Due to several conversations both with members of the LDS Church and with several people not of the Mormon faith, I felt it would be important to clarify what exactly constitutes “what Mormons believe”, or in other words, “official doctrine”. Some do error if they actually think that the book Mormon Doctrine by Bruce R. McConkie is actually doctrine for the “Mormon” church. That’s a clever name for a book, but it's not actually the (official) truth. Those were his opinions. He was certainly very knowledgeable, and yes, he did become an apostle, but that doesn't make the book official doctrine. (And we all know he had to change some of his opinions as he learned more.) Some general authorities have even expressed opinions that run contrary to general Mormon belief. No worries, we’re not bound by speculation.
I think a quote from my former professor and mentor Stephen Robinson would be helpful here. He makes so many important points that seem to hit several nails right on the head:
“So what constitutes genuine Mormon doctrine? What is the LDS equivalent of “nihil obstat” and “imprimatur”? What do the Latter-day Saints believe? Can something be said to be “Mormon” doctrine if any Latter-day Saint anywhere believes it? If my LDS grandmother believed that frogs cause warts, or that the earth is flat, does that make those ideas LDS doctrine? If some LDS missionary somewhere believes that the earth is hollow and that the lost ten tribes are hiding inside, is his or her belief therefore LDS doctrine? Of course not.(Stephen Robinson: “What is Official Doctrine" from the book "Are Mormon’s Christian?”)
“Virtually every religion has procedures for distinguishing the individual beliefs of its members from the official doctrines of the church, and so do the Latter-day Saints…
“B. H. Roberts, a General Authority of the LDS church, summarized the issue perhaps as well as anyone has:
“The Church has confined the sources of doctrine by which it is willing to be bound before the world to the things that God has revealed, and which the Church has officially accepted, and those alone. These would include the Bible, the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, the Pearl of Great Price; these have been repeatedly accepted and endorsed by the Church in general conference assembled, and are the only sources of absolute appeal for our doctrine.”
“Of course it is true that many Latter-day Saints, from the Presidents of the Church and members of the Quorum of the Twelve down to individual members who may write books or articles, have expressed their own opinions on doctrinal matters. Nevertheless, until such opinions are presented to the Church in general conference and sustained by vote of the conference, they are neither binding nor the official doctrine of the Church. The critics of LDS doctrine seldom recognize this vital distinction. Rather, if any Latter-day Saint, especially one of the leading Brethren, ever said a thing, these critics take it to represent “Mormonism,” regardless of the context of the particular statement and regardless of whether any other Latter-day Saint ever said it or believed it. Often the Latter-day Saints themselves are guilty of this same error and search through the Journal of Discourses as if it were some sort of Mormon Talmud, looking for “new” doctrines not found in the standard works and not taught in the Church today.
“Usually the critics insist that the Latter-day Saints must defend as doctrine everything Joseph Smith or Brigham Young or any other General Authority ever said. But the LDS concept of doctrine simply cannot be stretched this far. The Latter-day Saints allow that sometimes the living prophet speaks in his role as prophet and sometimes he simply states his own opinions. This distinction is no different than that made in some other Christian denominations. For example, even though Roman Catholics believe in “papal infallibility,” they insist that the pope is infallible only in certain clearly defined circumstances –when he speaks ex cathedra on matters of faith and morals. Cannot the Latter-day Saints be allowed a similar distinction? The LDS view was expressed succinctly by Joseph Smith himself: “I told them that a prophet was a prophet only when he was acting as such.”
“Non-Mormon critics, on the other hand, often insist that the Brethren must speak and write prophetically at all times. This absolutist expectation usually flows out of an extreme inerrantist view of prophecy and of scripture that is held by the critics, but not by the Latter-day Saints. The critics’ belief in the Bible as absolutely perfect, without error and inspired in every word, leads them to make the same demands of anyone claiming to be a prophet. They would impose their inerrantist view on the Latter-day Saints and their prophets.
“But the Latter-day Saints have no such inerrantist views, neither of the scriptures nor of the prophets. The scriptures are the word of God, but only as far as they are translated [or transmitted] correctly; and prophets sometimes speak for the Lord, and sometimes they express their own opinions. Certainly, if the Latter-day Saints were radical inerrantists, such a view as the foregoing would be a contradiction and a scandal, but since we are not inerrantists, the view scandalizes only our inerrantist critics. B. H. Roberts expressed it in this way:
“It is not sufficient to quote sayings purported to come from Joseph Smith or Brigham Young upon matters of doctrine. Our own people also need instruction and correction in respect of this. It is common to hear some of our older brethren say, “But I heard Brother Joseph myself say so,” or “Brother Brigham preached it; I heard him.” But that is not the question. The question is has God said it? Was the prophet speaking officially?
As to the printed discourses of even leading brethren, the same principle holds. They do not constitute the court of ultimate appeal on doctrine. They may be very useful in the way of elucidation and are very generally good and sound in doctrine, but they are not the ultimate sources of the doctrines of the Church, and are not binding upon the Church. The rule in that respect is–What God has spoken, and what has been accepted by the Church as the word of God, by that, and that only, are we bound in doctrine.”
“In their encounters with anti-Mormon critics, quite often the Saints seem to feel constrained to defend too much. For example, the fact that Orson Pratt may have said such and such on this or that occasion does not make it a proposition that needs defending. Elder Pratt was very outspoken in his opinions, which sometimes disagreed with the opinions of other General Authorities. He was frequently instructed to make clear to his hearers or readers that his views were his own and not the doctrine of the Church; and on at least one occasion he was instructed by the President of the Church to recant publicly opinions he had represented as doctrine.
“Yet time and again the private opinions or even the half-serious speculations of Orson Pratt and others are presented in the literature of the anti-Mormons as mainstream LDS doctrine. The problem is compounded by some enthusiastic Latter-day Saints who themselves will not observe this distinction and insist on teaching the personal opinions and speculations of past leaders as though they were the official doctrines of the Church.
“Now, none of this should be taken to mean that in matters of administration within the LDS church the General Authorities are not inspired or that they must submit every policy decision to the members for a sustaining vote. The revelations recorded in the Doctrine and Covenants, already accepted as binding by the Church, along with the ordination to their callings give the Brethren the keys and authority to administer the affairs of the Church as the Lord may direct without their needing a sustaining vote for each individual decision. Thus the Church in conference sustains only the individuals who hold the keys, but does not need to sustain separately every detail of their administration. Consequently the policies and procedures of the Church are “official” and “inspired” whenever those holding the keys of that ministry unitedly declare them to be so. Similarly the revelations already accepted by the Church give to the General Authorities and to many others the right to “preach, teach, expound, exhort,”–that is, to interpret and apply existing doctrines within the context of their individual stewardships. The Brethren need no further license or sustaining vote to interpret, define, and apply the doctrines of the Church, or to administer the affairs of the Church and dictate its policies and procedures, than to be sustained in conference as prophets, seers, and revelators and as duly ordained members of their respective quorums.
“Latter-day Saints believe that the General Authorities receive inspiration and revelation from God constantly in the administration of the affairs of the Church. They also believe that individuals within the Church may receive personal revelation, even on doctrinal matters, for their private benefit. When doctrinal revelation is given to such individuals, however, the Lord commands them to keep it to themselves (see Alma 12:9). Such revelation is not for the Church generally, but for that individual alone. No new doctrine is binding as the official doctrine of the Church unless it has been received by the President of the Church and until it has been sustained by the Church in general conference.
“Finally, from an LDS point of view some things may be correct without being official Church doctrine. For example, it is probably true that the sum of the squares of the sides of a right triangle is equal to the square of its hypotenuse, but the Pythagorean theorem has never been sustained in a general conference of the Church. Similarly the doctrinal opinions of individual Latter-day Saints could very well turn out to be correct–and some such opinions are believed by many of the Saints –but that does not make them the official doctrine of the Church. This category of things that may be true and that are believed by some in the Church is confusing to members and nonmembers alike.
“Hence the Brethren have insisted again and again that the members avoid such speculative matters and teach only from the standard works, for only they contain the official doctrines of the Church.
For all of these reasons the only valid judgments of whether or not LDS doctrine is Christian must be based on the official doctrines of the Church, interpreted as the Latter-day Saints interpret them.”