Disagreeing with LDS Prophets and Apostles vs Losing Confidence in Them

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Among some members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, it has become increasingly common to openly and publicly criticize teachings, directions, decisions, and policies of the prophets and apostles of the church.

I recognize that this trend is at least partially the consequence of a more general societal shift in attitudes and perceptions of privacy; a shift that is influenced by blurring lines between the public and the private driven by information technology and the Internet.

As long-time readers of my blog know, I am very troubled by this trend. I am troubled by the nonchalance with which members of the church confidently declare that they know that the prophets and apostles are wrong about this-or-that.

While I have have written extensively about this and related topics, I recognize that my posts are long, disconnected, and probably not very accessible to casual readers. When you are discussing the issue in the comments of social media, pointing to pages and pages of blog posts written over the course of several years just doesn’t work well.

So here is my attempt to distill my reasoning into a single, more succinct and consumable post:

1. The church’s system of requiring unanimity among the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve acts as a counter-balance to individual fallibility. Declarations made by them in unanimity are less likely to be in error.

2. Authentic revelation is bound to stewardship. It is contrary to the order of the church for an individual to proclaim revelation outside of his or her stewardship. The only group with stewardship over the whole church and the world are the 15 prophets and apostles.

3. Saying that the prophets cannot receive clear messages is really saying that God is not powerful enough to make His will known to them; it is not an expression of doubt in the prophets, but of doubt in a God who speaks. If God has spokesmen at all, He is powerful enough to make His will known to them (even if knowing why it is His will is beyond their ken). If He can’t make His will known to even His own authorized representatives, then He isn’t a very powerful God and appointing spokesmen doesn’t make any sense since it provides no advantage over not having spokesmen.

4. Saying that you know that the prophets and apostles are wrong is a declaration that they are acting contrary to God’s will. But it raises the question of the means by which you determine that it is contrary to God’s will, and why that means is less fallible than that of the prophets. In other words, why would God reveal His will to you instead of his official spokesmen? Why is your access to God’s will more reliable?

5. The fact of prophetic fallibility might be a useful rubric for understanding some issues in the history of the church in retrospect, but it provides no help in determining whether or not any given pronouncement by the prophets and apostles in the present is in error. The possibility of error does not by itself help us identify whether or not any specific policy or teaching is erroneous– that requires an appeal to some other measure of error, and a defense of why that measure is less fallible than the united, authorized voice of the prophets and apostles.

In other words, citing prophetic fallibility is alone insufficient to establish that a given policy or doctrine of the church is wrong. You actually have to make the case for:

  • Why it is contrary to God’s will
  • How you know that it is contrary to God’s will
  • Why your access to determine God’s will is less fallible than the unanimous voice of those he has appointed official spokesmen
  • Why it is not a violation of the principle of stewardship
  • Why God needs public disagreement to correct them instead of correcting them Himself
  • Reconcile the answers to the above with why God would appoint spokesmen at all if He can’t make His will known to them?

I think that making that case is very hard to do without either making the very concept of prophets and apostles incoherent, or concluding that the leaders of the LDS church are not in fact authentic prophets.

I realize that that is not as succinct as you might have hoped, but it is at least more accessible, and the best I can do at the moment.

From the prophet Joseph Smith until the present, the prophets have declared both that they are the official, authorized spokesmen for God, with the authority to bind and loose on earth and in heaven and that the road to apostasy starts with losing confidence in the church and its authorized leaders.

Can faithful members of the church disagree with the prophets and apostles? Yes. Absolutely. But there is a difference between disagreeing with them and LOSING CONFIDENCE in them.

It is certainly possible to tentatively disagree with them, while still remaining confident that they are God’s official spokesmen, that He is guiding His church, and that He can and will correct them if they are wrong.

Those who believe that this is God’s church and that He guides it through living prophets and apostles are appropriately hesitant to undermine them publicly, even if they disagree or don’t understand. They have a sense of humility and deference to the system of stewardship and presiding councils that God has established for leading His church. Their confidence is not in fallible men, but in a God who speaks and leads His church.

Public criticism and disagreement with the prophets doesn’t instantly make you an apostate. But it does put you clearly on the road to apostasy. It is a manifestation of the spirit of apostasy whether or not one has yet become an apostate. Public dissent and opposition are inherently a vote of no confidence.

If you disagree with the apostles and prophets on some matter, what you need is to strengthen your confidence in the Lord and His church. Consider the arguments articulated above and seek a personal confirmation from God through the Holy Spirit that He is guiding the church and that the apostles are his spokesmen. Be patient and humble while you learn to trust in Him and His organization.

If you are interested in more detailed arguments, here are some of my previous blog posts on the topic:

And this in-depth article by Duane Boyce from Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture is also excellent:

Also consider checking out this excellent related post by my wife, Chastity:

UPDATE JAN 18, 2016:

I wrote a supplementary, follow-up post to this post that may be of interest to readers:

Revelation is Real Even in a Policy Meeting in the LDS Church

Another valuable resource on this topic is the following post from Jeff G. at the Millennial Star blog:

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8 Responses to Disagreeing with LDS Prophets and Apostles vs Losing Confidence in Them

  1. Thanks for your thoughts Jon. I particularly like the idea of the lower boundary of what constitutes prophetic revelation in the Watchman on the tower post.

    On the question of stewardship, I completely agree that I cannot make proclamations for the church, but I believe that based on my baptismal covenant I clearly have the responsibility to seek the welfare (temporal, spiritual, and mental) of all my brothers and sisters. I think that the idea of expressing respectful dissent or questioning official positions (even publicly) in a spirit of faithfulness and love is a part of that stewardship. I don’t think this is incompatible with deference and full consideration of the words of our prophets and apostles and I certainly do not think it is an inherent vote of no confidence. We have been called to participate in the restoration, and I think that involves asking questions, doubting, proposing new ideas and revelations, and apologizing (especially apologizing).

    Where I don’t agree with you is with your point 3. I am certainly not saying that God cannot clearly make his will known to individuals and the prophets. I am agreeing with Becca that revelation is a difficult and complicated process the vast majority of the time. Based on my direct experience with general authorities and my reading of church history and the Doctrine and Covenants, I believe this is also the case for our prophets. This isn’t a sign of God’s inability to make his will known, this is a necessary condition for our progression (indeed the purpose of this life) to be separated from the presence of God to be able to develop independence and faith. I am skeptical of personal or institutional claims of continuous and clear revelation. While I believe this kind of “red telephone” revelation can occur, I think it is the exception not the rule. Maybe more importantly, I don’t choose to follow God because of his power, but because of his goodness. This is an important distinction because Mormon doctrine is full of celestial limitations. God can be bound by our decisions, there are physical and moral laws that he cannot break (or he would cease to be God), and he can only intervene in proportion to our faith. It is his universal love and compassion for those that follow and those that rebel (and even us rebellious followers) that fills me with love for Him and inspires my loyalty.

    I think that disrespectful dissent is counterproductive and sad. But I wonder if some of this trend is a reaction of past and present emphasis on the personal goodness of our prophets? Perusing the tomes in Deseret Book or watching the church news reports between conference sessions, I definitely get the feeling that we sometimes focus on the lives and benevolence of our prophets, rather than on the divine mission they are called to carry out. I don’t think this character worship necessarily leads to Christ, and I wonder if it is a stumbling block both for those who it appeals to and those who are turned off by it. What do you think?

  2. J. Max Wilson

    Thanks for chiming in, Ben. Good to hear from you.

    I believe that I understand what you are saying.

    However, as far as I can tell what you are describing is foreign to both the scriptures and to what modern prophets have taught about themselves.

    The idea that somehow the baptismal covenant establishes a meta-stewardship that trumps priesthood keys sufficiently to require us to express dissent and question official positions in the name of seeking the welfare of all people is not found in the scriptures. It has not been taught by the prophets of the restoration.

    It seems to me that you are interpolating progressive, post-enlightenment, democratic values into the gospel framework. But that is not what the church teaches and I think that it is a subtle, but false doctrine.

    A friend of mine wrote a great article on that topic:

    The Mormon Intellectuals’ Trojan Horses
    http://www.millennialstar.org/the-mormon-intellectuals-trojan-horses/

    I also disagree with your characterization of revelation. God isn’t playing a shell game of hide-the-revelation. Getting revelation certainly requires work. But we are expected to learn to do it so that it becomes common place. Otherwise what is the purpose of bestowing the Gift of the Holy Ghost at all? We are expected to make and keep covenants that permit the Holy Spirit to always be with us. If that doesn’t afford us superior access to the mind and will of God than your average person, then the gift doesn’t mean much.

    Like I said, revelation takes work, but by the time they are called to be a prophet or apostle, these men have become experts in receiving direction from the Lord. They aren’t fumbling around with the basics. They have done what it takes to get the Spirit of the Lord and to follow it.

    I agree with you that some members fall into a kind of celebrity character worship that can be a stumbling block.

    And let me reemphasize that I think it is perfectly acceptable to work out questions, doubts, and propose changes in private with the appropriate authorities. But employing public pressure to get the church to change is contrary to the system that God has established.

  3. A friend from Facebook linked to this post. I’ve never seen your blog before this, so I’m unfamiliar with the tenor of the rest of your work. I wanted to leave a comment anyway.

    It seems to me that there’s an easy answer to point number 4, which forms a solid foundation for proceeding through the steps that follow. The means of ascertaining what is God’s will is found by consulting the canonical scriptures (one definition for “canon” is, appropriately, “a body of principles, rules, standards, or norms”). These are the collection of inspired writings and revelations that God commanded to be made public the learning and enlightenment of His people. Because scripture is properly interpreted according to the Spirit of God, and the spirit of revelation cannot be academically verified, interpretation is left up to the reader. However, in many cases the interpretation is plain so long as we take what is said at face value and use what historical and cultural context we can to ascertain the meaning of all symbolism employed. Luckily, Restoration scripture (Book of Mormon, Pearl of Great Price, Doctrine and Covenants) is recent and plain enough that there’s usually little guesswork involved.

    If we use scripture as the basis for ascertaining God’s will, we find that the principle of common consent (D&C 26:2) requires members to be knowledgeable and, when appropriate, involved in Church affairs. One of those areas of involvement is in approving or disapproving the appointment of church leaders through conferences such as the general conference (D&C 124:144). It stands to reason, then, that if we’re given the responsibility to study the scriptures and be knowledgeable of church affairs AND are given the responsibility to approve or disapprove of the appointment of leaders, that any disagreements we have ought to be rooted in the scriptures. If instances can be found where an appointment is contrary to the principles found in scriptures then it is the duty of the Saints to disapprove of said appointment. This is the reason for the sustaining vote.

    Peace,
    Matthew

  4. DCollings

    I think the issue with the new policy is that the church and it’s stance towards Gay/lesbian people has been in a state of constant change, and I think it’s fair to say previous policies have been flat out wrong and hurtful.

    Decades ago, they performed shock therapy on gay men to try and “cure” them. They encouraged gay men to get married. Most of these marriages ended in divorce and broken families with the wife picking up the pieces.

    I could go on, but you get the point. How are we supposed to have confidence in policies about the gay community when previous policies have been wrong and caused a lot of unneccesary pain.

    As another example, the church calls the priesthood ban on people of African decent a policy as well. This policy was not justified by our own scripture, and the church also has said it “disavows” the ideas and justifications previously put forth to justify the policy. It took the church over 100 years to get it right and get rid of the erroneous policy.

    So, to be frank, I don’t have confidence that our leaders are getting things right when it comes to LGBT people.

  5. Bookslinger

    JMax, AHA! You beat me to it! I came here to suggest Jeff’s Tojan horses post again. I’m flattered! 🙂

    Ben A wrote: ” I am agreeing with Becca that revelation is a difficult and complicated process the vast majority of the time. Based on my direct experience with general authorities and my reading of church history and the Doctrine and Covenants, I believe this is also the case for our prophets. ”

    I believe the AAs, the GAs, and the Brethren are experts at obtaining and understanding revelation. What may be a whisper to you and me, would be a very clear communication to holier men.

    Having been on the recieving end of a few “red phone communications” in my life, (I assume that means a very clear spiritual message, but not a divine visitation) I concur that it is relatively rare, compared to the total number of spiritual still small voice whisperings. But if it happens a few times to a sinner and slacker such as myself, with an extremely small stewardship, it must be happening even more to those with a much broader and deeper scope of authority. The scriptures, general confernce speakers, and Ensign articles illustrate that it is not all that rare if you listen/read carefully.

    If the Lord uses the Holy Ghost red phone to tell someone to stop their car and check the wheels, or a parent to check on the kids, then matters of church-wide import would merit clear communication too.

    There are two broad categories of revelation. One where the Lord initiates the dialogue, and one where we humans initiate the dialogue. In the case of the latter, the D&C lays out the steps and efforts we must go through, researching, coming up with a proposed option (or combination of options), seeking and listening for a yay/nay/null response, and adjusting + repeating until a yay answer is received, or all options are exhausted if for some reason the Lord does not deign us ready/qualified for or in need of an answer.

    (Some of the answers to my prayers feel like the Spirit is saying “Well, duh!”)

    In either case, no matter who initiates the dialogue, if we are ready to act upon the revelation/direction (and had proposed the correct option in the second category) the Lord is able to make it clear, whether it takes “shouting” from the Holy Ghost so that sinners/slackers like me can understand, or a mere whisper which the prophet/apostles easily understand.

    The Brethren and GAs using a lot of qualifying “couching” phrases to describe revelation in order to avoid saying “thus saith the Lord”. But if you listen closely, the words they often use do convey that the direction/instruction/answer did in fact come from God.

    The Holy Ghost is a member of the Godhead and is NEVER going to go against the will of the Father. So a whispered prompting of the Holy Ghost really should be treated as the “will of God”, no less than a red phone message, or a message delivered by an angel or the Savior himself.

    (And that’s not to say that I’m any good at listening for, understanding, or obeying promptings myself.)

  6. LB35

    I think in any discussion on the subject of whether or not the Church leaders make mistakes that it is important to remember what the scriptures themselves say about errors that prophets make. The last sentence of the title page of the Book of Mormon says, “And now, if there are faults they are the mistakes of men; wherefore, condemn not the things of God, that ye may be found spotless at the judgment-seat of Christ.”

    Mormon 8: 17 says, “And if there be faults they be the faults of a man. But behold, we know no fault; nevertheless God knoweth all things; therefore, he that condemneth, let him be aware lest he shall be in danger of hell fire.”

    Mormon 9:31 says, “Condemn me not because of mine imperfection, neither my father, because of his imperfection, neither them who have written before him; but rather give thanks unto God that he hath made manifest unto you our imperfections, that ye may learn to be more wise than we have been.”

    And 1 Nephi 19:6 says, “And now, if I do err, even did they err of old; not that I would excuse myself because of other men, but because of the weakness which is in me, according to the flesh, I would excuse myself.”

    Those who want to excuse themselves from keeping the covenants they made with the Lord, or discourage others from making those covenants on account of some mistake are condemning the prophets and will be held accountable if they don’t repent. This is apostasy.

    One thing that I have heard Elder Bednar and two of the 70 mention is that all general conference talks are reviewed by the 1st Presidency in advance. This has not always been the case in the past. Many anti-Mormon tracts quote various sermons by early leaders of the Church and use examples of things that are not consistent with the scriptures or other leaders of the Church to conclude that Mormonisim is a fraud. The Catholic and Protestant world expects infallibility and if they find something that is an error, they conclude that the whole thing is a fraud. As Mormon 9:31 mentions, we have learned to be more wise than in the past, so now all major addresses by general authorities are reviewed in advance to avoid mistakes. We can be assured that what we hear in General Conference has the seal of approval of the prophet. We can also be assured that the decisions made by the Brethren today have gone through the process of studying it out in their mind and asking if the decision is right (see D&C 9:8).

  7. I appreciate your approach on this, J.Max. So often I find the issues not clearly stated, and the speakers actively avoiding talking about God at all in the discussion. Somehow, I guess it’s easy for people to say, “I don’t like this ____ idea the Brethren are teaching, therefore it must be wrong,” but much harder for them to make the leap to “This is God’s Church and He is actively involved.” If we take God out of the picture, we get all mired in human fallibility and is my personal fallibility greater or less than Elder so-and-so’s, so does my personal feelings/revelation trump theirs? But without discussing God as part of the whole picture, it is an impossible discussion.

    Without Him, it all becomes very muddy, looking like men are withholding the priesthood from women, or marriage from gay couples. With Him, it becomes a different question: How does God speak to His people and what am I supposed to do about it when I disagree?

    And that is a much more important question to answer, not nearly as bogged down in individual historical mistakes (while not negating them; it puts them in a context that is different, though).

    Thank you for putting God back as the central point in the discussion.

  8. LB35

    DCollings:

    While you are correct that the Church has made mistakes in understanding the cause of same sex attraction and subsequently made mistakes in trying to help those people overcome this problem, the Church’s stance on homosexual behavior has been constant. It has always been a sin to have sexual relations with another person of the same sex. To use the mistakes made in learning how to help these people as an excuse to discount anything the Brethren say on the subject puts you in a dangerous position. To use the errors made on the subject of explaining the priesthood ban as an excuse to reject the current direction of the Church leaders is also dangerous. 3 Nephi 28:34 tells us, “And wo be unto him that will not hearken unto the words of Jesus, and also to them whom he hath chosen and sent among them; for whoso receiveth not the words of Jesus and the words of those whom he hath sent receiveth not him; and therefore he will not receive them at the last day”. If we don’t sustain the Lord’s anointed prophets and apostles, we are rejecting Christ too, and will be rejected by Christ at the last day.

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