The Council System in the Church

Rational Faiths has recently posted an article arguing that — by the LDS Church’s own definitions — the LDS Church has slipped into apostasy. The central argument (there are side arguments I won’t touch on here) is that in LDS rhetoric and literature, the primitive Christian Church fell into apostasy when it began to rely on councils and creeds rather than apostolic direction and prophetic revelation.

Today, the author argues, the LDS Church does the same — rather than being led by a prophet receiving direct revelation from God, the Church is led by the Council of the First Presidency and the Twelve Apostles, a council, he argues, that directs the Church by issuing creeds, activities very similar to those the LDS Church attributes to the great apostasy. Two comments:

(1) The author has not done his research. For being published in BYU Studies and Book of Mormon Studies, his article is flimsy in documentation. For example, he says this about the revelation to lift the priesthood restriction: “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.” What the author is implying by this is that the “council system” whereby the First Presidency and the Twelve unanimously approves changes in Church policy is a new phenomenon, one that did not exist when this significant change was made.

However, the author is wrong. He assumes that because none of the deliberations and conversations were mentioned in the introduction to Official Declaration 2, they must not have happened. However, he has not researched his claim. Historical records show that every member of the quorum of the Twelve was allowed and encouraged to speak their mind and air their concerns, and that President Kimball was not prepared to move forward until they had all come to agreement. For example Elder Bruce R. McConkie spoke at length defending the change, giving his opinion that the change needed to happen. Each member of the quorum was given the floor and allowed to speak their mind, before they unanimously supported the new policy. I don’t have the sources right now (I’m writing on the fly), but others may, and I encourage them to post them in the comments. On this point (and others), the author is simply factually mistaken, and engages in shoddy research.

(2) The Doctrine and Covenants makes this council system very plain. I’m not even sure where the controversy is. D&C 107 describs the formation of First Presidency, the Quorum of the Twelve, and the Quorums of the Seventy. Then it says that these quorums are equal in authority with one another, so long as their voice is unanimous:

“And every decision made by either of these quorums must be by the aunanimous voice of the same; that is, every member in each quorum must be agreed to its decisions, in order to make their decisions of the same power or validity one with the other … Unless this is the case, their decisions are not entitled to the same blessings which the decisions of a quorum of three presidents were anciently.”

In other words, the unanimous voice of the Twelve is equal in authority with the First Presidency, and the unanimous voice of the quorum of the Seventy is equal in authority with the Twelve. This is written down as revelation by Joseph Smith. There is nothing controversial about it — Joseph Smith is the one who set it up, claiming to have done so by revelation.

Now consider: of COURSE these groups are going to engage in conversation, deliberation, and even disagreements before arriving at unanimity.*Would anyone expect otherwise? Would anyone expect 70 men, for example, to walk into the same room and magically agree with each other before discussing the issues, praying about the issues, fasting about the issues, and hearing out their various concerns first?

The essential difference between the Council of Niceae (for example) and the Council of the Twelve is almost entirely slighted in the article — it’s not that one is a council and the other is not, it’s that one has priesthood authority, and seeks and receives revelation through the guidance of the Spirit, and the other is based in philosophical argumentation. That’s the difference. Does the author of this post expect that a true apostolic Church will not be led by a council of Twelve Apostles, but by one man acting alone?

Anyways, I’m saddened to see a clearly intelligent researcher throw away his loyalty to the Church based on such shoddy research. I hope none of our readers are fooled by his arguments. I could respond to each of his other arguments, but I have dissertation work to get back to.

29 thoughts on “The Council System in the Church

  1. Speaking as someone who has participated in many inspired counsel deliberations, I can attest that there is great power, and safety, in three, or twelve or fifteen men who hold the priesthood coming to a unanimous decision based on the guidance, inspiration … even revelation! … that comes to each in the decision process. If you add to that the keys held by the Council of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, you magnify this effect and impact. The difference between how these counsels work and the manner in which the author of that article claims that they work, is that it isn’t 15 men trying to convince one another of the rightness or wrongness of a particular decision. Rather, it’s 15 men seeking to determine what the Lord would have them do, and then going about to do it.

    As a result of this process, more often than not a unanimity of these particular 15 men is a reliable indicator of the Lord’s will. In fact, that’s an understatement. I’m not going to risk betting on the wrong side on any issue where the Counsel in question is concerned.

  2. If someone wants to leave the Church, he or she can always find one reason or another to justify their leaving, whether it is well-researched and coherent or not. In this case, clearly not.

  3. Nothing new to add, but just reiterating that the Keys of the Priesthood are either real and active in the LDS Church or they are not. If they are then there is no apostasy, if not then the whole thing is fraud. One either gains a testimony of that point or not. My experience is that God is both willing and capable of showing a person (me at least), in a way that the person in question can understand, that the keys are present and recognized.

  4. LDSP, another great example of liberal / TBM (The Brethren-aligned Mormons) cross talk. And you hit it on the head. At least as far as historical LDS beliefs go, the difference being postulated was not ‘use of councils’ but use of revelation and priesthood authority. Even Bushman documents the move to use of councils to receive revelation in Joseph Smith’s lifetime in RSR. Author of other article doesn’t know what he’s talking about here.

  5. It is an unfortunate but very common logical error to find causation in correlation. A marked difference distinguishes the product of inspired councils from that of a politically-driven collective, because of the source from which it is derived. One represents the will of God, and the other reflects the intellectual ideas of men.

  6. There is a huge difference between a council that comes to it’s decision via majority vote (ie Nicea) and one which seeks revelation and comes to a unanimous decision.

  7. There is a profound difference between a standing or permanent council such as we see both in the primitive Church as Jesus called his apostles and established them to carry on his work, and a temporary group called together for a limited time as was the case in the various councils summoned to decide doctrine during the middle ages. One might consider the College of Cardinals as a permanent council but they have no authority except during a papal vacancy and even then, very little. Given that Joseph Smith was following Christ’s example in establishing councils with the responsibility to lead the Church, the argument that the use of councils is in any way a modern innovation fails to convince.

  8. I agree with John Swenson Harvey. There’s no getting around the completely personal question of whether a person believes the priesthood in the church is active and authorized by God. That said, I’m grateful for those willing to expose the thieves of testimony. I know my testimony has been safeguarded by those willing to hedge up the arguments of the ‘learned’.

  9. LDSP.
    Thank you to the brief response and letting us be aware of this. I haven’t read the linked article yet
    so I will first respond to your self-contained blog post.

    Couple of clarifications. Paragraph3. I think it would be better for all people
    if we stopped assuming that just because someone has done good work in the past
    that we can ever turn our brains off and accept what they have to say. I have been
    to too many talks given by Noble recipients, speaking about something outside of their
    field, that have been terrible, on shoddy footing. I think its just the phenomenon listed
    in DC 121 coming to the forefront. We can never get humble enough to avoid becoming too

    “The essential differences” paragraph. I think it would be clearer if you had written,
    “One is a council after the LDS pattern of inspired church governance ” and one is not.
    Clearly one shouldn’t say that “The Council of Nicea” was not a council unless one modifies
    what one means by the word council. I personally don’t believe in the argument, “That’s
    just semantics.” Usually those who say it don’t get the differences behind the meanings
    in the different words being used, and those differences are what matter.

    I would also modify your last paragraph. “I’m saddened to see any clearly intelligent researcher
    embrace shoddy research to either embrace or disown the LDS church. As a faithful scientist,
    I’ve found that thorough research (when all facts are known) leads me to be faithful.”

    Happy dissertating.

  10. Two observations. Max Wilson had an article on his blog recently defending Elder McConkie and his role in the priesthood revelation. There was a link there to a much longer PDF on the same topic that I believe was written by President Kimball’s son.

    Second, the first recorded instance of a Melchizedek Priesthood council is found in Acts 15. The brethren were called to discuss the matter of circumcision for converts. Based on the text, there was a somewhat heated back and forth. Using the metric outlined in the Rational Faiths OP, the apostasy started while Peter and the others were still alive.

    The issue is not whether or not councils are used, but the power under which they act. Not all of God’s servants are at the same level of knowledge and experience and working through councils enables them to learn from each other and gain a greater witness of the work they are doing and the decisions made / revelation received. This effort in turn makes them mightier witnesses of the Lord and the work they do.

    Why is it that some prize effort in secular learning, but seem to assume that the Lord will just hand over the keys to the Eternal Lamborghini with no effort? The Lord is explicit in the D&C that effort is required to know his will and that unanimity of purpose is required of his servants. Councils, anyone?

  11. “I could respond to each of his other arguments, but I have dissertation work to get back to.”

    It’s too bad you don’t have time, ldsphilosopher. You could potentially save many souls from apostasy if you had more time.

  12. I spent several hours yesterday on Facebook discussing this with several former members of the Church. The discussion from some was amiable, but several were in attack mode. It is the classic, they were offended by the Church and now cannot leave it alone.

    After enough abuse, I excused myself from the conversation. It reminds me why I do not do much apologetics anymore, at least not to the anti crowd.

    That said, there is a huge difference between an ad hoc council brought together by Emperor Constantine, who sought to stop the infighting among Christians, so he could use the religion to unite his empire; and the humble gathering of 15 men, called as prophets and apostles, to seek revelation.

    Edward Kimball, son of President Kimball, wrote a lengthy article on how the priesthood revelation of 1978 came about. There was a lot of discussion, and 11 of the 12 were present when the revelation occurred. You can read/download it here:

    Elders McConkie and Haight traveled to Bolivia to set up stakes in 1979/80. They both spoke to the missionaries about the Revelation, stating that it was a very sublime revelation they received. Elder Haight would note it often in General Conference over the years, and stating he was a witness of it. That is clearly a different event than Rational Faiths claims it was.

    I have been in 2 bishoprics, and am on my high council (over 5 years), and have sat in on hundreds of councils. They are, for the most part, inspired. On Facebook, some of the discussion went to disciplinary councils, where some claimed they were abused and mistreated by their leaders. One individual insisted that I knew very little about councils, when his only experience was his excommunication! Clearly, there are some bad events that occur whenever humans trying to council are involved, but more often than not, I think the sinner takes offense on the decision and then will not let it go.

    On Facebook, they claimed the Church needs to modernize on many things, and claimed it to be a reason for believing the Church is not led by revelation. I noted that was not necessarily the case, but was reminiscent of scripture. In the BoM, many apostates attacked the prophets and church for following the traditions of their fathers, rather than keeping up with new ideas (like there is no Christ, nor sin).

    One noted that the BoM was one dimensional 19th century pablum. I tried to note my years of research in ancient texts and studies, and that of others. Of course, none of it counts if it doesn’t come from a non-Mormon scholar. Sad that such people are missing out on really knowing the BoM’s depth and complexity. I recommend the BoM articles and books by Joseph Spencer, Adam S Miller and other LDS scholars, who show just how complex the book really is.

    It is way too easy to find a little hole in the dike, and claim the entire structure is going to collapse because of it. Such ignores the strength and sturdiness of the rest of the structure, which may hold for centuries or eons, even with a few small cracks.

  13. “It is way too easy to find a little hole in the dike” and all too often it is the ignorance of the observer who lacks the knowledge to differentiate between a defect and a design feature.

  14. I agree that the rationalfaiths post is inaccurate and, frankly, silly. And that the Church is not in Apostasy, speaking collectively and not individually (compare D&C 1:30).

    But I think it is important to correct the misperception that this post raises that this silly theory has been published in BYU Studies and the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies. (“For being published in BYU Studies and Book of Mormon Studies, his article is flimsy in documentation.”) It has not. I am aware of an effort at M* to try to discredit the Church’s and BYU’s work through its Maxwell Institute based Daniel Peterson’s and Bill Hamblin’s descriptions of developments there. Could this claim that BYU is publishing material suggesting that the Church might be in apostasy be part of that effort to discredit the Maxwell Institute? If so, it should be noted that BYU Studies is not part of the Maxwell Institute. In addition, this theory was not published in either BYU Studies or the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies.

  15. This article above, and many of the comments, brings to mind the phrase, ‘straining at gnats’.

    Mormonism in its various guises has been on the church for circa 200 years. In a world of 7 Billion people (all claimed children of God present in the pre-existence) it has an actual attending membership of about 5 million people (this is easy to determine based on church data leaked in a recent presentation and average ward sizes verses average attendance).

    Yet the Jehovahs Witnesses who started later have 8 million active attendees. Taylor Swift the pop star has more followers on Twitter, achieved in her short career than the church has been able to gain.

    One might reasonably ask, how can this plan of salvation be so ineffective that most of the world is not remotely persuaded it is genuine or more than another quirky religious group?

    The lack of success does not appear supportive of the idea of inspired leadership. 200 years is a long time.

    One could also ask, why is the church so ineffectual when it comes to responding to critics claims about genuinely concerning issues in church history? Would God really be so poor at making his one true church consistent in doctrine and history so as to actually create most of the problems that critics can now fairly level at it.

    Everything from the facsimiles in the BOA that have been conclusively proven to show that Smith did not get the translations even close, but in fact was utterly wrong on all of it. To the documented lies issues by Smith in writing to members and given from the stand stating that the church did not teach or secretly practice or believe in plural marriage, when he was not only aware of it but was already practicing it himself. It makes it absolutely irrefutable that smith lied on the record on multiple occasions over a ten year period – in direct contradiction to the commandment that ‘Thou Shalt Not Bear False Witness’.

    Smith claimed revelation after revelation. The first vision is the first lesson missionaries teach. For some odd reason it is perfectly okay to discuss the first vision, to discuss Paul on the road to damascus, to discuss an Angel appearing to Laman and Lemuel, but not remotely ok for a living member of the Q15 to admit directly that they have actually seen God or Christ or an Angel in the flesh?

    Instead we hear this obfuscation, this intentionally vague statement designed to deceive about ‘how some things are too sacred to discuss’???? So we can discuss the atonement but we can’t discuss whether someone has genuinely be called as an apostle? The one thing these men are supposed to do, bear a witness of the actual living nature of Jesus Christ as a testimony founded on the experience of actually seeing the living Christ, but no, they now use some further obscuration about ‘Witnesses to the name of christ’ – what does that even mean?

    These are reasonable questions, and in reading the comments made by Corbin, i too felt they were reasonable questions. If it is not alright to question, if it is not alright to discuss this openly and share or engage in meaningful exchanges that robustly and conclusively resolve confusions then what really is the point of the church? To not tell the story in a factual way that stands up to scrutiny? To not declare a witness that meets biblical criteria, to not be consistent in historical statements?

    As you can tell, i am no longer active. I went from fully active to someone who walked away based on reading the clear evidence of the lies and deceptions in history. I could not in good conscience remain party to something that did not adhere to the standards i’d signed up to. I chose to leave the church for the sake of righteousness, in defence of honesty. As much as i loved Smith the character, as much as i loved being LDS and the sense of community, as much as i loved the idea of eternal life, misrepresentation and fraud isn’t truth. And it is an awful shame that it isn’t true.

    But it is my responsibility to have the courage to face up to the conclusions from the data.

    I wish you all well as individuals, but the hubris with which many of these comments are given for such a tiny organisation that is struggling to make any meaningful membership growth just seems completely at odds with reality.

  16. I know the FP and Q12 receive revelation because *I* have received revelation.

    I know that bishops and stake presidents receive revelation because I receive revelation.

    If such an idiot and unworthy servant as I can receive revelation, then men who are far more worthy and obedient can receive revelation.

    If I can receive revelation, then any idiot can receive revelation.

    If person A declares that the FP and Q12 aren’t receiving or can’t be receiving revelation, then person A is effectively admitting that _he_ hasn’t received or is receiving revelation.

  17. Um Darren, do Taylor swifts fans tithe 10% and do hours of community service? Does sitting through 3 hours of church equalize to pushing a facebook button? Do the scriptures state that the highest activity rate equals the true church? Did Jesus give the payable of the ten virgins to imply that all members who were in his true church would be well prepared?. Methinks you’re comparing apples to oranges and making unjustified assumptions. Just a thought, why would you do such silly things? Do you have some sort of ulterior motive, or do you not recognize the logical fallacies you’re committing?. Honest minds want to know.

  18. “Methinks you’re comparing apples to oranges”

    I’d say it’s more like he’s comparing apples and confetti; at least apples and oranges are edible fruit, so there is some comparison possible.

  19. Trond –

    you need to work on your reading comprehension. The “published in BYU studies” refers to the author, not the specific linked piece.

    And there is no concerted effort at M* to discredit BYU, so the conspiracy theories you’re proposing (based on misreadings) really come across as somewhat odd.

  20. I have to agree with you Ivan. That is a silly misreading of what this article is saying. In fact, I just posted a link to one of my own M* posts based on a positive review of a book produced by BYU about the Apostasy. I have never read anything here about the Maxwell Institute, even if some of us do have some concerns as individuals. Seems like one of those “TBMs are all the same” beliefs that attribute words and actions of some onto all those who are stereotyped.

  21. Seems as though it might be time to surrender my faith in Jesus Christ as the Son of God and Savior of the world. After all, His messaging was so bad, most of His relatives didn’t believe in Him and most of the people who “witnessed” His miracles refused to follow Him. His proselyting was so poor that at the time of His death His followers, expressed as a percentage of world population, probably didn’t even show up as a rounding error. His ability to establish a religion was so poor that His own church didn’t survive more than a few decades after His death. Of his chief followers, one betrayed Him, one denied Him three times, one told lies about his conversion story, and the balance ran away from Him at the moment of His greatest need. One would think that if he truly was the Premortal God of the Old Testament, he would have understood how to better present His message, organize a viable church and choose more honest and upright leadership.

  22. Well said, Pantheril.

    Besides, the Lord put the question of numbers and popularity to rest long ago when he said, “The Lord did not set his name upon you, nor choose you, because ye were more in number than any people; for ye were the fewest of all people: but because the Lord loved you, and because he would keep the oath which he had sworn unto your fathers .. .; Deuteronomy 7:7-8

    To set up popularity or wide-spread acceptance as indicia of truthfulness is so manifestly incoherent in the face of history’s evidence as to leave one speechless.

  23. 1st Nephi 14:12 “…I beheld the church of the Lamb of God, and its numbers were few, because of the wickedness and abominations of the whore who sat upon many waters; nevertheless, I beheld that the church of the Lamb, who were the saints of God, were also upon all the face of the earth…”

    It seems to me the Book of Mormon, as translated by Joseph Smith, has things pegged just right–a church that is spread all over the face of the earth, whose numbers are few.

Comments are closed.