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Question: When, if ever, is it okay to disagree with Church leaders?
Question: When, if ever, is it okay to disagree with Church leaders?
Introduction to Question
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, if ever, it is okay to disagree with the decisions, teachings, and/or actions of local and/or general Church leaders.
This article will outline those occasions when it may be okay to disagree with leaders of the Church.
Four Important Initial Considerations
Before we get into the occasions when it may be okay to disagree with Church leaders, it is important to keep four things in mind.
The Ideal: Agreeing With, Defending, and Living Out 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 (past and present, ancient and modern, recorded in scripture and not, general and local) as much as humanly possible. We should defend their words as true (that is, corresponding to reality), logically consistent, and morally good.
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. We should try and treat them and their words as such.
We are also told in scripture to receive all the prophet's words as if from the mouth of God in all patience and faith. 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. 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. It also declares that when they sin, they will be chastened so that they will repent. All this means, again, is that we agree with, defend, and live out as much of their words and actions as humanly possible so as to uphold their influence on human hearts and minds. How much it will be humanly possible to defend them will be defined naturally by logical limits of reason and morality.
When they do make mistakes, and when they’ve made the steps necessary to correct it, we shouldn’t hold those mistakes in our hearts and minds like a grudge that we can hold over their heads. We should forgive, forget, and trust that they won’t make the same mistake in the future.
We're trying to get the whole human family into a relationship of one heart, one mind, with no poor among us, and everyone dwelling in righteousness by living the Savior's law of love. We can't accomplish that task unless the human family trusts God's appointed spokesmen to accurately relay how we can all achieve that type of relationship with one another given the world's circumstances. We are, as the author of Ephesians tells us, “built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief corner stone…That we henceforth be no more children, tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the sleight of men, and cunning craftiness, whereby they lie in wait to deceive”. They logically can’t perform that task if every word that they utter is subject to our “personal interpretation” of it.
If we don't assume a priori that we should agree with, live out, and defend the words and actions of our leaders, it's guaranteed that we we'll flounder in a kind of epistemic nihilism. Think about it, we live outside of the presence of God. There is no way that we can know for certain that any of the revelations recorded in the scriptures actually came from him. We have the Spirit, but anyone can recognize that our spiritual experiences offer us a different kind of knowing than having God right in front of us declaring that what a prophet says is true. We should assume that all of their words and actions are true and good until proven otherwise. Additionally, the scriptures teach us that our spiritual experiences should confirm what is taught in the scriptures. Joseph Smith left clear revelation that the canonized scriptures should govern the Church (Doctrine & Covenants 42:12–13, 56–60; 105:58–59). This since they have been revealed by the Lord's duly appointed prophet: the only person authorized to receive revelation on behalf of the entire Church (Doctrine & Covenants 21:4–5; 28:2; 43:2–7), submitted to and approved by all members of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve (Doctrine & Covenants 107:27), and submitted to the general body of the Church for ratification (Doctrine & Covenants 26:2; 28:13). The best that we can do is assume that they're right and do everything we can to agree with and defend them and wait to have that position proven wrong somehow whether it be by logic or further revelation from the prophets.
Many of the Church, with all good intention, want for the Church to “hold space” for those that disagree with the top leaders of the Church on even foundational issues and doctrines. These members forget the words of Jesus himself who said that “[e]very kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation; and every city or house divided against itself shall not stand”. We should be trying to create unity in God’s Kingdom. Intellectual diversity isn’t good in and of itself. It’s only good as a means to the end of building common understanding and agreeing one with another.
In another article on our website we’ve talked about how one can view contradictions in scripture in a faithful way. We believe those same principles can apply to perceived contradictions in the teachings of the top leadership of the Church and, for those that may want to know how to defend them, we encourage those people to see that article.
Numerous other reasons to hold to this injunction will become apparent as one continues to study the history and teachings of the scriptures and leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
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. 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." 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.
- 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.
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. Also, "sharply," in this context, more than likely means "with plainness, truth, and clarity" rather than "with harsh censure." Such has been argued persuasively by Kent P. Jackson and Robert D. Hunt.
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.
- Overlook the difference
- Reserve judgment and postpone any action on the difference
- Take up our differences privately with the leader involved.
- Communicate with the Church officer who has the power to correct or release the person thought to be in error or transgression.
- Pray for the resolution of the problem.
These procedures, as Oaks astutely observes, help one to address the point of pain while also keeping in accordance with the principles of moral truth outlined in scripture—thus allowing an individual to keep the Spirit of the Lord with them.
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.
You Need a Good Way to Read Scripture in Order to Disagree with Church Leaders
Many of the occasions we have outlined below in which it may be okay to disagree with Church leaders involve being a good student of scripture and having a way to read them accurately and intelligently. In another article on the FAIR Wiki, we have outlined important principles for reading scripture. We strongly recommend that all readers get familiar with it if they haven’t done so already.
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. 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), submitted to and approved by all members of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve, and submitted to the general body of the Church for ratification. 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.
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.
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), 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.
2. It may be 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." 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.” 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.
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, we are inspired when the Holy Ghost touches us:
3 And this is the ensample unto them, that they shall speak as they are moved upon by the Holy Ghost.
5 Behold, this is the promise of the Lord unto you, O ye my servants.
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.
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. Just because a certain utterance from someone is not couched with words explicitly stating that that message came from revelation, that that does not mean that the message didn’t come by revelation. Thus we need to be methodical about how we’re deciding what to reject on that basis.
4. It may be 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 clearly does not 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. The Doctrine and Covenants even provides a procedure for excommunicating the President of the Church.
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.
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 how revelation and science converge. For instance, we can see what miracles, characters, and other events in scripture that we must logically see as literal and historical and which we do not. We might be informed about other things about the nature of those miracles, characters, and other events.
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.
Should I "Vote With My Feet" When I Disagree With Something and Leave the Church?
Many today are concerned with how their participation in or affiliation with a certain organization reflects on them morally as a person. It's standard practice for us, when we disagree with an organization or political party or other group, to leave that group and find other groups to become a part of and support.
Many apply this question to the Church and ask if they should leave the Church when they disagree with something in the Church. Tragically, some feel that their values and the values of the Church have come into conflict and that they cannot, in good faith, remain a member of the Church. What should a person do in this kind of situation?
As we have talked about in this article, we should make every effort possible, mental and spiritual, to be in line with the Church in terms of moral values. Many people leave the Church too quickly and ignorantly. They refuse to see things from the Church's point of view or refuse to look deeper into what the Church teaches. That is yet another reason that we have stressed in this article to defend Church leaders' words and actions as much as humanly possible. Joseph Smith taught that "[i]f the Church knew all the commandments, one half they would condemn through prejudice and ignorance." Even if the Church supports something that you find reprehensible at first, continue to seek light and knowledge. It is in that wrestle that you are going to find the most powerful testimony of the Gospel you have had yet. The Lord will guide you and give you drops of light that will eventually lead you to resolution. As the Doctrine and Covenants declares that "[t]hat which is of God is light; and he that receiveth light, and continueth in God, receiveth more light; and that light groweth brighter and brighter until the perfect day." Nowhere are these principles more evident than with how many people struggle with issues of perceived sexism and the Church and how, with contemplation and with a different philosophical framing of sexism, virtually all of these individuals' issues regarding this would be eliminated.
The Lord does tell us that leaders can make errors. We've quoted the relevant scriptures from Doctrine & Covenants in this article. To quote them again, "And 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". Perhaps the Lord will reveal errors and correct them as you claim to spot them. Perhaps the light will grow brighter and you'll see how the prophets were right and you were wrong. Either way, a person has every reason to stay until things are made right.
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.
- Doctrine & Covenants 93:24
- For just three of dozens of references, see 1 Nephi 3:30; 5:13; 13:20
- Doctrine & Covenants 21:5. This revelation in context referred to Joseph Smith but easily applies to his successors.
- Doctrine & Covenants 121:16
- Doctrine & Covenants 1:25
- Doctrine & Covenants 1:27
- Matthew 22:34-40; Moses 7:18
- Ephesians 2:20, 4:14
- Matthew 12:25
- Dallin H. Oaks, "Criticism," Ensign 17, no. 2 (February 1987): 68. "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 & Covenants 20:53–54 ]; 42:27; 88:124; and 136:23)."
- "Admonish," Webster's 1828 Dictionary, accessed June 16, 2021, http://webstersdictionary1828.com/Dictionary/admonish. Emphasis added.
- Doctrine & Covenants 6:19
- Doctrine & Covenants 112:12
- Kent P. Jackson and Robert D. Hunt, "Reprove, Betimes, and Sharpness in the Vocabulary of Joseph Smith," Religious Educator 6, no. 2 (2005): 97–104.
- Oaks, "Criticism," 71–72.
- Doctrine & Covenants 42:12–13, 56–60; 105:58–59
- Doctrine & Covenants 21:4–5; Doctrine & Covenants 28:2
- Doctrine & Covenants 107:27
- Doctrine & Covenants 26:2; 28:13
- Joseph Fielding Smith, Doctrines of Salvation, comp. Bruce R. McConkie, 3 vols. (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1954–56), 3:203–204.
- Russell M. Nelson, "The Book of Mormon: What Would Your Life be Like without It?" Ensign 47, no. 11 (November 2017): 62–63.
- Doctrine & Covenants 58:26-29
- Doctrine & Covenants 21:4-6
- Doctrine & Covenants 107:99.
- Boyd K. Packer, “Prayers and Answers,” Ensign 9, no. 11 (November 1979): 19–20.
- Dallin H. Oaks, "Revelation," New Era 11, no. 9 (September 1982): 45–46.
- Doctrine & Covenants 68:3–5
- Doctrine & Covenants 68:22–24; 107:81
- Doctrine & Covenants 107:82–84
- Doctrine & Covenants 88:77–80
- 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
- Larry E. Dahl and Donald Q. Cannon, eds., The Teachings of Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1997), 129. Citing Joseph Smith, ed., History of the Church, 7 vols. (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1978), 2:477.
- Doctrine & Covenants 50:24
- Doctrine & Covenants 1:25–27