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Are Prophets Infallible?

W. John Walsh
Joseph Fielding McConkie
Jeff Lindsay

by W. John Walsh

The Lord reveals himself to mortal men and chooses them as servants.  The Holy Bible teaches:

"Surely the Lord God will do nothing, but he revealeth his secret unto his servants the prophets." (Amos 3:7)

These men, called prophets, have the responsibility to witness to the reality of Jesus Christ and the truths of his gospel. Yet Latter-day Saints believe that only Jesus Christ was free from all error and sin. Despite their divine commission, prophets and apostles are ordinary men trying their best to follow the Savior just like everyone else. Here are some teachings regarding the fallibility of the Church leaders:

Elder B.H. Roberts taught:

"The position is not assumed that the men of the New Dispensation —its prophets, apostles, presidencies, and other leaders—are without faults or infallible, rather they are treated as men of like passions with their fellow men." (James R. Clark, quoting B. H. Roberts, Messages of the First Presidency, Vol.4, p.xiv - p.xv)

President George Q. Cannon taught:

"The First Presidency cannot claim, individually or collectively, infallibility. The infallibility is not given to men. They are fallible." (Gospel Truth, 1:206)

"The Presidency of the Church have to walk just as you walk. They have to take steps just as you take steps. They have to depend upon the revelations of God as they come to them. They cannot see the end from the beginning as the Lord does. They have their faith tested as you have your faith tested. . . . It is just as necessary that the Presidency and the Apostles should be tried as it is that you should be tried. It is as necessary that our faith should be called into exercise as that your faith should be called into exercise. We can see a certain distance in the light of the Spirit of God as it reveals to us His mind and His will, and we can take these steps with perfect security, knowing that they are the right steps to be taken. But as to what the result will be, that is for the God of Israel to control. That is the way in which the Church of God has always been led, and it will always be led in that way until He comes who is our King, our Lawgiver and our President, even Jesus Christ." (Gospel Truth, 1:346)

President Boyd K. Packer taught:

"The prophets, as they walk and live among men, are common, ordinary men. Men called to apostolic positions are given a people to redeem. Theirs is the responsibility to lead those people in such a way that they win the battles of life and conquer the ordinary temptations and passions and challenges. And then, speaking figuratively, it is as though these prophets are tapped on the shoulder and reminded: "While you carry such responsibility to help others with their battles, you are not excused from your own challenges of life. You too will be subject to passions, temptations, challenges. Win those battles as best you can.  Some people are somehow dissatisfied to find in the leading servants of the Lord such ordinary mortals. They are disappointed that there is not some obvious mystery about those men; it is almost as if they are looking for the strange and the occult. To me, however, it is a great testimony that the prophets anciently and the prophets today are called out from the ranks of the ordinary men. It should not lessen our faith, for example, to learn that Elijah was discouraged at times, even despondent. (See 1Kgs.19:4.) This calling forth of ordinary men for extraordinary purposes is as evident during the Savior's earthly mission as in former and later eras." (The Holy Temple, p. 102)

Elder Joseph F. Merrill taught:

"Do the people of the Church want a safe guide to what is well for them to do? It is this: Keep in harmony with the Presidency of this Church. Accept and follow the teachings and advice of the President. At every Conference we raise our hands to sustain the President as prophet, seer and revelator. Is it consistent to do this and then go contrary to his advice? Is anyone so simple as to believe he is serving the Lord when he opposes the President? Of course, the President is not infallible. He makes no claims to infallibility. But when in his official capacity he teaches and advises the members of the Church relative to their duties, let no man who wants to please the Lord say aught against the counsels of the President." (CR 1941 Apr:51)

President Charles W. Penrose taught:

"We do not believe in the infallibility of man. When God reveals anything it is truth, and truth is infallible. No President of the Church has claimed infallibility." (IE 1912 Sep:1045)

As we can see, the Prophets and Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints do not claim absolute perfection or infallibility. We should also note that ancient prophets also presented the clear understanding that God's servants continued to sin or "make mistakes," and were thus fully human despite a divine commission:

"Noah occasionally drank wine to the point of drunkenness and unconsciousness (Genesis 9:21, 23). Abraham acquiesced in his wife's mistreatment of his second wife (Genesis 16:6). Jacob "with subtlety" and deception obtained his brother's blessing from his blind father Isaac (Genesis 27:12, 35), and also hated his first wife Leah (Genesis 29:30-31). Moses at the least committed manslaughter prior to his call as a prophet (Exodus 2:12-14), and after that call occasionally exhibited doubt in God's word, fierce anger, and boastful arrogance (Exodus 4:10-14, 5:22-23, 32:19; Numbers 20:10-12). The Lord had to intervene directly to prevent Samuel from choosing the wrong man as king (1 Samuel 16:6-7). Daniel sought forgiveness for his sins while prophet (Daniel 9:20). Jonah resisted the commandment of God to him (Jonah 1:2-3, 4:1) James and John, as apostles, delighted in the thought of their opponents being destroyed (Luke 9:52-56) and pridefully sought to elevate themselves above the rest of God's children in the eternities (Mark 10:35-38). Peter was impudent, boastful, arrogant, and cowardly as an apostle during the life of Jesus (Matthew 16:21-23, 26:69-75; John 13:8-9, 18:10-11). Despite Christ's command to send the Gospel to all nations at His ascension (Matthew 27:19; Mark 16:15; Luke 24:47), it required another specific revelation to Peter to persuade him that the Gospel should be taken to those who were not Jews (Acts 10-11), and even years after that revelation Peter continued to demonstrate his prejudice (Galatians 2:1,9,11-14). Nor did Peter hesitate to criticize the approach of his fellow apostle Paul in teaching the Gospel (2 Peter 3:15-16); Paul likewise boasted that he had publicly condemned Peter and "withstood him to the face, because he was to be blamed" (Galatians 2:11-14). Moreover, conflicts between Barnabus and Paul resulted in the disruption of their mission (Acts 13:2, 15:36-39)."

by Joseph Fielding McConkie

It comes as a matter of surprise to many people that Church leaders do not always have the same understanding of all gospel principles. That surprise reflects the confidence the members have in their leaders and suggests that they almost expect the leaders to be infallible. It also suggests that they equate priesthood offices with knowledge. It would be comfortable to suppose that among our leaders there are no unanswered questions and that a perfect equality of understanding exists. Realizing that each of us is responsible for our own understanding and that no two people are at exactly the same place in that process is an important lesson. It is also important to realize that we cannot always lean on others. To walk by borrowed light is necessary for a time and a season, but at some point it is expected that we take our place as the source of light for others.

There is room in the Church for differences of understanding. On matters about which the revelations are plain, however, there ought to be a unity of thought and faith. We need not put question marks at the end of revealed pronouncements. We sustain the man who stands at the head of the Church as the living constitution of the Church. We follow the direction he points and accept his voice as final where doctrinal differences may exist. Such authority must rest with him if the Lord's house is to be a house of order and if we are to avoid being tossed about by every wind of doctrine. This is simply to say that there is but one head, and in this sense, one spokesman, for the Church.

It is not to be expected, however, that every General Authority will be the equal of every other General Authority in doctrinal understanding any more than it is to be expected that every bishop have the same understanding as every other bishop or every Sunday School teacher have the same understanding as every other Sunday School teacher. It is common to see people change and improve their views in the process of serving. We should all find ourselves giving better answers to questions and preaching better doctrine with the passing of years. That is true at all levels of the Church. It is also to be expected that the present generation can and will improve upon the preceding generation. Surely we are obligated to improve upon what we have been given. There is danger that some may use that idea as justification to liberalize their views and move further and further from the mainstream of faith and truth. That is a shabby counterfeit to be guarded against. The greater danger rests in our refusing to move forward, announcing that what we have received is sufficient and that nothing more can be added to it. Warning against such an attitude the Lord said: "From them that shall say, We have enough, from them shall be taken away even that which they have" (2 Nephi 28:30).

Thus, in those instances when the views of one man reach beyond those of another, we ought to rejoice in the additional knowledge and in the realization that the process of spiritual growth is alive and well in the Church. To do so will require that we surrender our security blanket (or the notion that in this mortal world all are equal in understanding) and realize that learning the gospel is a process, not an office, and that each individual is responsible for what he or she chooses to believe and teach.

Answers: Straightforward Answers To Tough Gospel Questions
Copyright by Deseret Books

by Jeff Lindsay

Does the Bible teach the prophets are infallible? In some cases, we find prophets who sinned and were derelict in their duty, such as the prophet Jonah, who fled from a difficult assignment.

Prophets are mortals who receive the gift of prophecy from time to time, as God directs. Not all they do or say will be inspired. For Latter-day saints, we are not accountable to believe all that any Church leader ever said, but only those things which have been accepted and approved by consent of the leadership bodies of the Church - in a way similar to the way the Biblical canon was established. Not every word of Peter, James, and Paul, for example, was necessarily sacred, and some of them even made mistakes. But there were times when the power of God moved them to write scripture which others were inspired to recognize as scripture.

Moses wished that all his people could have the spirit of the Lord upon them enough that they could also act as prophets (Numbers 11:29):

And Moses said unto him, Enviest thou for my sake? would God that all the LORD'S people were prophets, and that the LORD would put his spirit upon them!

Having the Spirit of God move you from time to time does not make you perfect. Being a chosen and ordained prophet does not make every opinion true, nor does it make one superior in every area of knowledge. Reverend J.R. Dummelow (not LDS) described the authors of the Bible in terms that ought to be applied, in all fairness, to Joseph Smith as well:

"Though purified and ennobled by the influence of the His Holy Spirit, these men each had his own peculiarities of manner and disposition - each with his own education or want of education - each with his own way of looking at things - each influenced differently from one another by the different experiences and disciplines of his life. Their inspiration did not involve a suspension of their natural faculties; it did not make them free from earthly passion; it did not make them into machines - it left them men.

"Therefore we find their knowledge sometimes no higher than that of their contemporaries.... "(J.R. Dummelow, One Volume Bible Commentary, p. 85)

Hardly the megalomaniac portrayed in anti-Mormon literature, Joseph told members of the Church that he was but a man and that they could not expect perfection from him any more than he could expect it of them, "but if they would bear with my infirmities and the infirmities of the brethren, I would likewise bear with their infirmities" (History of the Church, Vol. 5, p. 181). Latter-day Saints do not believe in infallible prophets whose every word must be true.

Copyright by Jeff Lindsay

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