Note: This is not a history of teachings concerning prophetic fallibility, nor is it a scriptural or doctrinal exegesis focused on expounding resources for belief in prophetic fallibility.
Prophetic fallibility strikes me as one of the most important and least developed beliefs in Mormonism. We often pay lip service to it, but seem to treat prophets and their authority in such a way that renders the very idea of prophetic fallibility meaningless. Prophetic fallibility is the belief that prophets are not perfect, that they are humans who make mistakes. Now, for this idea to have any power and significance the range of possible mistakes must be bigger than the prophet swearing or yelling at someone sometime. Prophetic fallibility demands that the act of prophecy be eligible for error, not just the everyday existence of the prophet.
Then-Pres Uchtdorf alludes to these happenings in his 2013 General Conference address, “Come, Join With Us,” when he said:
“And, to be perfectly frank, there have been times when members or leaders in the Church have simply made mistakes. There may have been things said or done that were not in harmony with our values, principles, or doctrine.
I suppose the Church would be perfect only if it were run by perfect beings. God is perfect, and His doctrine is pure. But He works through us—His imperfect children—and imperfect people make mistakes.”
Most everyone I know agrees with this idea in the abstract. Very few people, that I know personally, will argue that prophets have never ever made a single mistake. However, some people are likely already pushing back on the implications of my framing of prophetic fallibility. Discussions of fallibility always stop short because the institution never defines past actions, even when reversed, as mistakes. We have plenty of support for the belief that there were mistakes, but once I start naming things, people immediately become defensive.
Without at least the serious consideration of past teachings and policies as wrong, the belief in prophetic fallibility is toothless.
Believing in this version of fallibility, that amounts to practical infallibility is tempting. I feel the temptation. If we accept this belief, we have something certain to rely on in a world that is defined by uncertainty. We can trust in something unconditionally. We have a sense of confidence and comfort that is often lacking all around us in an era some have described as post-truth. Certainty calls to us. Practical infallibility gives us the certainty that we often hunger and thirst after.
Yet, if the prophet always is right and always speaks for God, what does that require of us? How does that build our own personal faith and relationship with the Divine?
Consider that the act of wondering and pursuing personal confirmation that any given statement from a prophet is from God is a True/False exam, that’s open book where you can study and learn and find the correct answers. However, you also know that there’s a cheat to this particular exam–all of the answers are “True”. Will you even bother to study out for yourself one question? No. At least, I wouldn’t.
Perhaps this is an indictment of my own laziness, but I think there’s a spiritual truth here. If the prophet is never wrong, my only choice is to abdicate my agency. To give my will entirely and to languish in spiritual childhood. How can I wrestle with someone who is never wrong? If the outcome is already pre-determined, why bother asking the question?
I cannot exercise faith in someone who I know to always be right.
Faith demands uncertainty.
Faith demands the possibility of wrongness.
Faith demands fallibility.
If we accept prophetic fallibility, then suddenly, I, and all of us, are energized in the building of Zion. We all have our agency restored to do and say and believe. To push and pull and agitate. To feel divine discontent.
If the prophet can be wrong, I have a responsibility to watch for those wrongs and to speak against them. I must be vigilant in my spiritual life. I must take every pronouncement to the Lord in prayer and wrestle with it. To ponder and mull and debate and chew and feast and argue.
To return to our exam, the test is suddenly alive with possibility. Any question could be True or False. Or even some mixture of the two that defies the reductive binary we tend to impose on prophetic announcements that seems to fall wonderfully short of the reality and complexity of (at least my) lived experience with the Divine.
I can’t simply float through any longer.
I must seek to know God so that I know Their/Her/His voice when it comes from the prophet’s lips. I must build my own relationship with the Divine because I cannot count on another, even the Prophet, to speak God’s will with complete accuracy.
I must approach this process humbly, particularly with epistemic humility. I must be careful that I don’t make my own idol out of myself and my beliefs. Yet, as I check myself and strive for humility, I cannot shy away from speaking what feels true to me. For the good of the Body of Christ. For my fellow comrades in the Gospel, my fellow Saints.
If we embrace the beauty and challenge of prophetic fallibility, our work is only just beginning. We need a communal ethic of fallibility so that we as a people can move beyond the damaging teachings and beliefs of prophetic perfection that seem to violate the spirit of the first three of Ten Commandments revealed to Moses (no other Gods before me, no idols, no taking the Lord’s name in vain) and create a culture of spiritual stagnation and dependency that separates us from God and the source of Salvation.
Perhaps the central conceptual difficulty in creating this ethic is to find a way to ensure that community is not lost with the dissolution of some of the authority centralized in the prophet. As prophetic fallibility is spread and believed, the centralized authority of the Church will be weakened. In many ways, this is the opposite of what decades of work of correlation has done. But I believe it is a necessary work.
As a community, I believe that we risk missing out on the promise of continuing revelation. We are all the Body of Christ and if we don’t listen and talk with one another and express our pain and discontent at the actions of some of that Body, how can we grow and improve?
Our community risks being robbed of its richness and diversity. We risk losing our connection to the Divine. We must know and find God in each other, not just in the voice of one man. I have so much to learn from all of my fellow saints and may neglect their voices if I believe that one man speaks pure, unfiltered truth at all times.
Our communal spirituality can be deepened and strengthened, not weakened, by an ethic of fallibility.
Perhaps it may even inspire us to take more seriously the words that are shared by our prophet(s). To wrestle with them, to engage with them. To truly discuss and ponder them. To feast on them and to discuss them one with another. Rather than a culture that shares, listens, and is done, the sharing is simply the beginning. Gone would be the days of assigning a General Conference talk as the basis for sacrament meeting remarks, only to hear that talk parroted by each and every one of the speakers because the words were thought to be beyond challenging.
Maybe, we could have three or four different perspectives on that talk. Different readings of it that come from the speakers’ own lived experiences and expertise. I could perform a literary analysis, rooted in some sort of textual explication or intersections of postsecular-Marxist-intersectional feminist-queer theory. My brother (in med school) could weave in some discussion of the body and anatomy as a way of understanding what was shared. Cec could take a perspective of various therapy techniques, grounded in cutting-edge social science.
Or maybe, we could find a sense of unity by grounding ourselves more in our foundational Mormon texts: the Bible, the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine & Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price. We engage fiercely with what these texts ask of us and use them to be in kinship one with another.
I’m not calling for prophets to stop speaking. Or for us to stop listening to them. I LOVE the doctrine of continuing revelation. I believe that we need to work with God to find more ways to Love, both God and our neighbors, better. We are far from living up to the commandments that Christ has given us and continuing revelation will be an essential part of building Zion. Continuing revelation will help us create the community that Christ can return to. Continuing revelation will guide us as we strive to embody the principle that all are alike unto God. Continuing revelation will teach us how to live according to God’s ways, even while we recognize that they are higher than our ways. Without continuing revelation, the word of God has been revealed. God no longer needs to speak to us, we simply need to find God’s truth in the texts that have been given.
Continuing revelation demands eternal progression. If revelation is constantly flowing, the work is never done. If revelation stops, we may stop progressing. I don’t think we’re done yet and eagerly await what may yet be revealed and to continue to strive to bring to pass God’s work on this Earth.
Let’s wrap up with some questions that animate the journey to this communal ethic of prophetic fallibility that I believe we need to cultivate:
How do we balance community and maintaining unity as a Church with the belief in prophetic fallibility?
If “following the prophet” cannot be the same rigid standard that it currently is, what can replace it?
Does a more rigorous understanding of prophetic fallibility create a need for institutional accountability?
If so, what does that look like?
How do we atone for the mistakes of past or current prophets?
What do we do when there is disagreement about whether any given prophetic pronouncement is from God?
Do we need a unified response to everything the prophet says?
What are the limitations of prophetic fallibility?
Where is the burden of proof? Do we assume that a statement is from God until proven otherwise? Or do we assume a statement is mortal until proven Divine?
Can a global Church have a less-centralized hierarchy?
Does a stronger belief in prophetic fallibility necessitate a less-centralized power structure?
What are the consequences of this?
If prophets can be wrong, why believe in them?
If prophets can be wrong, how should we believe in them?
How do we express dissent when we feel, after prayerful consideration, that a prophet has said something not of God?
Are there limitations on the proper expressions of dissent?
What exactly is the place for alternate voices, or loyal opposition?
How do I filter out personal pride and blindspots when seeking revelation about the Divinity or lack thereof of any given prophetic pronouncement?
How do I ensure that in displacing the idol of prophetic authority, I don’t simply replace it with an idol of my own authority?
How do we prevent ourselves from building new idols that we worship instead of God as we tear down the old ones?
What does it mean to sustain a fallible prophet?
I hope and pray that we can consider these questions together, as Mormon comrades in Christ. Please, reach out to me with any thoughts and insights that you have.
And now, let us close with the words of Brother Levi Savage that guide much of my relationship with Mormonism:
“What I have said I know to be true; but seeing you are to go forward, I will go with you, will help all I can, will work with you, will rest with you, and if necessary, will die with you. May God in [His/Her/Their] mercy bless and preserve us.”
God be with all of us.