Question: How does official teaching of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints view those that receive revelation that contradicts that of the Prophet?

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Question: How does official teaching of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints view those that receive revelation that contradicts that of the Prophet?

Introduction

Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints believe in living prophets—men who literally can speak for God in our day.[1] They boldly and proudly proclaim that the heavens are open and that God speaks today on behalf of the entire human family through these prophets. Prophets speak for God by way of revelation. This revelation can sometimes constitute the Church's official position on policy or can represent what the Latter-day Saints believe to be eternal, unchanging truths.

Members of the Church enjoy the opportunity to hear from the prophet. They are encouraged to seek revelation of their own to know if God calls prophets today and if the current president of the Church is God’s authorized prophet today. They are also encouraged to seek revelation as to how best apply the words of the prophets into their daily lives.

Occasionally within the Church, there are claims by those who affirm to be members of the Church (and sometimes by those even outside of official Church membership) that they have received a revelation that contradicts revelation claimed by the prophet on behalf of the whole Church. These claims to revelation are spread publicly and often stir controversy among Latter-day Saints because of the opposition the person enacts against the Church leadership.

These moments are at once all familiar and confusing for mature Latter-day Saints. Such claims are heard frequently and to hear that revelation contradicts the prophet can cause some dissonance for those that are seeking to understand what Latter-day Saint doctrine can inform these epistemological discussions and provide answers to resolve these seemingly difficult problems.

This article will seek to identify principles and procedures that people can follow if they believe that they have received revelation that contradicts that of the President of the Church, the First Presidency, and/or the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. These will be sought for from the official scriptures and teachings of the leaders of the Church.

Five Things to Do in Case of Belief of Contradictory Revelation

1. As a first step, members ought to consider whether they are mistaken or misled.

Many members of the Church who find themselves in this situation ought to consider if they are simply wrong. President Dallin H. Oaks taught:

We cannot have the companionship of the Holy Ghost—the medium of individual revelation—if we are in transgression or if we are angry or if we are in rebellion against God’s chosen authorities.[2]

His words are supported by the official scriptures. According to them, the Spirit of God cannot abide in unclean hearts (hearts of people who have willfully sinned and/or rebelled against God) and to receive the First Presidency is to receive God.[3] If Latter-day Saints are in purposeful rebellion towards the leaders of the Church, it is believed that they may be in great danger of being deceived by false Spirits.[4] The scriptures teach clearly that the hearkening unto the revelation received by prophets is how members will not be deceived in the last days before Christ's second coming and how they can become like God--thereby achieving salvation and exaltation.[5] Several scriptures address how to discern the difference between true and false Spirits.[6] This may seem strange to Latter-day Saints that evil and/or unclean spirits might inspire this, but the Book of Mormon documents how this very thing happened among the Nephites.[7]

Latter-day Saints would also know that there are people who may intentionally want to be led by false Spirits--people that will spiritual experiences to pass that convince them of their own prophethood, so to speak. There are also those that might claim to have had a spiritual experience telling them that the prophets are wrong simply for the purpose of stirring up contention, mocking the epistemology of the Saints, and/or to simply troll. These are those that might be said to “pervert the Gospel.”[8]

President Oaks had another thing to say on this:

Closely related to this example is the person who has a strong desire to be led by the Spirit of the Lord but who unwisely extends that desire to the point of wanting to be led in all things. A desire to be led by the Lord is a strength, but it needs to be accompanied by an understanding that our Heavenly Father leaves many decisions for our personal choices. Personal decision making is one of the sources of the growth we are meant to experience in mortality. Persons who try to shift all decision making to the Lord and plead for revelation in every choice will soon find circumstances in which they pray for guidance and don’t receive it. For example, this is likely to occur in those numerous circumstances in which the choices are trivial or either choice is acceptable. We should study things out in our minds, using the reasoning powers our Creator has placed within us. Then we should pray for guidance and act upon it if we receive it. If we do not receive guidance, we should act upon our best judgment. Persons who persist in seeking revelatory guidance on subjects on which the Lord has not chosen to direct us may concoct an answer out of their own fantasy or bias, or they may even receive an answer through the medium of false revelation. Revelation from God is a sacred reality, but like other sacred things, it must be cherished and used properly so that a great strength does not become a disabling weakness.[9]

The scriptures confirm his teaching. We are told in Doctrine and Covenants 58:26-28 to not be commanded in all things and are bring about righteousness through our own agency.[10] Since, in Latter-day Saint theology, spirits and bodies are intricately connected into the entity we might call the soul,[11] it is easy to see why an emotional reaction may be over-interpreted as a spiritual impression. Latter-day Saints should seek more dynamic confirmation if they are unsure of the provenance of the impression itself. Prophets have warned us about mistaking emotion for revelation.

President Howard W. Hunter taught:

Let me offer a word of caution. . . . I think if we are not careful . . . , we may begin to try to counterfeit the true influence of the Spirit of the Lord by unworthy and manipulative means. I get concerned when it appears that strong emotion or free-flowing tears are equated with the presence of the Spirit. Certainly the Spirit of the Lord can bring strong emotional feelings, including tears, but that outward manifestation ought not to be confused with the presence of the Spirit itself.[12]

Lastly, members should remember the concept of stewardship. For example, only the President of the Church may receive revelations on behalf of the entire Church.[13] Only those members of the Church that are appointed to a particular office may receive revelation for that office. Again Elder Oaks:

First, we should understand what can be called the principle of “responsibility in revelation.” Our Heavenly Father’s house is a house of order, where his servants are commanded to “act in the office in which [they are] appointed."[14] This principle applies to revelation. Only the President of the Church receives revelation to guide the entire Church. Only the stake president receives revelation for the special guidance of the stake. The person who receives revelation for the ward is the bishop. For a family, it is the priesthood leadership of the family. Leaders receive revelation for their own areas of responsibility. Individuals can receive revelation to guide their own lives. But when one person purports to receive revelation for another person outside his or her own area of responsibility—such as a Church member who claims to have revelation to guide the entire Church or a person who claims to have a revelation to guide another person over whom he or she has no presiding authority according to the order of the Church—you can be sure that such revelations are not from the Lord. “There are counterfeit signals.”[15] Satan is a great deceiver, and he is the source of some of these spurious revelations. Others are imagined. If a revelation is outside the limits of your specific responsibility, you know it is not from the Lord and you are not bound by it.[16]

Members may feel some discouragement that it takes such effort to receive and recognize revelation; but this is, in a somewhat ironic way, strictly in line with the Lord's requirement for his people to be "tried in all things, that they may be prepared to receive the glory that [he has] for them, even the glory of Zion[.]"[17] Learning to receive and recognize revelation would logically not be an exception to such a requirement.

2. Members should pray to have their heart changed if this is necessary.

In the Book of Mormon, Nephi didn’t understand the meaning of his father Lehi’s vision. He was given the opportunity to either reject his father’s words or accept them. As a result of the confusion Nephi felt, he prayed to God to have his heart softened if necessary. All Latter-day Saints can learn from this example that Nephi set.[18] There may be things with which they do not fully agree with or understand at this moment. We learn from the Book of Mormon that a witness comes after the trial of faith.[19] We also learn that as one continues in light, that light can grow brighter and brighter until the perfect day.[20] Thus if we disagree with something right now, we may at some point grow in understanding of what has been revealed by prophets that we can reject the influence of false ideas and, yes, even false spirits that may have influenced us into believing something that wasn't true. A time of personal disagreement is fine. What isn’t fine for a person committed to the truths of Latter-day Saint theology is to not consider that one may be wrong and/or not approaching God with an honest heart seeking an answer from him when they have these types of questions. He promises that if we ask, will receive.[21]

3. Members should be patient.

Closely related to this last point, members should be patient. For Latter-day Saints, the answer to prayer as to if something is right may not come until a bit later.

Consider a case from President Brigham Young. Brigham Young talked about the first time Joseph Smith taught something that he didn’t and couldn’t believe. It happened when Joseph taught about three degrees of glory in heaven. Said Brigham:

I was not prepared to say that I believed it [three degrees of glory], and I had to wait. What did I do? I handed this over to the Lord in my feelings, and said I, ‘I will wait until the Spirit of God manifests to me, for or against.’ I did not judge the matter, I did not argue against it, not in the least. I never argued the least against anything Joseph proposed, but if I could not see or understand it, I handed it over to the Lord.[22]

Note that Brigham does not “blindly follow” Joseph. He does not start believing the doctrine simply because Joseph preached it. Brigham insisted that he have his own witness prior to believing.

Yet, Brigham did not go too far the other way either. He did not engage in learned debate, or publish an “alternative” newspaper (today such folks would probably start a blog or post on Facebook) detailing all the reasons why he did not believe what Joseph was teaching. He conformed his outward behavior in accordance with his covenants, but he did not abdicate his inner responsibility for building his testimony by confronting his sincere doubt and uncertainty. He waited for revelation, but he did not let that which he did not know destroy that which he did know.

If he had not taken this approach, he would never have gotten a revelation. There is an old adage in Latter-day Saint culture that says "faith precedes the miracle." Perhaps this can include the faith to simply be patient for revelation that we need.

President Boyd K. Packer cautioned:

There are those within the Church who are disturbed when changes are made with which they disagree or when changes they propose are not made. They point to these as evidence that the leaders are not inspired.

They write and speak to convince others that the doctrines and decisions of the Brethren are not given through inspiration.

Two things characterize them: they are always irritated by the word "obedience," and always they question revelation. It has always been so.[23]

As mentioned previously, in The Book of Mormon it is taught that one receives no witness until after the trial of their faith.[24] Latter-day Saints might consider this in their efforts to be patient in receiving the light and knowledge they need to be in line with the authorities of the Church.

4. If, after all this, we still believe we are being told that the leaders of the Church are wrong, we are still not authorized to publicly preach or urge a different course of action or teaching.

President George Q. Cannon observed:

We could conceive of a man honestly differing in opinion from the Authorities of the Church and yet not be an apostate; but we could not conceive of a man publishing these differences of opinion and seeking by arguments, sophistry and special pleading to enforce them upon the people to produce division and strife and to place the acts and counsels of the Authorities of the Church, if possible, in a wrong light, and not be an apostate, for such conduct was apostasy as we understood the term. We further said that while a man might honestly differ in opinion from the Authorities through a want of understanding, he had to be exceedingly careful how he acted in relation to such differences, or the adversary would take advantage of him, and he would soon become imbued with the spirit of apostasy and be found fighting against God and the authority which He had placed here to govern His Church.[25]

It’s important to know that Latter-day Saints can have differing opinions as to the efficacy of policy. Policy is a different matter entirely from revelation that teaches truths about heaven. Latter-day Saint scripture teaches that they are meant to seek all that is "virtuous, lovely, of good report, or praiseworthy" and use all disciplines to be better instructed in the Kingdom of God.[26] We may find things that may be helpful in supplementing the already good principles being used by the leaders of the Kingdom in building it up. As matters of policy and, more particularly, policy that is not claimed to have come by revelation, Church members may be free to agree and disagree and opine on ways the Church might improve through constructive dialogue. As matters of revelation that teach eternal truths, however, it’s difficult to conceive of a member that would go against revelations as received and approved by the top counsels of the Church. Such seems to be bad epistemology. It’s to ascribe a certain amount of self-delusion to the top leadership of the Church even when they’ve followed all necessary steps for making something official. The Doctrine and Covenants is explicit that a person cannot "lift up [their] heel" against the President of the Church and the other leaders and believe that they have sinned when they haven’t.[27] Are we sure that we want to deny that someone has received revelation when 15 people confirm the same thing? This type of theology also speaks to the ability that humans have in general to receive revelation from God. If humans can be wrong about receiving revelation even when unified in claiming that they have in regards to in particularity, then how much more ability does a regular person have to receive revelation that doesn't simply confirm their own biases? It’s to make it so that God’s word is not, in Latter-day Saint scriptural vernacular, "sharper than a two edged sword" and make it so that "the law hath no claim on a creature."[28]

5. Members may be taught things by revelation that may be true, and for their comfort, but it is still not their place to spread them publicly, use them to advocate for change, and so forth.

Another point closely related to this is to know how revelation that gives us a mystery not yet known to the general body of the Church is to be taught. The Book of Mormon teaches that there will be times when people will receive revelations that may provide them instruction about the mysteries of God. Nevertheless, whenever they’re given mysteries, they are, according to Latter-day Saint doctrine, to not preach that as revelation until such knowledge is given to everyone (presumably through the appointed prophet).[29]

Doctrine and Covenants 28:4-5 tells us that:

4 And if thou art led at any time by the Comforter to speak or teach, or at all times by the way of commandment unto the church, thou mayest do it.
5 But thou shalt not write by way of commandment, but by wisdom;

There may be times when the Spirit can prompt us to share our knowledge with someone, but it will likely be on a very individual basis and in private. That begs the question of how we'll know it's the Spirit that prompts us to share. We will recognize that the Spirit is the one that prompts us to share when we feel that it doesn't motivate us to share it as factual knowledge. It will not motivate us to go spread the information and stir up contention and strife among the Saints or stir up malice against the Church.[30]

Other Latter-day Saint prophets have taught similar things:

  • Brigham Young: “Should you receive a vision or revelation from the Almighty, one that the Lord gave you concerning yourselves, or this people, but which you are not to reveal on account of your not being the proper person, or because it ought not to be known by the people at present, you should shut it up and seal it . . . as secret as the grave. The Lord has no confidence in those who reveal secrets, for he cannot safely reveal himself to such persons.” [31]
  • Joseph F. Smith: “Not even a revelation from God should be taught to his people until it has first been approved by the presiding authority—the one through whom the Lord makes known His will for the guidance of the saints. . . .The spirit of revelation may rest upon any one, and teach him or her many things for personal comfort and instruction. But these are not doctrines of the Church, and, however true, they must not be inculcated [i.e., taught and distributed/published] until proper permission is given.” [32]
  • Joseph Fielding Smith: “If a man comes among the Latter-day Saints, professing to have received a vision or a revelation or a remarkable dream, and the Lord has given him such, he should keep it to himself. . . . the Lord will give his revelations in the proper way, to the one who is appointed to receive and dispense the word of God to the members of the Church.” [33]

As a matter of caution, it would be wise to again point out that the Book of Mormon records how Satan went about the land, stirring up contention among the Nephites with rumors, gossip, and false teachings. If there is a spirit that tells us that we should publicly disclose our revelation and seek to bring others to our side, this would likely need to be seen as coming from Satan. Members may be taught things for their instruction or their comfort, but they should not disclose those revelations unless prompted to by a true Spirit.

Conclusion

It’s not uncommon to hear difficult questions such as this one being leveled against the Church by its more secularist critics as if this were some sort of slam dunk on its epistemology. Although many members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints may feel confused by these questions and some not as well read in order to provide answers to these questions, the reality is that these epistemological questions have been answered by the official scriptures and teachings of leaders of the Church since the Church's inception. Understanding the previous principles and being able to articulate them to others will provide an excellent “reason for the hope that is within us” and help us to live more as Zion—as “one heart and one mind.”[34]

Notes

  1. This article is largely adapted from Gregory Smith, “What Should I Do If I Think I’ve Received Revelation Different from Apostles and Prophets?” <https://www.fairmormon.org/blog/2016/01/11/what-should-i-do-if-i-think-ive-received-revelation-different-from-apostles-and-prophets> (5 January 2019).
  2. Dallin H. Oaks, “Teaching and Learning by the Spirit,” Ensign 27 (March 1997): 14.
  3. (Helaman 4:24; Doctrine and Covenants 112:20, 30).
  4. (Doctrine and Covenants 50:1-3).
  5. (Moroni 7:20-25;; [https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/scriptures/pgp/js-m/1.37?lang=eng Joseph Smith - Matthew 1:37;).
  6. (Doctrine and Covenants 50:31-33; 52:14-19).
  7. (Helaman 16:22).
  8. (Alma 30:60).
  9. Dallin H. Oaks, “Our Strengths Can Become Our Downfall,” Ensign 24 (October 1994): 13-14.
  10. (Doctrine and Covenants 58:26-28).
  11. (Doctrine and Covenants 88:15).
  12. Clyde J. Williams ed., The Teachings of Howard W. Hunter, (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1997), 184.
  13. (Doctrine and Covenants 28:1-7).
  14. (Doctrine and Covenants 107:99).
  15. Boyd K. Packer, “Prayers and Answers,” Ensign 9 (November 1979): 19–20.
  16. Dallin H. Oaks, "Revelation," New Era 12 (September 1982).
  17. (Doctrine and Covenants 136:31).
  18. (1 Nephi 2:16).
  19. (Ether 12:6).
  20. (Doctrine and Covenants 50:24).
  21. (Matthew 7:7).
  22. Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses, 18:247 (23 July 1874).
  23. Boyd K. Packer, “Revelation in a Changing World,” Ensign 19 (November 1989): 16.
  24. (Ether 12:6)
  25. Deseret News editorial, George Q. Cannon, editor, impression of 3 November 1869; reprinted in George Q. Cannon, Gospel Truth, (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1974), 493.
  26. (Articles of Faith 1:13; Doctrine and Covenants 121:16).
  27. (Doctrine and Covenants 121:16).
  28. (Doctrine and Covenants 12:2; Alma 42:21).
  29. (Alma 12:9-10).
  30. 3 Nephi 11:29).
  31. Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses, 4:288 (15 March 1857); reprinted in Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Brigham Young, 41
  32. Joseph F. Smith Correspondence, Personal Letterbooks, 93–94, Film Reel 9, Ms. F271; cited in Dennis B. Horne (ed.), Determining Doctrine: A Reference Guide for Evaluating Doctrinal Truth, (Roy, UT: Eborn Books, 2005), 221–222. Also in Gary James Bergera, Statements of the LDS First Presidency, (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2007), 121.  Bergera indicates it is a letter from Joseph F. Smith to Lillian Golsan, 16 July 1902.
  33. Joseph Fielding Smith, Conference Report, (April 1938): 65–67; see also Joseph Fielding Smith, Doctrines of Salvation, comp. Bruce R. McConkie, 3 vols. (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1954–56), 1:288.

  34. (Phillipians 2:2; 1 Peter 3:15; Moses 7:18).