[This guest post was submitted by Matt W., a regular contributor to discussions here at the Thang.]
Sometimes I like to pretend I am pretty smart about my faith and religion. At other times, I accept that I am just an eight year old in the Church. This is one of those times.
In a recent thread, Blake made a statement which has bothered me. He noted that one article on Agency “hasn’t been accepted by common consent…” as a basic way of debunking what was said therein. This bothered me not because I didn’t agree with Blake on that point, but because I have a hard time following the reasoning that Mormon Doctrine only equals those things sustained by common consent in General Conference.
For starters, I have no idea what has and has not been sustained by common consent. As a member of eight years, the only thing I have sustained in General Conference by Common Consent is the positions of general authorities within the Church. Does this mean I sustain all of their statements as doctrinal and binding on me and my family? Is that Mormon Doctrine today? Is it merely the statements and endorsements of our current living general authorities?
While there may be something to what is above, we are not sustaining any doctrine when we sustain General Authorities. We are sustaining people. I believe we are saying I will support you, help you, and follow your lead. And when I sustain men in this manner, does it really mean I accept everything they say as from God with authority? And what about the authorities who have passed on, like Moses, Lehi, Joseph Smith, Bruce R. McConkie?
The only examples of sustaining doctrine by common consent I am aware of are the sustaining of the scriptures for the Doctrine and Covenants. The reason this is readily available though is that is controversial. Ignoring the controversy of the time, the time of sustaining by common consent I am speaking of was before 1844. Were the scriptures sustained by common consent in General Conference in 1978-1980 when then the last editions came out? There are several sections in there that were not there before. Was the revelation on the priesthood sustained by common consent?
And what does it mean to be accepted by common consent anyway? The Guide to the Scriptures says:
The principle whereby Church members sustain those called to serve in the Church, as well as other Church decisions requiring their support, usually shown by raising the right hand.
Jesus Christ stands at the head of his Church. Through the inspiration of the Holy Ghost, he directs Church leaders in important actions and decisions. However, all Church members have the right and privilege of sustaining or not sustaining the actions and decisions of their leaders.
If it is a formula in general conference, has the endowment been accepted by common consent? What about the recent change in the temple? Or is it only what is accepted by the common consent of the first presidency and the quorum of the twelve (as we sustain them to make those decisions)? If that is so, how do I know what they accept by common consent in their meetings? It is not readily published on every issue. Even when it has been published in a letter of the first presidency on some issues, it is not typically explicitly stated as such and these statements are not archived and readily available as a church publication explicitly saying as much. (That is my fantasy priesthood and relief society manual, BTW) There are several publications which imply to be this in one shape or form. They include: The Standard Works, The Church Handbook of Instructions, Preach my Gospel, True to the Faith, Gospel Principles, The Guide to the Scriptures, and the Encyclopedia of Mormonism. Some would also include McConkie’s Mormon Doctrine and the Bible Dictionary, but both explicitly state they are either not the official doctrine of the Church or that they are the opinions of one man. (The Encyclopedia of Mormonism and may fall in the same category as Mormon Doctrine, and the Guide to the Scriptures may fall in the same category as the Bible Dictionary, but I am unsure at this point.)
These works all have their own problems though for a lay member.
The Standard Works are cryptic and contradict one another(or at least seem to contradict one another) on several occasions. They require a modern prophet to give us exegesis so that we may understand them.
The Church Handbook of Instructions is not readily available to the average lay member.
Preach My Gospel is what is taught an investigator, and while a vast improvement on the previous discussions, was written for missionaries, not lay members.
The Guide to the scriptures is not even available in print form in the English scriptures!
The Encyclopedia of Mormonism is too expensive to be accessible to the Lay Member and is general ignored by the General Authorities as having any authority.
Gospel Principles and True to the Faith seem to be solid contenders, but even here, these are very underutilized in the Church. (And also, can we really consider it to be “doctrine” of the church that we should not have tattoos?)
I have consciously avoided the insight of revelation up to this point, and agree with Givens “Theology is what happens when revelation is absent.” It may truly define what Mormon Doctrine really is, but it does not address the question of common consent, and further, revelation is a very tricky companion. I am sure Blake, Geoff, Jacob and I could all claim revelation on a variety of things, and still come to very different conclusions about the very things we received revelation upon.
So How do you define official Mormon Doctrine?
How do you define common consent? And most importantly, Why?