The Prophet Joseph Smith said “ … a prophet was a prophet only when he was acting as such.” (History of the Church, Volume 5:265). This simple statement, made to a “brother and sister from Michigan” has invoked much discussion about when a prophet speaks for the Lord and when he is simply offering good advice.
Latter-day Saints do not profess a belief in the infallibility of their leaders. President James E. Faust wrote this, “We make no claim of individual infallibility or perfection as the prophets, seers, and revelators. (James E. Faust, “Continuing Revelation,” Ensign, Aug 1996, 2). And while the Church does not express that the leaders themselves are infallible like the Catholic doctrine of Papal Infallibility, there is an expectation they will lead us in the right direction according to the mind and will of the Lord and in harmony with the Scriptures.
President Erza Taft Benson wrote, “The living prophet is more important to us than a dead prophet.” (Ezra Taft Benson, “Fourteen Fundamentals in Following the Prophet,” Tambuli, Jun 1981, 1). This was not a new concept originating with President, then Elder Benson. It has been taught since the days of Joseph Smith.
But, how do we know when we need to heed the words of the Prophet and when it is simply good advice and counsel. Just when is a prophet acting as such?
The simple answer is that he is acting as a Prophet when moved upon by the Holy Ghost. “And whatsoever they shall speak when moved upon by the Holy Ghost shall be scripture, shall be the will of the Lord, shall be the mind of the Lord, shall be the word of the Lord, shall be the voice of the Lord, and the power of God unto salvation.” (Doctrine and Covenants 68:4)
However, how do WE know? Again, the simple answer is in the same way. The Holy Ghost must testify to us of the truthfulness of the words spoken. Sounds simple enough? It’s not.
For some of us, we struggle with this concept and its application. In some cases, we simply do not have the faith to believe. In other cases, we have not trained ourselves to hear that testimony. Perhaps in other cases, it just does not come. Maybe, it IS just good advice? Or maybe, it’s bad advice?
We are required to pray and ask for a confirmation of the truthfulness of the statements of the Prophets to us. “But, behold, I say unto you, that you must study it out in your mind; then you must ask me if it be right, and if it is right I will cause that your bosom shall burn within you; therefore, you shall feel that it is right. “(Doctrine and Covenants Section 9:8).
Frankly, I’ve never had a burning in the bosom except for heartburn, but I also recognize that that expression is a metaphor for the feeling I do get when I’ve made that step or feel that I am under the influence of the Holy Ghost.
Some members do not need to make that step and receive confirmation. Perhaps, they receive an instantaneous witness of the truth. Or, perhaps they are acting as the President Brigham Young warned,
“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” (Discourses of Brigham Young, sel. John A. Widtsoe , 135).
And yet, while we have many members of the Church who would blindly follow their leaders without inquiring of God for themselves, they are also more willing to overlook individual foibles of the same leaders, past and present.
The polygamy practices of Joseph Smith, the past racist statements of some Church Leaders, and the inconsistent telling of Church History, to name a few, do not bother them. They trust the explanation of the leaders and the Church.
On the other hand, there are those in the Church who are really bothered by those things, and seem to have a hard time reconciling the actions of those leaders with their prophetic mantle. In other words, if those leaders are so in tune with the Lord, they should have known better than to do and say those things? Infallible?
Could it be that those members actually hold them to a higher standard than the rank and file member?
President Wilford Woodruff and others taught that the Lord would never let the Prophet lead the Church astray. I believe that. I also believe the members of the Church would also not permit it.
The Prophet is not infallible and we do not hold to that idea. He is a man, like every other man, imperfect and capable of error. We love him and sustain him and recognize his authority to counsel and instruct us, lead us and guide us.
We do not follow blindly, but ask for confirmation of the truthfulness of his words. We sometimes struggle with following that counsel, but hopefully, we are better off for it.