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How to define LDS Church doctrine: BYU Professor Anthony R. Sweat offers these 4 guidelines

Anthony Sweat greets BYU Education Week attendees.
Anthony Sweat greets BYU Education Week attendees.
Trent Toone

Defining doctrine of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints can at times be no easy task for Sunday School teachers, said Professor Anthony R. Sweat at BYU Education Week.

“Some people say doctrine are only those things that are eternal and they never change,” said Sweat. “I have used that definition. I think it’s useful in some contexts.”

But there’s a problem, he continued.

“If I’m only using the word doctrine to define things that are eternal and unchanging, is the Word of Wisdom a doctrine of the church?” he asked the audience.

According to lds.org, the Word of Wisdom, or “law of health,” was originally revealed in 1833. The law states that some substances are harmful to the human body, including alcohol, tea, coffee and tobacco, the website states. And while members of the LDS Church may automatically assume that the Word of Wisdom is a doctrine of the faith, Sweat pointed out a conundrum:

“It obviously was not had in other dispensations in the form we have it and it was changed in our dispensation,” he said, noting that it therefore is not strictly eternal. “So by that definition, that limiting definition, I would have to say . . . the Word of Wisdom is not LDS doctrine.”

Still, Sweat noted that the Word of Wisdom is an important doctrine in the church—the definition of “doctrine” just needs to be given a broader definition, he said.

“I would say this: It’s authoritative teachings of the church,” he continued, citing an official statement made by Mormon Newsroom on the subject.

Breaking it down further, Sweat explained that doctrines can be categorized into four main areas:

  1. Core Doctrine — those essential for salvation, including faith, repentance and baptism

Supportive Doctrine — those that elaborate on core doctrine, but are not essential for salvation

Policy Doctrine — authoritative, binding teachings of the LDS Church involving application of core and supportive doctrines

Esoteric Doctrine — known perhaps by prophets or may have once been authoritatively taught in the church, but no longer are, and are not essential for salvation

To find essential doctrines in the church, Sweat suggested looking at official documents and statements issued by the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve, such as The Living Christ and The Family Proclamation. Each word has been approved by the brethren, which is no easy feat, he added.

“To bring 15 men together of diverse backgrounds who are strong-minded and opinionated and have had a lifetime of experience, and to get them all united is something,” Sweat said. “Trust me. In the religion department, sitting around with 30 Ph.D’s, it might be the millennium before we’re united in anything. And I say that with love to my fellow colleagues,” he joked.

Other ways to identify official doctrines include studying the Standard Works—the Bible, the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine & Covenants and the Pearl of Great Price—and seeing whether they are consistently taught throughout the scriptures. Church leaders who have repeatedly taught about a doctrine while in their official capacities can also be helpful, he said.

“I hope . . . that these models help you in your thinking about doctrine and whether doctrine’s official,” Sweat continued. “May it be a way to categorize and have discussions and come to your own learning as you seek to learn by study and by faith.”