“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.”
– Pres. Wilford Woodruff, October 1890, after the announcement that polygamy would no longer be practiced by Latter-day Saints
“The prophet will never lead the Church astray.” How many times do we hear that comforting statement in Mormon circles?
Some Mormons use it to comfort themselves when the Church has done something that just doesn’t feel right, whether it’s prohibiting the baptism of children of same-sex couples or denying the priesthood to blacks: “This must be God’s will despite what my conscience is telling me, because the prophet will never lead the Church astray.”
Others use it to bludgeon people who can’t fall in line behind whatever policy the Church has supported: “You must be apostate, because the prophet has spoken, and we have been taught that the prophet will never lead the Church astray. So either get with the program or get out.”
The problem with this understanding of prophets is that it contradicts one of the bedrock doctrines of Mormonism: agency.
Mormon theology is predicated upon a belief that every person is free to choose right from wrong, and that for individuals to progress in the gospel toward eternal life, there must always be an opposition so their choices are real.
Believing that, de facto and without exception, no prophet will ever lead the church astray removes this agency three times over.
First, we strip agency from LDS church members when we tell them there is only one way to think, and it happens to be whatever the prophet is teaching right now, at this particular moment, even if that contradicts what other prophets have said in the past about the same issue or will likely say in the future.
Second, we deny agency to the prophet when we teach that he has no choice but to do the Lord’s will. Prophets in scripture don’t typically carry this burden; they blunder often. They might run away (Jonah), ply their prophetic trade for financial gain (Balaam), or succumb to serious depression (Elijah, Jeremiah)—in other words, be human.
And third, we deny agency to the church as a living creation whenever we teach that it cannot make a real mistake. The church is a dynamic and life-giving organism with its own origin story, mission, and holy end. We do it a disservice when we cease to remember that it is not an institution that stands outside of the beautiful, agentic human beings who are its living members.
So many Mormons say this is the “true and living” church . . . but then proceed to squeeze the very life out of it. Let’s think about this. The secret sauce that makes something alive as opposed to merely existent is its capacity for growth. And in classic Mormon belief, a capacity for growth and progress isn’t possible without an equal capacity for screwing it up.
We owe it to the church, and to ourselves, to allow it to be the true and living organism we insist that it is.
With that in mind, what if there is another, less facile, way of understanding this notion that the prophet cannot lead the church astray?
What if, instead of envisioning the church as a brittle, fragile, abstract concept that needs to be protected at all costs, we recognize the power and resilience in the church’s flawed humanity from the prophet on down?
And what if, along with that, we understood that when (not if) the prophet makes mistakes, the church possesses within itself the resources to not only recover but to grow and thrive because those very mistakes have enabled it to learn new truths?
The church, that marvelous collection of all of us saintly sinners and sinnerly saints, will err and repent and err and repent, just like we do individually, on its path toward the sterling end that God has promised.
And what a promise that is. The church will not be led astray because at the end of all things, it will be made one with God.
That is a powerful and precious telos. Let’s not pollute its promise with idolatrous fantasies about how every step of the path to that divine end will be an unrelenting linear progression toward God.
The church is on a journey, just as we are. Let’s give it the space it needs to be true and living, not just true and dead.
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