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.