Tuesday, May 21, 2019

De Facto Infallibility and the Difficulty of Deciphering Spiritual Manifestations

The reversal of the POX has highlighted a growing problem for the Church. Church leaders have never claimed to be infallible—in fact, in recent years we have had at least one straightforward admission by a member of the First Presidency that Church leaders sometimes make mistakes1—but they never actually admit to specific mistakes. In fact, even when a “revealed” policy is reversed, somehow we are expected to believe that both the policy and its removal are inspired. This results in what I call de facto infallibility. The leaders admit to being fallible, but in practice they want us to believe that everything they do or say is inspired. Then, when something like the recent policy reversal comes along, the way they announce it damages their credibility. And this damaged credibility spreads to everything else they do or say.
This is a tricky problem for a Church that claims to be led by revelation. It would actually be refreshing for one of the Apostles or a member of the First Presidency to announce that even though they thought they were doing what was right, they missed this one, so they are reversing the policy. Such honesty would be welcome among most members, I believe, since the opposite creates so many problems. But admitting to mistakes creates other problems. If the General Authorities are capable of getting significant policies wrong now and then, how can we trust other things they say? And if we can’t trust what they say, where does that leave us? I’m sure this reasoning lies somewhere behind the de facto infallibility we see. But this is really a fallacy. Just because the leadership can’t admit to making a mistake when things turn out wrong doesn’t mean the membership isn’t aware that they were wrong, or at least a significant portion of Church members. So, in essence, they really aren’t fooling most members. This being the case, it would be better to just be honest and admit it when they make mistakes, because the result is essentially the same, except for the unnecessary pretense of infallibility, which any member with eyes to see will see through.
The real problem, the one they ought to be talking about, is the fact that revelation is not easy. Interpreting spiritual manifestations correctly is difficult. If the General Authorities acknowledged this, it would not only create more realistic expectations among members, but it would help members in dealing with local leaders, who—surprise!—also sometimes get things wrong. Let me illustrate with a couple of stories.
Many years ago, when we had two small children, my wife received a calling to be Primary president in our ward. She accepted the call, but in the hours after accepting, she felt awful about it. And it wasn’t just the fact that she was the busy mother of two small children. Something else was wrong. She felt the calling was a mistake. She talked with me about it, and I suggested she call the bishop and tell him how she felt. She did, and this humble man said he’d pray about it. The next day he called her, and he said, “Sister Terry, you’re right. This calling is not for you right now.” We didn’t understand why until a few weeks later when she started experiencing problems with a pregnancy that resulted in our third child being born twelve weeks early. This would have prevented her from serving in that calling.
I’m sure the bishopric had felt inspired to extend the call to serve, but sometimes inspiration is just hard to decipher. Sometimes we just get it wrong. In my own life, I’ve had a few major spiritual manifestations that I was sure about. But about half the time, I’ve been wrong. Now, the other story.
This one comes from Gerald Lund. He told about a bishop who had been called to the hospital in the middle of the night to give a young mother a blessing. She had collapsed and was in a coma. Her vital signs were dropping. When the bishop laid his hands on her head, he was overcome with a wonderful feeling of peace and light. He assumed the Spirit was telling him that the woman would be healed, so he blessed her that she would rise from her sickbed and would be able to raise her children to adulthood. A few hours later, she was dead. Lund points out that experiences like this are common.2 So, why does this happen? Because spiritual experiences often come as feelings, and feelings are devilishly difficult to decipher. Even for prophets and apostles. The bishop in the second story may have been sent the message by the Lord, “I’m in charge. Everything will be fine.” But the message he received (his interpretation) was that the young mother would be healed. Revelation is actually a very complicated thing, much more complicated than we are led to believe.
It’s fairly easy to look back over Church history and see instances when leaders got it wrong. The priesthood ban and all the awful doctrinal explanations to justify it is merely the most obvious example (and yet the Church even struggles to admit this mistake). But it’s harder in the present to talk openly about mistakes by leaders. We are taught that they will never “lead the Church astray,” whatever that’s supposed to mean. And we are taught to sustain them and to never speak evil of them. But where does simply acknowledging that our leaders have made a mistake have a place in the Church? I would suggest that, culturally, we have made such an acknowledgment practically impossible. Therefore, we have de facto infallibility. And any way you slice it, it causes problems.
1. “To be perfectly frank, there have been times when members or leaders in the Church have simply made mistakes.” Dieter F. Uchtdorf, “Come, Join with Us,” Ensign 43, no. 11 (November 2013): 22.
2. Gerald N. Lund, Hearing the Voice of the Lord (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2007), 8.


  1. I enjoyed this post that discusses prophetic infallibility and kind of is related to your post. Thanks again for your thoughts, I found them thoughtful and helpful.


  2. Great link. Best relevant quote:

    That notorious liberal softy Elder Bruce R. McConkie said that

    "With all their inspiration and greatness, prophets are yet mortal men with imperfections common to mankind in general. They have their opinions and prejudices and are left to work out their problems without inspiration in many instances." Mormon Doctrine, 547.

  3. Roger, thanks for this post. It brings some issues to the table that every member needs to wrestle with.

    Dealing with Spiritual manifestations is like any other skill--individuals vary, sometimes greatly, in their skill abilities. This is true for prophets and apostles. No one in mortality but the Savior had perfected their ability to work with the manifestations of the Spirit.

    When apostles and prophets don't get it right, what then?

    Here's my take on this after wrestling with it for decades. All things pertaining to the plan of salvation are ultimately Heavenly Father's work and glory. In other words, his responsibility. No one is going to frustrate Heavenly Father's purposes. When church leaders are caught in fallibility we can be assured that Heavenly Father is in charge and will use their failings, their fallibility for His purposes. The Book of Mormon gives example after example of prophets needing Heavenly Father's help after they have done the best they could to fulfill His will.

  4. The infallibility problem is recursive: Since a higher authority is the only person (or thing) that can over turn any leader, ultimately, we must pit our own fallible understanding of the Lord's will against that of a higher priesthood authority.

    The idea that any change of "back tracking" in policy implies error, however, is simply juvenile.

    1. I would suggest that refusing to acknowledge errors made by human agents in the name of deity is juvenile.