Reasons for Following Imperfect Prophets

Last week, the Church released an official statement from President Nelson regarding the Church’s name and an accompanying update to the style guide. The Bloggernacle was unimpressed.[ref]I’m going to use “Bloggernacle” to refer to the overall Mormon social media community until somebody shows me a better name.[/ref] This isn’t really a surprise, of course. Looking cool and looking impressed are usually mutually exclusive, and since social media’s primary function is personal brand management, looking impressed is decidedly rare. Still, it got me thinking. If prophets are imperfect, why should we follow them?

Before I get to that–and it’s a question I don’t ask rhetorically–I may as well get a couple of thoughts about the announcement itself out of the way. First, I draw a distinction between President Nelson’s short statement, which (in it’s entirety) states:

The Lord has impressed upon my mind the importance of the name He has revealed for His Church, even The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. We have work before us to bring ourselves in harmony with His will. In recent weeks, various Church leaders and departments have initiated the necessary steps to do so. Additional information about this important matter will be made available in the coming months.

and the new style guide which (in part) states that “the terms ‘members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ or ‘Latter-day Saints’ are preferred [to ‘Mormons’]” and that “the term ‘the restored gospel of Jesus Christ’ is accurate and preferred [to ‘Mormonism’].”

I take President Nelson’s statement seriously because when someone that I sustain as a prophet says “the Lord has impressed upon my mind” then I’m going to pay close attention to whatever follows. Moreover, President Nelson’s statement was one of principle. The Lord named His Church, and He did so for a reason. Seems reasonable that we ought to pay attention to that. How exactly does that work out in practice? I don’t know. Based on President Nelson’s statement, it’s something we’re going to learn more about over a longish time-frame (months).

The Newsroom style guide, on the other hand, seems a bit silly. As a purely practical matter, no one is going to start saying “members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints” instead of “Mormons”. That’s like, an order of magnitude more syllables. It’s a non-starter. Nor do I think anyone is going to start calling it “the restored gospel of Jesus Christ” instead of “Mormonism”. We may as well ask people to just start calling us “the one, true Church” while we’re at it and see how that goes over. And the irony of a style guide discouraging the use of the word “Mormon” (in most contexts) at the URL MormonNewsroom.org sort of speaks for itself.

Still, the whole thing is an interesting case study. The stakes are pretty low here, relative to a lot of the controversies that frequently swirl among the Latter-day Saints, and the issue isn’t overtly political in ways that, say, ordination of women or the status of same-sex marriage are. Let’s suppose–for the sake of argument–that the style guide suggestions I just disparaged actually get reinforced by President Nelson over the pulpit at the next General Conference. Am I willing to go along with something that seems relatively benign but decidedly silly if it comes from a prophet?

Something worth thinking about.

So, without further ado, here is a non-exhaustive list of reasons to follow imperfect prophets:

Specialization / Expertise

We may want to heed what a prophet says for more or less the same reason we take a lawyer’s advice on law, a doctor’s advice on medicine, or a plumber’s advice on plumbing. All of these people have received special training but–more importantly, I would argue–they spend their time working within a narrow area of expertise. Attuning oneself to the Spirit and seeking out revelation are certainly far from the only jobs a General Authority has, but they are also certainly somewhere in the job description.

Personal Integrity

If you’re a Latter-day Saint who has sustained the General Authorities as prophets, seers, and revelators then you ought to do so under the general rule that people should do what they say that they are going to do.

Unity

If we as a people heed the words of the General Authorities, than we as a people have a common focal point. This is one of the lessons that I got out of studying game theory: sometimes it doesn’t really matter what solution people pick. The simple fact of having a single solution for everybody becomes the most important thing.

Love

Other people might feel a great deal of love for our leaders, but personally I do not. It’s not that I have any negative feelings, I just don’t have any great attachment at all to individuals I’ve never interacted with personally. So, I’m not talking about love of the General Authorities. I’m talking about love of our Heavenly Father. It’s not a question of simply transferring or redirecting love of God to love of His chosen servants. That would be essentially idolatry. It’s a question of accepting that if God put somebody in a position of authority, then sustaining that person isn’t primarily about my relationship with that person. It’s about my relationship with God. I don’t sustain my leaders–local or general–because I think they are special. I do so because, as I understand it, God asked me to.

Note that none of these reasons require the prophet always being right. That’s not an option. Prophets aren’t infallible. Which, in this context, I take to mean that prophets don’t always get revelation. Sometimes they do. Sometimes they do not. And, more importantly, prophets don’t necessarily know the difference.

But we still generally listen to experts even though they aren’t perfect. We should still honor our commitment to sustain leaders even if they’re imperfect. Having a leader still helps to unify a community even if the leader is imperfect. And it would be a poor variety of love indeed, if I only respected my Heavenly Father’s designated leaders on condition of perfection.

That’s not to say that fallibility doesn’t matter. If our leaders are infallible–and they are–then we can’t fall asleep. We can’t sign over our moral agency to our leaders and let them make our decisions for us. There are plenty of other reasons we can’t do this, of course, including the simple fact that General Authorities don’t give enough personalized guidance to make that possible. But their imperfection is just one more reminder that we are ultimately responsible for our own decisions, no matter what our General Authorities do.

Finally, I think it’s worth noting that authority is not on my list. That’s because it’s not a good reason to follow an imperfect–or a perfect–prophet. If a prophet were perfect, you wouldn’t need to rely on authority. And since they are not, you cannot. This isn’t to say authority is irrelevant. Of course it’s relevant, but it is relevant primarily as a matter of scope. Bishops receive revelation (imperfectly) for their wards, stake presidents for their stakes, and so on. Authority tells you who a leader can receive revelation for, but it can’t and won’t tell you that you should follow that revelation. Authority cannot be a means of coercing compliance in God’s Kingdom.

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