Whether or not you’re a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, you likely have a strong opinion on the potential fallibility of church leaders. Latter-Day Saints culture is full of dogma about how leaders will “never lead the church astray” – but what does church doctrine itself have to say about such a thing?
D&C 107: The case against infallibility
D&C 107 lays out the inner workings of the church. It’s clear from this outline that Joseph Smith (the church’s founder) believed that church leaders, including the prophet, were fallible and could lead people astray – and he built a system the ensured that all leaders could be disciplined and even removed if necessary.
D&C 107:22 mentions that the quorums and presidency are upheld by the church through “confidence, faith, and prayer”. This is why church members are called to sustain prophets and other church leaders. While church governance is not a democracy, if there is a lack of confidence in a leader, it can be considered a sign for church leadership to remove that person and replace them.
D&C 107:30-31 states that church leaders will be guided in the “knowledge of the Lord” – however that is tempered with the understanding that they must make decisions in “all righteousness, in holiness, and lowliness of heart, meekness and long-suffering, and in faith, and virtue, and knowledge, temperance, patience, godliness, brotherly kindness and charity”. This shows very clearly that church leaders must remain in a humble, open, and vulnerable position to receive the knowledge of the Lord and properly guide the church forward.
D&C 107:32 specifically states that if any decision is made in “unrighteousness” it may be brought before a general assembly of the quorums. Even at the church’s inception there was an understanding that decisions could be made that were contrary to God’s will and that would move the church away from Him.
D&C 107:82 shows that not even the church president is exempt from being disciplined. If he transgresses, he can be brought before the Common Council of the Church and their decision concerning him will be final. In an interesting twist, this actually happened to Joseph Smith himself in 1834 regarding his handling of church money and property. The Council, however, determined that Joseph Smith had acted properly and left him in his position as Church President.
D&C 107:84 states simply: “Thus, none shall be exempted from the justice and the laws of God, that all things may be done in order and in solemnity before him, according to truth and righteousness.”’
Additional evidence against infallibility
Besides this section of scripture, there are additional comments that church leaders have made over the years to support the idea that church leaders are not only infallible, but liable to make mistakes. Brigham Young, the second president of the church, taught that “the greatest fear I have is that the people of this Church will accept what we say as the will of the Lord without first praying about it and getting the witness within their own hearts that what we say is the word of the Lord”.
In more recent years, Apostle Dieter F. Uchtdorf stated during the church’s October 2013 General Conference that church leaders have made mistakes and will continue to make mistakes. Sometimes BIG ones. And an official church essay posted to the organization’s site acknowledged that past church leaders were not divinely inspired on racial issues, but were simply influenced by the cultural norms of their time — noting that the church today disavows any racist remarks they made or actions they took.
What this means for us
Many of the church’s racist policies and beliefs of the 21st Century have now faded into the past. But today the church is still run by human beings – and human beings are as fallible as ever. It’s only natural that our leaders now are making mistakes just as our leaders of old did. So how can members discern between when leaders are leading people astray vs. being guided in the knowledge of the Lord?
The key is in D&C 107:30-31: Are our leaders exhibiting meekness and lowliness of heart, long-suffering, patience, or brotherly kindness? Do they regularly mingle with the masses and not only listen to what those suffering have to say, but actually serve them – as Jesus served sinners, lepers, and more during his day – or do they merely stand behind the pulpit and lecture or condemn others? Do they seek knowledge and understanding from those outside of their own spheres? Do they apologize for the church’s mistakes or do they continue to double-down on troubling and potentially life-threatening dogma?
The answer to these questions says a lot not only about who we look up to – but what direction the church is heading in.