By Loyal to the Word

Defining Doctrine

         The word “doctrine” comes from the Latin doctrīna and means simply, “teaching.” Therefore, in a loose sense, doctrine can be any teaching, whether true or false, whether religious or irreligious. But that is not usually how we use the term when discussing doctrine within the context of Mormonism.

         Latter-day Saints understand “doctrine” within the context of Mormonism to mean authoritative teachings. To define doctrine as “official statements” is far too narrow – official statements, such as the 1909 Origin of Man document, The Proclamation on the Family, the Living Christ document, while important in helping clarify and establish doctrine, are relatively few within the Church, and even all of them combined do not address all of the doctrines of the Gospel.

         As Gerald N. Lund wrote in a Church magazine,

“Generally, the First Presidency issues official doctrinal declarations when there is a general misunderstanding of the doctrine on the part of many people. Therefore, the Church teaches many principles which are accepted as doctrines but which the First Presidency has seen no need to declare in an official pronouncement.”
(Gerald N. Lund, “I Have a Question,” Ensign, February 1982).

         Therefore, “official statements” is not a sufficient gauge for determining what is or is not doctrine. Rather, a doctrine of the Church is an authoritative teaching – a teaching that is established within the corpus of Mormon teaching that is seen as binding on believers.

Beware the Classic Escape Hatch

         Many will say, “Yes, but is that doctrine?” in an attempt to create an escape hatch for themselves. There are those who want to box doctrine into as small of a package as possible, to relieve them of the obligation of believing any more than they absolutely have to. This tendency is a sign of spiritual weakness. It shows that if the person can wriggle out of believing in what is otherwise a perfectly fine doctrine, they will do it. If it doesn't suit their personal taste, or conform with views they have assimilated from the world, they search for the first opportunity to reject it and still be considered a faithful member of the Church. And so they seek to strip a teaching they don't like of the status of doctrine (although it is doubtful that such people have ever given profound thought as to how “doctrine” should be defined, and what constitutes it). Such people need to realize that truth is not found in the teachings of the world which they have such an attachment to, but by careful study of the scriptures and the teachings of the prophets.

How to Determine Doctrine

         Does every utterance of an apostle or President of the Church automatically constitute doctrine? Of course not. Elder D. Todd Christofferson noted, “it should be remembered that not every statement made by a Church leader, past or present, necessarily constitutes doctrine” (D. Todd Christofferson, “The Doctrine of Christ,” General Conference, April 2012). In this connection, the Prophet Joseph Smith taught that, “a prophet was a prophet only when he was acting as such” (Joseph Smith, Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 278).

         Rather, the authoritativeness of a teaching can be measured by the following principles; we may set a teaching down as good Church doctrine if it is:
   1. Consistent with the scriptures,
   2. Reasonable and logical,
   3. Taught by one or more of the prophets or apostles,
   4. Taught repeatedly or consistently by apostles and prophets,
   5. Taught across multiple or various eras of time within the Church,
   6. Taught in various venues, whether General Conference, BYU Speeches, Journal of Discourses, authored books, etc.
   7. Not denounced since it was originally taught.

         If all seven of these characteristics are satisfied, then you should consider the teaching in question as doctrine. As a general rule, if one of these characteristics is missing, it is permissible, or perhaps advisable, to not consider the teaching to be doctrinal. But teachings that are consistent with the scriptures, reasonable and logical, taught consistently by apostles and prophets in a variety of venues in a variety of times and circumstances, and not formally denounced, are doctrine.

Caution with Rejecting Teachings as Doctrine

         Before you reject a teaching that you find unpalatable, but which comes from a prophet or apostle, first ask yourself: Is it consistent with other teachings of the Church? Does it follow the foregoing seven criteria? If so, you should think very seriously before rejecting it.

         Spiritually it is much safer to err on the side of accepting teachings as doctrine than to reject teachings as doctrine. The reason for this is that rejection of teachings leads to permissiveness of behavior. A wider acceptance of teachings will tend to keep a person on the straight and narrow path. Even more critical, those who routinely reject teachings from the prophets that they do not like will be far less inclined to trust the prophets in the future. When confronted with a controversial teaching that they do not like, they will brush it aside, considering that other prophets have erred in the past, as they suppose, so there is no need to take this present teaching seriously.

         If we are confronted with a teaching or statement that is perplexing and doesn't seem to fit, we should be inclined to place such things “on the shelf” so to speak, to pull out at a later day when we may be better equipped to reconcile it. We should not be so hasty to denounce as false a teaching which came from a prophet or apostle without very, profoundly good reason.

         Before you reject a teaching from a prophet or apostle that seems inconsistent with other teachings, first ask yourself: Am I interpreting the statement properly? Do I really understand what this prophet was trying to say? Is there a way to preserve this teaching, through alternate interpretation, in which it will align with other accepted doctrinal teachings? If so, you should think very seriously before outright rejecting it.

The Adam/God Theory – A Case In Point

         A case in point is the Adam/God Theory. Brigham Young and his contemporaries made many statements that, on their face, seem to say that God the Father is the same person as Adam. However, this idea fails because 1) it does not accord with scripture, 2) it is not logical, 3) it contradicts some of President Young’s own teachings, 4) it contradicts teachings from other apostles and prophets, and 5) this concept has been formerly denounced in General Conference by the President of the Church (see Spencer W. Kimball, “Our Own Liahona,” General Conference, October 1976).

         At this point, one would then feel to discard the entire Adam/God teaching. But if one investigates further, and interprets the statements of President Young and others properly, they will see that they were not teaching that Adam or Michael is the same person as God the Father or Elohim. But rather, when we interpret the statements to mean that the name “Adam” can be used as a title for an ultimate progenitor, then it can be rightly applied to God as a title. An “Adam” is a progenitor. God is our progenitor. Therefore, it is proper to refer to God with the title of Adam. With this understanding, the entire mess and confusion surrounding the Adam/God Theory dissipates, and everything is brought into line. A collection of teachings, which at first would have been entirely rejected as false, is instead interpreted correctly and therefore remains to add to our understanding of the doctrine of the kingdom. The doctrine is gratefully preserved, along with our confidence in the prophets.

         Yes, fellow Latter-day Saints, we can trust the prophets. More often than not, the problem is with us, not with them.

No Time Limits on Doctrine

         One thing that should be kept strictly in mind is the idea that there are no time limits on doctrine. Many will seek to escape being bound to a doctrinal teaching because it hasn’t been taught in General Conference for quite some time. But where does the Lord say that he has placed time limits on his doctrine? The ninth Article of Faith states that, “We believe all that God has revealed, all that He does now reveal, and we believe that He will yet reveal many great and important things pertaining to the Kingdom of God.” Latter-day Saints accept the Old Testament as scripture, despite it being thousands of years old. Shall we ignore it because of its antiquity? No, we still believe “all that God has revealed” in the past. The passing of time does not negate truth.

         One example of less valiant Latter-day Saints seeking to avoid the obligation of believing doctrine due to the passage of time are teachings relative to socialism. Throughout the history of the Church, prophets have taught repeatedly and in various venues that socialism and communism are wrong and should not be advocated by the people of God. Probably the anti-socialist doctrine reached its zenith in the David O. McKay era, and while it continued through the seventies and eighties, dropped off significantly afterward. Some members of the Church take this as a cue that they can now believe in socialism without any negative spiritual consequences. But the fact that it has not been discussed much in recent decades does not negate the generations of teaching the prophets have given regarding socialism! There can be many reasons why socialism has been mentioned less; especially without a denouncement of previous teachings, we would never be justified in considering the doctrine of the Gospel has changed inexplicably. 

        Truth is timeless, and the fact that since some subjects haven’t been spoken of much in recent decades is no basis at all for believing that previous teachings on the matter are no longer valid, as though doctrine is a perishable good that spoils if not continually advocated. Neither does the less frequent teaching of a doctrine in a modern era somehow negate what had been taught about it in the past. Beware those who would seek to absolve themselves of belief in doctrine because of the passage of time.


         In Mormonism, doctrine is an authoritative teaching which is binding on believers. Many try to escape from having to believe in things that they find socially unpalatable or otherwise undesirable by attempting to constrict the definition of what constitutes doctrine, but in this they are wrong and this practice will lead them into dark places. The best approach is to accept in all humility the teachings given to us from the prophets and apostles. Determining doctrine can be done methodically, objectively, systematically and sensibly by considering the seven criteria listed above. Even with these criteria in mind, however, we should be extremely careful about rejecting any teaching from a prophet or apostle. We must also keep in mind that there are no time limits on the veracity of Gospel teachings. Truth is timeless.


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