Does God Authorize His Prophets to Make Mistakes?

By Steve Densley Jr.

Jared: I read this recently and wanted pass it on to you.

Within the past year, the Church published an article addressing the fact that for a long period in the Church’s history, black men were not allowed to be ordained to the priesthood.[i] The article acknowledged that leaders of the Church gave explanations for the ban that we now recognize as being incorrect. For some people, this article has raised as many questions as it answered. While many have experienced a sense of relief in seeing the Church disavow explanations for the ban that denigrated those of African descent, others have experienced a new sense of anxiety over the question of the extent to which we can rely on the teachings of the prophets and apostles. And to what extent can we be confident that the policies adopted by the Church are ordained of God?

Terryl and Fiona Givens directly addressed the question of prophetic infallibility in their book Crucible of Doubt: Reflections on the Quest for Faith. Terryl Givens has earlier, if only briefly, addressed this question, in his “Letter to a Doubter.”[ii] In their new book, the Givenses expand on this issue. The “Letter to a Doubter” essentially limited itself to a discussion of the fact that prophets are human, and humans make mistakes. However, chapter six of The Crucible of Doubt goes into more depth regarding the principles of delegation of authority and prophets as agents for God.

The concept of God delegating his authority to men on Earth and making them His agents, who act on His behalf, is not a new one. However, the Givenses discuss the concept in a way that may help illuminate the mechanism by which prophets act on God’s behalf and why doing so does not ensure that mistakes will not be made by God’s agents.

The title of chapter six is “On Delegation and Discipleship: The Ring of Pharaoh.” This title is a reference to the story of Joseph of Egypt:

When Joseph of the many-colored coat had gained Pharaoh’s complete trust and confidence, “Pharaoh took off his ring from his hand, and put it upon Joseph’s hand.” With this gesture, Pharaoh transferred his own power and authority to the former Hebrew slave. “Without your consent,” the Pharaoh told him, “no one shall lift up hand or foot in all the land of Egypt.”[iii]

Of course, when authority is delegated, it does not mean that the agent will always do precisely what is intended by the one delegating authority. This is obvious in the context of human interactions. However, we sometimes may hope and expect that when God delegates authority to a prophet, that the human in this scenario will somehow rise to the level of perfection inhabited by the one who has delegated the authority; that if one is acting for God, one will act like God. However, the scriptures do not give us this assurance.

In fact, the scriptures provide plenty of examples of prophets making mistakes and acting in ways that could be considered ungodly. For example, Moses disobeyed God’s instruction to speak to the rock and instead hit it. He then attributed the miracle to himself and Aaron, saying, “Must we fetch you water out of this rock?” He was chastised by the Lord afterward. (Numbers 20.) Nathan told David that the Lord approved of his desire to build a temple, and that he should commence the project. The Lord later told Nathan that such was not His desire, and that he was to tell David that the temple would be built by another. (2 Samuel 7.) And Jonah felt some personal prejudices against Assyrians, to the point of expecting the Lord to give them fewer blessings than to Jews. (Jonah 4.)

So prophets can guide us and direct us, but they can also test our faith, not just in calling us to live on a higher plane, but also in demonstrating that they do not always reach a higher plane themselves. In light of this, the Givenses note:

And if delegation is a real principle—if God really does endow mortals with the authority to act in His place and with His authority, even while He knows they will not act with infallible judgment—then it becomes clearer why God is asking us to receive the words of the prophet “as if from mine own mouth, in all patience and faith.”[iv]

Of course, most of us are familiar with the observation made by Joseph Smith that “a prophet [is] a prophet only when he [is] acting as such” (HC 5:265). We also often hear repeated the scripture, “whether by mine own voice or by the voice of my servants, it is the same.” (D&C 1:38.) When these two statements are considered at once, we may tend to think that if we can just determine whether or not a prophet is acting as a prophet, or as God’s “servant,” we will know whether or not we can consider his words to be the infallible words of God. It may seem that if the president of the Church makes a statement that we later learn to be untrue, or enacts a policy that seems to have been mistaken, we can find comfort in the notion that the man may not have been acting on behalf of God on those occasions. This becomes more difficult, however, when a statement is made, or a policy announced, in General Conference, or on Church letterhead along with the signatures or other members of the First Presidency.

But perhaps in thinking this, we have misunderstood the principle of delegation of authority. For example, while there are statements that have been understood to mean that prophets, or God’s servants, cannot err when acting as God’s servants, the scriptures themselves undercut this interpretation. For example, while D&C Section 1 says “whether by mine own voice or by the voice of my servants, it is the same,” a few verses earlier, we read:

Behold, I am God and have spoken it; these commandments are of me, and were given unto my servants in their weakness, after the manner of their language, that they might come to understanding. And inasmuch as they erred it might be made known; And inasmuch as they sought wisdom they might be instructed; And inasmuch as they sinned they might be chastened, that they might repent; And inasmuch as they were humble they might be made strong, and blessed from on high, and receive knowledge from time to time.

(D&C 1:24-28; emphasis added).

Another commonly quoted statement in support of the concept of prophetic inerrancy is that of Wilford Woodruff, when, speaking of abandoning the practice of polygamy, he said:

The Lord will never permit me or any other man who stands as President of this Church to lead you astray. It is not in the programme. It is not in the mind of God. If I were to attempt that, the Lord would remove me out of my place, and so He will any other man who attempts to lead the children of men astray from the oracles of God and from their duty. [v]

However, in addition to the aforementioned reasons to doubt that this statement supports the view that prophets cannot make mistakes, Elders Packer and Uchtdorf have given us additional reasons to doubt this conclusion. Elder Uchtdorf said, “This is the Church of Jesus Christ. God will not allow His Church to drift from its appointed course or fail to fulfill its divine destiny.”[vi] Elder Packer added that “…even with the best of intentions, it [the governance of the Church by mortal priesthood holders] does not always work the way it should. Human nature may express itself on occasion, but not to the permanent injury of the work.”[vii] In other words, while leaders can make mistakes, God will not allow the leaders to utterly destroy the work of the latter-day Church or cause the members to lose their opportunity to receive exaltation.

So when God says that the prophet is His agent on Earth, perhaps He is not saying that, when acting as the prophet, the man will always do exactly what God wants any more than by giving Joseph his ring, Pharaoh was assuring the people of Egypt that Joseph would always do exactly what Pharaoh would have done in his place. Right or wrong, the people of Egypt were to consider Joseph’s actions to be the actions of Pharaoh and were to be bound by Joseph’s words and actions as if they were the words and actions of Pharaoh.

Of course, this principle is not limited to the delegation of authority to a prophet. The Givenses ask “If a bishop makes a decision without inspiration, are we bound to sustain the decision?” And what if an apostle makes a mistake in calling a stake president?

The story is told of a Church official who returned from installing a new stake presidency. “Dad, do you Brethren feel confident when you call a man as the stake president that he is the Lord’s man?” the official’s son asked upon his father’s return home. “No, not always,” he replied. “But once we call him, he becomes the Lord’s man.” The answer disconcerts initially. Is this not hubris, to expect God’s sanction for a decision made in error? Perhaps. It is also possible that the reply reveals the only understanding of delegation that is viable.[viii]

The Givenses continue by observing:

If God honored only those decisions made in perfect accord with His perfect wisdom, then His purposes would require leaders who were utterly incapable of misconstruing His intention, who never missed hearing the still small voice, who were unerringly and unfailingly a perfect conduit for heaven’s inspiration. And it would render the principle of delegation inoperative. The Pharaoh didn’t say to Joseph, your authority extends as far as you anticipate perfectly what I would do in every instance. He gave Joseph his ring…. And after calling Joseph Smith to his mission, the Lord didn’t say, I will stand by you as long as you never err in judgment. He said, “Thou wast called and chosen. . . . Devote all thy service in Zion; and . . . lo, I am with thee, even unto the end.”[ix]

In light of all this, what are we to believe, ask the Givenses, when confronted by “faith-wrenching practices (polygamy), missteps and errors (Adam-God), and teachings that the Church has abandoned but not fully explained (the priesthood ban).”[x] In response, they quote the Anglican churchman Austin Farrer, who said “Facts are not determined by authority. Authority can make law to be law; authority cannot make facts to be facts.”[xi] To this, they add the words of Henry Eyring, who once quoted his father as saying, “in this church you don’t have to believe anything that isn’t true.”[xii]

Of course, while we may harbor misgivings in our minds regarding some policy, teaching or practice, how are we to act when confronted with doubts about whether or not an agent of God is actually doing God’s will? In response to this issue, Farrer is again quoted: “If Peter and his colleagues make law in applying the Lord’s precepts, . . . their law is the law of Christ’s Church, the best (if you will) that God’s Spirit can make with human instruments there and then, and, as such, to be obeyed as the will of God Himself. But to call Peter infallible in this connection is to misplace an epithet.”[xiii]

To carry the metaphor of agency and delegation further, we can consider the legal realm. What recourse exists against a principle when the agent causes some harm? Under the doctrine of agency law, if a person is injured by an agent who is acting under the authority of the principle, the principle will be liable for the harm and is required to set things right. Of course, while all wrongs and injustices have not yet been set right in this imperfect world, Christ has already paid the price for such wrongs. In other words, the miracle of delegation of divine authority does not ensure that the agent will always act according to God’s will. Rather, it ensures that God will guarantee the actions of the agent, and if the actions are wrong, through Christ’s atonement, all will be made right in the end. Indeed, even those things that can cause fear, doubt and pain can be made to benefit us in the end:

One comfort is to be found in a God whose power is in His magnanimity as well as His wisdom. These two traits mean that His divine energies are spent not in precluding chaos but in reordering it, not in preventing suffering but in alchemizing it, not in disallowing error but in transmuting it into goodness.[xiv]

Even the agents of God, even when acting as God’s agents, can cause fear, pain and confusion in this world. Although this may frustrate us, it does not frustrate God’s plan. In closing, we are reminded that the words of God’s servants can provide comfort and direction, even when counseling us regarding the imperfect words and actions of God’s servants themselves:

“Imperfect people are all God has ever had to work with,” reminds Elder Jeffrey Holland. “That must be terribly frustrating to Him, but He deals with it. So should we.” Generosity with our own inept attempts to serve and minister to each other in a lay church, charity toward those in leadership who, as President Dieter Uchtdorf noted, have “said or done [things] that were not in harmony with our values, principles, or doctrine,” and faith in Christ’s Atonement that makes up the human deficit—these could be the balm of Gilead for which both wounded disciples and striving leaders seek.[xv]

[i] Race and the Priesthood.

[ii] Terryl L. Givens, “Letter to a Doubter,” Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 4 (2013): 131-146. An audio version was published on FairMormon Blog.

[iii] Terryl Givens & Fiona Givens, The Crucible of Doubt (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2014), 73, citing Genesis 41:42 & 44, NRSV.

[iv] Givens & Givens, 75, citing D&C 21:5 (emphasis added).

[v] Sixty-first Semiannual General Conference of the Church, Monday, 6 October 1890, Salt Lake City, Utah. Reported in Deseret Evening News (11 October 1890): 2; cited in LDS scriptures after Official Declaration 1.

[vi] Dieter F. Uchtdorf, “Come Join With Us,” general conference, October 2013.

[vii] Boyd K. Packer, “”I Say unto You, Be One,’” in BYU Devotional and Fireside Speeches, 1990–1991 (Provo, Utah: University Publications, 1991), 84, emphasis added.

[viii] Givens & Givens, 75-76, citing a personal conversation reported to authors by Robert L. Millet.

[ix] Ibid., 76, quoting D&C 24:1, 7, 8.

[x] Ibid., 74.

[xi] Ibid., 74, quoting Austin Farrer, “Infallibility and Historical Tradition,” in The Truth-Seeking Heart, ed. Ann Loades and Robert MacSwain (Norwich: Canterbury Press, 2006), 83.

[xii] Ibid., 74, quoting Henry J. Eyring, Mormon Scientist: The Life and Faith of Henry Eyring (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2007), 4.

[xiii] Ibid., 74-75, quoting Farrer, “Infallibility,” 83–84.

[xiv] Ibid., 78.

[xv] Ibid., 82, quoting Jeffrey R. Holland, “Lord, I Believe,” Ensign, May 2013, 94 and Dieter F. Uchtdorf, “Come, Join with Us,” Ensign, November 2013, 22.

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