Be all-in with the gospel, stop speculating about notions that aren’t official doctrine, stay true to the faith even when mocked, and disconnect a bit more from social media to better connect with heaven.
Those mandates came Saturday as The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints convened its twice-yearly General Conference for the thousands packed in downtown Salt Lake City’s Conference Center and the millions more watching around the globe.
Dallin H. Oaks, first counselor in the governing First Presidency, urged members not to theorize about unknown conditions in the spirit world after death, and to avoid teaching what is not official doctrine on that and other issues.
“Many members of the church have had visions or other inspirations to inform them about how things operate or are organized in the spirit world, but these personal spiritual experiences are not to be understood or taught as the official doctrine of the church,” he said. “And, of course, there is abundant speculation by members and others in published sources like books on near-death experiences.”
He said official doctrine is taught by all 15 members of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles — and not every comment by a past or present leader necessarily constitutes doctrine.
Oaks pointed to the family proclamation as carrying more weight since it was signed by those top two governing bodies. That 1995 document says, for instance, that “gender is an essential characteristic of individual premortal, mortal, and eternal identity and purpose.”
Oaks drew criticism from LGBTQ advocates — and especially transgender Latter-day Saints — in recent days when he told high-level church leaders Wednesday that the "intended meaning of ‘gender’ in the family proclamation and as used in church statements and publications since that time is biological sex at birth.”
Later, during the women’s session Saturday evening, Oaks reaffirmed the church’s opposition to same-sex marriage, declaring that God has not changed his definition of marriage. “Thus,” he said, “the leaders of the church must always teach the unique importance of marriage between a man and a woman and the related law of chastity.”
On Saturday morning, Oaks described some of what is official doctrine about the spirit world.
“What we do know about the spirit world is that the Father’s and the Son’s work of salvation continues there," he said. “Our Savior initiated the work of declaring liberty to the captives, and that work continues as worthy and qualified messengers continue to preach the gospel, including repentance, to those who still need its cleansing effect.”
Much else about that world is unknown, he said. For example, Oaks said he received a letter from a woman who was about to marry a widower, and she wondered if she and the first wife would share a home — and a husband — in the next world or have separate dwellings.
Oaks, who is on his second marriage after his first wife died, told her simply to trust in the Lord.
“Remember that God loves his children and will surely do what is best for each of us,” he said. “ ... There is so much we do not know that our only sure reliance is to trust in the Lord and his love for his children.”
He counseled, “Let us not teach or use as official doctrine what does not meet the standards of official doctrine. To do so does not further the work of the Lord and may even discourage individuals from seeking their own comfort or edification through the personal revelation the Lord’s plan provides for each of us.”
Apostle D. Todd Christofferson urged Latter-day Saints to serve God despite mocking.
“We live in a hedonistic age when many question the importance of the Lord’s commandments or simply ignore them,” Christofferson said. “Not infrequently, people who flout divine directives such as the law of chastity, the standard of honesty, and the holiness of the Sabbath seem to prosper and enjoy the good things of life, at times even more so than those who are striving to be obedient. Some begin to wonder if the effort and sacrifices are worth it.”
Believers “who seek to uphold the Lord’s standard in dress, entertainment and sexual purity,” he said, sometimes face “merciless attacks in social media and in person." It is often “the youth and young adults among the saints, as well as women and mothers, who bear this cross of mocking and persecution.”
He promised that remaining firm will bring blessings.
“There are trials and tragedies that could interrupt our joy,” Christofferson said. “But as we strive to overcome these challenges with the Savior’s help, it preserves both the joy we feel now and the joy we anticipate.”
Similarly, apostle Dale G. Renlund discussed the importance of full-fledged commitment to Christ’s gospel after joining the church.
“Being ‘converted unto the Lord’ means leaving one course of action, directed by an old belief system, and adopting a new one based on faith in Heavenly Father’s plan and in Jesus Christ and his atonement,” Renlund said. “This change is more than an intellectual acceptance of gospel teachings. It shapes our identity, transforms our understanding of life’s meaning and leads to unchanging fidelity to God.”
He said “a halfhearted commitment to our covenants will not guarantee us anything.” Believers may be tempted to equivocate, the apostle said, “but an ambivalent commitment to our covenants will not open the door to the sanctifying power of Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ.”
Apostle David A. Bednar talked about some of Satan’s strategies targeting members, which he said became more apparent to him as he traveled to Africa and watched cheetahs stalking a herd of tapis, a type of antelope.
He said a cheetah’s coat acts as a beautiful disguise that makes it almost invisible in African grasslands. “In a similar way, spiritually dangerous ideas and actions frequently can appear to be attractive, desirable or pleasurable,” he said. “Thus, in our contemporary world, each of us needs to beware of beguiling bad that pretends to be good.”
Bednar learned that it is wise to know the intent and tactics of the enemy, which helped the tapis look out for the cheetahs.
“Lucifer seeks to frustrate our progression by tempting us to use our bodies improperly,” he said. “He attacks us through our appetites. He tempts us to eat things we should not eat, to drink things we should not drink, and to love as we should not love.”
Apostle Ronald A. Rasband taught that keeping promises “is not a habit,” but “is a characteristic of being a disciple of Jesus Christ.”
He added, “When we keep promises to one another, we are more likely to keep promises to the Lord.”
Apostle Jeffrey R. Holland, who gave the day’s first sermon, was among the many speakers who urged members to seek and find Christ despite the noise in the world.
Even at General Conference, where he said many are busy taking photos, finding friends or joining with families, “in spite of everything else this conference tradition may offer, it will mean little or nothing unless we find Jesus at the center of it.”
He added that excitement about many new church initiatives and announcements mean nothing unless members remember that Jesus Christ is at the center of it.
“Consider the swirl of bold initiatives and new announcements in the church in just these recent months,” he said. “As we minister to one another, or refine our Sabbath experience, or embrace a new program for children and youth, we will miss the real reason for these revelatory adjustments if we see them as disparate, unrelated elements rather than as an interrelated effort to help us build firmly on the Rock of our Salvation," another name for Christ.
“Surely,” he said, “this is what [church] President Russell M. Nelson intends in having us use the revealed name of the church.”
Holland said people just learning about the church often are a bit overwhelmed by some of its distinctive elements — from dietary restrictions to self-reliance supplies and pioneer treks to digitized family trees, not to mention chapels called stake centers, where he said they may expect a fine charbroiled sirloin.
“As our new friends experience a multitude of new sights and sounds," Holland said, “we must point past the hustle and bustle and concentrate them on the meaning of it all, on the beating heart of the eternal gospel — the love of Heavenly Parents, the atoning gift of a divine son, the comforting guidance of the Holy Ghost, the latter-day restoration of all these truths and more.”
Faith before Facebook
Several other speakers encouraged members to tune out the world and tune into heaven.
Young Men General President Stephen W. Owen said smartphones and other technology may bless people in many ways. “However, they can also distract us from the most important connection: our connection with heaven.”
Michelle D. Craig, first counselor in the Young Women general presidency and the only female speaker in the morning and afternoon sessions, said, “The distractions and noise that fill the world and our homes and our lives can make it more difficult to hear his [God’s] voice.”
She added, “Just imagine what would happen if we were as intent on staying connected with heaven as we are on staying connected to Wi-Fi! Pick a time to listen for God’s voice every day. And keep this sacred appointment with exactness, for so very much depends on it!"
Terence M. Vinson of the presidency of the Seventy quoted a recent Latter-day Saint returned missionary, who said, “What we need here is less Wi-Fi and more Nephi,” referring to a prophet in the faith’s foundational scripture, the Book of Mormon.
He recommended that listeners review their priorities and see “the futility of prioritizing things of no eternal consequence above the things of God.”
There is “no treasure, nor any hobby, nor any status, nor any social media, nor any video games, nor any sport, nor any association with a celebrity, nor anything on earth,” Vinson said, “that is more precious than eternal life.”
This weekend’s conference came after a wave of reforms, revisions and rescissions since Nelson took the faith’s reins in January 2018 — including this week allowing women and girls, not just priesthood-holding males, to serve as official witnesses in church ordinances in its temples and at baptisms.
On Saturday afternoon, the church unveiled more changes — including disbanding local adult Young Men presidencies to give bishops more direct responsibility over youths and adjusting activity budgets to make them more equitable for girls and boys.
Earlier this year, Nelson reversed a policy that had deemed same-sex married couples “apostates” and generally barred their children from baby blessings and baptisms.
Other Nelson-era changes include lowering the ages that boys may be ordained to priesthood offices; reducing the length of Sunday services from three hours to two; urging use of the church’s full name; restructuring “home and visiting teaching” into “ministering”: eliminating local-congregation high priest groups; restructuring bishops’ youth interviews; and adjusting temple ceremonies to include more gender-inclusive language.