The Lord has stated, "And again, the elders, priests and teachers of this church shall teach the principles of my gospel, which are in the Bible and the Book of Mormon, in the which is the fullness of the gospel." (D&C 42:12).
As members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints we believe in following the principles of the gospel as found in the Bible, the Book of Mormon, and the Doctrine and Covenants. However, some of those principles are not the same as those of other faiths and because of that we often find ourselves in situations where we have to decide whether to stand by our principles or compromise them in order to get along.
We have been admonished never to compromise our principles regardless of the consequences and yet there are times when it is necessary to compromise. For example, Latter-day Saints do not believe in drinking alcohol and yet there are times when our job may require us to attend functions where alcohol is served. Is it a violation of our principles to attend such occasions even if we don't drink?
There are those who will say that since we should avoid even the very appearance of evil, to attend a meeting where liquor is being served puts us in a position of temptation or gives the impression that we are doing something we don't believe in.
It is said that this is no different than the rule that a man and a woman in the Church who are not married to each other should not travel alone together. Although nothing immoral may happen between them there is always the opportunity for temptation. But even if both of these good members of the Church conduct themselves in a righteous manner it may still give the impression of an improper relationship where none exists. By this same reasoning should we therefore not attend a gathering where liquor is being served?
Then there are instances where what we believe comes in conflict with the traditions of close family members who are not of our faith. For example, as members of the LDS faith, we are taught to offer a prayer before eating but what do we do when visiting parents who are not members of our church who do not say a blessing on the food before they eat? Do we bless the food ourselves while everyone else is eating or do we "compromise" and not say a blessing?
Or, do we say a silent blessing to ourselves without making a show of it? But if we do that then there are those who feel this is a violation of our principles because it makes it appear as though we are not living what we believe. In other words, if we believe in saying a blessing on our food then we should do it openly, without trying to hide our actions regardless of what anyone else may think. To do otherwise would give the impression that we do not follow our beliefs.
This raises the question of how strictly we should stick to our principles. Should we never compromise even in the slightest, regardless of the situation, or is it permissible to "bend" the rules a little to fit the circumstances? And if we are allowed to bend them, then how far can they be bent? The reason why this question is important is because nearly every member of the LDS Church has had to face it at one time or another and for many these can be difficult decisions to make. For that reason they often wonder what is the correct thing to do?
The truth is that there is no one "right" answer that will fit all situations because every situation is different. More than that, what answer may work for one person may not work for someone else. But, having said that, there are certain principles that, if understood, can help give us some guidance on what we can or should do.
The first thing that we need to do is define the word "principle." The dictionary gives us two definitions. One is that a principle is: "a rule that defines what we can or cannot do." A "rule" is: "an authoritative statement of conduct; a prescribed course of action; a standard method or procedure." In other words, a rule is something that defines what we can or cannot do. It sets forth a standardized procedure of how everyone is to act or conduct themselves. For example, Latter-day Saints have a rule that they are not to drink coffee, tea, alcohol or smoke. Since this rule applies to everyone, it is a standard of conduct that everyone must follow, meaning that no one is exempt from it.
The second definition of a "principle" is: "a standard of morality." Where the first definition of a principle is that of a statement of conduct, the second definition of a principle refers to a person's ability to faithfully adhere to their beliefs. To call someone "principled" means that they not only have a standard of conduct that they believe in but all of their actions reflect the standards of conduct they profess to believe.
The second thing we have to understand is that we can stick to our principles and still compromise without violating what we believe. This is often a difficult concept for some people to grasp because they feel that a principle is something that is to be lived without the slightest degree of deviation. Therefore, to their way of thinking, any kind of "compromise" means giving up at least some of what they believe in order to do something they don't believe. To their mind, either we stick by our principles come what may or we don't. It is said that if we are willing to compromise on our principles one time then it won't be long before we compromise them again and then again until we have given up all our principles to the point that we no longer have any.
However, this is a false concept because it is very possible for a person to stay one-hundred percent true to their principles while still compromising. Where some people get confused is in thinking that principles are an all or nothing proposition, but going to extremes is never beneficial. It is not good to be so ridged in our principles that we cannot be flexible and adapt, but neither is it good to be so flexible that we have no strength of character and give away everything we believe in. Therefore, it is obvious that there must be a middle ground where we can adapt to a situation while still standing firm for what we believe. But knowing where that point is can sometimes be challenging.
Perhaps we can think of this from the standpoint of engaging in a negotiation. In a negotiation one side makes an offer and the other side can then either accept or reject the offer, but what usually happens is that a counter offer is made, usually by both sides. Knowing that there will be a counter offer, the first party makes their initial offer much higher than they expect to get. On the other hand, the person making the counter proposal usually offers something that is much lower than what they are willing to pay.
As the two parties continue to negotiate back and forth, both sides reach a point where they are not willing to go beyond. The person doing the selling knows how much they need to make and when they reach that point, if the buyer still will not accept the price, then the seller will end the negotiations. And the same is true of the buyer. They know how much they are willing to pay and when they reach that point in the negotiations and the seller is still not willing to accept it, then the negotiations come to an end.
And the same is true of principles. There are things we can compromise on without giving away anything we believe in. The reason for this is because there are hard, core principles we believe in and then there are personal rules we add to those principles that help us be faithful to them. Because those personal rules are not the principles themselves we can choose to set them aside as part of our compromise without setting aside our principles.
But, when we find ourselves in a situation where the other party still requires us to do something that goes against our standard of conduct then the time for negotiating has come to an end. Take for example the situation where we have to attend a meeting where liquor will be served.
In order to know what we are willing to compromise on we first have to have a clear understanding of what our principles are. Is our principle simply not to drink liquor or is our principle not to be around people who drink? Is our principle to make a clear, obvious statement of what the LDS Church believes or is our principle to live our standard quietly without fanfare and showiness? Is our principle to get along with others or is our principle to stand apart from the crowd? The answer to those questions will determine what we are willing to compromise on and what we will not compromise.
If our standard of conduct is that we will not drink alcohol ourselves then we can still attend a meeting where liquor is being consumed by others because that is a "compromise" that does not violate our principles. However, if we are required to drink alcohol at the meeting, then we have reached a point in the negotiations where there is no more compromise possible unless we can make another offer that will still allow us to attend the meeting without drinking any liquor.
So the question we need to ask ourselves is: What are our principles?
The scriptures talk about the" principles of the gospel," the "principles of righteousness," the "principles of holiness," and the "principles salvation." For Latter-day Saints, these are the principles that govern our conduct therefore it is important that we know what those principles are, otherwise we can find ourselves standing firm for something that is not a principle at all or doing something that violates a principle we didn't even know about.
The Lord has told us, "Teach ye diligently and my grace shall attend you, that you may be instructed more perfectly in theory, in principle, in doctrine, in the law of the gospel, in all things that pertain unto the kingdom of God, that are expedient for you to understand" (D&C 88:78).
It is important that we are diligent in learning the theory of the gospel, the principles of the gospel and the doctrines of the gospel. A theory is the general, overall philosophy or concept of something. For example, the theory of the gospel is expressed in terms of: where we came from, why we are here, and where do we go after death. We refer to this as the plan of salvation.
We have already defined a principle as a rule that standardizes how we are to behave. On the other hand, a doctrine is something that we believe to be true. For example, we believe it is a truth that the earth revolves around the sun. That's not a rule or a principle; that's a doctrine. As Latter-day Saints we believe that salvation only comes through Jesus Christ who is the Son of God. That is a doctrine and since doctrines express truth and truth cannot change, then doctrines do not change.
On the other hand, rules can and often do change. For example, when Jesus walked the earth he drank wine. There are some who say that the wine back then was more like grape juice but the scriptures also tell us that people got drunk drinking wine. In the early history of the restored Church, real wine was served as part of the sacrament but then a rule was put in place where we use water instead of wine. But Jesus said that when He comes again He will drink wine with His disciples (Matthew 26:29).
However, even though rules can be changed, they can only be changed by the person making them. For example, when a father makes a rule for his family, only he can change it but until he does, everyone has to follow the rule. When the authorities of the Church (meaning the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve) make a rule, only they can change that rule and, until they do, all members of the Church are under obligation to follow it. In the same way, when God makes a rule, such as whether the church should practice polygamny, only He can change it. And until He does, even the President of the Chruch has to abide by it.
Honesty, patience with people, and loving our neighbor are essential attributes necessary for living in heaven and while this is a truth, they are also principles of righteousness that even God Himself has to obey. As such, not even He can change them. What this illustrates is that whether something is a rule or a principle, once we accept we them have obligated ourselves to live by them until the person making it changes them.
And this concept is just as true in matters other than the gospel. There are principles that apply to the companies we work for, there are principles we have in our home, and there are principles that we set for ourselves. For example, some parents have a rule that their children must say, "sir" and "ma'am" when addressing adults. Other parents have a rule that children don't talk to strangers. Those rules are principles that standardize how the members of those families are to behave.
In politics, there are those whose principles include believing in smaller government, lower taxes, and, strictly following the original meaning of the Constitution, while there are others whose principles consist of having a larger government which necessitates the continued raising of taxes and who think that the Constitution can be interpreted according to the needs of the day. Therefore, when these two groups, who are governed by very different principles, meet in Congress to discuss legislation, they each end up negotiating in a way that tries to preserve their principles while still being flexible enough to reach some sort of a compromise.
However, there are some people who feel that their representatives negotiate away some, if not all of their principles for the sake of "compromise," but this doesn't have to be the case. Yet when this does happen, it's because such representatives are not principled. In other words, they know what they believe but they don't stand up for those beliefs and are willing to abandon their principles for the sake of getting along. On the other hand, there are those who are so principled, that they can't budge from their position even in the slightest. As a result they are incapable of negotiating because it's their way or no way.
Neither of these two extreme positions are good. It is often necessary to be flexible in order to get things accomplished, and in most cases that can be done without giving abandoning any of our principles. The alternative is to be so inflexible that we are unwilling to agree to anything except what we want. That doesn't meant that there won't be times when it will be necessary to take an unyielding stand on our principles regardless of the consequences.
There are also times when we can be faced with two choices where neither one is desirable. For example, Christians in some countries have been told that they must either renounce their faith or be put to death. Another example is voting for an elected official who is an avowed atheist or voting for someone who wants to take away our liberties. In both of these situations we have no choice but to choose between the lesser of the two evils.
In the first example we have to choose between giving up our life or giving up our faith, while in the second example we are asked to choose between someone who doesn't believe in God and someone who doesn't believe in freedom. Neither choice is good but we nevertheless have to choose one over the other. If we don't make a choice, either because of fear or being inflexible, then the choice will be made for us, which may result in the greater of the two evils being forced upon us or others.
In the LDS Church we believe that man has been given his moral agency to choose between good and evil. That right to choose is a sacred responsibility even when we have to choose between the lesser of two evils or the greater of two goods. The scriptures explain it this way: "And now, my sons, I speak unto you these things for your profit and learning; for there is a God, and he hath created all things, both the heavens and the earth, and all things that in them are, both things to act and things to be acted uponů And the Messiah cometh in the fulness of time, that he may redeem the children of men from the fall. And because that they are redeemed from the fall they have become free forever, knowing good from evil; to act for themselves and not to be acted upon, save it be by the punishment of the law at the great and last day, according to the commandments which God hath given" (2 Nephi 2:13, 26).
Because Christ has redeemed us from the fall we have been set free to make our own choices rather than to have choices forced upon us. But, more than that, God has provided us with the ability to discern between good and evil so that we can make wise choices. Therefore we are free to act for ourselves rather than being acted upon through someone else's decision for us, which was Lucifer's plan. For that reason, to not exercise our right to choose is to throw away one of God's greatest gifts to us and mocks Christ's atonement which makes it possible for us to be free to act for ourselves. To not act when we should is to act in a way that is contrary to God's plan for our spiritual growth.
But how should we choose? Is it better to stand and lose everything or is it better to temporarily retreat in order to live to fight again? Choices like these are never easy to make and every situation is different but what will help those decisions become less difficult to make is having a clear understanding of the principles we believe in. That's why the Lord has said that we must "be instructed more perfectly in theory, in principle, in doctrine, [and] in the law of the gospel."