Wednesday, April 27, 2005

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.

[This is cross-posted from Mormon Evolution: A Quest for Reconciliation. Please go to the original post to comment.]