Can Church Leaders Hold The Saints To Account For Non-Canonized Teachings?

Leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (“Church leaders”) hold members of the Church (“Saints”) to account for living within the doctrines of the church, and also set the boundaries of where the Saints have contravened doctrine enough to warrant church discipline. 

Church discipline is a sensitive practice, but one which Church leaders feel duty-bound to implement based on scriptures such as 3 Nephi 18:31-32

But if he repent not he shall not be numbered among my people, that he may not destroy my people, for behold I know my sheep, and they are numbered.

Nevertheless, ye shall not cast him out of your synagogues, or your places of worship, for unto such shall ye continue to minister; for ye know not but what they will return and repent, and come unto me with full purpose of heart, and I shall heal them; and ye shall be the means of bringing salvation unto them.

The same practice is also referred to in other scriptures such as in Mosiah 26:36 1, D&C 1:14 2, Romans 16:17 3, 2 John 1:10-11 4 and 1 Corinthians 5:1-4, 6-9, 115.

One difficulty for many Saints though, is knowing what they can and will actually be held to account for by Church leaders. Saints frequently disagree on which teachings by Church leaders are doctrine and if contravened, could potentially be subject to church discipline. This issue is increasingly relevant based question 7 of the temple recommend questions announced in October  2019:

Do you support or promote any teachings, practices, or doctrine contrary to those of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints?6

It is assumed that answering negatively to this question could result in a temple recommend being denied. 

Common Consent

In many ways, the practice of common consent partially addresses this issue. 

Common consent is a practice in the church revealed to Joseph Smith and referenced in one form or another during the lifetimes of Moses (Exodus 24:3), Joshua (Numbers 27:19–22), Peter (Acts 1:26), and Mosiah (Mosiah 29:25–26)7. It allows the members to sustain or oppose decisions by Church leaders such as new scriptures, policies, or callings. Robert E. Quinn explains:

Common consent is a fundamental principle of decision making at all levels in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. In selecting new officers and making administrative decisions, Church leaders are instructed to seek the will of God. Once the Lord makes his will known and a decision is reached, the matter is brought before the appropriate quorum or body of Church members, who are asked to sustain or oppose the action. This process provides for direction of the Church by revelation, while protecting the agency of the members to verify in their own minds whether decisions have been proper and made according to the will of God.

The principle of common consent has functioned in the Church since its inception, though the actual practices incorporating this principle have evolved significantly.8

The clearest indication that the Saints may, and are willing to be held to account by Church leaders for contravening doctrine, is for that which has been put to common consent and sustained as scripture.

Commenting on this, Elder B.H. Roberts said: 

The Church has confined the sources of doctrine by which it is willing to be bound before the world to the things that God has revealed, and which the Church has officially accepted, and those alone. These would include the Bible, the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, the Pearl of Great Price; these have been repeatedly accepted and endorsed by the Church in general conference assembled, and are the only sources of absolute appeal for our doctrine.”9

While the practice of common consent is the clearest indication that the Saints are to be held to account by Church leaders, are the Saints only be held to account by Church leaders for that which has been accepted by common consent? 

Reductio Ad Absurdum 

If the Saints are indeed only to be held to account by Church leaders for that which has been accepted by common consent, then it must be necessary that Church leaders put their interpretations of what has been put to common consent back to common consent, in order to hold the Saints to account for it. This is absurd as shown below.

Scriptures by their very nature, must be interpreted. For example Exodus 20:13 says: “Thou shalt not kill” but which interpretation of these words should Church leaders hold the Saints to account for? If it is necessary that Church leaders put their interpretation of scriptures back to common consent, then their interpretation (which is now scripture) suffers the same fate and must be interpreted and put back to common consent ad infinitum. 

So long as every interpretation itself must be interpreted (which is the case), then if it is necessary that Church leaders put their interpretation of what has already been put to common consent back to common consent, then it must also be necessary that Church leaders put their interpretation of their interpretation back to common consent, ad infinitum. 

Therefore we can conclude that one of the infinite levels of possible interpretations must at some point suffice. Or in other words:

It is not necessary that Church leaders put their interpretation of what has been put to common consent back to common consent, in order to hold the Saints to account for it. 

As a practical example, Church leaders have an interpretation of Exodus 20:13, which itself must be interpreted. But neither the interpretation of Exodus 20:13, nor the interpretation of the interpretation has been put to common consent, despite the fact that it is used as the basis for determining whether to administer church discipline. The initial interpretation is deemed sufficient. 

It could be argued that the scriptures claim that it is in fact necessary that Church leaders put their interpretation of what has been put to common consent, back to common consent. D&C 26:2 says:

And all things shall be done by common consent in the church, by much prayer and faith, for all things you shall receive by faith. Amen.10

But how should this scripture be interpreted? Does all things literally mean all things? If so then as shown above this would be absurd. If all things is interpreted to literally mean all things, then it would also require every minute and mundane detail of the affairs of the church to be put to common consent. Church leaders do not interpret this scripture to literally mean all things, and as shown above, it is not necessary that they put this interpretation of what has been put to common consent, back to common consent.

The Family Proclamation

If it is not necessary that Church leaders put their interpretation of what has been put to common consent back to common consent, then the Saints should be prepared to possibly be held to account for teachings which were not put to common consent. However, what would that likely be, if anything? If the Saints were to be held to account for something which was not explicitly put to common consent we would expect that it would likely be something which is:

  • Taught currently, rather than only taught previously
  • Taught repeatedly, rather than only taught infrequently
  • Taught by many Church leaders, rather than by just a few
  • Taught consistently, rather that sometimes being contradicted
  • Taught as based on scripture, rather than as something new
  • Taught as fundamental to the message of the gospel, rather than as something minor and incidental to the message of the gospel 
  • Taught to the world at large, rather than just being taught as relevant to the Saints
  • Officially published and made freely available, rather than restricted and difficult to find

The Family Proclamation is a textbook example of this criteria. It has been repeatedly taught by Church leaders since 1995 as based on scripture. The principles are not occasionally contradicted by some Church leaders, the content is fundamental to the core message of the gospel and it is taught to the world at large and officially published and made freely available. 

Church leaders have noticeably claimed that the Family Proclamation is doctrine. President Dallin H. Oaks said:

Elder Andersen taught this principle: “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.” 

The family proclamation, signed by all 15 prophets, seers, and revelators, is a wonderful illustration of that principle. 11

Not only has it been claimed to be doctrine, but it has been claimed as a reaffirmation of existing doctrine based on scripture (which was put to common consent). A statement by the Council of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve in response to the Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage in the United States said: 

the Church’s teachings on these subjects are grounded in the scriptural declarations of God’s eternal plan for the salvation and exaltation of His children and are framed in “The Family: A Proclamation to the World.”12

Similarly David B. Haight said:

That marvelous document [the Proclamation] brings together the scriptural direction that we have received that has guided the lives of God’s children from the time of Adam and Eve and will continue to guide us until the final winding-up scene.13

While it is not argued here that the Saints should or will be held to account for the Family Proclamation, if the Saints were to be held to account for something by Church leaders which has not explicitly been put to common consent, it would likely be the Family Proclamation. Which is understood by Church leaders to be a correct interpretation of what has already been accepted by common consent. 

Conclusion 

This article proposes that it is not necessary that Church leaders put their interpretation of what has been put to common consent, back to common consent, in order to hold the Saints to account for it. 

It could intuitively be argued that while it is not necessary that Church leaders put to common consent that which they will hold the Saints to account for; specific things (such as the Family Proclamation) should be put to common consent if the Saints are to be held to account for it. Perhaps because the interpretation is highly controversial or contravening the interpretation mandates church discipline. This is a separate argument which carries a burden of proof and merits a separate discussion. 
However as shown above, so long as the Family Proclamation is an interpretation of scripture (whether we agree with the interpretation or not), it would be absurd to claim that Church leaders cannot hold the Saints to account for it simply because it has not been put to common consent.

  1. And those that would not confess their sins and repent of their iniquity, the same were not numbered among the people of the church, and their names were blotted out.[]
  2. And the arm of the Lord shall be revealed; and the day cometh that they who will not hear the voice of the Lord, neither the voice of his servants, neither give heed to the words of the prophets and apostles, shall be cut off from among the people;[]
  3. Now I beseech you, brethren, mark them which cause divisions and offences contrary to the doctrine which ye have learned; and avoid them[]
  4. If there come any unto you, and bring not this doctrine, receive him not into your house, neither bid him God speed:  For he that biddeth him God speed is partaker of his evil deeds.[]
  5. But now I have written unto you not to keep company, if any man that is called a brother be a fornicator, or covetous, or an idolater, or a railer, or a drunkard, or an extortioner; with such an one no not to eat.[]
  6. https://newsroom.churchofjesuschrist.org/multimedia/file/first-presidency-temple-recommend-letter.pdf[]
  7. https://rsc.byu.edu/archived/sperry-symposium-classics-doctrine-and-covenants/11-law-common-consent-dc-26-0[]
  8. https://eom.byu.edu/index.php/Common_Consent[]
  9. Official Doctrine. Brigham H. Roberts, sermon of 10 July 1921, delivered in Salt Lake Tabernacle, printed in Deseret News (23 July 1921) sec. 4:7.[]
  10. Also see D&C 28:13[]
  11. https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/general-conference/2019/10/17oaks?lang=eng. See also https://www.fairmormon.org/answers/Question:_Is_the_Mormon_document_%22The_Family:_A_Proclamation_to_the_World%22_official_doctrine%3F[]
  12. https://newsroom.churchofjesuschrist.org/article/top-church-leaders-counsel-members-after-supreme-court-same-sex-marriage-decision[]
  13. David B. Haight, “Be A Strong Link,” Ensign (November 2000).[]