This is a topic that I have wanted to address for a long time. In The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, we often speak of inspiration, revelation, or feeling. Of these, “revelation” carries the most weight. But, there are often unintended consequences.
As Latter-day Saints, we believe that God acts in our lives through the Holy Ghost or Spirit of God. We understand that the “[Lord] will tell you in your mind and in your heart, by the Holy Ghost” (D&C 8:1-3), providing guidance or answers to prayers.
When communicating these events to others, key words might be inserted into conversations as indicators of spiritual enlightenment. For example, in leadership meetings, it is not unusual to hear someone say something like: “I feel that we should ….” The implication being that they have been enlightened by the Holy Spirit to pursue a particular activity, or at least to offer the suggestion.
One might elevate confidence in a particular point of spiritual insight by saying, “I feel inspired to . . . .”
In other words, there is an implied hierarchy of claims to spiritual insight or the clarity of that insight. The following is a rough ranking, from lowest authority to highest:
- Thoughts (I think that…)
- Feelings (I feel that…)
- Impressions (I’m impressed to…)
- Inspiration (I have been inspired to…)
- Knowledge (I know that…)
- Direct revelation (It has been revealed to me…. Such as by vision, dream, voice, epiphany, or similar.)
Combinations of terms like “I feel impressed” or “I feel inspired” are common.
The above list is certainly not a strict definition and others might rank them differently or change the list. I only wish to point out that there is a hierarchy of certainty that can be observed.
Emotional expression is also highly effective at implying or elevating spiritual credibility. If any of the above types of statements are made with tears or sentimentality, the impact is compounded.
As one would expect, church rank or position is also a powerful multiplier. An intonation of revelation by a current or former leader may be more effective than when it comes from someone without church rank.
While any mode from the above list can be considered revelation, the assertion of “revelation,” including epiphany, dreams, or voices, is to claim direct communication with God, even unquestionable clarity and authority.
And, therein lies the problem; there are implications when the R-word is used.
Implications of Revelation
While the following was given as specific instruction to proselyting missionaries, it is often applied to any church leader:
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. (Doctrine and Covenants 68:4)
When the above is applied generally, pronouncements by church leaders carry a lot of influence. Add allusions to inspiration or revelation, and their messages become even more weighty; conformity to the “voice of the Lord” is expected when church leaders speak under the influence of revelation.
This is a huge burden for the general church leaders to carry. It is no wonder that there are seldom any un-curated Tweets or social posts from leaders. Even casual comments by general authorities can cause eager members to upend their lives. Counsel given to local leaders is often secretly promulgated as high and holy doctrine. I am sure that most of us have heard anecdotes of what Elder So-and-so said to a stake president during a private meeting or even in a stake conference.
From the Audience: “Yeah. Elder ______ told my stake president that we were under condemnation for _______. And, that we would only be blessed if we _______.” (Actual—or imagined—counsel redacted.)
Yeah, you’ve got the point.
So, when the president of the Church or an apostle speaks of revelation to the full quorum, there is little room for a member of the Church to take a contrary position because:
- The “Lord” has spoken.
- Revelation from God is not to be questioned.
- Revelation is true and correct.
- Revelation is for our good.
- Revelation is trustworthy, it will never lead us astray.
- Revelation is often hard, especially for the unrighteous.
- Revelation is perfect.
So, what happens when that “revelation” is damaging, compromises our love for others, marginalizes those close to us, is contradicted by scripture, or is later reversed?
The (not so subtle) allusion here is to the 2015 policy excluding the baptism of children of LGBTQ couples (and more). The explanation for the policy, by at least one of the apostles, was described in “revelatory” language. (Read here, here, and here, and video here.)
Understanding Revelation Wrong
As with many problems in religious belief, the root problem may not be the one at hand, but the conflict caused by unfounded ideals.
Maybe, revelation isn’t what we expect it to be.
Maybe, revelation for church leaders isn’t any different than it is for us individually.
Maybe, revelation, as received, communicated, or implemented is sometimes wrong.
Maybe, revelation needs to be tested and proven before we drive our stake too deeply on one side or the other.
Maybe … , we need to find a different word.
From the Audience: “A different word?”
Yes. Or, at least a different way of thinking about revelation, one that allows for more uncertainty, but still conveys due confidence and hope.
Policy in Scripture
The early church had quite a challenge. When Jesus, a Jewish rabbi, died, he failed to update the church policy handbook and renew the trademark. This left the new apostles in quite a fix.
There they were. Marginalized Jews. Tasked with preaching a new Way to both Jews and gentiles.
So, if Jesus was a Jew, fulfilling Jewish prophecy, and the Good News was for all the world, shouldn’t the converts be Jewish too? If so, how “Jewish” should they be? In particular, what about circumcision? (Ouch!) Now, that was a problem if the Christian Way was to be taken to all the world.
Let’s read from Rob Bell’s Velvet Elvis (pg 47-48):
When those first Christians in Acts 15 came out of their meeting and announced their decision regarding the Gentiles, they said the strangest thing: “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements.”
Let me repeat that one phrase again: “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us.”
They are making a monumental decision in the history of Christianity, and the best they can say is it seems like it is the best decision? It seems good to them and the Holy Spirit?
They don’t claim to have an absolute word from God on the matter; they at best claim guidance from the Spirit of God, but they even hold that loosely.
What is so beautiful about the language in Acts 15 is that they make a decision, they step up, they take their responsibility seriously, they acknowledge a strong sense of God’s leading, but they remain humble.
With their “seems,” they leave room to admit they may not have nailed it perfectly the first time. They hold their action and God’s action in healthy tension. They understand that they have action to take, but they also understand God is at work as well. They don’t take a passive route, which is to do nothing and assume that God will miraculously do it all. And they don’t take a route based in human arrogance, which leaves no room for leading and guiding of the Spirit of God.
Maybe the words that we can substitute for “revelation” are: “it seems good.”
From the Audience: “Are you so arrogant that you think you can advise the apostles and prophet? How dare you.”
No, I am proposing one way of rethinking our ideals of revelation. If revelation in the LDS church isn’t perfectly reliable with resecpt to our ideals, which is easily demonstrated, then what is it?
Maybe, “it seems good” is a place to start.
Some may say that if revelation “appears” to be wrong, it is because we weren’t ready for it or we didn’t do it right. That may be the case. But, I think we sometimes just don’t get the message right, are too confident that we did get it right, or want everyone else to think we got it right.
When we hear emotional or authoritative claims to revelation, maybe we need to learn to hold more loosely until time has a chance to prove the position. A white-knuckle grip of absolute obedience obviates our own agency and imposes an undue burden on our leaders.
If a church practice, policy, or revelation changes, that’s okay. If we disagree with a particular church policy or practice, give it some time. In the real world, stepping stones are never in a straight line. And, occasionally, there may be a terrible fall. At least, that’s the way it seems to me.
More Reading: The Search For Infallible Prophets