Sunday, October 30, 2005

The Weaknesses of the Leaders and their effect on the doctrine

The hand of prophets found in the divine
I strongly believe that even in the Lord's church, the hand of men is inevitable. It is impossible to work with human tools without them leaving fingerprints on the work of God. Paul, with his flair and education, took a very bold and fiery course that helped steer the church of the first century away from its Jewish roots. Was this good? Bad? Well, he was called of God, and his actions were acceptable to the Lord, despite any shortcomings he may had. More specifically, he was called at that specific time, to utilize his talents and abilities and influence the church for good. The Lord needed him in that calling at that very specific time.

Another example would be Moses. Moses, a self-doubter and poor speaker, was also called of God and led the church of his day from physical bondage into the promised land. He himself never entered into that land himself. His approach, with incredible strictness, may have come in part from his training in the courts of pharaoh, while the practical portion of his ministry (being spiritual, military and political leader to his people, governing in all things for his people) may come from his own life in the desert before becoming a prophet. We do not know for sure, but thinking on this can be instructive.

However much speculation can be put into this topic, it is difficult to really see exactly which parts of the Gospel as given to the Jews are Moses and which parts are God's. Why? Because we really do not have a good view of his personality and very little in the way of contemporary accounts about him. With Paul, there is a bit more knowledge about him available, but even so, there are not multiple contemporary accounts of his life.

Not so with Joseph Smith. He is a man who raised controversy no matter what he did. Many hated him and spouted out vile rhetoric against him and his religion from the beginning. Others proselytized and preached about Joseph and his greatness. As a result, we have a great deal of documentation from both camps about this man. Some essays, books and scholarly papers ridicule and deride him, while others praise his many accomplishments and say little about his weaknesses. Where is the balanced writings about his life? What is the truth? How could so many conflicting statements be made about one man? And how does this affect the doctrine and covenants he revealed?

Leaders as human
The truth is, Joseph was a man. By virtue of that, he made mistakes, sometimes many. In fact, examining the lives of all the prophets, I cannot escape the conclusion that no matter the calling in the Lord's church, no matter the high potential offered by this Mormon theology, there is not any one leader we have ever had who was not merely a man. I am not phrasing this in sexist terms as a comment on the lack of women in leadership roles; that is a different topic altogether. Most of our leaders are men. Being a man is not altogether a bad thing (we believe that God was one at one time), but it does mean one is prone to error and mistakes, self-aggrandizement and self interest, even pride and other mistakes.

That does not mean I believe the leaders of the church, now or in the past, to be insincere or untruthful as they saw the truth. On the contrary, I think specifically that Joseph, the man, was a very sincere person. But by today's standards, he is peculiar. Truthfully, by the standards of his own day, he is still considered peculiar. In point of fact, most prophets run outside the popular track of society.

In Joseph, we have man in recent history claiming to be a prophet and to having visions. Naturally, this is going to be met with skepticism or derision. Because he had frailties and weaknesses, because he even had vices, many doubted his claims, as is their right. But does his humanity invalidate his claims? There are many essays defending the humanity of prophets, and these make a good point. A prophet is not a prophet at all times. There are times when he is just a man. Joseph Smith even said he was only a prophet when he acted like one (as quoted on Jeff Lindsey's excellent defense of leader fallibility).

I believe that very humanity is one of the greatest strengths of a prophet. Humans do not respond as well to those with whom they cannot relate. A perfect person would not gain many converts (Christ himself did not have many converts from his own preaching, but through the work done after his death and resurrection). Humanity is a temporary state that is designed to teach us and see if we can be faithful enough to return to our father in heaven (see Abraham 3:25)

How the humanity of leaders might affect the doctrines and the covenants
Despite the many weaknesses, these men were called to do phenomenal things, things that touch upon the heavens. Human capacity is limited and cannot comprehend all things from the eternities. These imperfect vessels still have to do their jobs, but their own understandings and interpretations creep in to the truth. As I mentioned before with Moses and Paul, we have leaders who have left their fingerprints on the gospel today.

Let's take a hypothetical situation concerning Joseph Smith. What if the Lord told him to create rituals for the temple, based on certain eternal truths and including certain covenants. Furthermore, what if the Lord made this commandment without any specific information as to how to fulfill the task? How do we know that Joseph Smith didn't use some of his knowledge of Masonic rituals (knowledge that came through his brother Hyrum, long before he became a Mason) to construct the temple ceremonies? Apologists will say he did not, that Masons stole from the original ordinances in Solomon's temple. On the other hand, critics say Joseph stole the rituals outright. I take a more moderate view, not the all or nothing approach. Perhaps Joseph did see things that appealed to him about the Masonic rituals and incorporated them somewhat into the ordinances already revealed to him. Perhaps he did this because he saw some truths in Masonic ritual and wanted to utilize and preserve them. However the information got there, the Lord certified it as inspired and of God, and that was the end of the story. They became (and still are) official. They became binding to the saints of his day, and anyone baptized into his church today must also accept these human-influenced yet divine ordinances.

The pattern of human influence found in the scriptures
I believe this is the pattern the Lord follows: sometimes being very specific, and sometimes very directive, leaving the details to the individual. Why? Perhaps to involve his prophets in a meaningful way instead of having mere puppets. Do we have any evidence of this kind of behavior? In the book of Ether, we learn of the brother of Jared, a very righteous man who saw the premortal Christ. He was commanded to make boats and was given very specific instructions as to building them. There was a problem, though. There was no light source, and fire would not work (it would take their air supply and leave them with smoke in their airtight ships). Rather than tell Jared's brother what to do, the Lord said "What will you have me do?" (see Ether 2: 25). The brother of Jared thought and came up with his solution, then came to the Lord and said to touch these stones and make them glow (see Ether 3). He was not commanded in all things, and was a good and faithful servant (see D&C 58:26). I believe this is a pattern the Lord uses with all of us, from his prophets on down to the newest convert or smallest child. If we have the needed faith, we will come up with our own solutions and have the Lord put his stamp of approval upon it, despite its earthly origin and Joseph's inherent weaknesses and failings.

Imperfection does not invalidate callings
I have expressed less than fond feelings for Brigham Young on occasion, but do not hold this against his prophethood. I have said that I don't care for all things Elder McConkie said and did. Again, his weaknesses do not disqualify him from being a called apostle of the Lord. Every man who has led the church has been a human being and therefore weak and imperfect. One mistake many Mormons (and former Mormons) make is saying it is all or nothing, they either are prophets all the time or not at all. They may not put it into such words, but the essence of their argument or doubts come from such closed and erroneous thinking.

These leaders are the chosen vessels of the Lord. While it is considered dangerous to the testimony to dwell on their weaknesses, they do have weaknesses and make mistakes. I don't see this as a problem the church should hide from. In fact, the fact that the church presses forward and continues to help the lives of others, despite the many failings of leaders (and missionaries, and regular members, and so forth), is a testimony that there may be something to this church after all. Why are we shying away from this truth?

Let us be more forthcoming about our leaders. Let our leaders be more forthcoming. I do not mean to brag of their weaknesses, nor to revel in or celebrate them. But not be afraid to admit that they happened. Yes, Joseph Smith Jr. drank alcohol (according to the claims of this page, claiming he was a fallen prophet). Yes, B. H. Roberts had his doubts. Many men left the church after seeing remarkable things (the three witnesses, many of the original apostles, most of the 8 witnesses, etc.), yet the work has continued. The truthfulness of the restoration message has not changed, despite their weaknesses. Let us not forget that.

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