Flunking Sainthood

Flunking Sainthood

When Is It Permissible to Disagree with an LDS Church Leader?


Last week’s “Mormon Mondays” column on Boyd Packer’s conference talk has generated a fair amount of controversy, to put it mildly. I read some of the comments on the first day and all of the messages and emails that people sent to me privately over the last week–some to disagree with what I wrote, others to thank me for it, and–most importantly–still others to share stories with me of LGBT friends or relatives who have been deeply wounded by the Church’s stance on homosexuality or Proposition 8.


I understand that there are very good reasons, both in scripture and LDS tradition, for many Mormons’ belief that homosexuality is wrong. I don’t want to hash that out again here, or restate why I feel that years from now, the Church will have changed its position and embraced its gay members as full equals and children of God. I want to raise the larger issue that permeates any discussion of doctrine, change, and the prophetic mantle within the Mormon faith: When is it permissible to disagree with an LDS Church leader?

I have observed that the extremists on both sides adopt an all-or-nothing posture on prophetic authority: either every statement that proceeds from a church leader’s mouth is gospel, or it is bile.


Those Mormons on the far right express certainty that anything said in General Conference is an eternal truth, even if this means ignoring historical evidence that prior church leaders were flat out wrong about some things preached about in Conference: that God denounced interracial marriage, for example, or that African-Americans would never be worthy to hold the priesthood by divine decree. Brigham Young taught that polygamy was an essential practice to prepare a person for life in the Celestial Kingdom. He also believed that there was a Loch Ness-style monster living in the Bear Lake, which traveled via an underground tunnel to its other home in the Great Salt Lake.

Clearly, none of these is current LDS teaching.

Those on the extreme left, and many of those who have left the Church, witness such overwhelming evidence of historical change in the Mormon tradition and conclude that little or nothing in the religion can be inspired. If Mormon leaders have made such terrible and obvious mistakes in the past, how can anyone trust their statements in the present? Since Brigham Young and other prophets were so clearly limited by the times in which they lived, who is to say that current prophets and apostles are not equally blinded by the biases of our own day?


The problem with the all-or-nothing view of prophetic authority is that it removes our greatest gift, agency. In the Mormon cosmogony, our God cared so deeply about human freedom that a full third of the host of heaven was sacrificed in order to preserve it. How tragic that those on the far right are so anxious to surrender their agency and allow someone else to do their thinking for them. It is equally tragic, however, when those on the far left conclude that there is no such thing as prophetic or inspired leadership, or that God has long since stopped speaking through human mouths.

The vast majority of Mormons, I believe, are somewhere in the middle of these two extremes. And the middle is the ideal, if least comfortable, place for us to be.


Over the past year I have been tweeting a chapter of the Bible every day with humorous commentary, a project that began on a lark but has taken on unexpected spiritual significance for me (the topic of tomorrow’s blog post). The Twible has made me see the beauty and flawed humanity of God’s prophets, those men and women in scripture who were chosen to bear God’s message to a hurting world. It has been interesting to have my pious caricatures of prophets and apostles fractured apart as I witness their distressing and all-too-familiar struggles.

Fully human but also partly divine, timeless yet creatures of their times: There is nothing simple about prophets in the Bible.  


So as for the titular question–when is it permissible to disagree with an LDS church leader?–I’m not going to give you an answer. You are holy children, called of God. You are strong. You have the Wesleyan quadrilateral at your disposal–scripture, tradition, reason, and experience. You can figure it out.

  • Ben S

    “Brigham Young taught that polygamy was an essential practice to prepare a person for life in the Celestial Kingdom”
    I don’t believe he did. Or at least, at other times he preached that such was NOT necessary.
    In my own disagreements, I’ve found this useful. One may disagree entirely, but it’s how and in what context one expresses that disagreement that creates problems. I believe this was given in context of the break-off Godbe-ite movement.
    “A friend . . . wished to know whether we had said that we considered an honest difference of opinion between a member of the church and the authorities of the church was apostasy, as he said, we had been credited with having made a statement to this effect. We replied that we had not stated that an honest difference of opinion between a member of the church and the authorities constituted apostasy; for we could conceive of a man honestly differing in opinion from the authorities of the church and yet not be an apostate; but we could not conceive of a man publishing those differences of opinion, and seeking by arguments, sophistry and special pleading to enforce them upon the people to produce division and strife, and to place the acts and counsels of the authorities of the church, if possible, in a wrong light, and not be an apostate; for such conduct was apostasy as we understood the term. We further said that while a man might honestly differ in opinion from the authorities through a want of understanding, he had to be exceedingly careful how he acted in relation to such differences, or the adversary would take advantage of him and he would soon become imbued with the spirit of apostasy, and be found fighting against God and the authority which He had placed here to govern his church.” -Deseret News editorial, Elder George Q. Cannon, editor, impression of Nov. 3rd, 1869.

  • Christopher Bigelow

    I think one key is quorum: if all 15 apostles speak unanimously, such as with the proclamation on the family, I don’t see how a faithful member can reject that. But a lone apostle, even in general conference, could say something that the other 14 don’t agree with, such as McConkie might have done. In the case of this Packer talk, however, it’s essentially in harmony with the family proclamation, so while one may not like how Packer worded it and might find nuances to quibble with, it’s apostate to contradict the family proclamation and make a statement like “homosexuality is good.” Personally, I don’t see how a person who does that could qualify on several temple recommend questions.

  • Emily

    Thank you so, so much for this. I needed it. It’s the exact question I have had on my mind every day since President Packer’s talk. Though I realize you don’t have to have a gay loved one in your life for this to be a very tough issue, my brother, my only sibling, is gay, so this is a very emotional thing for me. I echo one of your statements from a previous post, about how it is so difficult to feel at odds with the Church over this issue. I’m just searching, and talking to my gay loved ones, and reading the words of our leaders, just wanting to be reconciled and at peace about it. Your posts have been tremendously helpful to me – thank you!

  • Raymond Takashi Swenson

    I suggest that the standard of concern to the LDS Church is not whether you agree with every statement that every general church leader has made, but whether you would accept a calling from from one of them. Brigham Young made any number of statements over the pulpit to the effect that you shouldn’t just take his word for things, but should ask God on your own part to find out whether a particular statement from Brigham was inspired or not.
    I know that to many of those who are not Mormon, that counsel sounds like a formula for total chaos, like every person being a law unto themselves. But the fact that Brigham could make such a statement shows his confidence that the things he taught that WERE true would be confirmed by that process of asking God, and that those that were NOT would be filtered out. Perhaps because of that he felt very free to express his own opinions; people were not intended to go off half-cocked based on any word form him.
    On one occasion he very explicitly characterized lawyers as lovers of sin who “are a stink in the nostrils of God and the angels.” He later sent two of his sons to study law at the University of Michigan, with very moderate counsel to them about the importance of avoiding the temptation to compromise their morality in the service of their work as advocates.
    The question that Mormons are asked when they are interviewed for responsible callings or for temple recommends is whether they “sustain” the leaders of the Church, not whether they subscribe to every word that every general authority says or has said over the pulpit.
    While Mormons are encouraged to look to the statements of leaders during general conferences for inspiration and guidance, they are encouraged to do so prayerfully, in the spirit of getting their own spiritual confirmation, rather than to treat the words to a rabbinical exposition to extract all the implications of each phrase.
    When we recognize our own imperfections, we also owe it to leaders of the Church to allow them to be less than our personal ideal of perfection.

  • Em

    While most active Mormons might not be as far right as the extreme you describe, I believe they are more to the right than to the left on this topic. It was interesting to me that President Benson’s talk on the prophet was quoted twice this past conference, with one of the fourteen points standing out in my mind right now — that what matters most is what the living prophet has said and is saying. Also relevant was Elder Oaks’ talk on the two lines of revelation available to us, especially that only the Prophet receives revelation for the whole church and for the world. It seems to me that those who want to emphasize the fallibility of the General Authorities are missing the mark; specifically that they often have a certain topic or two that they disagree with the church about and the only way to reconcile their conflict is to conclude that the General Authority(ies) must be wrong. In my own experience, the only way to truly reconcile such a conflict requires a painful amount of humility and a willingness to accept something that seems, at the moment, unacceptable — receiving a witness comes only after the trial of faith.
    Also, I have to second Christopher’s comment that when the entire leadership is united on a particular issue, such as homosexuality, it is a stretch to propose the individual-fallibility argument. Even IF many years down the road the Church changes its position, we are expected to act on what the current Prophet is teaching, without undermining it.

  • Kiro

    You can disagree with your church leaders any time you want to.
    If you don’t mind accepting the consequences.
    Consequences of presuming to correct the higher-ups in one’s church hierarchy include (but are not limited to): people might think badly of you, disagree strongly with you, condemn you for various reasons, stop reading your column, argue that you are in fact wrong, or even question your sincerity, or whether you would be happier in some other church.
    In my case, I’d be more impressed, if you want to argue that homosexuality is not really a sin, if you could come up with an argument that is actually rooted in logic, instead of relying on the “argumentum ad misericordium – ad nauseum!”

  • CB

    Call me old fashion, but I thought a prophet was only a prophet when acting as such. We sustain the prophet as a “Prophet Seer and Revelator.” So when he is prophesying, seeing (through a seer stone) or revelating (dictating a revelation to the church) then he is acting in his role as a prophet.
    All else is up for debate, IMO.
    I suspect today some would like to add the title “Inspirator” or “Consensus of two Quorums-erators” – but this seems to go beyond the original definition.

  • BHodges

    I don’t think the hardest question is whether it is ever appropriate to disagree with a church leader. To me the hardest question involves asking what the appropriate response is in any given circumstance when one disagrees.

  • Chris

    I don’t think you understand. If you’d like to understand, examine the issue and pray for understanding with your perspective embodying the two great commandments in mind (love god, love your neighbor as self–and what does it mean to love god).

  • Frank

    Homosexuality (the orientation) is not freely chosen and, therefore, to call it a sin is heresy in all Christian traditions.
    “Elder” Boyd K. Packer is entitled to his own opinion. He is not, however, entitled to his own version of the facts just as Holocaust revisionists aren’t entitle to their own version of the facts.
    Packer’s insistence on these lives causes a great deal of harm to youth. So far this year there have been 14 cases of gay teenage suicide. Packer’s statements blame the persecution that led to those suicides on the victims.

  • Kaye

    Kiro said “In my case, I’d be more impressed, if you want to argue that homosexuality is not really a sin, if you could come up with an argument that is actually rooted in logic, instead of relying on the “argumentum ad misericordium – ad nauseum!”

    Lets accept this argument on face value and not appeal to pity poor homosexuals (“argumentum ad misericordium – ad nauseum) to say that homosexuals are indeed sinners. Then let us say that folks who eat shellfish and wear polyester are equal in sin too. Then, let us create CIVIL laws that say ALL sinners cannot visit loved ones in the hospital, have access to their partners social security benefits, health care or inheritance, let alone marry. We will be fair though, for a limited benefits, we will make sinners jump through all kinds of legal hoops to create special documents that allow very limitied benefits like inheritance or hospital visitation. All to encourage folks to share in a the governments rationale about sinners, and laws that encourage folks to stop eating shellfish or wearing polyester.
    Makes perfect sense.

  • John

    Kaye, don’t you find it interesting that some lesser sinners, like murders, rapists, pedophiles, child molesters all have a fundamental right to marry, hold their loved ones hand at the hospital, through marriage have access to their partners health insurance, pension or social security?
    Some sins are so very bad as to even contemplate a disagreement with a church leader over marriage equality.

  • Frank

    aww! you left off the good part! if you mormons get to accuse all gays of corrupting children (as you did in your prop 8 ads) isn’t it only fair the we point out that your leadership is harmful to minors?

  • Karl

    Joseph Smith and Brigham Young both seemed to value independent thought more than their successors do. See for example the following from Joseph Smith:
    “I did not like the old man being called up for erring in doctrine. It looks too much like the Methodist, and not like the Latter-day Saints. Methodists have creeds which a man must believe or be asked out of their church. I want the liberty of thinking and believing as I please. It feels so good not to be trammeled. It does not prove that a man is not a good man because he errs in doctrine.”
    I guess I’d be surprised if either of Elders Oaks or Packer felt similarly.
    Also, I suspect there’s less actual unanimity among the members of the Quorum of the Twelve than would be manifested in a public document like the Proclamation. For many good reasons, Church leadership tries to maintain a unified front, and they’re quite good at it. But there’s ample evidence in the past of major behind-the-scenes doctrinal and policy disagreements among Q12 members. I’m thinking, for example, of the Blacks and the Priesthood issue, which was a contentious issue among Q12 members for years in advance of 1978. I’m not sure why today would be any different.
    Finally, consider the following statement from Elder McConkie about the 1978 revelation:
    “There are statements in our literature by the early brethren which we have interpreted to mean that the Negroes would not receive the priesthood in mortality. I have said the same things, and people write me letters and say, ‘You said such and such, and how is it now that we do such and such?’ And all I can say to that is that it is time disbelieving people repented and got in line and believed in a living, modern prophet. Forget everything that I have said, or what President Brigham Young or President George Q. Cannon or whomsoever has said in days past that is contrary to the present revelation. We spoke with a limited understanding and without the light and knowledge that now has come into the world…. We get our truth and our light line upon line and precept upon precept. We have now had added a new flood of intelligence and light on this particular subject, and it erases all the darkness and all the views and all the thoughts of the past. They don’t matter any more…. It doesn’t make a particle of difference what anybody ever said about the Negro matter before the first day of June of this year.”
    It’s interesting to me that Elder McConkie characterized pre-1978 thoughts and positions on this issue as “darkness,” which seems to be an admission that such prior positions were not in fact mandated by God at the time, but were instead the result of imperfect knowledge and, well, darkness. Nevertheless, Dallin H. Oaks would say, I believe, that the correct course of action prior June 1, 1978 was to fully support and sustain the church’s position on blacks and the Priesthood, and that you would be blessed for doing so (I’m thinking of his comment in the PBS special to the effect that it’s wrong to criticize a church leader, even if the criticism is correct). But it’s hard for me to accept that a Mormon who reached the same level of racial enlightenment well in advance of 1978 would somehow incur the displeasure of God for doing so. On the contrary, I have to think the Lord would not be extremely pleased with that person. Besides, if nobody ever expressed discomfort with a position, what would be the catalyst for change? Without Spencer W. Kimball and many others like him, who fought the race issue for years, that particular “flood of intelligence and light” may never have happened.
    Bottom line for me–it’s always permissible, often desirable, and sometimes critically important, to disagree, as long as you can be reasonably sure (and this is by no means easy) that your position is characterized by good faith, honesty, discipline, humility and lack of ego. Tougher issue (as someone here has already pointed out) is how to manifest that disagreement, but that’s a different topic. Sorry for the long post.

  • Glen

    Here is a minimalist attempt to answer your question, Jana. I don’t claim it covers every instance in which it might be okay to disagree with a church leader, and hence is an extremely conservative and fairly weak claim, but I think it does carve out at least one case in which it is always okay to do so.
    One of the most closely held tenants of the LDS faith is although we may not have the right to receive revelation outside our sphere of authority, that we always have the right – and even the responsibility – to go straight to Heavenly Father to ask for a confirmation of what we are being taught.
    Implicit in that belief is the possibility that occasionally we may *not* receive such a confirmation, for whatever reason. A lot of Mormons would say that that is almost always a exult of personal unworthiness. And maybe they’re right; but I suspect that no one who actually sought a spiritual confirmation of Elder McConkie’s teachings about blacks and the Priesthood actually received one. So personal unworthiness cannot always be the explanation.
    I believe we always have the right to say so when we have sought for and failed to receive a spiritual confirmation about something. Now, if you claim that you have received revelation that a church leader is wrong, that’s probably outside your sphere of authority. But claiming that you have tried and failed to receive a confirmation of a specific doctrine should always be considered okay. By extension, I also think it’s always okay to ask others whether they have prayed regarding a specific doctrine, and to challenge them to do so if they haven’t.

  • Karl

    Sorry, substantive typo in my penultimate paragraph above–the corrected sentence is “On the contrary, I have to think the Lord would be extremely pleased with that person.”

  • Marilee

    Thank you. The middle is difficult because it requires us to work hard…praying, searching, reading and pondering. It also makes us more solid and spiritual.

  • AT

    Jana, I agree that moderation in all things is generally a good thing. However, I fear that taking a “middle ground” approach to what our church leaders say in conference will lead those selfish, pleasure seeking, or even overzealous members to treat the gospel as an “a la carte” gospel, where you can take what you like and respectfully disagree with the rest.

  • Allen

    It should be evident that most members are in the middle of the spectrum you define. However, there’s a huge difference between pointing at a GA and saying “he’s just a man; his opinion doesn’t matter; you don’t need to really listen to him” and saying “he’s just a man; his opinion does matter; I would do well to listen to him” while you are, privately and personally, praying that God will effect a change.
    When we preach, blog, tweet, and publish that it is OK to dissemble everything that a prophet says by holding it up to the ultimate measure of our own sensibilities, aren’t we, in effect, entering the spiritually dangerous territory of establishing ourselves as the ultimate arbiter of truth? Of what value, then, are prophets when we only listen to them when we agree with what they say?

  • Ken

    There is of course no person or group of people who decide to permit an LDS or a non-LDS to disagree with an LDS Church Leader. I have found that a helpful guide as to what should be considered LDS doctrine was published on the Church Website on May 4, 2007. It stated that Church doctrine is something that is proclaimed under inspiration by the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, or when the above individuals authorize it in Church publications, or in the four Standard Works, official declarations and proclamations, or in the Articles of Faith.
    It went on to say that “Not every statement made by a Church leader, past or present, necessarily constitutes doctrine. A single statement made by a single leader on a single occasion often represents a personal, though well-considered, opinion, but is not meant to be officially binding for the whole Church.”

  • Your Name Dodie

    Many of the Religions of today are built on Tradition. The LDS Church is built on Revelation.

  • Greg Smith

    Members with attractions to the same sex already _are_ “full equals and children of God.” It is offensive to suggest otherwise, or to imply that those who insist that homosexual acts are sinful are denying either the spiritual equality or the divine Parenthood of God for some of his children.
    It is precisely because they are children of God (and things to act, not to be acted upon) that the Church, its members, and leaders will not tell them that engaging in homosexual acts is “okay.”
    One hopes, though, that members’ discipleship and awareness of such members’ particular struggles will make us all more charitable and able to support those who carry this particular cross.
    But, that will not happen by denying that it is, indeed, a cross to be borne, instead of an inclination to embrace.

  • David W.

    Jana – you still don’t get it. This is not some doctrinal issue that is peripheral to what Latter-day Saints believe. It is at the very core. If the Church was to say that gay marriage or any form of gay activity is fine strikes at the substance of the Church’s beliefs. And I have a prediction for you (see the end of these comments).
    As mentioned previously, the doctrine of the Church is that bodies need to be created by men and women so the spirits of men and women, still in the pre-existence, may come to earth. This process cannot occur if Adam and Steve or Eve and Ethel and are ‘doing it’ rather than Adam and Eve. There will be a lot of spirits stuck up in spirit world waiting to come down if gay activity is tacitly encouraged.
    Hence, why would God sanction as appropriate gay relationships that would deny this eternal purpose? Therefore, it is right for Elder Packer to ask the question, “why would Heavenly Father do this to anyone?
    Why, indeed. For you to so clearly come out opposed to Church doctrine and practice would suggest that you have not thought this through with any degree of logic or faith.
    As the Church moves forward, oblivious to cultural mores and trends, so too will it become increasingly different to the world around it. Unfortunately, it is a great pity that your views will become increasingly different to the Church you call your own as the years progress.
    Just as you have made a prediction about a future change in LDS views towards homosexuals, let me make a prediction for you – you won’t be an active member of the Church in 10 years. You may well inhabit some area in the ‘borderlands’ (so named by Sunstone magazine), but I think you are going to find it very hard to remain a core member as you drift along with the world and the Church stays largely the same as it is now. I wish you the best.

  • Kaye

    “Many Mormons feel their faith, [let alone their heterosexuality] is inseparable from their identity, a choice so central to their being that it doesn’t feel like a choice and criticizing this belief cannot be separated from criticizing individuals.
    David W, how would you feel if someone said “Look, I love you but your religion is impure and unnatural. Maybe you should go to therapy and they can fix you. Why would the Lord do that to you, he is our father? By the way, please be assured that we officially denounce any efforts to belittle or mock you.”

  • Fred

    Who really are the bullies? Who has a right to disagree? Some, like Tony Perkins are asking if promoting and recruiting young minds into a immoral lifestyle is not a frontal attack upon morality and religious freedom in America.

  • Susan

    Fred and David, you remind me of H.L. Mencken’s definition of Puritanism: “the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.”

  • Mike

    I recommend you read D&C 68:2-4.

  • David

    The key is always the spirit. Why did Abraham prepare to sacrifice his son when it appeared to be so wrong? Because he was in tune with God and knew it came from God. Likewise, if we keep the commandments and have the spirit with us, we will know what is truth and what is error. Simple, isn’t it? For those who have not received the gift of the Holy Ghost, or those who have, but do not keep the commandments, it will be very difficult to know when the Prophet or the Apostles speak for God. In this case, you are better off to just close your eyes and follow, and hope that God sees your good intentions. Remember the Iron Rod? Sometimes we are required to travel in the dark before we see the light. This is why the spirit is so important.

  • Eric

    Amazing post, thanks a lot!

  • kaye

    David, the problem is that many other religions believe they are in tune with God in performing or honoring same sex unions. Can they all be right?

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  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Jeffrey Dire, Ph.D.

    Not exactly to the question of, “ When Is It Permissible to Disagree with an LDS Church Leader?” but I’d like to make a related comment.
    Jana, “Flunking Sainthood” (can’t underline) is now one of my favorite books. It is most dangerous when one actually believes that she/he can ever achieve “Sainthood” if such is defined as one who has been extraordinarily holy in life. For instance, in the LDS tradition, one needs only to seriously reflect on the interview questions to be “found worthy” to enter the temple. If we take those questions, with utmost seriousness, only Jesus could get a recommend and some liberal scholars might argue with that. The Greek word, hagiois refers to ALL believers in Jesus Christ. All of us “flunk” sainthood but sadly some in traditions like the LDS believe some to be more “worthy” or “saintly” than others. I am happy to be a Latter-Day Saint who is most grateful for the Wesleyan quadrilateral. I wish it were taught in Gospel Doctrine classes. God has given us agency and the gift of a brain. Thus, I don’t believe that Church Leaders have a greater “hotline” to God than those of us who seek to follow Christ informed by the insights of scripture, tradition, reason, and experience. May our Heavenly Father have mercy on us if we don’t disagree at times with LDS Church leaders.

    • Jana Riess

      Jeffrey, thanks so much for writing. I’m delighted that you are enjoying the book, and it sounds like we have similar views on this subject. Here is what George Bernard Shaw had to say to Heinrik Ibsen about a character in one of his plays: “Brand dies a saint, having caused more intense suffering by his saintliness than the most talented sinner could possibly have done with twice his opportunity.” That’s worth thinking about, isn’t it?

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