What do Christians think of the Mormon Mantra “The Prophet Can’t Lead Us Astray”?

If the Bible does not ultimately lead us to Christ, what purpose does it serve? The objective is to come to Him, not the Bible (or a prophet). Scripture is a means, not an end.

Last week I attended a church picnic with with some friends who are members of a local evangelical Christian fellowship.

In a conversation with one of the pastors, the question was brought up if Mormons consider our prophet to be infallible as the Catholics do the pope. Although the simple answer is an obvious no, the president of the Church is not considered infallible, it was more difficult to explain how it is that we teach that the prophet can never lead the members of the church astray. I explained that this was a teaching that has become popular in recent LDS teaching, but that there is no scriptural basis for it. Then I pointed out that the question misses the more important point, that the focus needs to be on us as members, not the man who presides over the church. There is a great difference between following President Monson on the one hand because he holds an office, and following the Lord on the other, whose voice you recognize in the teachings of President Monson. In the first, you are trusting in a man. In the second, you are following the Lord, not man. We both agreed that there is only one who is worth following. He is the way, the truth and the life and none cometh unto the Father but through Him (see John 14:6).

Our conversation changed to a different topic, but my mind has since gone back to the original question. I imagined how the conversation might have gone if continued:

[Imaginary conversation]

Pastor: If there is no scriptural basis for it, then why do you say the teaching that a prophet cannot lead members astray has become popular in recent LDS culture?

Me: Oh boy. I don’t know an easy way to answer that honestly without exposing some difficult things about LDS history.

Pastor: (smiling) I’m game.

Me: (smiling back) Of course you are! (then becoming serious) Listen, if I can be open and honest about my church’s difficult past, I hope it will engender an openness on your part to be able to acknowledge things that may be troublesome with your’s as well. Sound fair?

Pastor: Fair.

Me: The best treatment of this subject that I have found is from LDS author Duane Crowther in his book Thus Saith The Lord (beginning top of page 72 for those interested). It appears the teaching originated as early as 1842 in an incident pertaining to Heber C. Kimball, but, “it was Wilford Woodruff who preserved the concept. He referred to it in a discourse he delivered October 6, 1890, following the Church’s acceptance of the Manifesto:
‘I say to Israel, the Lord will never permit me or any other man who stands as president of this Church to lead you astray. It is not in the program. It is not in the mind of God. If I were to attempt that the Lord would remove me out of my place, and so He will any other man who attempts to lead the children of men astray from the oracles of God and from their duty.'” (Crowther, Thus Saith The Lord, pg 73)

This is a tricky subject to be sure, and I don’t want to derail the conversation and get off topic to the subject of polygamy (as that topic is incredibly complex when you start unraveling the layers). But on this point the two ideas merge. In a nutshell, When Wilford Woodruff was claiming he would “not lead the church astray” he did not mean what we have attributed to his words. He was saying, in effect: “Don’t worry, the Manifesto is a lie. We’re not really abandoning plural marriage.” The Manifesto did NOT stop plural marriage and it was not a revelation. He referred to it as “beating the Devil at his own game.” Meaning it was intended to mislead the public. It was a press release designed to stop the persecution of the church and the threatened legislation to dis-incorporate and confiscate the Temples. Criticism from the eastern press resulted in it becoming part of the Doctrine & Covenants. Plural marriages continued from then until after President Joseph F. Smith testified before the Senate in the seating of Senator Smoot in 1905.

Pastor: Wow. That does sound complicated. Makes me want to hear more from you your thoughts on polygamy, but I’ll hold my questions on that for now.

Me: For certain it is complicated. It is an interesting study to observe the evolution from where originally Joseph Smith taught “that a prophet was a prophet only when he was acting as such” (Joseph Smith, HC 5:265. Feb 8, 1843), to where the church now emphasizes that “The prophet does not have to say ‘Thus saith the Lord’ to give us scripture.” (Ezra Taft Benson, Fourteen Fundamentals in Following the Prophet, Feb 26 1980, BYU devotional). Or from the original teaching that the prophet can transgress, even providing for the trial of the President of the Church if he should transgress (see D&C 107:81-84), to now emphasizing that “The living prophet is more vital to us than the Standard Works”, and that “The prophet will never lead the Church astray” (ibid, Benson, Fourteen Fundamentals).

Pastor: Not sure I followed all the LDS quotes, but if I understand you correctly, you are saying that the current position doesn’t necessarily resemble the original?

Me: Well, the original is not lost. But it appears our traditions can be shaped over time by our shifting culture. Something that the scriptures caution us about (Matt 15:1-6, Col 2:8, D&C 93:38-39).

I think the problem is that people have a tendency to place their trust in something that they can see with their eyes or hold with their hands. For Mormons, it can be a prophet. For Evangelical Christians it can be Sola Scriptura (The Bible). I would argue that both, without faith in Christ, will fall short.

Pastor: True, but the Bible leads one to faith in Christ.

Me: And that is what Mormons claim about their prophet, that he leads us to Christ. However, it is Christ that is “the way” (John 14:6). If we put the prophet between us and Christ, then we err. I believe the same is true for Evangelicals if they put the Bible between them and Christ, it is likewise an error.

Pastor: I think there is a difference between (and I mean no offense to you by saying this), between following what I consider a false prophet, and following the true word of God. I don’t see how the Bible can come between a person and Christ where it leads one to faith in Christ.

Me: No offense taken. But even a true prophet will not put himself between you and Christ. Take any biblical prophet that you can think of and you won’t see any of them say “follow me” (unless you count Paul, but even in his case it’s a matter of language semantics).

Pastor: Maybe I’m missing something, but I don’t understand how you think the Bible can come between someone and Christ, where reading it will lead you to Christ.

“mysteries
MeThe purpose of scripture is to lead us to Christ, to have His word written in our hearts (Heb 10:16), and make Him alive in us (Eph 2:5, ). Despite the claim that the scriptures alone save, we can’t ignore the promise of scripture that God will continue to speak to man. (James 1:5-6; Joel 2:28-32) If the Bible does not ultimately lead us to Christ, what purpose does it serve? The objective is to come to Him, not the Bible (or a prophet). Scripture is a means, not an end. What difference is there between a Mormon who blindly follows a prophet that he assumes cannot lead him astray, and a Christian who blindly assumes that scripture alone can save by trusting in the word alone, without getting a witness from God Himself? The missing element in both is the personal connection with Christ. Do I turn to Him? Do I know His voice? (John 10:27)

Pastor: That is an interesting perspective. I may have to mull that around in my head for awhile.

Well, so much for fantasizing on imaginary conversations. I guess the whole point of this post is to share my inner tension of trying to honestly explain to someone from the outside looking in, why the LDS focus appears to be on “follow the prophet” over “follow Christ”.

Within our ranks (as LDS) it might be of benefit to remind ourselves of a few teachings from our own church leaders.

President George Q. Cannon: “Do not, brethren, put your trust in man though he be a bishop; an apostle, or a president. If you do, they will fail you at some time or place, they will do wrong or seem to, and your support be gone, but if we lean on God, He never will fail us. When men and women depend on God alone, and trust in Him alone, their faith will not be shaken if the highest in the Church should step aside. They could still see that He is just and true, that truth is lovely in His sight, and the pure in heart are dear to Him. Perhaps it is His own design that faults and weaknesses should appear in high places in order that His saints may learn to trust in Him and not in any man or men! Therefore, my brethren and sisters, seek after the Holy Ghost and his unfailing testimony of God and His work upon the earth. Rest not until you know for yourselves that God has set His Hand to redeem Israel, and prepare a people for His coming.” (Deseret Weekly, March 7, 1891. pg. 322, No. 11 vol. XLII a Discourse by Pres. George Q. Cannon, Manti, Sanpete County on the evening of February 15, 1891).

“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.” (Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses 9:150)

The Missing Verse

Jesus was the Word, creator of the earth
He is the Prince of Peace, Son of the virgin birth

I penned new words to a primary song earlier this week. Today I composed and published this video on YouTube. Enjoy!

(to the tune of Follow the Prophet)

Jesus was the Word, creator of the earth
He is the Prince of Peace, Son of the virgin birth
In the garden and the cross He suffered for our sin
By faith, grace, and repentance, I can come to Him

Follow the Savior, Follow the Savior, Follow the Savior, don’t go astray
Follow the Savior, Follow the Savior, Follow the Savior, He knows the way

How the fight against porn made me question the need to fight against porn

“Isn’t fighting against something, still encouraging fighting?” I asked… Then I posed, “Is it better to hate war, or love peace?”

I’ve come to the conclusion that there’s something inherently wrong with attempting to eradicate evil.

Back in April I was invited to an event for a small group of artists where a presentation was given to promote the battle against porn by an organization called Fight The New Drug.

The movement began as a grassroots campaign from a group of college students who were concerned about the harmful effects of porn.
The movement’s About Page features a video that states, “We’ve made it our life’s focus to raise awareness on the harmful effects of porn”, and concludes with “Join the movement and become a fighter”.

Over time, Clay Olsen, CEO and co-founder, quit his job to do this full time. In 2009 it officially became a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization and now employs talented people to support the movement and raise awareness.

“mysteries

The presenter, Whitney Van Wagoner (Office Manager for Fight The New Drug), was sporting an attractive red T-Shirt with the slogan, “Porn Kills Love”. During her presentation I pointed out that the words could be switched to say “Love Kills Porn” to give a more positive twist to the message. I questioned the emphasis on “joining the fight”.
“Isn’t fighting against something, still encouraging fighting?” I asked.
I shared a quote that I like from Mother Teresa, “I was once asked why I don’t participate in anti-war demonstrations. I said that I will never do that, but as soon as you have a pro-peace rally, I’ll be there.”
Then I posed, “Is it better to hate war, or love peace?”

“Love Stronger than Shame

Whitney got my point and was quick to agree. Then she pointed out that the movement emphasizes REAL love, with positive slogans like:
Love something that loves you back
Love takes two
Real love is sexy
Keep it real
Live for love

I left agreeing with the good the organization is doing. Nevertheless, after the meeting I continued to reflect on the need for an organization dedicated to raising awareness about the evils of porn. For that matter, what’s wrong with any organization whose mission is to raise awareness about or eradicate the existence of anything deemed “evil”.

Something about capitalizing on fighting against anything “bad” makes me tend to question motives (“non-profit” doesn’t mean that nobody is profiting from it). I’m reminded of the documentary, Pink Ribbons Inc., Capitalizing on Hope.
“The film documents how some companies use pink ribbon-related marketing to increase sales while contributing only a small fraction of proceeds to the cause, or use “pinkwashing” to improve their public image while manufacturing products that may be carcinogenic.”
(wikipedia article, Pink Ribbons Inc.)

I believe it is the nature of institutions to take on a life of their own. Over time they tend to protect themselves and fight to survive just like any other living thing. In the case of Fight The New Drug, for example, if any solution emerged that could actually eliminate porn, it would threaten the life of the organization. There are people whose livelihoods depend on the existence of the organization, and, because it’s mission is to fight against it, the organization requires the existence of porn in order to survive. (Perhaps Mother Teresa really does make a good point)

The story of the March of Dimes gives a better example of what happens when an organization, whose mission was to find a cure for polio, struggled to survive after the cure was found.
“In his book Essentials of Sociology: A Down-to-Earth Approach, sociologist Professor James M. Henslin describes March of Dimes as a bureaucracy that has taken on a life of its own through a classic example of a process called goal displacement. Faced with redundancy after Jonas Salk discovered the polio vaccine, it adopted a new mission, ‘fighting birth defects’, which was recently changed to a vaguer goal of “breakthrough for babies”, rather than disbanding.”
Greenwald, Howard P. (2007). Organizations: Management Without Control. Sage Publications, Inc. p. 369. (reference given in wikipedia)

How does this apply to contending for or against [insert your pet thing here]
Women’s rights
Black rights
Gay rights
Someone else’s false religion
Someone else’s false political ideology

Contending is contending, regardless of however noble you feel your cause is. Is it possible to stand for your cause without contending about it?

There appear to be two opposing forces at work, one destructive and the other creative. A destructive force that fights against terrorists and attempts to eradicate them from off the face of the earth only ends up creating terrorists faster than you can kill them, like Hercules cutting off heads of Hydra that multiply faster than he can cut them off. Such is the fate that rises from a mentality that embraces the elimination of evil in the world.

A creative force, on the other hand, seeks to build up instead of tear down. Love is the great healer. The Mother Teresa approach of focusing on the merits of promoting good lead to more than just eliminating evil. One converted to Christ who has “no more disposition to do evil, but to do good continually” (Mosiah 5:2. See also Rom 8:1-4), has not only solved a porn problem, but a multitude of evils.

Celebration of the Trees

I wanted to join in the singing, but being powerless to do so, I simply felt the music in my heart.

A late snow in early spring inspired the following meditation.

This morning I took a walk after the sun had come out. I walked along the river and joined in the celebration of the trees. As the snow from last night’s storm melted from their drooping branches it felt like walking in gentle rain when I passed under them. I smiled at them and gave tribute to their strength for enduring the burden of snow that left their branches strained and drooping under the weight. Surrounded by casualties of broken limbs that did not survive the night, the sound of the placid dripping to me felt like a celebration song. I wanted to join in the singing, but being powerless to do so, I simply felt the music in my heart and thanked them for allowing me to witness their branches, leaving their burdens behind, raise toward heaven in praise.

Snow in Spring
Apple tree in my front yard with broken branch from an ash tree in the foreground.

I was reminded that only a few short weeks ago, I apologized to the apple trees in my yard for the pain I certainly inflicted on them when I cut off branches that yielded no fruit and pruned others so that the tree’s strength would be dedicated to producing better fruit. I took note of the burden of snow on their branches as I hurried off to work this morning, but as I pulled away I thought I could feel their gratitude. Because of the offensive pruning they endured, they now could feel the vigor of their strength as they strained under the storm’s heavy load they now bore.

“I am the true vine, and my Father is the husbandman. Every branch in me that beareth not fruit he taketh away: and every branch that beareth fruit, he purgeth it, that it may bring forth more fruit.
Now ye are clean through the word which I have spoken unto you.
Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, except it abide in the vine; no more can ye, except ye abide in me. I am the vine, ye are the branches: He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit: for without me ye can do nothing. If a man abide not in me, he is cast forth as a branch, and is withered; and men gather them, and cast them into the fire, and they are burned.
If ye abide in me, and my words abide in you, ye shall ask what ye will, and it shall be done unto you.
Herein is my Father glorified, that ye bear much fruit; so shall ye be my disciples.” (John 15:1-8)

Why Do We Avoid Delving into Mysteries?

After having emphasized the importance of revelation in understanding mysteries, Elder Basset then says something that confuses me…

“mysteries

My preparation for Teacher Council Meeting last month led me on an enlightening scriptural journey about “mysteries”.

Under the importance of seeking revelation daily, the teaching manual references 2 Nephi 28:30 (Teaching in the Savior’s Way manual, part 2, “Prepare Yourself Spiritually”, pg 12):

“Wo be unto him that shall say: We have received the word of God, and we need no more of the word of God, for we have enough! For behold, thus saith the Lord God: I will give unto the children of men line upon line, precept upon precept, here a little and there a little; and blessed are those who hearken unto my precepts, and lend an ear unto my counsel, for they shall learn wisdom; for unto him that receiveth I will give more; and from them that shall say, We have enough, from them shall be taken away even that which they have.” (2 Ne 28:29-30)

The idea of receiving less of the word of God when we reject what we have been given is also emphasized by Alma:

“And now Alma began to expound these things unto him, saying: It is given unto many to know the mysteries of God… And therefore, he that will harden his heart, the same receiveth the lesser portion of the word; and he that will not harden his heart, to him is given the greater portion of the word, until it is given unto him to know the mysteries of God until he know them in full.” (Alma 12:9-10)

In fact, Alma goes on to say that by NOT seeking the mysteries we subject ourselves to the chains of hell:

“And they that will harden their hearts, to them is given the lesser portion of the word until they know nothing concerning his mysteries; and then they are taken captive by the devil, and led by his will down to destruction. Now this is what is meant by the chains of hell.” (ibid v 11.)

The discussion from Teaching in the Savior’s Way manual continues and gives a scriptural example from Matthew 13, where we find the ideas taught by Nephi and Alma also taught by Jesus:

“He answered and said unto them, Because it is given unto you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it is not given.” (v 11)

At the October 1841 conference Brigham Young “addressed the Elders at some length, on the importance of teaching abroad the first principles of the gospel, leaving the mysteries of the kingdom to be taught among the saints.” (T&S, Oct. 15, 1841, 578. Quoted from Richard Bushman, JS Rough Stone Rolling, Ch 24 footnote 6, pg 641)

If mysteries are so important, my questioning mind asks, why then, is there an emphasis in the church to avoid delving into mysteries?

Joseph B.Wirthlin counseled, “God has revealed everything necessary for our salvation. We should teach and dwell on the things that have been revealed and avoid delving into so-called mysteries. My counsel to teachers in the Church, whether they instruct in wards and stakes, Church institutions of higher learning, institutes of religion, seminaries, or even as parents in their homes, is to base their teachings on the scriptures and the words of latter-day prophets.” (“Deep Roots,” Ensign, Nov. 1994, 77)

Note -Wirthlin’s counsel “is to base their teachings on the scriptures and the words of latter-day prophets.” which, incidentally teach us to search for the mysteries.

I believe the reason Elder Wirthlin counsels us not to delve into the mysteries in our teaching is because no one can teach the mysteries except God. As Elder W. Mark Basset relates in a recent conference address, referring to the example of Nephi:

“In order to understand the mysteries of God, or those things that can be understood only through revelation, we must follow the example of Nephi, who said, ‘Being exceedingly young, nevertheless being large in stature, and also having great desires to know of the mysteries of God, wherefore, I did cry unto the Lord; and behold he did visit me’ (1 Ne 2:16)” (For Our Spiritual Development and Learning, October 2016)

Later, Elder Basset relates (quoting Dallin H. Oaks) that “our members are sometimes left with basic questions that cannot be resolved by study. … Some things can be learned only by faith” (ibid)

Here it’s worth noting that there is no written record, including the scriptures, which are able to tell us all we must know. We can only know the truth by having it revealed to us from heaven itself (see D&C 76:114-118). The greatest mystery and glorious discovery is to know God and see Him face to face with eternal certainty. (see Lectures on Faith, lecture 2 para 55-56)

After having emphasized the importance of revelation in understanding mysteries, Elder Basset then says something that confuses me:

“We were never expected ‘to have a perfect knowledge of things’ during this mortal existence. Instead, we are expected to ‘hope for things which are not seen, which are true.'” (ibid)

The quotes in this statement reference Alma 32:21, which does not say or imply that “we were never expected to have a perfect knowledge of things during this mortal existence.” To me this statement seems strange in that Alma’s message in this chapter contains instructions how to grow from faith to a perfect knowledge of things. Later in the same meeting, Amulek stood and taught, “this life is the time for men to prepare to meet God; yea, behold the day of this life is the day for men to perform their labors.” (Alma 34:32). Why else would scripture tell us that in order to bear God’s presence in the world of glory, we must seek for the manifestations of the spirit “while in the flesh” (D&C 76:118).

In speaking about the sacrifices required to know God, Joseph Smith taught that “For a man to lay down his all, his character and reputation, his honor and applause, his good name among men, his houses, his lands, his brothers and sisters, his wife and children, and even his own life also, counting all things but filth and dross for the excellency of the knowledge of Jesus Christ, requires more than mere belief, or supposition that he is doing the will of God, but actual knowledge”. (Lectures on Faith, lecture 6 para 5)

Can one sacrifice reputation, honor, applause, houses and lands in the spirit world? There is a reason these things must happen “in this life”.

It also surprised me to hear Elder Basset teach that “like Nephi and Alma, I do not know the meaning of all things. Nor do I need to know all things; I too shall forbear”. Does he mean forbear from seeking to know the “mysteries of God until he know them in full”? (Alma 12:10). Nephi’s example suggests the opposite of what seems to be implied by Elder Basset’s statement. Rather than saying he needs no more of the word of God, for we have enough!”, Nephi, in the audience of an angel, was being taught from on high because of his intense desire to know deeper things (see 1 Nephi 11:1-3).

I suppose that even if modern day gentiles resist exercising the faith necessary to be taught by angels (see Moroni 7:36-37), at least it is as Mormon said it would be when he taught:

“But behold the plates of Nephi do contain the more part of the things which [Christ] taught the people. And these things have I written, which are a lesser part of the things which he taught the people; and I have written them to the intent that they may be brought again unto this people, from the Gentiles, according to the words which Jesus hath spoken. And when they shall have received this, which is expedient that they should have first, to try their faith, and if it shall so be that they shall believe these things then shall the greater things be made manifest unto them. And if it so be that they will not believe these things, then shall the greater things be withheld from them, unto their condemnation. Behold, I was about to write them, all which were engraven upon the plates of Nephi, but the Lord forbade it, saying: I will try the faith of my people.” (3 Nephi 26:7-11)