“Purchasing a new car is not a decision that I made lightly. I entrusted my family’s life and safety in Buick’s hands, only to discover that they did not have my family’s best interest in mind.”
“This is the worst vehicle I’ve ever owned.”
“Now I know why there are so few Buicks on the streets.”
Apparently people really hate Buicks. According to these customer reviews, Buicks are unsafe, low quality, and utterly unreliable.
So what brand can consumers actually rely on? It must be the manufacturer that won J.D. Power’s 2018 dependability award.
And that would be…(wait for it)…Buick.
This is not meant to be a Buick commercial. I don’t think I’ve ever driven a Buick in my life.
My point is a modest one: as long as humans are involved, even the most reliable products are never going to be 100% guaranteed. A product that performs extraordinarily well for most people is going to fail others. A strong brand doesn’t mean there won’t be individual performance issues. Some people might even get hurt.
Reliability in a car isn’t about perfection. It’s not about what is the sexiest, or the fastest, or the most popular. It’s about what gives you the best chance of taking you where you want to go. It’s about how much trust and confidence you can have in its overall performance.
In this respect—and we shouldn’t strain the analogy too far—the prophets and apostles of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are kind of like Buicks. They aren’t perfect, individually or as a group, but if you’re interested in a life of Christian discipleship, riding in their car (or, to use Elder and Sister Renlund’s creative cartoon analogy, their boat) gives us a great chance of going where we want to go.
Many Latter-day Saints still have a hard time wrapping their heads around the notion that church leaders can be reliable without being perfect. But prophets themselves don’t offer anything like a 100% guarantee. In their first press conference as a newly set apart First Presidency, President Russell M. Nelson asked church members to “Give your leaders a little leeway to make mistakes, as you hope your leaders will give you a little leeway to profit by your errors.” First Counselor Dallin H. Oaks was even more blunt, categorically stating that “We don’t believe in the infallibility of our leaders.”
The fallibility of our human prophets, who differ from you and me only in their calling not in their nature, is sound doctrine. Prophets do not upon the moment of their ordination magically transcend the travails of this mortal probation. They are still subject to the plan of salvation, with its attendant principles of choice, accountability, repentance, and redemption. As President David O. McKay taught, “When God makes the prophet, He does not unmake the man.”
If you choose to affiliate actively with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, then part of the deal is believing in and accepting the authority of those who are called, ordained, and set apart as apostles and prophets. But to sustain someone or to affirm their authority is not to agree with them all the time. We often disagree with our bishops, and frequently with dead apostles (Exhibit A: Paul’s teachings on women). In President Nelson’s words, we give them leeway to make mistakes, and hope they give us leeway when we make mistakes. Humility, generosity, forgiveness, and charity, along with a strong dose of Spirit-led discernment, are all key.
Is it true that prophets and apostles of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have “made mistakes,” that they have on many occasions said or done things “that were not in harmony with our values, principles or doctrine”? Yes, absolutely. Especially in the age of the internet it’s all too easy to come up with examples to prove the point. Yet our belief, as expressed by President Wilford Woodruff, is that “The Lord will never permit me or any other man who stands as President of this Church to lead you astray.” This has been read by many people as endorsing a functional prophetic infallibility. For all the reasons stated in this short essay, however, our theology doesn’t allow us to go that far. Rather, we are forced to do the harder work of understanding how a prophet can teach things “not in harmony with our values, principles or doctrine” and yet still not “lead the children of men astray from the oracles of God and from their duty.”
Claims of reliability are not blind to past, present, and future error, but take into account the total body of work, not generalizing from the worst examples. Buick can make the occasional lemon and still be the most dependable brand on the road.
This is not meant to be a naïve view. If you’re the one who ended up with the lemon, it’s hard to feel good about the overall reliability of the brand. If you were an African American denied access to the temple and priesthood from 1852 to 1978, I believe you would be excused for wrestling with whether the Latter-day Saint prophets were reliable guides for your Christian faith. Many people feel similarly about some current positions adopted by church leaders, notably the November 2015 policy on married gay couples and their children. They point out that people have been hurt, and are still hurting.
In light of the manifest difficulties, how can I claim that the Latter-day Saint prophets and apostles are reliable, even indispensable, guides for my life in Christ? For me, it’s precisely because of their individual and collective witnesses of Jesus, which is the dominant signal that cuts through all the static. Scriptures point toward how this works. Peter and Paul were faithful witnesses of Jesus Christ, and worth sticking with as reliable guides for the early Christian community, despite their manifest errors and even conflicts one with another. Nephi, Mormon, and Moroni each admitted their weaknesses, but applying the teachings of this mistake-prone trio has inexorably led me to a fuller life in Christ. God isn’t just redeeming us through the prophets—he’s redeeming them too.
Ultimately, however, as a Christian I’m only secondarily interested in God’s prophets and apostles. To focus on them is to miss the point. Doing so is like a person wearing glasses training their gaze on their lenses rather than looking through them at the world beyond. Latter-day Saint prophets and apostles serve as corrective lenses in a secular age, but they don’t offer a perfect prescription. In this life we will always “see in a mirror, dimly.” Even living prophets, themselves trapped on this side of the veil, cannot provide perfect clarity or get us to 20/20 vision. The lenses themselves get smudged, chipped, and cracked from the wear and tear of the world. But the collective experience of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is strong testimony that looking through this particular set of lenses is a reliable means of focusing our gaze on how to follow the Savior Jesus Christ in the modern world.
In short, the church can confidently rely on its living prophets—not blindly, but with discernment, individual choice, and always with the “patience and faith” that God’s redemptive work in the world is bigger than we can often see. We sustain the prophets not because of their own merits but insofar and inasmuch as they preach “the word of Christ with unshaken faith in him, relying wholly upon the merits of him who is mighty to save.” (2 Nephi 31:19; see also Moroni 6:4.)
Latter-day Saints are not Smithites, or Nelsonites, or even Mormonites. We are Christians. We look not to our prophets but with them to “Jesus the author and finisher of our faith.” The best way to wrestle with individual prophetic pronouncements and teachings that may be difficult will be to weigh them as part of a total commitment to and life in Christ. “Doubting Thomas” remained in communion with Peter and the apostles despite their lapses, and in their presence beheld the Living Christ. We can too.
More on this Important Conversation
Watch or listen to this conversation between Patrick Mason, Tim Chaves and Kate Hargadon
Watch or listen to this conversation between Spencer Fluhman and Patrick Mason
What should a member of the Church do if they want to sustain the prophets faithfully but nevertheless sincerely disagree with a particular teaching or policy? If you were a faithful member of the Church before 1978 yet believed the priesthood-temple ban was wrong, what would you do?
In a Church culture that is squeamish about talking about prophetic fallibility, is there any way to discuss this principle productively in official Church settings without being seen as (or actually) undermining faith?
Many Church members are becoming more comfortable thinking about long-dead prophets as fallible but nevertheless reliable. It gets harder to have that conversation, or even think about it, with current prophets. What does prophetic reliability look like when actualized in terms of our relationship with living prophets and apostles?
If they make mistakes, in what way are the prophets and apostles of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints any different from other sincere and committed Christian leaders (such as the Pope)?
What does it mean when Church leaders have said that there is no such thing as a “loyal opposition” within the kingdom of God? Does that mean that Church members should never disagree with their leaders?
Back to the Buick analogy…if you really want to take the spiritual journey of a Latter-day Saint Christian, at some point you need to quit walking around the car, kicking the tires, critiquing the styling and looking for dents and scratches. You’ll need to climb in, turn the key, put it in gear, look to the horizon and begin driving? Will you trust the basic design of the vehicle and your ability to navigate? When a warning light comes on or you get a flat tire, what will you do? Will you help care for the car, or will you abandon it?
Highly Recommended Reading
Terryl Givens and Fiona Givens, The Crucible of Doubt: Reflections on the Quest for Faith (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2014), especially chapters 5-6.
Patrick Q. Mason, Planted: Belief and Belonging in an Age of Doubt (Salt Lake City and Provo: Deseret Book and Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, 2015), especially chapter 6.