Practical Infallibility

We in the LDS church are fond of pointing out that we don’t believe in prophetic infallibility. At least in theory, we see prophets as human beings who sometimes make mistakes, and don’t expect them to be perfect. However, I’m not entirely clear as to what exactly what this means on a practical level. And the more I’ve thought about this, the more I’ve wondered whether we don’t believe in what I might term “practical infallibility.” In other words, while we reject infallibility as a theological proposition, in practice, it is difficult to see how our approach differs from a belief in infallibility.

The Catholic church is famous for its doctrine of papal infallibility. However, it is worth noting that this doctrine includes fairly strict criteria regarding what statements can be deemed infallible. It does not mean that every word the Pope utters is infallible. According to Vatican I, the Pope is infallible only when he is defining a doctrine of faith or morals, speaking ex cathedra (in other words, speaking explicitly as the head of the Church), and speaking with the clear intention of binding the Church. If there is any doubt about any of these, the statement cannot be considered infallible. This means that the vast majority of papal pronouncements do not in fact fall into the “infallible” category. In fact, to date there only exist two papal statements which theologians widely accept as infallible, both related to Mariology—one about the Immaculate Conception, and one about the assumption of Mary into heaven.

In contrast, while we quote the famous line about a prophet only being a prophet when speaking as such, we have no accompanying criteria with which to judge whether prophetic statements are in fact prophetic. And I wonder: if a prophet did err, would there be any way for us to know? Even the usual trump card of personal revelation is problematic here, because of the teaching that personal revelation will never contradict the teachings of the current prophet. While we can (and are indeed encouraged) to pray for a witness of the truth of prophetic teaching, there is only one possible answer to such a prayer—because any other answer would fail the litmus test which we’re instructed to use to discern whether something is in fact revelation.

In addition, I think much of our popular discourse reflects a belief in practical infallibility. The statement that God will never allow the prophet to lead the Church astray is often given as a reason to accept whatever the current prophet is saying as the will of God. I’ve also occasionally heard this framed as a question of probability. If a person finds herself in disagreement with a prophet, goes this argument, she should consider how very unlikely it is that she’s right and God’s appointed spokesperson is wrong—the point being that even if it’s a hypothetical possibility that prophets could err, the odds are overwhelmingly against it in any given situation.

And even if the prophet himself says that this is his personal opinion, that might make no difference at all on a cultural level. I remember one of my seminary teachers saying, but why would we ever go against the opinion of a prophet? Evidently one of the ways in which a prophet might actually be fallible is in his perception of his fallibility.

So what value is there in maintaining the idea of prophetic fallibility? My guess is that it has to do with dealing without our past. When we emphasize that prophets are fallible, this generally comes up in the contexts of past prophets: it’s a kind of loophole which allows us to deal with statements by past leaders which now sound bizarre to our ears. It gives us a way of responding to anti-Mormons who’ve dug up random odd statements out of the Journal of Discourses. When it comes to how we’re expected to view the current prophet, however, I am not sure I see much difference between where we are and where we would be if we did have a doctrine of prophetic infallibility. In other words, when is the prophet speaking as a prophet? When he’s alive.

While we may not have infallibility per se, then, we seem to have something that very closely resembles it.  But I think there is room in our doctrine for a somewhat broader approach. As a practicing Mormon, I do think it is incumbent on me to take what the prophet says quite seriously. I don’t think, however, that necessarily means agreeing with every single word that ever happens to fall from his lips. You know that Joan Osborne song, what if God was one of us? I wonder: what if the prophet were one of us, too? Someone with a unique and unusually demanding calling, one who’s entitled to revelation for the church as a whole—but in the end, not superhuman, not qualitatively different from everyone else. Having audaciously closed the ontological gap between human and divine, maybe we could do something even more radical, and close the one between top church leaders and rank-and-file members.


  1. IMHO, the question of “is the current prophet fallible?” is meaningless. The church’s stance seems to be that it doesn’t matter if he’s wrong or right, you should still believe and obey every utterance he says.

    How hard-core a mormon a person is, is directly related to how far down the hierarchy s/he extends that concept.

  2. I heard a line somewhere – I think Ardis said it: The catholics have a doctrine of infallibility, but the don’t really believe it. The Mormons have a doctrine of fallibility, but they don’t really believe it.

    I think there is a difference between thinking someone is infallible, and respecting their authority regardless of our opinion on the matter.

  3. Great post, Lynnette!

    So what value is there in maintaining the idea of prophetic fallibility?

    I really like your answer to this question, but I’d like to add another. If we say we believe in prophetic infallibility, we seem more cultish. Of course, as you point out so well, treating prophets in practice as though they’re infallible also comes across as pretty cultish, as evangelical opponents of Mitt Romney have recently been reminding us.

  4. It would be nice if God could at least give us a giant traffic light at the front of the conference center for GC. A green light means the prophet is being inspired. Yellow means he may or may not be inspired. When the light turns red, he’s being inspired by the devil. When it turns off, he’s speaking as a man. (If God were especially generous maybe he could also highlight our scriptures according to this color scheme—it would clear up a lot of confusion.)

    Snark aside, as long as we have no criteria and no authority for ascertaining when the prophets are uninspired, the belief in prophetic fallibility seems kind of useless.

    Also, it would be helpful to develop some doctrine as to why prophets say uninspired things ex cathedra. Is it because they can’t tell themselves when they’re being inspired and when they’re not? That has some interesting implications.

  5. Implicitly, everybody who doesn’t do their home or visiting teaching thinks the prophet is fallible.

  6. So what value is there in maintaining the idea of prophetic fallibility?

    I’ll join Ziff and add one more possible reason (essentially an expansion of the OP): In a religion of continuing revelation, it makes sense to emphasize fallibility in order to always leave an out – even for current leaders. If something doesn’t make sense or turns out to be inherently wrong, fallibility can be turned to as a foundational tenet so that the faith of members isn’t shaken.

    Yet, in terms of administrative and hierarchical power and stability, it absolutely makes sense to emphasize practical infallibility in order maintain order and keep the institutional church coherent. It seems to me that a church that is premised on the twin notions of continuing revelation and personal, individual testimony/communion with God will always struggle with maintaining order; an inherent tension is built in to the system. Practical infallibility is a, er, practical way around that.

  7. This is fantastic, Lynette. I’ve never talked to someone who could pinpoint an issue on which it would be okay to disagree with the prophet, no matter how miniscule or secular. I think you’re totally right; prophetic fallibility applies only to past prophets, not current ones. Pretty convenient for some people… Decidedly not so for anyone with even the smallest question.

  8. Great post. This drives me crazy. I keep saying that we talk the talk when it comes to “prophets aren’t perfect” but we don’t walk the walk because of course they won’t lead us astray! Circular reasoning is circular.

  9. Miri’s comment got me thinking. The only time I have ever heard the concept of prophetic fallibility invoked for a post-Journal of Discourses event was in a religion class at BYU. The instructor had been involved in the Mark Hoffman Salamander Letter incident, and he was offering an apologetic for President Hinckley’s involvement (including an emphasis on GBH’s status at the time as a member of the First Presidency and not the actual prophet; a discussion of the limitations of the categories of prophets, seers, and revelators; and a discussion of how to determine when a prophet is speaking in his role as mouthpiece of the Divine). I don’t want to derail this into a parsing of the Hoffman forgeries, but the way that they were handled in the class got me really thinking about the way that prophetic fallibility is handled institution-wide in the church, and the ways that it is useful to our cultural narrative. It was this class discussion that influenced my earlier comment on this post about fallibility being a useful interpretive lens even for contemporary events.

  10. I was recently asked by 3 sister missionaries if I would pray about the chastity pamphlet. I did. And these notions of fallibility came very prominently to mind as well as the words “abuse of power” and “a terrible neglect for God’s children” that are in the pamphlet.

    The wording in the pamphlet “homosexual or lesbian” used in that order in a sentence seemed to indicate a cursory proclamation regarding a serious matter and a disregard and disservice to gay kids since I cannot see a correct usage of both those words (“homosexual or lesbian”) together regarding the matter.
    So I’m thinking the allowance of personal revelation and the concept of fallibility helps enlighten the prophet. While possibly allowing him to identify those that see a red light when he speaks and use their wisdom to tighten and perfect a nefarious agenda or advance the will of Jesus Christ.
    Just thinking out loud here.

  11. I hate our practical acceptance of prophetic infallibility. It makes us scared to call a spade a spade. So we can’t acknowledge that we were wrong about blacks and the priesthood, because then droves will head to the doors because it will become too obvious that the prophets are fallible. What a stupid reason to hold on to the idea that God inspired the ban. We can multiply this kind of problem many times over. It is a weakness of our religious culture.

  12. “And even if the prophet himself says that this is his personal opinion, that might make no difference at all on a cultural level. ”

    At Ricks College, my Spanish teacher told us how his favorite snack was a bowl of bread and milk because that was the favorite snack of then-president Spencer Kimball. And because Pres. Kimball only slept 4 hours a night, Professor Nutty McNutjob only slept 4 hours a night. Such an irritable, yawning man.

  13. Miri, not at all a joke. This was the same dork who chastised the female students for wearing jeans to school (at the time, against the Dress Code) in 40 below weather. He said that if the pioneer women could do it, we could too. He was wearing a wool suit at the time, I believe.

  14. He adopted the bread and milk snack even though he was lactose intolerant! I think my testimony just grew three sizes this day…

  15. I’ve always interpreted the whole “prophet will not lead the Church astray” language to refer to the governance of the Church as a whole. In other words, the duly constituted leadership of the Church, with the Prophet at its head, will (despite mistakes) bring the church to the destiny that Christ has planned for it when he comes again.

    Both Elder Oaks and Elder Nelsen have stated that the role of apostles and prophets in the Church is to teach general rules and principles that are ideal in nature and generally applicable to the membership. Elder Oaks, however, emphasized that it is not their job to articulate and judge every possible exception to those rules. Exceptions regularly exist, but it is up to the individual to counsel with the Lord to determine when they might apply.

    So my solution to the “practical infallibility” problem is to stay with the Church, but regularly pray to see whether my situation is an exception to generally applicable counsel. Usually it’s not, but sometimes it is.

    Thus, I couldn’t care less what the Prophet has for breakfast, because it has no applicability to the final destiny of the Church. I am likewise comfortable with the priesthood ban being a mistake (albeit a tragic one that caused much damage) because it has no applicability to the final destiny of the Church.

  16. Another gem from the infallibility school of thought:

    One of my religion professors at BYU was a big believer in prophetic infallibility. She claimed that the Lord protects the Prophet to ensure that every word that comes out of his mouth is, without fail, free from error and constitutes the mind and the will of the Lord.

    Not a very unusual opinion down that way.

    However, she then fired off the other barrel: The Lord also protects the words of the Prophet retroactively throughout the course of his pre-Prophet life. Thus, any teachings given by him at any time in his life are entitled to the same deference.

    After class I approached her and asked if this means that I can safely regard every word of “Man, His Origin and Destiny”, “Answers to Gospel Questions”, “Miracle of Forgiveness” and “An Enemy Hath Done This” as the eternal gospel.

    I didn’t get a very satisfactory answer.

  17. “In other words, the duly constituted leadership of the Church, with the Prophet at its head, will (despite mistakes) bring the church to the destiny that Christ has planned for it when he comes again.”

    Ooh, this seems like it will be helpful to me in the future. I like.

  18. Here’s where I get confused on the fallibility problem.

    The most charitable reading of our leaders’ intentions is that they say uninspired things over the pulpit because they themselves can’t always tell when they’re being inspired.

    If we’re expected to ascertain when they’re inspired and when they’re not, in effect, we’re expected to have more prophetic discernment than they do.

    But if we did, why would we defer to them?

  19. This is a tough one for me. Growing up in the church, I very much internalized the prophetic infallibility thing. And even as I got more skeptical about a lot of things as an adult, I think there was always still a part of me that believed the idea that the prophet wouldn’t lead the church astray. I could critique that intellectually, but that didn’t mean I didn’t still hold on to the idea at some level. And then Prop 8 happened. While I disagreed with the church’s position, I wasn’t particularly surprised that it took the stance it did. But the fallout from it ended up being so bad that it shook a belief I didn’t even know that I still had. It’s not that I’ve lost all faith in the church. But for good and for bad, I simply don’t trust the leadership in the way that I used to. I’m still coming to terms with that.

  20. “In contrast, while we quote the famous line about a prophet only being a prophet when speaking as such, we have no accompanying criteria with which to judge whether prophetic statements are in fact prophetic.”

    I actually disagree with this. The law of witnesses is a defined, clear way to discern. I think a key way to figure out whether prophetic statements are prophetic is to watch for patterns in prophetic teaching, both across generations of prophets and between living prophets/apostles. That to me has made all the difference in the world.

    Also, we have 15 men we sustain as prophets. The load for presenting truth is not just on one person. The council system is a guard against one person taking over and sharing just opinions. These men debate and discuss and counsel together regularly.

    Lastly, I think talks like Elder Oaks’ Priesthood Line/Personal Line and Elder Holland’s “General Patterns, Specific Lives” also show how there is an interplay between prophetic counsel and personal responsibility to exercise agency.

  21. The law of witnesses is a defined, clear way to discern.

    For decades, the doctrine of Adam/God was taught from the pulpit in general conference by dozens of apostles and the president of the church. For decades, the doctrine of pre-mortal fencesitting was taught by members of the first presidency and quorum of the Twelve as justification for the priesthood ban. And yet, both Adam/God and pre-mortal fencesitting have now been denounced.

    A claim that the law of witnesses is a defined and clear way to discern would have to account for these two discrepancies, among many others.

  22. Mark,

    That’s part of why I say looking for patterns across generations as well.

    Besides, you can combine the law of witnesses with personal revelation. How do you know if the prophet is speaking for God? Ask God. I think there is a reason He gives us both lines of communication. The priesthood line is a starting point. If one doesn’t think that it’s right, then one has the opportunity to choose something else — but then is answerable to God for such choices. Just as the prophet will be answerable to God for his stewardship.

    Argue the point if you will (even if I’m not sure why you want to). In my mind, to say there is NO way to judge anything spoken by prophets as to whether or not it’s’ true is, imo, not accurate.

    To say that sometimes it’s still hard…well, sure, I can get that. Faith isn’t going to be a perfect formula kind of thing, and we shouldn’t expect it to be. And sometimes people are going to misapply even good and true things that are taught. But that doesn’t change the fact that God has used the pattern of speaking through prophets whenever the fullness of the gospel has been on the earth. And human imperfections notwithstanding (on the side of prophets and those listening to them) the work moves forward.

  23. Michelle, sure, if we allow that we are obligated to use personal revelation to help discern the value of prophetic statements, even ones that are made repeatedly, I think we are on the same page.

  24. Sure, I think that’s always been part of our doctrine. But that personal revelation doesn’t give one authority to undermine the prophets…only to personally decide what to do in one’s own life with what they are teaching.

  25. ” The statement that God will never allow the prophet to lead the Church astray is often given as a reason to accept whatever the current prophet is saying as the will of God. I’ve also occasionally heard this framed as a question of probability. If a person finds herself in disagreement with a prophet, goes this argument, she should consider how very unlikely it is that she’s right and God’s appointed spokesperson is wrong—the point being that even if it’s a hypothetical possibility that prophets could err, the odds are overwhelmingly against it in any given situation.”

    Yes, this! It is so frustrating to be in that situation. If you disagree with a prophet, you are immediately in the wrong, and your points are automatically dismissed. I don’t believe it was the will of God for Brigham Young to be a racist, so I am comfortable believing that the prophet can be wrong.

  26. Michelle,

    I understand your point and agree that we as members of the church should be assessing what we’re told by prophets and apostles. We should, if we see an outlier comment or interpretation that’s not in sync with what other prophets and apostles have said, perhaps re-consider and examine more closely that outlier comment. That said, I just don’t think your standard of the “law of witnesses” is what Lynette is getting at. The term “law of witnesses” will mean different things to different people. There is no objective criteria attached to it. Instead, it’s a very subjective thing, especially since your mechanism for identifying patterns and examining what has been witnessed is personal revelation (which we all know is all over the map). Couple that with the fact that our church has, over the course of the last 50 years or so, become a church in which obedience and conformity is privileged as the single most important indicator of faithful worthiness–well, I just don’t see that as anything like a reliable mechanism for assessing what we’re told to determine if it’s truly prophetic counsel from God for all of us, regardless of whether we see a pattern.

    And that’s not even to touch the fact that the culture of obedience and conformity and the belief that the leaders of the church cannot lead us astray results in astronomically high costs for anyone who reaches the conclusion, based on personal revelation, that a certain teaching of the leadership is not prophetic counsel. If the emphasis on following the prophet were accompanied by an equal emphasis on doing so only after we each, as individuals, have truly assessed and examined and weighed that counsel as well as an emphasis on the fact that it’s perfectly natural for different individuals to reach different conclusions about whether or how to implement counsel in their own lives and therefore we should truly not condemn others for simply disagreeing with either ourselves or the leadership—well maybe it wouldn’t be such a big deal. But that’s not the case. What we have instead is a culture in which you either obey or you pay the consequences. Sometimes those consequences are minor and not a big deal. Sometimes the disagreement and “disobedience” is small and essentially invisible, so there are no costs. But sometimes the disagreement and “disobedience” is large and visible and unavoidable. The resulting social consequences then are often astronomically high. Speaking as someone who has paid some of those costs, I simply find the “law of witnesses” a faulty assessment device. And I find the practical infallibility of the prophet and apostles a deeply disturbing reality, even if an understandable mechanism for maintaining order. It’s a reality that demands far too often that people violate their own consciences and act against their own interests and justifies people in acting in deeply unChristlike ways. As such, it seems high time that we as a community challenge the practice. After all, “ye shall know them by their fruits.” I don’t see anywhere near enough “good fruit” coming out of practical infallibility and far too much “bad fruit.”

  27. amelia,

    I can understand what you are saying. I also understand that the cultural/social elements can sometimes make the process of sifting through it all more difficult than it would be in a vacuum. (!!! Sometimes the culture weaknesses can be maddening, in fact.) But I do think it’s important to separate out culture from truth. That’s part of the journey, I think. I do think we have a ways to go there…I think people need to have the space to sort through their beliefs, etc. And I think that is part of what you are getting at (although I do think we hear about the dance between personal and prophetic revelation more than you seem to give credit for.)

    But there is a flip side to that — if you don’t believe what the prophets are teaching right now, I don’t think it’s your (I’m speaking in the general sense, not to you here) place to undermine them. The respect for those who do believe them needs to be shown, too. In that sense, I expect some measure of cultural consistency, not because we’re all just dumb sheep, but because prophetic guidance is a key part of the doctrine of the restoration. We aren’t just some club of people getting together to talk about ideas and opinions. We believe that God has revealed truths don’t fall under the purview of personal revelation. Those are prophets’ responsibility to define.

    I could be wrong here, but I think there might be a little more cultural willingness to allow people space to sort through things if there was more respect in that sorting-out process for the teachings of the prophets and the beliefs of the many. It’s when the personal tries to go general that I think cultural resistance heightens. Sometimes that resistance is executed poorly, but that doesn’t mean that the truths taught by prophets are wrong.

    I think it’s essential to tease out where the culture can misuse prophetic teachings to shun those who struggle but also realize that sometimes it’s those who struggle who are the ones who need to take a step back, who may violate a space themselves.

    Here’s a simple example. A woman feels impressed to go to work when her children are young. This is happening all the more because of how complex our lives and world are. If people were to come after her and insist that she is unrighteous for so doing, they would be out of line. That’s getting at some of that cultural pressure you talk about.

    BUT neither should she come out and undermine the teachings of leaders about the primary role of women being in the home, somehow trying to insist that the Proclamation is now out of date or out of touch. The role of personal revelation is real, but cannot and does not trump the priesthood line of revelation for the church. The ideals and standards are taught for a reason. The general patterns are given and then we seek inspiration for what to do in our *personal* lives (a la Elder Holland). (Not whether or not to call out the prophets.)

    Another example, since someone brought up Prop 8. Someone might have fasted and prayed and just felt like they couldn’t look themselves in the mirror and gotten involved in the activities that church members were involved in. I can respect that, and where church members were unkind to those who didn’t so participate, I think they were out of line. But if that same person came and then insisted that his/her personal revelation was “proof” that the prophets were wrong in general about the doctrine of marriage vis-a-vis the plan of salvation? I’d say he/she was out of line.

    We should expect given what we claim that not everything prophets teach is going to be easy or popular. Sometimes it requires giving up ideas, habits, etc. There would be little need for prophets (and we see this pattern throughout scripture) if that were not the case. There is space to make *personal* choices, but there should also be respect for the priesthood line of authority that, as I said before, is key to what we claim as a church. Personal revelation in our doctrine, imo, is not meant to be a replacement for prophetic guidance, it’s a companion to it.

  28. Michelle, the thing is that this isn’t solely an issue of culture. It’s not just culture when a bishop doesn’t allow a deacon to pass the sacrament because he’s not wearing a white shirt (which is specifically not required), or prevents a father from blessing his baby because he’s not wearing a tie. It’s not as simple as deciding, based on your own personal revelation, how you feel about something the prophet says, because in our church organization many important things can be withheld from you based on someone else’s judgment of your worthiness.

    I know you didn’t mean it dismissively, but the “it’s culture, not doctrine” argument is often used as justification for diminishing these kinds of concerns–it essentially implies that if you’re spiritual enough, you won’t let petty things like “what others think” affect you, because you’ll have your own confirmation from God. In the first place, like I said, this isn’t just a matter of being confident in your relationship with God and ignoring naysayers. And in the second place, church culture can never change as long as people keep saying that kind of thing. We need to acknowledge the role church doctrine plays so that the effects can be addressed.

  29. “And I wonder: if a prophet did err, would there be any way for us to know?”

    I can think of one thing Christ taught that would help us know if and when a prophet is in err.

    Matthew 22:36-40: “Master, which is the great commandment in the law? Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment.

    And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

    This last line is the litmus test for any law or prophet: If a law cannot “hang upon,” or does not concur with, these two commandments, then it cannot be a law. Likewise, if a prophet’s words do not concur with these two commandments, then that prophet is not speaking for the Lord.

    Thus it seems rather than debating fallibility vs. infallibility, what we should be debating and pondering is the significance and meaning behind these two greatest commandments.

    Thank you Lynnette, I really enjoyed your thoughtful post!


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