Tad R. Callister: Principles versus rules

Joseph Smith taught: “I teach the people correct principles and they govern themselves.” That is a foundational truth of Church and home government: “And Zion cannot be built up unless it is by the principles of the law of the celestial kingdom” (Doctrine and Covenants 105:5).

Why is it more effective to teach principles than rules? There are at least two key reasons: First, rules are often limited to one or perhaps a few specific situations, while principles generally have much broader application. Second, principles create an environment that maximizes agency while rules tend to minimize agency by restricting, sometimes even dictating our choices.

The law of Moses contained a set of 613 rules. It was given to Israel because of their unworthiness to abide by the greater law composed of principles, higher ordinances and the Melchizedek Priesthood. When the Savior came in the meridian of time, He replaced the lesser Law of Moses with the higher Law of Christ. The former was rule-driven; the latter was principle-driven.

In the early days of the Church, the Lord taught the principle known as the law of consecration, wherein we give everything we have to the Church and receive back what is required for our needs and bonafide wants. Unfortunately, the members of the Church were unprepared for this divine principle, so the Lord introduced a law that was partly rule-driven and partly principle-driven — known as the law of tithing.

A similar approach might apply in our homes. Suppose a teenage son says to his father, “Dad, can I watch TV on Sunday?” The father replies, “No son, you know the rules — no TV on Sunday.” The son replies, “But, Dad, I wanted to watch general conference.” Quickly, the father does an about-face, “Oh, there’s an exception for that.” What if the son wanted to watch a special Church devotional? Is there another exception for that; or he wanted to see a special series on the lives of the great Reformers? How many rules does it take to govern TV watching on Sunday? Rules and more rules were at the center of the Mosaic Law.

In Old Testament times, the Savior taught a very simple principle concerning the Sabbath day and how to honor it, “Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy” (Exodus 20:8). Why was that important? Because as we keep that day holy it will simultaneously make us holy. In contrast, the Jewish leaders created a mechanical list of rules to apply on the Sabbath, many of which were in conflict with this underlying principle.

In New Testament times, the Savior saw a man with a withered hand. The Jewish leaders were ready to accuse the Savior if He broke their rule of no healing on the Sabbath. But the Savior was not to be caught in their intended trap. He addressed the unspoken but burning question of the moment — could a man heal someone on the Sabbath Day, even if it violated a rule of the Mosaic Law? The Savior gave the answer by stating a principle in the form of a question: “Is it lawful to do good on the sabbath days, or to do evil?” (Mark 3:4). The Savior had no set of rules, no checklist of do’s and don’ts for Sabbath activity. It came down to two principles — keep the Sabbath Day holy and do good on that day.

“Principles create an environment that maximizes agency.”

These are the types of principles we can teach our children. For example, if our children ask if they can watch a certain movie or engage in certain activities on the Sabbath, we might appropriately review with them the principles enunciated by the Savior, and then ask: “Will that movie, that activity, help you keep the Sabbath day holy (meaning make you holy) — will it help you do good?” If instead, we always give yes or no answers to our childrens’ questions, we will have participated in shifting their agency and accountability from them to us. But, if we teach the correct principle and let them answer their own questions, then we give them a chance to exercise their own agency, and in the process to accelerate their spiritual growth. In addition, it will help them understand how to act with regards to future situations of a similar nature. 

But what if a child does not make the right choice, and he or she chooses to watch an inappropriate movie? Then, like the Lord did with the law of consecration and law of tithing, we may need to step back and implement some rules until the time of spiritual maturity is attained. Perhaps the lesson to be learned is this: We use principles whenever we can so as to maximize the agency and growth of our children, but if they cannot “handle” principles, then we implement the fewest rules necessary until they arrive at that point.

President Russell M. Nelson gave this wise counsel: “Don’t answer a behavioral question with a behavioral answer. It is much better to give an answer based upon a principle, or even better, with a doctrinal answer, if you can.” 

Principles are compatible with the higher law, rules with the lesser. Our constant focus should be to teach doctrinal principles. Why? Because principles have the greatest capacity to lift us to celestial heights, and in the end, principles — not rules — will govern in the celestial kingdom.

—Tad R. Callister is an emeritus General Authority and former Sunday School general president.