Many people have heard that Mormons are taught to follow their prophets. How far are they expected to follow them? Is every word a prophet says doctrine? These are important issues to explore when trying to understand how Mormonism works. Mormon is a nickname for people who belong to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
God set a pattern of speaking through prophets the day He created Adam. Throughout the Old Testament, we see that He continued to speak through prophets whenever the people were worthy of them. They were called to tell the world what God wanted them to know. Yes, God could speak to each person individually, but the proliferation of churches in existence, all believing they are teaching the truth, is evidence that this is not a very effective system. It takes a tremendous amount of time to pray about each doctrine individually. There has to be one central point of communication—one person authorized to interpret scripture and doctrine. In the Old Testament, it was prophets. In the New Testament, Christ personally filled that role, but after his crucifixion, it was Peter who received revelation for the entire church, as when he had the vision of the clean and unclean foods. Once a person had obtained a testimony of who the prophet is, he can move effectively through mortality because he will know where to turn for answers.
Infallible Prophets in the Bible?
Surely the Lord God will do nothing, but he revealeth his secret unto his servants the prophets (Amos 3:7).
There was a period of apostasy after the apostles were gone, but in modern times, Mormons teach that we are again led by a prophet and will be until the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. But what is a prophet?
When we study the Old Testament, we learn that prophets were people—just ordinary people who had been living ordinary lives until the day they received their calls to lead. Moses felt unequal to the task and God had to promise him a mouthpiece in the form of Aaron before he would even accept the call. He certainly hadn’t sought it out. He made enough mistakes (as a leader, not as a prophet) that he was not permitted to enter the promised land. Mormon prophets are also just ordinary people. Since Mormons don’t have a professional clergy, their leaders come from all walks of life and a wide range of careers.
The questions of whether Mormon prophets are infallible and how far Mormons have to follow them are highly related. If a prophet was a god, then a Mormon would have to follow every word he said, even if he was only saying he was sure Brigham Young University was going to win the football game this week. However, Mormons know that prophets are not gods. They are human beings. God doesn’t give revelation on topics like this, so it is obvious that it is the prophet’s personal opinion on a subject that lacks eternal value.
When is a Mormon Prophet Infallible?
A prophet is only a prophet when he is acting in the role of a prophet. In between, like every other person, he is just a person. No one is perfect except for God and Jesus Christ. Biblical prophets sometimes said things we know today are not true, particularly in the areas of science. They made mistakes. They were, in short, human beings and products of their time and place in the world.
Mormons have a variety of levels of information. First, there is canonized doctrine. There is surprisingly little of that and most ends up in one of the books of scripture the Mormons use. (Several doctrines were added to the Doctrine and Covenants after the main portion of the book was complete, for instance.)
There is also policy. Policy is not doctrine and it can change. An example of policy might be the age at which children move into the program for teenagers. It has no impact on our eternal salvation and so it can change to meet the needs of the time and place in which it is practiced.
There are also cultural traditions practiced by many Mormons but that have no official standing. There are, of course, also opinions. Where God hasn’t made an official declaration, everyone, including prophets, is permitted to have an opinion.
In the earlier days of the church, when the Church tended to be more local and communications less efficient, prophets were often less likely to state that something is an opinion because their audience knew that. Few outside the church were paying any attention to what Mormons said. Today, however, with the Internet allowing words to be sent around the world in moments, modern prophets and apostles are likely to make it clear what is opinion and what is not. When speaking to non-LDS groups, they sometimes preface their remarks by saying they are not speaking as apostles—a warning that they will be including their own opinions on subjects where there is no canonized doctrine.
Infallibility, then, depends on the context of the information. Official, canonized doctrine is infallible because it comes directly from God. Opinions are merely opinions. Each Mormon is taught first to pray to know if the prophet is truly the prophet. If he hears the prophet say something he is not sure is correct, he is taught to research it against official, canonized doctrine and then to pray for confirmation. A new convert might do that regularly, but over time, Mormons become more skilled at recognizing what is doctrine and what is opinion or tradition. They pray less often about specific doctrine, but can do so at any time.
A Mormon prophet is infallible, then, only when he is issuing official doctrine on eternally significant topics.