It is, of course, unfair to hold the Church responsible for every statement, true or false, made by any one of its members. The member who made the statement in question must be the one held responsible for the statement.
A double standard is used by these anti-Mormon critics. They would never dream of holding the Lutheran Church responsible for every statement made by Martin Luther, or the Methodist Church responsible for all of John Wesley's remarks. Yet many try to hold the LDS Church responsible for all of its early leaders' remarks, as well as any statement by present leaders. The double standard is compounded because their churches have no apostles nor prophets. They have no one who is recognized as authorized to speak for them. Televangelists, pastors, authors and other individuals express a wide spectrum of personal views. But does anyone expect them to be "authorized spokesmen" for "orthodox Christianity"? Of course not. But the double standard detractors attempt to impose on Latter-day Saints tries to make any members or leader an "official spokesman" of the Church's doctrine, practices and beliefs.
Those doctrines for which the LDS Church is responsible and which are binding upon its members are (1) those which are found in its Standard Works—that is the reason we refer to them as our "Standard Works"; and (2) the official statements approved by the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, issued to the Church as doctrine.
Church President Harold B. Lee gave some timeless council in 1972:
I say that we need to teach our people to find their answers in the scriptures. If only each of us would be wise enough to say that we aren't able to answer any question unless we can find a doctrinal answer in the scriptures! And if we hear someone teaching something that is contrary to what is in the scriptures, each of us may know whether the things spoken are false—it is as simple as that. But the unfortunate thing is that so many of us are not reading the scriptures. We do not know what is in them, and therefore we speculate about the things that we ought to have found in the scriptures themselves. I think that therein is one of our biggest dangers of today (Ensign, Dec. 1972, p. 3).While President Lee was specifically speaking about members using commentaries and other books in place of the scriptures, his advice is equally applicable to sermons, talks, and general responses to issues of the day, no matter where, when, or by whom spoken.
When judging whether something said is reliable or not, we must first view it in light of our Standard Works. We believe in the doctrine of infallibility as it pertains to God, not as it pertains to man. There is only one exception to the rule that everything that is taught should be rooted in the scriptures, and that exception is the prophet. He has the right and responsibility to receive new revelation beyond what has already been revealed in the scriptures.
If a historical tidbit seems inflammatory, we should read it in context with the time, setting, and conditions under which it was said. For example, comments of the brethren regarding the clergy shortly after the death of Joseph Smith at Carthage obviously do not represent the feelings of the Church leadership in the less-emotional times of today. Brigham Young's comments about the government of the United States, while U.S. troops were on the way to Salt Lake City to put down what they thought was the "Mormon Rebellion," must be read in that context. Responses of the leading authorities regarding the political platform of a party that called "Mormon polygamy and slavery" twin barbarisms, cannot be considered the prevalent feelings one hundred years later.
Many of Jesus's own statements could appear inflammatory when taken out of their cultural and historical setting. Examples are when Jesus is preaching to "resist not evil" (Matt. 5:39), or when Jesus is being led by Satan (Matt. 4:5), or advising others to eat flesh or drink blood (Matt. 26:26-28). If the perfect master's teachings can be made to appear preposterous when taken out of context, how much easier would it be to ridicule his imperfect servants' statements?
Joseph Smith once said: "This morning I 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" (History of the Church, Vol. 5, p. 265).
Prophets, express personal and private views on many topics, including
doctrine. These comments, if they are out of harmony with revealed scripture,
can be rejected. Certainly, they are not doctrinally binding comments.