What’s so hard about following the prophet?

1200px-Brass_scales_with_cupped_traysBy Junia

Which virtue is of greater value: morality or obedience?

Morality is doing what’s right, no matter what you’re told, while obedience is doing what you’re told, sometimes unquestioningly, sometimes despite knowing better, sometimes to the detriment of others or one’s self, sometimes because you agree and want to do it.

How do we behave in a religion that asks us to be both moral and obedient?

Our all-knowing God is the source of perfect morality and worth obeying perfectly. When we feel direct divine guidance and instruction from God, it’s only moral to follow it.

In order to be perfectly obedient to other humans, we must either believe that our leaders are perfectly moral, or be so committed to following them that we will obey their commands regardless of morality. Since no humans are actually perfectly moral, we’ll have to settle with the idea that those who lead are often privy to additional information we do not have.  In a military context, you obey your commanding officer with exactness or else endanger lives. In a church context, we sustain the prophets as seers and assume that they are steering us around the dangers altogether. 

If God expects us to be perfectly obedient to our imperfect leaders, does that mean he’s okay with a little immorality? Or occasional disobedience? What are we to do when imperfect leaders require obedience that contradicts the sense of morality we feel from a perfect God? Even more confusing, how about when God gives a commandment, and then gives another that conflicts with the first?

Prophets themselves have faced choosing morality or obedience. The story of Adam and Eve shows it succinctly: choose the children (morality) or stay away from the tree (obedience.) In this case, Eve and Adam make the moral, but disobedient, choice. Abraham appeared to choose obedience over morality when he almost killed Isaac. Obedient Nephi kills a drunken Laban, presumably with justifiable morals.

The scriptures are clear about how to find the answers to any question: to study it out in our minds and trust what we feel, that we’re agents unto ourselves — beings to act rather than be acted upon, that we should be anxiously engaged in a good cause of our own free will, that it isn’t meet for us to be commanded in all things, but that if we’re taught correct principles, we can govern ourselves. It feels like coercion when we’re encouraged to keep studying, thinking, and praying over any given matter until we finally agree with the same conclusion as the leader. Are leaders are willing to accept the idea that those studying and praying may not receive their same answer? Since imperfect people are all God has to work with, sometimes those leaders will make mistakes.

In the early church, Joseph Smith freely admitted his faults and shortcomings, even to the point of canonizing them in our scriptures. Orson Pratt publicly criticized and disagreed with Brigham Young.

Whose responsibility is it to point out the mistakes our leaders make?

Some say that once the prophet has spoken, the discussion is over; that we are to obey and follow no matter what. Others may believe that since the prophet will never lead the church astray, their words and actions must be infallible . The term, “Follow the Prophet” has come to mean obeying a long list of commandments and agreeing with church policies and guidelines (FTSOY, CHI2, Newsroom statements) rather than following the example of a kind, loving man who tells stories and takes care of widows.

All of us are imperfect, but still have callings and responsibilities to build God’s kingdom. Even as sinners, we can yet be conduits for receiving inspiration and true guidance from God. By extension, those called as prophets can be speakers and doers of God’s will, in spite of being sinners who make mistakes and occasionally say wrong things. It is as important for leaders to recognize their mistakes and biases as it is for members to forgive them and exercise charity.  Members may find that being led by acknowledgedly imperfect leaders lends them toward more faith and patience in responding to instructions. Members and leaders alike are harmed when leaders are put up as ones who can do no wrong.

As followers of church leaders, what is our obligation to seek confirmation to their guidance? We could follow unquestioningly, regardless of any blaring alarm bells of morality. We can pray and seek out an answer, which may or may not match the counsel given. If our confirmation matches the counsel, we can justly obey. What should we do if our answer does not match? We could obey anyway for obedience’s sake, or not obey and risk the consequences of insubordination.  Leaders, therefore, should be incredibly sensitive to the inner battles members may be facing in following their instructions, and proceed with any correction or discipline very cautiously. Upon learning that their counsel was not confirmed to the member by the spirit of the Holy Ghost, how many leaders would have the humility to ask again for themselves?  Perhaps the most harmful solution is in setting aside our prerogative to act by not asking for confirmation at all. The plan in which we all obey perfectly and unquestioningly did not garner the popular vote in the pre-existence.

When it comes to all the nuances in surrendering your will to obey another person, who mostly speaks for God, but maybe sometimes not, it’s never just as easy as “Following the Prophet.”

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11 Responses

  1. Rob Osborn says:

    Morality and obedience go together. The prophet isn’t asking us to be obedient to an immorality. He is asking us to be obedient by being moral. SSM is an immorality.

    • Liz says:

      But what if it’s not? What if I have prayed and received a confirmation that committed, loving same-sex relationships aren’t immoral? What then?

      • Rob Osborn says:

        Well, I would assume then that the God who speaks to our prophets and apostles is a different person than what spirit you are llstening to. I tend to go with the prophets because they are set apart, they are righteous, they are obedient and loyal to Christ. Others, who lay claim to supposed revelation usually arent righteous or obedient in all their doings nor are they set apart to receive revelation for the church and are also not fully loyal to Christ. Its black and white.

      • Liz says:

        I would argue that Junia’s post argues exactly the opposite – that it’s not quite as black and white as you suggest. And she also seems to be talking about receiving answers for ourselves that differ from the prophets, not for the entire church. The paradox of obedience versus integrity is one worth examining.

  2. Carolyn Nielsen says:

    Thanks for this post, Junia. It reflects the conundrum that has been roiling through my mind. Just as morality and obedience can be misaligned, the gift of agency can also come into disharmony with obedience. We have been given the gift of the Holy Ghost and are expected to use it. Personal growth comes from exercising this gift, not from leaving the thinking to others.

  3. Caroline says:

    Fantastic points, junia. My overarching moral principles are kindness, love, and equality. If I have to be disobedient to church leaders in order to follow that moral orientation, then so be it. I’ve never found the principle of obedience for obedience’s sake inspiring.

  4. Em says:

    Thanks for this — I also immediately thought of the story of Eve and Adam at the beginning of your essay and was interested to see you got there. For the first time in a long time I felt a refreshing take on that and was interested in it.

    I think the debate over ssm as it relates to this essay is fraught — as previous comments attest. For me the conundrum here is a little more clear when we look at prophets’ teachings about extending the priesthood to people of African descent. At one time prophets and apostles taught as doctrine, from the pulpit, things that are now officially disavowed and rejected by prophets and apostles through articles on lds.org. So if you’re a church member in 1960, and you profoundly feel that teachings relating to things like the “race of Cain” or inherent unworthiness to enter the temple are wrong, what do you do? Do you say “I stand with the prophet, even though I feel this is repulsive?” or do you say “this is wrong, I’m going to speak out about civil rights and racism?” What if you choose obedience, against your conscience, and then forty years later the church announces the previous stance was never God’s will at all?

    I guess I’m just saying I get this, and I struggle too. “Choose the right” is a lot simpler if the conundrum is “should I steal a candy bar.”

  5. Rob Osborn says:

    Liz,
    I can assure you that the Holy Ghost will not tell the prophet one thing and tell a member the opposite. The word of the Lord is that SSM is wrong and the HG will not testify different than this. If someone thinks they have received revelation that is contrary to that then they can be assured it is not a true revelation.

  6. BP says:

    The first presidency has confirmed they are just men and make mistakes. The old saying that we should follow the prophets because they won’t lead us astray, has been proven false. The ban on blacks and the priesthood (which the first presidency stated was a revelation in 1949) has been recently confirmed to be false. From now on any doctrinal issues I encounter will be settled between me and my Heavenly Father.

    • Andrew R. says:

      “The ban on blacks and the priesthood (which the first presidency stated was a revelation in 1949) has been recently confirmed to be false.”

      No it hasn’t. The reason’s posed for the ban have been. Or at least there is no evidence for them. There is nothing to say the actual ban was, or wasn’t, of the Lord. I know it may be seen as semantics, but you can not actually infer what you said from the Church statement.

      And I do believe the Lord will not allow the leaders of the Church to lead us astray, as a Church. I don’t believe that makes any one of them infallible. Unanimous agreement of the FPy and the Q12 does help in that respect. Although it may also hinder progress too.

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