I don't often repeat clichéd Mormon expressions of unabashed, enthusiastic, faith, but here goes:
General Conference is a spiritual feast.
It is not an impeccable feast. There are always a few talks that don't interest me, and to be honest, there's usually at least one talk that offends me. Some of the talks are eloquent, some appeal to my intellect, and some of the speakers are able to stir my soul. Before I had kids, I dozed off during the Sunday afternoon session. Now, I'm too busy feeding people and monitoring the chaos that's happening in my house to fall asleep. Of course, that means that I also miss some of the content. So General Conference is not a perfect experience, but it leaves me feeling nourished and refreshed. By the end of the weekend, a very deep place in my heart has been filled.
There is one talk that I have not yet heard, but very much long to hear from that pulpit: an honest, thorough, nuanced description of what it means to be a Prophet in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I want to hear the themes of prophetic fallibility that President Uchtdorf touched on in 2013 more fully articulated by our leaders.
Because there is one polarizing argument that crops up every time a controversy breaks over a church-related issue. I've probably heard it — or read it — expressed by church members hundreds of times, over the pulpit, on blogs, on Facebook. Here's my paraphrase:
Either the Church is led by God, or it's led by man. Either our leaders are Prophets of God teaching correct doctrines, or they are false Prophets.
In this dichotomy, the question of whether the Church is "true" is an all or nothing proposition, and there are only two possibilities for the President of the Church: Either he's a false Prophet, or he's a completely-correct-in-every-doctrine-Prophet.
But with even a little bit of research into the history of the Church, we find that Prophets of the past have, on occasion, taught doctrines that turned out to be incorrect. Not true for their time, not true for any time. Completely, totally false.
The most obvious example is probably the Church's past teachings on race. We may rejoice that those teachings have now been disavowed. But though the article on lds.org uses the word "theories" to describe the teachings, suggesting that they were perhaps not doctrinal, it is clear from primary source documents that these ideas were taught as doctrine by the First Presidency. Here is a link to a First Presidency letter written in 1949, found at the pro-Mormon website, FAIR. Here is a link to a correspondence between Lowry Nelson, a member troubled by the Church's racial policies, and the First Presidency.
In their letters to Nelson, the First Presidency reiterates the doctrines of racial inferiority that we find so repugnant today. And they include these statements:
We feel very sure that you understand well the doctrines of the church. They are either true or not true. It is our testimony that they are true. Nov. 12, 1947As a Latter-day Saint living in 2014, as a member of a Church that has disavowed the very doctrines of which the First Presidency bore testimony, the irony of those words is almost too much to bear.
What do we, as members of the Church, do with painful revelations like these about the mistakes in our past? In my view, holding on to the dichotomy of infallible Prophet vs. false Prophet forces us to conclude that past Presidents of the Church were indeed false prophets. This dichotomy weakens faith and leads some of us out of the Church. Some stay, but are left with troubling doubts that they are afraid to talk about. Others seem to hold onto the all-or-nothing mentality by ignoring or rejecting any evidence that Prophets made doctrinal mistakes.
But it does not need to be this way. I believe that as a Church, we are mature enough for a more nuanced understanding of Prophets and revelation. We're ready. And we need to talk about this. Not just on the bloggernacle, not just on Facebook, not just in private conversations. We need the General Authorities whom we sustain as our leaders to help us navigate the complexities of hearing from God through a living Prophet — an imperfect, fallible, inspired, living Prophet of God.
I appreciate the sensitive nature of this topic, and I can only imagine the difficulty in writing a General Conference talk addressing the issue. Such a talk would no doubt fail to satisfy every member of the Church. It would not answer every question nor clear up all confusion. It would probably leave some members disappointed or troubled. But we're used to that. We can handle it. For some members, the recent talk by Elder Oaks in the April Priesthood session of conference was a powerful clarification of women's roles in the priesthood. For others, it raised more questions than it answered. That's okay. We don't need all of the answers yet. But we need to at least grapple with the questions.
What does it mean to be led by God? What does it mean to sustain Prophets? What does it mean to trust them? How are we to reconcile ourselves to the fact that some of the "revealed doctrines" of the past are now recognized as incorrect and, in some cases, morally objectionable? And what are the implications for the revealed doctrines that we receive today?
"For we know in part, and we prophesy in part." It is my prayer that our leaders will be increasingly open about the issue of prophetic fallibility. I hope that this will be a great blessing to the Church, as we wait for that which is perfect to come.