Summary: Most Christian denominations say that Christ is the head of their church, and what they mean by this is that he is their head, based on the idea that they are following the words of Christ as found in the Bible. Although this is what most Christians mean, that is not what the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints means when they say that Jesus is the head of their church. However, when we try to explain what we mean, our message is often misinterpreted and can become confusing to them. This article provides a clear explanation of why we say Christ is the head of our church.
The apostle Paul wrote: “Now therefore ye are no more strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens with the saints, and of the household of God; And are built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, [with] Jesus Christ himself being the chief corner stone” (Ephesians 2:19,20).
Most Christians understand this scripture as meaning that the faith of those who profess a sincere belief in Jesus Christ is built upon the writings of the apostles as found in the New Testament, and upon the writings of the prophets that are found in the Old Testament. But more importantly, it is the words of Christ himself, that forms “the chief corner stone” of their faith.
For this reason, most Christians will say that Christ is the head of their church (regardless of which denomination they belong to), and what they mean by this is that he is their head, based on the idea that they are following the words of Christ as they are found in the Bible. Although this is what most Christians mean, that is not what the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints means when they say that Jesus is the head of their church. However, when we try to explain our position, people hear what we say through the lens of their own understanding as they try to compare what we say to what they believe. When that happens, our message to them is often misinterpreted and therefore becomes confusing.
Part of this confusion comes from another belief that most Christians have which is that God wrote down everything he wanted us to know in a book we call the Bible, and after the death of the twelve apostles God stopped talking to us through the use of prophets and apostles as he did in the past. Most Christians have been taught that “the heavens are closed,” therefore, if we want to understand anything about what God wants us to know or do, we need to go to the Bible to find the answers to our questions.
If that is true, then we should be able to find the answer to what the Restored Church of Jesus Christ means when they say that Jesus is the head of their church by looking in the Bible. Therefore, let us look at a few examples.
In the 9th chapter of Acts we read a story of how Saul, of Tarsus, was breathing out threatenings against the believers in Christ who lived in Jerusalem. In his zeal to stamp out what he considered to be a blasphemous, heretical religious cult called Christians, he went about breaking into their homes, arresting them, and having them put into prison. He was so successful in this task that he decided to expand his operation and went to the high priest for a letter of authority to go into other cities to find, arrest, and imprison those who believed in what he thought was a false prophet called Jesus.
His first stop was the city of Damascus but as he journeyed there, “suddenly there shined round about him a light from heaven: And he fell to the earth, and heard a voice saying unto him, Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me? And he said, Who art thou, Lord? And the Lord said, I am Jesus whom thou persecutest: it is hard for thee to kick against the pricks. And he trembling and astonished said, Lord, what wilt thou have me to do? And the Lord said unto him, Arise, and go into the city, and it shall be told thee what thou must do. And the men which journeyed with him stood speechless, hearing a voice, but seeing no man” (verse 3-7).
The resurrected Jesus Christ himself appeared to Saul and spoke with him “as one man speaketh to another.” When God speaks to man, we call that revelation, and here we see an occasion where the Lord himself revealed to Saul exactly what he thought of what Saul was doing, and then gave him instructions of what he (Jesus) wanted him to go do (Arise and go into the city where you will be told further what you must do).
It’s interesting to note that Saul saw Jesus and heard his voice, but “the men which journeyed with him… hearing a voice but seeing no man.” But what we see in this story is that Jesus Christ personally came to Saul and directly communicated with him, giving him specific instructions of what God wanted him to do.
We then read that there was a certain disciple of Christ in Damascus by the name of Ananias and the Lord appeared to him in a vision. “And the Lord said unto him, Arise, and go into the street which is called Straight, and inquire in the house of Judas for one called Saul, of Tarsus” (verse 10,11).
Here again we see Jesus Christ himself speaking directly to a man named Ananias and giving him instructions of what Christ wanted him to do. That’s called revelation. But Ananias was scared to do what he had been commanded because he knew Saul’s reputation for persecuting the saints, and Ananias expressed his concerns to Jesus. “But the Lord said unto him, Go thy way, for he is a chosen vessel unto me to bear my name before Gentiles, and kings, and the children of Israel” (verse 14).
There are two things this scripture tells us. The first is that Ananias not only saw Jesus in a vision but that he had a conversation with him. They talked back and forth to each other as they discussed what it was God wanted Ananias to do. The second thing we learn is that God already knew at this point in time what he wanted Saul to do far into the future. But how was Saul going to know what God wanted him to do?
The answer is that God would guide Saul to where he wanted him to go and put into his mouth what he wanted him to say. That too is also a form of revelation, except this kind of divine direction didn’t come to Saul in a vision, nor did he hear a voice telling him what to do, but he was nonetheless being moved upon and guided by the influence of the Holy Ghost. The scriptures refer to this form of revelation as prophecy (2 Peter 1:21).
In the 10th chapter of Acts we read of an Italian named Cornelius who was praying to God, and “he saw in a vision evidently about the ninth hour of the day an angel of God coming unto him and saying, Cornelius, and when he looked on him he was afraid and said, What is it Lord? And [the angel] said unto him, Thy prayers and thine alms are come up for a memorial before God. And now send men to Joppa, and call for one Simon, whose surname is Peter” (verse 3-5).
Here was a man who wasn’t a Jew nor was he was a Christian, yet the Lord still communicated with him through the appearance of an angel and told him what he wanted him to do. The word “angel” means “a divine messenger,” and so, when the angel appeared to Cornelius, he was delivering a message from God telling him what God wanted him to do. Therefore, divine revelation can also come through the visitation of an angel.
In a similar manner, an angel appeared to Zacarias as he performed his priestly duty in the temple, telling him that his wife, Elizabeth, would have a son (Luke 1:5-20). The angel Gabriel appeared to Mary to tell her that she would become the mother of the Son of God (Luke 1:26-38), and an angel appeared to Joseph in a dream to warn him to flee to Egypt with his family (Matthew 2:19,20). These were all revelations from God.
Cornelius did as God, through an angel, had instructed him and sent a few of his servants to find Peter. In the meantime, “Peter went up upon the housetop to pray about the sixth hour: And he became very hungry, and would have eaten: but while they made ready, he fell into a trance, And saw heaven opened, and a certain vessel descending unto him, as it had been a great sheet knit at the four corners, and let down to the earth: Wherein were all manner of four-footed beasts of the earth, and wild beasts, and creeping things, and fowls of the air. And there came a voice to him, Rise, Peter; kill, and eat. But Peter said, Not so, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is common or unclean. And the voice spake unto him again the second time, What God hath cleansed, that call not thou common” (verses 9-15).
Once more we see God directly and personally communicating with a man (Peter) and giving him instructions on what he wanted him to do, and again we see that there was a conversation that took place between Peter and the Lord.
In the first chapter of Acts we read that around a hundred and twenty disciples were gathered together when Peter stood up and said that it was necessary to choose someone to fill the vacancy among the apostles that was created with the death of Judas Iscariot. But which one person, among all hundred and twenty of these disciples should they choose?
“And they appointed two, Joseph called Barsabas, who was surnamed Justus, and Matthias. And they prayed, and said, Thou, Lord, which knowest the hearts of all men, shew whether of these two thou hast chosen, That he may take part of this ministry and apostleship, from which Judas by transgression fell, that he might go to his own place. And they gave forth their lots; and the lot fell upon Matthias; and he was numbered with the eleven apostles” (verses 23-26, italics added).
Notice, that the disciples didn’t make this decision strictly on their own. Instead, they prayed for guidance to know who God wanted them to choose. As such, this decision was God’s, not their own. In this instance, the way they determined God’s answer was to draw lots, but this was just one other way that God himself revealed his mind and will to man.
In the 13th chapter of Acts we read that “in the church that was at Antioch [there were] certain prophets and teachers,” and among them were Barnabas, Simeon, and Saul [of Tarsus]. “As they ministered to the Lord, the Holy Ghost said, Separate me Barnabas and Saul for the work whereunto I have called them. And when they had fasted and prayed, and laid their hands on them, they sent them away” (verses 1-3).
What we see in this story is that there were several Christian men who lived in the city of Antioch who were considered to be prophets of God in the church, and one day as they were performing their Christian duties in an attitude of fasting, the Holy Ghost instructed them to send Barnabas and Saul on a missionary journey. The other prophets then laid their hands on these two men and then sent them on their way. In the following verses we learn that they went to the city of Salamis in Cyprus to preach the gospel.
In this story we aren’t told what it was these prophets were doing as they “ministered to the Lord,” nor does this scripture tell us why it was necessary for the prophets to lay their hands on Barnabas and Saul before sending them off, but what we do know is that this decision was not made by the prophets themselves after having a discussion on what they should do, but rather it was the Holy Ghost himself who told them what he wanted them to do. Since the Holy Ghost is a member of the Godhead, and he revealed his mind and will to these men, that fits the definition of revelation.
Perhaps the most extensive revelation is recorded in the Book of Revelation where the resurrected Savior himself appeared to the apostle John and told him to write down the message he wanted sent to seven churches, and then reveled to John what was going to happen in the future.
What we see in all of these stories (and many others that could be cited) is examples of how God personally and literally guided and directed the affairs of his church back in the days of the original apostles through the means of revelation, either from the resurrected Jesus Christ himself, the Holy Ghost, angels, visions, inspiration, and in one case, through the drawing of lots It should be noticed that in none of these examples did people go to the Bible to find out what God wanted them to do, although that is still yet another way that God can reveal his will to man.
So when members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints say that Jesus is the head of their church, what they are saying is that Jesus Christ himself is personally directing what is done in his church through the process of revelation, just as he did in the past, and that divine revelation can come in many different ways. However, since God is a God of order, we also need to understand the order in which God gives revelation.
Anyone can receive revelation from God to know what they should do, but God is not going to give someone a revelation for what someone else should do, unless that person has responsibility and authority over others. For example, a father has responsibility and authority for their family, and so God can and will give instructions and guidance to that father concerning members of his family, but not for anyone else’s family.
As in all Christian faiths, people gather together in groups called congregations and there is usually someone called a pastor or minister who presides over that particular congregation. In the Restored Church of Jesus Christ they refer to their congregation as a ward, and the person who presides over the ward is called a bishop. As such, the bishop has responsibility for and authority over all the members of his ward. Because of that he is entitled to receive revelation for things pertaining to his ward.
For example, when there is an opening for a Sunday School teacher, the bishop and his two counselors will pray to know which person the Lord wants called to fill that position. Or perhaps someone has just become a new member of the ward. The bishop and his counselors will pray to know what calling or duty the Lord wants them to have. Thus, when callings are extended to people in the ward, that call comes directly from God, through their bishop by way of revelation. This is what we mean when we say that Jesus Christ – not man, and not the Bible – is directly guiding the affairs of his church.
Although the members of the ward are entitled to receive revelation for what God wants them to do, they are not entitled to receive revelation concerning what the ward should do. That is the bishop’s responsibility. If this wasn’t the case, then chaos would ensue as different people come forth claiming to have received revelations telling the bishop what he should be doing.
In the same way, the President of the Church has responsibility over the entire church. As such, he has the right to receive revelation pertaining to the church as a whole. Therefore, God will not tell someone who has no authority over the church what he wants to church to do. That is contrary to the order that God has established. If the prophet or any other leader in the church doesn’t do what God commands them, then God himself will correct the situation, as he did with Jonah. For this reason, there is an order to how and to whom God reveals his will, even though everyone is entitled to receive revelation from God, and we see that same order in numerous examples in the Bible.
Yet, everyone has the right to seek revelation or confirmation from the Spirit to personally know if what their bishop or the prophet says is from God, or even if someone truly is a prophet of God, or if the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is what it claims to be – Christ’s true and only church on the face of the earth today.
Even in the Book of Mormon, this doctrine of personal revelation is enshrined in scripture as we read, “I would exhort you, my beloved brethren, that ye remember that [God] is the same yesterday, today, and forever, and that all these gifts of which I have spoken, which are spiritual, never will be done away, even as long as the world shall stand, only according to the unbelief of the children of men…I would exhort you that ye would ask God, the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ, if these things are not true; and if ye shall ask with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth of it unto you, by the power of the Holy Ghost” (Moroni 10:19,8).
The heavens are not closed and God continues to speak to man today as he has in the past, and because of that Jesus Christ is still the head of his church.
Related articles can be found at The Nature of Mormonism