, the natural questions to be asked are -- If Joseph Smith had the true gospel, why doesn't the Church teach it today? Doesn't than mean that we are presently teaching a false gospel [since it is different than the true one taught by Joseph Smith]? If the Church has the true gospel today, then doesn't that mean that Joseph Smith taught a false gospel [since it is different than the true one taught by the Church today]? If so, since we trace our claim to authority back to the heavenly ministrations received by Joseph Smith, doesn't that mean our authority is false as well? Either way, if the claim that the Church has changed its doctrines were true, it would indeed be a very serious one.

Fortunately, the charge of doctrinal abandonment is utterly and completely false. The gospel as taught by the Church today is the same one that God and his angelic ministers revealed to Joseph Smith. It should also be noted that it is the same one that was taught by Jesus Christ when he walked the earth. Of course, since we are a Church guided by continuous revelation and led by true prophets and apostles, we have learned a great many things over the last 170 years. Our knowledge and collective experience are broader and deeper. However, everything that the Church teaches today is founded upon the doctrines and principles taught by Joseph Smith, the first President of the Church.

Of course, policies and procedures will change according to the needs of the Church. The organizational structure needed for a Church with 100 members is different from the organizational structure needed by a Church with 10 million members. Also, certain practices may change due to environmental circumstances. For example, the Church promotes the doctrine of plural marriage. However, the practice was declared illegal by the United States Government. Since it is a practice that is not required for salvation and exaltation, the Church decided to temporarily suspend the practice. However, the Church has not disavowed the doctrine, but only the practice until some future time. (See Why Did the Church Abandon Plural Marriage?)

It should be noted that the scriptures given to the world through Joseph Smith [e.g., The Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price] are still used and strongly promoted by the Church. In fact, we are trying to flood the earth with the Book of Mormon by distributing millions of coplies annually. It is also interesting to point out that in 1998 all adult members of the Church began a two year intense course of study on the teachings of Brigham Young, second President of the Church and successor to Joseph Smith. Obviously, the Church must consider these early teachings valid and true today.


Do the doctrines and practices of the LDS Church change?

Some may see change in teachings and practices as an inconsistency or weakness, but to Latter-day Saints change is a sign of the very foundation of strength upon which the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is built-that God is always (yesterday, today, and forever) willing to reveal his will to his people if they are willing to listen and obey (See Teachings About the Godhead home page). Although the eternal saving principles of God's plan of salvation for his children do not change, the revelation of those principles and their application-to whom, when, where, how much-varies to meet a myriad of mortal circumstances and God's purposes and timetable.

Members of the restored Church of Jesus Christ believe that there are many great and important things yet to be revealed (see Articles of Faith 1:9); this indicates that our past and current understanding of things is incomplete and may need adjustment.

Line upon Line

But why doesn't God give us everything we will ever need to know and be done with it? Because God honors both agency and circumstance and reveals his will as his children are willing and able to receive it and as it is appropriate to fulfill his own purposes. Isaiah taught this principle:

This principle is illustrated clearly in the New Testament in terms of an important change in policy or practice in the early Christian church. When Jesus called and first sent out his twelve apostles, he said: "Go not into the way of the Gentiles, and into any city of the Samarians enter ye not: But go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel" (Matthew 10:5-6). Years later Jesus revealed to Peter that it was time for a change. The gospel was now to go to the Gentiles. It took a repeated revelation and a remarkable demonstration of the power of God to convince Peter that this significant change in direction was to be made (see Acts 10).

A Living Church

And so it has been in our own day. Latter-day Saints acknowledge change as an integral part of the living church, a vital dimension of what it means to be led by living prophets. The need for revelation to properly apply the truths of heaven was taught by Joseph Smith in these words:

If such changes were to come by the whims of mortals, there would be serious cause for concern. If those changes come, however, by revelation from God to his duly authorized servants, they are right and God's people are duty bound to accept and obey them.

Globally and historically the principle of growing line upon line is illustrated in God's revealing to various peoples the measure of light and truth they would accept and from which they could benefit. Therefore, it is not surprising to find varying amounts of gospel truth among all cultures, philosophical systems, world religions, and the many Christian churches existing in the world. Some, in fact, enjoy much of the gospel of Jesus Christ, and their adherents are wonderful examples of Christian living. However, Latter-day Saints believe that there is something called the "fulness of the gospel" that is available to those who desire it. That fulness was restored to the earth through Joseph Smith and is proclaimed by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It includes belief in living prophets who are called by God and to whom he reveals his will. These prophets and others ordained by them have authority to preach the gospel and perform essential saving ordinances. They are charged with the same responsibility Jesus gave the original twelve apostles: "Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature" (Mark 16:15). As they move forward in an effort to fulfill that commission, they will seek and receive more revelation from God. Undoubtedly, as circumstances change, so will policies, practices, levels of understanding, and application of principles change. And under the direction of the Almighty the work of the living church will steadily move forward, all as a part of bringing to pass the immortality and eternal life of man, which is the work and glory of God (see Moses 1:39).


35. Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, 256-57.

Copyright by FARMS 

by Jeff Lindsay

Note: This question addresses several policies and commandments that have changed in LDS religion, including polygamy (practiced by way of commandment from God for a temporary period of time, ending in 1890), restrictions on the priesthood (known to be temporary, they were removed by revelation in 1978), the LDS health code (originally given as advice, later strengthened to be a commandment), etc. The argument is that God would never change any commandment or rule, so changes made by LDS prophets must "prove" they are not of God.

God's nature does not change, and absolute truth does not change, but the rules and instructions God gives to man are adapted for our time and circumstances, and DO change. This is part of the reason why we need continuing revelation and living prophets.

Consider a few examples. Should modern Christians keep the feast of the Passover, the feast of unleavened bread, and offer animal sacrifices? Yet the Old Testament tells us that these rites should be kept FOREVER (Exodus 12:14-24). Should we keep the Feast of Firstfruits, which was to be a "statute for ever throughout your generations" (Lev. 23:9-14), or the wave offerings of sacrificed animals, another "statute forever" (Lev. 23:15-21), or the Feast of Tabernacles (Lev. 23:33-44, esp. v. 41) or offerings of flour and frankincense (Lev. 24:5-9), also said to be everlasting and perpetual? Do modern Protestants and Catholics strictly observe the Sabbath day as taught in the Old Testament (absolutely no work or shopping and observing the Sabbath on Saturday)? Yet the Old Testament practices were said to be given as "a perpetual covenant" and a sign between God and Israel forever (Exodus 31:16-17). Many of these Old Testament ordinances and observances were changed in the original Church of Jesus Christ - not by men, but by revelation from God.

Further examples include circumcision, which was said to be "an everlasting covenant" in Genesis 17:13, yet this commandment was later changed, making circumcision of no importance at all (1 Corinthians 7:19, Galatians 5:6). The change was made through revelation to living apostles and prophets. A dramatic example of revealed change occurred in the revelation to Peter that showed him the Gospel was now to be preached to the Gentiles as well as the Jews. That revelation in Acts 10:9-18 occurred with the help of a vision in which Peter was commanded to eat "unclean" things. This revelation directly contradicted two previous Biblical revelations. One was the instruction from Christ that the Apostles were sent to preach to the house of Israel, not to the Gentiles (Matthew 10:5; see also Matthew 15:24); the other was the prior strict prohibitions against eating the very things that Peter was commanded to eat (Leviticus 11:2-47). Those changes may have been hard for Peter to accept, but they were from God and he obeyed. (Speaking of food, are Christians today allowed to eat fat? Yet a prohibition against eating fat in Leviticus 3:17 is said to be a perpetual statute.)

How can we account for the changes that occurred in laws and ordinances that were said to be perpetual or forever? God can give a set of laws that are to be ongoing until He issues a change - but He must do it, not man. The changes that took us away from many aspects of the Mosaic law, as with the changes away from the still older rules of Sabbath observance and circumcision, were made under divine inspiration after the Atonement of Christ had been completed, which fulfilled the Mosaic law and required or permitted change of other practices. God did not change, but the rules that we needed were changed. The changes were revealed by those having authority, not by committees. Besides change made through apostles and prophets, Christ also personally reversed, modified, or strengthened several previous teachings of past prophets (e.g., see Matthew 5, esp. v. 21-22, 27-28, and 31-44).

Based on the many changes in laws and commandments documented in the Bible, it is entirely incorrect to say that modern prophets are false if they reveal any changes in practices or rules. The real issue is not whether we agree with them, but whether they are true prophets or not. That question, again, can be answered by determining if the Book of Mormon is true. If it is not, Joseph Smith and all successive prophets in the Church were false. If it is true, then we should be careful not to reject those whom the Lord has called.

We need living prophets for our time. The instructions God gave to Noah don't necessarily apply to our day, though I have no objections to your building a boat or hoarding animals (make sure you have the proper permits first). We do have living prophets today, with Gordon B. Hinckley as the current President of the Church, with divine authority that is easily traced back to Joseph Smith. Joseph Smith was given his authority and the keys of the kingdom by a visitation from angelic messengers, Peter, James, and John, who received their authority over the Church from Christ Himself. It's wonderful if it's true - and it is!

Copyright by Jeff Lindsay

(See Why Have the Temple Ceremonies Been Changed?; Changes to the Book of Mormon; Response to Criticism home page; Accusatory Questions home page; Restoration of the Gospel home page)

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