“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”, Joseph Smith
While researching information for a different future post, I stumbled upon a resource which replicates an official LDS Church statement defining "doctrine". The statement, originally posted on the LDS website back on May 4th, 2007, and replicated on the Mormon Stories blog, will help resolve a number of questions many people have regarding how Mormonism is promoted.
This statement issued by the Church reveals that the Church leadership does not consider all of its doctrine as a classical litmus test of faith. In other words, while refusing to acknowledge Joseph Smith as having been a prophet or refusing to regard the current Church President Thomas S. Monson as a living prophet may prevent you from getting a temple recommend, disbelief in the precise location of the Book of Mormon lands or in a political position taken by the Church, such as support of California Proposition 8, will not necessarily prevent you from getting a recommend, assuming you meet all other standards of worthiness. Here's the most pertinent part of the statement:
* 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.
* 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.
Based on the scriptures, Joseph Smith declared: “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”.
* Because different times present different challenges, modern-day prophets receive revelation relevant to the circumstances of their day. This follows the biblical pattern (Amos 3:7), in which God communicated messages and warnings to His people through prophets in order to secure their well-being. In our day, President Gordon B. Hinckley [this was written while President Hinckley was still alive] has repeatedly emphasized the importance of the family in our increasingly fractional society. In addition, the 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.”
* Latter-day Saints place heavy emphasis on the application of their faith in daily life. For example, the active participation of Latter-day Saints in their community and worldwide humanitarian programs reflects concern for other people. As Jesus Christ declared, “By their fruits ye shall know them.”
* Individual members are encouraged to independently strive to receive their own spiritual confirmation of the truthfulness of Church doctrine. Moreover, the Church exhorts all people to approach the gospel not only intellectually but with the intellect and the spirit, a process in which reason and faith work together.
* Those writing or commenting on Latter-day Saint doctrine also need to understand that certain words in the Mormon vocabulary have slightly different meanings and connotations than those same words have in other religions. For example, Latter-day Saints generally view being born again as a process of conversion, whereas many other Christian denominations often view it as a conversion that happens in one defining moment. Sometimes what some may consider an argument or dispute over doctrine is really a misunderstanding of simple differences in terminology.
The latter statement is quite important. While traditional Christians believe being "born again" is an instantaneous one-time act, Latter-day Saints believe it is merely the first step in what is intended to be a lifelong process. While many traditional Christians believe that "faith alone" saves, Mormons believe that faith must be sanctified by works. One apologetic Christian preacher, John Ankerberg, who himself is a critic of Mormon doctrine, once summed up the relationship as "faith justifies, works sanctify".
Some people who leave the Church under unfavorable circumstances will opine that it wasn't until they originally joined the Church that they first learned of its more "distinguishing" doctrines such as plurality of gods or temple ceremonies. Because these concepts are so radically different than their own paradigms, they throw up their hands and walk away. They profess to feel betrayed because the missionaries didn't present these concepts during the discussions.
But the reason the missionaries didn't present those distinguishing doctrines during the discussion is because the missionaries only present those discussions necessary to qualify for membership in the Church. They cannot possibly be expected to anticipate every possible question. The omission is NOT attributable to dishonesty or disingenuity.
Another item people must understand is that the Church will not make core doctrinal changes based upon political pressure; such changes required revelation. The suspension of plural marriage in 1890 was one such example. The extension of Priesthood membership to all worthy males in 1978 was another example. Consequently, the Church will not recognize the practice of homosexuality nor extend Priesthood membership to women unless or until the Church President receives a revelation authorizing such action and the Quorum of the Twelve receive supporting revelation validating it. No amount of complaining will change that process. No political legislation will change that process. The Twelfth Article of Faith merely calls upon us to obey legitimate political authority; it does not require that we abandon our core beliefs for the sake of authority.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints promotes a living, dynamic faith in which the Lord, through the Holy Spirit, can prompt change at any time via inspiration or even full-blown revelation. Sins committed by individual Mormons should never be considered representative of the Church as a whole. Understand these principles, and you'll understand the true nature of Mormonism.