The following is a slightly edited copy of remarks I gave in the sacrament meeting service of my LDS congregation today. Long time readers will recognize some parts that were adapted from previous essays.
Regarding personal testimony in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, President Uchtdorf, of the First Presidency of the church, has taught that even though each of our individual testimonies are unique and may be a little different from each other, there are five truths that a testimony of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ will always include.
The five truths are:
- That God lives and He is our loving Heavenly Father
- That Jesus Christ is the Son of God and the Savior of the World
- That Joseph Smith is the prophet of God through whom the Gospel of Jesus was Restored
- And that the Book of Mormon of Mormon is the Word of God.
- That current President of the Church, his Counselors, and the members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles are Prophets, Seers, and Revelators in our day.
It is this fifth truth that is essential to a testimony of the Restore Gospel that I wish to address.
Sustaining the prophets and apostles has become increasingly difficult and controversial. It used to be that what was expected of good members of society aligned reasonably well with the teachings of the church.
But that is no longer true.
In the General Conference of April 1975, Ezra Taft Benson, who was the President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles at that time, said that “practically all objections that have ever been made against the Church by nonmembers and dissident members alike […] hinge on whether Joseph Smith and his successors were and are prophets of God receiving divine revelation.”
In my experience, President Benson was right about this. Objections to the church almost always to boil down to whether or not the modern prophets are really receiving direction from God or not.
I know quite a few members of the church who have lost their confidence in the leadership of our prophets and apostles. It may be that some of you here today have lost, or are losing, confidence because of teachings or policies that seem wrong or don’t make sense to you. And if you are not, you probably know someone who has.
For many years now, there has been a concerted effort by motivated individuals to undermine the faith of members of the church in living prophets. They use the internet to amplify their influence in ways not previously possible. The information they present is more subtle today than in the past.
They don’t necessarily need to get you to stop believing in Joseph Smith and the Restoration, the Book of Mormon, Jesus Christ, or God the Father. They have found that it is often easier and more effective to cultivate disagreement with the current prophets and apostles, until members start to lose confidence in them. So they emphasize the humanity and fallibility the men who lead the church.
In the October 2004 General Conference, President Henry B Eyring explained:
“It has always been hard to recognize in fallible human beings the authorized servants of God. […] Satan will always work on the Saints of God to undermine their faith in priesthood keys. One way he does it is to point out the humanity of those who hold them.
If we look for human frailty in humans, we will always find it. When we focus on finding the frailties of those who hold priesthood keys, we run risks for ourselves. When we speak or write to others of such frailties, we put them at risk.”
The reason why it is so easy to fall into this trap is that it is absolutely true that our prophets are fallible. Prophets throughout the history of the church from Joseph Smith to the present have reiterated that fact.
Back in the October 1978 General Conference, Apostle Marvin J. Ashton explained that “There is a tendency on the part of some to ignore, criticize, or rebel because they cannot accept the human delivery system.”
And so I would like to take a few minutes to discuss why it is that we can sustain, trust, and follow the living apostles and prophets, the human delivery system through which the Lord reveals his will, even though they are fallible individuals– and especially when their directions run contrary to our expectations or views.
The Lord has established a specific system by which decisions are made in the church. That system was given by revelation and is defined in verses 22 through 29 of Section 107 of the Book of Doctrine and Covenants:
“22. Of the Melchizedek Priesthood, three Presiding High Priests, [..], form a quorum of the Presidency of the Church.
23. The twelve traveling councilors are called to be the Twelve Apostles, […]
24. And they form a quorum, equal in authority and power to the three presidents previously mentioned.
25. The Seventy are also called to preach the gospel […]
26. And they form a quorum, equal in authority to that of the Twelve special witnesses or Apostles just named.
27. And every decision made by either of these quorums must be by the unanimous voice of the same; that is, every member in each quorum must be agreed to its decisions, in order to make their decisions of the same power or validity one with the other— […]
29. Unless this is the case, their decisions are not entitled to the same blessings which the decisions of a quorum of three presidents were anciently […].”
The Lord requires that the presiding quorums of his church make decisions unanimously. Let me use an analogy to help illustrate how this system helps to counteract potential individual error.
In the church, a prophet has often been compared to a metaphorical “watchman on the tower”.
Let’s explore that image a little more closely. Imagine a watchman who stands on a tower of a citadel or fortress to watch for danger. While the eyesight of the watchman may be just as fallible as anyone else’s, the tower upon which he stands allows him to see farther than those with equally good eyes but who are not situated upon the tower. His view is better, not because his eyes are superior, but because his location on the tower allows him to see father and more; not necessarily because of something inherent or different in his person, but because of something inherent in the position in which he has been placed for the protection and benefit of all.
Now, as I have just read from the Doctrine and Covenants, the church is not led by just one watchman on the tower, but by 15 Prophets, Seers, and Revelators.
So, continuing with the analogy: one watchman has a more advantageous view than those who are not on the tower, but still may make a mistakes attributable to normal human error. However, potential errors can be mitigated and minimized by requiring that what one watchman sees be confirmed by additional watchmen who are similarly set on towers of defense.
If one watchman raises a warning cry, his warning should not be cavalierly ignored even though he might be wrong.
If seven watchmen raise the same warning, we should be loath to reject their warning simply because we cannot perceive the danger that they see.
And if all fifteen of the watchmen raise the warning in unanimity, then it would be a very serious thing indeed to declare to your fellows that you know that they are wrong and that they should be ignored or even resisted.
Just over a year ago, in the October 2014 Conference, Elder Russell M. Nelson explained how this system is a protection to the church:
“The calling of 15 men to the holy apostleship provides great protection for us as members of the Church. Why? Because decisions of these leaders must be unanimous. Can you imagine how the Spirit needs to move upon 15 men to bring about unanimity? These 15 men have varied educational and professional backgrounds, with differing opinions about many things. Trust me! These 15 men—prophets, seers, and revelators—know what the will of the Lord is when unanimity is reached! They are committed to see that the Lord’s will truly will be done. […] Counterbalances and safeguards abound so that no one can ever lead the Church astray.”
So even though individual prophets and apostles are fallible, we can sustain them and follow them because the Lord’s system requires inspiration and revelation to be confirmed by the Holy Spirit to them unanimously.
The corollary of this process established by the Lord is that statements made by individual apostles or prophets on singular occasions are not necessarily considered church doctrine. In the April 2012 conference, Elder Todd D. Christofferson emphasized this saying,
“It should be remembered that not every statement made by a Church leader, past or present, necessarily constitutes doctrine. It is commonly understood in the Church that a statement made by one leader on a single occasion often represents a personal, though well-considered, opinion, not meant to be official or binding for the whole Church.”
Elder Christofferson then goes on to repeat a story about President Brigham Young, which was originally recounted by Elder J. Reuben Clark. It goes like this:
“During the excitement incident to the coming of [Johnston’s] Army, Brother Brigham preached to the people in a morning meeting a sermon vibrant with defiance to the approaching army, and declaring an intention to oppose and drive them back. In the afternoon meeting he arose and said that Brigham Young had been talking in the morning, but the Lord was going to talk now. He then delivered an address, the tempo of which was the opposite from the morning talk.”
The thing that I find remarkable in this story is not that President Young was fallible and preached something that did not coincide with the Lord’s will. The thing that is remarkable is that the Lord corrected him before the day was done.
The important message of this story is not that leaders of the church can make mistakes, because they can, but that the Lord is perfectly capable of correcting them, regardless of their personal weakness.
Elder Neal A. Maxwell declared in the April 1982 Conference that, “Prophets need tutoring, as do we all. However, this is something the Lord seems quite able to manage without requiring a host of helpers. The Lord provides discreet but needed feedback, as He did to Peter by the shattering sound of a rooster crowing…” (April 1982 Conference)
On closer inspection, saying that the prophets cannot receive clear messages is really saying that God is not powerful enough to make his will known; it is not an expression of doubt in the prophets, but of doubt in a God who speaks.
We are not asked to have faith in the prophet or the apostles as men. We are asked to have faith that, if God has spokesmen at all, He is powerful enough to pierce the smog of human weakness and make His will known to them. If He couldn’t make His will known to even His own authorized representatives, then He wouldn’t be a very powerful God.
The Restoration of the Gospel rests on the truth that God does speak. That He does direct His church. He does speak to man. And not only to prophets and apostles, but to you and me.
Last month in October Conference, Elder M. Russell Ballard declared,
“Too many people think Church leaders and members should be perfect or nearly perfect. They forget that the Lord’s grace is sufficient to accomplish His work through mortals. Our leaders have the best intentions, but sometimes we make mistakes.
Looking for human weakness in others is rather easy. However, we make a serious mistake by noticing only the human nature of one another and then failing to see God’s hand working through those He has called.
Focusing on how the Lord inspires His chosen leaders and how He moves the Saints to do remarkable and extraordinary things despite their humanity is one way that we hold on to the gospel of Jesus Christ and stay safely aboard the Old Ship Zion.”
So how do we gain the confidence that the Lord is directing His church, despite the human delivery system?
Returning to President Eyring’s sermon from 2004, in which he said that it has always been hard to recognize in fallible human beings the authorized servants of God, he taught that:
“To keep ourselves grounded in the Lord’s Church, we can and must train our eyes to recognize the power of the Lord in the service of those He has called. We must be worthy of the companionship of the Holy Ghost. And we need to pray for the Holy Ghost to help us know that men who lead us hold this power.
The answer to your prayer is not likely to be as dramatic as it was when some saw Brigham Young, as he spoke, take on the appearance of the martyred Prophet Joseph. But it can be as sure. And with that spiritual assurance will come peace and power. You will know again that this is the Lord’s true and living Church, that He leads it through His ordained servants, and that He cares about us.”
A witness from the Spirit found through prayer and service will give us confidence that the Lord is guiding His church through His apostles.
We shouldn’t pretend that this is not hard doctrine. It has always been hard. Most of the time God gives us only the information we need right now, not everything we might want to know. When the direction of the prophets and apostles contradicts our own understanding and feelings it takes faith and humility to trust and follow.
Even Brigham Young struggled when he was first introduced to the doctrine of the three degrees of glory recorded in Doctrine and Covenants Section 76. It was so contrary to his traditional understanding of the afterlife that at first he could not understand it. But he did not reject it. He waited and prayed and sustained Joseph Smith.
So let us be patient with each other. We can love and cherish each other when the doctrine is hard and we struggle to sustain our prophets and apostles when their teachings contradict our expectations.
This is God’s church. He leads it and guides it. President Monson is His living prophet. The members of the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles are prophets, seers, and revelators. They possess the authority and priesthood keys to reveal God’s will for us. You can trust them and follow them in deed as well as word. And He will lead us right.