When Doctrine Isn’t Doctrine

by | Mar 16, 2021

paper question marks

Part of A Happier Ward Series – (is it doctrine?)

Please remember this closing statement as you read the article.

I am so grateful to have these clarifications. It helps make my study of the gospel clearer and simpler. To be balanced and straightforward about my intent, I adore our current apostles, they are my guides, and I listen to them closely. I read their books. I LIVE for General Conference and love how much the Spirit is there testifying of the eternal truths they share. These Church leaders are repeatedly inspired and the Holy Ghost bears witness to my soul of their wisdom.

Shawnie Cannon ~ Divine Code

About seven years ago, I served on the LDS Response Team. My job was to respond to inquiries at LDS.org (remember that acronym?). While most of it was administrative and handbook support, I received plenty of doctrinal questions like others on my team. I came out of that job with two unexpected insights, which forever changed how I experienced Church.

1 Confession: I used to think the Church Handbook documented some crucial things, but it was also full of little rules and out-of-touch policies that were meant to be ignored. My time with the LDS Response Team changed my mind. The Brethren at the head of the Church are far more clued-in than anyone ever dreamed. The Brethren know exactly what goes on in ‘ward land.’ They are not isolated, nor do they have unrealistic perceptions. I found out the Church “Handbook” is priceless, inspired, and results from input and data from 30,000+ ward and branch units. If some little rule or guidance seems optional or inconsequential…it’s not. I saw minor rules and policies prove themselves as relevant and ultra-competent again and again. Now I consider the Handbook a work of spiritual genius. At least 1/2 of the problems and hiccups at Church would disappear if the Handbook were studied and followed.

2 We all grew up with (or later stepped into) a surprising number of cultural teachings and folklore that are passed off as Latter-day Saint gospel doctrine…and they are NOT. If more members took time to validate the teaching they want to reinforce – and research, whether it is cultural, historical, or doctrinal – a good share of problems we experience at Church would disappear. I spent a lot of time helping people understand that what they were responding to or enforcing was a cultural understanding and not an actual gospel concept. We have millions of members, a couple of hundred years of learning curves, and plenty of human-made precepts mixed in with the real thing. I will forever be grateful for that job with the LDS Response Team which made me more aware of this phenomenon.

An Important Verse to Consider

This article is mostly about my hard-earned lesson #2. But first, let’s consider this verse from D&C 28, which speaks directly to Oliver in his role as an apostle.

scripture verse

As an apostle, Oliver Cowdery is instructed to speak and teach and it is considered wisdom. Also important, his teachings are not considered doctrine nor a commandment from the Lord. Verse 2 of D&C 28 further deepens this essential concept:

But, behold, verily, verily, I say unto thee, no one shall be appointed to receive commandments and revelations in this church excepting my servant Joseph Smith, Jun., for he receiveth them even as Moses.

This brings up an important point. If we use Moses as a model, he had lots of help, and many filled spiritual positions and duties in the House of Israel. But when it came time to receive revelation and commandments for all the people, only one man qualified – Moses.

It is still the same today. Church leaders and even our apostles are commissioned to bear witness, teach, lead, expound and inspire – we are so grateful for their diligence and wisdom. And the Holy Ghost will often bear witness to us of the importance of their truths in our lives. Even so, none of them has singular authority to establish commandments, revelations, scripture, doctrine, or anything binding for the Church. Only the prophet can do that – which has been the established protocol from the beginning of the Bible. Yet even a prophet often establishes new doctrine by the council and not entirely on his own. We see that modeled by both Joseph Smith and Russell M. Nelson.

Problem #2 Solved

There are so many Latter-day Saint books and opinions out there and volumes of content from General Conference spanning decades. Sometimes the teachings contradict. How can we discern the official doctrine and what is, perhaps, more personal understanding and learning curves? Fortunately, the Church has come out with a couple of guides to help us discern genuine doctrine from cultural teachings.

“Not every statement made by a Church leader, past or present, necessarily constitutes doctrine. A single statement made by a single leader on a single occasion often represents a personal, though well-considered, opinion, but is not meant to be officially binding for the whole Church. With divine inspiration, the First Presidency (the prophet and his two counselors) and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles (the second-highest governing body of the Church) counsel together to establish doctrine that is consistently proclaimed in official Church publications. This doctrine resides in the four “standard works” of scripture (the Holy Bible, the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants and the Pearl of Great Price), official declarations and proclamations, and the Articles of Faith. Isolated statements are often taken out of context, leaving their original meaning distorted.”

Even the Journal of Discourses is not considered doctrine. Here’s the Church’s official statement:

“The Journal of Discourses is not an official publication of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It is a compilation of sermons and other materials from the early years of the Church, which were transcribed and then published. It includes practical advice as well as doctrinal discussion, some of which is speculative in nature and some of which is only of historical interest. … Questions have been raised about the accuracy of some transcriptions. Modern technology and processes were not available for verifying the accuracy of transcriptions, and some significant mistakes have been documented. The Journal of Discourses includes interesting and insightful teachings by early Church leaders; however, by itself it is not an authoritative source of Church doctrine.”


Let’s read again as the Lord addresses Oliver about the status of his apostolic revelations in section 28:

And now, behold, I say unto you that you shall go unto the Lamanites and preach my gospel unto them…and thou shalt have revelations, but write them not by way of commandment. [Don’t attempt to make them authoritative nor binding.]

Oliver was commissioned to shed light on gospel truths but not create them. No apostle is. Not everyone understands this vital concept which helps keep the Lord’s Kingdom in order.

Shawnie Cannon – Divine Code

I am so grateful to have these clarifications. It makes my study of the gospel clearer and simpler. To be balanced and straightforward about my intent, I adore our current apostles, they are my guides, and I listen to them closely. I read their books. I LIVE for General Conference and love how much the Spirit is there, testifying to the eternal truths they share. These Church leaders are repeatedly inspired, and the Holy Ghost bears witness to my soul of their wisdom.

Nonetheless, as times get more challenging, we need to know what is actual doctrine – and what is speculation or singular opinion.

Quick Note

The book “Mormon Doctrine” by McConkie has never been recognized as official doctrine nor considered authoritative/binding for the whole Church. Please be careful with anything you find in it. Gratefully, because of its many errors, that book has been retired and is out of print. For a more accurate summary of Latter-day Saint doctrine, visit the Encyclopedia of Mormonism maintained by BYU. However, the purest sources are Gospel Topics and the Topical Guide.

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1 Comment

  1. Caroline

    Thanks. Excellent observations.


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