A few months ago, Elder M. Russell Ballard announced an “inspired and timely” initiative replacing Scripture Mastery in seminary. The new program, Doctrinal Mastery,[1] teaches students “how to apply the doctrine of Christ and gospel principles to the questions and challenges they hear and see every day among their peers and on social media.” With this program, leaders have issued guidelines to help students handle difficult questions about the church, either their own or others.

Origins of Doctrinal Mastery

In a panel discussion at last week’s Seminary and Institute Annual Training Broadcast, Elder Kim B. Clark explained that Doctrinal Mastery was the brainchild of Brother Chad H. Webb, Administrator of Seminaries & Institutes of Religion:

About a year ago I was asked to take a look at how we might help the rising generation better deal with questions that they have about doctrine, about Church history, about their lives and what’s happening in the world around them… Brother Webb and I spent some time together talking through those issues. One day he came into my office, and he said, “I have an idea.” We sat down around the table and he began to tell me his idea, and I felt the Spirit of the Lord. And I realized that I was listening to revelation. He proposed this idea of taking the time in seminary that we normally and historically have spent doing Scripture Mastery and use that time to do something he called ”Doctrinal Mastery.” And the idea was to do exactly what we had been working on—to help students in seminary, especially, cope with and answer questions that they have but also learn how to apply the doctrines that they learn to challenges they face in their personal lives, challenges their friends have, questions that come up in lots of different settings, so that the gospel becomes not only something that they live in their personal lives but something that they love and share and becomes the way they interact with people.

Acquiring Spiritual Knowledge

Doctrinal Mastery starts out heavy discussing general acquisition of spiritual knowledge (à la “teach a man to fish”).[2] Three principles help students “understand eternal truth and resolve questions or issues.”

First, act in faith. “We act in faith when we choose to trust God and turn to Him first through sincere prayer, a study of His teachings, and obedience to His commandments.” Basic Sunday School answers. Having problems? Pray more, read your scriptures, go to church, attend the temple, etc. It’s a good thing this is the first step, since it’s the first thing you’ll hear from any member if you admit to questions or doubts.

Second, examine concepts and questions with an eternal perspective. Take the long view. This one has several aspects. They advocate examining historical events within the context of that time and culture – awesome! They point out that historical events shouldn’t bug us because, “historical details do not carry the saving power of ordinances, covenants, and doctrine.” I agree many historical details don’t matter in the long run, but historical details surrounding priesthood restoration, prophetic authority, or origin of the scriptures can definitely impact how we view ordinances, covenants, and doctrine.

Also within this concept of eternal perspective is “reframing” stuff: “We seek the help of the Holy Ghost in order to see things as the Lord sees them. This allows us to reframe the question (to see the question differently) and view ideas based on the Lord’s standard of truth rather than accepting the world’s premise or assumptions.”[3] This reminds me of a line from Disney’s Zootopia, “Press Conference 101: You wanna look smart? Answer their question with your own question and then answer that question.”

Finally, seek further understanding through divinely appointed sources. “These sources include the light of Christ, the Holy Ghost, the scriptures, parents, and Church leaders.” They admit it’s possible to get reliable information from other trustworthy sources (the teacher’s manual advocates teaching students about mormonnewsroom.org and the Gospel Topics page, for example), but then…

However, sincere seekers of truth should be wary of unreliable sources of information. We live in a time when many “call evil good, and good evil” (Isaiah 5:20). Satan is the father of lies and seeks to distort truth and persuade us to turn away from the Lord and His appointed servants.

Evaluating reliable versus unreliable sources is always a good thing, but were overt scare tactics really necessary?

Helping Others Acquire Spiritual Knowledge

The Doctrinal Mastery program also teaches students how to respond when other people approach them with tough questions.

Step 1 – Listen carefully and prayerfully. “Listen attentively before you respond, seeking to clarify and understand the actual questions they are asking. Thoughtfully seek to understand the true intent of their questions and their feelings and beliefs.” Brother Webb explained in another venue that the goal is to make sure the questioner is genuine in their concern and not simply looking “to entrap, to find fault, and to accuse.” Evaluating intent isn’t easy, but at least they welcome the possibility that difficult questions might not always be about sowing seeds of doubt.

Step 2 – Teach and testify of gospel truths. “Share applicable teachings from the scriptures and modern prophets and how they have made a difference in your life. Help those with whom you speak examine or reframe their questions in the context of the gospel and the plan of salvation.” Hopefully seminary and Sunday meetings will pay off and the student can immediately recall relevant teachings to help the questioner. As for the reframing… ugh. I refer you back to Zootopia.

Step 3 – Invite them to act in faith. “Remember that the Lord requires us to seek spiritual knowledge for ourselves. We must therefore invite others to act in faith through prayer, obedience to the commandments, and diligent study of the word of God, using divinely appointed sources, particularly the Book of Mormon. If applicable, invite them to remember experiences they may have had when they felt the Holy Ghost and to hold fast to eternal truths they have learned until additional knowledge comes.” Sunday School answers to the rescue! And a nod towards other divinely appointed sources (light of Christ, the Holy Ghost, the scriptures, parents, and Church leaders).

Step 4 – Follow through. “Offer to search for answers, and then follow through by sharing what you learn. You could also search for answers together. Express confidence in the Lord’s promise to provide personal revelation.” As a last resort, try to help them find an answer. Go figure.

  • What do you think of the new suggestions for acquiring gospel knowledge (or helping others to acquire gospel knowledge) in the new Doctrinal Mastery program?

[1] For a comparison of the Doctrinal Mastery core document to previous seminary curricula and youth-related publications, see this analysis at Faith-Promoting Rumor.

[2] The rest of the year Doctrinal Mastery covers the same topics as the Come, Follow Me curriculum, incorporating relevant scripture passages from that year’s course of study. (Because, clearly, teenagers don’t get enough of the Come, Follow Me curriculum in the second and third hour meetings every Sunday).

[3] The “reframing” example in the training broadcast was about a student concerned with gender equality in the church. The student’s original question was, “When will the Church be like everyone else and start treating men and women equally?” The teacher first responded, “How might the world define equality and fairness?” Then she asked, “How does the Lord define equality and fairness?” and “How does the Lord view the role of men and women in the plan of salvation?” As a kid, I wasn’t impressed with teachers who avoided answering questions, and “reframing” my statement that way would’ve been incredibly irritating.