In recent years, more and more Mormons have publicly voiced the opinion that the LDS Church is in a state of apostasy. Elder Dallin H. Oaks jetted to Boise, Idaho to douse such allegations in a 15 June 2015 tri-stake fireside, where his argument consisted of a slightly more sophisticated version of, “I know you are but what am I?”
I leave the question of whether the LDS Church is in a state of apostasy to wiser heads than mine. The point of this paper, however, is to examine one area in which the LDS Church currently engages in a practice that the LDS Church in former days declared to be a hallmark of apostasy.
That area is the use of Church councils to establish doctrine.
The Great Apostasy
Growing up in the Church, it was common to hear lessons and talks on the Great Apostasy, by which was meant the falling away from the true religion Jesus established. The true church was always identified by prophets who received direct revelation from God. As the apostasy occurred, however, such revelation ceased.
When doctrinal decisions had to be made, church leaders gathered in ecumenical councils and deliberated on the issue. (Here the Council of Nicaea was usually brought up as an example.) This was a means of establishing doctrine completely foreign to God’s true Church, but councils were held precisely because there was no longer a prophet on earth who could receive revelation directly from God.
The introduction of such church councils was generally seen among Latter-day Saints as a sure sign of the Great Apostasy.
An example of this can be found in the December 1995 Ensign:
“All historical Christian churches agree that revelation for the direction of the church ceased with the last of the apostles,” one author has written. History shows, in fact, that after the first century, church leaders, in order to decide important issues, could not (and did not) appeal to heaven for authoritative direction because they did not possess the keys of the kingdom. There were still honorable people on the earth who received personal inspiration for their individual lives. But the church was run largely by men who gathered in councils and held debates, letting their decisions rest on the collected wisdom of mortal beings.
Twelve years after this Ensign article, however, the LDS Church announced a new procedure for establishing doctrine; a procedure eerily similar to the one criticized not only in the 1995 Ensign, but since the early days of the Restoration.
In short, the LDS Church announced that church doctrine is established in councils.
Back to the Future
Mormonism officially entered this brave, new world on 4 May 2007, with this announcement on the official LDS Church website.
Not every statement made by a Church leader, past or present, necessarily constitutes doctrine. A single statement made by a single leader on a single occasion often represents a personal, though well-considered, opinion, but is not meant to be officially binding for the whole Church. With divine inspiration, the First Presidency (the prophet and his two counselors) and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles (the second-highest governing body of the Church) counsel together to establish doctrine that is consistently proclaimed in official Church publications.
With this announcement, a new Church Council was created (or if not created, at least formally revealed). Not just the Council of the First Presidency. Not just the Council of the Twelve Apostles. But a new Council of both the First Presidency and the Twelve Apostles.
Sort of like a latter-day Magisterium.
No longer are statements by Church leaders considered doctrine, even if that Church leader happens to have been the Prophet. A new method has been substituted in its place. Now doctrine is to be established not through revelation, but through a council that meets together and deliberates by weighing the scriptures, the teachings of Church leaders, and past practice, or in other words, tradition.
Now, wait a second! Surely I am adding words to the Mormon Newsroom statement. That statement says nothing about the council deliberating about doctrine by weighing scriptures, teachings of Church leaders, and past practice. I must be adding those words to make the process sound more like the historical church councils identified by the LDS Church as a mile marker on Apostasy Avenue.
Well, truth be told, I am actually quoting Elder Christofferson from his April 2012 General Conference address:
The President of the Church may announce or interpret doctrines based on revelation to him (see, for example, D&C 138). Doctrinal exposition may also come through the combined council of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles (see, for example, Official Declaration 2). Council deliberations will often include a weighing of canonized scriptures, the teachings of Church leaders, and past practice.
This statement deserves a little dissecting.
1. Why, one might ask, if the LDS Church is run by revelation received directly by a prophet of God, is there a need for a “combined council” to deliberate? And why are they weighing scriptures, teachings of other Church leaders, and past practice? Why are they not just asking God? But asking God doesn’t even make the list!
2. The token nod is of course given to the President of the Church receiving revelation. But this is only a theoretical possibility and not a practical reality in the LDS Church; nor has it been for almost a hundred years. Note that the example given is D&C 138, the vision of Joseph F. Smith of the redemption of the dead. This is the last section in the Doctrine and Covenants, and was received in 1918. Three more years will mark a century with no canonized scripture. A strange state of affairs in a church that claims continuing revelation through living prophets.
3. Elder Christofferson cites to Official Declaration 2 in an effort to find historical support for the new method of establishing doctrine by means of “the combined council of the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve.” But OD2 does not support his argument. The Twelve had no part in any “deliberations.” Rather, after being approved by the counselors in the First Presidency, it “was then presented to the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, who unanimously approved it.” No input or deliberations from the Twelve are mentioned.
Or has this process been going on longer than the public record suggests?
President Eyring Spills the Beans
President Eryring described a similar process of arriving at “revelation” through council debate in an unscripted comment he made during a press conference in October, 2007. (See comments beginning at 25:00 of the video and going to approximately 29:30.)
In relating his first experience attending a high-level church council with the First Presidency and apostles present, Henry B. Eyring tells of his initial expectation that all present would receive revelation and be on the same page regarding the issue under consideration. He was surprised to find that was not the case, but that those present held very different ideas and had no reluctance in voicing dissenting opinions. “Here are prophets of God and they are disagreeing!”
As the discussion “cycled around,” however, the leaders eventually began to line up in their opinions. This does not seem remarkable, given the strictly hierarchical nature of Church leadership where apostles enter and leave rooms in order of their seniority. Yet President Eyring considers this somewhat mundane process of achieving consensus a “miracle.”
In his off-the-cuff remarks, President Eyring pulls back the curtain and reveals the actual methods of arriving at decisions in top-level LDS Church councils. In so doing, he fundamentally shifts the definition of “revelation” within the Mormon paradigm. No longer is revelation direct communication from God to the prophet and president of the Church. Rather, revelation is arrived at through council consensus after debating different positions.
If President Eyring was shocked to find out how Church decisions are really made, perhaps we can be forgiven for feeling a similar surprise. And President Eyring dates this story back to the early 1970’s when Harold B. Lee was president.
In the immortal lyrics of Ace, How long has this been going on?
Once the Church council has completed its deliberations, the agreed upon doctrine is then set forth in “official Church publications.” Although these publications amount to the same thing as creeds, the Church uses different words to describe them. Understandably so. “Creeds” have a somewhat disreputable pedigree in the LDS Church. Instead, words such as “official declarations and proclamations” are used.
This point is made in the 4 May 2007 Mormon Newsroom article referenced above.
This doctrine resides in the four “standard works” of scripture (the Holy Bible, the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants and the Pearl of Great Price), official declarations and proclamations, and the Articles of Faith.
An “official declaration” of doctrine resulting from church council deliberations is a creed. An “official proclamation” of doctrine resulting from church council deliberations is also a creed. The LDS Church has long been clear about this definition. And the LDS Church has long labeled such creeds as an emblem of apostate Christianity.
Both of these documents are creedal statements of belief arrived at through the deliberations of all fifteen apostles in the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve.
Significantly, they also bypass the need for being presented to the membership of the Church for a sustaining vote, as would be necessary if they were introduced as scripture binding upon Church members.
Instead, the Church has found a convenient way of establishing doctrine through declarations and pronouncements without the input or approval of the members.
The most recent example is a 29 June 2015 letter sent out to all congregations in the United States and Canada regarding the Church’s position on gay marriage. Though no mention of revelation appears in the letter, Mormons are assured of its doctrinal reliability by the fact it appears over the imprimatur of:
THE COUNCIL OF
THE FIRST PRESIDENCY AND
QUORUM OF THE TWELVE APOSTLES
OF THE CHURCH OF JESUS CHRIST OF LATTER-DAY SAINTS
A pattern appears to be developing.
But have no fear. The letter on gay-marriage is not just the consensus of personal opinions of council members. It cites to a solid doctrinal basis.
Unfortunately that doctrinal basis is The Family: A Proclamation to the World.
A proclamation issued by the very same council.
Something is starting to smell fishy here.
As well as look a little circular.
Creedal Christianity a Sign of Apostasy
It appears from the evidence that the publication of creeds decided upon by deliberations in LDS Church councils has taken the place of revelation, and that the sun has gone down over the prophets.
Bruce R. McConkie gave his view of such a situation on page 122 of Mormon Doctrine.
From the earliest era of apostate Christianity, the leaders of the then existing church—no longer finding revelation available and incapable of speaking by the power of the Holy Ghost so as to have the resultant record vouchsafed as authoritative scripture—sought other ways of settling religious and philosophical disputes and of establishing authoritative doctrine. By the 4th century formal documents called creeds had been formulated, adopted by councils, and the dogmas expressed in them imposed upon the church, insofar as the political power of the moment was able to enforce such an imposition.
The part about “political power” is especially pregnant given the possibility the Proclamation on the Family was issued for the pedestrian purpose of deploying priesthood power in the Hawaiian gay marriage lawsuit.
Is history repeating itself? Are the Church councils of Mainline Christianity once decried by the LDS Church as a trademark of apostasy now the accepted method of establishing doctrine in the LDS Church? Are the “official declarations and proclamations” that are now issued from the LDS Church councils merely a warmed-over version of the old creeds formerly inveighed against?
It is hard to forget that at the very inception of Mormonism, Jesus Christ told Joseph Smith that the creeds were an “abomination” in his sight, and the professors of those creeds were “all corrupt”–that they have a form of godliness but deny the power thereof.
Harsh words, indeed.
But do those harsh words apply only to creeds of former times, or might they have application to creeds of our day, as well?
A friend of mine once presciently observed, “The only difference between the LDS Church and the Catholic Church is 2,000 years.”
As it turns out, the LDS Church may be ahead of the curve.