It is well known, at least among Mormons, that Mormons don’t worship their prophets. We don’t pray to Joseph Smith. We are not expected to blindly follow every dictum that comes from President Thomas S. Monson. We test the commandments (in prayer or by trial) and choose the ones whose fruits are most godly. And yet, we frequently hear the refrain that God would never allow the church to be led astray by a false prophet. Whether it is God’s word or the word of his servants, it is the same. The path of safety is to treat the Brethren like they are infallible, even though we know they aren’t, because maybe they are, even when we think they aren’t.
Perhaps it would be helpful to take a step back and to consider what we actually mean by fallible or infallible. One way of understanding fallibility is simply to acknowledge that everyone is human. We all get tired and are grouchy. We all sometimes yell at our kids or embarrass ourselves when some fact, of which we are certain, turns out to be wrong. None of us are without sin and, therefore, we are all capable of making mistakes. Let’s call this form of fallibility “human frailty.”
Another way of talking about fallibility is to consider the possibility that an expert might make a mistake. This notion of fallibility is meant to protect people from the logical fallacy of argument from authority. Just because someone is considered an expert, it can be a mistake to assume that what they say is accurate without independent verification, even about the area of their expertise. This form of fallibility is important; understanding it is necessary to get rid of old bad ideas and find new good ideas (or find out that even older ideas were right all along). The tyranny of expertise is that it can prevent amateurs and younger researchers from even getting their ideas out into the wider discussion, much less having their ideas debated on merits. Understanding that authority figures can make mistakes mitigates against the tyranny of expertise. Let’s call this form of fallibility “expert error.”
It seems to me that Mormons frequently want to believe that their leaders are subject to human frailty, but not to expert error. This makes sense in that we have been told that the prophet will not lead the church astray. People argue that the prophet will not lead the church astray or even that, should our leadership somehow lead us astray, we will be blessed for following them down the wrong path. So, according to this theory, a prophet, by virtue of his position, is functionally immune to expert error when it comes to expressing religious authority.
Let’s take a look then at what scripture has to say about the matter. Well, scripture says a lot of frequently contradictory things, so let’s take a look at what one scripture has to say. Turn with me to 1st Kings, chapter 13, a chapter deeply concerned with religious authority. In the chapter, you have four competing sources of authority: Jeroboam, the Israelite king (and heretic!); the prophet from Judah (and heretic?); the old prophet from Beth-el (and heretic?); and God (just God, really). A simple historical and contextual reading might lead you to believe that this is a story propogated by the Judahite priesthood in order to delegitimize the Israelite alternative temple rites at Beth-el (the translation is “House of God”). After all, Jeroboam, who instigated and participates in the rites at Beth-el is smitten and the old prophet leads the Judahite prophet astray such that he is eaten by a lion. And you’d probably be right. But let’s consider what this story is also saying about prophetic fallibility.
The Judahite prophet is given a strict commandment to not eat or drink while at Beth-el, presumably because animals sacrificed there are not considered legitimate offerings to the Lord. But when the old prophet of Beth-el intervenes and insists that the Judahite prophet get some food, lying to convince him, the Judahite agrees. He appears to believe in the old prophet’s religious authority, in spite of his own revelatory experience. So, because he listens to the nasty, lying prophet, he is eaten by a lion.
Except we then encounter the old prophet’s reaction to the death of the Judahite prophet.
29 And the prophet took up the carcase of the man of God, and laid it upon the ass, and brought it back: and the old prophet came to the city, to mourn and to bury him.
30 And he laid his carcase in his own grave; and they mourned over him, saying, Alas, my brother!
31 And it came to pass, after he had buried him, that he spake to his sons, saying, When I am dead, then bury me in the sepulchre wherein the man of God is buried; lay my bones beside his bones:
This is not the reaction of the evil villain, who deliberately led a man to disobedience, in spite of the narrator’s insistence otherwise. This is the reaction of a man who made a mistake and is shocked, saddened, and guilty regarding it. This is reaction of a person who is guilty of expert error. But, of course, the Judahite prophet is guilty of the same, otherwise he wouldn’t have been persuaded by the old prophet and wouldn’t have been eaten by a lion. There is no reason to assume that the Judahite prophet is unauthorized. Hands wither and lions dine as a result of his religious authority. But he still was too trusting of religious authority when the old prophet came calling. And the old prophet was too believing in his own authority, in spite of being in Beth-el, to think that what he wanted went against God’s will. Both men appear to be experts in their fields and, possible editorial assertions aside, operating in the best interest of their religion as they understand it. The lesson of this story, aside from how you just can’t trust anything coming out of Beth-el these days, is that even religious authorities (and political authorities, if you throw Jeroboam in there) are prone to expert error.
So, while Mormons have a tendency to embrace the notion of “human frailty” when they discuss prophetic fallibility, there is scriptural precedent for adding the notion of “expert error” as well. Which is something worth considering when you ponder how to accommodate the well-intentioned directives coming from our religious authorities today.