The Lord told the children of Israel, “The Lord thy God will raise up unto thee a prophet from the midst of thee, of thy brethren, like unto me; unto him ye shall hearken” (Deut. 18:15)
Each year members of the Church of Jesus Christ have an opportunity to sustain the President of the church, along with his two counselors and the members of the Quorum of the Twelve as prophets, seers, and revelators. To us, we believe that these men are the spokesmen for God. That is to say, we believe that God gives to them His word and they, in turn, tell us what God has revealed to them as He did anciently with Israel when He declared, “[I] will put my words in his mouth; and he shall speak unto them all that I shall command him” (Deut. 18:18).
In the Church, our children are taught to sing, “Follow the Prophet,” and adults are taught the same message in the classroom and from the pulpit. But some members of the Church have raised the question of when does the President of the Church speak for God and when is he merely expressing his own ideas or opinions? And that, in turn, leads to the next inevitable question of, Should we follow the prophet only when he is speaking for God or should we follow him even when he is expressing his own personal thoughts?
To answer these questions, we first need to understand how a prophet speaks for God.
There are many ways that the Lord communicates with man. He can speak to him personally, as one man speaks to another, He can reveal His will through visions or dreams or He can have an angel deliver the message. But the most common way God communicates with man is through inspiration.
Webster’s Dictionary defines Divine inspiration as “Divine influence or guidance exerted directly on the mind of man.” This is also how we define the influence of the Holy Ghost. The Holy Ghost does not directly appear to us and command us to do something. Instead, His influence comes to us as a thought, a feeling, a hunch, an intuition or an inward prompting. All those who have lived worthy of the gift of the Holy Ghost have experienced this kind of revelation as we’ve prayed for help or sought for answers in our life.
Sometimes God’s word comes to us clearly and immediately. Even though it might only be a feeling, it nevertheless comes to us in a way that we know for certain what God’s will is. Other times the answer is not so easily recognized and we must go forth in faith that God will guide our footsteps, trusting Him to lead us to do the right thing.
This is no different than the way God communicates with His prophets. As the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve meet together to discuss the issues that affect the church, they do so in an attitude of prayer, seeking and expecting the Lord’s guiding influence upon their deliberations. When they, as a combined body, come to a unanimous decision on a course of action, it is certain that the Lord has heard their prayers and has given them His word on the matter. However, in most instances that word was not delivered by an angel or by the personal appearance of the Lord Himself, or even as a voice from heaven but through the inspiration of the Holy Ghost. Sometimes these men know with certainty that their decisions came from God while other times they must go forth in faith, trusting that God is indeed silently guiding their footsteps.
This is the manner in which all leaders of the Church receive revelation, whether those leaders are stake presidents, bishops or ward presidencies. In fact, this is the same way parents receive revelation for their families and how individuals receive personal revelation.
If that is so, then what difference is there between the revelations prophets receive and that of other members of the Church?
In one sense, there is no difference. The manner in which all revelation is given is the same for everyone. What is different is the kind of information that is revealed. Each leader in the church is entitled to receive the revelation needed to fulfill their calling. For example, parents are entitled to revelation concerning their families and bishops are entitled to revelation concerning their wards, just as Stake Presidents are entitled to revelation for their stake. Since the fifteen prophets of the Church are responsible for directing the affairs of the church as a whole throughout the world, the inspiration they are entitled to receive is that which is necessary for them to fulfill their calling. Because their responsibilities differ in significant ways from all other callings in the Church, the inspiration they receive is likewise different from what other people are entitled to receive.
This isn’t so hard to understand because this is the same way all businesses operate. The worker on the factory floor is not given information by the president of the company about how to run the sales department, and neither does he give the salesmen information about how the production department is to be managed. In the same way, through inspiration God gives bishops the guidance and instruction they need to manage the affairs of their ward, while giving mission presidents the guidance and instruction they need to conduct missionary work in their assigned area. Even though they are both being guided in the same manner by the same Spirit, bishops need different information from God than mission presidents do. Since prophets have a unique responsibility within the Church, it is only natural that they would be given guidance and instruction from Jesus Christ, the head of the Church that no one else is entitled to receive.
But there is another aspect of revelation that cannot be ignored and that is spiritual worthiness. The more we keep the commandments God has given us and honor the covenants we’ve made with Him, the more we are entitled to divine revelation. One difference between the vast majority of members of the church and the prophets is one of worthiness. Not only have prophets distinguished themselves by faithfully living the commandments of God before they were called to that position, but once called they strive even harder to increase their worthiness. In the case of the President of the Church, he usually receives that calling after having served the Lord faithfully and worthily for thirty years or more as a General Authority. And it is because of their exceeding worthiness that they often receive greater revelation than the average member of the Church has prepared themselves to receive.
However, for some, that still doesn’t answer the question of when does a prophet speak for the Lord and when is he expressing his own personal opinion. The real answer is that it doesn’t matter because as long as a person is performing the duties of a prophet, then his words are always the words of God.
The reason why people sometimes are confused about this matter is because some mistakenly think that God tells the prophet every single word they should say. Therefore, if a prophet isn’t uttering words that have been put in his mouth by God, then he is not acting as God’s spokesman. However, the Lord Himself has said, “behold, it is not meet that I should command in all things; for he that is compelled in all things, the same is a slothful and not a wise servant; wherefore he receiveth no reward. Verily I say, men should be anxiously engaged in a good cause, and do many things of their own free will, and bring to pass much righteousness” (D&C 58:26).
Whether a person serves as a prophet or as a Sunday School teacher, the Lord requires His servants to do many things of their own free will without being told every single thing to do. Most of the time God merely provides us with the general guidelines and then let’s us decide how to correctly apply those principles in our life. When Joseph Smith was once asked how he was able to manage the church he replied, “I teach them correct principles and they govern themselves.”
This principle is not so hard to understand because this is how most parents teach their children. A child who has to be told everything to do before they will do it is not a source of pride to their parents. As a divine Parent, God often gives us the general principle of how He wants us to behave and then expects us to use our own intellect to follow those principles. This is how we as members of the Church perform most of our callings. For example, if we have to teach a class, we may no doubt pray for inspiration, but as we prepare and deliver our lesson, we do so using our own words to express our ideas, drawing upon our own experiences and knowledge to illustrate and explain our message, rather than expecting the Lord to simply put His words in our mouth.
In the same way, the Lord doesn’t always tell the prophets every word they should speak, even in General Conference. Because He has already instructed them on the principles of the gospel, one prophet may speak on the subject of repentance, another may speak on the subject of tithing, while another may speak on avoiding contention. Even though each of the speakers may be expressing their own ideas on these subjects, they are nonetheless telling us what the Lord wants us to know concerning how to properly live the gospel.
To say that we don’t have to follow their advice because they are merely expressing their own views misses the point of their message. Their responsibility is to perfect the saints and the fact that they are telling us how to do that in their own words doesn’t diminish the value of what they are saying, nor does it exempt us from following their counsel. That is why it doesn’t matter whether it is the Lord Himself speaking to us or the servants of the Lord who are doing the talking. As far as the Lord is concerned, they are both one and the same (see D&C 1:38). That is what the Lord meant when he said, “The Lord thy God will raise up unto thee a prophet from the midst of thee, of thy brethren, like unto me; unto him ye shall hearken” (Deut. 18:15, emphasis added).
Does that mean when a prophet writes a book for publication or makes a personal comment to a friend expressing his own opinion about something that it reflects the word of the Lord? Not necessarily. It is the word of the Lord when he says something while performing the duties of his calling. But even when he is not acting in the official capacity of directing the affairs of the church his remarks may still be the word of the Lord.
Let’s say that the President of the church is overheard at a ward social making the comment that he prefers eating broccoli rather than squash. Should we as members of the Church take that statement as reflecting the word of the Lord? Since the prophet is not speaking as an official representative of the Lord’s church, then he is merely expressing his own opinion about his preference for food rather than giving us divine instruction. But, if a member of the Quorum of the Twelve is presiding at a stake conference in, let’s say, Johannesburg, South Africa and counsels the members there to eat broccoli instead of squash, then that is the word of the Lord to those people. The difference between these two situations is that one is acting in the official capacity of a prophet while the other isn’t.
This same situation applies to statements of doctrine. Each prophet has their own ideas about certain aspects of the gospel, but when they stand before a congregation of saints to give them counsel and direction, they do not use their calling as an opportunity to express their own private feelings. And the reason why is because they are under commandment to act as a representative of the Lord. Therefore, what they say while performing their duty as a prophet must fulfill the obligation of their calling. On the other hand, when they are at a Church picnic or talking with someone at the grocery store, they are not involved in the business of directing the affairs of the Church. In cases like that, they are perfectly free to express whatever personal opinion they have about any subject without Church members having to accept their words as coming from the Lord.
However, as members of the Church, we should not be so quick to dismiss the personal opinions of prophets either. While they may not officially reflect the words of Christ, they nonetheless reflect the wisdom and experience that has come to them from years of being inspired by the Lord. Even though we may not regard their private thoughts to be scripture, we should still treat their ideas with great appreciation and serious contemplation. This is no different than what we do with the teachings of other great men. Should we not afford the prophets the same respect?
Yet there are those who will still contend that we should not follow what the prophets say if they are merely expressing their own personal opinion. But those who make this claim are on very shaky ground because the scriptures themselves contradict their argument. The apostle Paul wrote an official letter to the saints living in Corinth where he expresses his own personal feelings about marriage and then explicitly states that this is not the word of the Lord (1 Cor. 7:6,12,25,26). Even so, this opinion of Paul is still considered to be scripture! If we revere the personal feelings of an ancient apostle as being the same as God’s word, then there can be no justification for disregarding the personal feelings of modern-day living prophets.
But there is another way to understand this principle.
All corporations consist of a board of directors who then appoint someone to be the president of the company. The head of the board is known as the Chairman or the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) who tells the president what the board of directors expects of him. Usually, once a year the board of directors reviews the performance of the president and decides whether he should be allowed to continue in that position for another year. Under the president of the company there are vice presidents, and under them are a number of other lesser management positions over such departments as sales, marketing, accounting, production, etc. These positions are filled by or with the approval of the president of the company.
Since the Church is organized in a manner similar to most corporations, imagine that the president of a large manufacturing company sends out a memo stating that anyone who is on the factory floor must wear safety goggles. What would happen if a factory worker said, after reading the memo, “I don’t have to wear any safety goggles because this is just the president’s own personal opinion and therefore I’m not under any obligation to do what he tells me.” Does anyone really think that the president of the company would agree with such a statement? In all likelihood, what would happen is that that employee would be told they must follow the instructions of the president or their employment with the company will be terminated. We all understand this principle and the same is true in the Church.
Jesus Christ is the Chairman of the Board and the CEO of His Church. As such, He is the one who selects and appoints someone to be the president of His Church. That person is expected to follow the general guidelines and policies that the Chairman has set forth, using all the talents and expertise they possess. If the president doesn’t manage the Church to the satisfaction of the CEO, Jesus Christ will remove him and appoint someone else to that position. However, once appointed, the president, in conjunction with the Quorum of the Twelve, has the responsibility to insure that all departments in the church are staffed with qualified managers and that the Church, as a whole, is fulfilling the mission which Jesus Christ has set forth.
If a few individual members don’t like what the prophets of the Church have said or object to certain policy pronouncements they’ve made, it is just as foolish to disregard the words of the prophets as it would be for any employee to disregard the directives of their company’s president.
We have to remember that presidents preside. To preside means “to have the authority to control” (Webster’s dictionary). A bishop presides over his ward, meaning that he controls or has the final say over what goes on in his ward. If he asks someone to speak in Sacrament meeting, that doesn’t mean he tells them every word they are to say. Instead, as the presiding authority, it is his duty to make sure that what the speakers teach from the pulpit is in accordance with gospel truth. As such, the person speaking presents their own understanding of the gospel, and, as long as what they say meets with the approval of the bishop, no correction on his part is needed. On the other hand, if someone teaches false doctrine, then, as the presiding authority, the bishop has a duty and an obligation to correct the error.
Jesus Christ presides at the head of His church. When the prophets speak, whether in General Conference or at any other official Church service, Christ watches over His representatives and either approves or disapproves of what they say. If something is said that is not correct, it becomes His duty, as the presiding authority, to correct the error Himself. It is not the responsibility of the individual members to take that duty upon themselves, nor will Christ correct the error by calling upon individual members at the ward level to do that work for Him.
On the other hand, if Christ does not correct what has been said, then it is understood that He approves of and agrees with the words of the speaker. In which case, they are no different than the words that Christ Himself would speak if He were personally present.
This principle is illustrated in the Old Testament. After the death of Joshua, the Lord established a form of government with the nation of Israel based on a system of judges. When Samuel was old, he made his two sons judges over Israel. Unfortunately, they did not walk in the ways of the Lord, but took bribes and perverted justice. The elders of Israel came to Samuel complaining about this, which was very understandable. However, their solution to the problem was that they wanted to have a king over them as the other nations had. What they did not understand was that they already had a king, who was the Lord their God. The judges and prophets were merely the King’s representatives who conveyed the Lord’s message to the people.
Samuel was distressed over this request by the elders and so he went to the Lord with his concerns. Apparently he felt some sense of guilt for the attitude of the Israelites and must have expressed his failure as a prophet to the Lord. However, “the LORD said unto Samuel, Hearken unto the voice of the people in all that they say unto thee: for they have not rejected thee, but they have rejected me, that I should not reign over them” (1 Samuel 8:7).
God chooses His prophets from among our brethren. Although they are mere mortals, with weaknesses and faults as we all have, yet that doesn’t change the fact that they have been called to serve as God’s spokesmen. When they are acting in the official capacity as a prophet and performing the duties of their calling and we fail to hearken unto their words or dismiss their counsel because we feel they are merely expressing their own opinion, we are not rejecting them but are rejecting Him whom they represent. We cannot truly and honestly say we accept Christ as our Lord and Savior while at the same time rejecting the words of those who Christ sends.