Are Church Leaders Accountable to the Membership?



I received an email today which highlights a serious error which I believe runs rampant among some members of the Church, especially those I encounter online. Here are some excerpts from the email which demonstrate the issue:

… You should allow this point to be made.  You can always oppose that point, but to suppress it altogether points to a lack of honesty, and integrity in the debate…

Being a fan of Nibley, you should recognize that all is not well in Zion, and it’s up to the inhabitants of Zion to make corrections.  … We have a duty to put pressure on our leaders …  

Our leaders answer to us.  The Doctrine and Covenants is clear that our leaders maintain their position by the voice of the people.  Just as our Father in Heaven gave us the Constitution of the United States to protect us from those who exercise unrighteous dominion, so did He also provide us with the law of the Church to protect the members from the same type of fallible men.  That’s why it is so important that the members of the Church have all the information available to them to make informed decisions when they sustain, or oppose their leaders.

Why do our leaders today keep us in the dark …?  … Why is it any different for those men of flesh that govern our Church?  Are they infallible in their decisions?  Are they not accountable to the membership of the Church?  …

From my perspective, discussing these issues is to the benefit of all God’s children.  Asking tough questions of our leaders should not only be tolerated, but should be encouraged.  Good leaders have no problem being questioned, as they generally have good answers.

… As the scriptures say, our leaders are not above or beneath us.  They are just as accountable to us, as we are to them.1

Here are excerpts from my response:

You are correct in one thing – all is not well in Zion; but it is not with the leadership of the Church, it is with its membership.  Nibley was perfectly clear about that fact (see “Criticizing the Brethren“).  The thing that worries me the most about comments like yours is that you believe that you know better than the Lord’s Anointed.  It is not “up to the inhabitants of Zion to make corrections” to their leaders.  Since when did the foot tell the head what to do?  This is criticism… which in other places is called evil speaking.  I have made a covenant not to do that, and I’m not going to allow others to do it on my blog either.  As soon as we believe that we know better than those who the Lord has called to lead and guide His Church, we are in very dangerous territory.  Our leaders don’t answer to us, they answer to the Lord who called them to do His work. We sustain our leaders, we don’t vote them in.  If you don’t sustain them, then you have your agency to oppose them when given the opportunity.  We didn’t call them to their positions, the Lord did. We have no more right to vote them out of their position than we had to call them into it.  There is no impeachment within the Church!

If the leaders of the Church want to …[do something]… they have a very good reason for doing so.  …  I, for one, will not question it.  I know that they are chosen by God, so I trust that they are led by revelation … The Church is not accountable to us …, it is accountable to God.

Do our leaders make mistakes?  Of course they do.  But it is not our prerogative or right as Church members to criticize the Lord’s Anointed when we think they are making mistakes. We will not be led astray by our leaders, no matter how much our critics may say so.

In the words of President Brigham Young:

I can tell the people that once in my life I felt a want of confidence in brother Joseph Smith, soon after I became acquainted with him. It was not concerning religious matters-it was not about his revelations-but it was in relation to his financiering-to his managing the temporal affairs which he undertook. A feeling came over me that Joseph was not right in his financial management, though I presume the feeling did not last sixty seconds, and perhaps not thirty. But that feeling came on me once and once only, from the time I first knew him to the day of his death. It gave me sorrow of heart, and I clearly saw and understood, by the spirit of revelation manifested to me, that if I was to harbor a thought in my heart that Joseph could be wrong in anything, I would begin to lose confidence in him, and that feeling would grow from step to step, and from one degree to another, until at last I would have the same lack of confidence in his being the mouthpiece for the Almighty. Though I admitted in my feelings and knew all the time that Joseph was a human being and subject to err, still it was none of my business to look after his faults.

I repented of my unbelief, and that too, very suddenly; I repented about as quickly as I committed the error. It was not for me to question whether Joseph was dictated by the Lord at all times and under all circumstances or not. I never had the feeling for one moment, to believe that any man or set of men or beings upon the face of the whole earth had anything to do with him, for he was superior to them all, and held the keys of salvation over them. Had I not thoroughly understood this and believed it, I much doubt whether I should ever have embraced what is called “Mormonism.” He was called of God; God dictated him, and if He had a mind to leave him to himself and let him commit an error, that was no business of mine. And it was not for me to question it, if the Lord was disposed to let Joseph lead the people astray, for He had called him and instructed him to gather Israel and restore the Priesthood and kingdom to them.

It was not my prerogative to call him in question with regard to any act of his life. He was God’s servant, and not mine. He did not belong to the people but to the Lord, and was doing the work of the Lord, and if He should suffer him to lead the people astray, it would be because they ought to be led astray. If he should suffer them to be chastised, and some of them destroyed, it would be because they deserved it, or to accomplish some righteous purpose. That was my faith, and it is my faith still.2

I would recommend you read a talk by Elder Oaks entitled “Criticism.”  In it he makes the following points:

Does the commandment to avoid faultfinding and evil speaking apply to Church members’ destructive personal criticism of Church leaders? Of course it does. It applies to criticism of all Church leaders—local or general, male or female. In our relations with all of our Church leaders, we should follow the Apostle Paul’s direction: “Rebuke not an elder, but intreat him as a father.” (1 Tim. 5:1.)…
I have given the following counsel to Church members—those who have committed themselves by upraised hands to sustain their church leaders:

“Criticism is particularly objectionable when it is directed toward Church authorities, general or local. Jude condemns those who ‘speak evil of dignities.’ (Jude 1:8.) Evil speaking of the Lord’s anointed is in a class by itself. It is one thing to depreciate a person who exercises corporate power or even government power. It is quite another thing to criticize or depreciate a person for the performance of an office to which he or she has been called of God. It does not matter that the criticism is true. As Elder George F. Richards, President of the Council of the Twelve, said in a conference address in April 1947,

“ ‘When we say anything bad about the leaders of the Church, whether true or false, we tend to impair their influence and their usefulness and are thus working against the Lord and his cause.’ (In Conference Report, Apr. 1947, p. 24.)” (Address to Church Educational System teachers, Aug. 16, 1985.)

There is nothing new about this counsel. Even though King Saul sought to kill him, David would not allow his companion to strike the king, saying, “for who can stretch forth his hand against the Lord’s anointed, and be guiltless?” (1 Sam. 26:9.) The prophet Isaiah denounced those who “make a man an offender for a word, and lay a snare for him that reproveth in the gate” (Isa. 29:21; see also 2 Ne. 27:32.) (Those who reproved in the gate in Isaiah’s time were the religious leaders.) This modern revelation from the Doctrine and Covenants is to the same effect:

“Cursed are all those that shall lift up the heel against mine anointed, saith the Lord, and cry they have sinned when they have not sinned before me, saith the Lord, but have done that which was meet in mine eyes, and which I commanded them.” (D&C 121:16.)

The counsel against speaking evil of Church leaders is not so much for the benefit of the leaders as it is for the spiritual well-being of members who are prone to murmur and find fault. The Church leaders I know are durable people. They made their way successfully in a world of unrestrained criticism before they received their current callings. They have no personal need for protection; they seek no personal immunities from criticism—constructive or destructive. They only seek to declare what they understand to be the word of the Lord to his people.

President David O. McKay said this about what he called “murmurers” and “faultfinders”:

“ ‘Speak not against the authorities.’ What does it mean? Be not a murmurer; that is what it means. It is one of the most poisonous things that can be introduced into the home of a Latter-day Saint—this murmuring against presidents of stakes, high councilors, Sunday School superintendents, etc. …

“Better stop murmuring and build. Remember that one of the worst means of tearing down an individual is slander. It is one of the most poisonous weapons that the evil one uses. Backbiting and evil speaking throw us into the class of malefactors rather than the class of benefactors.” (Gospel Ideals, Salt Lake City: Improvement Era, 1953, pp. 142–43.)

President McKay’s teaching against speaking evil of others is a principle of Christian behavior that applies to all people. But his companion counsel against “murmuring” is a teaching that applies uniquely to Church members and Church leaders.

Government or corporate officials, who are elected directly or indirectly or appointed by majority vote, must expect that their performance will be subject to critical and public evaluations by their constituents. That is part of the process of informing those who have the right and power of selection or removal. The same is true of popularly elected officers in professional, community, and other private organizations. I suppose that the same is true even of church leaders who are selected by popular vote of members or their representative bodies. Consistent with gospel standards, these evaluations—though critical and public—should be constructive.

A different principle applies in our Church, where the selection of leaders is based on revelation, subject to the sustaining vote of the membership. In our system of Church government, evil speaking and criticism of leaders by members is always negative. Whether the criticism is true or not, as Elder George F. Richards explained, it tends to impair the leaders’ influence and usefulness, thus working against the Lord and his cause. (In Conference Report, Apr. 1947, p. 24, quoted above.)

The prophet Moses expressed another reason we should refrain from criticizing Church leaders. On one occasion, the whole congregation of the children of Israel became dissatisfied and “murmured against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness.” (Ex. 16:2.)

“What are we, that ye murmur against us?” Moses asked them. “The Lord heareth your murmurings which ye murmur against him: and what are we? your murmurings are not against us, but against the Lord.” (Ex. 16:7–8.) Similarly, when the children of Israel ignored the prophet Samuel’s inspired warnings and begged him to appoint a king to rule over them, the Lord directed him to do as they asked, explaining: “They have not rejected thee, but they have rejected me.” (1 Sam. 8:7.)

In these two instances, the Bible teaches that rejection of or murmuring against the counsel of the Lord’s servants amounts to actions against the Lord himself. How could it be otherwise? The Lord acts through his servants. That is the pattern he has established to safeguard our agency in mortality. His servants are not perfect, which is another consequence of mortality. But if we murmur against the Lord’s servants, we are working against the Lord and his cause and will soon find ourselves without the companionship of his Spirit.3

Elder Oaks then gives five options to members who have differences with their leaders.  Then he adds:

Throughout our history we have had members who have criticized the Church and its leaders. Church disciplinary action against such members has been rare or nonexistent. Persistent, public critics punish themselves. By deliberately separating themselves from those who have been called as their leaders, critics forfeit the guidance of the Spirit of the Lord. They drift from prayer, from the scriptures, from Church activity, and from keeping the commandments. They inevitably lose spirituality and blessings. As the prophet Nephi observed, those who succumb to pride and “works of darkness” are on the way to spiritual destruction, “for the Spirit of the Lord will not always strive with man.” (2 Ne. 26:10–11.)…

Just as our Church leaders’ source of authority is different from that of government and corporate leaders, so are the procedures for correcting Church leaders different from those used to correct leaders chosen by popular election. But the differences are appropriate to the way in which our Church leaders are called and released. By following approved procedures, we can keep from alienating ourselves from the Spirit of the Lord.

This counsel will be anathema to some. I invite those who are troubled by it to consider it in terms of the teachings of the scriptures rather than in terms of their personal preferences or the canons of any particular profession. Those who reject the authority of the scriptures or our latter-day prophets cannot be expected to agree with what I have said. Those who see freedom or truth as absolutely overriding principles in all human actions cannot be expected to be persuaded by the scriptures’ teaching that “knowledge puffeth up, but charity edifieth.” (1 Cor. 8:1.)4

Elder Spencer W. Kimball described the cycle of apostasy:

There is the man who, to satisfy his own egotism, took a stand against the Authorities of the Church. He followed the usual pattern, not apostasy at first, only superiority of knowledge and mild criticism. He loved the Brethren, he said, but they failed to see and interpret as he would like. He would still love the Church, he maintained, but his criticism grew and developed into ever widening circles. He was right, he assured himself; he could not yield in good conscience; he had his pride. His children did not accept his philosophy wholly, but their confidence was shaken. In their frustration, they married out of the Church, and he lost them. He later realized his folly and returned to humbleness, but so very late. He had lost his children. “It is hard for thee to kick against the pricks.”5

The Prophet Joseph Smith himself declared:

It is an eternal principle: That man who rises up to condemn others, finding fault with the Church, is on the high road to apostasy; and if he does not repent, will apostatize, as God lives. 6

Many more Church leaders could be quoted on this very same subject, but I think I’ve made my point (you can read more in my article “The Grossest Form of Church Criticism“).  Just so I am perfectly clear – I will not, and I will not allow others to, criticize the Church or its leaders on my blog, regardless of the “lack of honesty, integrity, or well-roundedness” that it may manifest. I believe it is, in reality, a criticism of the Lord God Almighty, and in violation of sacred covenants made before God, angels, and witnesses.  I will not do it, God as my witness!


  1. Email to author. []
  2. Journal of Discourses 4:297-98. []
  3. Elder Oaks, “Criticism.” []
  4. ibid. []
  5. Conference Report, April 1955, pp. 94-95. []
  6. Joseph Smith, Teachings, pp. 156-57 []
  7. Email by author. []


  1. Antony
    Posted October 21, 2009 at 1:45 pm | Permalink

    Just a quick point, the Lord’s Anointed is not only the Leadership of the Church. All who have been through the temple are anointed. The quotes you have from brother Brigham do not claim them to be revelation for the Church, rather they are how he personally felt about Joseph Smith.

    We have a responsibility to know for ourselves what is right and what is wrong (see for example the JST Mark 9:44).

    I also believe that Evil Speaking is more than being in disagreement with the leader. If leaders were truly infallible, or should be left to God to sort out as brother Brigham suggested, why do we have Doctrine and Covenants 107:82–84? Considering this, I would say that a humble follower of Christ would take up the disagreement with the leader and escalate it as necessary to the right councils. Evil Speaking, in my mind, is taking it to those who have nothing to do with the case and sowing discord and dissent within the Church.

    Thanks for all your work in keeping this site up and running. I truly enjoy reading the articles here.

  2. Antony
    Posted October 21, 2009 at 1:53 pm | Permalink

    P.S. The JST for Mark 9:44 can be found here ->

  3. Posted October 21, 2009 at 2:02 pm | Permalink

    Just out of curiousity, how do you resolve the tensions in the quotes above between those that say that it is never appropriate to raise concerns about Church leaders (however broadly we may define that term) and Elder Oaks’ recommendations about certain conditions in which it is possible?

  4. Jordan
    Posted October 21, 2009 at 2:26 pm | Permalink

    I like your point that church leaders are accountable to God. Maybe there would be a few select instances where there would be some intermediate accountability to us (if they’re our home teachers?), but even then, ultimately it’s God that we will all have to report to. The Doctrine and Covenants truly is clear on this issue. It is not the will of the people that elects church leaders. We do not suffer them to be our leaders. God does.

    No, they’re not infallible. Yes, leaders we work with may need correction sometimes—which is hard to give. (Me, I just murmur. I’m wicked like that.)

    Reading the original email, I actually thought of the US government, and not just because s/he mentions the Constitution. Our civil leaders are elected, they do serve at our pleasure, and they are accountable to us (said document begins “WE THE PEOPLE” not “WE THE GOVERNMENT”). We seem to be forgetting that.

    Sovereignty—the ultimate authority—in our civil government lies with the people. In the church, it lies with God. I fear that the author of the email isn’t the only one who’s gotten these two confused.

  5. Posted October 21, 2009 at 2:34 pm | Permalink

    Antony, thanks for your comments. Elder Oaks talks about five things in his talk on “Criticism” that members can do that have differences with leaders of the Church. Taking it to the leader and escalating it to the appropriate councils are some of the things he recommends.

  6. Posted October 21, 2009 at 2:41 pm | Permalink

    TT, I don’t see where Elder Oaks ever says that criticism of Church leaders is possible. On the contrary, he says it “is always negative. Whether the criticism is true or not, as Elder George F. Richards explained, it tends to impair the leaders’ influence and usefulness, thus working against the Lord and his cause.”

    At the beginning of the talk he spoke very briefly about constructive criticism, directed towards issues and critical evaluation of products and services, is appropriate. But he did not apply that to Church leaders.

  7. Anna
    Posted October 21, 2009 at 3:02 pm | Permalink

    Good post. I see so much criticism towards our leaders on LDS forums and blogs – some of it quite negative and self-righteous.

  8. Posted October 21, 2009 at 3:13 pm | Permalink

    So, in your reading, even constructive criticism is verbotten? What do you make of the third and fourth recommendations for how to deal with differences which include having a private meeting or writing a letter? Further, options 1, 2, 3, and 5 all suggest that private criticism is possible, as long as one doesn’t talk about it.
    What distinction do you make, if any, between disagreement and criticism?

  9. Posted October 21, 2009 at 3:43 pm | Permalink

    Option 1 is to overlook the difference.
    Option 2 is to reserve judgment and postpone any action on the difference.
    Option 3 is to take up our differences privately with the leader involved.
    Option 4 is to communicate with the Church officer who has the power to correct or release the person thought to be in error or transgression.
    Option 5 is to pray for the resolution of the problem.

    Even constructive criticism is verbotten?” Yes, when it is openly directed at Church Authorities. Elder Oaks states that even true criticism is inappropriate.

    What do you make of the third and fourth recommendations for how to deal with differences which include having a private meeting or writing a letter?” That is not public, open, criticism. It deals with the issue where it lies, between the individual and the church leader.

    Further, options 1, 2, 3, and 5 all suggest that private criticism is possible, as long as one doesn’t talk about it.” I don’t know if any of these options consents to continue privately criticizing the Brethren. I believe that that will only continue to erode the faith of the member, and drive the Spirit away.

    What distinction do you make, if any, between disagreement and criticism?” We can disagree, privately, with Church Authorities (I wouldn’t recommend it, as Brigham Young rightly showed). It is when we tell others of our disagreements that it turns into criticism.

  10. Tyler
    Posted October 21, 2009 at 6:43 pm | Permalink

    Elder Ballard cautioned against believing that prophetic counsel is subject to personal interpretation and individual criticism.

    “There never has been a greater time than this to be living on the earth. But we also must never forget that Satan knows our Heavenly Father’s plan. He and his fallen followers are active and doing all they can to thwart God’s plan and destroy the faith of His children. I need to caution you about some important ways that Satan is carrying on his destructive crusade.

    “Please be very careful in your choice of entertainment….

    “Now, I’m aware there may be a few of you who think that you know better than the leaders of the Church about this subject. You may even argue that there is artistic merit or that ‘everyone is doing it.’ You may believe that you are not one of those people who will be influenced by on-screen sex or violence. To you I have only one question: are you going to follow the true and living prophets or not? It really isn’t any more complicated than that. The standard of the Church with regard to morality is clear. If you choose to read anything that contains material that is contrary to the moral standards of the Church, then you are placing yourself and your own wisdom above the counsel of God and His prophets—a course of action that would indeed be very unwise. As soon as you begin to think that you know better than the leaders of the Church, that our counsel doesn’t apply to you, you are stepping onto a slippery slope that has claimed far too many victims already. It takes real desire and unequivocal, unreserved faith to accept and to live prophetic counsel even when you may not completely understand it. Such sincere desire and simple faith has the power to guide you safely through every challenge you may face in your life.”

    M. Russell Ballard, “Are You Going to Follow the Prophets?,” Ensign, July 2001, 64

  11. Posted October 21, 2009 at 7:28 pm | Permalink

    Great post. Right on the money. When one is at odds with a church leader or frustrated with a general authority’s counsel, that is a clue that one needs to get back right with the Lord. Our relationship is with the Lord, and the Lord anoints whom he will to lead the church. We sustain them by our vote when they are called, but only the Lord has the “impeachment power.”

  12. Posted October 22, 2009 at 8:31 am | Permalink

    Thanks all.

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