Rejecting the Living Prophets by Following Future Prophets

kept-my-cupOne of the key doctrines of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is that we have living prophets and apostles today who are authorized by God to receive revelations for the church and for the world. The scriptures are full of stories of how the people of the church rejected the messages of the living prophets, often justifying themselves by appealing to the words of previous prophets. Even Jesus was rejected by appealing to Moses or Abraham.

As President of the Twelve Apostles, Ezra Taft Benson warned: “Beware of those who would set up the dead prophets against the living prophets, for the living prophets always take precedence.” (Fourteen Fundamentals in Following the Prophet, 1980)

Elder Dallin H. Oaks explained further: “…the most important difference between dead prophets and living ones is that those who are dead are not here to receive and declare the Lord’s latest words to his people. If they were, there would be no differences among the messages of the prophets.” (Our Strengths Can Become Our Downfall, 1992)

I’ve noticed a troubling parallel among some progressive members of the church: Rejecting living prophets in favor of what they anticipate future prophets will do*.

It works like this: They believe that the living prophets are wrong regarding some policy or doctrine, such as same-sex marriage or women holding priesthood. They are convinced that these teachings are not of God but merely expressions of false cultural traditions. They look at past changes that the church has made, like discontinuing the policy of withholding priesthood from black members, and they extrapolate that the future prophets and apostles will change these other positions as well. Convinced that their words and actions are in harmony with what the future prophets will undoubtedly teach, they proceed to act right now as if the future prophets have already made the change that they anticipate. As a result, at an emotional level they feel like they are following the prophet and that those who disagree with them are rejecting the prophet.

But just like fundamentalists who reject the living prophets by following dead prophets, progressives reject the living prophets by following anticipated future prophets.

In reality the future prophet that they are following is just a projection of their own views in the present. In other words they are setting themselves up as an alternative authority to the current prophet by attributing their contrary positions to a future prophet who does not yet exist. Whether by reason or supposed personal revelation, they are claiming to know which direction the church should take better than the current prophets do.

This is true even if the change they anticipate in the future ends up being correct.

Most readers probably remember Hiram Page, who in the early days of the church began to receive revelations through a seer stone concerning the organization and location of Zion. In the revelation that Joesph Smith received about the matter, the Prophet was instructed to tell Brother Page that the revelations were not of God, that Satan had deceived him, with the explanation that “these things have not been appointed unto him…”.

We often assume that because the revelations were not of God that the information contained in the revelations about the organization and location of Zion must have been clearly false. But that is not what the revelation given by God to Joseph says.  It says that those things had not been “appointed” to Hiram Page and that no one at the time was appointed to receive commandments and revelations for the church except for Joseph Smith, the Prophet.

So even if, hypothetically, Hiram Page’s revelations had been correct about the future location of Zion, because it violated the order of the church and undermined the authority of the Prophet, it was not of God.

Likewise, even if progressive members of the church are correct that the future prophets will change the church’s position regarding same-sex marriage (though I believe it is very, very unlikely) or some other policy, their opposition to the directions of the current, living prophets is still a violation of the order of the church. Like Hiram page they set themselves up as an alternative source to receiving the truth.

We are required to follow the current, living prophet who has the authority and keys, not some future prophet whose future directions we conveniently imagine will match that which we currently believe which is contrary to current teachings.

In a discourse which I have cited in the past, Elder Glen L. Pace compared the church to a locomotive:

“While on the train we can see the world and some of our own members outside laughing and having a great time. They taunt us and coax us to get off. Some throw logs and rocks on the tracks to try and derail it. Other members run alongside the tracks, and while they may never go play in the woods, they just can’t seem to get on the train. Others try to run ahead and too often take the wrong turn.”(Spiritual Revival, 1992)

There is great danger in trying to run ahead of the church according to our own wisdom and light. Following the living prophets provides a framework for members to adjust to changes in the church, even when those changes may be different than their expectations or desires.

This actually happened with Brigham Young when Joseph Smith received the vision recorded in section 76 of the book of Doctrine and Covenants. Brigham Young said that he found the doctrine of the three degrees of glory in the vision so contrary to his traditional understanding of the afterlife that at first he could not understand it. But he did not reject it.

But following what we imagine future prophets will do rather than what living prophets require now provides no framework for dealing with changes in the church unless they always conform to personal expectations.

Those who anticipate that the church will change to accept same-sex marriage or extend the priesthood to women need to ask themselves “What if it never happens? What if, on the contrary, the prophet receives a revelation in which the Lord reaffirms and entrenches the church’s current position, it is unanimously accepted by the presiding councils of the church, and the new revelation is canonized? What then?”

If the answer is that they know that that is not the Lord’s will, then they have set themselves up as a prophet themselves in competition and opposition to the prophets and apostles of the church. Which of course raises the same issues of stewardship and authority that we confront with fundamentalist leaders who place their own revelation and authority in opposition to that of the church. They may be right or they may be wrong, but there should be no illusion about what they are claiming (even if it is obscured by projecting their prophecies onto future prophets).

In the scriptures, rejection of the living prophets has grave consequences.  God holds us accountable for our reception or rejection of his living servants and the warnings and directions they give for us now, not what he may or may not require of us in the future.

[* This idea of following presumed future prophets is not my own. Credit goes to my friend Bruce Nielson who first articulated it to me in a conversation.]

UPDATE 03/18/2013 – I have posted a follow up to this post and its resulting conversations.  Read it:

Watchmen on the Tower – On the Limits of Prophetic Fallibility

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11 Responses to Rejecting the Living Prophets by Following Future Prophets

  1. Cor

    Very well written. I was shocked one day a few weeks ago when a friend mentioned to me that she heard that some of the current Brethren were saying that everything will change regarding the same sex discussion within the Church when a few of the older Brethren died off. I didn’t believe it for second, but was very surprised by the sentiment. I totally agree with your article. We must sustain and follow the counsel we receive from today’s living and ordained Church leaders.

  2. ldsphilosopher

    Cor, whenever I hear statements like that, I always want to ask, “WHICH of the Brethren have said this? WHERE did they say this? To WHOM did they say this?” It drives me nuts that people are so willing to accept such rumors without verification, or even a glimmer of context or source.

  3. Cor

    We are in total agreement! :-)

  4. Nathan000000

    A prime example of this principle occurred in 1976: As an act of protest, a member in Oregon named Douglas Wallace ordained a black convert named Larry Lester. Douglas Wallace was excommunicated within weeks. (source)

    Note that he very likely would have used the argument that “Soon the Brethren will change the policy/practice and allow these ordinations. I am completely in harmony with the upcoming revelation that I anticipate.” That statement is 100% true but also entirely irrelevant; his leaders were absolutely right to discipline him. Even though he was right about a revelation coming—and less than three years away!—he was still wrong to ignore the current policy. That’s what our covenants are all about.

  5. I really like @jmaxwilson’s insight re: following current prophet & not assuming a future change in church’s position http://t.co/YmhFNYuYMS

  6. What is your object with posts like these? Are you seeking to show love and understanding to the person who has gone astray so you can bring them back? Are you trying to protect people from the dangers of questioning authority? You have created a straw man in this attack on many good, loving, faithful people. As an example of the kind of person you are attacking, see the following post on fMh:

    http://www.feministmormonhousewives.org/2013/03/negotiating-dissonance-within-my-faith/

    Is this an attitude of following future prophets, or of loving and trusting that the living ones will listen to those they lead and take their pain and hurt to the Lord to seek answers to how the Church should move forward?

    “Anyone who is committed to a relationship knows that each party can and should be honest about pain they are experiencing that is caused by the other party. And sometimes, perhaps even most of the time, the source of the pain is not intentional or malicious. But, as our wonderful therapist frequently reminds me and my wife, we are still accountable for the pain we cause, even if we did not intend it. True love means that I point out the things you are doing that are hurting me, and make healthy requests for changes (something else I learned in therapy). This is why I believe that the activism of WAVE, All Enlisted, fMh, and other groups represents a grown-up approach—good people seeking to improve a valuable yet complicated relationship. Speaking up about problems is not disrespectful or inappropriate, but rather a more mature way to be in a relationship.”

  7. J. Max Wilson

    Jonathan,

    I really don’t have a ton of time to address your objections.

    Here is why my arguments are not a strawman. There is nothing wrong with those who feel hurt or who disagree with something the church has done expressing their pain or disagreement directly to the authorities of the church in private. But there is a material difference between counselling with beloved leaders in private and public agitation for change.

    I’ve explained this in detail many, many times before. The answer is in the very couples counselling analogy to which you refer:

    I’ve written previously:

    I question the propriety of discussing doubts, criticisms, and concerns about the church in such a public forum. It is a little like discussing one’s marriage difficulties, concerns, or criticisms in a pub, and soliciting public comments from everyone present, while avoiding discussing the problems with one’s own spouse. That, I think, would be completely inappropriate. One might rightly wonder if someone who did so was not looking more for a sympathetic ear and justification for their disenchantment than real solutions to their marital problems.

    just as I would be suspicious of a man who goes down to the pub to discuss his marriage problems, I am suspicious of anyone who takes their questions and problems with the church to a public online forum with a reputation for being sympathetic to the gripes of those with doubts and complaints.

    While true love may mean that one points out the things that hurt them and make requests for change, they point those things out privately to their loved one, or with the help of a therapist. Posting it publicly online and churning up public outrage through news media and campaigning to pressure your spouse to change is unquestionably disrespectful and inappropriate. One can justifiably question whether such actions represent true love.

    But that is exactly what the activism of WAVE, All Enlisted, and Feminist Mormon Housewives is. It is public agitation, not privately working out problems with a loved one. It is not a mature way of being in a relationship, but a manipulative and selfish way to be in a relationship.

    To illustrate further, a friend of mine wrote the following in reaction to last years “Pants” activism:

    Analyze the difference between an organized movement such as this, and just doing what you think is best. What do they gain by this movement that they can’t gain in other ways?

    1) Crowd courage: Rather than bringing it to the Lord, and theoretically receiving confirmation from Him that wearing pants is fine, they gather courage from like-minded people. If they truly believe it’s fine, and have received confirmation from the Lord, they have nothing to fear from the disapproval of others. But this way, they can substitute courage gained from being part of a group for courage gained from knowing you are right in the sight of God. They circumvent the need to deepen their relationship with deity and learn how to choose hand-in-hand with the Lord’s guidance.

    2) Spectacle: By organizing a movement such as this, they gain media attention and outside approval. This further validates them via approval from other people, rather than approval from God, and attempts to add pressure to leadership to conform to the group’s ideals. If they were to search it out privately in their own hearts, perhaps counseling with local leadership, they could potentially deepen their bonds to God and to their leadership (though doing that takes a risk.) This way, they don’t have to risk anything, because they have outside support. They can easily label and dismiss any opposition.

    3) Dissent: Which brings me to my final point, this sort of organizational spectacle draws lines in the sand. It sets ultimatums: who is with us, and who is against us? As [others have] already pointed out, it deepens the divide between “the feminist/liberals” and “the faithful/sheep.” It does nothing to knit the hearts of the members of the Church together, calculated rather to shame and bully them into compliance.

    If you think over those three effects of THIS particular method versus other methods of gaining the goal to wear pants, it is pretty clear WHO set the trap.

    Those participating are just pawns in a much larger gameplay.

    Activism undermines the relationship and damages the church.

  8. You and Bruce hit the nail right on the head! When I read the title I thought, “They are exactly right! This is exactly the mentality of some of the members who have convinced themselves they are not apostate when they are.” Well written article! I was so happy to read someone clearly calling them out and trying to help them see. Thank you for writing this and I am grateful for your boldness and willingness to stand up for the unpopular but correct principles of following the prophet and sustaining our priesthood leaders.

  9. Cor

    Chrissy,

    Not wanting to be critical of your post by any means, I would just point out that the majority of the saints would not think it “unpopular.” I would suggest most active Latter-day Saints find great joy, happiness, and a strong willingness to follow the prophet and Priesthood leaders, sustained by a confirmation to do so through the whisperings of the Holy Ghost. :-) Cor

  10. This article is one of the best ones I’ve seen about this topic. I think these well-intentioned people are projecting their own beliefs on a prophet that supposedly will exist in the future. Suppose that in the future, a prophet comes and affirms the opposite of what these people (OW, FMH, etc.) are claiming will happen. What would they say then?
    I feel the best point to remember that God will reveal truths to His chosen servants and we can gain a conviction that what they have been told by the Lord is the true voice of God in our day and age.

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