Several years ago, I received an assignment to work in the Scheduling Office of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. This particular office is located in the Church Administration Building and is surrounded by the offices of various apostles and general authorities. I would arrive at my desk by 7:30 a.m. each morning and it wasn’t long before I started to notice that Elder Joseph B. Wirthlin, whose office was just down the hall, was always getting to work a little earlier than my 7:30 a.m. start time. I knew that he was in his 90’s and in a wheelchair, but yet there he was. Elder Wirthlin passed away several weeks later and his example left an indelible impression on my heart about dedication and the ways in which the Lord sustains our prophets, seers and revelators. Nothing keeps them from doing the Lord’s work for the duration of their life—and I guarantee that they wouldn’t have it any other way.
The First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles are ordinary men in extraordinary callings with divinely mandated responsibilities. More specifically, “The fundamental responsibility of prophets, seers, and revelators, all of whom bear apostolic authority, is to bear certain testimony of the name of Jesus Christ in all the world. This basic call to be a special witness of His name has remained constant whenever Apostles have been on the earth.”[i]
Since the beginning of time, the adversary has stirred up the hearts of those in Christ’s church against the prophets and apostles in veiled (or unveiled) criticism about their fallibility, age, or human frailties as a way of chipping away at their authority and weakening faith. Yet it’s comforting to know that despite this, Jesus Christ is at the head of this Church. He calls specific men to these sacred positions because He is the One with the authority to make these divinely inspired callings. He is in charge. We are not. We also know that, “No one knows how to work a crowd better than the adversary.”[ii] So, it shouldn’t surprise us to find that there will be a concerted effort to undermine and lessen the authority of the prophets, seers and revelators—and it will be done in very smooth and unique ways.
With the intent to clarify some misconceptions or false teachings that members of the church might encounter on this topic, here are a few things we could consider:
1. Go to the Source.
If we truly understand and have faith in the role and significance of prophets, seers and revelators, then we’ll understand why the adversary is so keen to undermine them. President Henry B. Eyring said:
Satan will always work on the Saints of God to undermine their faith in priesthood keys. One way he does it is to point out the humanity of those who hold them. He can in that way weaken our testimony and so cut us loose from the line of keys by which the Lord ties us to Him. … The warning for us is plain. If we look for human frailty in humans, we will always find it. When we focus on finding the frailties of those who hold priesthood keys, we run risks for ourselves. When we speak or write to others of such frailties, we put them at risk. [iii]
If I were to take an educated guess about the specifics of how Satan would go about getting members of the church to start questioning prophet or apostles and priesthood authority, I would start by saying that he begins by whispering doubts in the ears of the saints, as described in 2 Nephi 28:22:
“And behold, others he flattereth away … and he saith unto them: I am no devil, for there is none—and thus he whispereth in their ears, until he grasps them with his awful chains, from whence there is no deliverance.”
With this negative “whispering campaign”, the adversary sets out to gradually—but purposefully—sow seeds of doubt or criticism about individual members of The First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. One might:
- Offer convincing, subtle alternatives such as groups, symposiums or blogs so that members’ attention is diverted to them instead of the words of living prophets;
- Encourage members of the church to begin to view prophets and apostles and their words as nice, but not always up to speed with social trends;
- Get them to pick and choose what to follow from their words;
- Continually point their fallibility;
- Suggest an “old-age release” or the possibility that newer or younger Church leaders might bring in more liberal ideologies. Hope that as a result, LDS doctrine will evolve to be more in sync with current social trends;
- Teach that you will follow only Jesus Christ, and not His modern day prophets and apostles;
- Suggest that there are power struggles, discord, and unity issues among the Brethren;
- Actively weaken the messenger so that the message becomes weak (or at least taken with a grain of salt) and thus lessen the authority and divinity of the calling of the holy apostleship.
Why would this occur in a church that is supposed to be Zion and of one heart and one mind? Why do some choose to complain against and chip away at authority? Why is it sometimes difficult to sustain or follow the words of prophets and apostles—even when we know they are called of God? Elder Dennis B. Neuenschwander gives some insight into this:
But I ask myself, if this is so clear, why is it so difficult? There may be many answers to this, but I think, in reality, there is only one. Most of the difficulty can be traced to our desire to be more acceptable to the world than to God. The teachings of a living prophet are often contrary to the trends of the world. We, as Latter-day Saints, must understand that there is an expanding gulf between the standards of the world and those of the gospel and kingdom of God, and that living prophets will always teach the standards of God. As much as we may want the gospel to accommodate to the world, it can’t, it won’t, it never has, and it never will. … to have living prophets, seers, and revelators among us and not listen to them is no better than not having them at all.[iv]
2. How Do We Sustain Church Leaders?
With the understanding that the adversary wants to chip away at the authority of both general and local Church leaders, what can we do to sustain them? First, sustaining church leaders is “to pledge support to those serving in general and local Church leadership positions.”[v] Perhaps the most visible and obvious thing that comes to mind is participating in a sustaining vote at general, stake or ward conferences. Elder Dennis B. Neuenschwander says that, “Our sustaining support of prophets, seers, and revelators is not in the upraised hand alone, but more so in our courage, testimony, and faith to listen to, heed, and follow them.” Of this, President Gordon B. Hinckley said:
“Concerning the sustaining of officers, President John Taylor once said: We hold up our right hand when voting in token before God that we will sustain those for whom we vote; and if we cannot feel to sustain them we ought not to hold up our hands, because to do this, would be to act the part of hypocrites. … For when we lift up our hands in this way, it is in token to God that we are sincere in what we do, and that we will sustain the parties we vote for. … If we agree to do a thing and do not do it, we become covenant breakers and violators of our obligations, which are, perhaps, as solemn and binding as anything we can enter into” (in Journal of Discourses, 21:207). This principle applies to … every other organization of the Church where officers are sustained by the membership. … Under the Lord’s plan, those who have responsibility to select officers are governed by one overriding question: “Whom would the Lord have?” There is quiet and thoughtful deliberation. And there is much of prayer to receive the confirmation of the Holy Spirit that the choice is correct.[vi]
3. The First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles are United.
Please know that there are no power struggles or prideful ego trips within the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. As much as it would please the adversary to see this or to have members believe it, this is simply false. They don’t work that way, and neither does the Lord. In their own words:
President Gordon B. Hinckley: “No decision emanates from the deliberations of the First Presidency and the Twelve without total unanimity among all concerned. At the outset in considering matters, there may be differences of opinion. These are to be expected. These men come from different backgrounds. They are men who think for themselves. But before a final decision is reached, there comes a unanimity of mind and voice.”[vii]
Elder Jeffrey R. Holland: “When the original Twelve were called in this dispensation, they were told that their appointment was “calculated to create for you an affection for each other, stronger than death.” We already have such affection for you, Brethren, for your wives, and for your families.”[viii]
Elder M. Russell Ballard: “Let me also observe that none of the Twelve are shrinking violets. We each have strong personalities. So when we are unified in a decision, you can rest assured that we have counseled together and come to that decision after much prayer and thoughtful discussion.”[ix]
President Gordon B. Hinckley: “I love my brethren. To a man they are loyal. Without hesitation they respond to every call. They are true disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ.”[x] “I add by way of personal testimony that during the twenty years I served as a member of the Council of the Twelve and during the nearly thirteen years that I have served in the First Presidency, there has never been a major action taken where this procedure was not observed. I have seen differences of opinion presented in these deliberations. Out of this very process of men speaking their minds has come a sifting and winnowing of ideas and concepts. But I have never observed serious discord or personal enmity among my Brethren. I have, rather, observed a beautiful and remarkable thing—the coming together, under the directing influence of the Holy Spirit and under the power of revelation, of divergent views until there is total harmony and full agreement. Only then is implementation made. That, I testify, represents the spirit of revelation manifested again and again in directing this the Lord’s work. I know of no other governing body of any kind of which this might be said. This procedure obtains even in the absence of the President of the Church. I hasten to add, however, that the Brethren would not be inclined to do anything which they feel would be out of harmony with the attitude, feelings, and position of their beloved leader, the prophet of the Lord.”[xi]
Elder Russell M. Nelson: “The calling of 15 men to the holy apostleship provides great protection for us as members of the Church. Why? Because decisions of these leaders must be unanimous.13 Can you imagine how the Spirit needs to move upon 15 men to bring about unanimity? These 15 men have varied educational and professional backgrounds, with differing opinions about many things. Trust me! These 15 men—prophets, seers, and revelators—know what the will of the Lord is when unanimity is reached! They are committed to see that the Lord’s will truly will be done. The Lord’s Prayer provides the pattern for each of these 15 men when they pray: “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”14
4. What About Age and Health Concerns?
In the April 1994 General Conference, President Gordon B. Hinckley addressed any concerns members of the Church might have about this. The information isn’t new and has always been a part of the Doctrine and Covenants, but it’s worth repeating. In order to get acquainted with the specifics, I have included a large portion of his explanation because it lays everything out so succinctly and has application to our day and in the future:
“This brings me to a matter of which I have spoken before from this pulpit. I do so again because of what some are writing and saying incident to the condition of President Benson’s health. People throughout the Church are naturally anxious to know of the President’s condition. President Benson is now in his ninety-fifth year. As we have previously said from this and other pulpits, he suffers seriously from the effects of age and illness and has been unable to fulfill important duties of his sacred office. This is not a situation without precedent. Other Presidents of the Church have also been ill or unable to function fully in the closing months or years of their lives. It is possible that this will happen again in the future. The principles and procedures which the Lord has put in place for the governance of His church make provision for any such circumstance. It is important, my brethren, that there be no doubts or concerns about the governance of the Church and the exercise of the prophetic gifts, including the right to inspiration and revelation in administering the affairs and programs of the Church, when the President may be ill or is not able to function fully. The First Presidency and the Council of the Twelve Apostles, called and ordained to hold the keys of the priesthood, have the authority and responsibility to govern the Church, to administer its ordinances, to expound its doctrine, and to establish and maintain its practices. Each man who is ordained an Apostle and sustained a member of the Council of the Twelve is sustained as a prophet, seer, and revelator. Like those before him, President Benson was the senior Apostle at the time he was called as President of the Church. His Counselors were drawn from the Council of the Twelve. Therefore, all incumbent members of the Quorum of the First Presidency and of the Council of the Twelve have been the recipients of the keys, rights, and authority pertaining to the holy apostleship. I quote from the Doctrine and Covenants: “Of the Melchizedek Priesthood, three Presiding High Priests, chosen by the body, appointed and ordained to that office, and upheld by the confidence, faith, and prayer of the church, form a quorum of the Presidency of the Church” (D&C 107:22).
When the President is ill or not able to function fully in all of the duties of his office, his two Counselors together comprise a Quorum of the First Presidency. They carry on with the day-to-day work of the Presidency. In exceptional circumstances, when only one may be able to function, he may act in the authority of the office of the Presidency as set forth in the Doctrine and Covenants, section 102, verses 10–11 [D&C 102:10–11]. When, on 10 November 1985, President Benson called his two Counselors, it was he himself who was voice in setting them apart, with the members of the Council of the Twelve Apostles also laying their hands upon the heads of the Counselors, each one in turn, as he was set apart. President Benson was at the time in good health, fully able to function in every way. Furthermore, following this setting apart, he signed with his own hand powers of agency giving each of his Counselors the authority to direct the business of the Church.[xii]
5. Warnings to Those Who Engage in Chipping Away at Priesthood Authority
Is it wrong to speak ill and critically of church leaders? Yes. How serious is speaking and writing against the leaders of the Church? Very serious. Recognizing what we know about the roles of prophets and apostles (and who they represent), criticizing these special witnesses of Jesus Christ is ultimately a matter of undermining the Savior. Consider what Elder Dallin H. Oaks said about this:
I have given the following counsel to Church members—those who have committed themselves by upraised hands to sustain their church leaders: Criticism is particularly objectionable when it is directed toward Church authorities, general or local. Jude condemns those who ‘speak evil of dignities.’ (Jude 1:8.) Evil speaking of the Lord’s anointed is in a class by itself. It is one thing to depreciate a person who exercises corporate power or even government power. It is quite another thing to criticize or depreciate a person for the performance of an office to which he or she has been called of God. It does not matter that the criticism is true. … When we say anything bad about the leaders of the Church, whether true or false, we tend to impair their influence and their usefulness and are thus working against the Lord and His cause.[xiii]
Conclusion: Faith in Sustaining Prophets, Seers and Revelators
I have a testimony of our prophets and apostles, and of the gospel and restoration of the priesthood. They stand at the head of this church. They have been called by God through revelation, and I trust them implicitly. Ultimately, I believe following them is really about having faith in their authority—which is really the authority of Jesus Christ. As members of the church, we follow our apostles and prophets because the Lord called them to serve as such. They are His representatives. And so we follow them, with faith and a conviction born of the Holy Ghost that they are indeed His apostles and prophets.
[i] Dennis B. Neuenschwander, “Living Prophets, Seers and Revelators,” Ensign Nov. 2000.
[ii] Neal A. Maxwell, “Murmur Not,” Ensign Nov. 1989.
[iii] Henry B. Eyring, “Faith and Keys,” Ensign Nov. 2004.
[iv] Dennis B. Neuenschwander, “Living Prophets, Seers and Revelators,” Ensign Nov. 2000.
[v] The Guide to the Scriptures, LDS.org
[vi] Gordon B. Hinckley, “God is at the Helm,” Ensign May 1994.
[vii] Gordon B. Hinckley, “God is at the Helm,” Ensign May 1994.
[viii] Jeffrey R. Holland, “Prophets, Seers and Revelators,” Ensign Nov. 2004.
[ix] M. Russell Ballard, “Be Still, and Know That I Am God,” CES Devotional for Young Adults May 2014.
[x] Gordon B. Hinckley, “Special Witnesses of Christ, “ Video Presentation, April 2001
[xi] Gordon B. Hinckley, “God is at the Helm,” Ensign May 1994.
[xii] Gordon B. Hinckley, “God is at the Helm,” Ensign May 1994.
[xiii] Dallin H. Oaks, Address to Church Educational System teachers, Aug. 16, 1985.