Following Fallible Prophets

This is another post that was first posted at Nine Moons. You can read comments and post your own here.

One of the things that I’m most grateful for in the framework of the Restoration is restored revelation. And not only the kind of revelation that Joseph Smith received, or pres. Monson et. al. receive. I’m talking about the kind of revelation that Jesus referred to, when he asked the disciples “whom say ye that I am”? When Peter answered that he was the Christ, Jesus said that Peter had that knowledge from the Father (see Matt 16:15-17). In the following verses Jesus talks about the “rock” (with a subtle word play) of foundation for his kingdom – meaning that the rock on which the kingdom would be built is revelation, the same that allowed Peter to know that Jesus was the promised Messiah. By the same revelation I know that Jesus of Nazareth is the Anointed One (or Messiah, or Christ, pick your language), who took upon himself the sins of mankind; who was resurrected on the third day and ascended to the Father; who will come back again, as promised. And who, ultimately, through his grace will let me partake of the divine, if I show my willingness to follow him.

And by the same revelation I know that Joseph Smith, despite his human weakness, was called of God. Likewise Thomas S. Monson. That does not, however, mean that I think that everything they say or have said is revelation. Let’s look at the Old Testament. Remember Moses sitting in judgment for Israel all day, day after day. His father-in-law told him that he should only be involved in major issues and let mundane administrative issues be dealt with by other authorized people (see Exodus 18:13-26). If prophets are supposed to be infallible, then how come Moses didn’t come up with this himself – or with the help of the Lord? In the same vein, was Moses a fallen prophet because he didn’t lead Israel to the Promised Land – which is what the Lord commanded him to do?

My answer to this is that prophets, like everybody else, grow up among people whose culture and world view are usually incorporated in their religion. Getting one revelation does not make persons omniscient, but leaves them to come up with their own solutions to a number of questions. Sometimes people can speculate from the pulpit and make it difficult for others to make a distinction between revelation and opinion. Remember what D&C 68:4 says about what is scripture; the qualifier is, “when moved upon by the Holy Ghost”. This opining from the pulpit has not been nearly as common in the last couple of decades. The early Church leaders probably consideree General Conference more like firesides, where you can talk about marginal issues and speculate (but still, they talked mostly about basic principles!).

But we have a way around the speculative issues, a way that has been advocated by Joseph Smith, Brigham Young and their followers: We can pray and ask God if what we hear is right (first searching the scriptures in an effort to reconcile the ideas with them), and with the usual conditions that we are sincere and willing to act upon the knowledge we get, we can have our own answer (see for example D&C 76:5-7). We just have to remember that our revelation is to help us in our own stewardship.

I have two examples of different attitudes. One brother wanted a certain thing from his bishop, and the bishop didn’t grant his wish. So the brother appealed to the Stake President without the result he hoped. He became bitter and withdrew from activity for many years, only coming back when there had been two new bishops and a new SP called. Thankfully, during his inactivity he had home teachers who showed him love and compassion, thus reducing the damage. The other example is a family that was in a sticky situation (they also wanted a certain thing from the bishop). The bishop tried to help them, and turned to the Stake President, who in turn sought help from the Area President. The Area President gave an idea that was relayed to the family. They asked the Lord for an understanding, which led them to make a decision. It was not popular with their nonmember relatives, but it helped keep that family together. I think that a major factor in the outcomes in these situations was the expectations of the people and their attitude towards priesthood leaders (neither of those got what they wanted at the time).

As for the tangential reference to the CA legislative initiative: I would do just what I would with any other counsel. I would ponder and pray, with the prejudice being on the side of following the prophets even when I don’t fully understand or even like what they’re suggesting.

But think a moment about what pres. Hinckley talked about during his years as a prophet. Things that come to mind are warnings against pornography; condemning abuse of children or spouse; the Family: A Proclamation to the World; speaking against racial or any other kind of bigotry; finding joy in service of others; being good neighbors, etc. And retention, retention, retention. I know there are those, who would have liked him to have spoken about some obscure tenets of our doctrine. Pinpointing some deep doctrine seems important to some, and it’s okay to want to know more (refer back to the beginning of D&C 76). But the big problems seem to have more to do with how we choose to go about the business of our daily lives. Don’t live beyond your means, save for a rainy day. The gospel is also a matter of practical living, and following the prophet can make life more fulfilling, if not easier (sadly, we often look for the easier).

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14 comments on “Following Fallible Prophets
  1. Darrell says:

    How do YOU determine when what a prophet says is incorrect versus correct? You reference prayer and seeking confirmation from the spirit… is that what you do?

    Darrell

  2. velska says:

    I have to hedge a little here by saying that I don’t see myself determining correct vs. incorrect. It is not my bailiwick.

    What I do, however, is find out how I should let the messages of the prophets affect my behavior. For that, I stand by my suggestion to ponder (meditate) it and pray about it. I do that and I put a premium on following counsel, because I have learned by experience that it can help me.

    There are times when the confirmation doesn’t come quickly, though. The Lord has his own timetable.

  3. Darrell says:

    “I have to hedge a little here by saying that I don’t see myself determining correct vs. incorrect. It is not my bailiwick.”

    What are you saying here… that mormon prophets are never incorrect? I thought one of the points of your post was that they are fallible and therefore, can be incorrect in their prophetic counsel at times.

    Are they ever incorrect?

    Darrell

  4. velska says:

    My point is that they can and do say things that are not strictly revelation – opinions, IOW. The culture they’ve grown up in can influence them so that they say things without full consideration. There are examples of this. So yes, they can be incorrect.

    One thing we can do is look at the “body of evidence”, things like conference reports. What is the general theme? Often people focus on a one-time quote or some cultural issue that is just cultural, not doctrinal.

    But my most important point is that we have the right – or even the duty – to find out for ourselves what their messages mean for us. We don’t have to take their word. If we feel strongly about a subject, though, our emotions can interfere, and we should be careful. At the same time, if we find ourselves easily agreeing, it is not a guarantee of anything. We have to work for the confirmation of the Spirit.

    John 7:17 is helpful: “If any man will do his will, he shall know of the doctrine, whether it be of God, or whether I speak of myself.” Even Jesus didn’t expect his hearers to take his words without proving them.

  5. Darrell says:

    So the ultimate determinate of whether something is “true” or not is how you feel after you ponder and pray about it and search the scriptures regarding it.

    If what happens if the prophet says something, you ponder and pray about it, search the scriptures regarding it and feel that it is not true? What then?

    Darrell

  6. velska says:

    In a situation like that, I personally could see myself taking it on faith, with the idea that the Lord expects me to show real commitment. At the same time, in our Church there is room for different interpretations (although one’s local leaders and ward members may be less open-minded – not my experience, though).

    I know others, who have done differently – and I don’t judge them. A big question is what the issue deals with. Is it about issues that are clearly temple worthiness issues? In that case, there would be consequences. But the most famous issue is the speculation about why men of African American descent were denied the Priesthood and hence full blessings of the temple. In 1978 Bruce R. McConkie went on record saying “forget all I or anyone else said about it. We were wrong. The Lord has given new revelation and has given us a better understanding (not a verbatim quote, I just don’t have the time to search the source right now).” That was an admission of having been wrong by a prophet.

    Point of the previous chapter is that the examples of them being wrong have been about issues that don’t deal with questions of our salvation and eternal life.

    Also, the road that will not take one to a good place is to start a public campaign against the official position of the Church. We should honor the prophets’ prerogative to counsel the general Church. Our revelation is for ourselves. Patience is always rewarded. A tough issue can be shelved for the time being, unless it is a matter of life and death. Time will do its work. At times we have to take steps on faith alone. And when we do, the confirmation comes. That is my experience and testimony.

  7. Darrell says:

    Velska,

    Unfortunately, from my perspective, there are some real problems with your viewpoint. Let me summarize what I see you saying…

    1) The prophets MAY be wrong at times… but if they are it will never be about an issue of eternal consequence
    2) We are obligated to ponder, search and pray for confirmation that they are correct
    3) We will get a feeling from the Holy Spirit that confirms truth and that is what we can trust
    4) Even if we don’t get the feeling that confirms truth… we are still obligated to obey

    A few problems as I see it with that viewpoint…

    1) The LDS prophets HAVE been wrong at times over major issues. We can go over many instances were this has been proven. BY taught that Adam was God, JS taught that poligamy was good and lied about it, BY said that blacks would never hold the Prieshood, JS said that Christ would return in the 1880’s, etc, etc, etc. Just recently it has been shown that the church has been wrong for years about the ancestry of the american indians… they are NOT lamanites. That IS a bigee… it calls into question the entire foundation of the BOM.

    2) Ok… so you can seek personal confirmation to find out if the prophets are correct. What is the point if, as you say, you are still going to follow their teachings even if the spirit tells you they are wrong. You are basically admitting that there really is no consequence from seeking confirmation. It is an excercise in futility.

    3) This is my biggest issue. Let’s assume that the spirit does confirm to you that the prophet is telling you the truth… HOW DO YOU KNOW THAT THE SPIRIT THAT CONFIRMED THIS TO YOU IS FROM GOD? I have prayed about the LDS church and the BOM and the spirit has told me it is NOT OF GOD. I have spoken with muslims who have told me that God has answered their prayers and told them that Islam is the only true faith and that Muhammed is His prophet. I have spoken with many JW’s who tell me that God has told them that their church is the only true one on the face of the earth. So, which spirit is correct? Is your’s correct that Mormonism is true? Is mine correct, telling me mormonism is false? Is my Muslim friend’s correct, telling him Islam is the only correct faith? Or, are the JW’s correct, telling them their church is the only correct one? It cannot be the SAME spirit telling us different things… God will not lie. So if the SAME spirit tells me mormonism is false and you it is true He would be lieing. The bible tells us there are different spirits about… some meant to deceive. How do you know that the spirit you are listening to is the correct one?

    Darrell

  8. velska says:

    I agree that you can find quotes from Church leaders that seem to be off. We don’t know why they said those things. I could point you to sources that deal with those issues if you are interested. I am no scholar, really, but I have read widely about the issues that you talk about and I have been able to connect the dots. Some claims you make would require sources and background to deal with (for example, I don’t recall JS saying Christ would return in 1880s, but saying that it wouldn’t happen at least before then).

    As I said, look at the “body of evidence”. I have been reading the JOD. Some things seem weird, true. But the balance of what they’re saying is basic gospel principles – often with a practical implication tailored to their specific circumstances, so they won’t necessarily apply to us directly.

    If the Spirit told me that something I hear in General Conference is wrong, I would be in a predicament, to be honest. Especially if wrong meant really wrong instead of “I can’t really agree with that idea”. Short of committing atrocities, I would “prove their words” in the manner suggested in Malachi re tithing. But this is hypothetical, since it hasn’t happened yet.

    How do I know that something is from God? For one, we have the counsel in Moroni 7:16-17 saying “every thing which inviteth to do good, and to persuade to believe in Christ” is from God, while the opposite is not. Further, in Galatians 5:22-23 we read: “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, Meekness, temperance”. There is the “in your mind and in your heart”, which to me is that I both understand and feel right about it.

    Then we come to the question of “feelings”. Some mock the feelings associated with the confirmation of the Spirit. I would submit that to me it’s more than just a good feeling, like the one you get from sharing a good social occasion. It is understanding, enlightening, with feelings associated, but something more, too. It’s not easy to describe. At times our strongest testimonies come when we are bearing our own testimony. For me, by far the strongest confirmations have come just that way.

    Then there is the confirmation after a test of faith. It can be VERY powerful. It is more powerful than if we just ask God to tell us, because our own desires and fears can confuse our feelings.

    There are different spirits in this world. It is true that we have to use our God-given abilities to judge between them. But I have no problem with a Muslim having spiritual experiences. There is much truth in Islam, as well as all other religions, therefore, IMO, the Spirit can confirm those truths to them.

  9. velska says:

    “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. Let every man and woman know, by the whispering of the Spirit of God to themselves, whether their leaders are walking in the path the Lord dictates, or not. This has been my exhortation continually.” -Brigham Young

    Thanks to Faithful Dissident for the quote.

  10. Darrell says:

    Velska,

    I appreciate your comments but you honestly have not answered my issues.

    Let me see if I can state my main issue in a different manner to make it clearer…

    I have personally prayed to find out if mormonism is true. I actually spent MANY YEARS doing this. I earnestly wanted to know and I asked God, in the name of Jesus Christ, expecting to receive an answer. The Lord has told me under no uncertain terms, by the power of the Holy Spirit that mormonism is a false religion.

    Now, you say that the Lord has told YOU, by the power of the Holy Spirit that mormonism is the only true church on the face of the earth.

    So, if we are both praying to find out if Mormonism is true, how can the SAME Holy Spirit tell us each DIFFERENT THINGS? The Holy Spirit CANNOT LIE. IF He told me it is false and you that it is true then He would be lieing. Therefore, obviously one of us IS NOT RECEIVING AN ANSWER FROM THE HOLY SPIRIT. One of us is receiving an answer from a FALSE SPIRIT.

    Two questions arise from this:

    1) Who is receiving the answer from the false spirit and who is receiving the answer from the Holy Spirit?

    2) How do you objectively KNOW THIS IS THE CASE?

    Darrell

  11. velska says:

    Objectively, “By their fruits ye shall know them.” What has your answer prompted you to do? Has it changed your life for the better? Do you feel the love of God in your life? Have you received a confirmation that your sins have been forgiven? Have you had a “mighty change of heart” that makes you want to bless others? If so, then you have received a portion of a good spirit.

    For me, the gospel of Jesus Christ has given a life full of meaning. My outlook on life and its challenges has changed completely. I feel I can love my neighbor even if he does things I don’t like or even things that hurt me.

    One of the gifts of the Spirit is the gift of discernment. I have also known a false spirit or two in my years. It would be tempting for me to declare you’re under the influence of one, but I don’t feel right now that it’s a call I should make. I agree, however, that both or our answers to the specific question have not come from the same source and I am sure that I have received the Holy Spirit in a multitude of ways (not just the question we’re talking about), so I guess that’s a judgment in and of itself. I don’t know your full story, though. Face to face communication would be better. I don’t know what plans God has for you, but I know without any doubt that he loves you more than any human has a capacity to understand.

  12. Darrell says:

    Velska,

    I can say the same thing. You are correct that you don’t know my story, but suffice it for me to say that since my family and I have left the mormon church our lives have been incredibly enriched. Coming to a knowledge of the true Savior Jesus Christ and leaving the false jesus that mormonism teaches has brought immense joy to our lives. Our home life is happier, we have more peace than we have ever had and the true spirit of Christ pervades all of our lives.

    You say that objectively you can tell because “By their fruits ye shall know them”. That is actually not objective, it is subjective. Nevertheless, let’s look at the fruits of mormonism for a second…

    1) The state of Utah is one of the highest in the nation for anti-deppresant use.
    2) SLC is one of the top cities in the nation for Mortgage Fraud (nice thing to be in this day and age of the mortage meltdown)
    3) Utah is one of the highest in the nation for teen suicide
    4) Utah is one of the highes in the nation for child abuse
    5) Utah leads the country in Bankrupttcy (not to many people following the prophets counsel on staying out of debt)

    etc, etc, etc

    The statisics for happy valley are not all that happy. Utah is 60% mormon, yet its statistics are HORRIBLE. The great atheist state of California is MUCH BETTER OFF mentally and fiscally than the great mormon state of Utah.

    I live on the east coast and in my home ward I can personally testify to the fact that anti-depressant use among mormons is very high… especially among woman. The fact is most mormon woman that I personally know ARE NOT HAPPY. They are miserable. I remember many of them saying something to the effect of “This is the plan of happiness? Then why am I not happy?”. By their fruits ye shall know them. Well the fruits of mormonism are not all that good.

    Now then… let’s set this fact aside and consider what Christ tells us a little later in the chapter you quote. He says…

    “Many will say to me on that day, Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out deomns and perform many miracles? Then I will tell them plainly, I NEVER KNEW YOU. Away from me you evildoers!” Matthew 7:22-23

    You see, it is painfully obvious that there are people who think they are following Jesus Christ AND THEY ARE NOT. There are people who are doing what they perceive and others perceive as good things in the name of Christ, but they are not. They do not know the real Jesus Christ and therefore, at the last day He will tell them to go away and send them to outer darkness because they did not seek Him. Mormons fall into this category. You need to place your faith in the REAL JESUS CHRIST and not the institution of the LDS Church.

    Velska, I urge you to research Mormonism more deeply. Compare it’s teachings on Christ to those of the bible. They do not match up. The Jesus of Mormonism is a false Jesus. I testify to you that Mormonism is a false religion. You are following a false Christ that is leading you AWAY FROM the real Jesus Christ. Unlike what you proclam, THERE IS AN OBJECTIVE WAY TO KNOW a false spirit from the true spirit of Jesus Christ. You CAN KNOW FOR SURE that you are following Him. He is not found in the false teachings of JS… He is found in His Word, The Bible.

    Darrell

  13. velska says:

    Darrel,

    I read the Bible daily on my own (last year I read through the New Testament four times) and I do think you’re right that you can know that you have his Spirit with you. I do my best to follow the teachings of the Jesus found in the Bible, which is, by the way, the same Jesus that the Book of Mormon talks about, no matter what you are saying. He has helped me in the most marvelous ways to be patient and forgiving and to change my attitude towards a number of things.

    And I am under no illusion about the fact that there are members of the LDS Church who don’t follow Christ’s and his Apostles’ teachings. Remember that it is obvious that Jesus’ parable about the Ten Virgins is about those who have made the covenants – the foolish ones being those, who do not follow their covenants; IOW saints who do not “mourn with those who mourn”, “lift up the hands that hang down” etc. Those things are what Jesus taught us to do, and his Apostles have reiterated them in every conference. Read, watch or listen the last conference, for example, on lds.org. See what they are saying about remembering Jesus and his teachings.

    I think this discussion is not turning into a fruitful one, since you are basically repeating talking points anti-mormon “ministries” (the “different Jesus” being a prime example). The statistics may or may not be true, there are also statistics that temple-going Mormons are among the happiest and healthiest people in the world. At the same time there are those members, who don’t follow the teachings of the prophets and live beyond their means, for example. You are not citing any sources to your statistics, so I can’t say much else about them, and I think your simplistic conclusions are off base. And I don’t think your anecdotal “evidence” is much more convincing than mine.

    One thing, though. If you’re implying that the teachings of the latter-day prophets are making me or anyone else unhappy, then you can’t be more wrong. I have not always been happy, but that has been when I have not followed the teachings. I am extremely grateful for repentance. I submit that those who are unhappy are the ones who don’t follow the teachings of the prophets.

    I have been planning to do an article about perfectionism, and how easy it is to fall into that trap. You’re welcome to visit and see what you think about my ideas about that.

    Oh, and, for full disclosure: I took antidepressants for a while some years ago. My depression apparently came because of a convergence of several extreme stress factors – which had nothing to do with religion – and myself not following the counsel of the prophets. So I have some experience with what I’m talking about re happiness. It was my turning back to the core principles of the gospel of Jesus Christ and following counsel from my priesthood leaders as well as the prophets that pulled me out of that hole.

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