Jeff Lindsay discusses the fallibility of Church leaders; in spite of their failings, they are to be respected and sustained by Church members.

Mar 20, 2004
Jeff Lindsay

Jeff Lindsay, "On the Fallibility of Inspired Human Leaders in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,", March 20, 2004, accessed April 29, 2024

Jeff Lindsay
Jeff Lindsay
Internet Public

Fallible Prophets--A Scriptural Truth

Many critics of the Church, and some critics within, ridicule the concept of revelation in the Church. They object to the idea of a living prophet, and mock the prophets because of their human failings. Inherent in much of the criticism is the notion that a real prophet should be infallible. There is no hint of such a doctrine anywhere in the Bible or in the LDS scriptures. Moses and other prophets made mistakes and were even chastised by the Lord at times for their failings. In the LDS volume of scripture called the Doctrine and Covenants, almost from the beginning we have a powerful warning about the fallibility of the Prophet Joseph Smith, for in Section 3 he is sorely chastised for his mistake of being tricked into letting the first part of the Book of Mormon--the 116 pages of initial translation--be stolen. Joseph prayerfully made the decision to lend the 116 pages to Martin Harris, but in spite of his prayers, he followed his own will, not the Lord's, and made a mistake that would cost millions of people access to sacred words and details that I imagine could have provided much additional significant evidence for the authenticity of the Book of Mormon. This was no minor mistake, but a devastating tragedy for the whole Church, and the fallible Joseph Smith was sorely rebuked by the Lord. Here is an excerpt from Doctrine and Covenants 3:

3 Remember, remember that it is not the work of God that is frustrated, but the work of men;

4 For although a man may have many revelations, and have power to do many mighty works, yet if he boasts in his own strength, and sets at naught the counsels of God, and follows after the dictates of his own will and carnal desires, he must fall and incur the vengeance of a just God upon him.

5 Behold, you have been entrusted with these things, but how strict were your commandments; and remember also the promises which were made to you, if you did not transgress them.

6 And behold, how oft you have transgressed the commandments and the laws of God, and have gone on in the persuasions of men.

7 For, behold, you should not have feared man more than God. Although men set at naught the counsels of God, and despise his words--

8 Yet you should have been faithful; and he would have extended his arm and supported you against all the fiery darts of the adversary; and he would have been with you in every time of trouble.

9 Behold, thou art Joseph, and thou wast chosen to do the work of the Lord, but because of transgression, if thou art not aware thou wilt fall.

Ouch! That's pretty strong language. (And so much for the theory that Joseph Smith was a megalomaniac who felt he could do no wrong. Here he is recording a royal--no, a divine--chewing out that leaves him looking pretty guilty and foolish, and he puts this dressing down near the very beginning of his collection of revelations.) But if Joseph could make a mistake like that, we surely can't expect other mortal leaders to be free of other embarrassing failures. Another prophet, Lorenzo Snow, understood this when he acknowledged the human limitations of Joseph Smith:

I can fellowship the President of the Church, if he does not know everything I know. . . . I saw the . . . imperfections in [Joseph Smith]. . . . I thanked God that he would put upon a man who had those imperfections the power and authority he placed upon him . . . for I knew that I myself had weakness[es], and I thought there was a chance for me. . . . I thanked God that I saw these imperfections.

(As cited by Neal A. Maxwell, "Out of Obscurity," Ensign, Nov. 1984, p. 10; also Conference Report, Oct. 1984.)

A few sections later in Doctrine and Covenants 10:37, the Lord again points to the limited human abilities of the Prophet Joseph Smith:

But as you cannot always judge the righteous, or as you cannot always tell the wicked from the righteous, therefore I say unto you, hold your peace until I shall see fit to make all things known unto the world concerning the matter.

Ponder that: God tells the Prophet by revelation just how limited the gift of revelation is. Joseph is not able to always discern who is righteous or wicked, meaning that he can be deceived. Being a prophet does not mean that one gains continuous access to the knowledge of God. That's an utterly unbiblical concept that is also not part of LDS doctrine.

Critics and disaffected Mormons often point to human weakness and even genuine blunders by leaders of the Church as evidence that they were not called of God. This expectation of supernatural goodness in prophets and other leaders is common, but unfortunately, neither realistic nor scriptural. At the beginning of the modern volume of scripture, the Doctrine and Covenants, we have this vital passage that defines the role of God's chosen servants. Note the language carefully:

6. Behold, this is my mine authority, and the authority of my servants....

24. 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.

25. And inasmuch as they erred, it might be made known;

26. And inasmuch as they sought wisdom, they might be instructed;

27. And inasmuch as they sinned, they might be chastened that they might repent;

28. 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 1:6, 24-28)

God's servants, with His authority, are called in weakness. They may lack understanding. They may err. They may need to repent. Yet they can be made strong and blessed with knowledge from God from time to time--not 24/7, not every moment for every decision. We have imperfect leaders made of the same imperfect cloth from which we are cut. Let's not fall to pieces and shout accusations when some weak seams occasionally give way in their fabric.

In spite of his mistakes and errors in judgment, Joseph Smith was a prophet of God--not because he was free of error, and not because he could see the future at all times and make miraculous, inspired decisions every moment of his life, but because he was called of God and given authority from Jesus Christ to serve as the prophet and President of the Church. His divine calling as prophet was not based on his error-free track record or supernatural judgment, but was based on the fact that God made him prophet and put him in that office of the Church. The Book of Mormon is but one powerful piece of evidence confirming his divine calling as a prophet, but even that shows human influence (grammatical and spelling problems, awkward phrasing, typographical errors), as do all manuscripts and translations of the Bible.

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