"Character is the one thing we make in this world and take with us into the next."
- - Ezra Taft Benson
March 6, 2014
False Doctrine in Sunday School
by Cyndie Swindlehurst


Recently, our Sunday School teacher read an old quote from a long-dead general authority about a sensitive topic. The quote was at odds with the way this topic is taught and discussed today, to the point that I would call it false doctrine. It certainly wasn’t true doctrine. I also know it was personally hurtful to at least one member of the class.

I wanted to say something to correct the teacher, but several things stopped me. The bishopric member in the class — who I expected to speak up and correct the teacher — didn’t seem in the least perturbed by the quote. No one else in the class seemed to notice that the quote was way off base. And I didn’t want to stand out as a contrary grump.

That was weeks ago, and I feel upset and ashamed that I didn’t say anything. I wish I had. But I’m not sure how I should have approached the situation.

What could I have done to correct the teacher?


Your instinct to speak up in favor of true doctrine was right. According to section 12.1 of Handbook 2: Administering the Church, the purpose of Sunday School is to:

  1. “Strengthen individuals’ and families’ faith in Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ through teaching, learning, and fellowshipping.

  2. “Help Church members ‘teach one another the doctrine of the kingdom’ (D&C 88:77) at church and at home.”

Indeed, every member of the class shares in this responsibility. A Sunday School class cannot be successful if its members do not participate in an appropriate way as guided by the teacher.

Nor is it contemplated that the teacher will lecture with nary a comment, week in and week out (although some lessons don’t lend themselves to participation; lecture is fine now and then).

The teacher’s responsibility is to teach the doctrine and to “encourage class members to be responsible for their own gospel learning as individuals, in their families, and during class instruction.... Teachers and leaders provide opportunities for class members to actively participate in discussions, and they invite class members to live the gospel and receive the promised blessings.” Handbook 2, section 5.5.4.

Listening attentively to the lesson and pausing when your unfamiliar-doctrine alert goes off is part of this personal responsibility.

In your case, the Sunday School teacher said something that sounded fishy to you. You felt compelled to speak up and disagree, but you decided to keep silent. I think the regret you now feel is a good indication that you ought to have spoken (assuming you don’t have some ulterior, ignoble motive for contradicting the teacher).

Here are four points for you to consider for the next time this happens. Which is a guarantee. This will happen again.

One, are you sure you are right? It is a good practice to look up unfamiliar doctrinal points and quotes before declaring them true or false. The Internet makes this easy to do during Sunday School. You can enter a phrase in your favorite search engine and it will almost always provide you with the complete citation and source. From there, you can evaluate the value of the passage.

Sometimes, the passage itself will clear up any misunderstanding when read in its entirety. If this is the case, you can raise your hand and say something like, “That quote from Elder Long Dead is interesting, because although he says such-and-such, he goes on to say this-and-that, which is how Elder Not Dead described this topic in the last General Conference.”

Your search might also turn up a relevant scripture or a recent use of the quote that would be illuminating for the class.

If your search proves unfruitful or inconclusive, and if you cannot produce a reliable source for your point of view, perhaps you are wrong about the doctrine. You should break out your scriptures and study until you understand it.

You could also raise your hand and ask a question. “I’ve always heard that such-and-such is true, but that doesn’t seem to line up with the quote we just read. I’m trying to think of what scripture would apply, but I’m drawing a blank.” Of course, you should only do this if you think someone in the class can actually answer your question.

Two, don’t throw the teacher under the bus. Doctrine is important. People are important, too. If you humiliate the teacher, neither he nor the other class members will care about your doctrinal point. Instead, they will think you are a jerk.

So, if you decide to say something, make your tone respectful and helpful, not exasperated, snide or arrogant. Also, make sure what you have to say is actually important to the lesson. If the false doctrine was mentioned in an aside or as a brief point from which the class has moved on, it might not be worth it to stop the class and go back.

You should also remember that people are not always as confident or unflappable as they seem. People who are extraordinarily blunt when criticizing others are often unable to take the treatment they routinely dish out.

Three, if you decide to try to correct false doctrine, do so by introducing true doctrine in a positive way. You don’t have to contradict the teacher outright with an eye roll or a blunt, “That’s not true.” Instead, you can say:

  • Alma 5 teaches about this principle. Verse 9 says ....

  • The Church has an official statement about this topic. It’s called Important Statement and you can find it on the Church website. The third paragraph reads ….

  • You know, there is very little actual revelation on this topic. Elder Not Dead said in Conference two years ago that we rely on faith in this area, because we simply don’t know....

  • I’ve always thought of this as ....

  • In my experience ....

  • Elder Bednar recently wrote an article for the Ensign about that quote. He said ....

  • You just said X, but I think you meant Y. (Use this one if the teacher simply misspoke, and it’s important that the class members hear the correct version.)

All through your comment, your face should be pleasant and your tone should be positive. You should share your own experiences and not insult other people (even people who are not present). Do not be sarcastic.

Four, I can understand why you hesitated to correct the false doctrine in Sunday School when a member of the bishopric was sitting right there. It is likely part his assignment to make sure the class stays on track, and it was not unreasonable of you to watch to see if he wanted to correct what was said.

However, having a member of the bishopric attend Sunday School does not absolve the other class members from their responsibility to speak up when false doctrine is presented as truth. It would have been perfectly appropriate for you to speak up.

It would also have put the teacher on notice that he had better be sure about the sources he uses in his future lessons.

Do you have a quandary, conundrum, or sticky situation in your life? Click this button to drop Cyndie a line, and she’ll be happy to answer your question in a future column. Any topic is welcome!

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About Cyndie Swindlehurst

Cynthia Munk Swindlehurst spent her childhood in New Hampshire and her adolescence in San Diego. She served a mission in Manaus Brazil. She graduated from Brigham Young University with a degree in English and from Duke University with a law degree.

She practiced law until her first child was born. She enjoys reading, tap dancing, and discussing current events. She and her husband live in Greensboro, North Carolina with their two sons.

Cyndie serves as the Sunbeams teacher in her ward.

Visit Cyndie at Dear Cyndie
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