Monday, December 19, 2011

A prophet only when acting as such, part 3: Official versus unofficial actions

[Note: The following is excerpted from the book Evidences and Reconciliations by John A. Widtsoe (arr. G. Homer Durham, Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1960, 236-239). Elder Widtsoe was a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles from 1921 until his death in 1952. He was a distinguished university president and a world renowned scientist and scholar.]

When does a prophet speak as a prophet?

This is an old question. It was asked of the Prophet Joseph Smith and answered by him. He writes in his journal, "This morning ... I visited with a brother and sister from Michigan, who thought that 'a prophet is always a prophet'; but I told them that a prophet is a prophet only when he was acting as such" (Joseph Smith, History of the Church, 5:265).

That statement makes a clear distinction between official and unofficial actions and utterances of officers of the Church. In this recorded statement the Prophet Joseph Smith recognizes his special right and duty, as the President and Prophet of the Church, under the inspiration of the Lord, to speak authoritatively and officially for the enlightenment and guidance of the Church. But he claims also the right, as other men, to labor and rest, to work and play, to visit and discuss, to present his opinions and hear the opinion of others, to counsel and bless as a member of the Church.

Whenever moved upon by the Spirit of the Lord, the man called to the Prophet's office assumes the prophetic mantle and speaks as a mouthpiece of the Lord. He may then interpret the word of God, apply it to the conditions of the day, governmental, social, or economic, warn against impending evil, point out the better way, bring to light new truth, or bless the righteous in their endeavors. Such inspired deliverances are binding upon all who believe that the latter-day work came and is directed by revelation. There is no appeal from them; no need for debate concerning their validity. They must either be accepted or be subjected to the dangers of private interpretation. This has been made plain in modern revelation: "Wherefore, meaning the church, thou shalt give heed unto all his (Joseph's) words and commandments which he shall give unto you as he receiveth them, walking in all holiness before me;

"For his word ye shall receive, as if from mine own mouth, in all patience and faith" (D. & C. 21:4, 5). In this commandment there is no limitation upon the prophet, as to subject, time, or place.

Such official prophetic utterances to the Church are usually made in the great general conferences of the Church, or in signed statements circulated among the people. The phrase "Thus sayeth the Lord" may at times be used; but is not necessary. When the prophet speaks to the people in an official gathering or over his signature, he speaks as the Lord directs him. If a new doctrine or practice be involved in the revelation, it is presented to the people for acceptance, in recognition of the free agency of the Church itself, but once accepted, it is thereafter binding upon every member.

Though the prophet may step out of his official role in dealing with the daily affairs of life, he can never divest himself of the spirit and influence which belong to the sacred office which the Lord has placed upon him. The faith and readiness to do the work of the Lord which fitted him for his high office, shape his life in harmony with the eternal principles and purposes of the gospel. Though often humble by the world's measure, in gifts and ability, he lives under inspired guidance, which makes him great among men, and therefore, his unofficial expressions carry greater weight than the opinions of other men of equal or greater gifts and experience but without the power of the prophetic office. It would be wisdom on all occasions and with respect to all subjects in any field of human activity, to hearken to the prophet's voice. There is safety and ultimate happiness in following the counsel that may be received from the prophet.

Men are called to the prophetic office because of their humility and their willingness to be in the hands of the Lord as clay in the hands of the potter. Yet a man called to the prophetic office is almost without exception of high native endowment, often with large experience in life, and possessed of wisdom and sound judgment. That is, the prophet, though but a man, is an able man, rising in ability above the multitude. An examination of sacred history from Adam to the present will show that able men, in the words of Jethro, men "such as fear God, men of truth, hating covetousness" (Exodus 18:21), have been called to the prophetic office. The unofficial views and expressions of such a man with respect to any vital subject, should command respectful attention. Wise men seek the counsel of those wiser or abler than themselves.

Every member of the Church, and all men for that matter, would do well to give heed, and indeed should do so, to any public utterance or to the unofficial counsel of the man who has been called to the office of prophet. One cannot limit him by saying that on some subjects pertaining to human welfare he may not speak. The spiritual and the temporal have ever been blended in the Church of Christ. Obedience to the counsels of the prophet brings individual and collective power and joy. Of all men, the prophet of the Lord should, at all times, have most influence with the Latter-day Saints. No other cause can be greater than that of the Church of Christ.

How may the rank and file of the Church recognize the prophetic voice, whether official or unofficial, when it speaks? The answer is simple enough. A person who is in harmony in his life, in thought and practice, with the gospel and its requirements, who loves truth so well that he is willing to surrender to it, will recognize a message from the Lord. My sheep know my voice, said the Savior in the Meridian of Time. In this day, the Lord has given the key for our guidance.

Verily I say unto you, he that is ordained of me and sent forth to preach the word of truth by the Comforter, in the Spirit of truth, doth he preach it by the Spirit of truth or some other way?

And if it be by some other way it is not of God.

And again, he that receiveth the word of truth, doth he receive it by the Spirit of truth or some other way?

If it be some other way it is not of God.

Therefore, why is it that you cannot understand and know, that he that receiveth the word by the Spirit of truth receiveth it as it is preached by the Spirit of truth?

Wherefore, he that preacheth and he that receiveth, understand one another, and both are edified and rejoice together. And that which doth not edify is not of God, and is darkness. (D. & C. 50:17-23)

Thus the burden of proof is upon the hearer, not alone upon the speaker. Whoever quibbles about the validity of a message of the prophet would do well to engage in a serious self-examination. Is the trouble with him? Perhaps he is not "in tune" with truth. Perhaps he does not live the law of the gospel in such manner as to respond to the message of truth. President Joseph F. Smith declared that those who honor their own Priesthood first, will honor it in those who preside over them (President Joseph F. Smith, Gospel Doctrine, p. 207). That doctrine may be applied when the prophet speaks to the Church or to the world.

Acceptance of the teachings of the prophet does not violate the right of free agency; but rather enhances it. The Lord expects every man to solve, as far as possible, his own problems with the knowledge and power given him. Yet, divine help is often offered to mortal man who labors under the severe limitations of earth life. Every revelation from the Lord is for the increasing welfare of mankind. Always, however, men retain the right to accept or reject the offered gift. Membership in the Church itself is voluntary; is never forced upon a person. Nevertheless, such membership includes the acceptance of a series of principles and ordinances, among them the presence of a prophet to stand as the Lord's spokesman to the Church. When therefore, a Latter-day Saint yields adherence to the Prophet's advice, he merely uses the free agency which led him to membership in the Church. He does not thereby renounce his free agency; instead he reinforces his claim upon it. He follows the prophet because he chooses to do so in view of the doctrine and constitution of the Church in which he voluntarily claims membership. When he fails to give his consent to the prophet's teachings, he limits, reduces, and removes the free agency which brought him into the Church.

In the daily lives of Latter-day Saints it is best to listen carefully to the counsel of the prophet concerning any subject upon which he speaks, whether technically official or unofficial. Note the words of Brigham Young:

The Lord Almighty leads this Church, and He will not suffer you to be led astray if you are found doing your duty. You may go home and sleep as sweetly as a babe in its mother's arms, as to any danger of your leaders leading you astray, for if they should try to do so the Lord would quickly sweep them from the earth. Your leaders are trying to live their religion as far as they are capable of doing so. (Discourses of Brigham Young, p. 212)

That is as true today as in the days of President Young.

[Note: The above is excerpted from the book Evidences and Reconciliations by John A. Widtsoe (arr. G. Homer Durham, Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1960, 236-239). Elder Widtsoe was a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles from 1921 until his death in 1952. He was a distinguished university president and a world renowned scientist and scholar.]

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