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.]


Anonymous J. Stapley said...

This volume was, as I remember, a compilation of articles from the Improvement Era.

Do you think that a church president has ever taught something that was false or mistaken when acting in his institutional capacity?

12/20/2011 07:48:00 AM  
Blogger R. Gary said...

"Do you think that a church president has ever taught something that was false or mistaken when acting in his institutional capacity?"

J. Stapley: How would you answer that question, my friend?

12/20/2011 08:50:00 AM  
Blogger R. Gary said...

J. Stapley: Possibly a more important question would be, Who is qualified to make that assessment?

12/20/2011 08:55:00 AM  
Anonymous J. Stapley said...

Sure, I do. But I know how I deal with such things. I don't know how or if you do, hence my question. So, what do you think?

12/20/2011 09:00:00 AM  
Blogger R. Gary said...

J. Stapley: I seem to remember Harold B. Lee giving an example once of the prophet speaking in general conference and later retracting what he had said. So tell me now, J., who is authorized to say a prophet's teachings are false or mistaken? Do you claim that authority?

12/20/2011 11:23:00 AM  
Anonymous Michael said...

The Holy Spirit has that authority and is qualified to do so. We, in turn, are blessed with receiving the Gift of the Holy Spirit which allows us to tap into His vast knowledge base and determine the truthfulness of the Church President's words independent of the arm of flesh.

12/20/2011 12:13:00 PM  
Blogger R. Gary said...

Michael: And after you tap into that vast knowledge base, what do you do with what you've learned about the prophet's words?

12/20/2011 12:18:00 PM  
Anonymous Michael said...

Depends upon what one learns about the Prophet's words. If the Holy Spirit does not provide confirmation or insight one can either chalk it up to personal opinion or put it on the shelf to re-visit later on. If the Holy Spirit does provide confirmation or insight one should determine how it fits into one's discipleship.

12/20/2011 12:25:00 PM  
Blogger R. Gary said...

Michael: Are you okay with Elder Widtsoe's warning to any person who "quibbles about the validity of a message of the prophet"?

Doesn't D&C 21:5 suggest that we receive the prophet's words as if from God's own mouth? And doesn't D&C 84:44 suggest that we should live by EVERY word that proceedeth forth from the mouth of God?

12/20/2011 01:00:00 PM  
Anonymous Michael said...

R. Gary,

I could also quote a thousand scriptures and quotes from Latter-day Prophets that state emphatically NEVER to rely upon the arm of flesh and to test every utterance out of the mouth of the Apostles and Prophets.

You are cherry-picking quotes and scriptures.

12/20/2011 02:40:00 PM  
Blogger R. Gary said...

Michael: I believe my comments merely echo what Elder Widtsoe taught (as quoted above). And I find your reaction very interesting. The scriptures speak of the arm of flesh in contrast with the arm of the Lord. Reliance on God's prophets is the opposite of relying on the arm of flesh.

12/20/2011 03:07:00 PM  
Anonymous Michael said...

I interpret the arm of flesh as anything other than the Lord directly or His Holy Spirit.

But I am a convert to the Restored Gospel and have a different background on obtaining spiritual knowledge compared to most of my fellow Saints.

12/20/2011 03:19:00 PM  
Anonymous Michael said...

I would love to continue the conversation but it is quitting time here on the East Coast. Talk to you later.

12/20/2011 03:44:00 PM  
Anonymous J. Stapley said...

So tell me now, J., who is authorized to say a prophet's teachings are false or mistaken? Do you claim that authority?

"Authorized" is an interesting word in this context. It implies one speaking for the Church. And as such I think the only one authorized to speak for the Church on this matter would be the First Presidency, or its appendages. And no, I don't claim that authority at all. That said, it is not too difficult to list points were the Church President has stated things that were mistaken and not necessarily explicitly rescinded by authoritative statement. Consequently I reserve the right to not believe in them. Do you claim to adhere to every statement of the Church President, which hasn't been explicitly rescinded?

12/20/2011 07:45:00 PM  
Blogger R. Gary said...

J. Stapley: One of the fifteen men sustained today as prophets has reminded that worlds without end none of us can "save ourselves." Only Jesus Christ can do that. Salvation is in Him only. In all sincerity, J., it seems to me that it doesn't really matter whether the prophets are mistaken. By heeding the words of living prophets we receive Christ into our lives: "For he that receiveth my servants receiveth me."

For that reason, I try to receive the prophet's words as if from God's own mouth without judging those words and I truly desire to live by EVERY word that proceedeth forth from the mouth of God even if the prophet's words turn out to be mistaken, because I believe that doing so brings the promised blessing.

12/20/2011 09:04:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm 54 years old and it's amazing to me how many members of the church are so close to the Holy Ghost that they can determine when a Prophet is speaking correctly or not. One of these days I may be spiritually mature enough to recognize the Holy Ghost when it directs me to disbelieve the words of a Prophet. In the meantime, I'll believe in the words from a Prophet, even when they speak of NDBF, Word of Wisdom, the definition of marriage, immigration, and many other "controversial" subjects.

12/21/2011 10:52:00 AM  
Blogger R. Gary said...

Michael: We must stop judging the apostles and prophets according to our own personal and private understanding of scripture. The apostles and prophets tell the rest of us what the scriptures mean, not the other way around. They understand their responsibilities just fine. And that understanding doesn't come from you or me or any other blogger.

12/21/2011 01:55:00 PM  
Anonymous Cognito said...

On what basis do you judge the apostles and prophets to be worthy of that level of obedience?

12/21/2011 08:37:00 PM  
Blogger R. Gary said...

Cognito: I already went over that (here) to J. Stapley. But make no mistake, I don't expect you or anyone else to agree with me. At the same time, please be careful because it's irksome when fellow Mormons judge their own leaders according to petty, personal interpretations of scripture.

12/21/2011 08:59:00 PM  
Anonymous Cognito said...

Appeal to scripture or quotes delivered by (or if you prefer, through) men is circular and irrelevant when you're trying to argue for the authority of the same men. Many have claimed to be prophets, and presumably you do not accept all of them on the basis of having produced texts to support their authority. So once again, on what basis do you accept LDS prophets as servants of God worthy to be believed when the claim to be such?

12/21/2011 09:14:00 PM  
Blogger R. Gary said...

Cognito: Thank you for that clarification of your question. Answer: The strength of my convictions comes from more than 60 years as a practicing Mormon. If you haven't already done so, I recommend you visit Mormon.org and request a free copy of the Book of Mormon.

12/21/2011 09:37:00 PM  
Anonymous Cognito said...

Do you believe the strength of convictions, happiness, or peace from being a member of the church is relevant to the empirical or moral correctness of statements made by church leaders? Do you accept the legitimacy of the proclaimed faith of practicing Mormons who believe otherwise?

12/21/2011 09:47:00 PM  
Blogger R. Gary said...

Cognito: I believe the apostles and prophets of my Church are worthy of unqualified support. That cannot be proved empirically, only by personal communication with God. Yes, members of the LDS Church have different levels of dedication and faith. However, to me they're all Mormons.

That said, let me repeat that this is a private blog which may not be used to judge LDS Church leaders according to petty, personal interpretations of scripture.

12/21/2011 10:14:00 PM  
Anonymous Tom the Younger said...

I can't say that I am entirely comfortable with evolution, but I have no doubt at all that there has been death on this earth for billions of years. There is far too much evidence of it for me to believe otherwise, nor do I think that this conclusion on my part must be inconsistent with revealed religion.

Have a Merry Christmas!

12/22/2011 07:59:00 PM  
Blogger R. Gary said...

Tom the Younger: Yes, that is only part of your comment. If you want the whole thing published on the web, you could start your own blog and have at it.

Howard: Thanks for setting me straight regarding LDS scripture and prophets.

12/22/2011 07:59:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymoose said...

The excerpt you've provided is a great example of how members of the church always equate prophet and president of the church as synonyms. They are not synonyms and this irks me every time someone speaks as if they are. Some, including Elder Widstoe, even refer to the office of President of the church as the office of the Prophet. There is no such office. There is the office of Apostle, the office of President of the church, offices of other presidents within the church, but there is no office of Prophet. A prophet is anyone who has the spirit, or gift, of prophecy. The president of the church is a prophet as are all the apostles and as I’m sure are many other leaders and lay members of the church. The problem for me is that when someone speaks of a prophet it is not always clear whether that person is referring specifically to the president of the church or to anyone speaking by way of the gift of prophecy. In this excerpt, Elder Widstoe is clearly referring to the president of the church when he speaks of a prophet but the Joseph Smith quote at the beginning of the excerpt is not so clear. “I told them that a prophet is a prophet only when he was acting as such.” Was Joseph referring to the president of the church or to someone speaking by way of the gift of prophecy? I believe he was referring to the latter though he could have been referring to both. The president of the church is always the president of the church. He may not always be providing official statements when he speaks but he is always representing the church and the Lord. Everything he says may not be official church doctrine, but it is, at the very least, the opinion of the Lord’s representative on the earth. A prophet, on the other hand, only speaks prophetically when exercising the gift of prophecy. At all other times, a prophet’s words are nothing more than personal thoughts or opinions.

12/23/2011 09:11:00 AM  
Blogger R. Gary said...

Anonymoose: There is an office of prophet and there is also the testimony of Jesus which is the spirit of prophecy. All Church members should be prophets in the latter sense. But when we speak of "the" prophet or prophets, we are talking about 15 men who are sustained by the Church in conference as "prophets." All members of the Church's leading quorums understand this and all the rest of us ought to.

12/23/2011 09:07:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymoose said...

There is an office of prophet? Since when? Is there also an office of seer? An office of revelator perhaps? I'm sorry, but there is no such office.

When you say "we speak of ‘the’ prophet or prophets", I'm not sure who you're including in we but you seem to be making some assumptions for a lot of people.

12/30/2011 04:41:00 PM  
Blogger R. Gary said...

Anonymoose: The Church's current Handbook 2 contains a Chart of Callings, which individually lists 74 stake and ward callings that are each identified as an "office" in the Church. Plus area and general Church callings are not even included in this list, just callings at the stake and ward level.

Not every office in the Church is also an office in the priesthood, though some are.

The Church offices of prophet, seer, and revelator belong to those regularly sustained as such, namely the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve. They are "the" prophets and the senior member of the group is always "the Prophet."

12/30/2011 04:44:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymoose said...

Does the Handbook list offices of prophet, seer, or revelator? Of course not, because those are not offices. We sustain the apostles as prophets, seers, and revelators because they have those gifts. We do not sustain them to the office of prophet, seer, and revelator. Apparently, you are one of the people I referred to in my first comment who always equate prophet with the president of the church rather than someone with the gift of prophecy.

I sat in on a sunday school class last year when the prophet Agabus in Acts 21 was discussed. There were so many people in the class who could not understand how this man could be a prophet and receive revelation about Paul unless he was The Prophet (president of the church) or at least an apostle wtih some authority over Paul. My head still hurts from that class.

1/05/2012 08:49:00 AM  
Blogger R. Gary said...

Anonymoose: I'm sorry for the confusion. My comments apparently haven't been clear. Let me try to remedy that. We are talking about four levels of leadership in the LDS Church. They are, in ascending order by scope:

1. Ward: A few hundred Church members who all live within certain specified geographical boundaries.

2. Stake: A group of several wards geographically near each other.

3. Area: All stakes within a large geographical area. Currently, 26 areas cover the entire world.

4. General: All members of the Church worldwide.

Handbook 2 lists each office in a ward or a stake, but no offices for area or general Church leadership. The office of prophet has worldwide scope and is not listed in the Handbook.

But notice, according to the Handbook, that all individuals who receive a Church calling in a ward or stake are sustained by their fellow Church members to that "office."

And in exactly the same way, the Church's 15 highest worldwide leaders are sustained by the general membership of the Church twice each year in general conference as "prophets."

To my knowledge, LDS members don't raise their hands to "sustain" someone's possession of spiritual gifts. The apostles each hold the "office" of prophet, seer, and revelator and they also have those gifts; and "the prophet" is also the President of the Church.


Regarding Agabus, the Church's Seminary New Testament Student Study Guide says, "A Church member named Agabus had the spirit of prophecy and foretold what would happen to Paul in Jerusalem." As the story goes, Agabus bound himself with Paul's belt as a symbol of Paul's fate in Jerusalem. But Paul said he had already thought of that possibility: "I am ready not to be bound only, but also to die at Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus" (Acts 21:13).

This situation doesn't imply to me that Agabus had any authority over Paul, or even any priesthood authority at all. As Church President David O. McKay said, just what priesthood and what position in the Church Agabus held "we do not know for certain."

1/05/2012 07:11:00 PM  

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