Can church leaders be mistaken?

We give a large amount of respect and admiration to apostles and other church leaders. It is a critical part of our church function to do so. But I think we should carefully re-evaluate what sustaining them actually means and to what extent they should be sustained.

Certainly I don’t believe leaders should be above scrutiny. Such is a recipe for disaster. If leaders are above scrutiny then the consequences would be they can say and do whatever they want to without ever being corrected or questioned by anyone. I think this leads to sloppy, imprecise speaking; speaking as if you’re right and need not worry about accuracy. And such is indeed the case in the past. The leaders of the church in the past have said some pretty strange things which even later leaders have contradicted as being false doctrine (examples below).

Sustaining church leaders and what they say

We “sustain” our church leaders, which I think should need careful definition. I don’t think it means we believe they are infallible (any reasonable person would agree with that) and it certainly doesn’t mean everything they say is perfect.

Let’s be honest, most of what leaders do in the church is actually speaking. It’s preaching, presenting, teaching the saints. Naturally we admire their other works (such as Thomas Monson reaching out to the one, taking care of the widows and aged, and so forth) but a vast majority of what leaders do in the church is actually speaking.

It’s interesting to note that we often say that our leaders are imperfect men, but if asked “OK, so if they’re imperfect men, give an example of where they did or said something that turned out to be mistaken?” — we’d struggle to find an actual example. This is what I like to call “theoretical imperfection” — it means that we readily acknowledge that the leaders are not perfect, but in the real world we rarely if ever see specific examples of their imperfection.

Here’s a quote by elder Nelson that I once read, and managed to find again later while looking for it again (thanks Google):

“Through the ages, some without scriptural understanding have tried to explain our existence by pretentious words such as ex nihilo (out of nothing). Others have deduced that, because of certain similarities between different forms of life, there has been a natural selection of the species, or organic evolution from one form to another. Many of these people have concluded that the universe began as a “big bang” that eventually resulted in the creation of our planet and life upon it.

To me, such theories are unbelievable! Could an explosion in a printing shop produce a dictionary? It is unthinkable! Even if it could be argued to be within a remote realm of possibility, such a dictionary could certainly not heal its own torn pages or renew its own worn corners or reproduce its own subsequent editions!”

The magnificence of man, Ensign 1988

I’ll use these statements as an example, and be careful with the wording of my evaluation.

Firstly, this is in the Ensign. I don’t know if the Ensign is considered scripture, but I am sure it would be considered inspirational material. But let’s give a bit of leeway to this magazine, it does not claim to be scripture as far as I’m aware. Neither does it claim that everything contained therein is absolutely accurate. (But I’m sure that’s a very liberal statement by me, I’m sure many members of the church would regard the content of the ensign over other content in the event of a contradiction)

Secondly, let’s be fair to elder Nelson and not misunderstand him, he said “To me, such theories are unbelievable!” — this wording suggests that he is sharing his opinion, he didn’t say something like “to the Lord, such theories are ridiculous!”.

Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, here are some issues:

“Through the ages, some without scriptural understanding have tried to explain our existence by pretentious words such as ex nihilo (out of nothing)”

I think this is a theological statement and not scientific. I think it’s aimed at “some without scriptural understanding” which I presume is actually theologians and not scientists. (Though the statement could broadly refer to both). In any case I’m not aware of any scientists who claim the universe came ex nihilo. (The big bang posits that the universe expanded from a very high density state — here — that’s not “nothing”). Also the beginning of the next statement starts with “others”…

“Others have deduced that, because of certain similarities between different forms of life, there has been a natural selection of the species, or organic evolution from one form to another. Many of these people have concluded that the universe began as a “big bang” that eventually resulted in the creation of our planet and life upon it.

Could an explosion in a printing shop produce a dictionary? It is unthinkable! Even if it could be argued to be within a remote realm of possibility, such a dictionary could certainly not heal its own torn pages or renew its own worn corners or reproduce its own subsequent editions!”

These statements show a clear misunderstanding of how evolution works. And to be fair, evolution has been around for a long time for people to study, it’s not as if in the past five years it’s suddenly become more clear. So even in 1988 I feel like this statement alone causes issues with me.

In his book Climbing Mount Improbable Richard Dawkins very clearly explains how evolution occurred. The printing shop explosion analogy is not new, some people have used a variation “if a hurricane came through a junk yard could it have produced a working Boeing 747?”. Ironically these statements are closer to ex nihilo than the real theory itself.

tumblr_inline_mwk1qzluSr1qgfyua

 

Imagine you had a mountain with two sides. The right hand side is an unscalable cliff face. The left is a gradual slope. The printing shop / Boeing 747 analogies are looking at the mountain from the right hand side. Of course the complexities of the human body didn’t just happen by chance. Of course an explosion in a printing shop is not going to lead to a dictionary. But that’s because we’re looking at the problem from the wrong side.

Evolution describes a very gradual process (one that took billions of years). Sure the chance of jumping from the foot of the mountain to the cliff are extremely small, however taking one single step forward up the gradual slope — that’s not too improbable. It is these small, probable steps that add together in the aggregate to create: man!

In any case, I just use this as an illustration. Of course leaders can be mistaken. Of course they can say things that are wrong and of course their opinions can be wrong! Perhaps my greatest argument in favour of this view is: myself. I am in the stake young men’s presidency, hence I am a leader in the church. I was an elders quorum president. I have and continue to be mistaken about stuff!

There’s no reason to believe this principle doesn’t extend to the higher leaders in the church.

As an aside — I think this is one reason why they no longer say stuff like this. In recent general conferences I think the content generally has evolved to exclude statements about science etc. It’s become more sedate.

Denouncing old doctrine

The letter to a CES director speaks harshly against the change of doctrine over time in the church. “Yesterday’s doctrine is today’s false doctrine and yesterday’s prophet is today’s heretic.”

Apparently in Brigham Young’s time (and I note that Brigham Young is a nexus of controversial doctrines and statements) he taught a doctrine called the Adam-God

“Now hear it, O inhabitants of the earth, Jew and Gentile, Saint and sinner! When our father Adam came into the garden of Eden, he came into it with a celestial body, and brought Eve, one of his wives, with him. He helped to make and organize this world. He is Michael, the Archangel, the Ancient of Days! about whom holy men have written and spoken—He is our Father and our God, and the only God with whom we have to do.”

This is recorded in the journal of discourses.

He also taught the Blood Atonement, an idea that some sins were beyond the power of Christ to heal and required the shedding of blood of individuals themselves to seek forgiveness. (Also within the journal of discourses)

These exact doctrines were later on condemned by Spencer Kimball:

“We warn you against the dissemination of doctrines which are not according to the scriptures and which are alleged to have been taught by some of the General Authorities of past generations. Such, for instance, is the Adam-God theory. We denounce that theory and hope that everyone will be cautioned against this and other kinds of false doctrine.”

Even Bruce McConkie denounced that doctrine and some other things Brigham Young taught as “out of harmony with the gospel”, he goes on to say “I do not know all of the providences of the Lord, but I do know that he permits false doctrine to be taught in and out of the Church and that such teaching is part of the sifting process of mortality” — So the Lord allows false doctrine to be taught formally in the church. That’s a paradigm shift.

You can understand how the harsh statement “Yesterday’s doctrine is today’s false doctrine and yesterday’s prophet is today’s heretic.” comes about — if a prophet of old taught doctrines that are so clearly incorrect, and did so publicly such that they are formally recorded in our church’s history, then how could we ever trust what a prophet says?

Naturally this can be renormalised if we just admit that we know very little about God and spiritual truth, even given all that we DO know. Our understanding, even of spiritual truth is continuously evolving, and we may have gotten stuff wrong in the past.

But my point in raising this in this article is that even the prophet can preach stuff that is not kosher. Even the prophet, on the pulpit, can be mistaken.

So what is sustaining church leaders?

I think sustaining church leaders involves giving them ample rope to be wrong, food-faith and goodwill, and a large dose of empathy and love. These are imperfect men who bear massive burdens. Of course they are going to stumble along the way, saying something wrong here, expressing a personal opinion there, and not knowing all of the facts before speaking. I think it involves the kind of compassion you’d want others to show to you if you were in their situation.

I think it involves love.

When they are inspired, we pray to catch the vision that they have like Nephi did of his father’s vision. And if all works out, we feel similarly inspired.

Conclusion: I am willing to sustain, love, but be realistic about leaders

On my mission I once made a statement that I still stand by.

“I sustain my leaders, inasmuch as they are inspired of God”.

This was a deliberate play on words. “Inasmuch as” has two separate meanings, both of which I packaged into this statement.

  1. Inasmuch as: Seeing that “I sustain my leaders, seeing that they are inspired of God”
  2. Inasmuch as: To the extent that “I sustain my leaders, to the extent that they are inspired of God”

I stand by this statement. If there is a God, and if He inspires the leaders of this church, then I sustain them 1) Because they are inspired and 2) To the extent that they are inspired. This both gives them plenty of bandwidth with me (plenty of room for persuasion, long suffering, gentleness, meekness, etc.) and also maintains the “healthy human scepticism” that all intelligent, reasonable people should have. We don’t accept things blindly, we have the gift of reason, and we use it.

1 Comment

  1. Pingback: Seer Stone News Update | Shawn's Odyssey

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *