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This article is part of a series on the Word of Wisdom. To view all the articles in this series, see Discovering the Word of Wisdom.
Throughout our history, we Mormons have debated what is and is not proscribed by the Word of Wisdom. We know alcohol, tobacco, coffee, and tea are proscribed, but what about red wine when cooking? What about decaffeinated coffee? Coca-Cola? Kombucha? Herbal teas? Green teas? Sometimes trying to understand D&C 89 is like reading those tea leaves — not easy! The question arises: why didn’t God just give it to us straight?
What if the answer is that we are reading the Word of Wisdom in the wrong way? What if the text in D&C 89 is not meant to tell us exactly what to eat and what not to eat, but rather to teach us principles? How might that change the way we read the Word of Wisdom?
In this article, I present a framework Elder David A. Bednar uses as a way to introduce the idea that the Word of Wisdom may not be the set of do’s and don’ts we often take it to be. Instead, I will suggest the Word of Wisdom can best be understood as a set of principles the Lord has given us to help us meet the challenges of the last days. Future articles will apply this framework to D&C 89 to see what light it can reveal.
Doctrines, Principles, and Applications
In his book, Increase in Learning, Elder David A. Bednar draws a distinction between doctrines, principles and applications. He suggests that each of these gospel concepts answers a different question. Doctrines answer the question, “Why?” Principles help us understand “What?” And applications tell us, “How?”
Here Elder Bednar explains what he means by a gospel doctrine.
A gospel doctrine is a truth—a truth of salvation revealed by a loving Heavenly Father. Gospel doctrines are eternal, do not change, and pertain to the eternal progression and exaltation of Heavenly Father’s sons and daughters. Doctrines such as the nature of the Godhead, the plan of happiness, and the Atonement of Jesus Christ are foundational, fundamental, and comprehensive. The core doctrines of the gospel of Jesus Christ are relatively few in number.
Gospel doctrines answer the question of “why?” For example, the doctrine of the plan of happiness answers the questions of why we are here upon the earth, why marriage between a man and a woman is ordained of God, and why the family is central to the Creator’s plan for the eternal destiny of His children. The doctrine of the Godhead helps us to understand why we are to become perfect even as our Father in Heaven and His Son Jesus Christ are perfect. The doctrine of the Atonement explains why Jesus Christ is our mediator and advocate with the Father. (pp. 151–152)
So, doctrines are foundational, eternal, and relatively few in number. They are the ultimate source of understanding why things are the way they are, why our Father has given us the counsel He has given us, and why we should desire to follow His counsel.
Gospel principles flow out of gospel doctrines. Where doctrines answer the question “Why?,” principles answer the question “What?” as in, “Given this doctrine, what guidelines can help direct our actions?” According to Elder Bednar:
A gospel principle is a doctrinally based guideline for the righteous exercise of moral agency. Principles are subsets or components of broader gospel truths. Principles provide direction. Correct principles always are based upon and arise from doctrines, do not change, and answer the question of “what?” Many principles can grow out of and be associated with a single doctrine . . . A principle is not a behavior or a specific action. Rather, principles provide basic guidelines for behavior and action. (pp. 154–155)
Some of the important gospel principles Elder Bednar identifies include: faith in Christ, repentance of sins, obedience to God, and service to others. Note that these principles are general guidelines and do not identify specific behaviors.
The difference between a guideline and a specific behavior or action is important. A guideline is designed to respect our agency and our individual circumstances. God’s children are placed in very unique circumstances that change over time. Even if it were useful, it is not possible for the scriptures to contain a list of every specific action that every person on earth should do given every possible situation that he/she may be in. Such a volume could not be written because the number of such individual circumstances is literally infinite. Instead, God gives us principles to use as guidelines that we, as individuals, can apply to particular circumstances. As Joseph Smith stated, “I teach them correct principles, and they govern themselves.”
Finally, Elder Bednar describes applications in this way:
Applications are the actual behaviors, action steps, practices, or procedures by which gospel doctrines and principles are enacted in our lives. Whereas doctrines and principles do not change, applications appropriately can vary according to needs and circumstances. Applications answer the question of “how.” Many applications can grow out of and be associated with a single principle. (p. 156)
Applications are very specific behaviors that take place in particular circumstances. If these applications are based on sound gospel principles that flow out of eternal doctrine, we have some confidence we are making the correct decision. However, we can only be confident of our application of a principle if we allow the Holy Spirit to guide us.
For example, our understanding of the Atonement of Christ (a doctrine) may lead us to desire to serve our neighbor (a principle). There are many ways we could apply that principle of service, e.g., helping out with the kids, mowing the lawn, or spending some quality time in conversation. Any of these might be good, but through listening to the Spirit, we can be led to know how to best serve the needs of those we desire to bless.
An Example: Keeping the Sabbath Day Holy
To illustrate this useful framework Elder Bednar has given us, I’d like to use a principle that our Church leaders have recently been trying to help us better understand: keeping the Sabbath Day Holy.
What is the foundational doctrine that helps us understand why keeping the Sabbath Day is important? This doctrine is introduced at the very beginning of recorded scripture when the Lord tells us of His creation of the world:
And on the seventh day God ended his work which he had made; and he rested on the seventh day from all his work which he had made.
And God blessed the seventh day, and sanctified it: because that in it he had rested from all his work which God created and made. (Genesis 2:1–3)
In Exodus, the Lord says:
Speak thou also unto the children of Israel, saying, Verily my sabbaths ye shall keep: for it is a sign between me and you throughout your generations; that ye may know that I am the Lord that doth sanctify you. (Exodus 31:13)
According to President Russell M. Nelson,
Perhaps most important, the Sabbath was given as a perpetual covenant, a constant reminder that the Lord may sanctify His people.
The principle of keeping the Sabbath Day Holy flows from this foundational doctrine. It is a general guideline that helps us know what to do to rest from our labor and show the Lord that we honor Him by honoring the day He made sacred for us.
Most critically for this discussion, note that this principle should not be confused with the application of the principle. There are many ways one might apply the principle, e.g., going to Church, reading scriptures, doing family history, not shopping, or not playing sports. What is the best way to apply the principle? In answer to the question “How do we hallow the Sabbath day?” President Nelson explained that focusing on the doctrine behind this principle (the why), will help us know how to apply the principle:
In my much younger years, I studied the work of others who had compiled lists of things to do and things not to do on the Sabbath. It wasn’t until later that I learned from the scriptures that my conduct and my attitude on the Sabbath constituted a sign between me and my Heavenly Father. With that understanding, I no longer needed lists of dos and don’ts. When I had to make a decision whether or not an activity was appropriate for the Sabbath, I simply asked myself, “What sign do I want to give to God?” That question made my choices about the Sabbath day crystal clear.
As with all applications of gospel principles, how we apply the principle can differ from person to person, depending on our individual circumstances. The doctrine does not change. The principle does not change. But the application can vary according to our situation.
The Children of Israel were slow to remember the Lord and so were given a “very strict law” that “they were to observe strictly from day to day” (Mosiah 13:30). The Law of Moses included specific rules about Sabbath Day observance. One disadvantage of giving strict applications of a principle is that doing so encourages people to believe that by simply following the letter of the law, they are obeying the principle. But we know this is not correct. The Lord doesn’t just want our outward compliance; He wants our hearts. It is not enough to “do” the right things, we must “be” the right type of people, and this requires all of our heart, might, mind and strength. Thus we often hear of the importance of following the spirit of the law.
How Does this Apply to the Word of Wisdom?
God prefers to teach through principles, which allows us to use our agency and the gift of the Holy Ghost to discern what is right, given our individual circumstances. The gospel of Jesus Christ is not a set of strict laws. It is principle-based. Why should the Word of Wisdom be any different? In fact, the Lord Himself calls the Word of Wisdom a “principle with a promise” (D&C 89:3). But too often we treat the Word of Wisdom as a type of Mosaic Law: “Thou shalt abstain from alcohol, tobacco, coffee, and tea.” By reducing D&C 89 to a simple list of substances we should not use, what might we be missing?
What if the Lord is using these substances as examples of a greater principle He is trying to teach us? What might that principle be? And how might that principle guide our application to help us make better decisions about the types of foods and substances we should and should not use?
Even more fundamentally, if the Word of Wisdom is a principle, or set of principles, from what doctrine does it flow? Remember that doctrines answer the question, “Why? What doctrine tells us why we should follow the principles in the Word of Wisdom? What is the doctrine of the Word of Wisdom that gives meaning and purpose to these principles?
Next Week in Discovering the Word of Wisdom
Next week in Discovering the Word of Wisdom, I plan to explore the “doctrine of the Word of Wisdom.” This will lay the groundwork for considering the principles in D&C 89.
For help getting started on a healthy Word of Wisdom diet, see: “Getting Started.”
Jane Birch is the author of Discovering the Word of Wisdom: Surprising Insights from a Whole Food, Plant-based Perspective and many articles on the Word of Wisdom. She can be contacted on her website, Discovering the Word of Wisdom. Watch the video “Discovering the Word of Wisdom: A Short Film.”
 David A. Bednar, Increase in Learning: Spiritual Patterns for Obtaining Your Own Answers (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 2011).
 Quoted by John Taylor, “The Organization of the Church,” Millennial Star (15 Nov. 1851), 339.
 Russell M. Nelson, “The Sabbath Is a Delight,” General Conference (April 2015).