Disagreeing with LDS Prophets and Apostles vs Losing Confidence in Them


[Cross-Posted from Sixteen Small Stones: Disagreeing with LDS Prophets and Apostles vs Losing Confidence in Them]

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:

26 thoughts on “Disagreeing with LDS Prophets and Apostles vs Losing Confidence in Them

  1. I cannot call myself a perfect member of the Church, but it befuddles me when people want to call themselves members and yet reject the core beliefs that the Church holds. It’s as if those people demand that the Lord himself bend his will to theirs.

  2. Today it often seems as if avoiding giving offense is the greatest commandment. We have seen this practice on some college campuses that have a long list of possibly hurtful behavior. It often seems to me that so much of the criticism of our apostles and prophets is based on the idea that nothing they say should hurt the tender feelings of those who stray. Time and again I have seen the discussion falter under the pressure of emotional appeals. Reason and faith are bullied into silence by whimpers and pouts.
    This has become very personal to me as one of my adolescent granddaughters has decided she is a boy. It seems to be quite fashionable to say that gender is a mere accident of birth. Both faith and reason warn me this is a dangerous trend, at least as destructive as other ways of straying from the path of virtue. As the culture has excepted homosexuality as normative, we are rapidly being challenged to welcome the gender bent.
    The rules our leaders have put in place about this issue are very clear but they will become a point of pressure as fashion dictates a change in attitudes.
    To put it in the nautical terms some of our leaders have used, I am ever more grateful for the sure and steady hand on the helm of the Good Ship Zion to steer us past the whirlpools and hidden reefs of the stormy sea around us.

  3. I think this post is introducing some vital and timely ideas and I appreciate it very much. I appreciate the concession that one can disagree with the leaders without losing confidence in them. And I would like to hear more about exactly what you mean by that, because I think it is a critically important issue.

    People who disagree with the leaders of the church often do so out of deep seeded moral convictions, convictions fostered by the morality of our age: tolerance, equality, progressivism, and diversity. It’s no easy thing to convince people to rework deep seeded moral ideals, ideals which are part of our culture’s collective consciousness, particularly when the church DOES try to champion those morals as well, in their own way. It’s not enough simply to suggest that the prophets are right and you are wrong. I think you have to give people a space to work out the contradictions between personal morality and church morality.

    One space to work through this contradiction is in the concept of fallibility. Conservative members of course believe in the concept of fallibility, but because it is overused by progressives and seems to present a threat to faith, the possibility of fallibility is sidelined with explanations like yours about unanimity as “a counterbalance to personal fallibility.” While I agree that appeals to fallibility are overused, I think they can provide a needed space for people who are having serious problems reconciling their personal morality with that of the church.

    Another space is the scripture “I will not command in all things,” recognition of a God who supports and sustains His brethren and their choices without having a clear and specific path for them to follow. I think we sometimes see God as a micromanager who has an exact “truth” or “best option” at all times, and would obviously always reveal that to His prophets. This doesn’t seem to be the pattern of the scriptures, wherein God blesses and sanctifies problematic decisions and ultimately is able to work them towards the good of His people, like the revelation to go to Salem to dig for gold. This has the advantage of allowing more than one morality to be “right.” We can disagree while still respecting God’s decision to support and authorise the decisions of His leaders.

    I know that progressives are difficult creatures to love, because of their self-righteousness, arrogance, and dismissiveness in the face of conservative perspectives. But I think they gravitate to these extremes because they find no other solution for their conflicted souls. We cannot realistically expect them to abandon their progressive morality all together and suddenly become conservative. They must be given a middle ground.

  4. J Max, for people who can’t wrap their minds around your six bullet points, I think your post can be distilled to this one point you made:

    “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.”

    That’s the gist. Either the murmurers/dissenters/critics don’t “get” what prophets and apostles are, or they don’t believe they are real prophets and apostles in the first place. People who are _sincerely_ “questioning” are likely in the former category. Those who are only pretending to be questioning, .ie. who have made up their minds, are in the latter.

    To discern between the two types of questioners, carefully look at their questions. Are they seeking knowledge for themselves, or are they seeking to influence you and others?

    I think it important to ascertain the stance of the critic before engaging them in conversation. Before engaging, just ask them outright if they believe the foundational truth claims of the church. (JS as a called and authorized prophet, restoration of priesthood, Thomas S Monson as legitimate holder of the seat established by JS, Book of Mormon as what it claims to be, etc.)

    Btw, I think Jeff G’s post on intellectual trojan horses (culture of critical discourse) deserves a place on your resource list:

  5. Nate, please check out Dr Bruce Charlton’s book (it really is in print, if you want to buy it, but he put it free online too) called:
    Thought Prison – The fundamental nature of Political Correctness
    Online at: http://thoughtprison-pc.blogspot.com/

    In it he illustrates how leftism/progressivism/political correctness is inherently nihilistic and destructive of good.

    It is likely not a coincidence that the current crop of dissenters/murmurers in the church are almost entirely progressives.

    If the church is true, Satan wants to destroy it. If the church is true, it cannot be destroyed directly from the outside. I think the BoM illustrates that concept.

    It’s not so much the church leaders who are shrinking the middle ground via boundary maintenance (JD & KK), it’s Satan who is pushing on the boundary. Who wants sin to be regarded as not sin, and has pushed and shouted toward that goal, and recruited supporters to further that cause? The answer is Satan. What vehicles has Satan used? Political correctness, progressivism, academia, and mass media.

    The companion/corollary to Thought Prison is Dr. Charlton’s:
    Addicted to Distraction: Psychological consequences of the Mass Media
    Free At: http://addictedtodistraction.blogspot.com/

  6. Bookslinger, thanks for the links. If progressivism is the work of Satan, all I am saying is that from the perspective of the progressive, this is impossible to see. It feels just the opposite to him, and any suggestion that he is entirely under the influence of Satan will simply drive him further from the gospel and encourage him to judge the church ever more harshly, given the contradiction between the force of his moral convictions, and the church’s hostility towards them. I suppose that’s fine if you feel he is part of a cancer that needs to be rooted out of the church. But if you believe, as J. Max seems to suggest, that there should be a place where one can “disagree with the leaders without losing confidence in them,” I suggest a less provocative characterisation of progressivism might actually assist in helping them avoid apostasy, and retain as much benefit from the church as they can, even if you think they continue to be deceived more or less by Satan in other areas of their belief.

  7. Great post. All points are spot on. Let me add that there is a proper way to disagree with Church leaders. One can privately retain one’s personal views and act on them in one’s personal life and in one’s callings while taking care not to speak against Church leaders. Over on BCC, the Adam-God theory is given as an example of the prophet being wrong. He was. And the saints of Brigham’s day had the option of not believing what Brigham was teaching and of not teaching it themselves. In a word, the body of Christ–the Church–can passively resist its leaders if they think they are misguided. If the leader tries to compel obedience, amen to the priesthood or authority of that man. The leader may still be in office, but in the matter on which they have exercised unrighteous dominion, they won’t have authority because they won’t have followers. In the case of the new policy on homosexuals, individuals have the option of privately disagreeing with the leadership. And if they are, say, a bishop, they have the option of not convening a disciplinary council if they think doing so is inappropriate. And they can humbly submit if released from their calling for not implementing policy. While it is likely that we are wrong if our personal views are not aligned with those of the Q15, we are the ultimate authority in our own private lives. And we are not in apostasy unless we publicly oppose the ordained leadership of the Church. Passive resistance will usually be misguided (and will occasionally be the correct response), but it won’t separate us from the body of Christ. It keeps us in the fold where we will usually discover over time that we were wrong and where we will sometimes have the satisfaction of the Church belatedly embracing the position we have held privately and have acted on in the stewardship of our personal lives and local callings.

  8. As for point 2, no one I know who disagrees with this policy believes they have authority to receive revelation for the church. The church leadership is tangential to the real (and personal) question: could Christ author this policy? For many people the answer to that is no. It is an answer to an individual question, not a statement of preeminent authority over the brethren.

    As for point 3, no, just no. The question has never been how loud God speaks but how well we listen. That is true for every member of this church, all the way up to the prophet. He’s human too.

    Point 4: As I said earlier, most people do not approach this from an authority standpoint but as a very personal moral question. Does this policy work with my understanding of Jesus Christ, who I am trying to follow? We are each entitled to personal revelation. We are supposed to ask and question and receive. People are trying to do that. It’s hard.

    Point 5: Prophetic fallibility is one of the greatest things this church teaches. It is useful in the present because we are supposed to individually seek and question and receive answers. We are not supposed to be complacent yes-men and women. The possibility for error should encourage each of us to take the words of the prophet to the Lord.

    Tl;DR I don’t know anyone who says that God spoke to them and told them the prophet is wrong. I don’t know anyone claiming any kind of authority over the church. I know a lot of people who feel it is wrong on a personal level, related to their understanding of and relationship with Jesus Christ. What to do with that belief is another question.

  9. “One can privately retain one’s personal views and act on them in one’s personal life and in one’s callings while taking care not to speak against Church leaders.”

    Pacumeni: Honestly, what I see in this possibly duplicitous stand is a refusal to doubt one’s own views while embracing a critical view of those who hold priesthood keys. It is a refusal to question one side of the equation, the side which probably needs the closest examination. It is a refusal to seek further light and knowledge. It is not a spiritually healthy solution.Nor is considering oneself the ultimate authority in anything.

  10. Given a choice between Moses on the one hand and Korah, Dathan, and Abiram on the other, I’ll choose to stand with Moses. See Numbers ch. 16.

    I like take counsel from the scriptures. For someone honestly seeking the Lord, reading the scriptures is perhaps the very best way to invite the whisperings of the Holy Spirit. In matters such as this, I cannot avoid remembering the Lord’s express counsel in Matthew 10:40, repeated in John 13:20 and again in D&C 84:36 and 112:20 — these verses help me understand how to navigate in the midst of confusion — I recommend them to everyone.

  11. Nate,

    You touch (perhaps unintentionally) on the real root of a great problem. Today so many try to view God’s Plan of Salvation through a worldly cultural lens.

    “People who disagree with the leaders of the church often do so out of deep seeded moral convictions, convictions fostered by the morality of our age.”

    The “morality” of the world is so often far away from the morality of God. How one sided is the “tolerance” of the world? What “diversity” is lost in “equality”? And what is “progressivism” actually progressing towards? A plan that saves everyone, saves no one.

    When the culture of or values of the world is valued above the word of God, or hubris tells us that we know so much better as to what is right because we have learned so much from the philosophies of men, then the compass is broken. The world will never show mankind the strait and narrow path, but rather proclaim that all roads lead to Rome. So any path is acceptable, so long as it is tolerant and diverse and equal all at the same time.

  12. Rachel,
    “I don’t know anyone who says that God spoke to them and told them the prophet is wrong. I don’t know anyone claiming any kind of authority over the church. I know a lot of people who feel it is wrong on a personal level, related to their understanding of and relationship with Jesus Christ. ”

    That’s where you and your associates go wrong. Both church authority and _personal revelation_ trump personal feelings and personal understandings. If you don’t understand how that is, or why it should be, please read Jeff G’s post here:


    I also concur with J Max’s call-to-action, that if the Brethren’s pronouncements conflict with your personal feelings and personal understanding, you should take it to the Lord and _seek_ your own personal revelation/spiritual guidance on the matter. In your response to point 5, you admit that you can or should do such, but in your tl;dr summary you state that you and your associates have not done this (or else have not received a response as yet, if you have made the attempt.)

  13. Rachel, in response to point 2, you wrote,
    “The church leadership is tangential to the real (and personal) question: could Christ author this policy?”

    If you honestly think Church leadership is tangential to questions of policy, then you either misunderstand the role of prophets and apostles, or you don’t believe church leaders are real prophets and apostles.

    If you sincerely believe LDS leaders _are_ prophets and apostles, then Jeff’s article on trojan horses (link in previous comment) may help you to understand their role and their authority in regards to policy matters, even in matters that may go against the “common sense” of some members.

    If you don’t believe the LDS first presidency and quorum of 12 are prophets, seers, and revelators, then there are more basic issues upon which you need to seek a personal testimony, than the issue of the church’s relationship to married/cohabiting gays and their children.

  14. Rachel,

    The supreme irony regarding the constant progressive “fallibility” refrain is that when a prophet delivers a message that directly contradicts their cherished political or social conceit, they cry “Fallible!”. But when a prophet delivers a message that comports with their cherished conceit, they proudly confirm his standing as a prophet, seer, and revelator.

    Do you see the problem?

  15. Mike, it might help misguided progressives to carve out a place for themselves if they were given the freedom to celebrate diversity and equality outside the church among the Gentiles, but to learn to accept LDS conservativism within the church, celebrating Mormonism as “peculiar” with the broader Gentile culture, “a strait and narrow way that few find,” or a unique call for “the elect:” “you have not chosen me, I have chosen you.”

    The root of the progressive disconnect at church starts when progressives feel they are asked to judge Gentiles by LDS standards. When they chafe at this, as they did with Prop. 8, they then inevitably go on to advocate for Gentile morality within the church, which is destructive and leads to apostasy. They become progressives rather than true liberals.

    But there is an important difference between progressivism and liberalism. Progressivism advocates for change that we are all collectively forced to partake in: the melting pot. But true liberalism stands up for a diversity of belief, celebrating uniqueness and peculiarity, including LDS peculiarity: the salad bowl. If LDS progressives were given a vision of true liberalism, it might give them a healthier space to support the brethren as part of the salad bowl of broader culture.

    While this might seem to threaten what many LDS see as the universalism of LDS values, it is nevertheless seems to be supported by many LDS scriptures emphasising the peculiarity of the LDS path. And as a valid interpretation of LDS scripture, it CAN be a healthy place to learn to support the brethren even in the presence of ambivalence.

  16. “The church leadership is tangential to the real (and personal) question: could Christ author this policy?”

    Also (not to take away any of Bookslinger’s thunder) it’s important to bring up one interesting facet of how Christ (or Heavenly Father) deals with humanity. In Blake Oster’s Fire on the Horizon, he talks about how God often says and does things that shock our comfortable illusions.

    It may be God’s only way of reaching some of His children. We don’t really worship a safe, timid, predictably (to human understanding) God. As C. S. Lewis wrote in his Narnia series, Aslan is not a “tame lion”. I would recommend you ponder that, and look up Fire on the Horizon. It’s simply one of the best books on Mormon doctrine I’ve read in years.

  17. Rachel wrote:
    “As for point 3, no, just no. The question has never been how loud God speaks but how well we listen. That is true for every member of this church, all the way up to the prophet. He’s human too.”

    What you describe is Personal Revelation 101. The vast majority of instances of revelation is the “still small voice”, faint whispers. But I, and some of my teachers and friends, and the scriptures, and some general conference speakers (and quite a few Ensign articles over the years) can testify of times when the Holy Ghost spoke strongly and clearly, almost as if it were shouting, and “constraining” them to certain actions, to stop the car and check the wheels, or to check on the kids, or to stop and talk to a particular person.

    Those kinds of instances are rarer than the still small voice instances. But they do happen, usually in times of urgency or importance.

    As I wote in another comment, if the Holy Ghost can whisper (and sometimes shout) to a struggling sinner such as little ol’ me, how much more clear would such communications be to far more holier men. (And you do believe they are prophets and apostles, right?)

  18. Old Man, quite explicit in my post is a humble realization that when our views differ from those of the Q15 (or other file leaders), it is very likely we, not they who are in error. But it is we, not they, who are accountable for how we live our own lives. My point is that if we disagree with our leaders, we should confine any actions that are not in harmony with policy to the sphere in which we have a stewardship. In our personal lives, that stewardship is uncontested. The President of the Church does not preside in my home or in my personal life. Wise members of the Church presume that they are wrong and the authorities are right when their personal views differ from those of the authorities. But if on occasion we cannot in good conscience support or follow council, we should disagree and passively resist privately. This is not duplicitous. It just recognizes and affirms our belief in the larger mission and truthfulness of the Restoration even when we think things may be off course here or there. A lot of problems are avoided if everyone is clear about who has stewardship in any particular case. We shouldn’t publicly oppose our leaders qua leaders because we don’t have a stewardship over them or the Church. We do have stewardship over our own lives and must, ultimately and hopefully humbly, with proper awareness of our fallabilty, choose to do what we believe is the right thing, the thing God expects us to do.

  19. As a thought experiment, let me suggest those who find fault in the profits consider the story of Joseph of Egypt.

    Having found himself in a position of power in the only country with resources and power to save themselves and neighboring peoples, Joseph chose to find that all the events leading up to him becoming pharaohs steward world ordained of God. He even found gone to therefore be the author of his brothers’ murderous rage, his slavery, and his imprisonment. Joseph found God to be good in all these things despite the personal inconvenience these events caused him at the time.

    Those who reject current policies without attempting to understand why God might have put these policies in place seem to be operating from a narrative where they would like to cherry pick which past events are unnecessary to gods work.

    That would be like Joseph saying, “I want to be Pharoah’s steward, but can we skip being thrown into the pit and sold into slavery and imprisoned? How about instead I just waltz into Pharaoh’s palace and tell him I need to be in charge? Seems to me that an omniscient God could make that work…”

    As for me and my house, we will be like Joseph of Egypt. We will accept the prophets as spokesman of God, who must be heeded. We will look to our past and attempt to discern why the past was necessary to honor individual freedom of choice as well as God’s desire to save all his Children.

  20. Meg, I take it you’re using voice dictation.

    (Insert joke about a homophonic hymn title here.)

  21. Comet, the real question is why progressives are trying to politicize and neutralize Christianity. It’s not just the LDS church. Progressives have made efforts, and have had much success, in reducing membership and participation rate in most Christian denominations, while watering down doctrines. Progressives have done that both from without, and from within the churches.

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