Church leaders assert that they directly follow God’s guidance, exempting themselves from apologies and social pressure, like for example addressing racism within church doctrine and culture. Apologists claim that church leaders are merely “men of their times” and can’t be judged by today’s standards. These two ideas don’t work together. Either the leaders are led by revelation as the “prophets, seers and revelators” they claim to be, or they are “men of their times” doing their best. Isn’t the entire point of having a prophet so that God can speak through him? Dismissing their mistakes and errors because they are men of their times defeats the purpose of a prophet.
If the church accepts that leaders are merely men of their times we certainly wouldn’t judge them by today’s modern standards, but they should also own those mistakes and help us all learn from them. Do leaders accept blame for any specific issue? They do (sometimes) clarify that they are not perfect and are in fact fallible beings who make mistakes. They don’t ever indicate any specific mistakes the leaders have made though. They likely don’t want to risk making the church look bad. In the end they just make the church look immature.
Historically, church leaders have made many errors if we use today’s standards. There is a long list: spiritual abuses with polygamy, polyandry, mountain meadows, and banning blacks from the priesthood and temple among other racist doctrines and practices. Even still today there are “policies” of the church that by today’s standards are at best old-fashioned and at worst bigoted. They resist recognizing same-sex relationships, just as they do enabling or recognizing any female authority. They are also hoarding hundreds of billions of dollars that could be used for good. While progress has been made (women can now pray in conferences and participate in official baptismal roles), the church even supported the same-sex marriage act (though motivations are mixed), and is using more monetary resources for humanitarian aid than ever before (though they also use these funds to pay hefty fines and non-disclosed sex abuse settlements), the church is still miles behind what any progressive would call inline with today’s standards. This makes sense because the church is run by leaders who are not of today’s times, but at least a generation behind.
These leaders are all quite aged. It is in fact a “gerontocracy” as was stated on 60 Minutes. If the church leaders of today are men of their times, that doesn’t even mean they are men of today’s times, since their times are essentially “the old days” now. Their ages range from 65 to 99 years old. Their formative years are behind them and their way of thinking is set. Leadership is a generation or two or three behind the times of today.
Practices of Discrimination
Let’s look at a single example, the Mormon discriminatory practices and doctrines. The fact stands that the church maintained exclusionary policies against black individuals in priesthood and temple attendance from the 1850s through 1978. That’s over 125 years. The church being founded in 1830, is less than 200 years old. It will be a while until it can even claim that they allowed blacks to hold the priesthood for half of the church’s history. Why were they not allowed? Leaders give conflicting rationalizations, stating that it was God’s decision to ban the blacks from the priesthood and it was up to him to lift the ban. They point to the divine for the decisions and the situation they were in. They claim that God created the ban through his leaders, so he must remove it through his leaders and direct revelation. Apologists remind us that these leaders can’t be blamed for being racist because they were simply “men of their times”. They complain that we can’t fairly judge men of the past by today’s standards, we must attribute their racism to the cultural context of their time!
There is no denying that the church denying priesthood to black members was a racist or at least discriminatory practice. Do we attribute this to the leaders or directly to God? Apologists want to blame the leaders who can be excused for being men of their times, but the leaders themselves must blame God in order to retain absolute authority.
We can read all over the internet about church leaders being “men of their times.” This is a common refrain and we can find it on a chief apologist site called FAIR. It used to be called FAIR Mormon, but since that’s now a “major victory for Satan,” it’s now FAIR Latter-Day Saints. They state that leaders today as in all dispensations have been men of their times. They had certain beliefs we can attribute to their times and they interacted with people who shared those beliefs. They are talking about customs of the day, or in other words “philosophies of men” that are perhaps “mingled with scripture”.
Prophets in all dispensations have been “men of their times,” who were raised with certain beliefs and interacted all their lives with others who shared those beliefs.FAIR: Faithful Answers, Informed Response for Latter Day Saints: Was Brigham Young a Racist?
Apologists want to excuse past church leaders because they were men of their times and their times were basically racist. So don’t be surprised that the church leaders were also racist, we can’t expect anything else because they lived in a “racist society”.
While we all wish that racism never happened, we seem to expect that church leaders in the past should never have said anything that sounds racist today. They were men of their times, educated by what could be termed a racist society. It is an unrealistic expectation that they wouldn’t have picked up some of what was being taught by society at large.FAIR Mormon Journal – March 2006
This concept does ignore the many many people of the day who were in fact, not racist. The people who were called abolitionists were in favor of ending slavery at least. The nation fought a war over it, so we can’t dismiss the whole times as racist. If it was a racist society, why would anyone fight against slavery?
The church even proves this point when they want to exonerate Joseph Smith as being not racist, but don’t claim the same for Brigham Young.
Toward the end of his life, Church founder Joseph Smith openly opposed slavery…
There is no reliable evidence that any black men were denied the priesthood during Joseph Smith’s lifetime.Race and the Priesthood – Gospel Topic Essay
The fact is Young was racist, he wasn’t merely a man of his times, he was a religious and civil leader propagating racism and the church is still facing those consequences today. Contrast him with someone else of the same time, namely Abraham Lincoln. They were born in the same decade. If you had to look at them objectively, who would you think was “called of God”? The man who colonized Utah, terrorized the natives, married at least 56 women, banned blacks from full membership in the church, oversaw massacres, and preached Adam was God and that some sins must be atoned by spilling the sinner’s blood. Or the man who ended slavery, emancipated slaves, ensured the union of a nation, and is still known today as a symbol of honesty. Even the Deseret News praises Abraham Lincoln’s “elasticity of spirit“. How could Lincoln have been so impressive if we could only expect him to be a man of his time?
Church leaders want us to “Give Brother Joseph a Break” because his times were different. What did his times think about the things he was doing? They killed him! The things he did were not common in his time either. Men did not marry multiple women, or teenage girls twenty years younger than themselves, or secretly behind their own wife’s back. They didn’t destroy a printing press for publicizing the truth, even if they were dark secrets. They didn’t lead treasure digs with a rock in a hat. None of these things were normal things, and can’t be excused by “the times” he lived in.
Those times didn’t accept it any more than we do today. The claims are plain wrong and even weird. That’s why the church has had to spin a new and false narrative surrounding church history! No one wants to believe all the wild stories and lies! Most people didn’t believe it back then, and most people won’t believe it today when they are presented with the factual history. You could say that only the deceived ever believed Joseph Smith, in his own times and still today. Today the church’s mission is to continue his deceptions.
There is a problem with church leaders claiming they are not bigots today nor were they in the past. The problem is that if they were simply following God’s commandments then makes God into the bigot. This does explain the stance from Oaks that the church does not make apologies, since they are really standing behind their sky daddy and what they claim he tells them to do.
But this position flies directly in the face of the opinion that you can’t judge different society time periods by today’s standards. Because the social norms of the time period had nothing to do with these practices if society wasn’t influencing or making the decision. God was directing things! So how would societal norms of the times influence God?
We can’t have it both ways. They are mutually exclusive.
Examples of this argument can be seen when the First Presidency pushed a certain ward to segregate the congregation. Were they just men of their times or acting for God?
Presentism is the fallacious view that modern interpretations of words and events were common to our ancestors, and that they saw things the same way we do.
But for the most part, that’s nonsense. In the first place, the ancients didn’t see themselves as ancient, and it didn’t occur to them that they weren’t acting according to “modern” standards. After all, they were as modern as it got up to that point in history, and we are likely to look just as benighted and ignorant to generations yet to come.
Similarly, Latter-day Saints in the 19th Century were living in a time of different norms and mores. They also thought they were right on the edge of the Millennium, and it didn’t occur to them that they were “early” Saints, or that their lives would become our history lessons. They also had their own vernacular and slang, their own fashions, and their own understanding of science and the world around them. When reviewing their lives, therefore, it’s essential to try to understand their words and their actions as they would have understood them, not as we would.Jim Bennet, CES Letter Reply
https://archive.bookofmormoncentral.org/content/ces-letter-reply-faithful-answers-those-who-doubt, page 200
It is true that when studying history, we are instructed not to judge people or leaders by today’s standards because things change! This is true of studying history to know what history was like, but doesn’t apply as much in religion. These leaders claim to speak for God. We believe in a God who is the same yesterday, today, and forever. God doesn’t change with the times, so why would his message change?
This is a concept that all of Christianity also struggles with. Why are there apparent errors in the scriptures for example? Here’s a study of the bible that wrestles with the fact that there are mistakes and reasons that the writers were “men of their times”.
In seeking to maintain a high view of inspiration, evangelicals have wrestled with the fact that God’s revelation was stated in terms of the language, logic, and location of the people to whom it was originally written. Though Scripture is the “truth” of God, it is truth historically accommodated to the human mind and understanding. While this fact is widely recognized, it is given a variety of interpretations within the evangelical community, many of which prove inadequate on further reflection.
Conservatives such as Lindsell have resisted all attempts to use “accommodation” as a justification for formal error in the text. They have challenged the notion that the Biblical writers were men of their times in respect to history, cosmology, and physics, who wrote what they believed to be true but what is now known to be false. Any error in the text, even on a point incidental to the author’s intention, is considered to undermine radically Scripture’s usefulness. Even if the Biblical writers personally held to that which we know to be erroneous, the Holy Spirit kept them from including those things in Scripture. For example, Lindsell states: “They may have believed that the sun revolves around the earth, but they did not teach this in Scripture.” For Lindsell, accommodation has to do with the form of revelation, but it in no way impinges on the content of Scripture.
Daniel Fuller believes that in non-revelatory matters, there is “error” in the Biblical text which was included deliberately by the authors in order to communicate effectively with their readers. He posits, for example, that Jesus in his omniscience knew that there were smaller seeds than the mustard seed, but nevertheless used “this facet of the culture of the people to whom he was speaking as a vehicle for conveying the cargo of revelational truth.” Had Jesus been more scientifically accurate, he would have merely confused his audience.Evangelicals at an Impasse: Biblical Authority in Practice: Chapter Two:The Debate over Inspiration: Scripture as Reliable, Inerrant, or Infallible? by Robert K. Johnston
This is a mature view and makes sense, but is not something that the LDS Church ascribes to. They maintain that the Lord personally leads the church. If the Lord is at the Helm, how can there be so many glaring mistakes by living prophets in modern times, let alone in the scriptures?
We are expected to stay in line and not rock the boat. Where would the world be if no one rocked the boat? Where would we be without Dr Martin Luther King Jr? Where would we be without Gandhi? There are even examples of privileged white men… Where would we be without George Washington? John Adams? Thomas Jefferson? These men rocked the boat, they committed treason! And now they are remembered as heroes and founding fathers. Did they follow the proper channel? What was the channel their superiors would have preferred? Should they have filed a complaint with the Governor? Then hope it reached the King and hope he cared and resolved the issue?
Church leaders have a responsibility to be above the times. They are expected to be closer to God. They claim that they are as being “special witnesses”. We don’t expect perfection. They are allowed to be human, and humans are flawed by definition. But, they are not, nor should they be, above reproach.Church Leaders Make Mistakes | wasmormon.org
We’re not talking about minor issues, but glaring and even harmful mistakes. The church wants members to stay in line and ignore any issues they may see while excusing the leaders because they are fallible and simply doing their best. What if their best is not good enough? Their best gave us polygamy, racism, sexism, bigotry, lies, coverups, hoarding hundreds of billions of dollars, protecting sexual predators, etc. Their best efforts are not good enough to even show they are a good and healthy church to raise a family in. Yes, they are doing some good, but they are also doing (and have done) considerable harm. They want members (and the world) to look the other way. Not to talk about the issues because it makes the church look bad, and might cause people to not trust the “Brethren” and leave or not join in the first place. Well, if the shoe fits… That’s not on us. That’s on the church leaders and their poor performance and the men of God they claim to be.
We can’t excuse past (or present) leaders for being “on par” with the times, while also claiming that they speak for God! This very argument clarifies that these men speak more for themselves and “as men” than they do ever as “prophets, seers and revelators”. All evidence though does point to the leaders of the church being men of their times. If this proves true, then what is their revelation worth? What is the point of having a prophet of God acting as the mouthpiece of God on earth, if we must take what they say with a grain of salt because they are also a man of their time and prone to be swayed by the society they were raised in? What can we do to know when they are speaking directly from God or just from their own best understanding? Many times past leaders declared they were speaking for God but those teachings have since been changed or disavowed or overturned with yet more revelations from God.
Do you find that leaders have made mistakes? Do you excuse them for being “men of their times”? Do you also believe that they are acting for God? How does this reconcile? Can it? Please share your thoughts in the comments or in your very own I was a Mormon story.
- Church Leaders Make Mistakes
- The Lord Is At The Helm?
- Will God Permit Church President to Lead Mormons Astray?
- Elder Ballard Claims Church Leaders Can Not Lead You Astray
- Does President Nelson Talk With God? Do Any Church Leaders?
- The Lowry Nelson Letters and Racist Mormon Doctrine
- Byron Marchant, Dissident Excommunicated in 1977 for Opposing Priesthood Ban
- First Presidency Urged for Segregation