A few days ago, Elder M. Russell Ballard gave a timely talk to teachers and parents about promoting and sustaining faith in young people. Many welcomed it as a useful and inspired summary of principles which he and others have long advocated.
One thing troubled me, however, as I watched the reaction of Church members who discussed it on social media. And it troubled me because they were members.
The troubling side-show
In almost the next breath, many of those who were publicly applauding his talk’s content soon switched to complaining. Why complaining? Because Elder Ballard had also mentioned the importance of marriage in LDS doctrine and theology, and this troubled some members who are at present single.
Some wished they had not heard this section. One man faulted the apostle for not providing any concrete examples of how a single member could alter this current state of affairs. Others postured that they had merely been thrown a consolation prize of being assured that life would be better in the hereafter. And so on.
I do not deny—as the leaders of the Church have pain at pains not to deny—that being single can be a painful burden, especially in a Church and theology that holds out marriage and parenthood as a divine summit. (Single members sometimes forget, however, that we currently-married members were once single in our turn, and so do know something about that experience.)
And, I realize that if something touches an area of pain for us, we can occasionally “react” rather than think. Yet, I found the display troubling. People actually went to the trouble of putting their reaction down on digital paper, as it were, and spreading it about. That takes some forethought and intent.
Unsurprisingly, those who were excited by the talk seemed to be those who had long believed in or advocated for a similar approach in the Church’s youth curriculum and seminary program. This too is understandable—it can be gratifying when our concerns, intuitions, or inspirations are validated and publicly endorsed by someone with priesthood authority. This not only confirms our personal strivings and our sensitivity to God’s Spirit, but it can smooth the way to implementing them locally when an apostle endorses such an effort.
There was, however, an incredible irony in this display of enthusiastic praise followed by grumbling and complaining. In the first breath, they were praising Elder Ballard’s talk and saying how wonderful it was. But, in the very next breath, they were criticizing a relatively small section of that talk for being either untrue, or unhelpful, or hurtful, or whatever.
A difficult but necessary question
This raises a difficult question, which we might all do well to ask ourselves—when we rejoice in apostolic or prophetic teaching, are we rejoicing because it is apostolic and prophetic, or are we rejoicing because they happen to agree with us?
From what I saw, I fear that in some cases there was a definite slant toward the latter. “Finally,” some seemed to suggest, “an apostle has got it together and said what I’ve long known needed to be said.” This was swiftly followed by, “Now, if only they would get on board on this other issue of how to give (or avoid) counsel about marriage. Then I could have enjoyed the meeting fully. Close, but no cigar.”
In a sense, such apostolic guidance is thus seen as valuable and praiseworthy not because it represents the inspired word of the Lord to members of the Church, and not even because it is true (though those who praised it certainly believed that it was true), but instead because it allows a somewhat Nietzchean power play—apostles have social power and authority, and so that power and authority can be leveraged by me for my purposes to get my ideas ratified.
Put another way, are some not relieved that their intuitions were correct (because they knew that already), but instead happy that their previous certainties can now more easily be implemented?
It seems to me that there are three possibilities regarding Elder Ballard’s remarks about marriage. These options are:
- They are a summary and reaffirmation of inspired prophetic teachings on the subject, acceptably expressed;
- They are a summary and reaffirmation of inspired prophetic teachings on the subject, marred by an insensitive delivery or unhelpful approach;
- They are mistaken.
Let us consider these in reverse order.
We certainly hold no doctrine of apostolic or prophetic infallibility in the Church. But, even if we presume that the counsel was mistaken—why would one undermine an apostle who is also advocating a course that we too endorse? After all, if he is mistaken about the marriage issue—why not assume he’s equally mistaken about curriculum? Why undercut the authority I hope to appeal to on the matter of teaching and curriculum?
This looks like an attempt to maintain superiority and control in our own eyes, or others’: we demonstrate how critical and unsparing we are, how well we distinguish truth from error. No one sneaks anything by us!
Or, it’s an effort that reveals the underlying problem—we see ourselves and our beliefs and priorities as normative. Thus, when an apostle agrees with me, he’s right. If he doesn’t, then he’s mistaken or insensitive at best. We’re back to using our endorsement of an apostle’s talk as nothing more than an exercise of social power.
Correct but insensitive?
All the above considerations apply here—if we don’t agree with prophetic infallibility, we believe even less in prophetic stylistic perfection.
If Elder Ballard was correct, but simply poorly phrased, all the less reason to break out the rhetorical knives on Twitter or Facebook. We risk becoming like those who rejected Peter because he had not been to the right schools (Acts 4:13), or Moses because he was slow of speech (Exodus 4:10), or Samuel because he was a Lamanite (Helaman 13), or Jesus because he came from the backwater Nazareth (John 1:46; John 7:52).
We join those who dismiss a prophet because he has an accent, or a speech impediment, or because of the cut of his clothes.
If what he is teaching is true, oughtn’t we to endorse and push it to all—not murmur and fault-find to give others a potential excuse to ignore the truth?
Correct, full stop?
And, finally, if this is the case—and I personally think that it is—we have even less excuse. We might pause and ask, however, whether our desire to find fault or minimize the authority of apostolic counsel reflects fear that we aren’t doing all we can in an area that pains, saddens, and frightens us.
But really, what other purpose is there in prophets and apostles?
If they are merely instruments of social power to enable us to push our own agenda, why bother? Life is too short to waste on a faith that operates that way, the embodiment of all the worst atheist caricatures about religion.
If they are so fallible that I substitute my conviction of my own correctness whenever I disagree—unwilling even to remain quietly questioning while I wait upon the Lord—why have them? You or I could do as well.
But, if they truly are prophets, watchmen on the tower—who see further and better not because of any innate worthiness or merit but principally because of the divine authority given them and in which we ostensibly sustain them—shouldn’t my discomfort at some teaching or phrasing at least give me pause?
Should my first reaction perhaps not be to rush onto Facebook or my blog to air my grievances or cluck my tongue? Even if I don’t need to hear a particular message, am I so sure that many others do not? And, if they do, am I not guilty of a grave sin if I through my murmuring and complaints impair others’ ability to hear it?
In this particular case, I have it easy. I agreed with everything he said. Rejoicing was easy.
But, the day will undoubtedly come when I do not, at least at first blush. (In fact, I’ve had such experiences in the past, and so fully expect I will have them again. There is not, I think, any shame or sin in that. What matters is how we respond.)
This is the danger and difficulty with living oracles, which religions have always striven to tame: you cannot control a live prophet, while dead ones committed to the page can be massaged and finessed. But, it is also the power and necessity of them. As President Eyring noted years ago,
Leo Strauss, in Studies in Platonic Political Philosophies, had it right when he saw that the prophets give us the greatest gift when they tell us truth which does not square with our reason. He said: “True prophets, regardless of whether they predict doom or salvation, predict the unexpected, the humanly unforeseeable. What would not occur to men, left to themselves, to fear or to hope.”
So, I write this now so that the judge of memory may hold me more strictly to account when my own next trial comes in such a matter, as it must for everyone.
 I hope to say more about this another time. For one recent example, however, see Dallin H. Oaks and Kirsten M. Oaks, “Trust in Heaven’s Timing,” 146 stake broadcast from Marriot Center, BYU (16 September 2012), reproduced in Ensign (February 2016).
 Though I hasten to add I regard them all as people of great worthiness and merit.
 Henry B. Eyring, “Faith, Authority, and Scholarship,” in On Becoming a Disciple–Scholar, edited by Henry B. Eyring (Bookcraft, Salt Lake, 1995), 64.