Watchmen on the Tower – On the Limits of Prophetic Fallibility


Desert View Watchtower photo by Talie

Some of the responses to my recent post about rejecting living prophets by following future prophets have predictably raised the issue of prophetic fallibility.

Among those members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who have decided to publicly oppose the apostles and prophets of the church, prophetic fallibility is almost invariably invoked to justify their rejection of the policy or teaching they find objectionable. It’s their catch-all defense for disobedience.

Question: How can you, a believer, reject the words of the prophets of God on this matter?
Answer: Because of Prophetic Fallibility. Q.E.D.

It is absolutely true that the church does not believe that its prophets and apostles are infallible. There is no infallibility doctrine. The prophets are undeniably human beings and subject to normal human error. That fallibility provides a helpful framework for understanding some of the complex parts of the history of the church.

But often these appeals to prophetic fallibility represent simplistic and sloppy reasoning. It’s used as a shortcut argument; a presumed trump card, invoked without careful thought or consistent application. And while fallibility may be appropriately cited, it must be done with circumspection and great precision, not with reckless, albeit convenient abandon. Because prophetic fallibility has natural logical limits and is a matter of grave consequence.

The whole point of having a prophet in the first place is that a prophet is a metaphorical “watchman on the tower”. While his eyesight may be just as fallible as anyone else, the tower upon which he stands provides him with a view superior to those with equally good eyes but who are not situated upon the tower. His view is better not because his eyes are superior but because his location on the tower allows him to see farther and more; not because of something inherent or different in his person, but because of something inherent in the position in which he has been placed for the protection and benefit of all.

There is a limit to how fallible a prophet can be and still rightly be called a prophet. At some point claims of prophetic fallibility make a prophet SO fallible that it amounts to saying that that the watchman is not actually on the tower at all! Or otherwise that his fallibility is so great that the natural advantage afforded by the tower is completely nullified; in which case they are claiming not only ordinary fallibility, but extraordinary fallibility because if the watchman suffered from only ordinary fallibility his position on the tower would still be superior to those on the ground– they proclaim not that he has average eyesight then, but that he is nearly blind!

The church doesn’t have a doctrine of prophetic infallibility but it does have a doctrine of living prophets and apostles.

While those who appeal to prophetic fallibility are constantly ready to call out anyone who appears to imply the prophets are infallible (that unattainable upper boundary), they often show little awareness or respect for this lower boundary, which if crossed makes the doctrine of prophets and apostles itself incoherent.

To complicate the matter for those who wish to appeal to fallibility, the church is not led by just one watchman on the tower, but by 15 men who profess to be prophets, seers, and revelators who regularly claim to be guided through revelation from God in guiding the church.

The watchman on the tower metaphor is again instructive here. One watchman has a superior view to those who are not on the tower, but still may make mistakes attributable to normal human error. Those errors can be mitigated and minimized, however, by requiring that what he sees be confirmed by additional watchmen, similarly set on towers of defense. If one raises a warning cry, his warning should not be cavalierly ignored though wrong he may be. If seven of the fifteen raise the same warning, we should be loath to reject their warning simply because we cannot perceive the danger that they profess to see. And if all fifteen of the watchmen raise the warning in unanimity, then it would be a very serious thing indeed to declare to your fellows that you know that they are wrong and that they should be ignored or even resisted.

Now, all metaphors have their limits, and we ought not take the analogy beyond its applicability, but it is a very valuable image to help us understand how the church leadership is structured and the kind of protection it affords.

The Presiding High Priest of the Church, his Councillors, and Council of the Twelve Apostles guide the church through careful deliberation and unanimous decision. Here is a must-watch video of an excellent explanation of the process by Elder Henry B. Eyring, an Apostle:

Video: Elder Henry B. Eyring [start at 0:45s]

So appeals to prophetic fallibility must account for whether the thing which is believed to be in error has been taught by just one or two of the prophets or apostles or many of the prophets and apostles; taught repeatedly by past prophets as well as current ones or taught unanimously by the living prophets and apostles.

It is far more acceptable to cite fallibility to disagree with an idiosyncratic idea promoted by a singular apostle, or even a couple of apostles or prophets, than it is to disagree with a doctrine that has been promoted repeatedly by multiple prophets and apostles or a decision which was made by the prophets and apostles in unanimity.

And it is truly a serious matter to publicly contradict or wrest a relatively rare joint proclamation by the First Presidency and Council of Twelve Apostles, signed in unanimity and offered to the world.

And yet most appeals to prophetic fallibility are lazily made without any regard for these crucial distinctions and risk thereby becoming de facto declarations that the prophets are not prophets at all.

Additionally we need to carefully differentiate between knowing WHAT God wants us to do, and WHY he wants us to do it. While there are revelations that are explanatory, which are the type we often see in canonized scripture, more often than not revelation tells us what we should do but not the reason why. So it isn’t enough to cite past mistakes made by the prophets and apostles, even in unanimity. We have to be precise about exactly how they were wrong.

Were they wrong about what the the Lord wanted them to do? Or where they only wrong about why he wanted them to do it?

Getting wrong the reasons why God wanted something done is inherently different and less serious than getting wrong what God wanted done.

When I was single, I dated a wonderful girl who I thought I would marry. One day I knelt to pray about what I should do to make the relationship work and the Holy Spirit told me very clearly that I needed to break up with her right then. I knew what I was supposed to do and I did it.

I immediately went to her and broke up. But in my mind I started looking for the reason why. I had friends who had broken up and their break up counter-intuitively acted as a catalyst for them to evaluate what they really wanted and they got back together and got married. I semi-consciously believed that was what would happen with us too.

But I was wrong. We didn’t get back together. Years later I look back and in hindsight I am so grateful that it didn’t work out as I wanted. I was wrong about the why, but right about what God wanted me to do.

Were the prophets and apostles wrong about the reasons why polygamy was practiced and why the priesthood was withheld from members of African descent? Yes. Without a doubt. Speculations that monogamy was bad and that polygamy the ideal were wrong. Justifications for the priesthood restriction based on speculation about the pre-mortal life or the curse of Cain were wrong.

But getting wrong the reasons why does not automatically mean that polygamy was therefore a mistake, nor even that the priesthood restriction was itself necessarily a mistake.

In connection with the appeal to fallibility, some have suggested that while authentic, revelation from God to the prophets is filtered through their fallible human minds and muddled by their personal prejudices, culture, and tradition. This is an attractive construction for anyone who feels to justify actions that are directly contrary to the directions of God through his prophets while still claiming to have a testimony that the prophets are true (after a fashion).

But on closer inspection, saying that the prophets cannot receive clear messages is really saying that God is not powerful enough to make his will known; it is not an expression of doubt in the prophets, but a veiled disbelief in a God who speaks.

A god who is unable to pierce the smog of human fallibility and make his will clear to even his own official human spokesmen is certainly not much of a god; perhaps he’s a mumbling god whose word is sharper than a blunted spoon (to the dividing asunder of both oatmeal and grits!).

But the God of the Restoration, who revealed himself to Joseph Smith– the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, and Nephi– is a God who speaks. It is true that he reveals his will line upon line and precept upon precept, but when it is revealed there is little doubt about what he requires at the time, even when the reasons why may not be comprehensible.

It seems reasonable to say that the limitations of our humanity make it difficult to understand or comprehend the reasons why. But if we believe in prophets at all then we have to believe that God can at least make what he wants us to do right now sufficiently clear. A God who speaks should at least be able to answer yes-or-no questions, even if the explanation of why is beyond our ken.

But if the prophets are unwilling or unable to hear the voice of the Lord, can they still be accurately called prophets? Not with coherence.

In the biblical story of Jonah, who is the archetypal fallible prophet, Jonah never has any confusion about what God wants him to do, even if he rejects the message initially. And when he finally submits, he does not really understand why, or accept that the people of Nineveh will actually repent. His fallibility lies not in knowing God’s will but in resisting it and misapprehending to what end he has been asked to act.

Another example of prophetic fallibility from the restoration is the loss of the first 116 pages translated from the gold plates. But even in this case the will of the Lord was not hazy or ambiguous. Martin Harris didn’t accept the clear message received after the first inquiry and he convinced the inexperienced prophet Joseph to pester the Lord until God granted them their desires, to their own condemnation and the detriment of the church (though the Lord had long prepared other means to compensate for the loss).

If anything, the lost 116 pages is not a warning about the fallibility of revelation to human beings, but a warning to those who dislike or disagree with the directions delivered from God by the prophets. It is the same warning as the the bible teaches about the Israelites who requested a king of the prophet Samuel. Members of the church who disagree with the prophets on the issues of homosexuality and same-sex marriage, or some other thing, risk playing the part of Martin Harris in asking for additional revelation until the Lord relents and grants them according to their desires, to their own condemnation and the detriment of the church. The prophets likely learned their lesson from Joseph’s experience and wouldn’t make that same mistake. But have the members of the church learned?

This raises perhaps the central problem with appeals to prophetic fallibility. If God is capable of making his will known to you then why not to the prophets? And if his power to make his will known is limited by their human frailty why is it not limited by your own human frailty?

In other words, appeals to fallibility to defend disagreeing with the prophets almost always fail to account for how come that same fallibility principle does not call into question the ability of the one making the appeal to discern the will of God. Fallibility Boulevard is a two way street. Yet critics who cite prophetic fallibility rarely exhibit a self-awareness of the irrational asymmetry of their appeal. Their confidence that their own view is correct while the prophets are wrong because prophets are fallible is self-contradicting. With what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you!

And if fallibility were to be applied symmetrically it would still be problematic, because (returning to the watchman analogy) the idea that the critic and the prophet are equally likely to be wrong (because of fallibility) is implicitly a denial that the watchman is on a tower at all! Symmetrical fallibility inherently places both the critic and the watchman at the same level, on the ground. It assumes that there is no tower. In other words it is inherently a denial that the prophet is a prophet by denying that his vantage point affords him a superior view. All else being equal, there is safety in trusting the guy with the superior view; even if he may not get everything exactly right, he is far more likely to be right than you are.

That is why, while it may be a useful framework for understanding the past, the prophetic fallibility argument is nearly useless as a defense for rejecting prophetic counsel in the present or for the future. It can only ever be employed as an excuse, not a proof, because in so far as it casts doubt on the prophet, it casts an equal amount of doubt on the dissident. It is incapable of resolving the disagreement in favor of one or the other, and is at its root a de facto denial that the prophets have any kind of superior view.

Faith is trust. Faith is the ability to make the right decision with insufficient information. It’s doing the right thing without knowing for sure why it is the right decision.

In complex systems, cause and effect are not necessarily linear or proportional. What seems to our limited minds to be unquestionably good can have disastrous results in the aggregate. We use faith to make choices when we don’t have enough information to gauge the consequences; which is essentially always.

That is why we have to make decisions using the Holy Ghost, because we are not even really capable of successfully evaluating any but the most immediate consequences on our own. God defines success, not us. His ways are not our ways and His thoughts are not our thoughts. He’s operating on a much higher level and he knows the end from the beginning.

That is what is so dangerous about definitive public declarations that this or that policy imposed by the prophets is or was wrong. Saying that you know that it was wrong is implicitly a declaration that you know that God did not command such a thing, or that you know that the purpose God had in mind was not accomplished. But how do you know?

That is the question that is almost always left unanswered whenever prophetic fallibility is cited to justify a public disagreement with the prophets. By what measure do you judge? And why is that measure less fallible than the 15 prophets, seers, and revelators who lead the church? Most attempts to answer that question are an implicit denial that the prophets are true prophets or else present an incoherent idea of what it means to be a prophet.

Some may suggest that the problem lies in the watchman-on-the-tower definition of prophet I am using here, and that the definition is wrong. But that approach has a fundamental flaw: the prophets themselves, from Joseph Smith onward, and throughout the scriptures, have repeatedly described themselves in these terms. They actively claim, as in the video of Elder Eyring above, that the they are the Lord’s spokesmen; that they are the Lord’s watchmen on the tower. They describe themselves as prophets, seers, and revelators and audaciously request that the membership sustain them as such regularly. They actively claim that God is leading the church through revelation to them ( See for example this recent conference sermon by Elder Christofferson who like Elder Eyring is one of the Twelve Apostles ). I have heard them do it personally in private meetings on multiple occasions as well as in public. They authorize Sunday school manuals that are used throughout the church which knowingly perpetuate that claim and they encourage children to sing “Follow the prophet, don’t go astray…” Do they claim infallibility. No. But they certainly claim to be prophets after the fashion described here. So if that definition of prophet is wrong, then they are most certainly not prophets, because they would be claiming to be something that they simply cannot be.

Joseph Smith reportedly taught: “I will give you a key that will never rust,—if you will stay with the majority of the Twelve Apostles, and the records of the Church, you will never be led astray.”

A close look at the scriptures shows that there few instances of apostasy by the prophets themselves. Individual apostles have apostatized and the Doctrine and Covenants contains provisions for replacing the prophet should he sin. But throughout the scriptures, in nearly every case, it is the members who reject the word of the Lord delivered by His faithful prophets. Do prophets make mistakes in the scriptures? Undeniably. But the clear, overriding theme of the scriptures is that of the people rejecting the prophets. The message for us is clear. We should be far more concerned about us rejecting the prophets because it goes contrary to what we want or what society teaches than we should be about whether the prophets are leading us astray.

The consequences for declaring that the prophets have sinned when they are doing what the Lord has truly command them to do are quite dire:

“Cursed are all those that shall lift up the heel against mine anointed, saith the Lord, and cry they have sinned when they have not sinned before me, saith the Lord, but have done that which was meet in mine eyes, and which I commanded them.” – Doctrine and Covenants 121:16

Prudence and humility would suggest that those who believe in the prophets ought to be exceedingly hesitant to ever raise the cry that the prophets act contrary to the will of the Lord. Those who are not hesitant and flippantly throw around prophetic fallibility to excuse their actions expose themselves to the justifiable question of whether they really do believe, as the paragraphs above attempt to demonstrate.

For all of these reasons, many orthodox members of the church sense that often the way in which prophetic fallibility is invoked is an attack on their faith even if they don’t know exactly how or they are not able to articulate it in the detail presented here. Because it IS often used as an implicit attack on their faith: not because they necessarily believe that the prophets are infallible, but because they believe, with good reason, that the adjective “prophetic” puts real limits on the word “fallibility”.

To be clear, I have never said that good, faithful members cannot disagree with the leaders of the church on a whole number of things. We can and do. Especially on questions of why or how,  but even occasionally on questions of what (albeit with far more caution).

But that disagreement should be expressed privately to the authorities or delegated local leaders, and to the Lord directly through private personal prayer. Once we have a personal witness of the Holy Ghost that the church is true and its leaders are prophets, there should be a presumption that they are in fact following the Holy Spirit, that the watchmen are on a tower which affords them a superior view, that they have good reasons for what they do, that there is safety in their unanimity, and that a great deal of deference should be granted to their authority and stewardship.

There are appropriate ways to dissent and seek for change. As we privately consult with those in authority, we as well as they can move toward a more perfect understanding.

If we only follow the prophet when it happens to coincide with what we already believe then having a prophet is virtually meaningless. Why have a watchman on the tower if you are only going to listen to him when he tells you what you already believe and you ignore him when he tells you something you don’t like or believe?

As Jesus said to his Twelve Apostles:

“If the world hate you, ye know that it hated me before it hated you. If ye were of the world, the world would love his own: but because ye are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of the world, therefore the world hateth you. Remember the word that I said unto you, The servant is not greater than his lord. If they have persecuted me, they will also persecute you; if they have kept my saying, they will keep yours also.” John 15:18-20 [emphasis added]

We do have true prophets. God does guide his church through them. They are our spiritual watchmen on the towers. They are not perfect. But we should heed their warnings. We can trust them to lead us right even if it requires us to incur the displeasure and persecution of society.

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