Following Fallible Prophets
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).