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:
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?
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.
Me: The 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)