In my view, the needed changes in Mormon culture do not require Church members to depart from their leaders’ counsel. To the contrary, I believe the most needed changes in Mormon culture will occur when Church members “catch up” with what the General Authorities have already told them. In my opinion, one of the most needed changes in Mormon culture is to eliminate Church members’ tendency to elevate the Church, its leaders, and its doctrines to a mythical state of perfection and completeness.
The following is a list of ten things I believe every Mormon needs to know to avoid developing unreasonable expectations about the Church, its doctrine, and its leaders. You could consider this cocktail of established principles a proposed vaccine for inoculating the Saints from becoming disillusioned by just about any difficult or controversial information about the Church.
1. Our current understanding is incomplete. One of our Articles of Faith is that God “will yet reveal many great and important things pertaining to the Kingdom of God.” (Ninth AF.) The key words being “will yet” (meaning it hasn’t happened yet), “many” (i.e., not just a few), and “great and important things” (i.e., not just minor details). Thus, the Church has officially acknowledged we do not have a complete understanding; we don’t claim to know it all. So if a particular doctrine or policy doesn’t make sense to you, it may be because we are still missing some important pieces of the puzzle. And because our current understanding is incomplete, we should expect to see changes in Church doctrine and policy as the Church grows “line upon line, precept upon precept” toward a more complete understanding of God’s ways.
2. Church leaders do not claim to be infallible. Elder Faust said it clearly: “We make no claim of infallibility or perfection in the prophets, seers, and revelators.” (James E. Faust, “Continuous Revelation,” Ensign, Nov 1989, 8.) Similarly, Elder Hales has said: “I am not a perfect man, and infallibility does not come with the call.” (Robert D. Hales, “The Unique Message of Jesus Christ,” Ensign, May 1994, 78.) So we should expect to occasionally catch our Church leaders being human, sinning, and making mistakes.
3. Not everything a Church leader says is inspired of God. The Prophet Joseph Smith acknowledged that “some revelations are of God: some revelations are of man: and some revelations are of the devil.” (B. H. Roberts, Comprehensive History of the Church, 1:163.) Similarly, the Church’s official website recently stated: “A single statement made by a single leader on a single occasion often represents a personal, though well-considered, opinion, but is not meant to be officially binding for the whole Church.” (See www.lds.org/newsroom.) So don’t be surprised if a well-intentioned Church leader mistakenly expresses his personal opinion as if it were doctrine.
4. The scriptures may contain human imperfections. When divine inspiration is reduced to imperfect human language, we should expect some things to get “lost in translation.” (See Eighth AF [“as far as it is translated correctly”]; BOM Title Page [“And now, if there are faults, they are the mistakes of men”].) Also, don’t be surprised if a revelation or translation delivered by a man in the early Nineteenth Century sounds like something a man in the early Nineteenth Century would say. (D&C 1:24-25 [“these commandments are of me, and were given unto my servants in their weakness, after the manner of their language . . . [a]nd inasmuch as they erred it might be made known”].)
5. Prophets do not claim that all their inspiration is received through face-to-face conversations with God. When we say that a prophet speaks for God, that does not necessarily mean everything he says was told to him by God directly or face-to-face. Rather, prophets have made clear that their inspiration typically comes from the Holy Spirit. Elder Packer has stated: “This guidance comes as thoughts, as feelings, through impressions and promptings. It is not always easy to describe inspiration. The scriptures teach us that we may “feel” the words of spiritual communication more than hear them, and see with spiritual rather than with mortal eyes. The patterns of revelation are not dramatic. The voice of inspiration is a still voice, a small voice. There need be no trance, no sanctimonious declaration. It is quieter and simpler than that.” (Boyd K. Packer, “Revelation in a Changing World,” Ensign, Nov 1989, 14.) So, as with the preceding point, we should expect some imperfections whenever someone undertakes the daunting task of reducing divine thoughts into human terms. And because there is some “room for interpretation” in discerning spiritual impressions, we should expect Church leaders to sometimes differ in their perceptions and views.
6. Sometimes God gives Church leaders discretion to make their own decisions according to their best judgment. Brigham Young taught: “If I ask [God] to give me wisdom concerning any requirement in life, or in regard to my own course, or that of my friends, my family, my children, or those that I preside over, and get no answer from him, and then do the very best that my judgment will teach me, he is bound to own and honor that transaction, and he will do so to all intents and purposes.” (Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Brigham Young, p. 46; see also Hel. 10:5-10, D&C 80:3.) In other words, sometimes God lets Church leaders decide what to do and then puts his divine stamp of approval on it. So don’t be surprised if a Church leader’s decision seems to simply reflect that leader’s personal judgment, as opposed to a divinely-issued instruction.
7. Doctrinal errors may exist within the Church. Elder Merrill C. Oaks of the Seventy has stated: “Our protection from erroneous doctrine lies in an overriding belief in continuing revelation to the current prophet.” (Merrill C. Oaks, “The Living Prophet: Our Source of Pure Doctrine,” Ensign, Nov 1998, 82.) I understand this statement to be an acknowledgment that doctrinal errors may exist within the Church, but that thankfully, those errors will be identified and corrected over time through continuing revelation. Of course, the possibility of errors existing within the Church should not surprise us if we keep in mind points 1-6 above.
8. None of the above should undermine our testimony that the scriptures are the “word of God,” or that Church leaders are inspired by God. The fact that a book of scripture or prophet may be mistaken about one or more things does not prevent them from being inspired about many, many other things. Nothing says a prophet’s spiritual discernment must be perfect or he is a total fraud. As Elder Faust stated: “I witness humbly that I know the Lord still guides his church through his servants, regardless of any individual imperfections.” (James E. Faust, “Continuous Revelation,” Ensign, Nov 1989, 8.) The idea that we can disregard everything a book of scripture or Church leader says if it can be proved that it/he was wrong about one or more things is the classic “throw the baby out with the bath water” fallacy.
9. Questioning and examining Church leaders’ statements is not only allowed, it is encouraged. Brigham Young said: “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.” (Journal of Discourses, 9:150 [quoted by James E. Faust, “Continuous Revelation,” Ensign, Nov 1989, 8].) Of course, there is a big difference between honest inquiry motivated by a sincere desire to know the truth, and a pre-determined effort to prove the Church is wrong. The former is encouraged, while the latter is disingenuous.
10. It is unwise to conclude that Church leaders are “wrong” about something we don’t understand or disagree with. Humility and intellectual honesty require us to recognize that we are at least as capable of being mistaken in our judgment as are Church leaders. Accordingly, it would be unwise to conclude that Church leaders are “wrong” about something, or that a certain teaching is “false.” The most we should say is that we don‘t understand something, or that we have not received a testimony of the truthfulness of something. This may seem like semantics, but there is an important difference between telling a Church leader “you are wrong” or “you are teaching false doctrine,” as opposed to saying, “I don’t understand your position” or “I have a different point of view.” So here is the paradox: while we acknowledge the possibility (and probability) of errors existing within the Church, wisdom and humility should prevent each of us from concluding that our judgment and spiritual discernment is superior to that of our Church leaders. Accordingly, none of us should conclude we possess the superior judgment necessary to identify those errors; that task has been assigned to our leaders.