Prophets and church leaders–are they infallible?

A blog post questioning church leaders recently prompted me to do some personal study and pondering on the role of prophets and apostles and on how and why we should trust them.

I found that Elder M Russell Ballard, one of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints spoke just this past October on this subject.

He said: Though mortal and subject to human imperfection, the Lord’s servants are inspired to help us avoid obstacles that are spiritually life threatening and to help us pass safely through mortality to our final, ultimate, heavenly destination…..While neither perfect nor infallible, these good men and women have been perfectly dedicated to leading the work of the Lord forward as He has directed.”

This made a lot of sense to me. What ancient prophet was ever perfect? None of course, since all were human. Where did God ever tell us that His prophet had to perfect in order to be inspired? He didn’t. Prophets and Apostles aren’t superhumans. They are just people like you and me, called and enabled by God to do His work, despite their mortal frailties.

I like what Elder Holland said in regards to this in 2013:

Except in the case of His only perfect Begotten Son, imperfect people are all God has ever had to work with. That must be terribly frustrating to Him, but He deals with it. So should we. And when you see imperfection, remember that the limitation is not in the divinity of the work. As one gifted writer has suggested, when the infinite fulness is poured forth, it is not the oil’s fault if there is some loss because finite vessels can’t quite contain it all. Those finite vessels include you and me, so be patient and kind and forgiving.”

Elder Ballard, in the same most recent Conference talk, also said:

It has always been a challenge for the world to accept living prophets and apostles, but it is so essential to do so…..Too many people think Church leaders and members should be perfect or nearly perfect. They forget that the Lord’s grace is sufficient to accomplish His work through mortals. Our leaders have the best intentions, but sometimes we make mistakes. This is not unique to Church relationships, as the same thing occurs in our relationships among friends, neighbors, and workplace associates and even between spouses and in families.

Looking for human weakness in others is rather easy. However, we make a serious mistake by noticing only the human nature of one another and then failing to see God’s hand working through those He has called.
Focusing on how the Lord inspires His chosen leaders and how He moves the Saints to do remarkable and extraordinary things despite their humanity is one way that we hold on to the gospel of Jesus Christ…”

Like prophets and apostles of old, just because our leaders our imperfect does not mean that God is unable to work through them to lead His children. Despite their fallibility, God can use them to do His work, just as He is able to use each of us to bless others if we are willing.

But if they are fallible, how can we trust them? One answer is just what was said above—because it is God who is accomplishing His work through these mortals, we can trust God to do what He intends to do through them. We can trust that God is leading and inspiring them in the ways He knows they need in order for them to really understand His will and for God’s work to be accomplished. We can trust that God will remove or strike down a prophet who is perverting His work or not following His will.

What if, hypothetically, God didn’t stop a disobedient leader quickly enough (which sounds pretty ludicrous being God is all-knowing and all-powerful) and the leader gives a law or policy which is against God’s will. Will God’s children be punished for following the prophet or leader in good faith? Of course not. I can only imagine they will be blessed for sincerely striving to obey what they believe in God’s word through His servants, just as members of all the various religions in the world will be best for sincerely striving to do what they believe is right.

What if a person doesn’t believe that what the leader is saying is right? That can get tricky and is one of the more difficult parts off this test of life. There are some things that are obviously wrong like murder and abuse and a person can easily know that the leader is not following God if they promote that.

But in some other cases, teachings may just be difficult for our human minds to understand correctly or we may be blinded by our current society’s teachings and norms. I feel like the best thing to do is to pray and study and seek for a personal answer from God that it is His will, and until we get that answer we can in good faith continue to follow our church leaders who have been leading us right so far.

Back in 1979, Elder Boyd K. Packer talked about the crises of faith that some people experience when they hear of alleged wrongdoings of church leaders or are criticized for their following of imperfect leaders:

For instance, one young man was being constantly ridiculed by his co-workers for his activity in the Church. They claimed to know of a bishop who had cheated someone in business, or a stake president who had misrepresented something on a contract, or a mission president who had borrowed money, giving false information.

Or, they told of a bishop who had discriminated against one member, refusing to give a temple recommend, but had shown favoritism by signing a recommend for another whose unworthiness was widely known.

Such incidents as these, which supposedly involve Church leaders, are described as evidence that the gospel is not true, that the Church is not divinely inspired, or that it is being misled.”

I really like the questions this man was asked in regards to his situation. I think these are good questions to ask ourselves if we are ever in our own crisis of faith:

Have you ever, in your life, attended any Church meeting—priesthood meeting, sacrament meeting, Relief Society, Sunday School, a conference or fireside, a seminary class, a temple session, or any meeting sponsored by the Church—where any encouragement or authorization was given to be dishonest, to cheat in business, or take advantage of anyone?

He answered that he had not.

The next question:

Have you read, or do you know of anything in the literature of the Church, in the scriptures themselves, in lesson manuals, in Church magazines or books, in Church publications of any kind, which contains any consent to lie, or to steal, to misrepresent, to defraud, to be immoral or vulgar, to profane, to be brutal, or to abuse any living soul?

Again he said, after thoughtful consideration, that he had not.

Have you ever been encouraged in a training session, a leadership meeting, or an interview to transgress or misbehave in any way? Have you ever been encouraged to be extreme or unreasonable or intemperate?

He had not.

You are inside the Church where you can see at close hand the conduct of bishops or Relief Society presidents, of high councilors, stake presidents or General Authorities. Could such conduct be described as being typical of them?

He thought it could not.

You are active and have held positions in the Church. Surely, you would have noticed if the Church promoted any of these things in any way.

Yes, he thought he would have noticed.

Why then, I asked him, when you hear reports of this kind, should you feel that the Church is to blame?

There is no provision in the teachings or doctrines of the Church for any member to be dishonest, or immoral, or irresponsible, or even careless.

Have you not been taught all of your life, that if a member of the Church, particularly one in high position, is unworthy in any way, he acts against the standards of the Church? He is not in harmony with the teachings, the doctrines, or with the leadership of the Church.

Why, then, should your faith be shaken by this account, or that, of some alleged misconduct—most of them misrepresented or untrue?

Later, Elder Packer says of those who may be criticizing our faith or our church leaders:

Be careful of those who promote controversy and contention, “for verily, verily I say unto you, he that hath the spirit of contention is not of me,” saith the Lord (3 Ne. 11:29).

This next question concerns those who are shaking your faith. Are they really being fair? Could it be that they point to alleged misconduct, insinuating that the Church is responsible, to excuse themselves from living the high standards of the Church or to cover some failure to do so? You think about that—carefully.

Elder Packer then talks about what I wrote about earlier about the fallibility of all people, including those called by God to lead:

Now, does anyone holding a responsible position in the Church ever act unworthily?

The answer: of course, it happens. It is an exception, but it happens.

When we call a man to be a stake president or a bishop, for instance, we say, in effect:

Here is a congregation. You are to preside over them. They are under constant temptation, and you are to see that they win that battle. Govern them in such a way that they can succeed. Devote yourself unselfishly to this cause.

And, incidentally, while you preside, you are not excused from your own trials and temptations. They will, in fact, be increased because you are a leader. Win your own battle as best you can.”

If a leader does conduct himself unworthily, his actions fly against everything the Church stands for, and he is subject to release.”

I appreciated the counsel President Packer gave when we hear of anyone’s alleged misconduct:

When you hear stories, be wise. Unless you are in all the interviews, and hear all the evidence, you are not in a position to really know. Be careful, lest you jump to a confusion.

Unless you are a participant and have full knowledge, better:

Judge not, that ye be not judged.

For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged.” (Matt. 7:1–2.)

Elder Packer ended this great talk with this testimony:

Now then, stand steady. Keep your faith. I bear witness that the gospel of Jesus Christ is true. God lives and directs this work. The Church is on the right course. It is on schedule. And I bear witness that it is righteously led by a prophet of God.

Things that now are stumbling blocks may, one day soon, be stepping-stones for you.

But do not expect to see the day when this Church, or those in it, will be free from resistance, criticism, even persecution. That will never be.

Just remember:

Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake.

Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you.” (Matt. 5:11–12.)

The men called by and led by God may be imperfect and fallible human beings, but they are still capable of being instruments in His hands. We can trust God. Seek God’s assurances and confirmations. Don’t jump to conclusions that cause confusion. Don’t let society’s reviling shake your faith, we are in the same shoes as countless followers of God before us and can follow their example of faith and obedience. God will take care of us. I wish you all the help you need on your journey through life.

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