The dangers of idolizing Mormon prophets

From October 10 to November 7, we'll be discussing this book each Friday here on the blog.

From October 10 to November 7, we'll be discussing this book each Friday here on the blog.

If people only have time to read one chapter in The Crucible of Doubt, the book we're discussing here on Fridays (see here and here for the first two parts of our five-part conversation), I hope chapter 5 will be that chapter.

Every religion has its shadow side, an element that, when taken to extremes, can be dangerous. For Mormons that shadow lurks in our tendency to idolize -- as in actually make idols of -- the men who run our church.

An idol is anything we use as a substitute for God. And I feel that sometimes, we cross that line in Mormon culture.

For example, we sometimes sing a hymn that celebrates Joseph Smith not merely as a human prophet, but as a heavenly intercessor who now mingles with deities and enjoys great glory.

That is not okay.

Through language like this we are teaching people that prophets are akin to gods, even while also trying to communicate the message that no, of course prophets are just human. The Church teaches us on the one hand that a living prophet is more valuable to us than even the scriptures (!), and instructs Primary children to follow the prophet and never "go astray." But then it also tries to emphasize that a prophet is only a prophet "when he is acting as such," and that not every teaching is doctrine.

In chapter 5 the Givenses point out, in far gentler and more eloquent language than I have used here, that such conundrums have been with us for a long time:

. . .  in 1945, a Church magazine urged upon its readers . . . that "When our leaders speak, the thinking has been done." Many are familiar with that expression; fewer are aware that when President George Albert Smith learned of it, he immediately and indignantly repudiated the statement. (p. 63)

And throughout this chapter and the next, on priesthood authority, they beautifully get to the heart of one of the greater dangers of idolatry, that we will surrender our own agency and growth. We are so very eager to avoid making decisions ourselves: "too often, we confuse the call to discipleship with the desire to unload responsibility for our spiritual direction onto another. Christ invites us to assume the yoke, but we would rather ride in the cart." (p 62)

Here are some questions to get our discussion off the ground, both for our marvelous team of featured commenters and anyone else who wants to weigh in (politely):

  • How might the Givenses’ view of the dangers of hero worship (ch. 5) square with the Church’s emphasis on, for example, the “Fourteen Fundamentals in Following the Prophet”?
  • Is a living prophet “more vital” to us than the Scriptures? What are the spiritual blessings and dangers of such a view?
  • Mormons have taught that the prophet will never lead the Church astray. Is this scriptural? Is it helpful?
  • “Mormons frequently describe priesthood as the authority to act in God’s name,” the authors state. “But they often fail to plumb the potentially vexing implications of that principle.” If a church leader’s action is wrong, “are we bound to sustain the decision?”
  • One of the book’s most interesting arguments is that decisions and statements made by priesthood leaders on earth can actually bind God’s will—even if they seem to be wrong. The notion is that God so deeply honors the principle of delegating authority that He will conform His will to ours, reordering whatever chaos we have created. Do you believe this? How would you relate this idea to, for example, the racial priesthood ban of Mormon history?

P.S. For next Friday, we're reading chapters 6 and 7, with a special focus on Mormonism and other religions. Wear a special Halloween costume. Cheers.


All the posts in this series on doubt:

  • Kickoff here: Mormon doubts? Let's talk about them
  • Chapters 1 & 2 discussion here: How do Mormons deal with doubt?
  • Chapters 2 & 4 here: "I know the Church is true" and other Mormon muddles
  • Chapters 5 & 6 here: The dangers of idolizing Mormon prophets
  • Chapters 7 & 8 here: Mormonism as "the only true and living church"
  • Chapters 9 to 11 here: Staying Mormon when God is silent



  1. I hope the content of these two examples don’t derail the conversation, but I find this topic incredibly current. I’m not sure how to look at or discuss the idea swirling online that “if anyone else does it, it’s wrong, but if prophet/apostles do it, it’s God-approved.” In the past week we’ve seen it in the new polygamy ssays, especially this section: “The rumors prompted members and leaders to issue carefully worded denials that denounced spiritual wifery and polygamy but were silent about what Joseph Smith and others saw as divinely mandated ‘celestial’ plural marriage.” See

    And then with the newly released garment video. For example, “As with so many gospel subjects in a Church governed by priesthood authority, it wasn’t so much a matter of what was being done but by whom. If the blackmailer had published the photos, that would be wrong. When an authorized prophet of God who holds priesthood keys published the photos, though, it was wonderfully, gloriously right—because it’s God’s house and God’s Church, so what matters most is what God says should be done at any given time. And he says it through his prophet. What makes the new temple clothing video appropriate? Who made it. If some independent member had made the exact same video, it would have been improper. But because this official video has obviously been approved by those with keys, then that very fact is what makes this video appropriate. So in short, what makes the video OK depends not so much the content, but who authorized it.” See

  2. Author

    EmJen: The question IS incredibly current.

    That comment from Mormon Women Stand seems to suggest that anything a prophet does is acceptable, if not perfect, and that’s just not how I see it. Prophets can make mistakes. They have in the past and it will happen again.

    It’s also interesting that the MWS remark assumes that it was in fact the prophet who had the idea for the garment video in the first place, and then authorized the final product. While the final approval aspect seems very possible, the video was created by the Public Affairs arm of the church, not by the First Presidency. And we’ve seen in the very recent past (with the editing of conference) that sometimes one part of the Church does not fully know what another office is doing. We love to preserve this myth of total cohesiveness: God gives an order, the prophet listen, the prophet tells his underlings, the underlings comply, the prophet approves the end product. And gosh, when does revelation work that way? When has it EVER?

  3. I’ve been troubled lately by the phrase you mentioned about how the prophet will never lead the church astray. I really just don’t think that’s true. Prophets are just people and make mistakes all the time the same as we do. Giving someone certain keys doesn’t make them perfect people with perfect judgement and perfect perspective. There are plenty of examples of crazy stuff in the past done by prophets. I’m sure they were doing their best and meant well, but that doesn’t make those things not crazy.

    It seems that more and more people are replacing their own judgement and gut instincts and feelings for words of the prophets. I think that is not right. I think we should always listen to ourselves first because we worship God, not our prophets, and in our own individual souls is where we find the voice of God.

    It seems to me that listening to a person outside of ourselves first, or letting him do the thinking for us, is getting worse in the church lately, and making it so people can’t really see truth. It turns the church into something more a kin to a vice that gives the shadow appearance of spiritual work rather than doing the actual spiritual work. Of course I’m making a huge generalization when I talk about this, and individual cases vary greatly, but it seems to be a disease our church is struggling with right now.

    It feels to me that at this time in our church history, our leaders have had too much uncontested power for too long and members have become too spiritually complacent and dependent on them, and seem to see them as more than mere mortals. This just breeds ill health in the institution itself and can cause the turmoil that seems to be happening on every level of the church. We are losing many members who are thinking for themselves and connecting to God in honest, internal ways, and keeping many who defer their judgements and thoughts and feelings to others. I just can’t believe that that behavior is what God wants for us. I believe he gave us our thought and reason and feelings and the gift of the holy ghost so we would use them.

  4. On the other hand, what’s the value of a living prophet if you reject anything you don’t already agree with?

  5. I agree with the Givenses’ elaboration of God’s entanglement in human action as an account of church leadership. I’ve tended to think in terms of stewardship, but the Givenses’ model provides more language and introspection around this question of what to do with prophetic authority wielded by mortals. Note that, contrary to some simplifications, this is not a command theory of ethics. As I read them, the Givenses are saying that God is willing to act in our communities through flawed human leaders and that our interdependence—his with us, ours with him and with each other—is part of his mechanism of salvation. We honor God by working together through our shared imperfections and allowing leadership to lead. But we are not to seek the cheap grace of capitulating to any-directive-no-matter-how-flawed from a church leader. We are to honor the bounds of the relationships that God has allowed to arise within the Church. Both leaders and led have parts to play in the grand drama. This is not a question of deference: occasionally deference can become a kind of dishonor. The problem people seem to be having with this notion as the Givenses’ elaborate it I think is that ubiquitous human need for simpler models. It would be much easier if we had a simple statement of whom to follow and when, under which precise circumstances. Instead, we are called to live in the body of Christ, with all of its simultaneous weakness and power. Theirs is a live model of revelation and leadership and priesthood, one that can’t and shouldn’t stand on its own but instead has to live in the world of humans. Which is the point, I think.

  6. I suspect you’re more important than you think.
    I agree. I think we should be very skeptical of a model of relating to church leadership that is driven solely by our preferences. I think that we should be stretched, and there will be times when we allow ourselves to see others’ views on a topic in a way that could and will change our minds.

  7. As to your first question/bullet point, I had heard that Ezra T. Benson was reprimanded for his 14 fundamentals talk (I believe it was Spencer W. Kimball who was upset with its content and had Elder Benson apologize to the other brethren (general authorities) for his remarks.) And yet, rank and file members don’t seem privy to these goings on. Just like the dangerous “thinking is done” sentiment, we’re still hearing those messages verbatim as recently as this year. There seems to me to be a very large disconnect between what the Givens are trying to point out and the actual reality we see and hear during General Conference (hero worship-leaning, brain take a back seat kinds of messages.) I find this exceedingly frustrating because if I repeated the things the Givens are writing in my local ward meetings I would be viewed as a dangerous heretic, dabbling in apostasy. I do get the sense that the powers that be seem to not trust us with full and complete truth and transparency. I get a sense of fear and defensiveness from the PR & correlation/curriculum realms and that doesn’t sit well with me. If we truly do have the truth, truth can’t be harmed, so why the reluctance & secrecy? it may be painful initially, yes – but if we don’t come clean we are going to continue hemorrhaging members. What I’ve seen personally from close family members leaving the church (and there have been quite a few), it’s that they resent that very lack of straightforwardness – a sense that the church has been dishonest with them – this feeling of betrayal has driven many family members away, not the sticky issues themselves. I would feel much more eager to deepen my allegiance to an organization that treated its members like capable adults. Also, the scriptures themselves urge each of us to follow Christ, yet the message we hear so often at church is to follow the prophet. (I have no qualms with the message to follow the prophet, just the over-the-top lopsided emphasis on it.) I often get the uneasy sense that the institution wants allegiance to the institution when really we should be following Christ. (People who tend to put the institution/corporation at the center of their lives, instead of putting the gospel of Jesus Christ at the center, tend to decrease in spirituality. At least that has been my experience.) Sorry for the lengthy vent. Thank you for this wonderful venue to discuss such a crucial topic!

  8. Jana, I also like these chapters. They articulate a charitable vision of how to accept and follow imperfect leaders, and they rightly place responsibility on individuals to seek the witness of the Holy Ghost and the gift of discernment, so that they can recognize the truth (or error) of prophetic pronouncements.

    I also appreciate the recognition that some grant of authority is necessary–that the functioning of the Church requires acquiescence to sometimes mistaken policies–the quotations from Farrer, suggesting that God will honor the words of his servants, even when those words are not precisely (or even approximately, perhaps!) the words He would have chosen, are painfully apt. I think this is the right answer to those who are incensed that the Church is not in the vanguard of social progress, or that it sometimes comes to truths haltingly and reluctantly.

    Still, I find myself wishing that there were more acknowledgment of the pain that this causes individual saints, especially when the Church is itself far less forthcoming about the necessity of gracious accommodation on all sides. It’s well and good for the Givens to note that histories of the Church have sometimes whitewashed Saints and their leaders, but that does nothing to alleviate the cognitive dissonance faced by members of the Church who must confront Elder Andersen’s whitewashing of Joseph Smith’s history a few WEEKS ago in conference. If members feel disappointed and disillusioned by leaders’ imperfections, it is not only because they have been guilty of hero worship. The blame for that hero worship also needs to be lain at the feet of those General Authorities who have fostered it, who have sung the praises of those above them in the hierarchy and even frankly encouraged Saints to abdicate their moral responsibility, promising that they’ll be blessed for obedience even to incorrect directives from their leaders.

    As in the first couple of chapters, I find myself deeply sympathetic with the project the Givens outline for the individual doubter, and also craving at least a nod toward the necessity for all of us to do some collective grappling with these issues as a people.

  9. Excellent comment! I agree with pretty much all of what you said. I also do not hold these men up to an expectation of perfection. However, when it comes to points of doctrine, I do have an expectation for them to speak clearly. Otherwise, what is the point of having a prophet if we don’t know if they are speaking as a man or in their prophetic capacity?

    Also, there is this well-known excerpt from Wilford Woodruff, which as I read it clearly seems to be him speaking as a prophet, not as a man. Do you read or interpret it differently?

    “The Lord will never permit me or any other man who stands as President of this Church to lead you astray. It is not in the programme. It is not in the mind of God. If I were to attempt that, the Lord would remove me out of my place, and so He will any other man who attempts to lead the children of men astray from the oracles of God and from their duty.” (Sixty-first Semiannual General Conference of the Church, Monday, October 6, 1890, Salt Lake City, Utah. Reported in Deseret Evening News, October 11, 1890, p. 2.)

  10. I eventually gave up reading the book, the church of the Givens’ is not the church I am a member of. I would like to belong to the kind they envision but the past months have proven otherwise. It’s fantastic that the church owned bookstore would publish this book. It’s actually astonishing because it is so contrary to it’s other publications. I appreciate the world the Givens’ paint, but traditional practicing members won’t be buying the book so the ideas will just be spread to people who are already on their way out. Most of those people love Jesus Christ and had a hope of being connected to him through The LDS church, but week after week the lines are being drawn and they aren’t on the side of the Givens’. I so wish it were otherwise, I kept hope since The God That Weeps, I even hope there will be a church like the one they envision. For now I will continue to attend my LDS ward, serve the people who hurt, and let the rest go. If I didn’t have family I love and who had been so wonderful to me, I wouldn’t stay anymore.

  11. Carrie, I’m sorry for the frustration you’re feeling. It can be incredibly hard to see the body of Christ in the midst of people with whom you disagree. One alternative framing for what you’re describing is that you have a vibrant testimony: to attend, “serve the people who hurt” and “let the rest go” in the company of a loving family sound to me like a rich and abiding faith. Not a simple one, not a testimony without doubts or second-guessing or even pain, but a vibrant and vital testimony. With time, I hope that you’ll be able to discover that the Givenses are themselves part of a substantial community of similar Latter-day Saints. And that in the body of Christ there is a place for all of us, from ultra-conservative devotees of Elder McConkie’s _Mormon Doctrine_ to ultra-liberal vegans, from simple concrete thinkers to complicated abstract thinkers. What matters is that we hear Christ’s voice and work as best we can to make Christ present in our midst.

  12. I came away from conference feeling uplifted with a stronger desire to follow Jesus Christ. I don’t idolize the prophet and apostles, but I love and trust them. Their messages bear good fruits. I’m thankful for the prophets, ancient and modern, whose words have helped me draw closer to the Savior.

  13. It seems to me that there are multiple of interpretations of what “lead the church astray” means. Whenever I point out the 1949 First Presidency statement on “The Negro Question” as an example of the prophet leading the church astray (it contained false teachings about skin color being a curse and a result of behavior in pre-mortal life which have now been officially disavowed), some members respond that that wasn’t “leading the church astray,” since no members lost their eternal status because of it. So if promulgating false speculative theories as official inspired prophetic teachings isn’t leading the church astray, then what is? It seems from the Woodruff quote that “leading the church astray” means something much bigger than that. He references leading people away from the church and from their duty. So by that definition, prophets are perfectly capable of making mistakes, teaching something that is false, etc., but are not truly “leading the church astray” unless they lead people away from the church; i.e., something like declaring the gospel not to be true and forming their own church.

    So in my opinion anyone who uses that quote as an example of the infallibility of prophets is using it wrong. But I am not infallible either…

  14. The Givens have a number of good and important things to say about the fallibility of men and women, of prophets and about religious leaders, in Chapters 5 and 6. I very much appreciate their statements and warnings. We tend to forget how flawed and sinful were some of the Old-Testament prophets, and the Givens didn’t even get into some of the most troubling things (the story of David’s complicity in the execution of Saul’s sons in 2 Samuel 21 is extremely troubling – yet David’s Psalms are about the most beloved part of Scripture).

    Thoughts about Jana’s last question:

    Religious leaders are important in a healthy faith life. I think we need give the leaders of the church a lot of deference, as most of them are wise and faithful men and women, who help us understand scriptures, apply the wisdom of the Church to ourselves, and to correct our tendency to follow our own preconceptions and selfish comforts.

    However, in my opinion it’s a serious error for the Givens to argue that the Christian is bound to follow a human religious leader even into error and sin. Their argument that God has so bound-himself to the idea of delegating his authority to men, that he desires obedience to religious leaders over and above all else, even above truth and goodness, strikes me as wrong and dangerous. God does not want us to respond to the occasional imperfection and sin by our religious leaders by imitating them, but rather, by correcting our leaders and seeking the justice and goodness that God loves. We need look no further than the newspaper for tragedies that result when religious people blindly follow a leader, ignoring their consciences, their scriptures and the collective witness of their church and ancestors.

    The Prophet Micah tells us what our priorities should be:
    “He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
    and what does the LORD require of you
    but to do justice, and to love kindness,
    and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8)
    Yet the Givens’ theory seems to have God occasionally acting against his very nature, in an unjust or unholy way, because he has chosen to bind himself to the actions or teachings of occasionally fallible humans.

    Jesus had a very conflicted relationship with the religious authorities of his day. He did not say that he had come to remind everyone to be obedient to the chief priests – rather, the chief priests were among his opponents, precisely because they were infatuated with their own authority, rather than being devoted to serving that which God loves: faith, mercy and justice.

    To use an LDS source: I was struck last winter, when reading the Book of Mormon for the first time, that some of the author(s) of the book of Mormon have a very cautious attitude toward authority. There are a number of warnings about the corrupting effect of power, and the importance of people exercising their ‘liberty’ as a deterrent and corrective to being abused by authority. Two places I remember are Alma Chapter 51, and Mosiah 29, where Mosiah warns people not to have a king.

    The idea that men should follow an authority even into error or evil would be anathema to the authors of the Hebrew or Christian Bible, and in my reading, to the Authors of Mosiah and Alma in the Book of Mormon. Henry Eyrings father seems to have a healthier attitude, when the Givens quote him “In this church you don’t have to believe anything that isn’t true’

  15. Samuel:

    I very much appreciate what you say here so well (as I have a number of your comments in the past few weeks).

    I think another other thing that the Givens’ don’t discuss, related to your last few sentences, is that authority and priesthood are not primarily a ‘privilege’ of power over God’s people, its actually a servant role. The church leaders’s job is to serve the people, to do what Christ loves and serve those Christ loves, Their job is not to be ‘the boss’. It strikes me that role is more important than being God representative on earth, to use the language the Given’s use.. I think Pope Francis sets a wonderful example here.

  16. The apparent idoltry of church leaders has long troubled and confused me. If I were a leader I wouldn’t want that behavior, knowing that I am capable of making mistakes. Why do some leaders foster that behavior? We’ve had bishop(s) who specifically stated they will follow directions given from the higher ups without question, and if the direction is wrong–then the “sin” will be laid on those giving the direction, not those in the bishop(ric). They view direction from higher ups as if God was speaking, and as pointed out, there are ample quotes in support of this view. This philosophy resulted in my spouse resigning from the bishopric. I wonder how often people are promoted to higher leadership positions in large part because they take direction unquestioningly? This philosophy seems incredibly dangerous–in light of the many examples in history of horrendous wrongs being done when people simply followed orders. If idolized leaders make mistakes–the “fall” is much greater so they then resist acknowledging mistakes and the repentance process.

  17. Let me give my take –
    • I too have never been comfortable with singing “Praise to the Man”. Some anti-LDS types say that we worship JS over Jesus.
    • A prophet’s words are not more valuable than scripture. The scriptures act as the boundaries/limits of what we can do. The prophets tell us what we can do within the bounds of scripture. They can’t overrule scripture without submitting their proposal to the Church for a sustaining vote via Common Consent.
    • The “thinking has been done” quote was from an article written in a Sunday School magazine. It is NOT doctrinal. Also just because the thinking may have been done doesn’t mean that the solution thought up is correct or even within scriptural bounds.
    • Pres. Benson’s “Fourteen Fundamentals in Following the Prophet” has many deficiencies which I would be happy to outline. Its purpose is to imply that the prophet is the Lord’s ventriloquist dummy whose mouth only moves when the Lord pulls the strings. He himself disproved this when he, as president of the Church, objectively misinterpreted scripture. I’d be happy to give details.
    • “Mormons have taught that the prophet will never lead the Church astray. Is this scriptural?” It may depend on what “astray” means. Do they make mistakes? YES! Have they violated scripture? YES! But their human errors are not sufficiently gross to lead to the loss of God’s recognition.

    Wilford Woodruff said, “The Lord will never permit me or any other man who stands as President of this Church to lead you astray. It is not in the programme.” Isn’t “It is not in the programme” what Joseph Fielding Smith said in “Answers to Gospel Questions” when asked if men would ever land on the moon or whether we’d send spacecraft to other worlds?

    Joseph Smith vehemently condemned the idea that we are to follow our leaders when we know that they are wrong. He called it “slavery in the extreme”.

  18. As I mentioned last week, I love the Book of Mormon and am steeped in it. It is the grounding of both my faith in Jesus Christ and my commitment to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. In its entirety, it can advantageously be read (among other things) as an extended treatise on the interplay between divine sovereignty and human agency. While the format of a blog post allows only the most superficial treatment (I apologize for proof texting, an essay would better flesh out the complexities), but a couple of points that come to mind: 1) Even though the Book of Mormon includes some of the strongest scriptural affirmations of human agency, it also warns of what I would call “agency idolatry”–which is thoroughly relevant to this week’s reading, see especially Jacob’s insight at 2 Nephi 9:28:
    O the vainness and the frailties and the foolishness of men! When they
    are learned they think they are wise and they hearken not to the counsel
    of God, for they set it aside, supposing they know of themselves, where-
    fore, their wisdom is foolishness and it profiteth them not.

    2) Later in the book of Helaman there is an account of the Lord deputizing Nephi2 to the extent that “all things shall be done unto thee according to thy word.” The Lord reminds the prophet “thou art Nephi, and I am God,” and explains that this extraordinary transfer of authority is granted because of Nephi’s superior faithfulness: “for thou shalt not ask that which is contrary to my will” (10:5-6). In this case, at least, it seems that the divine bestowal is more like the ring of Gyges than the ring of Pharaoh. Because of these two examples alone, I am hesitant to join in the Givens’ emphasis on the weakness and fallibility of the Lord’s chosen mouthpieces and the near infallibility of individual judgment and personal revelation. We should probably be at least as uncertain of the latter as we are confident of the former.

    The most resonant insight from these chapters for me was the Givens’ generous recognition at the end of chapter six that “the still emerging details of early Mormon history may be as novel and unanticipated [to the Church’s leadership] as they are to the lay membership” (p. 81-2), followed by their call for charity toward those in leadership capacities, past and present. Once several years ago I was struggling (suffering might not be too strong a description) over a conflict with the Brethren that potentially carried with it grave personal consequences. I fasted, prayed, studied scriptures, listened to music, counseled with my husband and one dear friend, walked, meditated, and wept, seeking a way through what seemed to be a truly irreconcilable situation. When I was nearer the depths of despair than I had ever expected to be, I was suddenly flooded with light and revelation –the unanticipated content of which was an overwhelming feeling of the love the Savior has (not for me, as the story often goes, but) for His apostles and their single-minded devotion to His work. My “me-vs.-them” antagonism vanished immediately as an understanding of the Twelve as the Lord’s beloved took hold (an orientation which feels utterly different to me than the Givens’ description of hero worship/idolatry) . This deep understanding profoundly shaped my choices then as it has my discipleship subsequently.

  19. Thank you Samuel for finding a hope in my words. This time of tremendous transition in the LDS world has I have lost dear friends, relatives, and a spouse (we are still married but he will never affiliate with any organized religion again), as well as personal dreams or anticipated outcomes of my membership in the church. It all breaks my heart and at times my soul. I also ache and cry out for the lack of understanding that many present practicers of the LDS faith have for those whom the church is becoming a death knell in their lives. Many who are leaving have loved this church, served with unfailing dedication both monetarily as well with time, now the entire foundation that they built on has become destroyed and faith is wiped out because there is no where to turn. They listened and heeded the leaders, the curriculum, the magazine articles – now they find those weren’t accurate, reliable, “true”. To whom now do you turn. Remember in Mormonism the bible isn’t reliable either – “the whole translated correctly” line. So off go good hearted people broken, dismissed by their local wards and leaders as apostates and with a life time of nothing ahead. Yes they cope, Atheism is a lot easier than belief. You can still do good, donate money and time to needy causes, but you won’t be disappointed. This is my divided world, a world where only one major style of worship is allowed, or a world were more hearts get broken because to survive the pain – dedicated members can only walk away. We can’t have it any other way. If God Weeps for his children and his heart is in tune with them, then He is crying buckets of tears. As much as I have a testimony by your definition – I am weary. The emotional pain is taking a physical toll – and either answer – leaving or staying will not heal the pain. I will cherish your words and your insight, it does give me hope that some good may still exist, I just miss what might have been had nearly 200 years of history, doctrine, theology and events not been so mangled for all of us

  20. So then, what are we to make of the fact that our leaders expect us to adhere to their statements exactly as Lorenzo Snow stated when his statement has zero scriptural foundation? As Jenny B pointed out, Spencer Kimball repudiated Benson’s 14-points talk. The source for that is Edward Kimball’s biography of his father. (I dumped the book so can’t give page numbers.) Yet in 2010 another GA (Claudio Costa October 2010 General Conference “Obedience to the Prophets”) quoted the 14-points talk with apparent approval. One of those points: “The living prophet is more vital to us than the standard works” (“Fourteen Fundamentals,” 26). Yikes. How could Benson’s talk bring condemnation only 30 or so years ago and not today? Remember, Benson’s talk wasn’t about current policies. It was a statement of principles defining the relationship between members and the prophet. Those principles are either true or they aren’t. I am a born in church, returned missionary, married in temple, former bishopric, seminary teacher for 4 years, etc etc. Still a member, not yet resigned, but close. I have traveled the vale of tears and emerged happier and stronger and far more at peace. My heart truly goes out to those faithful members who are attempting to reconcile this and other irreconcilable issues. What you are experiencing is what is known as cognitive dissonance-the mental stress or discomfort experienced by an individual who holds two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values at the same time, or is confronted by new information that conflicts with existing beliefs, ideas, or values. (Wikipedia) Worse, the church has drawn a line in the sand about this issue. There is no debate. Think temple recommend interview. So, one must continue in silence or risk discipline. And this is Christ’s church?

  21. Author

    Kristine, thank you for this comment: “If members feel disappointed and disillusioned by leaders’ imperfections, it is not only because they have been guilty of hero worship. The blame for that hero worship also needs to be lain at the feet of those General Authorities who have fostered it, who have sung the praises of those above them in the hierarchy and even frankly encouraged Saints to abdicate their moral responsibility, promising that they’ll be blessed for obedience even to incorrect directives from their leaders.” It’s definitely both; there is individual responsibility, but there is corporate hero worship at work here too.

    I was once told by a kind church leader that if I had a strong moral objection to something the Church was doing (in this case, Proposition 8), that the Lord would especially honor any decision I made to heed the prophet’s counsel. My obedience would be rewarded because it was so hard-won, and I just needed to trust that everything that was being asked of church members in the fight against same-sex marriage was the will of the Lord.

    This was not, thankfully, from my own bishop, who just listened to my struggles and tried to help me cope with the pain. But it was still hurtful to be told by someone in authority that my very real struggle was actually just a test of my obedience, and that I’d be rewarded in some transactional way down the line if I allowed my own conscience to be overruled in favor of what you call abdicating my own moral responsibility. You’re right; that’s exactly what it would have been.

  22. Author

    Oh Carrie, I am so sorry for the struggles you’ve had. I think that Sam is right, that such a church of compassion and love exists. But I also know that it only exists if we make it so. The flip side of all my complaining about hero worship of church leaders is the startling responsibility that “they” is “us”; in other words, *I* have a responsibility to be the change I wish to see in the Church. (This is paraphrasing Gandhi, who as it turns out probably never said this famous quote, sadly — because it’s a great quote.)

    Anyway, I (selfishly) also know that my chances of inhabiting the compassionate, big-umbrella Mormonism of my dreams diminishes in a real way every time a Carrie leaves the Church. So for the sake of all of us who live in the borderlands, I hope you can find a way to stay.

  23. Author

    JeffP, I don’t know that the authors take the argument quite so far as you suggest here: “However, in my opinion it’s a serious error for the Givens to argue that the Christian is bound to follow a human religious leader even into error and sin. Their argument that God has so bound-himself to the idea of delegating his authority to men, that he desires obedience to religious leaders over and above all else, even above truth and goodness, strikes me as wrong and dangerous.”

    But they do open the door for us to imagine that God can take any disastrous decision by a fallible leader and somehow turn it around for good. Yes, but . . . why can’t people who point out the danger and refuse to follow the leader at that time be exactly the means God uses to turn the situation around?

    Take the Mountain Meadows Massacre. I didn’t know until a few years ago that there some men who refused to be part of the massacre despite direct orders to do so. What if there had been more of those conscientious objectors? Would roughly 170 men, women, and older children have been murdered in cold blood?

    My own view on following the prophet has been shaped a bit by Augustine’s Rule of Love. I’m extrapolating faaaaaaar from the rule’s original context, but the way I apply it to prophetic authority is that I have to test every prophetic teaching against the rule of love, which Jesus defined as loving our neighbor as ourselves. Therefore when I am told to serve the poor, to help my neighbor, to take care of my family, to attend to my health through the Word of Wisdom, to read the Scriptures . . .all of those easily pass the Rule of Love test. Going door to door to prevent marriage equality does not, and holding a shotgun to the head of a wagon train emigrant certainly does not.

  24. The church leaders today do NOT allow dissent over anything they say or do. They may be a patient to some degree, but if a member persists in claiming to have a legitimate controversy over them, that member will be cast out of the church. D&C 107:81-84 gives the procedure to settle a controversy over the President of the church or one of his counselors and possibly remove them. But the D&C is full of instructions the church does not live by, this being only one of them. The church is now a government by men, but the D&C sets up a government by law and the above verses clearly show that not even the church President is supposed to be above that law. (See also JST Mark 9:40-48) The problem ultimately is with the members. Most apparently are satisfied with trusting their salvation to leaders who they accept are guaranteed to never fail them. I would call this the “done-deal” doctrine. But this doctrine contradicts the Mormon scriptures. It is simply the politics of men.

  25. This is from a LDS Patriarchal Blessing given early last year:

    “You have a great intelligent mind, but, you will never become more intelligent
    than the Prophet of God. You will always raise your hand to sustain Him in
    knowing that He is God’s spokesman, and you will know that He receives
    revelation. Even though you might be great in your academics, you will always
    know that His wisdom and knowledge supersedes yours. You will always be
    obedient. You will always sustain the living Prophet.”

    This is idolatry. It openly contradicts many scriptures. But this is where the church is today. Idolatry in the Old Testament is equated to adultery– it being spiritual adultery.

    It is amazing that men can feel so righteous, exalting their leaders above the heavens as it were, and yet are openly promoting doctrines worse than adultery.

  26. I forgot to mention that when someone insists that God will bless those who follow the prophet, even if they know what the prophet asks us to do is wrong, I ask them if they really believe that God will accept the Nuremberg defense and say in my best German accent “I vas ohnly vollowing ohrders! I vas ohnly vollowing ohrders!”

    Do you really think that God will accept the Nuremberg defense?

  27. I fell behind on my reading this week, and I suspect I’ll have more quibbles with Chapter 6 when I get to it — but for now I just wanted to add a very hearty amen to Chapter 5.

    I absolutely love the linking of the existentialist(/Dostoevskian) theme of wanting to evade the responsibility of agency with the extremely apt quotes from Church leaders (esp. Brigham Young’s warning against having “reckless confidence” in Church leaders on p. 63 and the link to Nephi’s against trusting in the arm of flesh on p. 66).

    My quibble is simply that I think the effectiveness of this Chapter would be enhanced by providing at least a sketch of what a serious theory of Church leadership and authority might look like (though I sense this is what we’ll be given, at least in part, in Chapter 6 — even so, I think more mention should’ve been given in Chapter 5). This is sort of an echo of my complaints about chapters 1 and 4 not providing a more constructive view of what responsible use of reason and scripture should look like:

    What does it mean to sustain leaders (as advocated in the closing paragraph of Chapter 5) without idolizing them, and how can we do this in a way that avoids the Charbydis of our own weaknesses, fantasies, limited perspective, and tendency toward contention (which gives rise to the desirability of leaders in the first place), while still avoiding the Scylla of hero worship?

    Answering this question would probably require a separate chapter or book (and I have enjoyed reading Nate Oman’s articles on Church authority that seem to be a first step in the direction of answering this question), so I’m not really faulting the Givenses for not saying too much about this, esp. given the target audience of this book. Still, I think the thinness on this score suggests an important weakness on the part of Mormon studies and thinking more generally, that we are really quite immature when it comes to thinking about this issue of Church authority.

    (In my own thinking on this topic, I have benefited greatly from, again, Alasdair MacIntyre’s writings on traditions. MacIntyre’s views are deeply rooted in his own understanding of truth claims and authority with the Catholic tradition.

    What I esp. like is how MacIntyre’s account of tradition gets at the heart of a problem that many commentators have been raising here: the dangers of simply reverting to a “follow the Spirit” maxim. Through careful study of a tradition’s dialectical wrestle through time with certain tensions, commitments, and teachings, a responsible interpretation of the tradition’s core principles and values can be arrived at that isn’t subject to the whims of self-deceptive desires or spatially-and-temporally limited perspectives that distort our necessarily subjective interpretation of the Spirit’s promptings.

    If Church leaders’ teachings are understood in the larger framework of Mormonism’s core commitments and teachings, then I think a more responsible way forward for discerning truth from error in Church leaders’ teachings is made possible. My hope is that Terryl Givens’ new 2-volume book, Wrestling with the Angel, will make precisely this kind of way forward possible….)

  28. I wonder whether some of this controversy would seem just a little bit clearer if the pronouncements were translated as “don’t follow after schismatics”. I think sometimes people take that important message (I do think religious communities tend to function better when they are not riven by schism) and assume that it must mean some Stepfordian vision of automated subservience. My sense is that the important element here is that we not recognize some rival claimant to the leadership of the LDS Church. I think for most people that rule would settle much more easily on the soul than some of the competing conceptualizations of prophetic authority.

  29. The notion that a prophet will “never lead the Church astray” is fraught with problems, but to me the most significant of these is that it robs the prophet of his agency. Remember that Christ was the supreme advocate of our agency, willing to face infinite suffering rather allow it to be lost.

    I have been troubled many times by stories of the actions of Church leaders – from a Stake President found guilty of being a sexual predator to Brigham Young preaching blatant racism – and the only way I can find to reconcile these problems with the Gospel is through the doctrine of agency. God will NEVER force one of His children to act a certain way or say a certain thing. He will ALWAYS allow His children to choose our own actions and words – even if, in a particular circumstance, His child happens to be a prophet and his chosen words happen to be ones that would result in some of His children acting contrary to His will.

    At this point, it would be comforting to believe that the prophets and apostles are the most righteous of God’s children, and therefore the least likely to act or speak contrary to His will. However, the Givenses rightly challenge this cultural assumption as well: “Many of our expectations about human institutions are so predicated on meritocracy that we are sure God must operate the same way.” But, “[modern-day prophets] are simply ordinary women and men who have accepted the call and are striving to return Home, as we all are.” I believe this is true. Men do not get called as apostles and prophets because they are the most righteous of all God’s children; they get called because they are talented leaders, with unique spiritual gifts, who are, at a minimum, just righteous enough to get the job done.

    Ultimately, each of us must carefully consider any prophetic utterance – regardless of the circumstance of its delivery – and determine for ourselves how best to assimilate it into our beliefs and actions. In some cases, this may mean not assimilating it at all. The cultural emphasis on accepting all the prophets’ words, regardless of our own life experience, is unfortunate.

  30. Wow. When I first started reading the quote in your second paragraph, I honestly thought it was satire.

    I remember once hearing D. Jeff Burton say that one of the best ways to assess someone’s faith was by finding out how they judged the veracity of a religious message: does she/he evaluate the content of the message itself, or look only at who the provided it? To me, the latter method seems to equate to putting one’s trust in the arm of flesh.

  31. Well said, every word. I’ve been thinking about buying this book, now I will.

  32. Jana, I am finally, belatedly, joining the discussion! My apologies for my absence the last weeks and my belated appearance this/last week.

    The discussion so far has been a good one, and rather than recapitulating the major points in these chapters, ably covered above, I thought I’d offer a side note. First, I was impressed with the skill and sensitivity with which the authors transform traditional LDS ideas for new uses, yet do so gently and without robbing older interpretations (and adherents thereto) of their dignity. Sometimes, indeed, they rework traditional LDS teachings so subtly and with so little signposting that it’s only afterward that one realizes wow — I just read something completely new under the Mormon sun. An instance in Chapter 5 struck me. On page 67, the authors contrast the story of Gideon with D&C 124:1: “For unto this end have I raised you [Joseph] up, that I might show forth my wisdom through the weak things of the earth.” Their reading is that Joseph was chosen as a flawed vessel by design, so that the Saints could never mistake him for their Savior, as Gideon’s band did Gideon. As they write, “God employs flawed vessels to help redirect our attention in the right direction” — that is, away from the prophet and toward Christ. With a manifestly imperfect prophet, we are never in danger of (mis)taking him for our Redeemer; the prophet merely points away from himself and toward Christ. The prophet or priest, in other words, is not a sign of christ, but a signal to Christ. (If I were still in graduate school, I would pull out the critical theory and talk about this in terms of metaphor vs. metonymy.)

    This is an elegant and persuasive reading, taken on its own. I will definitely steal it for many a “follow the prophet” Gospel Doctrine lesson. And I am in favor of new readings of scripture, even when those readings conflict somehow with previous teaching (which is itself, of course, already riddled with internal conflict!). But it seems to me worth nothing that this reading of Joseph’s role represents a rather dramatic departure from the theology of “small and simple things” which is a major theme in the Book of Mormon and the Restoration mythos generally. It seems to me that the plain understanding of this familiar LDS teaching is that God chooses weak vessels in order to demonstrate his power by ultimately transforming them into the (morally) strong and (spiritually) powerful. (See, for example, 2 Nephi 3:13.) This Christian triumphalism seems to me quite different in tone and implication from the Givens’s new reading, and — maybe more problematically — requires a very different mechanism for the role of the priest in officiating in ordinances. I have always made sense of temple practice by thinking in terms of Corinthians 11:3, where women and men are connected through a “salvific chain” to Christ and God, in which the link immediately to one’s right acts as a kind of intermediary Savior, and the saving effect lies in the ordered interconnectedness of the relationship. In this understanding, the priest is indeed a sign or stand-in or substitute for Christ, not merely a signal to Christ. Now, maybe I am wrong about how to make sense of temple hieratics, and maybe there is a way to reconcile the Givens’ reading with the traditional interpretation. But I wonder whether we can have it both the Givens’ way, which takes a lot of moral pressure off the role of prophet/priest, and Paul’s way, which puts a great deal of moral pressure on the role of the priest as a sign of Christ.

    I had another point, but this is already so long, I think I will leave it at that!

  33. When we start telling ourselves that we individually have a better understanding of the mind and will of God than the apostles, especially when they speak as a body, we should be humble enough to be skeptical of our OWN assumption of infallibility.

    The apostles did not select themselves. They certainly do not receive such financial rewards from their service to the Church that there is an incentive to attain that office. While it is always a hazard for men to misuse their ecclesiastical authority to satisfy their own “vain ambition”, I see far less of that among the General Authorities than in the other organizations I deal with every day, in the business world and in government at all levels.

    I served twenty years in the US Air Force. Commanders are far from perfect, and certainly not infallible, but short of those orders they give that are flatly illegal, being obedient to them produces far better results in achieving your organizational mission than staging a sit-down strike anytime you think you are smarter than your boss or his boss. There are ways of raising questions about certain orders and regulations and policies, just as there are in the LDS Church, but in the meantime, supporting those imperfect “common posts” (as Karl G. Maeser called them in a parable) will be safer for our eternal welfare than striking out on our own.

    Purely as a matter of their basic human intelligence and judgment, the First Presidency and Twelve Apostles are people who have more than average qualifications. A number of them have advanced academic training and experience as professional scholars. One of the remarkable things about the leading brethren is how much emphasis they place on achieving unanimous agreement when they are making important decisions. They don’t say “I am the leader, my inspiration is superior to yours, the decision is made.” Rather, they will put issues where there is disagreement on the shelf and revisit them later. They are actively open to disagreement within their own ranks, and recognize that it may be the minority voice on one occasion that is actually expressing God’s will about some aspect of the issue under consideration.

    The Brethren do not go out of their way to micromanage bishops and stake presidents and mission presidents. They have real trust that the Holy Ghost honors the office of those called into those positions. And in my opinion, the best stake presidents and bishops have learned to let members get the revelation needed to magnify their own individual callings.

    If you have a serious problem with the counsel given by the First Presidency and the Apostles, then you have a problem with the LDS Church and its understanding of the gospel of Christ. I don’t think the Brethren want you to think you have to participate in the Church if you reject its doctrines. But I think you owe it to yourself to see whether you really understand correctly what the doctrine is, versus what you think somebody else says it is, and honor your former self who found the truth in the Church, and have patience with the Church, and the Brethren, the same way you would want others to have patience with you.

  34. I truly found the 5th and 6th chapters to be revelatory (I realize chapter 6 is this Friday, but couldn’t stop reading). Not only for the perspective on what it means for God to delegate his authority to an imperfect person as prophet, but also just the fact that this book is out there, released by Deseret Book, approved at least to some degree by the leadership. I agree with Carrie that the vast majority of church members aren’t at a place where they believe or accept what’s in these chapters, but to me the release of this book signals the beginning of a potential sea change in the church. Which is something I find exciting and promising.

    Here’s what I took away from this chapter: the prophet is God’s chosen leader. But that doesn’t mean that everything he says is what God would say. Because he’s imperfect. We sustain him because he is the prophet. But we need to do away with the non-doctrinal nonsense that when he speaks the thinking stops, or that everything he does is God’s will. Because that will never be the case. Of course the prophet will do everything he can to lead and guide the church as God would. But he will get it wrong sometimes. Guaranteed. And that’s why we have the gift of the Holy Ghost and are encouraged to use it to confirm what our leaders say. And if you have a problem with that, you have a problem with the doctrine of the church and the gospel of Jesus Christ.

  35. And Raymond, I appreciate your desire to defend the brethren. But I think this space is for a discussion of the book. Have you read it? You should!

  36. It sounds like you and the Holy Ghost have come to a clear understanding of the matter, Sarah. Great comments.

  37. I finally finished chapter 6 and, overall, it was quite a bit better than I expected. I think there are a few key places that the Givenses are not super clear about what they are really arguing for, but on my interpretation they are arguing for a position that is best understood as emphasizing individual responsibility vis-a-vis Priesthood authority including heavy emphasis on the virtue of practical reasoning in coming to terms with this responsibility.

    I like Rosalynde’s question about the tension between weak/foolish leaders being strengthened by God (the traditional view) vs. weak/foolish leaders being purposeful (the Givenses’ view, illustrated by Gideon). Here is how I think the Givenses (or someone maintaining their position) would respond.

    Leaders do in fact tend to be relatively righteous, and this makes for a more righteous community overall. However, the imperfect(/weak/foolish) nature of our leaders (and, in a parallel application, the imperfect nature of our spouses, friends, etc.) play a necessary and redemptive role in the plan of salvation. This follows naturally from Mormonism’s rather optimistic perspective on the Fall: we learn to discern the sweet by tasting the bitter, and the imperfect nature of our leaders gives us an opportunity to do this. Too much bitterness (i.e., leaders that are too imperfect) would be a disaster, but encountering imperfections in others — even though it can be very, very painful — provides us an opportunity to learn and grow by exercising patience and charity, and this is a necessary and important part of the plan of salvation.

    Or something like that.

    I esp. like how the Givenses treated the whitewashing of Mormon history, acknowledging that this was a mistake, but effectively calling for patience and charity as Church leaders try to correct this mistake. It seems to me that this is a model for coping with imperfections and mistakes in larger contexts, both in the Church and in our relationships with other imperfect mortals.

    Where I think the Givenses aren’t very clear is where I think they are ultimately saying there are “circumscribed limits” (p. 75) that delimit lay members’ moral obligation (for lack of a better term) to follow them. This “circumscribed limits” phrase is italicized, so my interpreation is correct, that they are in fact arguing that there are limits and that each Church member must ultimately discern for themselves (via the Spirit, etc.) what these limits are. However, I think this point is too easily missed in the chapter and it might seem that the Givenses are in fact arguing for submission to authority in (basically) all cases.

    I really like the tension between chapters 5 and 6, basically undermining the authority of Church leaders in ch. 5 and then building it back up in ch. 6. And I think there is in fact a way to resolve this tension, even if the Givenses aren’t very explicit or clear about the nature of this tension and the way to grapple with it. But this is a very complex issue (IMHO), and I really like that the Givenses bring it up — and I like the way of resolving the tension that I think they are gesturing toward, even if it’s not the clearest articulation possible. (But perhaps this relative weakness in the Givenses book is itself a blessing in that it forces the charitable reader to connect the dots by him- or herself….)

  38. (I mean chapters 4 and 5, not chapters 5 and 6….)

  39. Jana Riess is an apostate. She needs to practice her faith to convert to it, because the Church is true, instead of maligning her faith to convert it to loose liberal license. Period.

  40. I know I’m chiming in a year late but your high minded, swift judgement and religious hard core police style attack on this lady, using the word ‘apostate’ as a sword, to me, is far more convincing than her article, that some Mormons do indeed idolize their prophets.

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