Notes Toward an Understanding of the Fourth Question in the Temple Recommend Interview

Do you sustain the President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as the Prophet, Seer, and Revelator and as the only person on the earth who possesses and is authorized to exercise all priesthood keys? Do you sustain members of the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles as prophets, seers, and revelators? Do you sustain the other General Authorities and local authorities of the Church?

1. Note, first, the “and” in the first sentence. This is where we should begin. “Priesthood” and “prophethood” are not the same thing, and if we are to fully grasp the function of each we need to understand the distinction. Scripturally speaking, “prophet” is not an ecclesiastical office. No one is ordained to be a prophet, and nor does the role necessarily confer ecclesiastical authority (that is, governing responsibility in a religious hierarchy). On the other hand, in the LDS tradition men are ordained to priesthood, and the role bears with it ecclesiastical responsibility and authority. Insofar as Mormons use the term “prophet” to mean “the man in charge of the church” (a colloquial usage that developed in the mid-twentieth century), they are conflating a distinction that exists in the Bible, in Latter-day Saint scripture, and in this question.

1a. In the Bible, the distinction is made archetype in Moses and Aaron. Moses was a prophet; Aaron, a priest. The distinction between the two is common both in Jewish and Christian Biblical interpretation and in the sociology of religion. In brief: the prophet’s authority derives directly from divine commission; the priest’s authority derives from ordination at the hands of another priest.[1] The prophet’s authority is reformative and transformative; prophets call for renewal and repentance and restoration and thus commonly come from outside existing religious hierarchy. Priestly authority is bound to stability, continuity, and the maintenance of institutions. Prophetic authority is charismatic and spiritual; priestly authority is spiritual and institutional. Both are critical: Priests ensure the preservation of tradition in memory and in ritual worship, thus giving the people identity, and values; prophets disrupt and reset those things when they require disrupting and resetting. The priest represents the people to God, supervising and offering ritual worship; the prophet represents God to the people, offering correction and instruction.

1b. These definitions are not simply sociological; they are scriptural. Prophecy is described as a spiritual gift in in Romans 12, 1 Corinthians 12, and Moroni 10; it derives directly from the divine, not from ordination. When God calls prophets, as he does in 1 Nephi 1, Isaiah 6, or Ezekiel 1, among other places, they are often told that they will garner opposition, frequently from religious leaders. They are commanded universally to go forth preaching change, repentance, and reform. Their calls do not come through established lines of religious authority. The responsibility of the priest is described in Exodus 27-29, and throughout Leviticus, and in the Book of Mormon in Mosiah 23-25, and in all these passages is described in terms of ordination through religious leadership, with consequent pastoral and ritual responsibilities. The priest governs; the prophet cries repentance.

1c. One Biblical example will suffice: Amos 7:10-15 (NRSV):
Then Amaziah, the priest of Bethel, sent to King Jeroboam of Israel, saying, “Amos has conspired against you in the very center of the house of Israel; the land is not able to bear all his words. 11 For thus Amos has said, ‘Jeroboam shall die by the sword, and Israel must go into exile away from his land.’” 12 And Amaziah said to Amos, “O seer, go, flee away to the land of Judah, earn your bread there, and prophesy there; 13 but never again prophesy at Bethel, for it is the king’s sanctuary, and it is a temple of the kingdom.” 14 Then Amos answered Amaziah, “I am no prophet, nor a prophet’s son; but I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees, 15 and the LORD took me from following the flock, and the LORD said to me, ‘Go, prophesy to my people Israel.’

Note two things in particular: first, the clear distinction being made here between the priest who defends the established order of things and the prophet who condemns them, and Amos’s clear confession that he has no training, institutional authority, or office, but simply a call from God.

1d. This is not to say that prophets did not (or do not) hold priesthood (as Mormons understand the concept) or vice versa; far from it. It is to say that the roles are distinct and we should not conflate them. Latter-day Saint scripture asserts that Moses was ordained to priesthood, but his call to prophecy came through different channels, and he is directed to delegate priestly responsibilities to Aaron.  Jeremiah and Ezekiel were born into priestly families but don’t appear to have exercised much priestly function. Isaiah was born into a noble rather than priestly family. Samuel alone appears to have functioned both as a priest and prophet. No other Biblical figures appear to have been both. Indeed, often the prophets reside at the margins of society, challenging institutional power instead of administering the tasks of religious worship. Think of Elijah, who dwelt in the desert, Jeremiah, whose home the people of Jerusalem burned down, Ezekiel, a captive in Babylon.

1e. This pattern holds true in the Book of Mormon. There is no record in the Book of Mormon of Lehi being ordained a priest, and indeed he would not have served in the temple priesthood because he was not a Levite but of the tribe of Manasseh.[2] Abinadi holds no apparent place in the religious leadership of his day; he seems, simply, an average man with no particular distinction other than a divine call. In Mosiah 11:20 he echoes Amos quite strikingly, claiming simply that “Thus saith the Lord, and thus hath he commanded me, saying, Go forth, and say unto this people . . .” The Nephites reject Samuel the Lamanite precisely because he presents no conventional sign of authority to them. None seem to hold any institutional authority whatsoever.

1f. Prophets also tend to be explicitly identified as prophets in scripture. Those who are not identified as prophets include Adam and Abraham (who are patriarchs), David and Solomon (who are kings), and so on. Mormons today, because of the conflation identified in (1) tend to want to assign prophethood to anybody who seems to be in charge, but there appear to be long stretches of both Biblical and Book of Mormon history in which there are no prophets, perhaps because the disruption identified in 1(a) is not at any given time necessary. There are, however, nearly always priests, because it is the priest’s job to sustain the spiritual health of the community. Priests, not prophets, are the sources of institutional structure and government.

1g. Nor is it the case that through scripture only one prophet is present at a time; frequently throughout the Bible we hear of multiple prophets, as in 1 Kings 18 or Acts 11.

1h. Finally, of course, thinking of prophecy as a spiritual gift rather than an institutional or priestly office makes it evident why women, who under Mosaic law were left out of institutional priestly authority, are explicitly identified as prophets in Exodus 15:20, Judges 4:4, 2 Kings 22:14, Nehemiah 6:14, Isaiah 8:3, and Luke 2:36.

2. Such are the Bible and the Book of Mormon. What of the LDS church? Critically, Joseph Smith was called as a prophet before he held priesthood and before he was ordained to any office; as with scriptural figures, his prophethood derived from divine commission. It is often observed—as, for, instance, by Richard Bushman—that Smith eventually combined the roles of prophet and priest. This is to some extent true, but I would maintain that if we are to properly understand the importance of both prophecy and ordinance, it’s important not to conflate the two, or to neglect one on behalf of the other.

2a. The Doctrine and Covenants offers official titles for the president of the church. D&C 107:65-66 identifies the president of the church as “President of the High Priesthood of the Church; or, in other words, the Presiding High Priest over the High Priesthood of the Church.” This priestly role is critical. As per Exodus 27, the priest was to supervise the tabernacle or temple; as per Leviticus 6 to ensure the fire on the altar of God was kept burning; as per Leviticus 10 to teach the children of Israel the law of God. This is what Mormons call “presiding” today. It is the work of ensuring that ordinances are performed correctly and offering instruction and guidance. It is what the church’s priestly hierarchy does.

2b. For the first hundred or so years of the church’s history, church presidents were commonly referred to as “president;” the title “prophet” was generally reserved to Joseph Smith. Sociologically speaking, this makes sense; Smith, of course, was the disruptor, the course corrector, and those who followed him primarily strengthened and guarded the institution he created. These are precisely the roles of the prophet and the priest, respectively, and Brigham Young, for instance, understood this. The argument he offered for the leadership of his Quorum of the Twelve after the death of Joseph Smith was an essentially priestly one: the Twelve had to lead because they had been instructed in Smith’s new temple rites and saw it as their duty to extend them to the body of the church; because of that they alone had the authority to administer the church, the classic role of the priest.

2c. But of course, in January 1847, two and a half years after he claimed leadership of the church but nearly a year before he officially assumed the title of “president,” Brigham Young issued a declaration he called “The Word and the Will of the Lord” for the “camp of Israel.” Some forty years after that, Wilford Woodruff said “The Lord showed me by vision and revelation exactly what would take place if we did not stop” the practice of polygamy. And eighty-eight years after that, Spencer W. Kimball reported a “revelation” which ended the ban on participation in priesthood office and temple rites for members of African descent.

2d. Note that each of these revelations—these acts of prophecy—fulfill the prophetic function as modeled by the Hebrew and Book of Mormon prophets. They reoriented the focus of God’s people, prodded the Saints toward a reconceptualization of what it meant to be a Latter-day Saint, and transformed both belief and social order. They upended calcified tradition with the Word of God.

3. Clearly, then, the prophetic role persists alongside the priestly role; the church president functions as a prophet as well as a priest. It is important, though, to recall three things:

3a. Calling the president of the church “the prophet” too easily obscures the priestly function of the office of ‘president,’ which is as important as the prophetic role, and quite evidently the one in which the president of the church functions for a good deal of his time. Neglecting the priestly role of the president of the church through overemphasis of the prophetic role is to neglect those pastoral, ritual, and everyday functions of the church which weld together its community, which impart tradition and history and covenant and a past remembered in word and in action.

3b. Prophecy is not a superpower. Nor is it an ability that one is ordained to wield. Prophecy is a spiritual gift. It is an act of God rather than an act of human beings. To affirm the president of the church is a “prophet” is to affirm that God speaks to this person when God deems it necessary. It declares faith in the word and will of the Lord, not faith in the abilities of a human being.

3c. This, of course, is nothing that the holders of that office would deny, or have denied.

__

[1] Note that I’m using ‘priest’ here, and throughout, as a generic term for one holding priestly office in a religious hierarchy, not the specific Latter-day Saint office of ‘priest.’

[2] I’m aware of pages 181-183 of Joseph Fielding Smith’s edited Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, in which Smith claims that all prophets have held the Melchizedek priesthood.  This certainly may be, but note as well that holding priesthood does not mean what I mean by ‘priest’ as defined in footnote 1. That is, Amos or Lehi may have held something like what Mormons today call the Melchizedek priesthood, but that seems to have made no difference in terms of their relationship to the priestly hierarchy of the time, which was in a word bad.

Comments

  1. Good stuff. But why is the post titled “Notes Toward an Understanding of the Fourth Question in the Temple Recommend Interview” and not “Notes Toward an Understanding of the Terms ‘Prophet’ ‘Seer’ and ‘Revelator'”? I guess what I’m saying is that I wanted more from you connecting the dots between your discussion and the fourth temple recommend question. But I’m just being lazy, I know.

  2. Aaron Brown says:

    Scandalous!

  3. Nice post. It should be noted that the definition of priesthood we use today in Mormondom (authority to act or speak for the Lord) is a modern development. It does not appear in the Bible or the Book of Mormon. This is why no other church speaks of “holding” the priesthood. Priesthood to them isn’t something you can hold. It is the fact or condition of being a priest, just as parenthood is the fact or condition of being a parent. Priesthood can also refer to the body of priests, just as neighborhood is a body of neighbors. The modern LDS definition of priesthood did not exist in 1830 or 1831 or 1832. Early references to priesthood in LDS documents are all consistent with the biblical definition. The modern definition developed over time, as did the narrative of priesthood restoration that we now accept.

  4. Kevin Barney says:

    Good stuff.

  5. To anybody who’s kind of thought these things through, this post is a formulation of something they already accepted at some level. For somebody who hasn’t, this is brilliant.

  6. Isn’t there also a time of 24 apostles with possibly 2 prophets if we count the NT 12 along with the BOM 12 at the time of Jesus visitation in 3 Nephi?

  7. Thank you for writing this, juuust in time. I can’t get over how helpful 3b is in assuaging my anxieties over being able to renew my recommend this month with an honest heart.

    “To affirm the president of the church is a ‘prophet’ is to affirm that God speaks to this person when God deems it necessary. It declares faith in the word and will of the Lord, not faith in the abilities of a human being.”

  8. Yes and? I mean, if you’ve asked this question in a temple recommend interview enough times you know exactly what is being asked. Do you recognize the current President of the Church as God’s mouthpiece and the one who has the right of stewardship over His Church here on Earth.

    I appreciate the distinctions and exploration of the terms and its certainly helpful. But each question in the Temple Recommend interview has a shortcut for what it is really asking. This one wants to make sure you accept the current leadership in their stewardship and the President in his responsibilities for the keys of the Priesthood.

  9. I think that this is a pretty smart analysis, and one that tracks pretty well with the other parts of the trifecta, e.g., “seer.”

  10. This is really helpful, particularly acknowledging the role as both representing God and representing the membership to God, but especially in recognizing that sometimes (usually) church leaders are protecting the institution’s security through administrative means (status quo) and other times they are pivoting away from institutional security to change course when prompted by God (prophecy). Which sheds new, needed light on various policy changes. When policy is bolstering status quo, it’s not prophetic.

  11. I first learned of this distinction in college, in a political science article that compared the “pirestly” and “prophetic” modes of political discourse: the priestly mode being, basically, jingoism, and the prophetic being that which awakens the national conscience. It was a little weird at first, but that’s just for it being unfamiliar. Once you know it, you see the distinction pretty clearly in scripture.

    I like what this does to our idea of sustaining. If prophecy is a gift of the spirit, rather than something you get by ordination, then sustaining the President of the Church or the other general authorities as prophets as well as presiding priests means praying for the Lord to give them the gift of prophecy as much as it means simply recognizing their authority as presiding priests. Sustaining is an active exercise of faith on their behalf rather than just a passive acceptance of their authority.

  12. Alain is onto something. There is what the words mean and then there is what the question means. Do you accept the presiding high priest? There are a lot of terms that have changed over time and prophet is definitely used more broadly than it used to be. Think of the articles of faith and how we say that we believe in pastors and evangelists without ever hearing anyone set apart to those offices or callings, and in the original version it said faith, repentance, baptism, and confirmation are ordinances rather than principles and ordinances. It was only a couple years ago that I found out that the temple recommend question about associating with groups whose teachings are contrary to the church is actually referring to polygamy.

  13. This was intelligently well written and helps explain the relationship netween David O McKay, the Q15, B.H. Roberts and Sterling McMurrin when the latter two vocally advocated against the priesthood ban on worthy men of African origin. In that particular scenario B.H.Roberts and Sterling McMurrin were fulfilling the role of prophet, as defined in this article. That has interesting implications. Well written and well done. Thank you.

  14. I was a little flippant in my original response.The Recommend questions if anything outline critical elements of the doctrine as well as the boundaries of completely faithful membership. I greatly appreciate what Matt has done here in examining the meaning behind the words within the 4th question and how they are treated both scripturally and historically. I think there is great value in understanding the words we use and what they mean in the context of the roles and actual doctrine. I don’t think we, as a membership, spend enough time thinking at this level.

    At the same time I was serious in saying there is an underlying reason why each question is in place and in general that also has a historical basis. There have been some explorations of how the questions have changed over time here and elsewhere in the Mormon blogosphere and in some of the more broad minded publications. But I personally think we should spend more time parsing and discussing exactly what those questions mean as I feel that would have a twofold benefit: 1) reducing leadership roulette and 2) enhancing the doctrinal understanding of the terms we use on a regular basis in our Church-speak.

    In my experience most new counselors in a Bishopric receive very little training on how to think about the questions. And even if they are trained it’s dependent on who trained the leader (Bishop, Stake President, High Councilor) who advises the new counselor. Because once you’ve been a counselor or a Bishop, it’s generally assumed you know what’s going on with the TR questions. If a new wrinkle, like say same sex marriage / attraction, gains greater attention there may be discussion as a Bishopric or a Bishop’s council to how that fits, say, in the context of question #7 but otherwise it is assumed you know what is being asked.

    This is why as a new Counselor I started digging. I wanted to understand where the questions came from, what the wording means, what are they really asking and how they are often misinterpreted. I asked how should we think about these questions differently in the context of interviewing a 12 year old Deacon or Beehive vs interviewing a long married man or woman who has extensive experience in leadership? The answer could be, “Let the Spirit guide you,” but man there is a great deal of room for misinterpretation especially around questions 5,6,7, and 11.

    So I often used the recommend discussion as an opportunity to see how members, especially youth, understood the questions. Not in a probing manner – I let the questions speak for themselves and fundamentally believe the first 14 provide a framework for the single most important question which is the last one: does the member understand the concept of worthiness and consider themselves worth to enter the temple? Yes a leader has a responsibility to seek inspiration if there is something wrong – which sometimes comes – but it really comes down to an honor system that makes the interview really an extension of the covenants between the member and the Lord.But there is a teaching opportunity sometimes within the questions to help each of us think about what that signed recommend really represents, as President Hunter stated, “access to the great symbol of our membership.”

  15. There does seem to be a need for wider discussion of what the words may mean and what the questions may mean, but I hope it never becomes definitive. Letting the questions stand for themselves as far as the institutional Church and the temple recommend interview are concerned, allows the individual to consider what they mean to them in connection with the final worthiness question. I have sometimes advised people not to explore the meaning of the question in the midst of an interview. I have seen too many interviewers who would insist that their individual understandings of the questions are the standard for all the Church and a standard of temple worthiness. The increased discussion should aim at expanding the range of the interviewees’ understandings of the questions, not at a more definitive checklist by which to judge unworthiness.

  16. JR, precisely where I try to lead the discussion. Not looking for definitives and I generally wouldn’t explore the question unless there seems an interest on the part of the member.

  17. Thanks for this, Matt. It’s both cogent and helpful.

    Also, amen to JR. I genuinely appreciate the openness to conscience in the refusal to give official interpretations of the questions (although I’ve seen plenty of people violate this direction over the years).

  18. Carl Youngblood says:

    The distinction between president and prophet was one of the main points I touched on in my recent presentation at the 2017 annual conference of the Mormon Transhumanist Association:

  19. I’ll second Jason K’s “cogent and helpful.” So far as it goes
    .
    Next questions:
    1. Having addressed the “and”, now let’s talk about the “the”-s. “The prophet” (or is it “The Prophet” and does that matter?) What is the precedent and/or meaning of the singular? What does it mean when the whole Q15 are sustained as PS&R? Does “the only person . . . keys” bring into play all the machinery of “one and only true church”? Is there any other way to read it?
    2. As a practical question-answering matter, how does one think about the conjunction? What if, for example one comes away from the OP reasonably settled on The President as The Only, but not as The (singular) Prophet? And/or not necessarily at the same time? After all, the conjunction of priestly and prophetic roles is unusual, even extraordinary.

  20. We do say “the Prophet Joseph Smith”, and from then on say “President Young, President Taylor, etc.” And I think that is correct. The problem is that we come out shouting that “prophets have been restored in our day”. Which would then naturally lead one to ask “Who is the prophet today?” And if we answered with “We’re not really sure. There might not actually be one right now, because there isn’t a need for a great shakeup. But once the Lord does see the need to make use of one, we’ll know.” it would be odd.
    Plus, if the doctrine/policy of the church was “There’s a President of the church, but the Lord might call someone else spontaneously to be the Prophet, but only tell the person being called. There will be tension between the President and the Prophet; and it’ll be up to you to decide in which camp you want to belong to.” That would be weird, and seem like God is trying to confuse us.
    While I would prefer to setup where the President of the church is being transfigured on a regular basis to receive direction on guidance on every little thing; I don’t mind the setup of there being a President whom the Lord will talk to, should course changes be required, but in the interim keeps things going in the direction as previously directed.

  21. John Mansfield says:

    There is another kind of Old Testament prophet, the kind who was part of a body of prophets. The hundred that Obadiah hid and fed, or the four hundred who told Jehosaphat and Ahab to go up against Ramoth-gilead. Were these groups of prophets organized into orders?

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