“We Can Set It Aside:” How to Judge the Teachings of All Men

May 28, 2018
4 min read

These words from Joseph Fielding Smith have been a key guide to my own studies over the years:

“STANDARD WORKS JUDGE TEACHINGS OF ALL MEN. It makes no difference what is written or what anyone has said, if what has been said is in conflict with what the Lord has revealed, we can set it aside. My words, and the teachings of any other member of the Church, high or low, if they do not square with the revelations, we need not accept them. Let us have this matter clear. We have accepted the four standard works as the measuring yardsticks, or balances, by which we measure every man’s doctrine.

You cannot accept the books written by the authorities of the Church as standards in doctrine, only in so far as they accord with the revealed word in the standard works.

Every man who writes is responsible, not the Church, for what he writes. If Joseph Fielding Smith writes something which is out of harmony with the revelations, then every member of the Church is duty bound to reject it.

If he writes that which is in perfect harmony with the revealed word of the Lord, then it should be accepted.” (Joseph Fielding Smith, Doctrines of Salvation, comp. Bruce R. McConkie, 3:203–204. italics in original)

Personally, I expand the scope of President Smith’s words here to include the writings, speeches, or ideologies of everyone out there and not just church authorities.

There are many philosophies and precepts of men (2 Nephi 28:14,26,30-31) that burst into our awareness through a variety of channels with cheerleaders that demand that these new ideas be recognized immediately by everyone as absolute truths.

The world we see today stands as a fulfillment of the apostle Paul’s prophetic words to Timothy:

“For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires, and will turn away their ears from the truth and will turn aside to myths.” (2 Timothy 4:3-4 NASB)

The phrase “have their ears tickled” or “itching ears” as it says in the KJV is used to identify people who look for ideologies that condone their particular lifestyles rather than the doctrines and principles that have been established by God’s servants.

We have been warned so specifically about this kind of thing and it is happening all around us in virtually every segment of our society.

I stand firmly for freedom of speech for all and the open exploration of ideas. With that, I believe that each of us should have standards by which we judge particular ideas. Theologically speaking, we have the standard works which outline the sound doctrines and principles that God has revealed.

This doesn’t mean that everything being taught out there in the world is evil and that we should ‘shun’ it. Like President Smith said, if what is said is in harmony with the revealed word then we should accept it. We don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater but we also don’t want to eat a poisoned apple.

Distinctions between good and bad ideas can and should be made with our reason,  knowledge of the scriptures, and the guidance of the Spirit of the Lord. Brigham Young even went so far as to say that it is our duty to seek out the truth and make these distinctions by filtering out the error:

It is our duty and calling, as ministers of the same salvation and Gospel, to gather every item of truth and reject every error. Whether a truth be found with professed infidels, or with the Universalists, or the Church of Rome, or the Methodists, the Church of England, the Presbyterians, the Baptists, the Quakers, the Shakers, or any other of the various and numerous different sects and parties, all of whom have more or less truth, it is the business of the Elders of this Church (Jesus, their Elder Brother, being at their head) to gather up all the truths in the world pertaining to life and salvation, to the Gospel we preach, … to the sciences, and to philosophy, wherever it may be found in every nation, kindred, tongue, and people and bring it to Zion.” (DBY, 248)

Joseph Smith succinctly put it this way:

“One of the grand fundamental principles of Mormonism is to receive truth, let it come from whence it may.” (Discourses of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 199)

While it is foolish to simply cling to what we have while ignoring everything else, it is equally foolish to simply believe every new idea that comes across our path.

I think it crucial to teach these things to our youth who I think are the most susceptible to these kinds of influences due to their lack of experience and exposure.

When we use the scriptures as our guide, we can distinguish between truth and error for a vast number of ideologies and precepts out there. The better we know the scriptures, the less likely we are to be deceived and the more likely that we can preserve liberty and peace in our personal lives, our families, communities, and the world.


  1. Particle Man


    Now, in an attempt to put a finer point on it, herein lies the rub relative to scriptures and the Spirit: The Spirit can testify of truths in and not in the scriptures.

    We should hold to the scriptures but not fearfully cling to them by resisting revelation. Not all revelation is in the scriptures. We should use what we have while simultaneously realizing that the scriptures, whether presently or eventually constituted, are not the last word on any doctrine.

    Individuals may receive personal revelation that elucidates scripture, such as the interpreting of symbols. These individuals include presidents of the Church and the weakest of all Saints alike.

    What muddies the water is when one GA teaches a doctrine one way and a subsequent GA teaches that doctrine differently. Eternal truth doesn’t change depending on who the Brethren are. One GA may be right and the other wrong, or both may be right in different ways. The presence of a paradox can mean that we have more to learn or understand.

    According to that which has not yet been revealed and to what has been revealed but not canonized, the doctrine of the Church remains inevitably incomplete yet sufficient. And it is surely wisdom, if not divine decree, that the doctrine of the Church is what it is at any given time; otherwise, we would be condemned for unbelief, rejecting greater light, and the progress of the Church would be impeded.

    Thus, the Spirit can testify of truth regardless of whether it is in the scriptures or is the doctrine of the Church. But we don’t teach what isn’t official doctrine–unless the Spirit directs otherwise.

    • Right. Revelation is clearly critical, but what is revealed shouldn’t contradict doctrines and principles already contained in scripture.

      With general authorities and local leaders all doing their best to teach and addressing general and very specific issues, there are bound to be some grayer areas where mistakes can and are made. Sometimes they intend to say one thing but their words imply another; had that happen recently with a member of the Stake presidency.

      Having multiple witnesses is important, but they need to all agree. Scripture is something tangible that even the weakest can refer to and understand. The workings of the Holy Spirit, other spirits and evil spirits are not as well understood and there can indeed be deception there. Having scripture as the foundation and a check against the various revelatory promptings coming our way is critical to discern true messengers.

      That’s why Pres. Smith’s opening line is so important: “Standard works judge teachings of all men.” What I had in mind when writing this post was how so many people in this world simply adopt whatever ideology comes their way that sounds good to them without ever checking it against doctrine.

      I have found that answers come quicker and more clearly when I have sought them among what has already been revealed rather than just “praying about it” and expecting God to drop the answer in my lap. I believe that when many simple rush to prayer, they’ll look for any kind of ‘feeling’ or impression that confirms the answer they want. God isn’t the only one who can answer a prayer and how many people can tell the difference?

      It’s true that sometimes we can’t find any answers but I think the act of looking for them first, when possible, prepares the mind for revelation.

      In a coming day, I expect that there will be many things revealed that may shock the general membership or challenge our presuppositions. It has been prophesied that a great test is coming and I think it will require each of us to be well-prepared in our understanding of the simple doctrines and principles of the gospel and ears to hear the voice of the Spirit.

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