To the Orthodox Believer who still holds belief that Doctrine in our faith equals Truth. Or the idea that when the prophet speaks or when all 15 top leaders are unified that we have certainty that God has spoken. It may not be that simple. Lets explore.
I validate that Doctrine in the Church as a word has been unanimously used by our culture and even officially within our Church to mean absolute truth from God. When we speak of the Doctrines of the Church we speak of the most serious guiding principles of our faith.
The Church defines “Doctrine” in this way.
Doctrine is the word of God as found in the scriptures and the teachings of latter-day prophets and apostles.
This seems simple enough but let’s explore the many ways Doctrine comes to us.
1.) Canonized Scripture
Scripture is defined by the Church as
Words, both written and spoken, by holy men of God when moved upon by the Holy Ghost.
To go one step further canonized scripture is defined by the Church this way
The authoritative collection of the sacred books used by the true believers in Christ. In The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the canonical books are called standard works.
Many Latter-day Saints assume that all “canonized” Scripture is “The Word of God”. Take a listen though to Brigham Young and how he defined scripture.
I have heard some make the broad assertion that every word within the lids of the Bible was the word of God. I have said to them, “You have never read the Bible, have you?” “O, yes, and I believe every word in it is the word of God.” Well, I believe that the Bible contains the word of God, and the words of good men and the words of bad men; the words of good angels and the words of bad angels and words of the devil; and also the words uttered by the ass when he rebuked the prophet in his madness. I believe the words of the Bible are just what they are; but aside from that I believe the doctrines concerning salvation contained in that book are true, and that their observance will elevate any people, nation or family that dwells on the face of the earth. The doctrines contained in the Bible will lift to a superior condition all who observe them; they will impart to them knowledge, wisdom, charity, fill them with compassion and cause them to feel after the wants of those who are in distress, or in painful or degraded circumstances.
Journal of Discourses 13:175 (May 29, 1870)
Brigham seemed to hold a very nuanced view of canon and scripture. That in essence found within it is the “word” of God but that the words are not necessarily the “words” of God. That not all the ideas, stories, and wording can be described as the “mind and will of God”.
Joseph Smith seemed to hit on this as well for example when he suggested that the Song of Solomon were not inspired writings. Yet consider this…. The Song of Solomon is canonized scripture. That is not debated. It is part of our canon and has been accepted by the saints as such. In essence one is not debating whether it is scripture but rather whether it contains the word of God. It should also be added as a paradox that While Joseph taught that the “Song of Solomon is not inspired writing Joseph also used wording from the Song of Solomon three times within his revelations
In light of this we could go further in recognizing that from member to member in our faith there will be differences in whether one takes certain stories as literal, figurative, allegorical, or simply as the words of men. Even Leaders have disagreed on such concepts. Take for instance these quotes from several leaders suggesting many aspects of the Creation, Garden, and Fall are likely figurative.
2.) The Prophet
While we believe that the Prophets can communicate with God, the question is how to recognize when that is happening and what our expectations should be of how often this happens.
- Many Latter-day Saints suggest that when The Prophet declares information was received from God it can be trusted to be such.
Except consider the following examples
Brigham young taught several ideas as God revealed Doctrine that we now disavow as false. One of these was regarding Adam, the first mortal, as actually being Elohim or Heavenly Father.
Brigham taught this repeatedly and in official venues such as General Conference as can be seen by the following quotes HERE and HERE and HERE. In terms of where he got the idea is debated but the key is Brigham declared publicly to the saints that it had come from God by revelation. For example the following quote.
“How much unbelief exists in the minds of the Latter-day Saints in regard to one particular doctrine which I revealed to them, and which God revealed to me – namely that Adam is our father and God – I do not know, I do not inquire, I care nothing about it. – Prophet Brigham Young, Deseret News, v. 22, no. 308, June 8, 1873
President Young didn’t care how many members disagreed because he felt secure that this “Doctrine” had come from God. The trouble is that President Kimball runs counter to President Youngs teaching when he stated the following.
We warn you against the dissemination of doctrines which are not according to the Scriptures and which are alleged to have been taught by some of the General Authorities of past generations. Such, for instance, is the Adam-God theory. We denounce that theory and hope that everyone will be cautioned against this and other kinds of false doctrine. – Spencer W. Kimball, “Our Own Liahona,” Ensign (November 1976)
There are several instances of this occurring on one scale or another but suffice it to say that even when Prophets claim to have received “Doctrine” from God, it is not always the case. It may be helpful to keep in mind that Joseph Smith said “A Prophet is only a Prophet when acting as such”.
Elder Christofferson clarified this point when he said
At the same time it should be remembered that not every statement made by a Church leader, past or present, necessarily constitutes doctrine. It is commonly understood in the Church that a statement made by one leader on a single occasion often represents a personal, though well-considered, opinion, not meant to be official or binding for the whole Church. The Prophet Joseph Smith taught that “a prophet [is] a prophet only when he [is] acting as such.
But it should also be noted that when multiple leaders state on multiple occasions some teaching we still have instances of said teaching being incorrect.
3.) When all 15 top leaders are unified
This goes one step further than #2 and essentially is based on the premise that while the Prophet might declare and institute false doctrine, that when all 15 top men are unified on a matter, it can be trusted to be the word of God. this seems to be reinforced by Elder Neil L. Anderson when he said the following.
A few question their faith when they find a statement made by a Church leader decades ago that seems incongruent with our doctrine. There is an important principle that governs the doctrine of the Church. The doctrine is taught by all 15 members of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve. It is not hidden in an obscure paragraph of one talk. True principles are taught frequently and by many. Our doctrine is not difficult to find.
But this concept also is problematic.
Consider the following example. Starting with Brigham Young, people with black skin were banned from Priesthood and the ordinances of the temple. Our leaders officially pronounced theories surrounding this policy. For example Mark E Peterson taught.
” If that Negro is faithful all his days, he can and will enter the celestial kingdom. He will go there as a servant, but he will get a celestial resurrection. He will get a place in the celestial glory.”
But among these teachings were some that were very official. These included that people with black skin had the “Curse of Cain”, that they were less valiant in the pre-mortal life, and that inter-racial marriage is sin. In the 1940 we have two documented instances where the Church states that such teachings are “official” Doctrines of the the faith. The first is a written correspondence between a Dr. Lowry Nelson and the First Presidency where George Albert Smith and his counselors declare to Dr. Nelson the following
this is contrary to the very fundamentals of God’s dealings with Israel dating from the time of His promise to Abraham regarding Abraham’s seed and their position vis-a-vis God Himself. Indeed, some of God’s children were assigned to superior positions before the world was formed.” – (First Presidency letter to Lowry Nelson, 17 July 1947)
“Your position seems to lose sight of the revelations of the Lord touching the preexistence of our spirits, the rebellion in heaven, and the doctrines that our birth into this life and the advantages under which we my be born, have a relationship in the life heretofore.” – (First Presidency letter to Lowry Nelson, 17 July 1947)
“From the days of the Prophet Joseph even until now, it has been the doctrine of the Church, never questioned by any of the Church leaders, that the Negroes are not entitled to the full blessings of the Gospel.” – (First Presidency letter to Lowry Nelson, 17 July 1947)
Furthermore, your ideas, as we understand them, appear to contemplate the intermarriage of the Negro and White races, a concept which has heretofore been most repugnant to most normal-minded people from the ancient patriarchs till now. God’s rule for Israel, His Chosen People, has been endogamous” – (First Presidency letter to Lowry Nelson, 17 July 1947)
“We are not unmindful of the fact that there is a growing tendency, particularly among some educators, as it manifests itself in this area, toward the breaking down of race barriers in the matter of intermarriage between whites and blacks, but it does not have the sanction of the Church and is contrary to Church doctrine.” – (First Presidency letter to Lowry Nelson, 17 July 1947)
We also have a 1949 First Presidency letter which states
The position of the Church regarding the Negro may be understood when another doctrine of the Church is kept in mind, namely, that the conduct of spirits in the premortal existence has some determining effect upon the conditions and circumstances under which these spirits take on mortality and that while the details of this principle have not been made known, the mortality is a privilege that is given to those who maintain their first estate; and that the worth of the privilege is so great that spirits are willing to come to earth and take on bodies no matter what the handicap may be as to the kind of bodies they are to secure; and that among the handicaps, failure of the right to enjoy in mortality the blessings of the priesthood is a handicap which spirits are willing to assume in order that they might come to earth. Under this principle there is no injustice whatsoever involved in this deprivation as to the holding of the priesthood by the Negroes.
As we can see, to have the top 15 men, all prophets, seers, and revelators, united on some teaching or belief does not necessarily make it truth or “True Doctrine”. Hopefully you will see that it is messy and that arriving at truth simply by believing another person or group of people regardless of their authority has the risk of being wrong.
This leads to another point. We often in our manuals, lessons, and talks repeat a teaching that originated with Wilford Woodruff and Heber J Grant. The quote is as follows.
“I say to Israel, the Lord will never permit me or any other man who stands as president of the Church to lead you astray. It is not in the program. It is not in the mind of God.” (The Discourses of Wilford Woodruff, pp. 212–13.)
This quote is problematic. If we take it to mean that the Prophet will never teach “False Doctrine” and never lead many of the saints to believe and implement said false teachings into their lives, we have already shown above that such occurs. So what can it mean to lead astray? This is a tough question that must be approached carefully. One thought would be that while the prophet may err and may lead the Church down a false path on various ideas, that he can never be permitted to corrupt the saving ordinances and cause the Priesthood to retreat back into the “wilderness”. Regardless of how one reframes such an interpretation we must step outside of the cultural interpretations we have used to frame such things. Even Elder Bruce R McConkie admits that the Lord permits the Prophet to introduce and to disseminate false doctrine throughout the Church when he said
Nonetheless, as Joseph Smith so pointedly taught, a prophet is not always a prophet, only when he is acting as such. Prophets are men and they make mistakes. Sometimes they err in doctrine…. Yes, President Young did teach that Adam was the father of our spirits, and all the related things that the cultists ascribe to him. This, however, is not true. He expressed views that are out of harmony with the gospel….. I do not know all of the providences of the Lord, but I do know that he permits false doctrine to be taught in and out of the Church and that such teaching is part of the sifting process of mortality….
Another oft used quote is from Marion G Romney in general Conference repeating a story from his youth
“I remember years ago when I was a bishop I had President Heber J. Grant talk to our ward. After the meeting I drove him home … Standing by me, he put his arm over my shoulder and said: ‘My boy, you always keep your eye on the President of the Church and if he ever tells you to do anything, and it is wrong, and you do it, the Lord will bless you for it.’ Then with a twinkle in his eye, he said, ‘But you don’t need to worry. The Lord will never let his mouthpiece lead the people astray.’” (Conference Report, October 1960, p. 78.)
since we already have covered the complexity of “being lead astray” the issue here is whether one will be blessed for following the prophet even if one feels he is wrong. The quote could be interpreted to mean follow the Prophet and the Church generally, even if one dissents and does not follow a specific issue. I personally can hold that space and it still leaves the statement to be true in a much more nuanced way. In asking the question of whether we should follow a leader on specific instances we feel them to be wrong we should consider the following quotes.
“Standard Works judge teachings of all men. It makes no difference what is written or what anyone has said, if what has been said is in conflict with what the lord has revealed, we can set it aside. My words, and the teachings of any other member of the church, high or low, if they do not square with the revelations, we need not accept them. Let us have this matter clear. we have accepted the four standard works as the measuring yardsticks, or balances, by which we measure every man’s doctrine. You cannot accept the books written by the authorities of the church as standards in doctrine, only in so far as they accord with the revealed word in the standard works. every man who writes is responsible, not the church, for what he writes. If Joseph Fielding Smith writes something which is out of harmony with the revelations, then every member of the church is duty bound to reject it. If he writes that which is in perfect harmony with the revealed word of the lord, then it should be accepted. – Joseph Fielding Smith
Mormon Church’s president, Spencer W. Kimball stated when referring to the quote about following even when wrong that he was concerned and that it possibly would lead to
“an unthinking ‘follow the leader’ mentality”
Consider this quote in the Church’s official Periodical which seems to teach the exact opposite of the quote being discussed.
“The questions is sometimes asked, to what extent is obedience to those who hold the Priesthood required? This is a very important question, and one which should be understood by all Saints. In attempting to answer this question, we would repeat, in short, what we have already written, that willing obedience to the laws of God, administered by the priesthood, is indispensable to salvation; but we would further add, that a proper conservative to this power exists for the benefit of all, and none are required to tamely or blindly submit to a man because he has a portion of the Priesthood. We have heard men who hold the Priesthood remark, that they would do anything they were told to do by those who presided over them, if they knew it was wrong: but such obedience as this is worse than folly to us; it is slavery in the extreme; and the man who would thus willingly degrade himself, should ot claima rank among intelligent beings, until he turns from his folly” – 13 Nov 1852 Milennial Star
I finish this article with the Lord’s own words found in D&C in the very first section. The Lord seems to be setting the tone for what to expect from our leaders and to permit them room to be very flawed at times.
Wherefore, I the Lord, knowing the calamity which should come upon the inhabitants of the earth, called upon my servant Joseph Smith, Jun., and spake unto him from heaven, and gave him commandments;
And also gave commandments to others, that they should proclaim these things unto the world; and all this that it might be fulfilled, which was written by the prophets—
The weak things of the world shall come forth and break down the mighty and strong ones, that man should not counsel his fellow man, neither trust in the arm of flesh—
But that every man might speak in the name of God the Lord, even the Savior of the world;
That faith also might increase in the earth;
That mine everlasting covenant might be established;
That the fulness of my gospel might be proclaimed by the weak and the simple unto the ends of the world, and before kings and rulers.
Behold, I am God and have spoken it; these commandments are of me, and were given unto my servants in their weakness, after the manner of their language, that they might come to understanding.
And inasmuch as they erred it might be made known;
And inasmuch as they sought wisdom they might be instructed;
And inasmuch as they sinned they might be chastened, that they might repent;
And inasmuch as they were humble they might be made strong, and blessed from on high, and receive knowledge from time to time.
God seems to be saying that our leaders are human just like you and me. they are weak, they will error, and they will sin, they will at times teach us false doctrines. But as we all move forward in faith we as a Church might from them receive the word of God every once in a while or from time to time.