Dear 100 Hour Board,
I enjoyed President Oak’s recent conference talk clarifying what constitutes church doctrine. My question is, what constitutes a commandment? I grew up in a very strict home, and we were required to abide by every obscure blurb ever given by anyone who might have authority in the church. Someone in the 70s said not to chew gum during sacrament meeting, so we weren’t allowed to have gum at church. Sister Bednar, in a Ricks College devotional given before Elder Bednar was an apostle, told women not to wear tankinis, so we weren’t allowed to wear them. We couldn’t drink caffeine, wear shorts, wear tank tops to exercise, play with face cards, etc. In addition to not being able to do these things ourselves, my family was very harsh and judgmental towards members of the church who lived differently than us.
I would like to know what is and isn’t a commandment. It seems like there are some “sneaky little commandments” hidden away in old conference talks and Handbook 1. For example, I’ve heard that Handbook 1 cautions against vasectomies. How are we supposed to know that commandment if it’s hidden in a long book that only a handful of members have access to? Or is that not a commandment?
Here's a comprehensive list of all the commandments:
- The ten commandments given to Moses.
- Keep all the covenants you've made.
I'd also like to point out that not everything even said by a prophet constitutes doctrine, let alone a commandment.
Anathema answered your question in the most succinct and elegant way. I wholeheartedly agree with her answer, I just have some additional thoughts that I wanted to add to the straight fire answer she dropped.
- God isn’t trying to trick us or keep us out of the Celestial Kingdom. We've all had that one professor that assigns 10,000 pages of reading and then tests you on the footnotes of some random article. God is not like that. He wants everyone to succeed. His entire thing is that he wants everyone to become exalted. Moses 1:39 states, "For behold, this is my work and my glory—to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man." The entire Plan of Salvation is based on on the mercy of the Atonement. John 3:16 tells us "For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life." God wants to save us. He wants to bless us. He wants us to keep the commandments so that we can be blessed. If God wants us to obey His commandments, why would he hide them? It doesn't make sense. God is clear about his commandments. That's why you can list them out in a list. That's why a baptismal interview has 6 questions. That's why you can do a temple interview in 5 minutes. God teaches His commandments repeatedly, clearly, and plainly. God is not "sneaky". God is not trying to keep us out of heaven. As a matter of fact, Helaman 3:28 teaches, "Yea, thus we see that the gate of heaven is open unto all, even to those who will believe on the name of Jesus Christ, who is the Son of God."
- Most commandments and councils are pretty flexible, and God has done that on purpose. Think about some of the commandments: tithing, keep the sabbath day holy, thou shalt not kill,. All pretty straight forward right? Except for they aren't. Paying tithing is on 10% of your increase, is that pre-tax income or post-tax income? Do you pay tithing on gifts? On job benefits? What does keeping the sabbath day holy mean? Typically people don't work, but what about doctors, law enforcement officers, MTC employees? And what should we do on Sunday? Thou shalt not kill is pretty straightforward, but what about soldiers? There is so much nuance in even the most "straightforward commandments". Why is that? The reason God doesn't tell us exactly how to obey the commandments is because there are multiple right answers, and He trust us to use our agency to apply them to our own life. God even reprimanded some of the early saints for needing exact instructions for everything. Doctrine and Covenants 58: 26-28 states "For behold, it is not meet that I should command in all things; for he that is compelled in all things, the same is a slothful and not a wise servant; wherefore he receiveth no reward. Verily I say, men should be anxiously engaged in a good cause, and do many things of their own free will, and bring to pass much righteousness; For the power is in them, wherein they are agents unto themselves. And inasmuch as men do good they shall in nowise lose their reward." Learning to use our agency is basically the whole point of our mortal existence, and one of the ways God allows us to use our agency is by giving us flexibility in interpreting the commandments. Christ himself even said that there is no need for commandments other than two "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets”
- What are those specific instructions in 50 year old Ensign articles, obscure conference talks, and sacrament meetings? Those are councils and suggestions. They are specific guidances for specific people, in a certain time, in a certain circumstance, for a certain reason. I had a mission president who said we shouldn't play soccer. Is it a commandment not to play soccer? No! Our next mission president encouraged us to play soccer with members and investigators. Our first mission president was worried that missionaries would hurt themselves playing soccer, so he counseled us not to. Any attempt to apply specific instructions to everyone is futile. In 2007, The Church released a press statement about what is and what isn't doctrine. In that statement they said: "Not every statement made by a Church leader, past or present, necessarily constitutes doctrine. A single statement made by a single leader on a single occasion often represents a personal, though well-considered, opinion, but is not meant to be officially binding for the whole Church...Isolated statements are often taken out of context, leaving their original meaning distorted."