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Sustaining the Fallible

My briefly resurgent acting career led to many backstage discussions on a variety of topics, but religion usually came to the forefront. On one occasion, I was asked how I could support a church where the policy is that “when the prophet has spoken, the thinking has been done.”

I responded by saying that wasn’t the policy, and that I didn’t believe that.

“No, no, I’ve heard that over and over again through the years,” my debating partner said. “If that’s not the policy now, then they’ve changed it – which means it wasn’t inspired in the first place.”

So I took to Google, and I found the source for the quote in question. It comes from a 1945 church magazine, wherein the uncredited author states the following in a Ward Teaching message:

When our leaders speak, the thinking has been done. When they propose a plan–it is God’s plan. When they point the way, there is no other which is safe. When they give direction, it should mark the end of controversy. God works in no other way. To think otherwise, without immediate repentance, may cost one his faith, may destroy his testimony, and leave him a stranger to the kingdom of God.

Yikes.

What to make of this? For if this is true, then our leaders who get to think for us must be infallible.  But infallibility is at odds with the central doctrine of agency, which ensures that even the prophet has the freedom to make mistakes. To presume, then, that everything our leaders say flows directly from the mind of the Almighty is to suggest that at some point, either agency is extracted from the souls of the church hierarchy, or they achieve perfection in mortality.

Since neither of those is a workable possibility, that statement must be wrong.

Lest you think me faithless in coming to that conclusion, I share the concurring opinion of President George Albert Smith, who was the president of the church at the time this statement appeared in a church publication. In a letter written to a Unitarian minister criticizing the idea of mindless Mormons, President Smith had this to say:

The leaflet to which you refer, and from which you quote in your letter, was not “prepared” by “one of our leaders.” However, one or more of them inadvertently permitted the paragraph to pass uncensored. By their so doing, not a few members of the Church have been upset in their feelings, and General Authorities have been embarrassed.

I am pleased to assure you that you are right in your attitude that the passage quoted does not express the true position of the Church. Even to imply that members of the Church are not to do their own thinking is grossly to misrepresent the true ideal of the Church… [which] gives to every man his free agency, and admonishes him always to use the reason and good judgment with which God has blessed him.”

I shared that with my debating partner, who scoffed at the idea. “Do you get to pick and choose, then? Who gets to decide what’s true and what isn’t?”

 We do.

Not only do we get to decide, we have the responsibility to decide. And God will hold us, not our leaders, accountable for the choices we make.

My debating partner saw this as a cop out. I see it, however, as the central principle of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Let’s cite a practical example. Our leaders have taught us that it is essential that we keep the Sabbath day holy. It’s one of the Ten Commandments; Christ Himself reiterated its importance during His mortal ministry, and modern revelation commands us to do it, too. So how do we go about it?

Well, back in the time of Moses, most of the thinking on the subject was done for you. Specific rules were prescribed that outlined exactly what you could and couldn’t do.  By the time Jesus arrived on the scene, the rules had been codified to the point of absurdity – you can take X number of steps on the Sabbath, for instance, and only eat eggs laid on the Sabbath by a “laying hen.” Jesus rejected all that – he “fulfilled” the law, meaning that the principle of the law was still in effect, but you were responsible for how you obeyed it. You keep the Sabbath Day holy, and you justify to God why your choices make that happen.

No leader stands between you and Christ. You, personally, are accountable for every choice you make.

Of course, that’s not just true of you and me. That’s true of Thomas S. Monson, too – and every other prophet who has ever lived. If it were not so, then agency would have no meaning, and the purpose of this life would be thwarted.

I thought about that as I read this essay by a guy named Ganesh Cherian at Patheos.com, a guy who probably ought to know better. He’s a former bishop and a current high counsellor who read the LDS Church’s brilliant new essays on difficult subjects and is now experiencing a crisis of faith because, whether he realizes it or not, he believes both the Church and its leaders are supposed to be infallible.

Consider Cherian’s reaction to the essay about the Book of Mormon translation process, which discusses the various accounts of the translation which suggest that Joseph used a seerstone in addition to the Urim and Thummim. “How was I to know that a stone he found in a well was instrumental in this process of translation?” he laments. “Every picture, or  video I have ever seen has him sitting at a table with the gold plates before him pouring over these ‘curious characters’ by the light of a candle!”

So now it’s not just infallible prophets Cherian expects – it’s infallible pictures and videos! Never mind that there is no information in that essay that hasn’t be readily available for over a century to anyone interested in looking for it, and that the stuff he finds so problematic has been mentioned in General Conference and discussed intently in a variety of forums. The fact that he passed along his own uninformed opinion is evidence that the church is engaged in disinformation. Apparently, Cherian’s error is the Church’s fault.

Or try this on for size:

“As recently as June I reasoned with a friend that polygamy was needed because there were so many more women than men at the time,” this guy writes, noting that it is “an argument that the polygamy essay seems now to repudiate.”

Well, yeah. It’s an argument that’s also repudiated by the 132nd Section of the Doctrine and Covenants, which explains precisely why polygamy was practiced and has been in print for over 150 years. The article quotes John A. Widtsoe’s 1945 statement that debunks this Mormon folk legend, so it’s not as if the Church has suddenly shifted gears radically. Yet, once again, his lazy acceptance of a hoary folk story is somehow a sign of the Church’s mendacity. “I love my church and credit where I am in my life to years of church service,” he says, “but I cannot ignore the dishonesty.”

Dishonesty? Whose dishonesty? All the information that shocked him has been around forever. Every issue Cherian finds problematic stems from his own mistakes and misunderstandings. It is likely that Cherian will continue to compound his error, as his essay makes it clear that he expects infallibility from his leaders and his church. “I understand how essential it is to ‘sustain’ the Brethren,” he says,  “but these days I live with a caution that those ideals that I believe today could be dismissed by future First Presidencies.”

Well, of course they could be, but its unlikely they will. It’s doubtful that First Presidencies will dismiss genuine ideals – don’t expect the Law of Chastity to go away anytime soon. But will future First Presidencies gain greater insight and change church policies in the future? Of course! Isn’t that the reason we have a First Presidency? Living prophets guide the church through the times in which they live, and the church adapts accordingly. Line upon line, precept on precept. If Jesus went from “grace to grace,” as the Doctrine and Covenants said He did, we should certainly expect his church to do likewise.

Yet are these leaders going to make mistakes along the way? Of course they are. They don’t forfeit their agency when they accept high callings, nor should we expect them to. But so many do expect them to, and that’s the problem.

So many people who find themselves doubting and then abandoning the church feel they’ve stumbled on some great secret when the discover their leaders are fallible. This has always been the case. In the days of Joseph Smith, people left the church because the prophet misspelled their names in revelations. Joseph, and all of his successors, have repeatedly made it clear that they are imperfect human beings, but the expectations of others won’t allow them the right to fallibility that they claim for themselves.

Returning to my backstage banter with my debating partner, the question was then raised as to how I could sustain a leader if I know they make mistakes. Could I sustain them and follow them even if what I know what they’re asking me to do is wrong?

Well, yes and no. There’s wrong and there’s wrong.  I’ve never been asked by a church leader to violate the principles of the gospel. I have, however, been asked to do things with which I disagree.

For example.

I had one bishop who addressed our elder’s quorum with his concern that some of us were not adhering to what he called “the uniform of the priesthood.” He insisted that to wear anything other than a white shirt to church was an act of disrespect. (At the time, I had a black shirt that I thought looked really cool, and I had almost worn that they day he raised this issue.) He told us we all ought to wear white shirts to church from there on out.

The members of the quorum reacted in a number of different ways.

Some, who wore white shirts regularly and didn’t need to do anything to come into compliance with this requirement, took it in stride and paid little attention. Others, including the bishop’s counselor, took it as a point of pride to wear colored shirts from that point forward to demonstrate that the bishop had overstepped his bounds. (None of those who did this, incidentally, were disciplined in any way for ignoring the bishop’s counsel.)

Then there was me.

I thought, and still think, that this is a silly bit of nonsense. The Lord is not offended by colored textiles, and this struck me as a bit of cultural nonsense that the bishop had accepted as being more important than it really was. I disagreed with his counsel.

But from that point forward, I wore a white shirt to church.

Why? Because this bishop was a good man, and I sustained him. And he was a righteous man who loved and served the Lord, and he was in a position of leadership that deserved my respect. And if all I had to do to show my support of this man was don a white shirt, it was the least I could do.

We are not supposed to sustain church leaders in spite of their fallibility. We sustain them because of their fallibility. Because they’re imperfect, they need us to help them and bear them up, not criticize them for every misstep. Sustaining the fallible is the point of having a church in the first place. That’s the central purpose of the gospel of Jesus Christ. The Savior expects us to love others as he has loved us. He has loved us knowing perfectly just how imperfect we are. When we expect perfection from others, even those at the highest levels of the church, we are not being remotely Christlike.

There. Stallion has spoken, and the thinking has been done.

(That’s a joke.)

The Settling of Science
Mormon Apocalypse Not

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  1. Great article Stallion 🙂 .. It’s sad, regarding the Bishop and Stake President who left because of the articles, you have to ask the question: So they had a testimony because of the way they thought the BoM was translated? Shows why we need to ask God, turn our doubts into questions. Ask and you shall receive, knock and it shall be opened unto you.

  2. “We are not supposed to sustain church leaders in spite of their fallibility. We sustain them because of their fallibility. ”

    Astonishing insight clearly revealed.

    I suggest also to everyone’s reading Paul’s explanation about LIBERTY in the gospel. Someone had asked him whether missionaries could eat the meat that had been offered to idols, namely, good meat roasted that would otherwise be wasted.

    Paul (if I remember right) explains that to God, meat is just meat, it neither blesses nor condemns a person, either for eating or for not eating. But if there is a witness, your choice could become a stumbling block to that person and in that manner, what is neither good nor bad, becomes bad, or unwise, or something on that line.

    http://www.lds.org/scriptures/nt/1-cor/8

    So it is that if Mormon priesthood holders are expected to wear white, then to NOT do so is an act of rebellion even though, as you state, God probably doesn’t care. Adam started out life with no shirt of any color.

    In the days of Moses and the Children of Israel, persons bitten by snakes would be healed if they looked at Moses’ staff on which were placed snakes, this has been the medical emblem ever since. Is merely looking on a stick with snakes sufficient to heal? No, but obeying God — even when seemingly absurd — can have great power. Obeying a church leader that might not actually be conveying God’s wish carries the risk of not obtaining great power, and yet, no great risk attaches to doing so while some risk attaches to deliberately disobeying. So it is usually better to obey.