An Ambiguous Ecclesiastical Constitution: The Authority of the President

In a previous post I mentioned that "the leading councils of the Church have the right to establish doctrine," but deliberately avoided specifics. This is because my main point was that we should not get too hung up on "doctrine" in thinking about factual matters subject to scientific investigation (such as evolution), as "doctrine" may primarily represent the community's need for bounds on official discourse, and may not correspond precisely with ontological reality.

Still, the issue of how the leading councils of the Church establish doctrine is an interesting and nontrivial one. A major textual resource---an ecclesiastical constitution, essentially---is Section 107 of the Doctrine and Covenants, which will be considered here in isolation. This section defines the leading councils and describes their relationships to one another. To put it gently, this section contains several subtleties, or complexities, or ambiguities. (No need to gratuitously unnerve anyone with the word "contradictions"!) This post examines one of these ambiguities: Does the President of the Church have ultimate authority?

The authority conferred upon the "President of the High Priesthood of the Church; Or, in other words, the Presiding High Priest over the High Priesthood of the Church" (D&C 107:65-66) is extensive, as described in two passages.

The first description of the President's authority concerns the administration of ordinances. "From the same comes the administering of ordinances and blessings upon the church, by the laying on of the hands" (D&C 107:67). Perhaps this is the source of the notion that the President of the Church holds all the keys, usually described as the authority to direct how the priesthood is exercised---that is, when and by whom ordinances are performed. As indicated, he may delegate these keys to others.

The second description of the President's authority is more broad:
And again, the duty of the President of the office of the High Priesthood is to preside over the whole church, and to be like unto Moses—--

Behold, here is wisdom; yea, to be a seer, a revelator, a translator, and a prophet, having all the gifts of God which he bestows upon the head of the church. (D&C 107:65-66)
It is a comprehensive description, in both scope of authority ("over the whole church") and access to divine power and knowledge ("all the gifts of God").

As it so happens, there are also two passages suggesting limitations on the President's authority.

The first "limitation" passage comes in a description of the First Presidency, before the office of President is even specifically mentioned. The First Presidency's decisions
must be by the unanimous voice of the same...

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, who were ordained after the order of Melchizedek, and were righteous and holy men. (D&C 107:27,29)
This seems to be a clear indication that the united voice of the First Presidency carries greater weight than the President acting alone.

The second limitation on the President's authority arises out of a discussion of a bishop's authority as a "judge in Israel," which includes authority "to sit in judgment upon transgressors" (see D&C 107:68-84). The "most difficult cases...shall be handed over and carried up unto the council of the church, before the Presidency of the High Priesthood" [that is, the First Presidency], who "shall have power to call other high priests, even twelve, to assist as counselors" (D&C 107:78-79). It is specifically noted that
There is not any person belonging to the church who is exempt from this council of the church.

And inasmuch as a President of the High Priesthood shall transgress, he shall be had in remembrance before the common council of the church, who shall be assisted by twelve counselors of the High Priesthood;

And their decision upon his head shall be an end of controversy concerning him.

Thus, none shall be exempted from the justice and the laws of God, that all things may be done in order and in solemnity before him, according to truth and righteousness. (D&C 107:81-84)
Hence the President's authority does not extend to preventing judgment upon him by a council consisting of the other members of the First Presidency and twelve counselors chosen by them.

There is a sense among members of the Church of supreme authority vested in the President of the Church. In D&C 107 there is some language that might be invoked to support this idea, but there also seem to be clear limitations. Implications for the establishment of doctrine will be deferred to a later post, after other ambiguities in this constitutional document have been explored.


I wonder if it's taking longer for us to respond to this because we don't know if we want to bite.

I find little ambiguity in the verses you cite. I find it reassuring that there exists checks on the potential for dictatorial authority in Sec 107. The idea that the prophet holds all the authority and yet is still subject to councils of the church is helpful for us as we make decisions regarding what to believe and follow. That there needs to be at least agreement among the First Presidency (and recently that seems to have expanded with the Proclamation on the Family and the Living Christ to include the Quorum of the Twelve) provides safeguards against someone running away with the Church down some obscure doctrinal track.

This is interesting in the context of the accepted history that Brigham (as President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles or "twelve counselor of the High Priesthood") received the keys prior to Joseph's death, and that Sidney Rigdon was left without any authority even though he was in the "Presidency of the High Priesthood." It is interesting that there isn't a section describing the transition of power and that the keys fall to the President of the Twelve upon the death of the prophet. 

Posted by Mike Wilson

4/29/2005 09:08:00 AM  

Mike, thanks for commenting. I hope you didn't take the trouble to comment just so a post wouldn't have a goose-egg! Jeffrey and Jared have expressed that they're not too interested in this topic, but I was curious if Greg or Gary might be.

I agree that nowadays the Presidents seem much more careful to speak and act in a united way with the leading councils. Some may feel that Joseph and Brigham taught or did some things quasi-unilaterally that, some might feel, did not turn out too well.

Your comments about the Twelve are interesting, and hopefully I'll get around to a subsequent post on what Section 107 has to say about the Twelve. 

Posted by Christian Y. Cardall

4/30/2005 12:13:00 PM  

Christian: The council that presides at a trial of the president of the Church is not composed of the other members of the first presidency, but rather of the presiding bishopric, or at least that is how John A. Widstoe read this passage in Priesthood and Church Government . I think that to make sense of this section it has to be embedded in some broader notion of Mormon constitutionalism so that we know how to read this particular text. As you may have guessed, this is all a wind-up for two posts of mine on this topic (particularlly section 107). See:

"The English Nature of the Mormon Constitution" 
"Excommunicating the President of the Church (and some possible complications)" 

Posted by Nate Oman

5/02/2005 07:05:00 AM  

Nate, thanks for the links, and the tip on the Presiding Bishopric, and the Widtsoe source.

The key phrase is "the common council of the church" in v. 82. I notice now that there's a cross reference on the word "common" that refers to v. 74 which speaks of a "common judge." Strangely, different from my usual practice, preparing thoughts for this post I was lounging in a large comfortable chair with my feet on an ottoman, with a new, fancy, large, leather-bound, family-bible-style edition of the D&C without footnotes, and using a 3x5 card to take handwritten notes---so I failed to see the footnote in both the standard LDS edition and the web version. (I must have been doing this to trick my wife into thinking I was simply studying the scriptures, when really I was blogging in analog mode!)

While writing the post I considered commenting on the lack of specificity of the phrase "the common council of the church," but didn't in the end because the post was already long, and I thought I had it figured out: v. 78 refers to "the council of the church...the Presidency of the High Priesthood," which lacks the word "common," but is otherwise very similar. Also, v. 81 seems to form a segue into the section on trying the President (as you can see from how I chose to quote the section in the post), and the antecedent of "this council" in v. 81 is clearly the council composed of the FP + 12 chosen counselors spoken of in v. 79.

I think these two elements would be enough to make a good argument for my reading of "the common council of the church"---except for the historical precedent of using the Presiding Bishopric to try members of the First Presidency, and also the strong (possibly decisive) hint in v. 76. But there are two interesting wrinkles here too: (1) the special procedure from v. 81 on only speaks of trying the President , not other members of the First Presidency; and (2) v. 76 doesn't specify how many counselors the Bishop is supposed to have; 12 are only specified in connection with the FP. Hence the historical use (trusting your sources) of a Presiding Bishop + 12 counselors to try a counselor in the F.P. involved constituted a...I don't know, take your pick among "improvisation," "interpolation," or "extrapolation." 

Posted by Christian Y. Cardall

5/02/2005 03:39:00 PM  



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