It appears that with the church being a little more open with its histories and doctrines (as if they were not open before), many people do not know how to reconcile the mistakes prophets have made in the past with a prophet’s divine calling. How can someone “called of God” ever make any mistakes at all? Better yet, how do we know when a prophet is “speaking as a man” and when he is speaking God’s words? Turns out Deuteronomy made this very easy for us (chapter 18):
21 And if thou say in thine heart, How shall we know the word which the Lord hath not spoked?
22 When a prophet speaketh in the name of the Lord, if the thing follow not, nor come to pass, that is the thing which the Lord hath not spoken, but the prophet hath spoken it presumptuously: thou shalt not be afraid of him.
Pretty straightforward, but what if we dig a little deeper?
What is the purpose of a prophet? God has made a habit of calling prophets throughout the Bible and the Book of Mormon. Why? What does He want them to do?
A quick search through the Topical Guide takes you right to Prophets, Mission of. There you will find a lot of references basically saying that God calls prophets to speak His words to the people. It’s all: “warn the wicked” (Ezekiel 3:19), “whatsoever I command thee thou shalt speak” (Jeremiah 1:7), and “he revealeth his secret unto his servants the prophets” (Amos 3:7). In other words, a prophet is a messenger from God. For more info, check out the Bible Dictionary on the subject.
What’s the message? What are his secrets? What does God want from us?
As God is our Father in Heaven, he pretty much wants what’s best for us (Moses 1:39). We lived with him before this life and we came here to be tested, to see if we would follow him in faith, with no memory of our existence before. Through prophets, he tells us how to return to him. Prophets teach us the gospel, and if we choose to follow it, we can return and live with God again.
The gospel basically comes down to five things (see 3 Nephi 27:13-22): faith in Jesus Christ, repentance of sins, baptism (making a covenant to follow the gospel), receiving the Holy Ghost (a guide to help us follow the gospel), and enduring to the end (continuing to repent and follow the Holy Ghost). I think it’s interesting to note that the prophet Alma taught his priests to teach “nothing save it were repentance and faith on the Lord, who had redeemed his people” (Mosiah 18:20).
Anytime a prophet speaks completely outside of this gospel message, in my view, there is a possibility he is “speaking as a man.” That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t listen when he does speak outside of this message. I feel this message can be woven into many things we deal with in life. In my experience, I have never regretted following a prophet’s counsel. I am happier when I do. The prophets has taught me to be financially responsible, prepared for disasters, responsible for my actions, and morally clean.
If the prophet were ever to teach something contrary to the gospel, something that negated it, that would be a huge red flag, and he would probably be “removed.” Everything else, we have to reconcile ourselves and decide what to do.
I think prophets these days are trying to be a lot more careful with what they say, because of the backlash that has come about from what prophets have said “as men” in the past. Just recently I learned that prophet Joseph Fielding Smith is greatly ridiculed for teaching the human race would never reach the moon. He said the earth was our sphere and if we would ever be able to travel to other worlds and find out that we had the same savior they did it would destroy the need for faith.
Seems like a sound line of thinking to me considering we were sent to earth to be tested by faith in the first place. President Smith was going off of his own understanding and experience and drawing conclusions. We are encouraged to do that in the church. I can see that God didn’t think it a big deal to send that prophet a revelation and correct him, because the prophet was about to find out anyway, and it didn’t affect the faith and repentance message at all.
I once heard my dad say, “Quoting dead prophets is a sign of apostasy.” He was not saying we should completely ignore prophets that came before. Great perspective and insight can come from reading and learning about them. I do think that when we cite an old prophet’s teachings as absolute doctrine we cut ourselves off from updates from heaven. It doesn’t matter if we are using the material to defend or condemn the church. As an absolute piece of doctrine, it stops revelation. By doing this we are basically saying the same thing most other churches believe: God doesn’t talk to us anymore and we have everything we need in what he’s already given. That’s not how it works.
God gives us updates through prophets. They are messengers after all. Thankfully, the church is welcome to updates, as we can see in our history, but these updates often take longer than what we have patience for. Part of the reason the changes take so long, I would think, is that the prophet and his apostles are trying to make sure they are not speaking as men and that they really are speaking for God.
If you’ve ever tried to receive inspiration from heaven on a personal level, differentiating between what you want and what God is trying to tell you can be difficult and take time. In my own life, as I try to follow what I feel inspired to do, I realize that my journey changes course unexpectedly and I don’t end up where I thought I was going in the first place. I get updates. Could that be the case for the church today as well?
I’m a firm believer in a strong attempt at gospel living as taught by the prophets. Outside of gospel living, I think all of us, including prophets, are learning as much as we can as we go along. If you looked at the Bible Dictionary under Prophet, it defines prophets generally as “anyone who has a testimony of Jesus Christ by the Holy Ghost.” That excerpt sheds an interesting light on Numbers 11:29: “would God that all the Lord’s people were prophets.”
Russ Cardon graduated from BYU in English, currently works as a technical writer, and has been a member of the church for 18 years.