"I teach them correct doctrine, and they govern themselves," said Joseph Smith.
And in every ward and branch in the Church, leaders are charged with the responsibility of making sure
that in every class and from every pulpit, only correct doctrine is taught to the Saints.
The problem is, which doctrines, precisely, are correct?
It's easy to say, "Stick with the scriptures," but that's an ambiguous guide. The book of Job teaches
false doctrine when it shows Satan hobnobbing with God. Abinadi taught his best understanding of the
Godhead, but if you took your doctrine from his words you might easily find yourself in a Nicene knot.
The scriptures are not always clear when they try to tell us how the universe works. Even the plan of
salvation is not set forth in the scriptures with the simple clarity we use in teaching the gospel to new
That's because the scriptures consist of the best understanding of the prophets or the scribes and
teachers who came after them. But our "best understanding" always leaves room for the Lord to "yet
reveal many great and important things pertaining to the Kingdom of God."
That Article of Faith has been demonstrated over and over again. Whenever we try to use our reason
to make sense of things, we inevitably get parts of it wrong. This doesn't mean we reject reason
("Truth is reason; truth eternal tells me I've a mother there"); it means that we recognize the limitations
The main limitation is this: We don't have enough information. There's a lot of "pure knowledge" that is
yet outside our reach.
The result is that often we reach conclusions about "correct doctrine" that are not warranted. And our
mistake is that, having confused our own assumptions and guesses and rationalizations with truth, we
start to try to impose our private beliefs and opinions on others.
For all practical purposes, what we must mean by "correct doctrine" is this:
What you must believe to be a good Latter-day Saint.
It's not that long a list. Most of the doctrines are laid out in the temple recommend interview questions.
God the Father, His Son Jesus Christ, and the Holy Ghost as three independent beings.
Jesus Christ as the Savior of the world, redeeming us from death and sin.
Mankind as created by God, in his image, and placed on a world of his making in order to be tested.
Living prophets, beginning with Joseph Smith, who speak to us and direct the Church with the authority
The Book of Mormon as an ancient document received and translated by the power of God, along with
the other scriptures as the foundation of our faith, but recognizing the limitations of human beings in
translating the word of God into our languages.
The necessity of following the commandments as best we understand them, and repenting of those we
That's the core of our doctrine. If you don't believe those things, then you need to do some wrestling
with the Spirit of God in order to figure out how to remain a member of the Church.
But notice that on every one of these points, there are myriad details that we attach to them, explaining,
clarifying -- or confusing and complicating, depending on whether we're right or wrong.
It's a good idea for all of us, however learned, to remain humble about the degree of perfection we
have reached in our understanding of the gospel.
And please notice that I am making a clear distinction between doctrines and practices of the Church.
In my lifetime, I have seen countless changes in our practices as a Church, as we discarded some
mistakes, broadened our outreach, adapted to the needs of the Saints, and improved our efforts to fulfill
the mission of the Church.
The length of a missionary's service, the pattern of meetings on Sunday, the way ward and branch
budgets are handled, the exact words used in blessing a baby, how we go about home teaching, the
number of manuals and handbooks, the words of the temple ceremony, the organization of the Church
at every level -- these are practices of the Church, and they have changed over time and may change
again, without the slightest effect on correct doctrine.
So how can we be sure we are teaching correct doctrine?
The goal of a gospel teacher is not to make everyone in the class share the teacher's exact opinions, but
rather to teach the Saints what the Lord wants them to do and encouraging them to do it.
Part of wanting to obey the Lord is understanding why commandments are given; but we are expected
to obey the commandments whether we understand their purpose or not.
Beyond those few core doctrines, our teaching is about action, not opinion.
If you understand every doctrine, yet don't obey the commandments, you have accomplished nothing.
If you obey all the commandments, even though you do not fully understand them, even if some of your
opinions are incorrect, then you will be able to take advantage of the atonement of Christ and return to
our Father in heaven.
So when we teach the gospel, we must make clear what the core doctrines are, and then be humble
about everything else. As long as we always say, "This is my best understanding so far," then we
cannot go wrong -- as long as we mean it.
We are all at different levels of understanding of the gospel, and while much can be learned from
books, at least as much is learned from life.
I have learned the gospel from scholars; I have also learned the gospel from people of good heart and
I have learned the gospel from the scriptures; I have also learned the gospel from living the
commandments and seeing the result.
In all my years as a Latter-day Saint, whenever I have received flashes of understanding that clearly
came from the Spirit of God, not once was it about doctrine. Every time, it was about action: what I
was to do, or what I was to say to someone for whom I bore responsibility about what they should do.
Yet during all that time, I have also studied and thought, trying to come to an ever clearer understanding
of the gospel, relating it to the philosophies and science of the world.
None of my study and none of my thinking was wasted. I believe that I am far closer now than I ever
was before to apprehending the pure knowledge that we are taught to aspire to. But no matter how
much I learn, I have found it safest to assume that half of what I think I know is wrong -- and I don't
know which half.
So when I teach, I draw a clear line between what I know is correct doctrine -- that very short list --
and what is merely my best understanding so far.
Therefore even when I think someone else's understanding is incorrect, I do not presume to correct
them, unless they contradict the plain doctrine. Instead, when I think it's appropriate, I offer my
understanding as an alternative, but always with the clear statement that I do not know if my
understanding is any closer to Truth than theirs.
At the same time, I don't pretend that I don't prefer my opinions. I got them after a hard struggle and
much thought and study, and if I didn't think these ideas were better than any alternatives I've heard, I
wouldn't hold them.
So when local leaders attempt to make sure that only correct doctrine is taught in Church meetings,
what they should be looking for is this: Does the teacher or speaker clearly distinguish between
doctrines that we must all believe in order to be Latter-day Saints, and ideas that Saints can disagree
about and yet still serve together in obedience to the gospel?
Reasonable interpretations only become false doctrine when they are taught as doctrine rather than
This is my practical understanding of our responsibility to make sure that correct doctrine is taught in the
Church. When further light and knowledge come along, I will gladly revise my views on the subject.
Orson Scott Card is the author of the novels Ender's Game, Ender's
Shadow, and Speaker for the Dead, which are widely read by adults and
younger readers, and are increasingly used in schools.
Besides these and other science fiction novels, Card writes contemporary
fantasy (Magic Street,Enchantment,Lost Boys), biblical novels (Stone Tables,Rachel and Leah), the American frontier fantasy series The Tales of Alvin Maker
(beginning with Seventh Son), poetry (An Open Book), and many plays and
Card was born in Washington and grew up in California, Arizona, and
Utah. He served a mission for the LDS Church in Brazil in the early 1970s.
Besides his writing, he teaches occasional classes and workshops and directs
plays. He also teaches writing and literature at Southern Virginia University.
Card currently lives in Greensboro, North Carolina, with his wife,
Kristine Allen Card, and their youngest child, Zina Margaret.