Recently I have seen a number of anti-Mormon posts complaining that if the Church is led by a prophet, then shouldn’t he be making more prophecies? Let him prove his prophetic calling, they challenge, by predicting the future. You know, give us the Powerball numbers or something.
It’s not an entirely unfair question, but it reflects a misunderstanding of the organization of the Church and the calling and responsibilities of the president of the Church.
The General Conference of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints will be held this weekend in Salt Lake City, and members of the Church around the world will tune in by television, the internet, or at satellite transmission at local chapels to recieve instruction and counsel from the General Authorities of the Church. For many members this is an exciting opportunity to hear, among other things, “the prophet speak.” But what does that mean?
To make sense of this, you need to have a quick course in Mormon Church Organization 101. The Church is led by the president of the Church, who has two counselors. Collectively, they are called the First Presidency. Immediately below them is the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. Beneath them are several Quorums of the Seventy (a “quorum” is a group, and the Seventy is a calling reminiscent of the seventy missionaries called at set apart by Christ in his ministry–each Quorum has a maximum of 70 members). The First Presidency, Quorum of the Twelve, the First and Second Quorum of the Seventy, and three more guys who are the “Presiding Bishopric” are referred to as the “General Authorities” of the Church.
Don’t nod off, I’m going someplace with this.
Notably, none of these individuals holds a “calling” as a prophet. However, the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles are all sustained as apostles (the official designation) and as “prophets, seers and revelators.” So, each of them has at least these four titles. The president of the Church is often referred to colloquially as “the prophet.” That was a title typically used in reference to Joseph Smith, the first president of the Church, and as a matter of custom it is still used for the current president.
So, what do these various titles mean?
In terms of Mormon doctrine, each of these terms has a very specific connotation.
An “apostle” is a “special witness of Christ.” Some people try to stretch that to suggest that it means that each of the apostles must have “seen” Christ as part of their calling to the apostleship, but I have never heard any apostle claim that this is the case. Instead, at least as I understand it, the “special” nature of the witness has more to do with them being Christ’s official representatives or ministers for the world.
The term “prophet” is a bit fuzzier. Referring to his own role as a prophet, Joseph Smith frequently made reference to John’s description in Revelation of the “testimony of Christ” being the “spirit of prophecy.” He made the same reference when saying that anyone with a testimony of Christ may properly be called a prophet. Given that, I think that the term “prophet,” when applied to the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve, probably is closely synonymous with “apostle.”
The term “prophet” also is related to the third title, that of “seer,” which literally means “one who sees.” The function of a seer would be to look into the future and predict things that are to come and give warnings regarding future events. I personally also think of this as one who is able to see or understand the mind or will of God.
The final term, “revelator,” refers to the process of receiving inspiration or revelation. Simply put, it is the process of receiving instruction from God for yourself or those under your stewardship. Parents can receive revelation for their families, bishops for their congregations, and so forth. The president of the Church is designated as the person to receive revelation for the entire Church. The other apostles also are called as revelators because they also have global responsibilities for the Church. But since the “keys” or authority for receiving revelation for the entire Church rest in the hands of the president of the Church, he is the highest earthly authority in the Church.
All of that said, what about those Powerball numbers? Three responses come to mind.
First, prophecy isn’t a parlor trick. When Christ was taunted while on the cross to prove his divinity by saving Himself, He certainly had the power to do so. But He did not, because it wasn’t appropriate under the circumstances. The Lord always has been hesitant to allow his designated representative to perform miracles for the entertainment value of doing so. Moses and Elijah put on some impressive shows, but only when commanded to do so.
Second, what we see today follows a pattern that is well-established in the scriptures. The Church teaches that in the history of God’s dealings with men, there have been several “dispensations.” Such dispensations of time generally are marked by the appearance of a significant “prophet” who brings the people back into harmony with God, followed by other divine leaders who essentially echo those teachings. Such dispensations include Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, and Christ.
Using Christ as an example, He brought the fullness of His gospel to the areas in and around Jerusalem, and then His apostles carried the same message to the rest of the known world. There were times when additional revelation was needed to address specific new issues (such as the question of whether Christians were required to keep ritual aspects of the Law of Moses like circumcision or dietary restrictions), but generally the apostles didn’t go around spouting off new prophecies or revelations.
Similarly, there was as flood of new revelation and prophecy given during the life of Joseph Smith, whom Mormons believe to have been the head of a new dispensation when the Gospel was restored through him. Subsequently, presidents of the Church have received new direction and revelation when necessary, but for the most part the they have echoed what Joseph Smith taught.
Third, I think that the presidents of the Church have, in fact, fulfilled their prophetic function. They have issued warnings regarding serious threats before the extent of the danger was appreciated by others (for example, their consistent emphasis over the years regarding pornography and personal debt), they have issued prophetic warning regarding other challenges to the health of the family, they have predicted increasing wickedness in the world, and they have prophesied of the coming of Christ. If you think that these are small matters, then I suggest that at the very least they are performing their apostolic callings in providing authoritative warnings of the evils in the world and counseling us as to the will of Christ.
In my mind, there is considerable danger when we constantly clamor for “some new thing,” or set up our own terms under which we will accept and sustain the General Authorities of the Church. The primary function of an apostle is to provide a special, authoritative witness of the reality and divinity of Christ and His atoning sacrifice. When revelation is needed for the Church, I trust that such will come through the Lord’s designated representatives. But to expect that God be some sort of celestial cable provider, providing “prophecy on demand,” is presumptuous and preposterous.
I think our better focus is to comply with instructions as they are given, rather than sit idly and wait for a thunderous declaration of “thus saith the Lord!” I believe in prophecy and revelation; I just don’t insist that it be given on my timetable.