(by Daniel Peterson deseretnews.com 6-9-16)
Should we expect perfection from our church leaders? Stated so bluntly, the question answers itself: Obviously not. And yet, sometimes, we seem to do just that. “Catholics,” goes the joke, “say that the pope is infallible, but no Catholic really believes it. Mormons say that the prophet isn’t infallible, but no Mormon really believes it.”
Our leaders don’t claim perfection, though, and it’s uncharitable for us to claim it on their behalf. Only one perfect person has lived on this planet. Only one person saves. The rest of us, including general authorities of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, require saving.
In stating this indisputable truth, I’m not suggesting that LDS Church leaders have committed terrible acts, now or historically. I’m simply saying that, like all of us, they’re mortal humans. And they’ve been mortal humans from the start:
“I was left to all kinds of temptations,” recalled Joseph Smith of his life immediately following the First Vision (Joseph Smith-History 1:28), “and, mingling with all kinds of society, I frequently fell into many foolish errors, and displayed the weakness of youth, and the foibles of human nature; which, I am sorry to say, led me into divers temptations, offensive in the sight of God. In making this confession, no one need suppose me guilty of any great or malignant sins. … But I was guilty of levity, and sometimes associated with jovial company, etc., not consistent with that character which ought to be maintained by one who was called of God as I had been.”
Before their appointment as general officers of the church, our leaders served — much like many of us, and like those with whom we worship every week — as Sunday School and Primary teachers, missionaries, assistant Scoutmasters, Young Women camp leaders, Relief Society and elders quorum presidents, bishops and stake presidents. They didn’t suddenly, magically become perfect or omniscient when they were sustained in general conference. They’re going through the same mortal probation, the same learning experience as the rest of us.
It has always been so. The letters of “our beloved brother Paul,” says 2 Peter 3:15-16, contain “some things hard to be understood.” According to 2 Corinthians 10:10, many were unimpressed with him: “For his letters, say they, are weighty and powerful; but his bodily presence is weak, and his speech contemptible.”
Speaking at April 2013 general conference, Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles urged listeners to “be kind regarding human frailty — your own as well as that of those who serve with you in a church led by volunteer, mortal men and women. Except in the case of his only perfect Begotten Son, imperfect people are all God has ever had to work with. That must be terribly frustrating to him, but He deals with it. So should we.”
Isaiah 29:21 warned against the very human temptation to “make a man an offender for a word.”
“My disciples, in days of old,” says the Lord in a revelation given at Kirtland, Ohio, in September 1831, “sought occasion against one another and forgave not one another in their hearts; and for this evil they were afflicted and sorely chastened” (Doctrine and Covenants 64:8). Christ’s apostles quarreled over precedence and status (see Matthew 20:20-28; Mark 10:35-45; Luke 22:23-26). Paul clashed with Peter at Antioch (Galatians 2:11-13).
Preparing to seal up the record of his people, Moroni was clearly worried about how it would be received by foreign nations in a far distant time: “If there be faults they be the faults of a man. But behold, we know no fault; nevertheless God knoweth all things; therefore, he that condemneth, let him be aware lest he shall be in danger of hell fire” (Mormon 8:17; he says the same thing on the Book of Mormon’s title page).
“Condemn me not because of mine imperfection,” he writes, “neither my father, because of his imperfection, neither them who have written before him; but rather give thanks unto God that he hath made manifest unto you our imperfections, that ye may learn to be more wise than we have been” (Mormon 9:31).
There is no doctrine of perfect leaders in the LDS Church. But there is a doctrine of charity: “For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again” (Matthew 7:2). As we sing on Sundays, “Who am I to judge another / When I walk imperfectly?” (see Hymns, No. 220, "Lord, I Would Follow Thee").