There is a growing feeling among Christians that Christ didn't establish a formal church organization, but rather the church of Christ lives within the heart of every believer. As Latter-day Saints we emphatically declare that Jesus did institute a system of order that included apostles, prophets, evangelists, and bishops. We further claim that our church system of government is based on that which is found in the New Testament. (For a closer look at this subject see The Church Which Christ Built )
It was the apostle Paul who explicitly stated that a church organization was needed for three reasons - the perfecting of the saints, the work of the ministry, and the edifying of the body of Christ. It is for these same three reasons that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has been organized with the offices and officers as they are presently constituted. This includes a President of the church, who functions with two councilors, a quorum of twelve apostles, several quorums of Seventies, area and stake presidents, and bishops.
Each year we have the opportunity to "sustain" the men who hold these positions. Therefore, it is important that we, as members, understand why and for what reason we sustain these brethren.
In the Doctrine and Covenants we learn that "three Presiding High Priests, chosen by the body, appointed and ordained to that office, and uphelded by the confidence, faith, and prayer of the church, form a quorum of the Presidency of the Church." (107:22) Furthermore, we believe that the president of the church is God's spokesman for all the world. As Brigham Young explained, "In the setting forth of items of doctrine which pertain to the progress and further building up of the Kingdom of God upon the earth, and the revealing of his mind and will, he [God] has but one mouth through which to make known his will to his people. When the Lord wishes to give a revelation to his people, when he wishes to reveal new items of doctrine to them, or administer chastisement, he will do it through the man whom he has appointed to that office and calling. The rest of the offices and callings of the Church are helps and governments for the edifying of the body of Christ and the perfection of the Saints... [and] helps to strengthen the hands of the Presidency of the whole Church." (Journal of Discourses, Vol. 11, page 135).
The President of the church has the full responsibility and the tremendous charge to see to it that the saints are perfected, that the work of the ministry is done, and that the unity of the faith is maintained. Thus, he is the Lord's official spokesman and administrator, not only to believing saints throughout the world, but is also responsible for the spiritual welfare of everyone everywhere. That is an overwhelming assignment for one man to shoulder. And yet, that is what the Lord expects of the man who wears the mantle of "The Prophet."
How can one man possibly serve so many people? Clearly, the answer is he can't unless he delegates his responsibilities to others. Thus, as Brigham Young pointed out, "the rest of the offices and callings of the Church are helps... to strengthen the hands of the Presidency of the whole Church." Whatever calling we serve in, we are assisting the President of the church to fulfill his duties. As such, we are acting in the capacity of assistants to the President.
For example: how does the President of the church help perfect all the saints? One way is through home teaching. As home teachers, we often are told that when we visit our families, we do so as representatives of the Bishop of the ward. But the Bishop serves as a representative of the Stake President, who serves as a representative of the General Authorities, who work under the direction of the First Presidency. Thus, ultimately, each home teacher is assisting the President of the Church in discharging his responsibility to help perfect the saints.
Continuing the analysis, when the President of the church looks at the statistical reports and sees that a particular ward or stake has very low home teaching results, or has a very high inactive rate, it is his duty to ensure that such a condition is quickly remedied, because the responsibility for the welfare of those people rests on his shoulders. Thus, when we fail to perform our callings, we not only let down the people we serve, but we increase the burden which the President of the church must carry.
But is this true of all callings? What about the ward organist or Primary chorister or assistant librarian? Surely, these duties can't possibly have any impact on the President's responsibilities. The apostle Paul stated that "From whom the whole body fitly joined together and compacted by that which every joint supplieth, according to the effectual working in the measure of every part, maketh increase of the body unto the edifying of itself in love" (Ephesians 4:16)
To paraphrase his remarks, every calling and every act is "fitly joined together" and supplies needed service to make the church work effectively. Like the body, each part is necessary for the well being of the whole. Thus, the more we strive to serve with diligence and dedication to perform our part, the easier we make it for others to fulfill their calling. And the more people who effectively carry their load, the less difficulty the President has in accomplishing his assignment from the Lord.
In the church we often are asked to "sustain" someone to a particular calling. Once each year, we have the opportunity to "sustain" the President and the other officers of the church. With ease, we lift our right hand and signal our approval, yet very rarely do we consciously think about what our simple gesture actually means. To most people, it only signifies our acknowledgment of a fact. Someone has received a calling, and so we raise our hand as though to say, "That's okay with me. I don't have any objection if they hold that position."
But that's not what the word "sustain" means. According to Webster's dictionary, the word means: "To keep from falling; to bear; to uphold; to support; to maintain; to keep alive; to nourish; to aid, to comfort, or relieve." Thus, when we raise our right hand to "sustain" someone in a calling, we are pledging our support, aid, and comfort to uphold them and help bear that person's responsibilities, thereby aiding them from falling or failing.
This is especially critical when we "sustain" the President of the Church. No mortal carries a heavier weight of responsibility than he does. So often we pray for the Lord to bless the Prophet with health and vitality, with wisdom and understanding, and with physical and spiritual protection. Yet the greatest blessing we can give him is to fully do all in our power to "sustain" him in his calling. His burden will be lighter and his accountability easier to bear if we each honored our pledge to help him "keep from falling; to uphold; to support; to maintain; [and] to aid" him in his calling. I'm sure if we kept that pledge of ours it would bring him much more comfort and relief than anything else we could do.
"The twelve traveling councilors are called to be the Twelve Apostles, or special witnesses of the name of Christ in all the world--thus differing from other officers in the church in the duties of their calling. And they form a quorum, equal in authority and power to the three presidents previously mentioned" (D&C 107:23,24).
Assisting the President and this two counselors, are the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. Although their specific duties are to be a special witness of Christ to the world, they can't be everywhere. Therefore, they can accomplish their duties better in an administrative way, especially as the church grows in greater numbers. They, in effect, are managing directors, making sure that the gospel is being adequately preached everywhere. They oversee committees that are responsible for missionary work, church building projects, educational needs, welfare concerns and a host of other important activities related to the spreading of the gospel. As a body of twelve men, they are equal in authority and power to the First Presidency.
Do we therefore have two equal governing bodies within the church, or do we have one, all-powerful man whose word is the final verdict on all matters? The answer is, neither. In theory, the President makes the ultimate decisions on everything, but in practice, these fifteen men discuss things and work together as one body. However, this is a very unique committee. Brigham Young explained, "In trying all matters of doctrine, to make a decision valid, it is necessary to obtain a unanimous voice, faith and decision. In the capacity of a Quorum, the three First Presidents must be one in their voice; the Twelve Apostles must be unanimous in their voice, to obtain a righteous decision upon any matter that may come before them... Whenever you see these Quorums unanimous in their declaration, you may set it down as true" (JD, Vol. 9, pages 91-92).
All businesses operate according to the autocratic principle. That is, one man makes the final decision and all other officers in the company are required to go along with the decree, whether they agree with it or not. In some respects, the church also operates like a business. However, although the President of the church is the spokesman for the Lord and he alone presides over the entire church, yet he doesn't serve as an autocrat. Although his word is the final stamp of approval on all that the church does, yet he does not decide everything by himself. He presides in conjunction with fourteen other men. Thus, for all practical purposes all decisions are made by committee.
Most major denominations, at the upper levels of their central government, operate on the democratic principle, which is, majority rules. A proposal is made, a vote is taken and whichever side gathers the most votes wins. Most of the larger Christian churches have conventions once a year, where they decide, by popular vote, what stand their denomination will take on a variety of issues, ranging from abortion, to inclusion of gays and lesbians, to women in the priesthood, to interpretations of Biblical verses, as well as how and where money is to be collected and spent. These issues can cover everything from the mundane aspects of life to the ethereal heights of spiritual discussions.
Generally speaking, these conventions are often divided into two opposing camps, usually labeled as "liberals" and "conservatives". The "liberal" side consists of those who want to modernize the church, to help it conform to the present-day philosophy of thought and thereby make it more attractive to new converts and younger members. On the other hand, the "conservative" side wants to maintain the old, traditional way of doing things, feeling that any compromise only weakens and dilutes the convictions of their beliefs.
During these conventions, passions run deep and feelings often are near the surface. Committees argue over wording on each proposal, trying to find a compromise language that will accommodate the desires of both sides, but which leaves neither one fully satisfied. Behind the scenes, there are strenuous efforts from both camps to shore up support for their ideas, in the hope of gathering enough votes to win. But once the vote is taken, no matter how large or narrow the victory, there is sure to be some group of people at the convention, who are not happy with the results. In that case, they immediately start planning how to pass their ideas at the next convention, thereby seeking to overturn the current year's election results.
This is considered by most to be a fair and perfectly acceptable way to arrive at a decision. However, that's not the way the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve do business. A proposal is set forth and they all present their own individual opinions on the matter, but before it is implemented, all fifteen men must be in unanimous agreement with the final decision. Under normal situations, this would prove to be almost an impossible way to run the affairs of any organization, yet it is done with absolute consistency among the leaders of the church. Why? Because they are under a commandment to do so (D&C 107:27).
There are some who think that if the President becomes sick or incapacitated that the church is leaderless because the Prophet is not able to make the needed decisions. That isn't true, because almost all decisions are made by these two quorums - the First Presidency and The Twelve. Although the President of the church does occupy an important and unequaled position, he does not operate alone, nor does the church depend solely on him for its direction. It's true that he is the senior apostle, but still, he is only one of fifteen apostles. His absence would be missed, but it wouldn't cripple the church's ability to function effectively.
Much has been said about Brigham Young's remark "The Lord Almighty leads this Church, and he will never 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." (JD, Vol. 9, page 289).
Many people have interpreted these comments as referring to the President of the Church. A careful reading will show that he uses such words as "leaders" and "they," thereby speaking in the plural sense, and not the singular tense. The President is not a dictator who can impose his will upon the entire church, including the Quorum of the Twelve. All fifteen apostles must be in unanimous agreement on any decision before it is presented to the whole church. Therefore, no one man can institute a program or present a doctrine all by himself.
The question then becomes, can fifteen men, unanimously come to the wrong conclusion and lead the church astray? Perhaps, in theory, but not if there's a Quorum of the Seventies, who "form a quorum equal in authority to that of the Twelve special witnesses or Apostles" (D&C 107:26).
After the First Presidency and the Twelve have unanimously agreed on something, then it is presented to the Quorum of the Seventies, where they too must be unanimous in their decision. Although, it may be argued, that they will merely rubber stamp anything suggested by the First Presidency, such a assumption would require us to believe that there is not even one, faithful General Authority with years of dedicated service to the Master who would seek to oppose what they believed was an unrighteous program, doctrine or revelation. And if we were to believe that, then we would have to seriously question the validity of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints itself.
The First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles hold the keys to salvation. Without their presence there could be no exaltation, for they alone have the ultimate responsibility of perfecting the saints, overseeing the work of the ministry, and edifying the body of Christ. Without their leadership and direction we would be "tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the sleight of men and cunning craftiness, whereby they lie in wait to deceive" (Ephesians 4:14). That is why Christ built His church the way He did. And when we fully "sustain" these men whom God has called, then our faith in Christ is based on a sure foundation.
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