Rejecting Prophets for Apparently Bad Behavior: What Tapestry Do You Look At?

I have often explained that prophets are fallible, like all mortals, and that making a mistake or doing something that strikes us as objectionable is not necessarily a reason for rejecting someone God has called. One ex-Mormon asked me how much bad behavior I am willing to accept before finally giving up on the Church altogether, for there are long lists of objections and complaints that can be crafted for Joseph Smith and other modern prophets. It’s a fair question, but one that might be missing some important considerations. The discussion was in the context of the numerous anti-Mormon arguments against the Church that might be refutable or answerable on their own, but which together allegedly create a “tapestry” that weighs against the truthfulness of the Church.

In response, let me ask this question: If you currently accept the Bible as true, how much apparently bad behavior on the part of Abraham would it take to reject him as a prophet? How much would it take to reject the Old Testament? How much would it take to reject someone who taught as official doctrine that Abraham was a great prophet who should be considered the “friend of God” (which is what Christ called him)?

The record from the pro-Abraham writers in the Old Testament – those loony Abrahamic apologists – admits (warning: anti-Abrahamic spin follows) that he was guilty of polygamy and shacking up with concubines. It admits that he sent one of his women and his unwanted son out into the desert where they would have died were it not for miraculous help. It admits that he tried to kill his own son in a pagan human sacrifice. It admits that he was a bloody man of war and a greedy profiteer rolling in wealth and seeking more. Now what if we dug up additional evidence from his critics and victims? Can you imagine what a tapestry we’d have then? So at what point do you reject Abraham, the Old Testament, and even Christ because of the vast tapestry one can create by picking out the ugliest threads and discarding everything else?

One can seek to understand the big picture, the real tapestry, or one can seek to craft objections and weave their own new tapestry to tell an ugly story from a flawed but, at many times, divinely inspired life.

For me, the tapestry that needs to be considered has a rich and repeating pattern of a divine gift, the Book of Mormon, with power and rich internal and external evidences for authenticity. It has repeating patterns in many other areas indicating divine authority and majesty in the revealed and restored Gospel of Jesus Christ. There are rich experiences, intellectually stimulating and fulfilling journeys involving the Temple, the scriptures, the Priesthood, the relation to ancient Christianity, and many other elements, that together form a joyous tapestry – with some ugly threads in there as well that come from mortal fallibility. When examined, the ugly threads do not destroy the value of the whole, though they do raise some problems and require examination of assumptions and, most often, more careful readings of texts and more complex interpretations of events.

So let me ask one illustrative question along these lines. If you know, really know, as I do, that the Book of Mormon is simply too powerful, beautiful, and authentic as an ancient text for Joseph Smith to have fabricated or any scholar in his day to have concocted, at what point does your trouble with polygamy or the Kirtland bank disaster or Brigham Young’s views on minorities lead you to conclude that the Book of Mormon is a fraud and all the witnesses who went to their graves affirming the reality of the gold plates must have been pathological liars? If the Book of Mormon is true, if the First Vision really happened, would that make a difference in how you approach a puzzling issue like polygamy or other problems later on?

Critics want us to see only some ugly threads and throw away the whole cloth, but there is much more the picture that needs to be considered.

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Author: Jeff Lindsay

162 thoughts on “Rejecting Prophets for Apparently Bad Behavior: What Tapestry Do You Look At?

  1. Oops – spellchecking in Windows 7 doesn't seem to work in IE 8, unlike behavior in XP. Corrected a couple of typos with the help of one of you. Thanks!

  2. Great post. I always hated having to use this type of reasoning with my non-mormon-loving friends (Okay, Anti-Mormon-Friends)because I don't enjoy picking on the men I consider prophets of the Bible. However, its about the only way to get the point across! Peter denied knowing Christ, Moses received a literal "come to Jesus meeting" for not following what he was asked to do! Do I now throw away all the good they did? Nope. If anything these mistakes give me hope.
    Great Post.

  3. How interesting. I was just making such an argument for JS and the Book of Mormon with some critics of the Church.

    Very well said.

  4. "If you know, really know, as I do, that the Book of Mormon is simply too powerful, beautiful, and authentic as an ancient text for Joseph Smith to have fabricated or any scholar in his day to have concocted, at what point does your trouble with polygamy or the Kirtland bank disaster or Brigham Young’s views on minorities lead you to conclude that the Book of Mormon is a fraud and all the witnesses who went to their graves affirming the reality of the gold plates must have been pathological liars?"

    It doesn't, because they are not connected. Many people are under some odd impression that the moment one becomes a prophet, somehow that individual transcends the petty politics and social environments that surround that prophet, as if his words and actions are not in any way shape or form molded and influenced by the events, beliefs, thoughts, and prejudices of the day.

  5. I guess as a faithful member, you really have to start from this point (based on personal experiences, etc.,), but the problem is that "the Book of Mormon being true" is not established. This is the question up for debate. The prophetic nature of Joseph Smith (or Abraham, or anyone else) is not established. This is up for debate. So, your argument seems to beg the question a bit.

    The question is not "how much would it take for you to reject…?" it is more…"What is it that is getting you to accept it in the first place?" and "Can this thing, whatever it is, be lost/diminished?"

    I think your argumentation style, if completely effective, would not make non-LDS Christians into Mormons…but rather, would probably make non-LDS Christians into non-Christians (or at best, solidify this idea that Mormons are un-Christian…*gasp*?! Mormons argue against traditional Christian figures. Etc.,). Your questions, I think, are great, but I think the eventual conclusion would more likely be, "Maybe Abraham isn't a prophet. Maybe the Bible isn't true," etc., etc., than "Oh, I see…Joseph Smith was inspired." I hope you realize, of course, that if the people you are talking to are, say, atheists, then your argumentation won't do much. They will take your points about Abraham and say, "Of course! That's why we know his religion was flawed," etc.,

    The issue is that, for a person of faith, the faith *provides* that "whole cloth" that you say the critics throw away. But what is really the case is that the critics lack faith in your particular cloth…so the ugly threads that they point out are the most glaring to them.

  6. I agree that no matter of faith is established for the world, but may be established for an individual through a variety of means. My comments were largely directed to critics who take the Bible as the established word of God, and I agree that it is. But it poses challenges and complexities as serious as the uniquely LDS puzzles we face. Understanding that there may be another side to the spin of critics and more to the story than we realize is a necessary step. Avoiding unrealistic expectations of mortals is another. Our faith rests in Christ more than in His mortal representatives, as wonderful asthey often are.

  7. I always thought that having read the Old Testament several times really gave me a better perspective on the humanity of prophets.

  8. I agree that no matter of faith is established for the world, but may be established for an individual through a variety of means.

    I think the issue here is that the variety of means that faith may be established for an individual are quite subjective…so it is entirely possible (and this is kinda the issue) that one can be "persuaded" by one mean for Biblical prophets, etc., but not be "persuaded" similarly for Book of Mormon prophets or latter day revelation.

    I understand that you're responding to critics who mostly believe the Bible is the word of God, but I don't think it follows that if one believes the Bible to be the word of God, the Book of Mormon should get a free pass along the same lines.

    I dunno. I still think there needs to be a better answer — a more positive answer — than simply pointing out the deficiencies and defects of OT figures.

  9. Andrew,

    Mormanity is not saying that if you believe in the Bible you should automatically believe in the Book of Mormon. He is not speaking about all those who say they do not believe the Book of Mormon to be true. He is only saying that those who say "the Book of Mormon CAN'T be true because of A, B, and C" (replace A, B, and C with just about any criticism of the Book or the Church) should reject the Bible by the same "logic".

    Thus, if you do not agree with the reasoning behind these attacks (I don't), you should at least give the Book of Mormon a chance and accept it or reject it based on other means. If you agree with the reasoning, then you should probably reject the Book of Mormon, the Bible, and perhaps all religious belief.

  10. If, because accepted Old Testament prophets were imperfect, one ought not reject modern prophets for their perceived imperfections, then what are we to make of the imperfections of various Bishops of Rome? When do those imperfections rise to The Great Apostasy and necessitate the restoration?

  11. Jeff, great post.

    FishFly, you boiled down the logic to its raw substance and stated it very nicely. Jeff's intent was probably only to rebut those professed believers in the Bible who assume out of ignorance that every Bible "hero" lived a flawless life and choose to nitpick a few instances in Joseph Smith's life as "evidence" that he couldn't have been a prophet. It was not so much to logically "prove" that Joseph Smith was a prophet, but to disprove another flawed line of logic.

    The fact that we have many times more pages of teachings of modern prophets (Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, and others) than are contained in the entire Bible, yet critics of the LDS faith can only recycle the same handful of tired old arguments, is a testament to the modern prophets' divine callings.

    Paul, the point when any member (or professed member) of Christ's church enters apostasy is when they start believing, teaching, or practicing incorrect doctrines or practices. This is exacerbated when the person professes to have divine authority (priesthood) that they do not have. It was the loss of priesthood authority due to the deaths of the church leaders, and church members' individual apostasy as they mixed correct Christian beliefs and practices with incorrect Roman and other philosophies, that overtook the early Christian church as a whole. When the last legitimate holder of true priesthood authority died, I suppose you could say that a restoration was needed at that point.

  12. More accurately, I should say that when the last person holding all necessary priesthood keys–with the authority to pass those keys onto others–died, then a restoration of authority became necessary.

  13. The ultimate proof against Mormonism is not its concept of prophets, but its concept of God. For example, in the bible Abraham alone is responsible for telling the half truth that Sarah was his sister, whereas Mormonism makes God responsible for this half truth.

    The whole lost 116 pages anecdote is a good example of this. In this example the Mormon God engages in a ridiculously intricate, complex scheme to thwart conspirators because the Holy Spirit was not strong enough to overcome the plans of mortals and the Mormon God was very concerned about what people might think of Him. Not only this, but the Mormon God engages in flawed logic. The Mormon God assumes that creating the Book of Nephi would prevent conspirators from changing the lost 116 pages (the Book of Lehi). However, this is not true.

    I hesitate to say that this flaw is obvious, because I missed it first until someone pointed it out to me and apparently there are millions of Mormons who know this anecdote from birth and never catch the flaw in the Mormon God’s thinking.

    I am no expert in the Bible, but I have yet to find such odd behavior on the part of God in the Bible. My challenge for the faithful and apologist out there is where in the Bible does God behave in similarly flawed ways?

  14. Mormography, be careful when you start challenging the logic of God because you can create alternative scenarios. Numerous events of the Bible can be criticized for such things, even the big, most basic things. Like why couldn't God forgive us for our sins without making Christ suffer? Why would God need cherubim AND a flaming sword to keep Adam and Eve away from the tree of life, when he could simply remove it or put a fence around it or move them far from it or use just one extra buff cherub versus a whole team – and why was a tree of life needed if they were already immortal and so on? Why was an ark needed to save Noah from the flood, when God could have just picked him up or kept his spot dry? Why a flood at all – why not just selectively wipe out the really wicked instantly with a divine blast of power? Why this, why that – for every story.

    God does many things for His own purposes. Sometimes the unnecessarily difficult paths are there to teach and train us, or create opportunities in the future, or to be symbols for the benefit of later generations.

  15. Well said Jeff. And good rebuttal against Mormography's double standard.

    That, and it appears you have a spammer on this thread.