Question: When, if ever, is it okay to disagree with Church leaders?

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Question: When, if ever, is it okay to disagree with Church leaders?

Introduction to Question

The current First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints: Russell M. Nelson as President (center), Dallin H. Oaks as First Counselor (left), and Henry B. Eyring as Second Counselor (right).

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has a large and well-established organization of leadership. This video outlines that leadership in detail:


The President of the Church, considered to be a prophet of God, receives revelation on behalf of the entire Church. Each person receives revelation for his or her own position and correlative sphere of influence in the Church. The more general the leader, the more general their stewardship. An Elder’s Quorum President can receive revelation to direct the Elder’s Quorum, a Bishop might be able to receive revelation to direct the Elder’s Quorum, but the Elder’s Quorum President cannot receive revelation on behalf of the whole ward like the Bishop can.

Occasionally in the Church, it is asked when it is ever okay to disagree with the decisions and/or teachings of local and/or general Church leadership.

This article will outline those occasions when it may be okay to disagree with leaders of the Church.

Three Important Initial Considerations

Before we get into the occasions when it may be okay to disagree with Church leaders, it is important to keep three things in mind.

The Ideal: Agreeing with and Defending as Much of Leaders’ Words and Actions as Humanly Possible

First, we should lay out what the ideal is for every Latter-day Saint in relation to all leaders (both general and local) of the Church. That is:

We should try and agree with, defend, and live out the words and actions of all leaders of the Church as much as humanly possible.

This is what it means to sustain a leader: to uphold their influence in human hearts as much as possible. When we disagree with them or criticize them, they can start to lose their influence either in our own hearts, the hearts of other people that hear our criticism, or both.

Particularly in regards to the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve, we are told over and over again in the scriptures that they are holy.[1] We should try and treat them and their words as such.

We are also told in scripture to receive the prophet's word as if from the mouth of God in all patience and faith.[2] Additionally, we are told that if we do lift our heels against them and say they have sinned when they haven't, that we will be cursed.[3] Latter-day Saints who have gone through temples to receive their endowment have covenanted to not speak evil of the Lord's anointed.

This is absolutely not to say that we make an assumption that the leaders of the Church (both general and local) are incapable of error. The scriptures expressly declare that the prophets are capable of error. The first section of the Doctrine and Covenants declares that when leaders make errors, it shall be made known.[4] It also declares that when they sin, they will be chastened so that they will repent.[5] All this means, again, is that we agree with and defend them as much as possible so as to uphold their influence on human hearts and minds.

Recognizing a Fault or Mistake vs. Criticizing and Backbiting

Prophets and apostles have consistently taught that there is a difference between the type of differences of view that members can have with Church leaders and criticism or backbiting. Elder Dallin H. Oaks noted that there is a difference between the type of criticism that is "the act of passing judgement as to the merits of anything" and "the act of passing severe judgement; censure; faultfinding" which Church members are to refrain from in relation to Church leaders. Elder Oaks notes that the latter is condemned repeatedly in scripture.[6] There is a large difference between recognizing that what some Church leader said is mistaken or wrong and openly criticizing them and faultfinding. When we have disagreements, we can do the former and not the latter.

The strongest word that the scriptures use in relation to addressing the faults of top leaders is admonish which means "[t]o warn or notify of a fault; to reprove with mildness."[7] That word is used twice in scripture in relation to leaders of the Church and only directed to people that have close relationships with the prophet. In the first instance it is with Oliver Cowdery in 1829 before the organization of the Church:

19 Admonish him in his faults, and also receive admonition of him. Be patient; be sober; be temperate; have patience, faith, hope and charity.[8]

In the second instance it is given to Thomas B. Marsh who was the President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles:

12 And pray for thy brethren of the Twelve. Admonish them sharply for my name’s sake, and let them be admonished for all their sins, and be ye faithful before me unto my name.[9]

In this latter scripture, it does say to admonish "sharply." But, again, it's used in relation to someone who is already in high positions in the Church.

Five procedures to follow if you have differences with Church leadership

Elder Oaks gave five things that members can do when they have differences with Church leadership.

  1. Overlook the difference
  2. Reserve judgment and postpone any action on the difference
  3. Take up our differences privately with the leader involved.
  4. Communicate with the Church officer who has the power to correct or release the person thought to be in error or transgression.
  5. Pray for the resolution of the problem.[10]

There may be times where we believe that personal revelation has told us something that contradicts the prophet’s revelation. In these cases, review the principles and procedures outlined in this article.

Occasions When One May Disagree With Church Leaders

Now we list the occasions in which one may disagree with Church leaders. These are not automatic exceptions. Disagreement should be handled in a spirit of charity, prayer, and seeking the good of the Kingdom of God.

1. It may be okay to disagree with Church leadership when what they teach is out of harmony with the Standard Works

The first place where it would be okay to disagree with any Church leadership is when they say something that is out of line with the standard works. Joseph Smith left clear revelation that the canonized scriptures should govern the Church.[11] This since they have been revealed by the Lord's duly appointed prophet (the only one authorized to receive revelation on behalf of the entire Church),[12] submitted to and approved by all members of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve,[13] and submitted to the general body of the Church for ratification.[14] Scripture should be read contextually (that is, in the historical context of the people who would have first heard the revelation) and holistically (seeing everything scripture has to say on the topic at hand) to acquire accurate theological conceptions that members judge every person's doctrine against. This article explains in more detail how to read the scriptures.

Joseph Fielding Smith wrote:

It makes no difference what is written or what anyone has said, if what has been said is in conflict with what the Lord has revealed, we can set it aside. My words, and the teachings of any other member of the Church, high or low, if they do not square with the revelations, we need not accept them. Let us have this matter clear. We have accepted the four standard works as the measuring yardsticks, or balances, by which we measure every man’s doctrine. You cannot accept the books written by the authorities of the Church as standards of doctrine, only in so far 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.[15]

It's important to remember that just because a doctrine doesn't immediately and explicitly pop up in scripture, doesn't mean that that teaching isn't inspired. For instance, President Russell M. Nelson taught the following at the October 2017 General Conference of the Church:

My dear brothers and sisters, I promise that as you prayerfully study the Book of Mormon every day, you will make better decisions—every day. I promise that as you ponder what you study, the windows of heaven will open, and you will receive answers to your own questions and direction for your own life. I promise that as you daily immerse yourself in the Book of Mormon, you can be immunized against the evils of the day, even the gripping plague of pornography and other mind-numbing addictions.[16]

This is a promise connected to a specific action. This promise and action are never explicitly laid out in scripture, but the Lord does bless us as we treat the prophets as holy, are anxiously engaged in a good cause of our own free will without God's revelation (like sustaining the prophet by lovingly accepting his challenges),[17] and receive the words of the prophet as if from the mouth of God in all patience and faith as we are bound to do by the Doctrine and Covenants.[18]

2. It is okay to disagree with Church leadership when they try and claim revelation for something that is outside the bounds of their stewardship

As mentioned before, Church leaders have a specific sphere of influence that they are given with their calling and they are only allowed to receive revelation for that calling.

Elder Oaks taught the following. His words are supported by scripture (cited in the footnotes):

First, we should understand what can be called the principle of “responsibility in revelation.” Our Heavenly Father’s house is a house of order, where his servants are commanded to “act in the office in which [they are] appointed."[19] This principle applies to revelation. Only the President of the Church receives revelation to guide the entire Church. Only the stake president receives revelation for the special guidance of the stake. The person who receives revelation for the ward is the bishop. For a family, it is the priesthood leadership of the family. Leaders receive revelation for their own areas of responsibility. Individuals can receive revelation to guide their own lives. But when one person purports to receive revelation for another person outside his or her own area of responsibility—such as a Church member who claims to have revelation to guide the entire Church or a person who claims to have a revelation to guide another person over whom he or she has no presiding authority according to the order of the Church—you can be sure that such revelations are not from the Lord. “There are counterfeit signals.”[20] Satan is a great deceiver, and he is the source of some of these spurious revelations. Others are imagined. If a revelation is outside the limits of your specific responsibility, you know it is not from the Lord and you are not bound by it.[21]

3. It may be okay to disagree with Church leadership when their decisions don’t come from revelation

Members may disagree with Church leaders' decisions when those decisions do not come from revelation. When a decision, new doctrine, new policy, etc. is claimed to come by revelation, this adds a confirming, divine witness on that action and disagreement with that decision may very likely be disagreement with God. Since revelation almost always comes from God through the Holy Spirit, it follows that when the Holy Spirit does not touch us, that we are usually not receiving revelation.

As the Lord told all prospective missionaries in 1831:

3 And this is the ensample unto them, that they shall speak as they are moved upon by the Holy Ghost.
4 And whatsoever they shall speak when moved upon by the Holy Ghost shall be scripture, shall be the will of the Lord, shall be the mind of the Lord, shall be the word of the Lord, shall be the voice of the Lord, and the power of God unto salvation.
5 Behold, this is the promise of the Lord unto you, O ye my servants.[22]

Here we echo the above caveat to not immediately reject a teaching, policy, promise, and/or other action that is not explicitly laid out in scripture/not explicitly said to have come by revelation.

Plato and Aristotle in discussion, by Luca della Robbia (1437)

4. It is okay to disagree with Church leadership when their conduct clearly does not fall in line with the moral standards and other statutes laid out in scripture

Another area in which members can disagree with Church leadership is when their conduct does not clearly fall in line with the moral standards and other statutes laid out in scripture. What are the moral standards laid out in scripture? See this article for an informative yet non-exhaustive summary.

As mentioned before, the Doctrine and Covenants expressly states that when Church leaders make errors it will be known. It also states that when they sin, they will be chastened so that they will repent. No one is exempt from the laws of the Church given through prophets by God via revelation. All must be held accountable before the appropriate authorities for their transgressions.[23] The Doctrine and Covenants even provides a procedure for excommunicating the President of the Church.[24]

5. It may be okay to disagree with Church leadership when their words do not accord with science

This last one is perhaps the most fraught with difficulty and complexity. We absolutely do not want to make science our idol. We do not want it to have higher authority than revelation or the prophets. We do not want to reject doctrines of the Church just because the current scientific community accepts something that might be at odds with Church doctrine and other moral standards placed upon us by the Church.

However, we also do not want to be hostile to science either. We want to have science inform our perspectives on things pertaining to the Gospel as much as possible. Take, for instance, the words of the revelation given to Joseph Smith when organizing the School of the Prophets:

77 And I give unto you a commandment that you shall teach one another the doctrine of the kingdom.


78 Teach ye diligently and my grace shall attend you, that you may be instructed more perfectly in theory, in principle, in doctrine, in the law of the gospel, in all things that pertain unto the kingdom of God, that are expedient for you to understand;

79 Of things both in heaven and in the earth, and under the earth; things which have been, things which are, things which must shortly come to pass; things which are at home, things which are abroad; the wars and the perplexities of the nations, and the judgments which are on the land; and a knowledge also of countries and of kingdoms—

80 That ye may be prepared in all things when I shall send you again to magnify the calling whereunto I have called you, and the mission with which I have commissioned you.[25]

It is clear from the revelation that our theology is expressly not hostile to science. We welcome it in order to be better instructed in things pertaining to the Kingdom of God. Thus, we will have to do a continuous dance with our scripture and the academy: seeing what things taught in scripture that we must logically see as literal historical and what things science might be able to give us a more informed answer to.

As President Brigham Young taught:

“Mormonism,” so-called, embraces every principle pertaining to life and salvation, for time and eternity. No matter who has it. If the infidel has got truth it belongs to “Mormonism.” The truth and sound doctrine possessed by the sectarian world, and they have a great deal, all belong to this Church. As for their morality, many of them are, morally, just as good as we are. All that is good, lovely, and praiseworthy belongs to this Church and Kingdom. “Mormonism” includes all truth. There is no truth but what belongs to the Gospel. It is life, eternal life; it is bliss; it is the fulness of all things in the gods and in the eternities of the gods.[26]

Conclusion

It is the hope of the author that these principles and ideas will serve productively to show that there is room for disagreement in the Church without undermining the (very) essential governmental structure and holy authority of Church leaders.

Notes

  1. For just three of dozens of references, see 1 Nephi 3:30; 5:13; 13:20
  2. Doctrine and Covenants 21:5. This revelation in context referred to Joseph Smith but easily applies to his successors.
  3. Doctrine and Covenants 121:16
  4. Doctrine and Covenants 1:25
  5. Doctrine and Covenants 1:27
  6. Dallin H. Oaks, "Criticism," Ensign 17 (February 1987). "Faultfinding, evil speaking, and backbiting are obviously unchristian. The Bible commands us to avoid 'evil speakings.' (See 1 Peter 2:1.) It tells us to 'Let all bitterness, and wrath, and anger, and clamour, and evil speaking, be put away from you.' (Ephesians 4:31.) Modern revelations direct us to avoid 'backbiting,' 'evil speaking,' and 'find[ing] fault one with another.' (See Doctrine and Covenants 20:53–54; Doctrine and Covenants 42:27; Doctrine and Covenants 88:124; and Doctrine and Covenants 136:23)."
  7. "Admonish," Webster's 1828 Dictionary, accessed June 16, 2021, http://webstersdictionary1828.com/Dictionary/admonish. Emphasis added.
  8. Doctrine and Covenants 6:19
  9. Doctrine and Covenants 112:12
  10. Ibid.
  11. Doctrine and Covenants 42:12–13, 56–60; 105:58–59
  12. Doctrine and Covenants 21:4–5; Doctrine and Covenants 28:2
  13. Doctrine and Covenants 107:27
  14. Doctrine and Covenants 26:2; 28:13
  15. Joseph Fielding Smith, Doctrines of Salvation, comp. Bruce R. McConkie, 3 vols. (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1954–56), 203–204. Emphasis added.
  16. Russell M. Nelson, "The Book of Mormon: What Would Your Life be Like without It?" Ensign 47 (November 2017): 62–63.
  17. Doctrine and Covenants 58:26-29
  18. Doctrine and Covenants 21:4-6
  19. Doctrine and Covenants 107:99.
  20. Boyd K. Packer, “Prayers and Answers,” Ensign 9 (November 1979): 19–20.
  21. Dallin H. Oaks, "Revelation," New Era 11 (September 1982).
  22. Doctrine and Covenants 68:3-5
  23. Doctrine and Covenants 68:22–24; 107:81
  24. Doctrine and Covenants 107:82–84
  25. Doctrine and Covenants 88:77-80
  26. Brigham Young, Discourses of Brigham Young: Second President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, comp. John A. Widtsoe (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1954), 4. Quoting Journal of Discourses 11:375