The Prophet Shall Never Lead Us

In a recent interview posted by Mormon Newsroom, President Russell M. Nelson made the following statement.

If you think the Church has been fully restored, you’re just seeing the beginning. There is much more to come. Wait till next year. And then the next year. Eat your vitamin pills. Get your rest. It’s going to be exciting.

The subject of ongoing restoration is one that I have wanted to address for a long time, and may at some point. Until then, let me just say that the latter-day saint tradition is a “restoration church” and is described as a “living church.” As such, it is expected to change. If we do not change in principle, practice, and doctrine, then we have failed in our mission.

With this principle of change in my mind, I left the following comment on a Facebook post that cited the above statement from President Nelson.

Will the changes bring more or less freedom, more or less judgement, more or less openness, more or less inclusion, more or less Christian love?? It will be interesting to see.

Sometimes change for the sake of change keeps us flexible for when change is required. Whether the changes are revelatory or administrative, hopefully we can rise to the challenge.

By using “more or less,” I had in mind two things. 1) We often try to codify good practice. This can sometimes lead to separation, exclusion, and judgement in the church between those who practice the new program and those who don’t. 2) I also allowed for prophetic fallibility.

From the Audience: “Prophetic fallibility. What?? Are you saying prophets can be wrong?”

Well, yes, aren’t we all wrong at times?

Before addressing the prophetic issue, let’s deal with the more important one.

Fallibility of the People

Regardless of the perfection of the counsel and doctrine disseminated by a prophet or scripture, it is the response of the people that is most important. If administrative action or revelation is used to exclude and bludgeon others, whether inside or outside of our faith, then we have violated the first commandments.

From the Audience: “First commandments?”

Yes, as in preeminent, foundational, over-riding. Remember the response of Jesus when asked “Which is the greatest commandment in the Law”?

Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets. (KJV Matt 22:36-40)

Love is the standard by which we can judge the doctrine, practice, and policy of the church and the measure by which we should judge our own actions. Changes in practice, principle, and doctrine should not result in abandoning love for anyone.

Now back to your prophetic fallibility question.

He Will Never Lead Us Astray

There is a phrase common in the LDS community that dramatically influences our culture of obedience:

The Lord will never allow the president (or prophet) of the Church to lead us astray.*

This concept operates within another principle that “all those who [are] ordained unto this priesthood” effectively carry a license that says:

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. (D&C 68:2,4)

Since we, as a Mormon people, presume that our leaders are holy men and are always in touch with the Spirit of God, then every word they utter and every action they take must be the will of the Lord and must be inerrant.

In practice, however, it can be difficult to determine whether they speak from their own judgement or with the force of divine revelation, and so we tend to ignore the distinction and just obey.

Prophetic Mistakes

So, are prophets perfect?

From the Audience: “Well, … no. They are honorable men doing their best.”

Okay. I think we can agree there, but are you making allowances for their personal conduct as well as their leadership actions?

Can a prophet, or any leader of the church, make a mistake when acting in his or her leadership capacity?

From the Audience: “Her? Are you saying we should have a female prophet?”

Okay, let’s keep the scope to the prophet and president of the church. Please allow me to rephrase. Can the president and prophet of the church make a mistake when acting as such?

From the Audience: “Well, I guess. . . . But, but, the Lord wouldn’t let him lead us astray.”

If a president of the church wanted to abandon the principles of the gospel of Jesus Christ, fire the apostles, collect tithing for his personal junkets, and follow the path of King Noah in the Book of Mormon or King David in the Bible, I agree with you, the Lord may (eventually) move to replace the wayward prophet with another.

But, can the president of the church unintentionally lead the church down a wrong path?

From the Audience: “Um, … maybe?”

I think the answer has to be “Yes.”

From the Audience: “Heretic! Apostate!! Hand over your temple recommend!”

If you accept that the president of the church is not perfect, can you give any examples of mistakes that the presidents of the church have made in their directions to the Church?

From the Audience: “Uh, . . . “

I am not trying to dredge up dirt or prove that the church is off the rails, only that we should accept the actions of our leaders with patience and long suffering as we sustain them in their roles. We should also be confident enough to stand on our own if necessary, otherwise obedience is meaningless.

The following are a couple of examples of prophetic mistakes.

18 month mission calls. This change was heralded as “inspired” and even practical, but it was soon rescinded.

The failure of the Kirtland Safety Society, of which Joseph Smith was the head, resulted in financial ruin for many.

From the Audience: “Oh, but those are secular or administrative actions.”

Yes, that is a good point, we may have to be cautious about the distinction between revelation on doctrinal matters and “inspired” administrative action. Nevertheless, is anything purely secular or administrative when it comes from the prophet?

Here’s another one: The church restricted priesthood ordinations and temple ordinances to only non-blacks until 1978. Misguided or not?

The Gospel Topics essay, Race and the Priesthood and related historical analyses are intriguing from the perspective of race in the church, but more so with respect to our question at hand. The conclusion is that presidents of the church, like their scriptural predecessors, are influenced by their culture, their predilections, and their prejudices in administrative, spiritual, and, yes, even prophetic actions. If you consider what the Lord has to work with (and how He works), there is no other conclusion you can reach. The stamp of individuality is present throughout the scriptures, including in foundational doctrines of atonement theory and Christology.

In hindsight, we can examine these differences and they can enlighten our understanding when evaluated fairly.  Unfortunately, deficiencies can become especially glaring when we judge them against present values.

Assumptions, The Root of Many Problems

Some struggle with unanswered questions about things that have been done or said in the past. We openly acknowledge that in nearly 200 years of Church history—along with an uninterrupted line of inspired, honorable, and divine events—there have been some things said and done that could cause people to question. (President Uchtdorf, https://www.lds.org/general-conference/2013/10/come-join-with-us?lang=eng)

More often than not, I think our faith problems come, not from facts themselves, but from what we think (or were taught) that the facts should be.

For example, if we hold to a cartoon story of Noah, we may later be disappointed or shaken when reality forces a more practical alternative. (Steven Peck has a wonderful little story on this subject in his book Evolving Faith.)

Similarly, when we impose our template of the ideal prophet on a man or upon his prophetic actions or teachings, there may be considerable mismatch. This can be a jarring experience and even cause us to lose faith.

I’m not advocating for distrust of the guidance and instruction received from our prophet and president, only an allowance for his human-ness and a recommendation that we retain our individual agency in judging his counsel.

More often than not, an open-eyed perspective is more valuable than idealistic perfection because it is more relatable. Whether it be the story of Moses, Noah, Saul, Peter, or Thomas, God still seems to get things done in spite of our personal failures, doubts, cultural circumstances, and mortal limitations, no miracles required.

Summary

So, back to my social media post regarding restoration and changes to come.

Will the changes in the church bring more or less freedom, more or less judgement, more or less openness, more or less inclusion, more or less Christian love?? It will be interesting to see.

I expect that you have heard the following from Brigham Young.

What a pity it would be if we were led by one man to utter destruction! Are you afraid of this? I am more afraid that this people have so much confidence in their leaders that they will not inquire for themselves of God whether they are led by Him. I am fearful they settle down in a state of blind self-security, trusting their eternal destiny in the hands of their leaders with a reckless confidence that in itself would thwart the purposes of God in their salvation, and weaken that influence they could give to their leaders, did they know for themselves, by the revelations of Jesus, that they are led in the right way. (Brigham Young, January 12, 1862. Journal of Discourses 9:150, see Well Nigh as Dangerous)

Similarly from B. H. Roberts:

I know that some men . . . have advanced extravagant ideas . . . that the people must go on performing their daily duties without question, and then if the President should do wrong, God would look after him. Such teachings have now and then been heard; but I call your attention to the fact . . . that the Lord has provided means by which the Church can correct every man within it, and can dismiss the unworthy from power. That right is resident in the Church of Christ; and the Church don’t (sic) have to wait till God kills off unworthy servants before a wrong can be righted. (B. H. Roberts, A Defense of the Faith and the Saints, (Provo: Maasai, 2002, p. 167, see Well Nigh as Dangerous)

Both of these views put the responsibility on the individual to judge the direction received from our church leaders and then act rightly. As such, there is high probability that some of us will reach different conclusions than others. The November 2015 policy change regarding the children of same-sex couples is an example. Many believe that it violates the first principles of Christianity; our command to love one another and allow for individual responsibility. Are we in the wrong for faithful obedience? Or, do we patiently sustain the leaders, waiting for an expected realignment with the principle of love? Or, do we separate ourselves from the church. These are individual choices and each might be motivated by our individual understanding and spiritual guidance.

What will future restoration principles be? I don’t know, but for those that judge differently, I hope that I can extend to them the freedom to act as they chose, be open to their points of view, include them in the body of Christ, and extend my love to them as they make their journey in life.

Eugene

* This is a paraphrase from several different people.

Brigham Young:

“If I were to reject [the privileges and blessings of his calling as President] and take a course to deprive myself of the spirit of revelation . . . I would be taken forthwith from this world, I would not remain here at all to darken the minds of, or to lead astray, any of the members of the kingdom of God. According to the revelations that I and others of my brethren and sisters have received . . . If I observe my duty, I shall have the privilege of living and enjoying the society of my brethren and sisters, and of instructing them; but let me neglect this and I shall be removed out of my place forthwith.” (Brigham Young, August 31, 1875. Journal of Discourses 18:70, See Well Nigh as Dangerous)

Wilford Woodruff: “The Lord will never permit me or any other man who stands as President of this Church to lead you astray. It is not in the programme. It is not in the mind of God. If I were to attempt that, the Lord would remove me out of my place, and so He will any other man who attempts to lead the children of men astray from the oracles of God and from their duty. (Reported in Deseret Evening News, October 11, 1890, p. 2., See Well Nigh as Dangerous)

More Reading

Here are a couple of articles on the subject:

How is it possible for a church leader or prophet to have been influenced by racism?

Well Nigh as Dangerous

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