In the Sunday morning session of the April 2012 General Conference, Elder Christofferson delivered a message entitled, “The Doctrine of Christ”. He addressed the issue of persisting doctrinal confusions, talked about correcting doctrinal deviations, spoke concerning the overall power and authority of the President of the Church, and reaffirmed the teaching that a prophet is a prophet only when he is acting as such. He stated in part the following:
. . . We have seen of late a growing public interest in the beliefs of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. This is something we welcome because, after all, our fundamental commission is to teach the gospel of Jesus Christ, His doctrine, in all the world (see Matthew 28:19–20; D&C 112:28). But we must admit there has been and still persists some confusion about our doctrine and how it is established. That is the subject I wish to address today. . .
We value scholarship that enhances understanding, but in the Church today, just as anciently, establishing the doctrine of Christ or correcting doctrinal deviations is a matter of divine revelation to those the Lord endows with apostolic authority. . .
In 1954, President J. Reuben Clark Jr., then a counselor in the First Presidency, explained how doctrine is promulgated in the Church and the preeminent role of the President of the Church. Speaking of members of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, he stated: “[We] should [bear] in mind that some of the General Authorities have had assigned to them a special calling; they possess a special gift; they are sustained as prophets, seers, and revelators, which gives them a special spiritual endowment in connection with their teaching of the people. They have the right, the power, and authority to declare the mind and will of God to his people, subject to the over-all power and authority of the President of the Church.
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. But in the end, just as in the New Testament Church, the objective is not simply consensus among council members but revelation from God. It is a process involving both reason and faith for obtaining the mind and will of the Lord.
At the same time it should be remembered that not every statement made by a Church leader, past or present, necessarily constitutes doctrine. It is commonly understood in the Church that a statement made by one leader on a single occasion often represents a personal, though well-considered, opinion, not meant to be official or binding for the whole Church. The Prophet Joseph Smith taught that “a prophet [is] a prophet only when he [is] acting as such.”
President Clark, quoted earlier, observed: “To this point runs a simple story my father told me as a boy, I do not know on what authority, but it illustrates the point. His story was that during the excitement incident to the coming of [Johnston’s] Army, Brother Brigham preached to the people in a morning meeting a sermon vibrant with defiance to the approaching army, and declaring an intention to oppose and drive them back. In the afternoon meeting he arose and said that Brigham Young had been talking in the morning, but the Lord was going to talk now. He then delivered an address, the tempo of which was the opposite from the morning talk. …
“… The Church will know by the testimony of the Holy Ghost in the body of the members, whether the brethren in voicing their views are ‘moved upon by the Holy Ghost’; and in due time that knowledge will be made manifest.”
Does being sustained as prophets, seers, and revelators by the members of the church automatically give men a special spiritual endowment in connection with their teaching of the people? Does the sustaining vote of church members by common consent give the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve the right, the power, and authority to declare the mind and will of God to his people? How does a man become a prophet of God? What kind of servant does God ordain? D&C 50:26-29, D&C 18:31-38
What is required to become a servant of God who speaks His word, which “shall not pass away, but shall all be fulfilled, whether by mine own voice or by the voice of my servants, it is the same?” D&C 1:38 Is there a difference between a “holy man” and a “natural man”? If so, what? Is it necessary for a servant of God to first be redeemed from the fall, brought back into His presence, and become a holy man?
If God ordains and speaks through holy men, are God’s words subject to the overall power and authority of the President of the Church, who is sustained by the members of the church? Has God called, chosen, and ordained the President of the Church? Are the First Presidency and members of the Quorum of the Twelve all holy men who have been ordained by God? If not, why? If so, how did they become such? Would holy men ordained by God and acting in His name ever contradict each other?
Would it be necessary for a chosen servant, who is declaring the mind and will of God, to entertain council deliberations, which often include a weighing of canonized scriptures, the teachings of Church leaders, and past practice? In the light of knowing that not every statement made by a Church leader, past or present, necessarily constitutes doctrine, would the weighing of teachings of Church leaders and past practices be reliable and valid?
Would it be useful to know when a prophet is speaking as a prophet of God? Would it be valuable to know when the words of a prophet only represent a personal, though well-considered opinion, not meant to be official or binding for the whole Church? Would it be helpful to be able to recognize, discern, and know the difference between binding prophecies of God and the mere opinions of men? Would it be fundamental and essential to know when a man is talking nonsense versus when God is speaking with clarity and power?
Can those who claim to be endowed with apostolic authority change doctrine that was established before the foundation of the world? Can any natural man establish the doctrine of Christ? Can any council of men change it? Hasn’t the doctrine of Christ already been established? Many prophets have spoken plainly on this subject 2 Nephi 31 & 32. Can a man or group of men vote and, with authority, modify God’s ordinances or doctrines? Isaiah 24:5 Would God change the ordinances because he discovered he didn’t quite get it right the first time? Are altered ordinances valid? What ordinances have been changed in our day? Is the doctrine of Christ unchangeable, consistent, and reliable? Are there laws, irrevocably decreed in heaven before the foundations of this world, upon which all blessings are predicated? D&C 130:20