As Alma counseled his wayward son Corianton, he discussed the doctrine of the resurrection, a topic that had confused and troubled Corianton (Alma 40:1). In this sermon to his son, Alma explores the boundaries of his knowledge about the topic. He says, “There are many mysteries which are kept, that no one knoweth them save God himself. But I show unto you one thing which I have inquired diligently of God that I might know” (Alma 40:3).
Even as he shares what he does know, he acknowledges the limitations of his knowledge. Some questions, like the timing of our resurrection, are not important to him. “Whether there is more than one time appointed for men to rise it mattereth not” (Alma 40:5, 8). On the related question of whether the resurrection of righteous people would coincide with the resurrection of Christ, he said:
I do not say that their resurrection cometh at the resurrection of Christ; but behold, I give it as my opinion, that the souls and the bodies are reunited, of the righteous, at the resurrection of Christ, and his ascension into heaven.Alma 40:20, italics added
This passage might be unsettling to someone who believes that the scriptures should provide definitive answers to every question. It sounds like Alma is sharing a process of discovery as he explores what he knows, what he doesn’t know, and what he is still learning about.
There is a similar passage in Paul’s first epistle to the Corinthians. In answer to some questions from members of the church in Corinth, he offers some advice about marriage. Near the beginning of his answer, he cautions them not to follow his words too rigidly: “I speak this by permission,” he says, “and not of commandment” (1 Corinthians 7:6). Shortly after, he gives some advice to believers who were married to unbelievers. But he specifically says this advice comes from him, “not the Lord” (1 Corinthians 7:12). He ends this section of the epistle with some guidance to widows, which he again says is “after my judgment,” but he quickly adds, “and I think also that I have the Spirit of God” (1 Corinthians 7:40).
So what’s the answer, you might ask. Are the apostle’s words true or not? Are they just his opinion? Are they doctrine? How can we know which of the words to believe and to how to apply them to our decisions?
As Joseph Smith produced his translation of the Bible, he struggled with these kinds of questions. One verse from Paul’s epistle was particularly confusing, because it appeared to contradict a core principle of the gospel:
For the unbelieving husband is sanctified by the wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified by the husband: else were your children unclean; but now are they holy.1 Corinthians 7:14
As Joseph prayed to understand this verse better, he received a clarifying revelation. The Lord reaffirmed that Paul’s advice to the church in this passage was “not of the Lord, but of himself” (Doctrine and Covenants 74:5). But He went on to explain that the advice was based on experience, trying to help members of the church avoid challenges others had faced. Children in some families were growing up without a firm understanding of the gospel and were becoming unclean. He wanted to help them create a home environment in which their children could grow up to be “holy.” Then he reaffirmed a core principle of the gospel lest there be any confusion: “Little children are holy, being sanctified through the atonement of Jesus Christ” (Doctrine and Covenants 74:7).
What do I conclude from these examples?
- Learning is a process. We need to follow Alma’s example, and distinguish between what we know and what we don’t yet know.
- Church leaders are inspired, but that doesn’t mean they know everything. We can learn important truths from them without expecting them to be infallible.
- Context matters. If a leader teaches something that seems to contradict core principles of the gospel, we may need to understand more about where that teaching came from: what questions they were answering, what problems they were trying to solve.
Elder D. Todd Christofferson offered the following caution:
It should be remembered that not every statement made by a Church leader, past or present, necessarily constitutes doctrine. It is commonly understood in the Church that a statement made by one leader on a single occasion often represents a personal, though well-considered, opinion, not meant to be official or binding for the whole Church. The Prophet Joseph Smith taught that “a prophet [is] a prophet only when he [is] acting as such.”“The Doctrine of Christ,” General Conference, April 2012
Today, I will be grateful for the truths I have learned from prophets inspired by God. I will remember that the process of acquiring knowledge takes time and requires effort on my part. Rather than hold rigidly to individual statements of church leaders, I will strive to accept the totality of what God has revealed and to place individual teachings in a broader context.