Prophets are probably one of the stickiest bits of Mormon doctrine for prog-mo’s like myself. I was chatting with a friend (shout-out to Bobby) about the founding of Mormonism and what the ‘distinctive’ doctrines are a few weeks ago and was confronted with how to explain what I view the role of prophets to be. It wasn’t that I haven’t thought about it before (I mean, I wrote this blog post a year and half ago…), but I’ve been pre-occupied with thoughts about the prophetic mantle recently.
There’s a lot of angst in progressive and intellectual Mormon circles over the lack of leadership that the Church shows on any number of issues that seem to be of vital importance (particularly ones that dear Pope Francis addresses, who is often hailed as a great spiritual leader in our day). I mean, it seems like if God is truly directing the Church, then surely the Church would be on the forefront of the fight for all that is good and just (rather than seeming to always be a bit behind—civil rights and the ERA being historical examples, usually with marriage equality thrown in as an issue that will be treated differently in the future than it is today. An assertion that more traditional Mormons would surely protest.).
Yet, I don’t know if this is necessarily the role of the prophet. Nor if it can be the case given the development of the Church. Now here’s where my ideas on what prophets should do come in, as well as what I perceive to be the reality of prophetic fallibility.
GUIDE THE FLOCK
I think that the role of the prophet is to teach of Christ. I take that from a couple of verses in scripture, not necessarily explicitly defining the role of a prophet, but that ring true for me as to what prophets should do.
“And we talk of Christ, we rejoice in Christ, we preach of Christ, we prophesy of Christ, and we write according to our prophecies, that our children may know to what source they may look for a remission of their sins.” -2 Nephi 27:26
This was my go to verse as a missionary to explain the role of prophets. I think the focus should always be on Christ. That’s not to say that prophets can’t speak about other stuff, but that their primary responsibility is to testify of Christ and to point all of us back to the Savior. I think there’s power in contemporary voices being added to the witnesses found in scripture, providing something slightly different than just reading the words of those long dead provides.
“…for the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy.” – Revelation 19:10
This verse is similar to the last, but explicitly links the ‘spirit of prophecy’ to a ‘testimony of Jesus,’ which as I’m thinking about it is open to anything that is inspired by a testimony in Christ to being done in the spirit of prophecy (it might actually be totally wrong to use spirit of prophecy in that way. I’m not sure of the translation and the usage of ‘spirit,’ but it fits within modern English usage, which provides an interesting insight, even if it may not be linguistically or historically intended).
Within this idea, I have come to view the prophet as the guardian over the ‘flock’ that makes up the Church membership and people of the world generally. It seems to me that the prophet is meant first and foremost to help those in the Church to stay in the Church and move closer to Christ. As almost all large organizations, the Church is conservative and resistant to change. This has come to be reflected in the membership and I think that dynamic changes along politically progressive lines would serve as a shock to the membership in ways that would potentially alienate huge swaths of members from the Church, driving them away from Christ. The other side is that hoping to slowly move the membership of the Church to a more loving, Christlike place is currently alienating untold numbers and prohibiting others from joining (anecdotally I’ve heard that the Brethren are immensely concerned with the links between the Church and solely politically conservative ideology). It then seems to become a sort of utilitarian calculus of how many souls are hurt/lost by acting in each way and that’s a bit concerning to me. Which is one of the reasons that the idea of guardian of the flock is appealing, but doesn’t totally satisfy me.
Viewing the prophet as a guardian, trying to conserve the salvation so to speak of the Church members is also filtered through the idea of prophetic fallibility. Prophets are people too, who can (and do) make mistakes. We often say things like this, but I have yet to participate in a discussion at Church that really explored how to grapple with the idea of prophets being subject to error. I personally am a fan of Pres. J. Reuban Clark’s address “When are the Writings and Sermons of Church Leaders Entitled to the Claim of Scripture?”.
Here’s what I think the central quote of that address is:
“The very words of the revelation [Doctrine and Covenants 68, particularly versus 2-4] recognize that the Brethren may speak when they are not “moved upon by the Holy Ghost”; yet only when they do speak as “moved upon” is what they say considered scripture. No exceptions are given to this rule or principle. It is universal in its application.
The question is, how shall we know when the things they have spoken were said as they were “moved upon by the Holy Ghost”? I have given some thought to this question, and the answer thereto, so far as I can determine, is: We can tell when the speakers are “moved upon by the Holy Ghost” only when we, ourselves, are “moved upon by the Holy Ghost.” In a way, this completely shifts the responsibility from them to us to determine when they so speak.”
I love this. It makes things more challenging, but involves the individual aspect of personal revelation that I love about Mormonism. It’s also one of the most open acknowledgments of prophetic fallibility that I’ve found.
This is where the messiness really lies. How can I properly sort out what is truth, from what I (in my fallen, prejudiced state) think should be true, when I can’t simply take whatever is spoken from the pulpit at GenConf? I have to work out what the Spirit is telling me from my own personal responses to what is said. There’s a saying about knowing that something is wrong when God seems to hate all the same people that you do, a concern given the reality of needing to follow the Spirit to know what is and isn’t scripture.
Yet, this is really the only way forward that I’ve been able to find. And it makes sense, given how I understand the relationship that prophets have with God—the same one that I do. There’re a few quotes and some anecdotal experience where Apostles and Prophets suggest that they have the same source for their testimony that any and all of us do. Some people really want the Brethren to have their belief and faith grounded in some sort of grand spiritual experience that sets them apart from the run-of-the-mill Mormons. I personally find that idea incredibly off-putting. It seems much more natural to be for the leadership to be no different than the rest of us—subject to human folly, biases, personal agendas, etc. For me, this also clearly becomes a factor in change happening in the Church.
Sure, God could be like “Yo, Tommy—let’s shake things up. You’re totally off about x, y, and z.” But, my experiences with receiving revelation are rarely like that. Usually it’s when I’m pondering a question and trying to work through possibilities and answers tend to be little bits and pieces that frequently rely on me to use what talents I have to put them together. It’s unlikely that God’s going to tell whoever the Prophet is something that is totally foreign to them and outside the world that they’ve experienced. I’m not trying to limit God, He/She/They could, I just don’t think they would.
All of this comes to what could be the most important question: given all of this, how do I sustain the prophet?
Well, first of all I reject the idea that sustaining is the same as obeying every word that passes from the prophet’s lips. For me, the idea is much more involved than that and is beautifully explored here on By Common Consent.
Since I think the prophets and apostles are basically like each and all of us, they need support and love just like we all do. That I think is the essence of sustaining. Of doing my best to make their calling and work easier, by showing care and love for those around me. I probably won’t personally interact with them or be able to lift their figurative arms as they fall from the weight of the burden they carry, but I can do something where I am. I can try to spread love and kindness, comforting those in need of comfort and mourning with those that mourn.
Honestly, I don’t know the best way that I can sustain Church leadership. I don’t know what they need or how I could give it to them. I listen to their words and pray to have the spirit with me, so I can feel what is true and what I should do. I don’t always agree, but more and more I feel the love they have for me and others.
I no longer think of the prophet as a spiritual magician and shell to be filled by Christ every six months. I believe that God inspires prophets to guide us today. I believe that I have something to give in my sustaining, that the request for sustaining is a recognition that leaders need help as they stumble through mortality along with the rest of us. I sustain my leaders, not because I think they’re perfect, infallible oracles, but because they’re deeply human—fallible, imperfect, well-intentioned—and all humans need somebody to lean on.