This blog post is a review of Patrick Mason’s chapter in his popular book, “Planted”, on prophets, “In All Patience and Faith.” I will also include my own view of how I view and sustain prophets despite not having a traditional/literal view of scripture and church history.
Patrick tells the story of himself as a missionary teaching a couple Greg and Lynnette. Many of us RM’s have a story like this. A family we fell in love with and wanted to baptize so bad, but it just didn’t work out. You become so emotionally invested in these relationships, and that’s one of the beauties of missionary service. So this couple was progressing well, but then got tripped up on the issue of past racism in the Mormon church. Patrick tried to explain it with the logic he understood. But the logic wasn’t compelling to this couple, and eventually their interest in the church fizzled out. He wishes he could go back and explain it better. My words not Patrick’s, but I believe he wishes he could go back and tell Greg and Lynnette: “the prophets were wrong on that one. And here’s why that’s OK.” Through the rest of the chapter, Patrick makes his case for what a prophet is and should be within the LDS church.
Patrick then goes into “Prophetic fallibility” which is the central point of the chapter. He believes that many of the issues related to “faith crisis” in the church today are due to an unrealistic expectation about prophets.
Many of our problems stem from the fact that in the church we have developed an erroneous cultural notion of prophetic infallibility that has its foundation neither in scripture nor in the teachings of the modern prophets themselves.
In the early days of the church, members interacted personally with the prophet and apostles, so they obviously saw them making mistakes and saw erroneous thinking and acting on a regular basis. Just like we see with our neighbors and family. We’re human, no duh. This should be obvious. But today, with a church of 15 million members, we only see the prophet at General Conference, and we have kind of built up a false notion of the prophet as being perfect.
I don’t know who came up with the following saying, but it gets at the heart of the matter: “Catholics teach that the pope is infallible, but nobody believes it. Mormons teach that the prophet is fallible, but nobody believes it.”
In his excellent address at the FairMormon conference, Patrick expounded:
One of the key tasks before us is developing a better, more sophisticated, and frankly more Christian theology of prophets and prophethood. We have treated our prophets too often as demigods. We do not believe in prophetic infallibility. This cannot be said enough, and it cannot be taken seriously enough. We give it lip service but too often do not believe it, nor consider its implications, other than the intellectually lazy conclusion that the whole thing must either be all true or a complete fraud.
What I think many of us in the church mean when we say prophets are not perfect, is something akin to admitting they occasionally might not match their shoes with their belt. Maybe once a year, they might commit a minor sin like say something a little rude to a family member. But of course, they would immediately repent. As a youth, I remember popular LDS speaker Jack Christensen used an example to show that a prophet isn’t perfect. He said he once met President Ezra Taft Benson and he had a small patch of unshaven whiskers under his nose that he hadn’t noticed while shaving. “Aha! He’s not perfect,” Brother Christensen said, as if that understanding of fallibility does anyone any good. A prophet can commit serious moral transgressions or sin. A prophet can make serious doctrinal errors. We know they have in the past. We know this can happen again.
Br. Mason maps out how we got into the situation of defending behavioral or doctrinal error of prophets. From the beginning and even to this day, critics of the church like to point out a mistake made by a prophet and use it to attempt to discredit the entire validity of the church.
This line of critique has an attractive logic to it, but only if we are to assume that prophets of God are either superhuman by nature or upon being called are mystically transformed into flawless puppets of the divine will. Of course, neither is the case. The requirement for prophets to be faultless, or even morally superior, is fundamentally inconsistent with the precedent set in scripture where the Lord repeatedly demonstrates his power and grace precisely by calling as his servants people who are just as flawed as their neighbors.
But rather than simply acknowledge that Joseph made mistakes…
Instead, they did what friends often do: they defended Joseph’s character even when it could not be or did not need to be defended. Much of this continues today.
President Uchtdorf acknowledged in conference in 2013 that church leaders make mistakes:
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. . . . And, to be perfectly frank, there have been times when members or leaders in the Church have simply made mistakes. There may have been things said or done that were not in harmony with our values, principles, or doctrine. I suppose the Church would be perfect only if it were run by perfect beings. God is perfect, and His doctrine is pure. But He works through us—His imperfect children—and imperfect people make mistakes.
How should we treat prophets that we know have or will make mistakes? Patrick implores us to follow the counsel the Lord gave in D&C 21:4-5, to receive the prophets in “patience and faith.” We’re good at the faith part but not as good at understanding and practicing the patience part. Patrick goes on to ask some very important questions that every LDS should take some time to think through.
Can we believe that fallible human beings can also be conduits for the Lord’s will? Can a prophet be inspired and in error, even on the same day or in the same sermon? Do we believe our bishops and stake presidents can be trusted to carry out the Lord’s will in their jurisdictions, which our theology states is just as significant and sacred as the prophet’s stewardship over the entire church? Can we ourselves, with all our flaws, filters, and prejudices, nonetheless be genuinely inspired of the Lord? Do we really believe that the “weak things of the world” can be agents of God (1 Corinthians 1:27; D&C 1:19; 35:13)? It is a daring assertion, but it is a crucial element of our religion. Part of the essence of Mormonism is trusting the revelation of other fallible human beings.
The answer in part is to be forgiving and offer grace to our leaders.
We practice grace when we are patient and when we forgive. Indeed, one of our modern prophets, Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, reminded us that when dealing with “finite [human] vessels” that “can’t quite contain” all of God’s glory and perfection, our best response is to “be patient and kind and forgiving.” In saying this, Elder Holland is simply reiterating what the Lord told the church on the day of its birth: following a prophet takes faith, and it also takes patience.
The question he asks that I have thought a lot about is: what does it mean to sustain a fallible prophet? In the temple recommend question, we’re asked if we sustain the prophet. That’s a basic tenet of Mormonism. We know the prophet is fallible. We know he’s going to make mistakes. We won’t agree with everything he says. That means we are promising to sustain a prophet we know is going to make mistakes, and we know we won’t always agree with.
Terryl Givens said on what it means to sustain:
I take “sustain” in that case to mean we support the general framework, share its common purposes, and work for its betterment. To sustain the elected leaders of a government would similarly mean to recognize their legitimately derived authority, and not work to undermine that authority, even if we voted for the other guy (or woman). So adapting this scriptural usage to the sustaining of our own leaders, I take the same cues. We recognize their legitimately derived authority. (This is made explicit in the temple interview questions. We affirm that they have the priesthood keys to administer in their office.) We pray for them and share their common purpose of building the kingdom, although we may not agree with or embrace their particular course of action at any given moment. But by recognizing their authority, and working within the parameters of kingdom governance to exert our influence on the church’s course in righteous ways, we can be faithful to our covenants even if dubious about particulars, and be true to our consciences at the same time.
In the temple recommend question, we’re not asked if we think he’s perfect. We’re not asked if we agree with everything he’s said. The brethren have told us it’s OK not to agree with everything. The brethren have given good guidance on what we can do to follow our conscience when we don’t agree. Disagreeing is OK. Public statements of disagreement are OK. Specific criticism of the brethren, attempting to sway people publicly against the brethren, and efforts to embarrass the church to get them to change policies or doctrines is NOT OK. I summarized this previously in an analysis of Elder Oaks’ talk on Loyal Opposition.
This leads to a critical point which Mason didn’t address explicitly in the book but has discussed since. In a fireside meeting in Salt Lake in Sep 2016 (at about the 44:00 mark), Patrick goes into the following logic…(btw don’t blame Patrick for anything controversial or critical here. The good stuff is his. Everything else is my addition to it.)
It’s easy to deconstruct. It’s easy to look at this logic and understand clearly and correctly that prophets are not perfect. It’s easy to say they’re not always right. It’s easy to look at our truth cart and see that we’ve loaded up too much and that we need to toss some of it out. It’s easy for Jeremy Runnells to write a list of things that are untrue about the LDS church. What’s more challenging (and fulfilling and rewarding) is to construct. You’ve torn it down, will you and how will you build it back up?
43 When the unclean spirit is gone out of a man, he walketh through dry places, seeking rest, and findeth none.
44 Then he saith, I will return into my house from whence I came out; and when he is come, he findeth it empty, swept, and garnished.
45 Then goeth he, and taketh with himself seven other spirits more wicked than himself, and they enter in and dwell there: and the last state of that man is worse than the first.
What a great metaphor. In the internet age, many previously understood historical facts about the church are being questioned. Many of us are in the process of emptying the house of that evil spirit, so to speak. We’re unloading our truth cart. Maybe the church prior to 1978 was racist. Maybe polygamy was wrong. Maybe the prophet is sometimes wrong today. Maybe some of our scripture is not historical. But what next? Do we rebuild our faith in God and a view of the prophets and the restoration of the church in a better way? Or do we do nothing and let seven evil spirits come in and end up worse than the original state?
From that fireside:
The most pressing challenge we have in Mormonism right now is to construct, to fill the house, with an improved theology of sustaining fallible but reliable prophets. I call this prophetic reliability which is very different than prophetic infallibility…We need to look with and through our prophets but not to them. If we spend too much time looking to them, that will set us up sometimes in some unhelpful ways. But I think God calls us and calls prophets, so that we can look with them and through them to God and to Jesus and to the plan.
I don’t follow the prophets because they know the way. I follow the prophets because—and insofar as—they know the Way. Human prophets are only worth following when they point toward the Way, the Truth, and the Life. I follow them as apostles—messengers and witnesses—of the Lord Jesus Christ. I follow their lead, because they lead me to God. In actuality, it’s not really the prophets at all that I am following. I am responding to Christ’s invitation to follow him, and doing so in the company of fellow disciples, some of whom have been specially called by him to help lead the pack in our collective journey.
More on this notion of prophetic reliability from the footnotes in this chapter of Planted.
It is possible to interpret some teachings by modern prophets and apostles as supporting something akin to prophetic infallibility. To this end, many commonly cite President Wilford Woodruff’s statement, published as a footnote to Official Declaration 1 in the Doctrine and Covenants: “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.” I interpret this statement, and others similar to it, as an affirmation of general prophetic reliability, not infallibility, and a testimony that God and not mortal prophets, is the true head of the church. Indeed, President Woodruff implicitly accepted the possibility of prophetic fallibility, which is why he asserted that God would remove the errant prophet before allowing him to do anything to destroy the church.
Mason acknowledges this is a little bit of new ground for Mormonism, but he’s optimistic for the future. Identifying how we will reconstruct a proper understanding on prophets and the other truth we fill our cart up with is still undefined. We as a church will do this together.
I end this by adding my own personal view and testimony on how I reconstruct my faith after acknowledging problems in our church’s histories and the fact that prophets have and do make mistakes. I wanted to write on my view of the brethren as we lead up to conference. I did this a year ago, and it was a bit of a swing and a miss. This is a better effort.
I view the prophet more as a steward than an authoritarian. Someone has to be the leader, right? I view many of the criticisms and disagreements many have with the brethren as unfortunate realities and bureaucracies of the nature of being part of a church of 15 million members in over 200 countries and languages. I view raising my hand in a congregation to sustain a leader not much differently than doing a team cheer before a game. We sacrifice individualism for unity just a little bit to be part of a team.
I view the LDS church as the Body of Christ. We are a community of worshipers who see ourselves as God’s people, with a message for the world. Not God’s only people, only church, or only message. But we see the truth and beauty of it in our lives as it leads us to a more fulfilling, abundant life. I view it as Grant Hardy said this year at FairMormon:
The Old Testament is above all the story of a relationship, between Yahweh and his people. God chose Israel and called them to lives of holiness and justice, promising that through them he would bless the entire world. It was something of an up-and-down relationship, characterized by kindness and mercy on God’s part, but also by frustration and even anger at sin and unfaithfulness…This is our story as well. As members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, we don’t have a monopoly on truth or on goodness (though we have quite a bit of both), but we have been called to be God’s people in the latter days, to be holy and just, as he is, to be a light to the nations…Church leaders, the scriptures, and personal revelation provide a solid foundation, but we still have a lot to learn. Nevertheless, I believe that God is with us.
So, I anticipate this weekend conference with excitement. I will try to listen to our prophet, apostles, and general authorities with “patience and faith.” I will try to give them the benefit of the doubt and view them with grace, if I hear something I don’t like. I will try to be humble and listen to where God is speaking through them to me, to inspire me or even chastise me. It won’t bother me greatly if I hear something I disagree with. I won’t immediately dismiss that. It will be my obligation to struggle with it and seek answers from God. But I won’t feel compelled to completely agree.