Sustaining Our Leaders

I don’t know how many times in the past couple of days I’ve read something along the lines of, “I have a testimony that Thomas S. Monson is a prophet, so I know this can’t be wrong,” or, “This is what God wants, so we shouldn’t question it.” As I’ve argued in the past, I think we’ve ended up with practical infallibility — we might in theory say that the Brethren could be wrong, but in practice, we’re expected to act as if they couldn’t be. A rejection of the notion of infallibility as understood by many Latter-day Saints, then, doesn’t necessarily allow for disagreement on specific issues.

I do understand that those who accept what the Brethren have to say without question don’t conceive of what they’re doing as blind obedience. If I’m getting it right, the distinction that is made is that the person hasn’t just accepted it with no basis, but has inquired of God, who has given them a testimony of their leaders generally, or of the inspiration of their leaders on a specific issue. I can see the distinction, so I won’t refer to this stance as blind obedience. I do think there are those who see themselves as obeying solely for the sake of obedience—because obedience is taught as a virtue—or who do believe that when church leaders speak, the thinking has been done, so further questioning is unproductive and even wrong. But I also know those in the general camp I’m describing who would say that questioning is okay and obedience shouldn’t be automatic, though at the same time holding strongly to the belief that sincere questioning and prayer will always lead to the conclusion held by the leaders of the church. So I think that this more nuanced view still ends up as a belief in practical infallibility.

I’ve seen a number of people be asked, “well do you sustain our leaders, or not? Do you believe that Thomas S. Monson is a prophet, or not? And if the answer is no, what are you still doing in this church?” Often this is asked in rather hostile way, but sometimes it’s a sincere, puzzled question. Given that, I want to explain where I’m coming from on this subject.

As a believer in this church, I do see it as important to sustain our leaders. But I don’t think that means following them without question. I think it means taking them seriously, really listening to what they have to say, and being genuinely open to the possibility that they’re relaying the will of God. What it doesn’t mean is believing that absolutely every decision they make, or every word they utter, constitutes the will of God. I actually think we do them as well as ourselves a disservice when we don’t give them the room to make mistakes, as all humans being do. I don’t think we have to believe that they get revelation that’s qualitatively different from the rest of us. I’m thinking of the interview that President Hinckley gave to Larry King in the 1990s:

 KING: Does that mean that, according to the church canon, the Lord speaks through you?

HINCKLEY: I think he makes his will manifest, yes.

KING: So if you change things, that’s done by an edict given to you.

HINCKLEY: Yes, sir.

KING: How do you receive it?

HINCKLEY: Well, various ways. It isn’t necessarily a voice heard. Impressions come. The building of this very building [the conference center] I think is an evidence of that.

There came an impression, a feeling, that we need to enlarge our facilities where we could hold our conferences.

I’m struck by the fact that he describes inspiration in the same way that the rest of us get it. I actually find that encouraging; it means that God works through ordinary people who interact with him in ordinary ways. But it’s worth noting that we all struggle to discern the will of God. It’s part of the ambiguity of our mortal experience. Our leaders don’t magically escape this ambiguity.

I do think that sustaining includes giving the leaders the benefit of the doubt when you can. It might mean  that on questions about which you are neutral, you’re willing to follow them, because that’s part of being committed to the church. (I’m assuming that most people don’t have a problem following when they agree.) I think it means assuming good intentions, rather than seeing them as out to get people, and not caricaturing them and their positions. (I confess that I myself don’t always do a great job of that, especially when I’m angry, but I think that’s an attitude that just stirs the pot and doesn’t get anyone anywhere.)

And going back to the issue of taking them seriously—I think this means seriously grappling with what they have to say. That’s different from assuming at the outset that it’s right because of its source; it actually involves being open to the possibility that it’s wrong. And I think that if we take our belief in the conscience seriously, if we really believe that we are moral agents and not automatons, we have to do that.

Getting to the present situation, I think the policy/doctrine distinction is a murky one; it seems used as a way to conveniently dismiss the real questions raised by harm caused by problematic past policies/doctrines and hold to an untenable belief that doctrine has never changed. But even setting that aside, this new development is clearly nothing more than a policy. I don’t understand how people who assert that the priesthood/temple ban was “only” a policy are now treating this policy as if it were canonized revelation.

In the end, I don’t believe in infallibility—practical, or otherwise. And I think we have an obligation to speak up when we see something harmful, that as children of God and sisters and brothers in a very real way to the rest of humanity, we can do no less. I think our ability to do that, to take a moral stand, is part of our divine nature. Many of us learned in the church’s youth programs to take a stand when pressured to drink alcohol or break other commandments. What they didn’t warn us of is that sometimes we have to take a stand when harm is coming from the church itself. But I think the principle still holds.

And I am expressing disagreement on this issue not because I don’t take the leaders of the church seriously, but because I do. And I think this is wrong. It’s punishing the innocent, and further alienating the already marginalized. The Book of Mormon says that what entices us to do good is of God. I don’t see how this is enticing anyone to do good. Instead, it’s causing division and heartbreak. I’m not an enemy to the church. I’m not raising objections because I want to tear it down. But I do think it can be better.


  1. Lynnette, I think one of the major problems we have when we talk about fallibility in the church is that we are willing to grant fallibility to church leaders in their personal lives (albeit limited fallibility), but not in their church lives. That is, I think even ultra conservative members accept that prophets and apostles aren’t perfect and may (very occasionally) say and do unkind things (although, even in this there are some fallible things we won’t countenance); however, we don’t allow that fallibility to extend into their church lives. I think we have a situation where many members will allow for the fact a church leader may lose his temper at home (because he’s infallible), but as soon as he begins to act in his office he can no longer make a mistake (because God wouldn’t let him lead the church astray). In short, I think for many members, the principle of fallibility applies only to personal conduct, not decisions relating to church governance.

  2. I appreciate this post. I support the Prophet and the Apostles and believe they are inspired. This policy confused me at first and still does, although I’m beginning to understand it.

    My default on anything related to the Church that I don’t understand is to support the Prophet and seek understanding. This is for a number of reasons:

    1. They have a unique right to inspiration on matters the impact the entire world. I have no such right.
    2. They have a much broader perspective than I can ever have without sitting in their seats. They deal with every possible edge case in existence and have thought through these issues and had inspired discussions I’ll never have.
    3. They’ve served in their callings and have been qualified and molded into those roles by the Lord in a way that I haven’t.

    Given that, when I start from an issue I don’t understand (Prop 8 was one, this policy is another) with an attitude of trust and honest searching for understanding, I have always come to see the wisdom in their actions and had a greater testimony of their inspiration.

  3. I really appreciate the efforts that Lynnette is making here to engage and understand TBM’s on their own terms. Efforts like these are all too uncommon.

    “As I’ve argued in the past, I think we’ve ended up with practical infallibility — we might in theory say that the Brethren could be wrong, but in practice, we’re expected to act as if they couldn’t be. A rejection of the notion of infallibility as understood by many Latter-day Saints, then, doesn’t necessarily allow for disagreement on specific issues.”

    This, I think is really the crux of the issue. She absolutely grants that no member really believes in full-blown infallibility and I assume she grants that no member will fully agree with the claim that we should obey any mortal NO MATTER WHAT. She does, however, accuse TBM’s of endorsing a “practical infallibility” wherein disagreement is disallowed, regarding of whether prophets are *really* infallible or obedience is *really* blind. While I do not think that this is the most appropriate term for the phenomenon she is describing, she will hardly stand refuted by our merely calling it something different. (Rhetorical points certainly matter, but they aren’t all that matter.)

    A crucial distinction must necessarily be kept in mind on this issue, a distinction which roughly parallels that between the private and public spheres. Within the public sphere of TBMormonism, she is absolutely right that there is no room to *publicly* counter the teachings of priesthood leaders. Within this mentality, the only thing that can trump priesthood leaders is revelation, and none of us are authorized to receive revelation for the public in question. Thus, I have no grounds whatsoever to publicly counter priesthood leaders. They might indeed be wrong, but I have no legitimate means of *publicly* evaluating their wrongness. Instead of calling this phenomenon “practical infallibility” I’ll follow Popper in calling it a “closed society”. This is exactly what is behind the often repeat commandment that there should be no disputation, contentions or arguments within the public sphere.

    Within the private sphere, however, (which I will define as the entire area of life that falls within our authorized stewardship) we are not only free, but completely authorized/legitimized to disobey, disagree, etc as the spirit prompts us. The reason for this is clear: we are absolutely authorized and encouraged to receive revelation by which we can counter our leaders within this private sphere. Within the private sphere of one’s stewardship, there is nothing that approaches that approximates “practical infallibility” or a “closed society”. Ideally, we can disobey all we want within this private realm, but once private revelations are brought out into the public sphere, all bets are off and you can fully expect to be dismissed by TBM’s.

    Of course these ideals of the closed society run fully counter to pretty much every enlightenment value, especially those of participatory democracy (and to a lesser extent representative democracy). If one fully accepts the values of participatory democracy not only as a working model of secular government, but as being deeply and universally true, then he or she will inevitably reject the asymmetries that are necessarily built into such a closed society. I don’t see how the two moral systems could ever be reconciled. The best that I think they can hope for is mutual understanding and communication…. but this is – to some extent – precisely what the closed society can sometimes undermine (every moral system, including participatory democracy does this as well, but at least they try to minimize or disguise it).

    Socialist oriented progressives, these days, usually tend to be on board with allowing our feelings and inspiration to trump syllogistic argumentation and evidence. What they are not at all on board with, however, is the idea of placing asymmetric boundaries upon whose feelings and inspirations matter within public spheres and leadership contexts. I think this is exactly the boundary that Lynnette is pushing up against. She fully endorses the elements of personal revelation within the church and the ways in which it can and should constrain our obedience. What she refuses to accept is that those feelings and revelations that run counter to those of the church leaders have no legitimate place within the larger church public. This is what I take her rejection of “practical infallibility” to mean.

  4. Great post, Lynnette. I completely agree with you that if the process people go through to decide whether or not to follow a particular thing a prophet says always ends with the conclusion, it’s treating the prophet as infallible, whether or not anyone wants to use the term or not.

  5. “I think one of the major problems we have when we talk about fallibility in the church is that we are willing to grant fallibility to church leaders in their personal lives (albeit limited fallibility), but not in their church lives.”

    In other words, that’s the catholic dogma of infallibility. The pope is only infallible when speaking ex cathedra.

  6. Doctrine & Covenants 107: 22

    Of the Melchizedek Priesthood, three Presiding High Priests, chosen by the body, appointed and ordained to that office, and upheld by the confidence, faith, and prayer of the church, form a quorum of the Presidency of the Church.

    Best definition of Sustaining the Brethren I know of, nary a word about agreeing, disagreeing or remaining neutral.

  7. This unfortunate quote is making the rounds of my Facebook acquaintances. “When the Prophet speaks, … the debate is over. (Elaine Cannon, Ensign, Nov. 1978, p. 108) .”

    The thing is, the prophet hasn’t spoken. It’s (the policy) not been declared as doctrine, and it was published in a document not available to the general church membership. I would really like to know how this new policy was intended to be made known to the membership had it not been leaked. Via Newsroom? General Conference?

  8. Pete, people said that about the Ordain Women issue. They said Public Affairs isn’t the Prophet and the Prophet hasn’t spoken. Public Affairs made it clear they only speak with the approval of the Prophet and the 12.

    Do you honestly believe this handbook was amended, especially with a change like this, without the approval of the First Presidency and the Twelve?

  9. What if “the prophet will never lead the church astray” because The Church won’t follow him when he gets it wrong? Or The Church will tell him when there are issues of which he is unaware? Or, after testing it a bit, he gets inspired to make changes based on new information?

  10. This is the first issue that has shown me that the Lord is willing to do something with the church — He is willing to direct the church to do something that is absolutely ***wrong*** and I think that the reason for it is because too many of us have a default follower decision. This is the first time in my life time that I can remember something that didn’t even pass the Jesus-test : Jesus would never do it. So, that decision shows me that I need to be prepared to say No to the church and instead do what is right where I am. It is really hard to make that transition (trust and obedience was easier) but Jesus is requiring it. I’m OK with this new lesson. All I have to do is figure out how I’m going to learn the courage and do the right thing, when the church is doing the wrong thing.

  11. It helps considerably to look up the word “sustain” in a good dictionary:
    1. To keep up; keep going; maintain. Aid, assist, comfort.
    2. to supply as with food or provisions:
    3. to hold up; support
    4. to bear; endure
    5. to suffer; experience: to sustain a broken leg.
    6. to allow; admit; favor
    7. to agree with; confirm.

  12. Lynnette,

    Thanks for another thoughtful analysis. I also think that we can do better. I wish there were someone who would listen, though. I admire that M says, “All I have to do is figure out how I’m going to learn the courage and do the right thing, when the church is doing the wrong thing,” and yet I don’t know what to do with that courage. The local leaders can’t do anything about these policies and the general authorities don’t want to hear from us.

    Thus, we seem to be left with: 1) Speak up and face local sanction; 2) Stay quiet and be torn up inside; or 3) Leave in disgust. I tried #2 for a while, then spent a longer time trying to do #1 while avoiding local sanction (mostly successfully). Now, sadly, I find myself pondering #3.

    And one other thing: I’ve never been much impressed with the “prophet will never lead the church astray” mumbo jumbo. Such a claim is worse than useless. If the prophet gets everything right then such a claim is not needed; if the prophet is fallible then how can we trust his claim to begin with? I’d much rather judge his revelations on their fruits, rather than trusting to his claims that they are true.

  13. m,

    I think my comment didn’t come across as I intended. I hate the new policy, I hate it down to my bone marrow. Unfortunately, I don’t think the Brethren make any distinction between doctrine and policy, regardless of what they may say publicly. I hate that so many members believe the mantra of “when the prophet speaks, the debate is over.” It feels like Dolores Umbridge wrote this policy. I want someone to take responsibility for it, personally, and to describe the process by which they came to this decision. But I’m not naive, and know that’s not how they operate. Elder Christofferson’s video was damage control. This exchange from Mary Poppins came to my mind.

    Mr. Banks: Just a moment, Mary Poppins. What is the meaning of this outrage?
    Mary Poppins: I beg your pardon?
    Mr. Banks: Will you be good enough to explain all this?
    Mary Poppins: First of all, I would like to make one thing quite clear.
    Mr. Banks: Yes?
    Mary Poppins: I never explain anything.

  14. Heck, if they can show up for a ribbon cutting for a mall, you’d think they could take some personal responsibility for denying blessings and baptism to children.

  15. I’m going to be thinking about this post for a long time. I feel very strongly this policy change is wrong, and that made me think critically about raising my hand every 6 months to sustain our prophets. I can handle Lynnette’s definition – I can give our leaders the benefit of the doubt, listen seriously to what they say, and follow their advice when I don’t have strong feelings that they are incorrect. And I can speak up when I feel they are wrong and still raise my hand because I think they are good people doing their best.

  16. I’m not one of those people who assert that the priesthood/temple ban was “only” a policy, or who believes that doctrine never changes, so maybe your remarks weren’t meant for me. Still, this seems like more than just a policy to me — which is part of why it’s so troubling.

    Clearly, this isn’t a “Sacrament meeting is 70 minutes long” sort of policy. It’s a policy, obviously, but it’s intimately tied up with doctrine in so many ways. This policy enforces an existing doctrine by keeping people whose lives don’t conform to that doctrine out of the Church. The requirement to “disavow” the practice requires an explicit confession of belief from the people most likely to have beliefs that conflict with the Church’s doctrine. This policy hasn’t started kicking people out just for belief, but it draws a pretty clear line as to what beliefs are acceptable. Also, since the final word on whether a doctrine of the Church is really a doctrine of Christ is “testimony of the Holy Ghost in the body of the members” (as Elder Christofferson says), then if you start removing people from the body of members, and only keep the members who won’t believe that a testimony from the Holy Ghost could conflict with church leaders, then you affect what doctrines the church is ever likely to have in the future.

  17. Mike R., that’s a good point. This is enmeshed with doctrine in troubling ways. My hope is that the fact that it’s in the realm of policy might make it easier for the church to amend it. But it’s added rejection of same-sex marriage to the foundational beliefs of the church, in the sense that prospective converts from certain circumstances have to affirm it (the fact that some people are being singled out this way is just one of many disturbing elements here), which is a pretty drastic step and has clear doctrinal implications. Thanks for pointing that out.

  18. I feel like we have a marionette Prophet who is kept is a box and dusted off for conference and a handful of others appearances. I would really like an address from him on all of this.

    I keep hearing ‘we have a prophet. Follow the prophet.’ Could we hear from the prophet? At least once that’s not conference?


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