Have you ever really thought about how much time the prophets and apostles get to themselves?
I am guessing it isn’t much. They dedicate six days a week to the work of the Lord, leaving little time for their own interests. But when they do have a little time for play, I don’t think they focus on speaking only the doctrine of the kingdom.
Can you imagine one of our great leaders spending time with their grandchildren on a warm summer day and being quoted as saying something like “Ice cream is always a good idea!” I wouldn’t classify that as doctrine although I know plenty of people who would wholeheartedly support it.
Speaking to the Lord’s servants, Doctrine and Covenants 68:4 records, “And whatsoever they shall speak when moved upon by the Holy Ghost shall be scripture, shall be the will of the Lord, shall be the mind of the Lord, shall be the word of the Lord, shall be the voice of the Lord, and the power of God unto salvation.”
The first factor in understanding if it is doctrine or opinion should be determining if it was spoken under the influence of the Holy Ghost. In order to do so, we must ask ourselves who was their audience? Are they speaking as an invited guest and representative of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints or as a special witness of Christ? If the answer is yes, then I would feel safe taking their words as doctrine.
If you hear from a friend of a friend whose cousin’s uncle met an apostle in the elevator of the church office buildings and had a two-minute conversation, we may want to think about that for a moment. The conversation would have been held between two people, any counsel given would be directed to the individual in their own circumstances, not to the entire membership of the church.
What if the apostle or prophet was speaking to a group of missionaries? I would consider his words doctrine as he encourages them to go forth and spread the gospel throughout the world.
In an article written by Elder Bruce R. McConkie, he spoke about this very topic. He said, “Prophets are men, and when they act by the Spirit of inspiration, what they say is the voice of God; but still they are mortal, and they are entitled to and do have private opinions. Because of the great wisdom and judgment of these men, their views may be as good as mortal men can have, but unless they are inspired, unless they are in accordance with the revelations, they are subject to error on the same basis as the views of anyone else in the Church. With all their inspiration and greatness, prophets are yet mortal men with imperfections common to mankind in general. They have their opinions and prejudices and are left to work out their problems without inspiration in many instances.”1
He quoted the prophet Joseph Smith in the same article, as saying, “Joseph Smith recorded that he ‘visited with a brother and sister from Michigan, who thought that “a prophet is always a prophet”; but I told them that a prophet was a prophet only when he was acting as such.’”1
Ultimately, we need to understand that doctrine is taught and given under the inspiration of the Holy Ghost when they are acting in their special callings. You may then know for certain that what you hear is doctrinal truth which you can rely on.
1 “Ordinary Men, Extraordinary Callings,” Elder Bruce R. McConkie, New Era 1973