Wednesday, February 4, 2015

"'A Prophet is not always a Prophet' only when he is acting as such"

Joseph Smith wrote in his diary on February 8th, 1843: “'A Prophet is not always a Prophet' only when he is acting as such."

Today there are plenty of folks who could still learn a thing or two from Brother Joseph. While Latter-day Saints continue to sustain one man as "prophet, seer, and revelator, and president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints", historically these four roles haven't exactly resembled what they once did whenever Joseph Smith acted "as such."

Leading the modern Church with it's accompanying bureaucracy calls for 24/7 administration ("the office of the President") but the firehose of revelation that came forth in Joseph's day isn't exactly gushing out the "prophet, seer, and revelator" roles these days as much as the "President of the Church" role. We still sustain men who hold the keys to "act as such", but regardless of whether you speak for God or whether you're a chef with the "keys" to a great kitchen, the proof will always be in the pudding.

The modern rhetoric of "follow the prophet" is usually packaged with a period instead of the comma Joseph Smith seemed to be suggesting. We should follow the prophet, whenever the prophet is actually acting as a prophet. But when's the last time you asked yourself when or if the prophet "is acting as such"?

Granted, Joseph Smith didn't elaborate much on how we're to differentiate when exactly a prophet is acting as a prophet, as opposed to say, acting in the role or full-time office of church president. The work of differentiation is left up to each individual, and it's not the kind of responsibility or work we can outsource to others or expect the corporation of the Church or the PRetheren to confirm in a press release. We must each seek the Lord's will, "study it out in [our] mind," prayerfully seek personal revelation, inspiration, and the Spirit. We don't just take someone else's word for it, we go directly to the source and let the Holy Spirit guide us directly to Christ. In essence, it's real work.

Unfortunately a lot of us don't like doing that work for ourselves. We often want it to be easy or trust some middle-man to do it for us. It's tempting to want to go on autopilot and not take the risk of doing the mental and spiritual work for yourself. Otherwise well-intended disciples of Christ become instead disciples of the prophet who "follow the prophet" with great conviction but not much differentiation of if or when a prophet is acting as such. Is it possible that some Latter-day Saints thus put too much weight on their faith and trust in a man ("the arm of the flesh") rather than in Christ?

Before the "new" primary songbook came out in 1989, Duane Hiatt was asked to write a happy song "about Old Testament prophets" that would sound "like a Jewish Folk Song"--fun for the children to sing. He came up with some clever verses, such as this one:

"Jonah was a prophet, tried to run away,
But he later learned to listen and obey.
When we really try, the Lord won't let us fail:
That's what Jonah learned deep down inside the whale

Each verse was then followed by the following chorus:

"Follow the prophet, follow the prophet,
Follow the prophet; don't go astray.
Follow the prophet, follow the prophet,
Follow the prophet; he knows the way

The song is extremely successful in teaching children one part of the equation--to follow "the prophet," but when do the children learn the next part of the equation? When do we teach them how to discern when or if a prophet is acting as a prophet? My concern is that our church community has largely defaulted on that part of the equation and children then grow into adults at risk of worshiping the idol of infallible leadership.

I understand that children can't be expected to master calculus before they've learned basic arithmetic. But if we truly want to "keep things simple" and avoid teaching the complexities of discerning when a prophet is actually acting as a prophet, I offer my alternative chorus free of charge:

Follow the Savior, follow the Savior, follow the Savior
Don’t go astray
Follow the Savior, follow the savior, follow the Savior,
He is the Way! 

I first came up with that alternative chorus while writing the blog post "Follow the…" in which I first voiced some personal reservations. After all, unless you're reading this "correlated version", the scriptures never actually include the words "follow the prophet." The actual Doctrine of Christ emphasizes "Follow the Son." And thankfully primary children do already have many wonderful and scripturally sound songs about trying to be like Jesus and following in his waysfeeling the Savior's love, and lovingly expressing commitment to "follow [Him] faithfully".

If I belonged to the Church of the Prophets then I wouldn't even be concerned, but because this is the professed Church of Jesus Christ, it would be reasonable to teach primarily more of Christ and loyalty to Him rather than loyalty to following mortal prophets and risk turning children into unthinking lemmings, or into grown adults unable to process Joseph Smith's teaching that a prophet is not always a prophet--only when acting as such.

At some point in time children of God must become adults of God and the training wheels have to come off. An online friend who recognizes this truth recently wrote some new lyrics for an additional verse to "Follow the Prophet." I highly recommend them: 

"Our inspired prophets sometimes make mistakes
Never blindly follow, caution we must take
It is up to us to know how to discern
In our search for truth we still have much to learn!"

Once upon a time, after reading the 14th chapter of Ezekiel, Joseph Smith "said the Lord had declared by the Prophet [Ezekiel], that the people should each stand for himself, and depend on no man or men in that state of corruption of the Jewish Church – that righteous persons could only deliver their own souls – applied it to the present state of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints – said if the people departed from the Lord, they must fall– that they were depending on the Prophet, hence were darkened in their minds, in consequence of neglecting the duties devolving upon themselves…" (TPJS, pg. 237-238)

Truly, it is up to us to know how to discern, and in our search for truth we all still have much to learn.

Another friend put it this way: "I believe in the divinely-sanctioned role of prophets and I love the brethren, but I see that we are simply repeating the mistakes of the past by failing to believe that we can connect with heaven on our own. NOBODY comes between you and the Lord. That is the beauty of the story of a 14-year-old boy who asked of the Lord in faith and entered into His presence to receive truth for himself."

That really is a beautiful truth. That is good news. Actually, I like best how Adam Miller put it:

This is both the good news and the bad news. While it is scary to think that God works through weak, partial, and limited mortals like us, the only thing scarier would be thinking that he doesn't. It's a false dilemma to claim that either God works through flawless people or God doesn't work at all. The gospel isn't a celebration of God's power to work with flawless people. The gospel is a celebration of God's willingness to work today, in our world, in our lives, with people who clearly aren't. To demand that church leaders, past or present, show us only a mask of angelic pseudo-perfection is to deny the gospel's most basic claim: that God's grace works through our weakness. We need prophets, not idols. Our prophets and leaders will not turn out to be who you want them to be. They are not, in fact, even what God might want them to be. But they are real and God really can, nonetheless, work through their imperfections to extend his perfect love.


Anon 1 said...

Yes! I love your post! Amen!

Andy said...


Despite the ongoing erosion of my faith, I like to visit your blog occasionally because I take some comfort in your words. I appreciate your current post as well.

A couple of things in relation to this subject are particularly irksome to me. One is, when was the last time a prophet ever prefaced his words to notify us whether he was speaking as a prophet vs. giving his own (not necessarily inspired) opinion? Modern church leaders make no such distinction, however valid your comments may be. It’s not clear that they know when they’re speaking as prophets vs. otherwise. Two is that some church leaders seem to thnk that the members will be blessed for following church leaders, even if the leaders are wrong, and that the issue of whether they are wrong is not the business of the members.

Perhaps our test is whether we will follow church leaders even when they are wrong, but the decision to follow may not be the way to pass the test.

Clean Cut said...

I sincerely appreciate the comments--it's nice to feel like I'm not just talking myself!

Andy, I only would disagree that our test is whether we will follow church leaders even when they are wrong.

I don't see any virtue in that, since I believe obedience is to principles and not to persons. I will still try to love, sustain, and support them, but I won't do anything that violated my conscience, because my ultimate loyalty must be to God/my conscience.

In other words, I don't think that the folks who "followed" their stake president and committed the Mountain Meadows Massacre will be blessed for it. It was morally wrong.

I *do* think Alexander Doniphan will be blessed for disobeying the orders of his superiors to execute Joseph Smith, since those were morally wrong orders. (And he wasn't even Mormon, but still a great example.)

Clean Cut said...

To quote the late great BYU historian Richard Poll:

"James Madison cautioned: 'When the Almighty himself condescends to address mankind in their own language, his meaning, luminous as it must be, is rendered dim and doubtful by the cloudy medium through which it is communicated.' Because I believe with Madison that everyone, including Paul and other prophets, sees eternity "through a glass darkly" (1 Cor. 13:12), prophetic infallibility, scriptural inerrancy, and unquestioning obedience are not elements of my faith."

Clean Cut said...

Clearly, there is no infallible objective standard to discern the mind and will of God with 100% clarity and certainty. Even objective "Truth" is ALWAYS evaluated subjectively. The scriptures and the Brethren are not inerrant or infallible standards either.

So in the end the only thing I can fall back on is individual discernment of the mind and will of God. And I'm completely comfortable living with uncertainty.

Terryl Givens:

“We believe that it is always our responsibility to confirm through our own study and prayer and responsiveness to the spirit, whether what we’re hearing, is the mind and will of the Lord or not.

"I think of Orson Pratt who alone of twelve apostles refused to consent to the false doctrine of Adam-God and only many years later was vindicated for his steadfast integrity, so it may be that in the short term we do find ourselves on the margins or ostracized but I think that our devotion always has to be first and foremost to our conscience, before to any institution.”
1 hour 33 minute mark on part 2

Jason L. said...

Personally, I don’t find the ‘acting as a prophet’ distinction very useful anymore. Whether he is or isn’t, it seems to me that I face the same responsibility to evaluate his actions/statements in light of what I know about Christ (though scriptures, teachings of modern leaders, revelation, etc.).