In Sunday school, we were taught that the gospel is constant, that it is unchanging and it cannot change, then bashing of other churches for bowing to political pressure like adding women to the priesthood . But to my way of thinking the gospel has changed over time (hence the need for modern day prophets). I pointed out that several key doctrines in the gospel have changed, polygamy, polyandry, blacks having priesthood, then losing that privilege then getting it back in 78. There are changes to temple program, the way the word of wisdom is treated, Joseph Smith and Brigham Young both openly ignored it and now it is part of the temple worthiness requirement. So how can we teach the gospel is constant and unchanging, I did ask but was told that the scriptures tell us it is unchanging, therefore it is unchanging.
What we need to do is come to an understanding of what we mean by the word “Gospel”. In its true definition, the Gospel has not changed, nor could it ever change. The core of the Gospel, the essential part that we all need, is that Jesus Christ has suffered the sins of the world and died, to become the “firstfruits of the resurrection”, thus paving the way for all mankind to return to Heavenly Father. This is the part of the Gospel that has not changed, nor can it ever be changed.
Now, as to those elements of the Gospel you mention in your question, they are how the Gospel was, and is, administered to the world. Or in other words, they are how the Gospel was given to the world that we could all take advantage of it. If you look over the history of mankind, it becomes clear that the administration of the Gospel, or how it was shared, had to change. In the simplest of examples, before the Atonement was wrought, the Gospel was shared as a message of what was yet to come. It was a looking forward for the redemption that would be made available to mankind.
After the Atonement was completed, the administration of the Gospel had to change. It was no longer a process of looking forward for something yet to come, but a message of the realization and reality, of the wonderous miracle that really happened. A sharing of the ‘Good News’ (that’s what the word gospel means) that the sacrifice called for had taken place.
In Old Testament times, the Gospel (and by connection, the Atonement of Christ which had not yet happened) was administered by animal sacrifice upon altars. This was begun with Adam and continued until the Atonement took place. The Law of Moses was a highly organized dispensation of the Gospel. It was established to display, through symbolism and ritual, not only the reality of the Atonement of Christ, but the spiritual implications of it as well.
Now look at how the same Gospel is administered today. I, for one, am glad that animal sacrifice has been done away with, and for more than a few reasons. However the real reason that changed was that the reality of our situation changed from then to now. Before the Atonement happened, the Gospel was administered in such a way as to teach the faithful what would need to happen in order to secure a chance of returning to the presence of God. Even the Nephites, who had a better spiritual understanding of the Gospel and Christ’s Atonement, continued to follow the Law of Moses because that was what was required of them.
Today the Gospel is administered in such a way as to remind us of what Christ endured, to remind us of what the Atonement of Christ actually is, and how its reality applies to us today, individually and as families. We no longer need the act of a living sacrifice performed on our behalf, because it has already taken place. It applies to us all, then, now, and forever. It cannot be changed or undone. The Atonement of Christ will stand on our behalf for all of eternity.
Now, as to the issues you mentioned, each one of them is worthy of specific focus. I know because I have had the opportunity of answering questions wonderful people have sent me about each one of them from time to time on this site. If I might be brief in addressing each one, here’s what I would like to say to you.
Women holding the Priesthood – This really isn’t something the General Authorities are likely to change, that is, without direct revelation from Christ to do so. You see, this is Jesus’ Church, not President Monson’s, or President Hinkley’s, or any other previous leaders of the LDS Church, including Joseph Smith. Jesus is in charge. He has been from the beginning in 1830, and He continues to lead us through the Prophets and Apostles today. The good news is that we can determine the will of the Lord on this matter ourselves through sincere personal prayer. We don’t need to wait for a message from President Monson on the matter.
Polygamy – We don’t quite fully understand all the reasons God has commanded polygamy in the past. It surely was a difficult doctrine for Joseph to accept, as he didn’t act on the revelation for a few years after having received it. Abraham and Jacob are two examples from the Bible of polygamy being acceptable to the LORD. Then again, there are other times when it is not acceptable, such as in the New Testament, and for us today. In today’s case the practice was stopped due to threats from the US Government to seize all the Church assets and dissolve it. The Lord, in effect, released us from the requirement of obedience to this principle in this life. However I am not confident enough to say it has been removed from the Gospel entirely.
Blacks having the priesthood – This issue is one of close study even today. There are a lot of questions regarding it, many of which we may never have the answers to in this life. Racism was a very common attitude in the social climate of the US in the 1800’s. Was it right? Certainly not, and it appears that Joseph Smith had no such inclinations. However my feeling for the rest of this answer dovetails into the last item you brought up which I’ll discuss now.
Word of Wisdom – It was clear even in that day that alcohol and tobacco weren’t necessarily good for you. The Church didn’t start any new information in that regard. What was new, however, was that the Lord had, as yet, never said anything about it beyond condemnation of drunkenness as found in the New Testament. Now, let’s pick up the blacks and the priesthood issue here as well and consider them together for a moment.
in the 1800s, the US was a very young nation. There was a lot of growing up to do on everybody’s part. There was a lot that we know today that simply wasn’t understood at that time. Today these issues seem all but plainly obvious, but it wasn’t always like that. This pertains directly to attitudes towards blacks as well as health issues such as alcohol and tobacco. At that time, all three were a regular part of the society. Yes there were objections to slavery before Joseph Smith was born. However, at that time, it’s just how things were, by and large. Now, enter Joseph Smith, who not only readily calls blacks to be elders in the priesthood, but says he has a revelation against alcohol and tobacco use. How easy do you suppose it would have been for the members of the Church to simply change all that overnight?
Look at how long it has taken the US as a nation to address racial equality. Look at how long it has taken science to catch up to what was revealed in the Word of Wisdom. The truths were revealed, however the Lord, in his infinite wisdom, gave us time to build up to full obedience to the Word of Wisdom. It might just be the same thing with regards to blacks and the priesthood. On that score we still don’t have all the answers.
What I love about this situation is that even though the Lord had given us revelation, He allowed us time to grow into it. How patient and forgiving is Christ in this matter! More to the point, He knew we’d get there. He knew we’d be able to stand up to the standards and shrug off the incorrect attitudes of the past. We still have work to do, to be sure, but look at how far we’ve come since then!
One doctrine I am glad has never changed is that of a living prophet today. Starting with Joseph Smith, our world has had access to the mind and will of God as in times of old. Considering how the world is seemingly crumbling on all sides, the need for a prophet of God has never been greater.
I pray that you continue to seek answers to your questions. I encourage you to continue to pray about the answers you find, including this reply I’ve given you. At no time are you required to simply accept what is given to you as truth. Study it out. Pray for guidance and clarification. The Lord who gave Himself as a sacrifice for us all will gladly guide you to the truths you seek at exactly the time you are ready for them and when you need them.
Thank you, Bandy, for your question. I pray that God continues to bless you and your family always.