What does it mean to “follow the prophet” in Mormonism?
Does that mean that if I disagree with the prophet, I’m not allowed to speak or write about it, as some readers have suggested to me in the past?
Last week after my post on Elder Ballard’s remarks, a fellow on Twitter took me to task for not lining up behind the prophet.
He immediately corrected his word choice:
I thought for a few moments about how to respond, and came up with this:
At this point my jaw was hanging open. WTH?
And that was the end of the conversation, apparently.
Only it isn’t the end, because even the significantly qualified, scaled-back version that this reader offered in the end requires us to accept on faith that every word that comes from the mouth of an apostle or prophet in a church setting is perfect and immutable truth.
Hmmm. As a Mormon who believes in being open to continuing revelation, I’m grateful that we have apostles and prophets. I sustain them in their callings.
That does not mean, however, that they cannot be wrong. They are culturally conditioned human beings, just as I am; they are influenced by their time and place in history, just as we all are.
Prophets are inspired at times to give great counsel, but they are not infallible, as this reader seems to imagine. D&C 68 says that what they speak when moved by the Holy Ghost shall be scripture . . . and not what they speak at other times.
So, how do we know they are speaking because they are moved by the Holy Ghost, and not simply because they are expressing their cultural views, or trying and failing to tell a joke (as Elder Ballard seems to have been)?
Maybe we know because we have a moment of testimony ourselves, a stirring in our own heart that communicates the holiness of what has been said.
But what happens when we don’t have such a personal testimony?
That’s when we lean on the received tradition through scripture and the words of other leaders. Terryl and Fiona Givens have a new book, The Crucible of Doubt (which we’ll be reading in a five-week book club on this blog throughout October, so get your copies now). In it they quote Elder Todd Christofferson, who said:
The Church will know by the testimony of the Holy Ghost in the body of the members, whether the brethren in voicing their views are “moved upon by the Holy Ghost”: and in due time that knowledge will be made manifest.
So the Twitter takeaway about what is and is not scripture out of the mouth of an apostle is that there is no Twitter takeaway about what is and is not scripture out of the mouth of an apostle. “In due time” does not suggest a one-size-fits-all default position or immediate knowledge that an apostle is right or wrong.
Instead let’s prepare to spend years discussing it and doing the hard work of praying about it, whether the issue is same-sex marriage or women in the Church.