Recently, I responded to an article, “How to Stay Mormon when You Are Tired of Mormons,” in an article of my own, “Some Thoughts on Discipleship and “Staying Mormon.” In response to my response, Rational Faiths has posted an article, “Of Pride and Prophets.”
First of all, I think this is the way conversations should happen in the LDS blogging world — blog “cross talk”, where we can productively respond to each other in thought out articles. It’s much better, I think, than long, contentious comment threads. I’m making my response on my own turf, and thus not “trolling” their site, and they’re making their response on their turf, and thus not “trolling” our site. We welcome comments that disagree, and so do they — but when people get into drawn-out contentious comment threads (as I do on a regular basis), civil discussion often breaks down and those dissenting in the comments sometimes overstay their welcome and become trespassers (metaphorically speaking). Anyways, sorry for the tangent.
Anyways, Jeff Swift praises me for aptly summarizing the article I critique. But then he presents me as saying things that I never say, nor will ever say. In short, he gets me wrong, and in ways that are plainly obvious to those who read my article in great detail.
Basically, he presents me as believing that if we don’t agree with prophets 100% of the time, we are prideful people. Basically, he presents a dichotomy: the 100% crowd who believe in prophetic infallibility, and the rest, who believe that prophets are mortal and fallible, and that we ought to use personal revelation to navigate the vast shades of grey. And, according to Swift, I’m in the 100% crowd.
For example, here’s what he says: “The statement seems to be ‘if you ever disagree with counsel from prophets and apostles (in the wrong way), you are prideful.'” He also says, “The author blames ‘real discord’ on people who don’t agree with the prophet 100% of time.”
But do I? Do I say anything of the sort?
The worst example, however: “Even ldsphilosopher’s dreaded ‘individualist’ focuses on God, albeit at the expense of focusing exclusively on Church leaders.” However, what did I actually say? “The disciple will acknowledge that counsel from the Lord sometimes does conflict with our own understanding, will seek guidance from God through all venues (prayer, scriptures, the Holy Spirit, modern prophet, temple worship), and strive to be teachable.” Does that sound anything close to “focusing exclusively on Church leaders”?
First of all, I don’t believe in prophetic infallibilty. Most certainly not, in any way. I believe prophets are mortal and can make mistakes. Even the man at the top, the prophet himself. So I don’t believe at all what he claims I believe. I’ve disagreed with prophets and apostles in the past, and I don’t think I did so for reasons of pride.
Here’s what I said: “I don’t count myself as [someone who disbelieves what prophets teach] — at least on issues where apostles and prophets have spoken unanimously and repeatedly.” That last key phrase — unanimously and repeatedly — is not the only metric for consideration (unlike what Jeff Swift thinks I believe), but it’s a big one. This Church is led not by one man, but by quorums. The doctrine of the Church is not found in the isolated statements and teachings of individual men, but in those teachings that are taught unanimously and repeatedly. We’ve been told this again and again. So while it’s not the only consideration, it is a vitally important consideration.
The author highlights this phrase, and criticizes me for using it as the “only consideration” (which I don’t, but oh well). But then he goes on an imagines that I’m really saying that we must agree with prophets 100% of the time on everything they say, as if I didn’t say “unanimously and repeatedly.” So even if I did believe in prophetic fallibility in that narrow subset of teachings that are “unanimous and repeated,” the author goes on to pretend that I believe in prophetic infallibility in everything else too.
But I don’t believe in prophetic infallibility even then. But here’s what I do believe: the Lord will hold us accountable for how we treat prophetic counsel. Even if that counsel turns out to be wrong. If we are dismissive of prophetic counsel — even if it turns out to be wrong — God is disappointed. Note, this doesn’t mean that we blindly follow prophets — it simply means that we treat their words with weight, as inspired leaders. We start from the position that prophets may be right, and we seek to be teachable — even if, in the end, we end up concluding that they are wrong. If we start from the position that they are wrong, then we are not treating their words with weight, and yes, we will be held accountable for that.
Is that the same thing as believing in prophetic infallibility? Far from it. It’s a false and slanderous accusation that is leveled almost any time someone reiterates the importance of treating prophetic counsel with the weight it deserves. Jeff Swift is tired of being accused of pride, and wants us to stop. Well, we are tired of being accused of believing in prophetic infallibility, and we want them to stop. We don’t, never have, never will. But we still strive to follow prophets — mortal, imperfect people they are — because we believe they have the stewardship to lead this kingdom.
I do believe that on matters that they speak unanimously and repeatedly about, we ought to take especial care to ensure that we are giving them the benefit of a doubt, and we ought to be especially sure before we discard that counsel as the “teachings of men.” Prophets are fallible. 15 prophets and apostles acting in absolute unison on a doctrinal issue over time are also fallible. But the weight we ought to give those teachings is certainly different, and it’s not a profession of prophetic infallibility to point that out.
Are there things that prophets have been wrong about, when teaching unanimously and repeatedly? Perhaps blacks and the priesthood is one (but there’s not much evidence that the policy was ever supported unanimously or without reservation by all members of the highest quorums of the Church), but I’m not prepared to say for sure either way, since the Church hasn’t even been willing to say either way. (Isolated statements by individuals have been repudiated, but not the policy itself.) But even if so, is this paradigmatic of how we should treat the unanimous, repeated teachings of Church leaders? At best, it is an exception. And there are limits to what we can do with the idea of prophetic fallibility without calling into question prophethood and seership itself.
Yes, 15 inspired men acting in unison across time can still be wrong. And I think that individual members can receive personal revelation of that. But that is personal revelation, and going to the internet and proclaiming loudly that God has told them that prophets are wrong is moving outside of their revelatory stewardship. There is not just one question we must ask (“are they right or wrong?”), but at least two: (“what are the limits of my revelatory stewardship?”). Jeff seems to treat the first as the only consideration. Let’s imagine that the priesthood ban was wrong all along. I think it was still wrong for those at the time to stir up dissent against the prophets on the matter. What I believe is not prophetic infallibility, but in the boundaries of stewardship.
In short, the lesson from the story of the man who steadied the ark is not, “Moses is always right,” but rather, “It is Moses, not you, that I have entrusted to steer the children of Israel.” A man may baptize correctly, but without authorization, he may as well baptize a bag of sand. And if he knowingly does so without authorization, and in defiance of instructions of those who are so authorized, he is still damned even if he performs the ordinance “more correctly.” The same goes for doctrinal teaching as well.
There are many things Jeff Swift and I probably disagree on, such as the relative weight we should give the unanimous teachings of prophets, what specific issues they are right or wrong about, the boundaries of our individual stewardship, and what we should or shouldn’t do when we disagree with the prophets. But what we don’t disagree on is that prophets and apostles are fallible. I even unambiguously said so in the post he responded to. Jeff Swift needs to stop misrepresenting those he disagrees with.
I see a recurring pattern in these sorts of discussions: Person A says, “The prophets are wrong on X, and we need to change this.” Person B says, “I think that we should give prophetic teaching more weight than you do — it needs to pass more stringent tests than you’ve put it through before dismissing it. I also think we need to take stewardship into consideration.” Person A says, “You believe in prophetic infallibility! Don’t you know how wrong that position is?” Prophetic infallibility becomes the smear with which those who think that the prophet is wrong can slander those who think the prophet is right, despite the fact that neither party believes in it. I think that needs to stop.