Many articles about Mormons (a nickname sometimes used to describe members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) suggest that Mormons are not allowed to question Church authority. As with most information put out by people who are not Mormon, this is not quite correct. It is often difficult to understand the belief of another religion because we often don’t understand the context or the foundational basis of the belief. The issue of questioning authority can only be understood by first examining some background beliefs.
It is, of course, true that God is the source of all knowledge. Anything He says is true really is. The question, then, is one of how we know what God wants us to do. For Mormons, there are several sources of information and all must be put into play when we’re trying to figure out what is true. This process is important in understanding whether or not Mormons can question their church leaders.
Mormons teach that only the prophet can receive revelation for the entire church. This pattern was set from the verybeginning of life on this planet and is clearly defined in the Bible. A quick look around the world teaches us that if everyone believes he or she can receive revelation for an entire church, chaos and discord arise. There are so many churches because there are so many people who believe they know what is true. Having a prophet allows us to have the truth without chaos and God is a God of order.
However, every one of us can receive personal revelation. We can ask God if something is true and get an answer. God promised that in the Bible. (See James 1:5 as an example.) This is, however, a revelation only for us. We can’t turn our own answer into official doctrine, no matter how fond we are of it.
This, though, is the key to the answer to our question. Can Mormons question authority? Of course they can. That is, you understand, how our church began. Joseph Smith, as a teenager, went to a lot of different religious meetings and talked to a lot of different religious leaders. He kept getting different answers to his questions, though, and he wanted some way to know for himself what was true. He did what we are all supposed to do when we have questions. He went to God.
Gaining a Testimony
Sometimes it is easier to understand a concept when there is a specific example, so let’s look back at my own conversion process, since it’s the one I understand best. I became a Mormon as a teenager. I was the ultimate questioner. I had questions about everything. One of my questions involved women and priesthood. I asked the missionaries on the first lesson, and they said they’d be happy to answer, but that I didn’t yet know enough to understand the answer. They were willing to answer now if I wanted, but they asked if I’d be willing to wait until I had the appropriate foundation and I agreed. That foundation, of course, was prayer, which I didn’t even know how to do, and an understanding of both womanhood and priesthood.
Although I agreed to wait, I also set out to find some answers on my own. The missionaries had taught me that studying the issue was the first step. This was pre-internet, so the work was harder than it is today, but I sought out official Church sources to learn what they really taught (as opposed to what some people told me they taught) on womanhood and priesthood—not as a unit, but as separate topics. After I understood each issue separately, I put them together. I began to understand that what is important about priesthood is the blessings it brings, not who carries out the actions. It was really no different than dinnertime. My mother made dinner, but I was able to eat it. It made no difference who cooked it as long as everyone was able to eat the dinner. Making dinner just happened to be her job. My job was keeping the living room tidy. I got no more blessings for keeping the living room tidy than my mother got for cooking dinner. If we all had the same job, there would be too much food and a very messy living room. Dividing the work made things run more smoothly and it was my mother who assigned everyone, even my father, the work that needed to be done in our home. I didn’t actually get to decide I’d rather be the one to cook dinner (which I’m sure my family was thankful for).
I also noted that God handed out gender-specific roles, such as childbirth. No, not every woman can give birth in this life, but no man can give birth. The important thing about the childbirth analogy is that it proves God does make gender-based assignments. If childbirth can be assigned by gender, why can’t priesthood? Both mother and father enjoy the blessings of the new baby, regardless of who actually carried and delivered the child, and mother and father both enjoy the blessings of the priesthood.
Once I’d studied the issue, it was time for the next step. I had decided that the Church was right when they said God didn’t happen to assign priesthood to the women. Making my own decision was a critical part of the process, I knew. But it wasn’t the last step, and this is where many falter. They do the studying and the decision-making, but they don’t finish the process. They don’t ask God if they are correct. I took my question to God and when the missionaries offered to answer my questions now that I was ready, I no longer needed them to. God and I had handled it on our own.
Can we question our Mormon leaders? Of course. However, the right to question comes with a moral responsibility to seek out truth. Intellectual reasoning or popular opinion is not truth. Truth is what God says it is. We have a responsibility to take our doubts to God for answers and then we have to accept the answer and support it. The answers may not be what we wanted them to be or what society currently believes is the way things ought to be, but we, and the rest of the world, look at things with a limited view. This life is short. It is eternity we’re after, and answers about eternity come only from God.
Can Mormons question authority? They can—as long as they take their questions to God personally, and He has given us the tools to do so.