LDS apologist Michael Ash has an ongoing series at Mormon Times and the FAIR podcast called “Challenging Issues and Keeping the Faith”. I was interested to hear him speak directly to the popular Mormon expression that “the prophet will not lead the people of the church astray.”
In his article on this issue he states
The purpose and mission of the church is to “invite all to come unto Christ” (Doctrine and Covenants 20:59). Prophets stand as leaders in this invitation and the things they do and say (as prophets) are intended to accomplish this goal.
How do we come unto Christ? The Book of Mormon gives us the six-point pattern: belief in Christ, repentance, baptism, gift of the Holy Spirit, enduring to the end and being found guiltless at the final judgment.
I’m glad to see someone putting some more meat on the idea and clearly defining the places in which a prophet might lead the people astray. It’s interesting that Ash chose to reduce the arena of possible prophetic negligence down to 6 messages that all serve to help us “come unto Christ”.
Based on this criteria we could assume the absolute worst about every LDS prophet and all of them would safely be in the bounds of doctrinal orthodoxy. For instance we could take the view that polygamy was indeed started to cover up Joseph Smith’s desire for extra-marital affairs, that the Book of Mormon was a fraudulent scheme to make money, that the priesthood ban was a blatant attempt to spiritually affirm racism or that Brigham Young collaborated and conspired as an active part of the Mountain Meadows Massacre; and still safely regard these men as prophets who never led the church astray. Perhaps some future prophet could use his pulpit to disband the priesthood, bulldoze under every LDS temple or even encourage all faithful LDS to invest in another failed banking venture and still it could be said that he “never led the people astray”.
I think the phrase has to mean more than a prophet’s ability to direct people into these six principles. If it doesn’t the unique voice and role of the LDS prophet quite quickly because functionally unnecessary. In addition, the LDS teaching of a great apostasy or its status as the only one and true church lose all significance.
I can’t think of a single time in Christian history when the majority of Christian churches were not leading their people in some form of this six-point pattern. As a non-Mormon, Ash’s argument leaves me unconvinced that I need something that only the LDS church offers. Further it opens the door to prophetic fallibility so widely that we can’t be certain that the every single unique teaching of LDS prophets and LDS scriptures (given to us by modern prophets) are nothing more than overstated opinions. If the truth claims of the LDS church are really only vital in regards to this six-point pattern of belief, there are no unique LDS doctrines that aren’t and weren’t being taught by other churches.
I understand that Ash’s role as an apologist is to reduce the surface area that critics might use to attack the LDS prophet, but he’s gone so far that he’s also reduced the unique role of the LDS church to nothing and entirely eliminated its evangelistic message. If the world needs modern prophets, their role must be for something more than what my pastor delivers every week. Orson and Parley Pratt took a tact of strongly embracing difficult teachings, I think Ash should reconsider his apologetic strategy before he leaves the LDS church with nothing more than an optional-belief-in-God.