My question about what precisely we mean when we say that the prophet will never lead the Church astray came up on another thread. I’d like to explore that question here. A few notes to begin the discussion:
(1) Somewhere on T & S, Adam said that he thought the highest and best purpose of T & S was not to question the doctrine of the Church, but to tease out the implications of that doctrine. Adam, correct me if I am misrepresenting your thought. In any case, that is what I want to do here: start with the premise that the statement “The prophet will never lead the Church astray” is true, and try to figure out what it means. If you want to question that premise, start your own thread.
(2) Maybe another way to explain (1) would be to quote from Jim’s Element article about the idea that God has a body:
“It is as if to say obliquely, ‘I do not understand fully what it means to say that God is embodied, but I am confident that it is true.’ I share that confidence. Nevertheless, I find it difficult to talk philosophically about divine embodiment. My question in this essay is not whether the Father and the Son are embodied, but how to understand philosophically the claim that they are.”
This is how I feel: confidence that the idea is true, much less confident that I understand exactly what it means.
(3) To begin, I am not sure whether we should deem the phrase scriptural. We find the phrase not in OD-1, but in the “excerpts from three addresses by President Wilford Woodruff regarding the manifesto” that follow OD-1. Are those excerpts canonized? Does it matter?
(4) I spent some time in GospeLink and www.lds.org researching this phrase. While my work was by no means exhaustive, I think I can safely conclude this: the phrase is repeated a lot. What I couldn’t find, though, was an explanation of what it meant. Maybe it is obvious to everyone but me, but it seems that there are two possible extremes in interpreting this phrase:
(a) the prophet will never do or say anything in his capacity as prophet that is incorrect. I suppose we need to consider this option, but it seems to me that it is problematic because it smacks up against the idea that the prophet is fallible. In what sense is he fallible if he never does or says anything incorrect?
(b) and, on the other extreme, the prophet will never mess things up to such an extent that some people (one person? 100? 100,000? everyone?) will have their salvation in question. There’s a problem with this, too. Let’s say that the prophet decided to replace temple worship with the sacrifice of missionaries to volcanoes. (work with me here.) That seems as if it would jeopardize the salvation of lots of people. However, I also think that God could fix this. (God can fix anything.) So, this extreme seems to unravel: even if the prophet were off course enough to really mess up the kingdom, God could fix it eventually, therefore the Church wouldn’t be led astray. But this reduces the statement to meaninglessness.
(5) I suppose the solution might lie in avoiding the extremes and taking a middle course. If so, how/where do we draw the line on what we expect from the prophet?
(6) Another possibility would avoid the above dilemma. But, it is one with which I am not personally comfortable but perhaps need to work on: the idea that maybe the prophet will mess up to any greater or lesser extent, but it doesn’t matter, because we should follow him anyway, and will be blessed for doing so, even if we know the counsel is wrong. Anyone want to call me to repentence for having a hard time with this one?
(7) Conclusion: I think this is an interesting thought experiment, but the reality is I can’t think of anything Pres. Hinckley has said that stresses me out. Stay away from porn, stay out of debt, spend more time with your family, etc., make all of the above seem like petty wrangling in the face of good, solid, inspired advice that we’d all do well to follow.