"The 4 May 2007 Statement of the LDS Church:
"Approaching Mormon Doctrine""
Valerie M. Hudson
SquareTwo, Vol. 2 No. 2 (Summer 2009)
On May 4, 2007, the LDS Church issued a statement that has gone unnoticed by many members of the Church. However, this statement is of profound importance, as it addresses several longstanding sources of bewilderment and even at times dismay within the membership. Furthermore, this statement enables members to address queries from non-members on much firmer footing than heretofore possible.
What is this unnoticed statement? Why, you can read it here yourself (http://newsroom.lds.org/article/approaching-mormon-doctrine). The statement addresses the thorny issue of what is and is not LDS doctrine.
Before discussing this declaration in detail, it is worth noting the context in which the statement was issued. By May 2007, several events were unfolding or about to unfold in an almost perfect media storm for the Church: the FLDS brouhaha in Texas, the Proposition 8 imbroglio in California, episodes of the TV series Big Love openly discussing sacred LDS beliefs and practices, and the occasion of a high-profile presidential campaign by Mitt Romney. Americans were asking serious questions about Mormons, their beliefs, and their practices in a way that had not been seen in over a century.
And many of the answers Americans were getting—from those not especially friendly to the Church—were quite troubling. Mike Huckabee professed shock in a high-profile New York Times Magazine article that Mormons thought Satan was Jesus’ brother. Mitt Romney was asked if he really believed the Garden of Eden was in Missouri. Jon Krakauer made much of Brigham Young’s statements about blood atonement in his book about the Lafferty brothers. The FLDS were also dishing out Brigham Young quotes like candy to justify their polygamist practices. HBO’s Big Love used sensational episodes to garner viewers, in the process confusing and even alarming Americans about Mormon beliefs. Mitt Romney felt pressured to give a major speech about how he could credibly become a US president while being a Mormon. In fact, Romney’s loss in the Republican primary was attributed almost entirely to his religious affiliation. Surveys showed there were Republicans who would rather vote for a Democrat than vote for a Mormon. Polls showed that almost half of Americans had a negative view of Mormons. We are sure the public relations department of the Church had several new cases of ulcers among its staff at this time, many arising from the challenge of how to explicate what is and what is not Church doctrine.
Furthermore, even careful LDS observers have noted, “Mormons lack a clear rule that allows them to identify what is or is not Church doctrine. The various possibilities—teachings that have been formally added to the standard works, statements that have been formally accepted in general conference, statements that have been made by prophets and apostles in the appropriate context, etc.—all turn out to be over- or under-inclusive when examined in detail”  (Oman, 2007, 2).
The 4 May statement operated like the opening of a pressure valve, releasing some strain caused by perceived tensions that have troubled many faithful members at one time or another felt in certain areas of Mormon doctrine. Let’s go through the statement in more detail.
I. Consistent and Current
“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 and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles counsel together to establish doctrine that is consistently proclaimed in official Church publications. This doctrine resides in the four “standard works” of scripture, official declaration and proclamations, and the Articles of Faith. Isolated statements are often taken out of context, leaving their original meaning distorted.”
Where is Mormon doctrine to be found? Apparently, one should not look for its definitive expression in a BYU devotional speech or a talk at a regional conference. You will find Mormon doctrine in the standard works as repeated in statements that are in official Church publications and which are found consistently in those publications over time—and that time must include the present.
Elder Dallin H. Oaks provides elaboration:
“A desire to follow a prophet is surely a great and appropriate strength, but even this has its potentially dangerous manifestations. I have heard of more than one group so intent on following the words of a dead prophet that they have rejected the teachings and counsel of the living ones. Satan has used that corruption from the beginning of the Restoration. . . . Following the prophet is a great strength, but it needs to be consistent and current, lest it lead to the spiritual downfall that comes from rejecting continuous revelation. Under that principle, the most important difference between dead prophets and living ones is that those who are dead are not here to receive and declare the Lord’s latest words to his people. If they were [alive], there would be no differences among the messages of the prophets.
This section of the 4 May 2007 statement, in concert with the elaboration by Elder Oaks, addresses some of the fuzziness noted by Oman, as discussed above, and begins to approach, as Oman terms it, a “rule of recognition.”  A teaching which was commonly taught in Church classes until the 1950s, for example, but has not been taught since then may not be Mormon doctrine. A teaching taught in one General Conference talk twenty years ago but never again repeated may not be Mormon doctrine. Even a teaching taught by President Brigham Young in the nineteenth century may or may not be Mormon doctrine in the twenty-first century. For this reason, if you submit an article for consideration by the Ensign which relies for authority on such types of statements, you will be asked for more current sources to buttress these.
It is also true that the LDS faith community acknowledges there may be times when a Church leader is not speaking under the influence of the Spirit. Robert Millet states that just as LDS members do not believe that everything in the Bible represents the word of the Almighty, even though they still reverence the Bible, so “we can sustain with all our hearts the prophets and apostles without believing that they are perfect or that everything they say or do is exactly what God wants said and done. In short, we do not believe in apostolic or prophetic infallibility. Moses made mistakes, but we love and sustain him and accept his writings nonetheless. Peter made mistakes, but we still honor him and study his words. Paul made mistakes, but we admire his boldness and dedication and treasure his epistles.”  According to the 4 May statement, then, not all that Moses or Peter or Paul—or Brigham Young--have written or taught is Church doctrine. We must first ask, has it been consistently taught over time, including the present, in official Church publications?
For many LDS who have squirmed through Sunday School lessons where teachings that clearly seemed at odds with Mormon doctrine as we currently understand it were promulgated because some Church leader has sometime, somewhere said something to that effect, this means they need no longer squirm—they can raise their hand and recite the above paragraph from the 4 May 2007 statement instead. (I suggest taping it inside the back of your scriptures for just such occasions!) Such recitation does not prove the statement is not Church doctrine, but places upon the person wishing to attribute authority to the statement the burden of documenting whether such a statement can be found in the standard works and has been consistently stated up to the present in official Church publications. If it hasn’t, it is not “officially binding for the whole Church.” Robert Millet would add to the recitation, "Yes, [these things] were taught, but they do not represent the doctrine of our Church” (emphasis added).  Need we point out that such recitation should be done without contention and in a spirit of charity?
I remember when my eldest son came home from Sunday School when he was 16 (in 2000) to ask me if I knew that Heavenly Father had married Mary and then “lent” her to Joseph! We had a long talk about discerning what was Mormon doctrine and what was Mormon hearsay: how wonderful to now have an official Church statement on hand for any future conversations in this vein!
Robert Millet seems to have had a similar experience after an inter-denominational fireside in which he was asked to expound on basic LDS doctrine:
“After the meeting, a Latter-day Saint woman came up to me and said, "You didn't tell the truth about what we believe!"
Simply put, a member is not required to believe anything that is not Mormon doctrine, no matter how traditional or longstanding the hearsay or how prominent the source. Furthermore, members probably have an obligation to say something when another member asserts that such a requirement exists. Why? For the sake of future generations in the Church: we owe them something better. Millet quotes a First Presidency statement of 1865 as saying,
“We do not wish incorrect and unsound doctrines to be handed down to posterity under the sanction of great names to be received and valued by future generations as authentic and reliable, creating labor and difficulties for our successors to perform and contend with, which we ought not to transmit to them. The interests of posterity are, to a certain extent, in our hands." 
Now, as Oman points out, even teachings in the standard works may involve contestability. Here, again, the 4 May 2007 statement may be of assistance. Oman points out that the Church has not tried to limit meat consumption, indicated as normative in D&C 89. Missionaries today go out with a (small) purse and scrip, contrary to statements in the New Testament. The rule of consistent proclamation in official Church publications, with the time period of interest of necessity including the present, does seem to help in these specific cases, relieving a sense of tension that might otherwise be present. Perhaps one day these particular scriptural teachings on meat and scrip may be again the subject of official Church proclamation, but in the meantime, we don’t need to worry about it.
Furthermore, there may be some things that are empirically true, but are not Church doctrine. For example, suppose it were true that Jesus had curly hair, or that Joseph Smith’s favorite color was blue. No matter how true these statements might be, they are not and never will be Church doctrine.
II. Peripheral and Central
Following immediately after this paragraph, we find another helpful point that follows naturally from the first:
“Some doctrines are more important than others and might be considered core doctrines. For example, the precise location of the Garden of Eden is far less important than doctrine about Jesus Christ and His atoning sacrifice. The mistake that public commentators often make is taking an obscure teaching that is peripheral to the Church’s purpose and placing it at the very center. This is especially common among reporters or researchers who rely on how other Christians interpret Latter-day Saint doctrine.”
Again, it is difficult not to rejoice and shout “amen” at this statement. Figuring out what is central to one’s testimony of the truthfulness of the Restored Gospel and what is peripheral is an important aspect of maturation in one’s spiritual life. Making peripheral elements central, or making central elements peripheral, both lead to sorrow because each stems from an erroneous judgment. These errors in judgment can lead to brittle, fragile testimonies that shatter at the first challenge. One of the beauties of having a living prophet is that over time it becomes more and more clear what is peripheral and what is fundamental.
An example of this was discussed in the last regional conference I attended, where a visiting authority spoke to us of a community in Utah he had recently visited where the members were building, by hand, handcarts to take them to Missouri, but refused to do their home teaching because they were too busy in handcart production. Most LDS splinter groups start in this way, putting the peripheral as the central, and the central as peripheral, and losing all perspective in the process.
Elder Oaks suggests some of these peripheral issues become all-consuming hobbies, and notes, “Beware of a hobby key. If you tap one key to the exclusion or serious detriment of the full harmony of the gospel keyboard, Satan can use your strength to bring you down.” 
In addition to harming themselves, those in the LDS community who make these errors in judgment lay heavy burdens upon the newly converted, who feel pressured to believe in all sorts of “obscure” teachings as part of their new membership in the Church. My own husband was taught as a convert that the lost tribes of Israel were hiding in the center of the earth—what a ridiculous and unnecessary burden to attempt to place on a new member! As one reviewer of this essay rightly notes, it may well be that “church members have an obligation to avoid speculating on peripheral doctrines in the presence of new converts and nonmembers” [emphasis added].
Robert Millet adds, “[I]t is as important for us to know what we do not know as it is for us to know what we know. Far too many things are taught or discussed or even argued about that fit into the realm of the unrevealed and thus the unresolved. Such matters, particularly if they do not fall within the range of revealed truth we teach today, do not edify or inspire. Often, very often, they lead to confusion and sow discord.” 
The complementary error in judgment arises when we treat central doctrine lightly. Teachings such as those found in “The Family Proclamation” are not to be casually brushed aside, no matter how anachronistic or insensitive they might seem to some modern minds. Indeed, our natural tendencies towards love, tolerance, and acceptance may lead us to this error of treating central doctrine lightly. Elder Oaks comments, “Love is an ultimate quality, and tolerance is its handmaiden. Love and tolerance are pluralistic qualities—encompassing all—and that is their strength, but it is also the source of their potential distortion. Love and tolerance are incomplete unless they are accompanied by a concern for truth and a commitment to the unity that God has commanded of his servants. Carried to an undisciplined excess, love and tolerance can produce indifference to truth and justice and opposition to unity. What makes mankind free from death and sin is not merely love but love accompanied by truth.” 
Our commitment to the central truths of the Gospel must match our commitment to love our neighbor as ourselves: there will always be times when the first commitment forecloses interpretive possibilities we would otherwise seriously consider.
III. Continuing Revelation
Four subsidiary points are also listed in the 4 May statement, and we will touch upon two of those here. The first is:
“[T]he Church does not preclude future additions or changes to its teachings or practices. This living, dynamic aspect of the Church provides flexibility in meeting those challenges. According to the Articles of Faith, “We believe all that God has revealed, all that He does now reveal, and we believe that He will yet reveal many great and important things pertaining to the Kingdom of God.”
When coupled with the statement on peripheral and central doctrine, the 9th Article of Faith is understood to have bounds. If—if—we are spiritually mature enough to understand what is peripheral to the Restored Gospel and what is central, our testimonies will not be shaken when God sees fit to reveal to us further light and knowledge, or to reveal things more specifically applicable to our time. Things that are more peripheral may well change dramatically, as they did in 1890 and 1978.
Indeed, Elder Oaks warns us to be wary of asserting reasons for peripheral commandments, just because we may find ourselves one day in the uncomfortable position of having to eat our words as God reveals more, perhaps upending what we had labored so hard to vindicate by our reasoning. He states, “Some people put reasons to [commandments that were changed], and they turned out to be spectacularly wrong. There is a lesson in that. The lesson I've drawn from that [is that] I decided a long time ago that I had faith in the command and I had no faith in the reasons that had been suggested for it . . . The whole set of reasons seemed to me to be unnecessary risk taking. . . . The reasons turn out to be man-made to a great extent. The revelations are what we sustain as the will of the Lord and that's where safety lies.” 
But the central teachings will not change, period, though they may receive further clarification and we may be provided with a deeper understanding than was given before. The 4 May statement quotes the Prophet Joseph Smith on this very point: “The fundamental principles of our religion are the testimony of the Apostles and Prophets, concerning Jesus Christ, that He died, was buried, and rose again the third day, and ascended into heaven; and all other things which pertain to our religion are only appendages to it.”
IV. Personal Confirmation
The last point we will consider from the 4 May statement harmonizes nicely with all that has preceded it: “Individual members are encouraged to independently strive to receive their own spiritual confirmation of the truthfulness of Church doctrine.”
Several layers of meaning come to mind when reading this statement. There are some doctrines and teachings of the Church that an individual member will immediately recognize as true and embrace naturally. In the happiest cases, that includes all the central teachings of the Church. But as Oman rightly note, in a sense this agreement does not make us grow spiritually:
“The key question for the authority of Church doctrine thus comes in justifying its claims in those cases where we are otherwise disposed to reject its substantive conclusions. The question is vital for both practical and philosophical reasons. Practically, it is of importance because it is precisely in those cases that Church doctrine is potentially the most valuable. To the extent that Church doctrine simply tracks my substantive beliefs there is a sense in which it is not really all that practically important to me. Furthermore, if I am willing to grant legitimacy to the claims of Church doctrine only in those cases where I already substantively agree with it, there is a sense in which it lacks any power to teach or change me. It is precisely those instances where I find myself in disagreement with the substantive content of Church doctrine that it has the real possibility of altering or changing my beliefs and behaviors.” 
In other words, there probably will arise cases where we do feel a struggle within ourselves concerning particular teachings. Let’s walk through a series of possibilities in relation to the question of struggling with a particular Church doctrine.
a) Is it really Church doctrine today, or is there even Church doctrine on this issue?
In cases where we struggle, we should first ask, in accord with the 4 May statement, “Is this really Mormon doctrine? Is it in the standard works, and has it been consistently taught unto the present in official Church publications?” It may be that the answer is no, and there the struggle may have a natural end—there is no mandate to believe something that is not Mormon doctrine; such things are not “officially binding for the whole Church.” And there is no requirement to sit on one’s hands in Sunday School when things that are not Mormon doctrine are preached to be such. Several of my students have found great peace as they have understood that the LDS doctrinal hearsay that all will practice polygamy in the celestial kingdom is actually not Mormon doctrine as defined by the 4 May statement. With this understanding, they have felt empowered to speak up, and have in this way altered for the better the dynamics of many a Sunday School lesson in their wards, lifting “five hundred pound weights” from the shoulders of those in class.
It is also possible that this is a question on which Church doctrine is silent, or offers several possible answers, and we should not be afraid of these situations. We can openly and unapologetically say that Church doctrine is silent, or that there are several possible answers congruent with Church doctrine. It is not hurtful in any way to do so. In fact, our best discussions may come as we try to probe the limits of Church doctrine’s contestability. For example, Richard Sherlock has persuasively argued that even though Church doctrine is silent on embryonic stem cell research, it may not be possible for Mormons to hold a complete spectrum of opinion on this controversial issue. We are given correct principles so that we may reason, among other things, what the limits of opinion-holding are in such circumstances. Oman notes, “Mormon texts, practices, and history will foreclose certain answers even while they make other answers more likely, all the while not definitively laying the matter to rest. Hence, on some questions – such as the location of towns in the Virginia tidewater – Church Doctrine is simply silent. On other questions, however, the answer might be something like, “Well, under Church Doctrine there are a couple of possible answers…” 
b) Is it peripheral?
If the matter we struggle over does in fact seem to be Mormon doctrine, and is not comparatively open to several possible interpretations, we can then apply the second criterion from the 4 May statement: is it peripheral, when I might be assuming it is central? If it is peripheral, maybe I shouldn’t invest in a lengthy struggle, for it may well change in the future, or there may be clarification in the future that makes my current struggle unfruitful until that greater light and knowledge is given. In such cases, it is entirely appropriate to ask the Spirit if this is an issue you can just reserve judgment on, holding it in limbo on the grounds that it is peripheral and you struggle with it, even though you do not struggle with central doctrines, and that you choose to wait for future developments you anticipate will come. For example, you can be fully active in your ward and hold a temple recommend with a clear conscience even if you feel deeply conflicted for some reason about where the Garden of Eden was originally located.
In other cases, it is not personal belief, which is largely invisible, but practice that is involved. In this case, it may be necessary to continue the practice in good faith while inwardly “reserving judgment” about the content of a peripheral belief. For example, a good friend was told by her bishop that she must tithe the child support she was receiving from her ex-husband, even though her ex-husband had demanded that “his” money not go to the Church, which institution he detested, and even though the IRS does not count child support as income that need be reported on a 1040 form. My friend thought it through carefully, and felt the bishop was wrong, and that this requirement was not Church doctrine. She went again to the bishop and described her concerns. He repeated his injunction that she must tithe the child support. She decided to accept his decision in the spirit of sacrifice involved, acknowledging that he had the authority and stewardship to decide what was acceptable tithing for the ward while he was bishop. Though she remained convinced the bishop was wrong, she tithed the child support without becoming bitter. She also determined that if her ex-husband asked her if she was tithing the child support, she would tell the truth. To her delight, and convinced this was a miracle, her ex-husband never asked her. After that first bishop was released, this sister discovered that the new bishop in the ward did not think that child support necessarily should be tithed! Nevertheless, she does not regret having paid tithing on her child support under her first bishop, feeling that if that was the worst sacrifice she would be called upon by ecclesiastical authority to make in this life, that was a light thing. This sister had the insight that a peripheral issue was simply that and no more.
Of course, there be instances when ecclesiastical leaders, such as a bishop, have wrongly stepped beyond their stewardship, and in such cases, their counsel is simply not binding on a member of their ward. And there may be very rare instances when a local ecclesiastical authority is clearly wrong on central doctrine, and in those instances, their authority is moot, and higher authorities should be informed of the issue in order to re-educate the leader in question.
c) Can it bring you closer if you bear with the struggle?
Last, there may be times when you struggle with a central doctrine, or what sincerely feels to you to be a central doctrine. For example, issues of the eternal nature of the family are not mentioned in the list Joseph Smith gave (see above), but few would argue that these issues are not central to the LDS belief system. I had such an experience fifteen years ago when I was struggling to come to a spiritual confirmation of Church teachings about women. It was a searing time, a time of great pain. It would have been so helpful to have had the 4 May statement at that point in my life, because I could have more easily cleared away the underbrush of non-doctrinal teachings and put them to the side as having no binding claim on my beliefs. That brush clearing was the necessary first step to have an honest struggle with God over these issues.
That struggle, though painful, did not lead me away from the Church. In fact, the more I struggled—which involved a tremendous amount of research, thought, writing, listening—the greater the capacity became to learn from the Spirit. As Hugh Nibley once said, “God can’t pour a one-gallon revelation into a one-cup mind.” The struggle itself created new capacities that had not previously existed. And with those new capacities came the ability to see Church teachings on women in a new light, with unanticipated clarifications from the Spirit that led to a deeper understanding than I had ever dared hope to obtain, and to “good news” that I dared not hope would be as good as it really turned out to be. And I knew I had finished the struggle when the pain was not brushed under the rug so as to maintain the outward appearance of faith without the inward conviction, but rather when the pain was resolved in full, with full healing and full cessation of the pain. And with the cessation of that pain, and with a deeper testimony and understanding, I could lift my voice with true confidence, rather than with a quavering voice of hopeful speculation.  My journey—for it took years—brought me closer to the Church, not farther from it. I am grateful that the Church “encourages individual members to independently strive to receive their own spiritual confirmation of the truthfulness of Church doctrine.” That encouragement was a great source of strength in a time of real trial, and was the means of profound spiritual growth for me as a child and daughter of God.
In conclusion, while we have not discussed every point in the 4 May statement, this essay has hopefully persuaded readers to ponder its entirety for themselves. This is an immensely important and practical set of tools that has been given to every member of the Church at a time when those tools may be crucial in helping us navigate an ever more confusing moral landscape. Many thanks are due those who authored the 4 May 2007 statement, and may the statement enjoy a wide readership among Church members.
ADDENDUM, 26 June 2010: We can see some of these principles in action in the Church's recent repudiation of the teaching of "blood atonement" in a statement issued 16 June 2010:
"In the mid-19th century, when rhetorical, emotional oratory was common, some church members and leaders used strong language that included notions of people making restitution for their sins by giving up their own lives.
Notice that even strong statements by Church leaders in the past do not make a teaching into a doctrine. For something to be doctrine, it must be consistently stated in official Church publications, and the time period of those publications must include the present. Remember, teachings that are not doctrine have no claim upon any member of the Church: you are not required to believe or act upon that which is not doctrine.
"Dale Bills, a spokesman for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, said in a statement released Tuesday [16 May 2006]: 'The belief that Christ was married has never been official church doctrine. It is neither sanctioned nor taught by the church. While it is true that a few church leaders in the mid-1800s expressed their opinions on the matter, it was not then, and is not now, church doctrine.'"
Notice that even though Church leaders did preach that Jesus was married, this statement asserts that not only is this teaching not doctrine now, it was not even doctrine at the time when those Church leaders taught it.
 Nathan Oman, A Defense of the Authority of Church Doctrine, Dialogue, Vol. 40, No, 4 , Winter 2007, pp 1-28, quote on p. 2. http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1031022&rec=1&srcabs=1030862 . [Back to manuscript]
 Nathan B. Oman, Jurisprudence and the Problem of Church Doctrine, Element, Vol. 2, Issue 2, Fall 2006, pp 1-20, quote p. 6. http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/Delivery.cfm/SSRN_ID1030862_code331634.pdf?abstractid=1030862 . [Back to manuscript]
 Millet, Robert L., “What Is Our Doctrine?” Religious Educator, Provo: Religious Studies Center, BYU, Vol 4 No 3 2003, 15-33, quote p. 20. http://www.ldsces.org/xml/iws/60500/RLM%20What%20is%20Our%20Doctrine.pdf . [Back to manuscript]
 Millet, ibid, p. 18. [Back to manuscript]
 Millet, ibid., p. 24. [Back to manuscript]
 Millet, ibid., quoted on p. 22. [Back to manuscript]
 Oaks, op cit. [Back to manuscript]
 Millet, op cit., p. 30. [Back to manuscript]
 Oaks, op cit. [Back to manuscript]
 Millet, op cit., quoted on p. 27. [Back to manuscript]
 Oman, 2007, op cit., p. 5. [Back to manuscript]
 Oman, 2006, op cit., p. 10. [Back to manuscript]
 Alma Don Sorensen and Valerie Hudson Cassler, Women in Eternity, Women of Zion, Springville: Cedar Fort, 2004, http://www.amazon.com/Women-Eternity-Zion-Valerie-Hudson/dp/1555177433/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1248101082&sr=8-2 . [Back to manuscript]
Full Citation for This Article: Hudson, Valerie M. (2009) "The 4 May 2007 Statement of the LDS Church: "Approaching Mormon Doctrine,"" SquareTwo, Vol. 2 No. 2 (Summer), http://squaretwo.org/Sq2ArticleHudson4May.html, accessed [give access date].
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