“You Cannot Always Tell the Wicked from the Righteous”: The Lord’s Teaching on the Limitations of Human Prophets

How disappointing it is to see some members of the Church leave because they find that past or modern prophets have made some mistake. From Joseph Smith to Gordon B. Hinckley, one can always find some act, writing, comment, opinion or decision that one can criticize as a mistake. How I wish that all our members and former members would learn from the scriptures and see that the concept of infallibility is utterly foreign to the Bible and to the other scriptures we use. It is solid scriptural doctrine that human prophets, though called of God, are fallible. From the opening sections of the Doctrine and Covenants, we see Joseph Smith being condemned for his foolishness that led to the loss of 116 pages of translated text from the Book of Mormon. He erred in judgment and was essentially tricked into letting the pages go out of his control.

Can a true prophet be tricked?? Yes, of course, as anyone would know who has studied the Old Testament. In Genesis 27 we read of the great prophet Isaac being tricked by his wife and son, Jacob, into blessing Jacob with the blessing that should have been given to the older son, Esau. I’m sure it was all for a good cause, but we can’t mince words here: the prophet was easily tricked. In retrospect, we might argue that the trickery was needed to get him past his personal biases in favor of Esau – again pointing to the human fallibility of prophets. Then in Joshua 9 we read that the prophet Joshua was fooled by a false report from the Gibeonites. Like Isaac, he was deceived by his senses and by false information from others. Perhaps if he had spent time praying about the issue and seeking additional information, he might have seen through the deception – but it’s clear that he was fooled.

The Doctrine and Covenants is consistent with the Bible on this issue. After Joseph is chastised for his foolishness in Section 3, we later read in Section 10 that the Joseph was tricked, and that he must pray always and be vigilant for Satan wishes to destroy him. And then Joseph the true Prophet of God is given this important information in verse 37: “you cannot always tell the wicked from the righteous.” Presumably even if the Prophet is living close to the Spirit and praying always, there is the possibility of sometimes mistaking wicked people for righteous, or visa versa.

That’s life: humans are imperfect. We worship God, not Brigham Young or Gordon B. Hinckley. Gordon B. Hinckley is a true prophet of God because he has been given the keys of the Presidency of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and is authorized to received revelation from God for the Church and the world. But that does not mean that every comment – even those on the Larry King Show – are infallibly correct and given straight from the mouth of God. It does not mean that he can look at a document and instantly know if it’s a forgery (an issue I discuss specifically on my Mormon Answers page about prophets).

I know somebody who left the Church over such issues. I can’t speak for him, but one thing that I think especially galled him was once hearing President Hinckley casually praise Kofi Annan of the United Nations. This acquaintance and I both don’t think highly of Kofi Annan. I could say that there are good reasons why my acquaintance sees Kofi Annan as an evil person, and it was probably disappointing to see that President Hinckley had accepted the very widespread opinion of most people that Kofi is a great guy. (But why shouldn’t he? Was there any need for Gordon B. Hinckley to seek divine revelation about United Nations scandals or schemes??) Right or wrong, that was just President Hinckley’s opinion, not official Church doctrine. The Lord does not take over a prophet’s brain and tweak every opinion until it matches God’s opinion (or the opinions of disgruntled members or former members). As the Lord told Joseph Smith, even a prophet of God cannot be expected to always discern the righteous from the wicked.

I have a lot of strong opinions that I hope all leaders of the Church will soon adopt. But remember, they’re only human – and come to think of it, so am I. When we disagree, there are several possibilities. Perhaps God has not yet revealed my opinions to them, or perhaps (shudder) I am wrong. And when it’s more than a matter of opinion, where a clear-cut error has been made, we must not let that disrupt our testimony: humans make mistakes, sometimes even HUGE mistakes like the ones that Joseph is condemned for in the revelations he published to the world (so much for the theory that he was a megalomaniac bent on praising himself!).

The Gospel of Jesus Christ is true and His Church is upon the earth. The Church is true, in spite of the weaknesses of all us humans in it. Don’t let the occasional mistakes of men, even great and inspired men, distract us from what God has given us and from what He has called us to do.


Author: Jeff Lindsay

2 thoughts on ““You Cannot Always Tell the Wicked from the Righteous”: The Lord’s Teaching on the Limitations of Human Prophets

  1. Jeff–I’m trying to track down some information on King Kofi Annan for a book I’m writing, and wonder if you could please let me know what really happened with this man.

    Is he really LDS? I’m finding contradictory stuff online.

    Many thanks. Can’t find contact info on here, so am using this old blog post. I’m at xtrafam@yahoo.com if you have time to reply.

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