The prophet Wilford Woodruff taught,
I say to Israel, the Lord will never permit me or any other man who stands as president of this Church to lead you astray. It is not in the program. It is not in the mind of God. If I were to attempt that the Lord would remove me out of my place, and so he will any other man who attempts to lead the children of men astray from the oracles of God and from their duty.
This doctrine says that the prophet will always lead the church correctly. A different, and equally accepted, doctrine maintains that prophets are just people that can make mistakes. I recently heard a story retold about the fallibility of divine revelation:
Simonds Ryder was converted to the Church in 1831. Later he received a letter signed by the Prophet Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon, informing him that it was the Lord’s will, made manifest by the Spirit, that he preach the gospel. Both in the letter he received and in the official commission to preach, his name was spelled Rider instead of Ryder. Simonds Ryder “thought if the ‘Spirit’ through which he had been called to preach could err in the matter of spelling his name, it might have erred in calling him to the ministry as well; or, in other words, he was led to doubt if he were called at all by the Spirit of God, because of the error in spelling his name!” (History of the Church, 1:261). Simonds Ryder later apostatized from the Church.
For many believers there is tension between God’s perfection and the apparent mistakes in some of his earthly messages. Ironically, only someone who achieved complete confidence in a prophet could be surprised by as small an error as a spelling mistake. After a short digression, I’ll explain my way of reconciling these two doctrines.
Speed limits in the United States are decided by individual states. The maximum allowed speeds differ by 20 mph. Outside of the U.S. there is even more variety, including areas without speed limits. Now ask yourself the question, which speed limit is correct? You might consider factors such as safety and fuel efficiency. But even if you became an expert, you would have a difficult time proving that any individual state has a “wrong” speed limit. Each state has the legal authority to create its own speed limit, so whatever limits they choose are the only correct limits in their respective jurisdictions.
The Mormon church uses the concept of stewardship similar to jurisdictions. For example, a bishop has stewardship over a ward. That means it is the bishop’s responsibility to make decisions for the ward. Those decisions are correct, in the sense that it is the ward’s duty to follow the bishop. It doesn’t matter whether an objective observer would agree with the bishop’s decisions. It also doesn’t matter whether an adjoining ward is run by completely different rules. The only relevant point is that the bishop was entrusted with responsibility over the ward. When members of the Church seek for inspiration about following their bishop’s idiosyncratic rules, they should expect that the answer from God will be in favor of obedience. Only the bishop’s own Priesthood leaders are empowered to correct him.
The reliability of the prophet is a true doctrine–trivially true–by definition. The prophet has the authority to lead the Church however he sees fit. The prophet will still make human errors. Even if a prophet’s decision were a possible mistake, no one on earth has the authority to appeal it or overturn it. So members of the Church are obliged to follow the prophet’s counsel always. God does not want to cultivate disobedience, so the answers He gives to prayers will always confirm the prophet’s words. Mature members of the Church stay on the side of both God and His prophet, even when they feel like they are indulging a prophet’s supposed weaknesses.