Are we duty bound to question the words of church leaders?

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Due to recent events in my life and comments on a recent post, I thought I should post some comments by church leaders on questioning what church leaders teach. (Yes, the irony is not lost on me.)

“The doctrines of the church cannot be fully understood unless it is tested by mind, by feelings, intellect and emotions, by every power of the investigator. Every church member is expected to understand the doctrine of the church intelligently. There is no place in the church for blind adherence.” —John A. Widstoe, Evidence and Reconciliations, p. 226

“I am more afraid that this people have so much confidence in their leaders that they will not inquire for themselves of God whether they are led by Him. I am fearful they settle down in a state of blind self-security, trusting their eternal destiny in the hands of their leaders with a reckless confidence that in itself would thwart the purposes of God in their salvation, and weaken that influence they could give to their leaders, did they know for themselves, by the revelations of Jesus, that they are led in the right way. Let every man and woman know, by the whispering of the Spirit of God to themselves, whether their leaders are walking in the path the Lord dictates, or not.” —Brigham Young, (12 January 1862) Journal of Discourses 9:150.

“God has not established His Church to make of its members irresponsible automatons, nor to exact from them blind obedience.” —James E. Talmage, The Vitality of Mormonism, p. 42.

“Latter-day Saints are not obedient because they are compelled to be obedient. They are obedient because they know certain spiritual truths and have decided, as an expression of their own individual agency, to obey the commandments of God . . . Those who talk of blind obedience may appear to know many things, but they do not understand the doctrines of the gospel. There is an obedience that comes from a knowledge of the truth that transcends any external form of control. We are not obedient because we are blind, we are obedient because we can see.” —Boyd K. Packer, Conference Report, 1983 April, pp. 89–90.

“Here may be some things that the First Presidency do; that the Apostles do, that cannot for the moment be explained; yet the spirit, the motives that inspire the action can be understood, because each member of the Church has a right to have that measure of the Spirit of God that they can judge as to those who are acting in their interests or otherwise” —Lorenzo Snow, Conference Report (October 1898): 54

“You cannot accept the books written by the authorities of the Church as standards of doctrine, only insofar as they accord with the revealed word in the standard works. Every man who writes is responsible, not the Church, for what he writes. If Joseph Fielding Smith writes something which is out of harmony with the revelations, then every member of the Church is duty bound to reject it. If he writes that which is in perfect harmony with the revealed word of the Lord, then it should be accepted.” —Joseph Fielding Smith, Doctrines of Salvation, comp. Bruce R. McConkie, 3 vols., (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1954–56), 3:203–204

“And if he says something that contradicts what is found in the standard works (I think that is why we call them “standard”—it is the standard measure of all that men teach), you may know by that same token that it is false; regardless of the position of the man who says it.” —Harold B. Lee, “The Place of the Living Prophet, Seer, and Revelator,” Address to Seminary and Institute of Religion Faculty, BYU, 8 July 1964

“I have given some thought to this question, and the answer thereto so far as I can determine, is: We can tell when the speakers are ‘moved upon by the Holy Ghost’ only when we, ourselves, are ‘moved upon by the Holy Ghost.’ In a way, this completely shifts the responsibility from them to us to determine when they so speak.” —J. Reuben Clark, (31 July 1954). “When Are Church Leaders’ Words Entitled to Claim of Scripture?”. Church News.

“President Wilford Woodruff is a man of wisdom and experience, and we respect him, but we do not believe his personal views or utterances are revelations from God; and when ‘Thus saith the Lord,’ comes from him, the saints investigate it: they do not shut their eyes and take it down like a pill.” —Charles W. Penrose, Millennial Star, v. 54, p. 191

What are your own thoughts on these statements?

6 thoughts on “Are we duty bound to question the words of church leaders?

  1. Well, we aren’t meant to be mindless robots, so I don’t think there is anything wrong with searching out the answers for ourselves and not taking everything said, at face value.

  2. Once again you ask a very provocative question. Surely you know this question will elicit strong responses. It all hinges on if you think questioning is a positive or a negative thing. It all depends if you see doubt as a negative or a part of the process of building faith. It all depends on our comfort with ambiguity. You remind me of an essay by Richard Poll. It was called “What the Church Means to People Like Me”. He claims there are two types of Church members. One he calls Iron Rod members. The others he call Liahona members.

    Your posts provoke the Iron Rod members who see them as controversial, challenging or unorthodox. I see this dynamic sometimes in Sunday School where certain members of the class act as the doctrine police and claim they know the orthodox opinion. I am generally of the opinion that we need to be less certain of what we think we know. In some way it bothers me because who is to say any member of the class has the final word on truth. Often differences arise because people don’t listen. And if people do question, beating them over the head with the truth may offer correct views but bad feelings.

    For an example, as a youth in the 70’s and 80’s I was told I was a righteous generation and the second coming would likely be in the year 2000. Some really thought they knew this, but it didn’t turn out to be. Many missionaries would be much better off if they did question the folk stories they hear in the MTC about the Three Nephites etc.

    Teryl Givens has written an interesting book called people of paradox. I says something to the effect (I haven’t read it yet) that the church is full of parodoxes such as faith and doubt, authority and egalitarianism, etc.Some people are more comfortable with ambiguity than others.

    Sometimes questioning and doubts hurt more than they help. Sometimes blind obedience hurts and sometimes it might be helpful. Life is challenging. When I think of questioning prophets I think of stories like Miriam’s leprosy, those poor people swallowed by a hole for questioning Moses, or the bear mauling those who taunted Elisha.

    Personally I have many questions and a few doubts. We all do I suppose. But there are times when it is liberating to let go of some of those doubts. This past week our stake president visited and hit on a point that was also expressed in General Conference. As the Stake President spoke my heart said something different than my mind. Sometimes it is good to choose faith over our doubts or questions.

  3. I have no doubts. But questioning doesn’t mean doubting, necessarily, it means wanting to ask and learn more, to expand knowledge. Kim’s questioning isn’t because of doubt, but because of these reasons. What hurts people, is others who think they have a right to police what people think or say, instead of doing what we are supposed to do, love and accept and encourage, without judgment.

  4. I am an Iron Rod TBM, member. I am duty bound to seek confirmation of the things that my church leaders promulgate because I am duty bound to sustain them, and I can do so properly only if I do ot have any doubts, which can only be allayed by seeking a spiritual confirmation of the things I hear, read, and are taught.


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