If Mormon Leaders Admit the Church Has Made Mistakes, Doesn’t that Shake Your Faith?

I had only been on my mission for a couple of months when President Spencer W. Kimball passed away, and Ezra Taft Benson became President of the Church.  I knew that my dad didn’t like President Benson.  Dad had been a farmer when President Benson was the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture during the Eisenhower administration, and Benson’s policies had left a bad taste in Dad’s mouth.  Dad had spoken about this before, but it never came up in his letters to me after the leadership change.  After my mission, I asked him about whether he had a problem sustaining President Benson given his political differences.  He told me something to the effect of “This isn’t about that.”

What he meant  was that he was no longer a farmer, President Benson was no longer in government, and none of what had gone before had anything to do with whether Dad could sustain him as the president of the Church.

I’ve thought about that conversation several times over the years when I’ve been called upon to sustain local leaders that I have known to do imprudent, unwise, or in some cases utterly boneheaded things.  How do I reconcile past mistakes when raising my hand to support a Church leader?

Plenty of people face this question now, particularly as additional historical documentation becomes available (or interpretations of historical material) that sometimes puts past leaders in a bad light, or as current leaders (like President Uchtdorf) publicly acknowledge that mistakes have been made by leaders in the past.  For some people, such admissions shake their faith to the core.  Why doesn’t it have the same effect for me?

There are at least five reasons that come to mind.

First, when you find a church with perfect leaders, let me know.  Noah got drunk.  Moses was banished from going into the promised land.  Paul and Peter fought like an old married couple.  Thomas doubted the resurrection.   Plenty of Popes have colored outside the lines.  Martin Luther drew obscene sketches.  Don’t even get me started on televangelists.  This isn’t a matter of excusing bad behavior by saying “everyone is doing it.”  But can we ever expect any human leader to behave perfectly, always make the best decision, or even to be in tune with the will of God?   In what universe are these unerring leaders living?

Second, if anyone believed our leaders were infallible, they didn’t hear it from me…or them.  Joseph Smith never pretended to perfection, nor have any of the presidents of the Church since then.  I’ve met some stake and local leaders with delusions of grandeur, but none of them ever has claimed perfection.  As I’ve written here before, it isn’t fair to criticize Church leaders for not living up to an unrealistic standard that they never bought into.

Third, our own scripture tells us this is going to happen.  In the first section of the Doctrine and Covenants, a revelation intended to serve as a preface for the collection of revelations that follows, the Lord states that those revelations were given to his servants “in their weakness.”  (D&C 1:24).  He goes on to say what we should expect from the rest of the Doctrine of Covenants, where directions are given to the leadership of the Church for the express purpose that “inasmuch as they erred it might be made known; and inasmuch as they sought wisdom they might be instructed; and inasmuch as they sinned they might be chastened, that they might repent.”  (D&C 1:25-27).  In other words, we didn’t need President Uchtdorf to tell us that leaders of the Church sometimes are weak, make mistakes, lack wisdom, or sin.  The Lord already outed the Church leaders 180 years ago.  So let’s not throw out Mormonism when we should have known from the outset that leaders were bound to make mistakes.

Fourth, I expect the Church to grow and mature in its relationship to Christ much like we do.  My relationship with God and other people isn’t the same today as it was when my family joined the Church, or when I was a missionary, or when I was a young father.  Hopefully, I’ve learned a little, grown a little, and obtained some wisdom along the way.  I think that the Church develops much like we do individually.  As new revelation and inspiration is received, as we welcome new perspectives from a more diverse background, and as we learn more about God’s relationship with His children, we should not expect the Church to remain static.  We are told that this is a true “and living” Church.  (D&C 1:30).  “Living” includes learning, growing and, when needed, changing.  It also includes making mistakes and changing direction when you realize you have done so.  The necessary things of the gospel remain the same, but we shouldn’t expect the Church to behave today as it did in 1830 AD or 50 AD.

Fifth, this isn’t about that.  Ultimately, the truthfulness of the Church lies in what it does for us spiritually.  Whether Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon from looking at the plates or staring into a hat isn’t the fulcrum on which the Church is balanced.  Testimony is a spiritual thing, and the value of the Church only can be measured in spiritual terms.  If you don’t believe that, or have forgotten it, then every little issue that comes up certainly will shake you.  But what are you looking for?  What kind of historical narrative or 18th-century document is going to convert you?  These historical issues are important and deserve attention, but if your testimony depends upon the infallibility of Church leaders, you might need to do your spiritual shopping someplace else.

There is only one perfect leader.  Only one with no contradictions, bad days, or poorly chosen words.  That leader is Christ.  If this is His church, as I believe it to be, then test it based upon what it does for your relationship with Him.  My heart has felt the truthfulness of the teachings of this Church.  When I have followed those teachings best, I have been a better disciple of Christ.

This is all about that.

16 Responses to “If Mormon Leaders Admit the Church Has Made Mistakes, Doesn’t that Shake Your Faith?”

  1. 1 helen McEntire March 29, 2014 at 12:16 am

    well said..thanks…I really think, you pointed out the best topics that(I wish less active and in active and those who fall away from the church) would hear or read …

  2. 2 Nikki March 29, 2014 at 11:54 am

    Thank you for this article, you captured a lot of the same exact thoughts I’ve had when people have recently asked me this same exact question; I couldn’t quite put into words why these recent press releases have not only NOT shaken my faith, but have strengthened it and made me so grateful for living prophets and a living Church as you said. (one small thing though, I think you maybe meant to say “when you find a church with *perfect* leaders”? You still got the point across though, so not a big deal!)

  3. 4 Jewelfox March 29, 2014 at 5:07 pm

    You’re right that it’s unreasonable to expect to have “perfect leaders,” but I don’t think anybody actually does.

    I do think it is reasonable to expect that leaders who make mistakes will own up to their mistakes and correct them, and that there will be measures in place to prevent them from abusing the power they have over others and to hold them accountable if they do.

    Official Declarations 1 and 2 are perhaps the largest about-faces in church history, but 1 just says “polygamy is illegal so we can’t do it anymore” and 2 does not give any reason, explanation, or apology for the racist doctrines taught openly to church members before 1978. The current church website condemns racism without actually making it clear whose racism it’s condemning, and more or less blames members for believing what they were told prior to 1978 and in many cases continue to teach each other, like when I went trying to find out why the ban existed in the first place.

    Then when Professor Bott taught BYU students the same racist teachings, he was fired.

    I think if the ban was a mistake, then they should have said that outright and apologized for it. Then they should have clearly explained why certain teachings were wrong or no longer applied, instead of just saying “racism is bad” and letting everyone decide for themselves what that means and only find out they said something unacceptably racist when they got fired.

    I don’t think it is unreasonable to expect God’s true church to handle something that affects so many people’s lives in a way that privileges the victims, instead of the egos of people who realized their wrongdoing and just don’t want to own up to it.

    • 5 R.S. "Rob" Ghio March 29, 2014 at 5:18 pm

      I appreciate your view. But I disagree with it. Your characterization of what the Church has said about racism is skewed, and to suggest that it is the same as Bott’s comments isn’t remotely fair. In my experience, those who expect or demand more explicit retractions are never satisfied until they get to write the retraction themselves. I’m just not inclined to hold on to a grudge for 30 years while waiting for someone to speak the magic words that will allow me to let to of it.

      • 6 Jewelfox March 29, 2014 at 5:29 pm

        I think you are unfairly characterizing people who have been hurt by abusive teachings and behaviour.

        I was taught in church that if I have hurt someone else, I need to make amends and seek their forgiveness. I can be forgiven by God even if the person that I hurt can’t forgive me, but I can’t be forgiven if I haven’t followed the steps of repentance, including confessing my wrongdoing and forsaking it.

        Even allowing for the fact that Bott was giving his own justifications for the ban at one point, I don’t think that anything leaders or Newsroom writers have done officially, in the name of the church, counts as confession or forsaking wrongdoing. If you are confessing in a bishop’s interview, you may need to answer invasive questions about specifics, and you need to demonstrate that you have learned your lesson and know that what you did was wrong and why.

        I don’t think it is reasonable for church leaders to ask members to do this, when they are not willing to do it themselves. I am sorry if this point of view seems unreasonable to you. I understand if you think I am “shopping” for people who agree with me, but I feel that is also an unfair characterization of someone who gave so much of her life to the church (albeit not as much as a certain BYU professor did).

      • 7 R.S. "Rob" Ghio March 29, 2014 at 5:46 pm

        I don’t pretend to know your story, nor the source of your hurt, but I appreciate your perspective. For whatever reason, this is personal to you, and it sounds like you expect something tailored to your experience before you can let it go. I don’t think you can fairly expect that kind of response, but hopefully something said by someone in authority along the way will help.
        Let me say this, however. I used to have some fairly racist views. Not proud of it, but it’s the truth. Between environment, lack of experience and exposure, and hurtful stupidity, my thinking was wrong. That changed in a huge way for me, and much of what I do in life now is motivated by a desire to compensate for it. But I don’t feel an obligation to apologize to find everyone who it might have offended and apologize. I let my current behavior do my talking.
        The Church leadership today did not make the decision to practice polygamy or to exclude Blacks from receiving the priesthood. They have no need to go back and make detailed apology for things that weren’t on their watch (understood that some of these folks were in leadership n 1978, but not in a position to dictate policy). Their job is to make sure the a church is on the right path now. Dredging up old debates or re-examining prior decisions points us organizationally in the wrong direction. If I spend all of my time evaluating, considering, and apologizing for my past poor conduct, I won’t do anything positive now. In the same sense, the Church can’t keep addressing these issues until everyone who has been offended gives the “all clear.”
        We are unlikely to agree I this, but I appreciate you taking the time to read and comment. I always appreciate different perspectives. And I wish you the very best.

      • 8 Jewelfox March 29, 2014 at 5:36 pm

        In your post about suicide, you quoted Jesus when he asked what kind of parent gives his child a stone when he asks for bread, or a serpent when asked for a fish.

        I personally almost committed suicide while I was an active, believing, extremely committed LDS church member, because of the way certain of its teachings affected me and the way that I handled them. I was never discouraged from having the understanding that I did, and was in fact encouraged and taught it explicitly, by every leader and church-sponsored therapist that I spoke to in multiple wards.

        Because of where I come from, I understand the tendency to make the church out to be better than dissatisfied members say it is. I remember the stories of Simonds Ryder and William Law, both of which turned out to be historical errors but left the impression in my mind that people who disagreed with church teachings or leaders were petty, prideful, spiteful and hateful people.

        I just really think that the way you are handling this right now, the way the church handled OD2, and the way it is handling Ordain Women and LGBT rights at the present, are all examples of lashing out at your hurting child with a venomous snake.

      • 9 R.S. "Rob" Ghio March 29, 2014 at 5:54 pm

        Feel free to show me where in this blog I have lashed out at anyone. I might not agree with folks, but this blog isn’t about beating anyone up. It’s my perspective on common questions, and my response to criticisms that I think are unfair or inaccurate. And keep in mind one of my cardinal rules on this site…if you want a debate, this isn’t the right place for you. I’ll respond to honest inquiries or different perspectives, but I’m not going to throw rocks back and forth. I’ve responded to your comments with my perspective and haven’t done any name calling. Let’s keep the discussion on that level.

      • 10 Jewelfox March 29, 2014 at 7:22 pm

        I am not asking anyone to self-flagellate for my benefit, or hold themselves accountable to me. I am pointing out that the way in which the church’s leadership and public spokespeople handle their “mistakes” has more in common with the way my physically abusive parents did, than it does with the way they themselves teach one should go about making right one’s wrongdoing.

        Because my parents will also admit to “mistakes,” but will never say what those actually were. They treat things like holding me upside-down and beating me, or throwing me out of their house and my things out after me, like it was just a rude bodily function. Something that they couldn’t help, and that it’s creepy and weird for me to bring up. But if I tell other people about the things that happened in their house when no one was looking, or how I felt about living with them, they suddenly cry and act like I betrayed them.

        I don’t hold the church responsible for their actions, even though they are Mormon and were never disciplined by the church for their actions. I’m trying to say that I think it reflects very poorly on the church that they remind me of these people, and that their words and actions mirror each other so well.

        When you try to frame the discussion, the way you did in this blog post and in the replies to my comments, in terms of people with “skewed” perspectives making “demands” and expecting “perfect” leaders, your words sound like they came out of my father’s mouth. You don’t seem to understand who it is you’re implicitly condemning. You don’t seem to understand how people were hurt by the church’s “mistakes,” or how they continue to be hurt today, by local church leaders and members who were never set straight on what is “folk doctrine” and what isn’t. Except that if something comes to light and it makes the church look bad, they suddenly try to make it look like they had nothing to do with it.

        mormonsandgays.org teaches love and a certain degree of tolerance, but says nothing about the people whose lives were destroyed by the church’s teachings, sometimes literally as in Stuart Matis’ case. It says nothing about the inconsistent directions given to local church leaders which led some homosexual members to outed, humiliated and excommunicated, while others became the “success stories” featured in video profiles. And the official response to Ordain Women has been to make hurting people asking for bread and fish out to be villains, to mischaracterize their requests and their motives, and to say that the one does not speak for the ninety and nine, as though that were in any way relevant.

        And then they ask people to silence themselves. Because while the church does not have perfect leaders, it seems to be more important that people who want to pretend that they’re perfect can continue to do so, than that women and children can have their wounds healed by the Master.

      • 11 R.S. "Rob" Ghio March 29, 2014 at 7:36 pm

        Very sorry for what you have experienced. Sincerely. That was a burden you had no business carrying. Also sorry for what you have read into my posts, which aren’t meant to be a condemnation of anyone. I’ve always recognized that in a church with millions of members, all aspects of human nature will be reflected. We should expect to find members who are saintly (and I have) and members who are evil (and I have). I think that if you listen to some of the most recent General Conference talks by President Uchtdorf or Elder Holland, you will find many honest acknowledgments of some of things you address. I’m not saying that evil, hatred, prejudice, or any other foul aspect of humanity is tolerable in the slightest degree. But I do believe that the Church has done more to eradicate such things from my soul than any other institution. And I would no more kick the Church to the curb for the mistakes of some leaders than I would want the Lord to kick me to the curb for my own mistakes. I have the hope that the Atonement is big enough for all of us, individually and collectively. But if my comments have offended you or opened up old wounds, please know that was not my intent.

      • 12 Jewelfox March 29, 2014 at 7:56 pm

        I was already assuming you didn’t intend to hurt anyone, and were conducting this discussion in good faith. That’s why instead of attacking you or your intent, I pointed out specific things that you said and specific actions that you defended, and explained the ways that they hurt people.

        If you want to stop giving offence to people who do not deserve it, the way you did here whether you meant to or not, please reflect on those specific things and maybe ask the people they hurt how they ought to be changed. While you are doing so, please reflect on what the results would be if that happened within the church at an organizational level, instead of their having to wait until people embarrass them by telling more sympathetic nonmembers how they have been hurt.

        Which is what their actions in the past have amounted to, whether those actions were inspired or not.

      • 13 R.S. "Rob" Ghio March 29, 2014 at 8:00 pm

        Fair enough. My best to you, and thank you for the discussion.

  4. 14 Walt July 2, 2014 at 2:04 pm

    As an African American man, I struggle to understand why you feel that there is no need to apologize, or admit that these prejudicial beliefs were wrong publically? It bothers me and prevents me from ever giving Mormon’s any type benefit of the doubt. You continually say you welcome opinions from a diverse background, well here you go. If you want to make things right with African Americans, acknowledge that you had these racist teachings, and that they were wrong publically, and explain why you were so far behind most of the country in changing these policies.

    • 15 R.S. "Rob" Ghio July 2, 2014 at 2:13 pm

      This is kind of the point. The Church has done all of these things, and it isn’t sufficient. Nothing that is said will be. It’s kind of like repentance. The point is to change your ways and do better in the future. Not to engage in perpetual self flagellation.

  5. 16 Valery Behan June 3, 2018 at 6:33 am

    Thanks for your remarks. No one who has read the Old and New Testaments can say the prophets are perfect. Some mistakes though, such as Brigham Young’s to deny the priesthood based on race (and all of the subsequent mistaken explanation that followed), hurts my heart. To think of how many people could have been blessed…how the church could have grown! But as Joshua and Caleb were blessed after a while, despite the mistakes of Moses and the church as a whole, I pray that those of color will be able to forgive past prejudices and embrace the true gospel of Jesus Christ.

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