Summary: When most people think about a prophet, they usually think of someone who prophecies, or tells the future, but the most common role of a prophet is to reveal the word of the Lord to the people. Therefore, the main role of a prophet is to tell man what God wants us to know. However, one of the criticisms against the prophets and apostles in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, is that not everything they’ve said in the past has turned out to be true, therefore it’s said they can’t possibly be true prophets of God. This article examines if this is a valid claim or not.
The prophet Daniel explained to his people why they were in bondage to the Babylonians when he said, “Neither have we obeyed the voice of the LORD our God, to walk in his laws, which he set before us by his servants the prophets” (Daniel 9:10).
When most people think about a prophet, they usually think of someone who prophecies, or tells the future, but the most common role of a prophet is to reveal the word of the Lord to the people. In fact, the Bible, which was written by “holy men of God who were moved upon by the Holy Ghost” (2 Peter 1:21), is the ultimate word of God, and it was written by the prophets. Although there are many prophecies found in the Bible, yet the vast majority of God’s word contains instructions, that we commonly referred to as commandments. Therefore, the main role of a prophet is to tell man what God wants us to know and do.
For example, God called Moses to go to the Pharaoh of Egypt and tell him to release the children of Israel from his rule. Later, God gave Moses ten commandments that he wanted the children of Israel to live by, and then he gave more commandments on how he wanted them to build a special tent, called the tent of the Congregation, where he could come to live among his people, which later become the pattern used for the temple of Solomon. Then he gave ordinances that he required the Israelites to perform in the temple, such as the various sin offerings, and feast days, including the Passover.
Later, God called a prophet by the name of Isaiah to tell the Jews that they were not following the Law God had given to Moses and warned them what would happen if they continued to disobey his word. This is why Daniel told his people that the reason they were then in captivity was because they would not obey the voice of the Lord by not following his laws that he had given to them through his servants the prophets.
In the New Testament, we read that the primary role of the apostles was to declare God’s word, and their duty was to go throughout the world telling people what Jesus had told them, either while he lived among them or by revelation after he had ascended into heaven (Matthew 28:19). For example, Peter had a vision where God told him it was permissible to go preach the gospel to a Gentile named Cornelius. The apostle Paul said that he was taught by revelation from God (2 Corinthians 12:1,7), and the apostle John received a revelation from God while he was in exile that he was to be send to seven specific churches.
What the Bible clearly teaches is that the prophets are God’s servants, whose main responsibility is to act as his voice in telling people what the Lord wants them to know. Even so, among all the thousands of Christian churches today, hardly any even believe that there are divinely called living prophets of God on the earth today who act as his voice. The exception to this is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who boldly declares that they are led by divinely called living prophets and apostles of God who give us the mind and will of the Lord for our day and time.
However, many other Christians claim that these men are false prophets, and one reason they feel this way is because they believe that a prophet’s role is to foretell the future. Since Latter-day Saint prophets rarely make prophecies, they cite this as evidence that they are not speaking for God. But, as we’ve just seen, prophets act as God’s voice, and if God doesn’t want to reveal what is going to happen in the future, then the prophets have nothing to tell us in that regard.
But one of the most controversial criticism against the prophets and apostles in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, is that not everything they’ve said in the past has turned out to be true. For example, Joseph Smith started a bank that not only failed but cost most of its customers all of their savings. It’s been said that if Joseph was a true prophet of God, he should have known that starting a bank was not a good idea.
During the time when Brigham Young lead the church, people of African descent were denied the opportunity to hold the priesthood, and that policy continued to be followed until 1978. However, there was never any reason given for why this practice was started and continued for so long. Critics say that if the church leaders were truly inspired by God, they would have known all along that this policy was wrong.
There have also been apostles who’ve said things that later proved to be wrong, which have caused the critics to claim that since God never lies, if these men were true prophets, then they would never make any false statements.
On the surface, these arguments seem valid, because most people assume that if God has called someone to be a prophet that they are a prophet at all times, know everything, and that everything they say at any time and in every place is inspired by God. They base this belief on how the scriptures say that holy men wrote as they were inspired by the Holy Ghost. From this they reason that if the prophets and apostles of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are really holy men of God, then everything they say should be inspired by the Holy Ghost.
However, this is a false belief. First, it should be noticed that the scripture the critics refer to only says that holy men wrote what they were inspired to write. It doesn’t say that they were inspired in everything they said or did, nor does it say that everything they wrote was inspired. Only what they wrote, as recorded in our Bible, we consider to be the words of God, but we know that they wrote many other things that are not contained in the Bible. If those writings were likewise inspired, then they should have also been included in the Bible.
But, putting that argument aside, the thing we need to realize is that a prophet is first and foremost a human being who has their own personality, strengths, talents, and level of knowledge, as well as their own weaknesses, faults, and shortcomings. Being a prophet doesn’t make someone super smart, always right, free from error, and who never does anything wrong.
The classic example of this is Jonah, but the scriptures detail the weaknesses and faults of such great prophets as Abraham, Moses, Peter, Paul, and others. The only prophet who never made a mistake in anything they said or did was Jesus. Everyone else, including the prophets of God, make mistakes Therefore, to expect a prophet to be perfect in all they say and do, is a false expectation.
All men are fallible, and no prophet or apostle, both ancient or modern, has ever claimed to be infallible, yet God is still able to perform his work through mortal people despite their weaknesses. It’s like trying to dig a hole with a shovel that has a broken handle. It can be done. It’s just a little more difficult, but someone who is skilled at digging can still get the job done. Prophets are merely instruments in God’s hands, and he’s skilled enough to use them despite their imperfections.
In addition to this, prophets don’t know what God knows. Prophets don’t know the future. Prophets don’t know things that none of their contemporaries know. For example, two-thousand years ago everyone believed that the earth was flat and that if you went too far, you’d fall off the earth. They also believed that the stars were twinkling lights that hung from heaven, and that if you could climb high enough, you’d be able to reach up and touch them.
Even the ancient prophets believed these things because if God didn’t reveal the true nature of the earth or the stars, they wouldn’t know anything different. Therefore, they had no way of knowing something that no one else knew.
God didn’t tell Joseph Smith to start a bank. That was Joseph’s idea, in consultation with some of the other church leaders as they considered ways to pay off the debts of the church. Joseph had no way of knowing that a great depression was just a few years away and that banks all over America would collapse, and the reason why he didn’t know that is because God didn’t reveal that information to him.
Some people think that God would never allow a prophet to ever do something that was wrong, and that he would warn them of any danger, but such an idea is not supported by scripture. God doesn’t shield his prophets or his believers from all the problems of life. In fact, as we study the life of the prophets, we see that most of them faced severe problems.
Prophets are messengers of God and when they are not delivering God’s message, they’re no different than anyone else. They have their own ideas, feelings, and engage in their own personal activities and, as such, what they say and do when not acting as God’s messenger is not necessarily being directed, influenced, or inspired by God. For that reason, not everything they say can be considered as coming from the Lord.
Then what about when someone is acting in their official role as a prophet? Shouldn’t every word they say be the precise, exact word that God intends for them to say? The answer is no, and the reason why is because men are not puppets. In many cases, God explains to his servants what he wants people to know, and his servants then explain to others in their own words the message God has given them.
We are all familiar with this because this is what preachers all over the world do. For example, Christians believe that the Bible is the word of God to mankind, and so each preacher, pastor, minister, or priest gets in front of their congregation each Sunday to explain to them God’s message as found in the Bible, but they explain that message in their own words, using illustrations, analogies, stories, and figures of speech they think will help people understand what God is trying to tell us.
For example, God told Moses that his people should not steal, and preachers can spend an entire month just talking about what that means. And this is what prophets do.
The Bible relates an incident where Paul preached all evening and well into the night (Acts 20:9), and Eusebius, the church historian, tells us that Peter preached extemporaneously, adapting his message to those he was speaking to. God doesn’t have to put into their mouths every single word they say. Instead, he tells his servants what he wants people to know, and God’s servants then go forth using their own words to convey God’s message to the people.
But because we’re human and subject to making mistakes, a preacher (and prophets are preachers) can say something that’s not quite right, and this can happen when a preacher inserts their own opinions, or explains God’s message according to their own understanding, which may not be fully correct. What we need to remember is that prophets, like all of us, understand things according to their own personal level of knowledge.
This is illustrated by the story of a Sunday school teacher who was explaining to a group of five-year olds that no one knows the name of God. A little child yelled out, “I know God’s name!” The teacher smiled and asked, “So what is his name?” The child answered, “Howard.” Surprised, the teacher asked, “And how do you know his name is Howard?” The boy confidently replied, “Because when we pray we say, Our Father which art in heaven, Howard be thy name.”
Although this is an amusing story, it illustrates how we interpret things according to our level of knowledge. This little child didn’t know what the word “hallowed” meant, so they interpreted it as being Howard, and all of us do this same sort of thing from time to time.
For example, when Jesus walked the earth, the common belief among men of science was that the brain was a useless organ and that our thoughts and feelings actually came from the organ we call our heart. Even Jesus himself felt this way when he said, “for his mouth speaks from that which fills his heart” (Luke 6:45). Today we still say that metaphorically, but back then that’s what people actually believed was true.
During the Middle Ages, all the religious scholars were convinced that the Bible taught that the earth was the center of the universe. Therefore, when Galileo, who was a very religious man, stated that the earth revolved around the sun, rather than the other way around, the church accused him of blasphemy because they said he was contradicting the word of God, which never lies.
Today we know that Galileo was right, but even to this day we still continue to interpret the Bible according to our current level of understanding because we have no other way to do that. There are many things in the Bible that we don’t really understand and therefore, like the young Sunday school child, we interpret God’s words to the best of our abilities.
Joseph Smith once made the comment that if you could gaze into heaven for just five minutes, you’d know more on the subject than all the books that have ever been written. Many biblical scholars believe that God showed John wars that would occur in our day and that he saw tanks, airplanes, guided missiles, and other modern tools of warfare, but because what he saw was completely foreign to him, he described these strange metal pieces of machinery in terms of what he understood in his day.
Someone may ask, “But shouldn’t prophets be immune from this sort of thing? After all, if God wants to deliver a message, wouldn’t he make sure that the prophets correctly convey it?” The answer is, it all depends on where the error occurs.
We can liken this situation to a Christmas tree. By itself, a Christmas tree is one that’s wide at the bottom and comes to a point at the top and is covered in green pine needles. But to enhance its beauty, people put ornaments on it. Some people do a careful job of using beautiful commercially bought ornaments, while others quickly put on very simple, homemade ornaments that are not carefully made. But the Christmas tree isn’t there to show off the ornaments. Rather, the ornaments are there to beautify the tree.
The gospel of Jesus Christ is like the Christmas tree, and the illustrations used to explain it are like the ornaments. Some illustrations are beautiful and well-crafted and add a lot of clarity to the message, while at times other explanations can be homemade opinions that may be a little flawed. As such, God will ensure that his servants teach the correct doctrines of the gospel, but he may not correct slightly flawed explanations. Therefore, we must be careful to avoid confusing the gospel tree with the ornaments of explanation that man attaches to it.
Then how do we know when a prophet is speaking the truth and when they’re not? There are three things we need to consider when answering that question.
The first is that the living prophets are very much aware of their responsibility to convey God’s message as accurately as possible, and they diligently strive to do that. In addition to this, all of them have decades of service in the church and have a firm understanding of the gospel. Therefore, their words should not be easily dismissed because there is much more wisdom in them than most people realize.
Secondly, if an apostle makes a statement that seems interesting, novel, or a little unusual, but has not been made or even referenced by other apostles, then it is not wise to claim it as being church doctrine. That doesn’t mean that the statement is not accurate, but we should assume that it’s their personal opinion, rather than treating it as if it came from the Lord himself.
And the third, and most important thing to keep in mind is that the gospel is all about the salvation of man. There are many interesting things we can learn concerning God and his ways that aren’t necessary for us to know in order to become saved. They’re like the shiny, colorful ornaments on the tree, which are interesting to observe but aren’t part of the tree.
God’s work is to bring to pass the eternal life of man, therefore, when he sends his servants, the prophets, to speak to us, it’s to tell us how to gain the greatest gift he has to offer. It’s when the prophets tell us what we must do to become saved that we can be assured that we’re hearing the voice of the Lord.
Related articles can be found at The Nature of Mormonism