The Lord Jesus Christ has commanded us to teach each other the doctrine of His Church (D&C 88:77) and yet, we have all been in classes and meetings where we have wondered if what we were hearing was true. So, what is the doctrine? And how can we know it?
The word “doctrine” simply means teaching. The doctrines of the Church are the official teachings of the Church that we are expected to study in our homes and teach in our meetings (General Handbook 17.1.3). However, experience has taught us that not everything that is taught in church constitutes church doctrine and so we must learn to discern truth from error and doctrine from opinion.
President Ezra Taft Benson proposed a simple test to discern doctrine. It consists of three questions that we can ask about any teaching we hear or read.
1) What do the scriptures say?
2) What do modern prophets, especially our living prophets, say? and
3) What does the Spirit say? (see Ezra Taft Benson, BYU Speech May 10, 1966).
Answering these three questions allows us to triangulate truth and discern the doctrine of the Church. Let’s examine each one.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints accepts four books as official scripture: The Book of Mormon, the Bible, the Doctrine and Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price. The importance of these scriptures in discerning doctrine was explained by President Joseph Fielding Smith when he taught, “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” (Doctrines of Salvation 3:203).
As a second witness to this principle, President Harold B. Lee taught, “I don’t care what his position is, if he writes something or speaks something that goes beyond anything that you can find in the standard church works, unless that one be the prophet, seer, and revelator—please note that one exception—you may immediately say, ‘Well, that is his own idea.’ And if he says something that contradicts what is found in the standard church works (I think that is why we call them ‘standard’—it is the standard measure of all that men teach), you may know by that same token that it is false, regardless of the position of the man who says it.” (The Place of the Living Prophet, Seer, and Revelator, CES talk, 8 July 1964, p. 14).
Both of these prophetic statements convey the idea that the reason we call our official scriptures the “standard works” is because they serve as a standard for measuring true doctrine. Another way to say this is that these books are our scriptural “canon” which literally means “a rod for testing straightness” (Canon, Bible Dictionary). If someone teaches something beyond what is in the scriptures, then that is their “personal, though well-considered, opinion” (Christofferson, Ensign May 2012). If what they teach contradicts the scriptures, then it is wrong. This is even true of the scriptures themselves. If an isolated verse is used to teach something that contradicts the rest of the standard works, then it is not accepted as doctrine.
Clearly, our doctrine is found in, and measured by, the holy scriptures.
The only problem with using scripture to discern doctrine is that scripture can be interpreted differently. The prophet Joseph Smith learned this early in his life when he observed that the question of which church was true could not be plainly answered from the Bible because everyone interpreted “the same passages of scripture so differently” (JS-H 1:12). This is why scripture is not sufficient in discerning doctrine. We need living prophets to interpret them.
Recently I was teaching seminary students about the role of the Book of Mormon and gave a geometry analogy to show how the Book of Mormon helps us interpret and understand the Bible. I taught that just like a single point can have infinite lines that intersect it, so the Bible standing alone can have infinite interpretations leading to thousands of Christian churches and belief systems. But if another point is added, represented by the Book of Mormon, then there could only be one line that intersected both points. This was how the Book of Mormon establishes and confirms biblical doctrines (see Elder Tad Callister, Nov. 2011 Ensign).
When I was done, a thoughtful student raised his hand and asked, “What is stopping us from doing the same thing with the Book of Mormon and Bible? How come we don’t interpret the scriptures in a thousand different ways?” I had never thought of that before, but instantly the answer came to my mind and heart. “It is because we have living prophets and apostles. They have the right to interpret scripture and the Church unites behind their teachings.”
As I have reflected on that inspired lesson I learned, I have realized that this is exactly the point the Apostle Paul was making when he taught, “And [Christ] gave some, apostles; and some, prophets … That we henceforth be no more children, tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine” (Eph. 4:12-14). “Every wind of doctrine” includes all the potential interpretations of scripture. One of the purposes of living prophets and apostles is to provide the standard for truth so that we are not deceived by all the different opinions and philosophies of the world.
No “scripture is of any private interpretation,” taught the Apostle Peter, because the scriptures were originally revealed to “holy men of God [who] spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost” (2 Peter 1:20-21). This means that we need prophets to understand prophets. We need living prophets who can read and interpret the scriptures by the same spirit of revelation by which the prophets of old originally received them.
In the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, we sustain 15 men as prophets, seers, and revelators. It is their calling to interpret scripture and teach the doctrine to the Church, under the direction of the President of the Church. It is our calling to echo their words and be in harmony with their teachings and interpretations of scripture. President J. Reuben Clark explained, “[We] should [bear] in mind that some of the General Authorities have had assigned to them a special calling; they possess a special gift; they are sustained as prophets, seers, and revelators, which gives them a special spiritual endowment in connection with their teaching of the people. They have the right, the power, and authority to declare the mind and will of God to his people, subject to the over-all power and authority of the President of the Church. Others of the General Authorities are not given this special spiritual endowment and authority covering their teaching; they have a resulting limitation, and the resulting limitation upon their power and authority in teaching applies to every other officer and member of the Church” (Church News, July 31, 1954; see Christofferson, Ensign May 2012).).
As a result, perhaps the simplest way to define Church doctrine is that it is what is currently being taught by our living prophets (see Michael Goodman 2017 LDS perspectives interview). All other teachings in the church should be in harmony with that. This standard even applies to the teachings of individual prophets, who must be in harmony with the other prophets of our day because “the spirits of the prophets are subject to the prophets” (1 Cor. 13:32; see Christofferson, Ensign May 2012).
The ultimate way to discern doctrine is by the spiritual confirmation of the Holy Ghost. Moroni concluded the Book of Mormon with the promise that “by the power of the Holy Ghost you may know the truth of all things” (Moro. 10:5). This means that we can each receive a spiritual confirmation of the truthfulness of any teaching we hear or read, if we are faithful and seek for it.
President Harold B. Lee promised, “We can know that they [living prophets] are speaking under inspiration if we so live that we can have a witness that what they are speaking is the word of the Lord” (The Place of the Living Prophet, Seer, and Revelator, CES talk, 8 July 1964). That witness can come in the very moment we hear them speak. By the peaceful whisperings of the still, small voice we can know for ourselves that the doctrine of the scriptures and living prophets is true. This is why the Spirit is always the true teacher of all doctrine (D&C 50:17-21).
But there is a caution with this. President Ezra Taft Benson explained that “This test can only be fully effective if one’s channels of communication with God are clean and virtuous and uncluttered” (Benson, BYU Speech May 10, 1966). This is because it is easy to confuse the confirmation of the Holy ghost with our own emotion and feelings. As a result, we may be tempted to reject true doctrine simply because we don’t like it and claim that this is the Spirit. The First Presidency has warned us, “When [personal revelation] conveys something out of harmony with the accepted revelations of the Church or contrary to the decisions of its constituted authorities, Latter-day Saints may know that it is not of God, no matter how plausible it may appear” (A Warning Voice, 1913).
These three questions will help us discern if a doctrine is true, but I believe there is one more test we should run on every doctrine we learn. We should ask: Does it lead to salvation?
Not all truths are created equal. Some doctrines are eternally more valuable than others. It takes discernment and spiritual maturity to identify what doctrine is the most valuable for us to study and teach. As Elder David A. Bednar taught, “Discernment is so much more than recognizing right from wrong. It helps us to distinguish the relevant from the irrelevant, the important from the unimportant, and the necessary from that which is merely nice” (Bednar, BYU Devotional May 2005).
Just as there are ordinances of salvation that we must receive to be saved, so there are doctrines of salvation that we must believe to be saved. Asking whether a doctrine leads to salvation helps us discern between core doctrines of salvation, supporting doctrines, and esoteric doctrines (see Sweat, Mackay, Dirkmaat, Evaluating Latter-day Saint Doctrine, 2016). It helps us know not just what is good to study and teach, but what is better and even best (see Dallin H. Oaks, Ensign Nov. 2007). The best doctrine centers in Jesus Christ and his restored gospel.
Detecting False Doctrine
Just as the Lord has given us tests to discern true doctrine, so He has provided tests to detect false doctrine. President Joseph F. Smith warned, “Among the Latter-day Saints, the preaching of false doctrines disguised as truths of the gospel, may be expected from people of two classes, and practically from these only; they are:
“First—The hopelessly ignorant, whose lack of intelligence is due to their indolence and sloth, who make but feeble effort, if indeed any at all, to better themselves by reading and study; those who are afflicted with a dread disease that may develop into an incurable malady—laziness.
“Second—The proud and self-vaunting ones, who read by the lamp of their own conceit; who interpret by rules of their own contriving; who have become a law unto themselves, and so pose as the sole judges of their own doings. More dangerously ignorant than the first.
“Beware of the lazy and the proud” (Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Joseph F. Smith p. 115-116).
As with true doctrine, not all false doctrine is created equal. Some is less dangerous than others. Elder Bruce R. McConkie explained, “I do not get troubled about an honest and sincere person who makes a mistake in doctrine, provided it is a mistake of … understanding, and provided that it is not on a great and fundamental principle.” He referred to these mistakes as “nonmalignant” doctrinal errors and explained, “If you err in some doctrines, and I have, and all of us have, what we want to do is get the further light and knowledge that we ought to receive and get our souls in tune and clarify our thinking” (McConkie, CES talk Sept. 18, 1981).
On the other hand, “false doctrine” is a label generally reserved for doctrinal teachings that lead to spiritual downfall. Although they can be deceptive, one simple way to discern them is that they almost always lead to sin. If a doctrine you hear is used to justify disobedience to God’s commandments, ignoring his prophets, or rejecting his restored church, you can know that it is false doctrine, regardless of how convincing it may seem.
Former BYU religion professor Robert L. Millet, summarized how to discern true doctrine in a simple, practical way when he taught, “In determining whether something is a part of the doctrine of the Church, we might ask, Is it found within the four standard works? Within official declarations or proclamations? Is it discussed in general conference or other official gatherings by general Church leaders today? Is it found in the general handbooks or approved curriculum of the Church today? If it meets at least one of these criteria, we can feel secure and appropriate about teaching it” (Millet, Religious Educator, 2003).
In a world that speaks of “your truth” and “my truth,” we must come to know “God’s truth.” His truth leads to salvation and is found in the doctrines of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
I love the doctrine of this church. I know that what President Boyd K. Packer taught is true, that “true doctrine, understood, changes attitudes and behaviors.” Learning the doctrines of the restored gospel changed my life and I know it has the power to change everyone who sincerely studies it.