Mormonism and doctrine/Changing
Is "Mormon doctrine" constantly changing?
- It is claimed that "Mormon doctrine" is constantly changing, and that attempts to define it are "fraught with peril."
- It is claimed that the idea that the words of living prophets supersede the words of dead prophets has been "recently" promoted.
- It is claimed that Mormon doctrine is very elusive - very little is claimed to be official, which makes it easy to repudiate certain doctrines when they become unpleasant or unfashionable.
- It is claimed that Church leaders are "loath" to make unequivocal statements of doctrine.
To see citations to the critical sources for these claims, click here
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints responds to these questions
"Approaching Mormon Doctrine," LDS Newsroom, (May 4, 2007)
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.
Apostles and prophets are human, fallible and subject to their own opinions and emotions just like the rest of humanity. This does not, however, diminish their capacity to speak in the name of the Lord on issues which affect our eternal salvation. We pay heed to the words of the living prophet who has been called to guide the church in our time, while relying upon the standard works to help us understand and confirm these teachings.
It is claimed by some that the Church frequently changes its doctrine. They point to teachings of early church leaders such as Brigham Young (often quoting from the Journal of Discourses) and criticize modern church leaders for not accepting or implementing every pronouncement recorded by these early leaders.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is led by a living prophet, who is authorized to speak on the Lord’s behalf to the Church to address the issues of our day. We value the words and teachings of prophets who have lived in the past. We are encouraged to study the scriptures in order to apply the lessons taught by these great individuals to our present lives. Each prophet who has lived was called to teach and guide the people of their specific time. The situations which we face in today’s society are unique to us, and dealing with them requires the ongoing guidance of a living prophet.
We are fortunate to have so many detailed teachings of the early prophets of the restoration. There is much wisdom to be gained by studying their counsel. It is not, however, reasonable to expect that everything taught by Joseph Smith or Brigham Young applies to us today. Many things that these men taught were relevant to the 19th century church. In order to help us determine how to apply the teachings of past prophets to our present lives, we have a living prophet.
In 1981, Ezra Taft Benson said:
- The living prophet is more important to us than a dead prophet.
- God’s revelation to Adam did not instruct Noah how to build the Ark. Noah needed his own revelation. Therefore the most important prophet so far as you and I are concerned is the one living in our day and age to whom the Lord is currently revealing His will for us. Therefore the most important reading we can do is any of the words of the prophet contained each month in our Church Magazines. Our instructions about what we should do for each six months are found in the General Conference addresses which are printed in the Church magazine.
- Beware of those who would set up the dead prophets against the living prophets, for the living prophets always take precedence.
Prophets are not scientists: Their views of science tend to reflect the prevailing views of the time. For example, Brigham Young expressed a number of opinions regarding science that one would consider very humorous or even outlandish today, such as the suggestion that the moon and the sun were inhabited.
Modern day prophets are no more immune to the current thinking of their day. On May 14, 1961, Apostle (and future Church president) Joseph Fielding Smith declared that “We will never get a man into space. This earth is man's sphere and it was never intended that he should get away from it.” As much as critics would like to declare this a “failed prophecy,” would it be reasonable to expect the Church to teach such a thing in light of current knowledge?
The Apostle (and future leader of Christ’s church) Peter denied Christ three times. Applying the same standard to Peter’s statement that the Church’s critics apply to 19th century prophets, one would have to interpret this to mean that future church leaders would be forced to teach that Christ was not actually the Son of God! After all, Peter went on to become the head of Christ’s church, and was therefore a prophet.
Joseph Fielding Smith clarifies how members need to compare what church leaders teach to the standard works:
- 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.
- Ezra Taft Benson, "Fourteen Fundamentals in Following the Prophet," Ensign (June 1981).
- Joseph Fielding Smith, Doctrines of Salvation, comp. Bruce R. McConkie, 3 vols., (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1954–56), 203.