Return to About Mormons home

Follow the Brethren:  A Forgotten Art?

by W. John Walsh

In the past few years, I have received a number of letters from self-proclaimed Latter-day Saints complaining about the teachings of Church leaders on one matter or another.  Usually these letters are from people who admit they do not agree with Church teachings.  Certainly, we all have the right to choose what we will obey and what we will reject, with accountability to God for that choice at the final judgment (See Agency).  However, some of these letters follow a peculiar pattern. 

While still claiming to be members of the Church in good standing, the writers publicly attack the views of a particular Church leader.  Here is an excerpt from one recent example:

"The problem with [Elder Bruce R.] McConkie's published viewpoint isn't that he isn't working from true doctrines, such as the creation, the fall, and the atonement.  The problem is that he then makes leaps from those doctrines to make pronouncements which are not true doctrines."

Under this particular pattern, these modern day anti-Christs often support their own views by referencing the opinion of some other Church leader who supposedly agreed with their perspective.  In other words, they justify their opposition to a prophet or apostle by claiming that two leaders have disagreed on some matter of doctrine or another, and then proceed to say very negative things about the leader with whom they have disagreed.   They put forward the proposition that if they can find another  leader who supposedly took their point of view, they are somehow justified in publicly disagreeing with an authority, and even speaking of him in less than respectful terms.

I would like to cover two points.  First, do Church leaders occasionally disagree on matters of doctrine?  Second, if they do, what is the appropriate response?

While Church leaders occasionally do disagree, such disagreements are notably rare.  Since the Church teaches that only Jesus Christ was free from all error and sin, it should not be surprising that Church leaders do not always have the same understanding of all gospel principles (See Are Prophets Infallible?).  To put this into perspective, I would like to relate the following personal experience:

"Several years ago, while reading a general conference report from the early part of this century, I read something by President Joseph Fielding Smith that caught my attention.  President Smith's words seemed to contradict something that I had read by Elder Bruce R. McConkie the previous year.  Now, this was very surprising to me.  Elder McConkie and President Smith are generally known within the LDS community as two of the greatest gospel scholars of this dispensation and had a great deal of respect for one another.  Elder McConkie frequently quoted President Smith in his own writings. 

Now, it was not entirely clear to me from the two texts that there was indeed a contradiction, but I was really curious about it and I wanted to resolve it.  As it so happened, I was taking a course at BYU that semester from Joseph Fielding McConkie, the son of Bruce R. McConkie and grandson of Joseph Fielding Smith.  For those who did not know, Elder McConkie was married to President Smith's daughter. 

I thought if anyone could explain what I had found, then Joseph Fielding McConkie was my most likely choice.  After showing Brother McConkie the quotes from his father and grandfather, I asked him if I had misread something.  Brother McConkie smiled and said that I had accidentally stumbled across one of the five points of doctrine in which his father and grandfather disagreed.  To make sure I didn't miss the point, he reinforced that they disagreed on only 5 points of doctrine out of thousands of gospel teachings (i.e., 99.99% in agreement).  And those five points were all on trivial, obscure bits of knowledge that had nothing to do with our salvation."

Now, having related this story, I would like to put forth some bona fides.   I hope the reader will take this in the spirit in which it is intended.  I certainly don't claim to know all things and I definitely have room for further growth, but I believe I am fairly knowledgeable about the teachings of LDS Church leaders.   My knowledge is based on the following:

1)  I have over 90 semester hours of college religion courses from Church instructors.  This is equivalent to 3 full-time years of study.

2)  Most of the courses I have taken have been from the most knowledgeable instructor in the Church on that subject matter (e.g., Joseph Smith Translation and New Testament from Robert J. Matthews, Book of Mormon from Robert L. Millet, Isaiah from Victor Ludlow, Doctrine and Covenants from Joseph Fielding McConkie, etc.)

3)  I have read over 400 books summarizing Church teachings from members of the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve.   Many of the books have been read multiple times.

Now, I certainly don't claim to be the most knowledgeable person in the Church.   The instructors noted above and many additional unnamed ones definitely exceed my knowledge by a great degree.  And I certainly know a number of people whose application of gospel principles in their daily lives is greater than my own.   However, I think it is fair to say that I do know more than a little about the teachings of the Church.

While I have come across a few contradictions in the teachings of the approximately 100 men who have held the holy apostleship in this dispensation, it has been relatively rare and always on obscure doctrines that have very little to do with our salvation.  For example, some of the Brethren have differed on exactly how all the prophesies regarding the restoration of the ten tribes will occur.  However, I have almost never seen a difference in teaching on important matters of the gospel, especially as to how we should act in our daily lives.  For example, the Brethren have been united on issues regarding premarital sex, abortion, birth control, pornography, homosexual acts, modesty, dating nonmembers, Sabbath observance, and almost all other behavioral choices.  The point is this:  Church leaders are united in matters of faith and doctrine.  There are those who excuse their disobedience to a particular doctrine because, in their view, the Brethren occasionally disagree on minor points, and therefore they can't be trusted on anything.  These people are treading a dangerous path to apostasy.

Now the second question:  How should we deal with these differences?  I would like to suggest a couple ways for members of the Church to deal with these differences. 

(1)  If you believe you have found a true contradiction between Church leaders, ask yourself if it is really a contradiction or if it is just that one person was more explicit than the other at that time.  If one person is more explicit, that is not the same thing as a contradiction.  Also, I have seen the same Church leader address the same subject differently in different audiences. 

(2) If you truly come to the conclusion that one Church leader disagreed with another on behavior, always follow the teachings of the present prophet.  The Lord has people obey different laws at different times.  For example, Moses commanded the people to practice animal sacrifice.  Today, we don't follow this practice.   However, you should also ask yourself whether there is a true disagreement.   The commandments of the Lord are in place until revoked by God.  If a commandment has not been explicitly changed, then it is still in force.  At general conference, you will repeatedly hear Church leaders stress this fact.  A teaching does not go away by default.  If a commandment is to be changed or revoked, it will happen explicitly.

(3) If you truly come to the conclusion that one Church leader disagreed with another on doctrine, then you can pray about it and choose who you believe was right.  Or, perhaps put it on the shelf until more information becomes available.  Since the Lord has not revealed all truth, most of us have a few things on the shelf. 

It is acceptable to espouse the idea that you believe is right.  However, under no circumstances should you publicly criticize the leader you feel is wrong.  For example, using a hypothetical example, let's say you discover that Elder Richard G. Scott and Elder Neal A. Maxwell disagreed about the nature of the scriptural record of the ten tribes, as mentioned in the Book of Mormon.  You study the scriptures, pray about it, and decide Elder Scott is more correct. When discussing the gospel in Sunday School or elsewhere, it's perfectly fine to say, "Elder Scott said......." to support your view.    However, do not make the mistake of criticizing the other person like, "Elder Maxwell was totally wrong when he said.........."  This is speaking ill of the Lord's anointed and a violation of temple covenants.

As I said above, in my years of gospel study I have come across only a trivial amount of differences.  In some cases, I have come to a conclusion about which point of view was more correct.  In other cases, I took note of the various views and put it on the shelf until more authoritative information is available.  However, I have never felt obligated to criticize any of the Church leaders, past or present.  Unfortunately, some other people have taken a different approach.  Even if those people were correct that a Church leader erred on some matter or another, they are partaking of an evil spirit to publicly speak ill of them.  I believe that they forfeit all hopes of eternal life for so doing, regardless of whether they were right on the original point.

In closing, I would like to address a final point.  This type of internal critic often tries to point a picture of things that are not true.  They often claim to be privy to some private council where some Church leader issued an opinion or was rebuked by the other Brethren.  I remember the first time I came across this type of misrepresentation.  When I was a relatively new member of the Church, someone told me that President Hinckley and President Monson despised one another.  Their animosity was  supposedly well-known at Church headquarters and President Hinckley let it be known that when he became President of the Church, he intended to dismiss President Monson from Church leadership.  And what happened when President Hinckley became President of the Church?  He chose President Monson as his First Councilor.  Clearly, the rumors were false.

Likewise, from time to time, I hear claims that we can ignore the teachings of this leader or that leader because the other Brethren supposedly corrected them on some issue.   The vast majority of these stories are totally false.  When confronted with such unsubstantiated stories, I always ask the teller to show me the evidence that the story is true.  No evidence is ever produced.  If you are ever presented with such a story, I suggest you be somewhat discriminating before accepting it at face value.   Ask yourself why this person would be privy to some secret meeting that the rest of the Church is not.

I encourage you with all the feelings within my soul to avoid speaking ill of the prophets and apostles of God.  Your salvation is dependent upon it.

(See Following the Prophets home page; Reflections home page)

All About Mormons