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Doctrine in the Mormon Church
Many critics of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints attempt to discredit the Church by pointing to past statements by prominent Church members and leaders on a variety of topics, and then claiming that these statements represent the Church’s definite doctrine on a particular subject. Some of those critics further allege that the Church is in denial or engaged in some sort of disingenuous “cover-up” by failing to acknowledge responsibility for controversial statements that purportedly reflect the Church’s actual beliefs. These charges are all false.
Virtually from its beginning, the Church has taught that only the prophet—the President of the Church—has the authority to pronounce or change the Church’s doctrine. Subsequent Church practice has established that official doctrine of the Church is: a) revealed through the President; b) in complete harmony with the scriptures and existing doctrinal precepts; c) accepted unanimously by the President’s counselors, Twelve Apostles, and other General Authorities of the church; and d) presented before church membership for their acceptance.
Moreover, the prophet doesn’t always speak as a prophet—in other words, not every single remark the prophet utters is the Word of God. Though past prophets or other leaders may have speculated on a topic, a later prophet may receive revelation according to the proper pattern that completely supersedes any and all previous speculation.
For instance, the well-known 1978 revelation that extended the priesthood to all worthy male members, including those of African descent, followed the proper pattern. It was received and announced by the President, approved by the united First Presidency and Twelve Apostles, and presented to the entire Church at General Conference, where it was approved by members. Prior to 1978, some Church members—including a few leaders—offered various opinions as to why Blacks were not being ordained. Of such statements, the late Elder Bruce R. McConkie explained several weeks after the revelation: “Forget everything that I have said, or what President Brigham Young or President George Q. Cannon or whomsoever has said in days past that is contrary to the present revelation. We spoke with a limited understanding and without the light and knowledge that now has come into the world.” In other words, once the doctrinal position was established—which makes it crystal-clear that all races are equal in the sight of God—past commentary on the subject is irrelevant in terms of Church doctrine.
In and out of the Church, learning is a process of acquiring greater knowledge, “line upon line,” that often renders past viewpoints irrelevant. That the Church is led by divine revelation does not mean that its leaders’ minds are wiped clean of incorrect ideas and cured of human fallibility; it also does not mean that its leaders cannot formulate and discuss their own opinions on sacred and secular issues. That is why the orderly pattern of multiple layers of approval for official doctrine is both necessary and reliable. This holds true across the Church regardless of the doctrinal issue.
Consequently, journalists should be extremely cautious about citing or lending credence to sources who insist they are representing current Church doctrine or “the truth about Mormonism” by quoting isolated and non-authoritative statements from past church leaders. Such citations, when drawn from a valid source and accurately quoted, should always be considered as the speaker’s or author’s opinion rather than a reflection of the Church’s actual current position.
For a more extensive treatment of the subject, please see: