Responsible Revelation

prophets

Community of Christ practices what I like to call “Responsible Revelation”. This means that the president of the church, even in his capacity as prophet, is accountable to the church. Or, in other words, revelations to be canonized or which impact the presiding councils, quorums and orders of the church must be approved by the church.

Community of Christ has never professed that the prophet receives revelation from God daily, or even frequently. The church does not consider every word, article, action, address, sermon, etc., provided or undertaken by the prophet to be revelatory in nature. The day-to-day operation of the church has been entrusted by Christ to those called to serve in leadership positions. Policy changes, budget approval, missionary efforts, property management and acquisition, etc., are not viewed (automatically at least) as being the result of divine revelation (though we trust that God rests with us in our decision making activities).

From time to time, the prophet-president does receive revelation from God. It may come in response to prayer, or it may come unbidden. The prophet attempts to articulate in written form what the Holy Spirit has revealed to him, and the church takes action upon it. An overview of this process, and why we have, and how we benefit from continuing revelation, follows.

Why is Continuing Revelation part of the church?

We have declared Continuing Revelation to be one of our Enduring Principles. In discussing the development of those principles, President Veazey stated:

“One Enduring Principle that rose up quickly was continuing revelation. The principle is so ingrained in who we are that we cannot describe our faith without giving ample attention to it. Revelatory experience is a key part of our church’s beginning. It has functioned in transforming ways through-out our history. It will play a vital role in the future.”

He also stated in the same article:

“I believe one calling of Community of Christ is to keep the tradition, principle, and practice of continuing revelation alive.”

In his 2009 annual address to the church (“A Defining Moment“), while speaking about scripture, President Veazey made this statement:

“Community of Christ also stresses that all scripture must be interpreted through the lens of God’s most-decisive revelation in Jesus Christ. So if portions of scripture don’t agree with our fullest understanding of the meaning of the revelation of God in Christ, as illuminated by the Holy Spirit and discerned by the faith community, the teachings and vision of Christ take precedence. This principle applies to all of our books of scripture, especially any passage used by some to assign God’s disfavor, negative characteristics, or secondary roles to others.

This is why our belief in “continuing revelation” is so important. This belief keeps us open to “yet more light and truth” so we can grow in understanding of God’s supreme will as revealed in Christ.”

Clearly, revelation is tremendously important to the church. Our church leaders have spoken of it’s significance and role in our church. It is not a belief or conviction that just sits in the background, or is interpreted as taking the form of sermons and such, but manifests as specific documents that have blessed us tremendously over the years, and which continue to do so (note: while we commonly regard these documents to be revelations, Community of Christ understands that in fact, they are records of encounter with the divine. This is an often overlooked, but important distinction. The actual revelation is an even that took place in a moment in time, between the prophet and God. We do tend to call the resulting inspired documents revelations, but they are merely the written record of the revelatory experience). Revelation in Community of Christ is alive and well, and is in fact on the rise and we are a better people because of it.

How are revelations shared with the church?

Only those individuals who have actually held the position of prophet-president of the church could truly describe just how they receive revelations from God; and I suspect that trying to articulate such an encounter is very difficult. However, at some point, they put those experiences into written form.

These written revelations are then presented to the church for consideration. With a few exceptions (noted below), they are subjected to a formal approval process. These written items are known as “inspired documents” or (in more recent years) as “Words of Counsel”.

Let me make a point of clarity here. In Community of Christ, a presented revelation takes the form of a document that is specifically presented as a revelation. Letters, sermons, conference talks, addresses, magazine articles, etc., are not regarded as being revelations from God simply by virtue of having been provided by the prophet-president of the church. While these may indeed be inspired, they are not regarded as formal revelations.

Revelations also clearly state that they are the result of God’s efforts to work through the prophet (some might say that it could be understood that the prophet seeks to discern the mind and will of God – I view it as a partnership, a two-way process).

Therefore, only those words presented as a revelation are regarded (or considered) as such. Think of the many revelations in the Doctrine & Covenants that Joseph Smith Jr. provided. Same idea.

Here is a very brief example:

http://www.cofchrist.org/onlineresources/DocCovenants/section160.asp

How are revelations approved?

For the most part, a revelation is presented for the first time during our World Conference, held every three years. However, on occasion, a revelation will be presented outside of World Conference.

Normally, it is our custom for all revelations to be subjected to the delegates of World Conference for consideration and approval. This means that a revelation is not deemed authoritative or binding simply because the president of the church has issued it. It must be considered, and voted upon by the people in order to be regarded as officially authoritative.

This is, as I understand it, a process that gradually came to exist in the early church.

During the approval process, the delegates study, ponder, pray and discuss the Words of Counsel. They meet in various caucuses or priesthood orders, quorums, and councils to review the document and openly discus and question it.

So, all the evangelists meet as the Order of Evangelists, the bishops meet as the Order of Bishops, the high priests meet as members of the Quorum of High Priests, the seventies meet as members of the Quorums of Seventy (I can’t quite recall if they meet as individual quorums or all together under the leadership of the presidents of seventy), the apostles meet as the Council of Twelve apostles.

Elders meet in a “mass meeting of elders” and deacons, teachers and priests meet as a “mass meeting of the Aaronic priesthood”.

In addition, there is a caucus for non-priesthood members, a non-delegate caucus, a couple of non-English speaking caucuses, and a youth caucus.

On the day that the inspired document is to be voted on (and when consideration is to commence), the president may make a few remarks, but quickly turns the chair over to someone else, and leaves the conference chamber. This further empowers people to speak and act as they wish.

The revelation is usually read one more time, and the various bodies mentioned above, along with the other two members of the First Presidency, present reports on how each body views the revelation. If I recall correctly, there is normally time for some further discussion, asking of questions, etc.

Eventually the chair calls for the vote. In the past, I have seen each paragraph voted on individually, and then a vote on the document as a whole, though I don’t know if that is always the case. Only delegates and ex-officio staff can vote (so even though I mentioned above that there is a non-delegate caucus, they meet to discuss and share their views but they don’t actually vote – likewise, members who attended the youth caucus or the non-English caucuses don’t get to vote unless they also happen to be delegates)

The purpose of the vote is to accept or reject the revelation as representing the mind and will of God. If the vote supports the revelation, it is added to our Doctrine & Covenants, becoming a new Section, and it therefore becomes authoritative, and part of our standard of authority, and canon of scripture.

After the vote is taken, the chair then calls for a courtesy vote, open to all members in attendance, including non-delegates (this is the only time that non-delegates get to vote).

So far, no revelation has ever been rejected, but this is not, as some people think, a rubber stamp process, nor a simple formality. It is a very serious process, and there has often been some difficult questions asked, some deep concerns expressed, and outright (and very vocal) opposition. There have even been occasions where members of the leading church bodies questioned a revelation.

Votes are not generally unanimous. People can, and many do, vote against a revelation. And they do so free of risk.

If the vote supports the revelation, a contingent of church leaders fetch the prophet-president, and they march back into the conference chamber, from the back, walking down the center aisle, as the attendees sing “We Thank Thee O God for a Prophet”. Its very moving.

Then the chairperson officially informs the prophet that the revelation has been accepted, and turns the chair back over to the prophet, who may make some final comments before moving onto other business. The entire process ensures that a responsible check-&-balance system exists.

Are all revelations added to the Doctrine & Covenants?

A change arose during the presidency of W. Grant McMurray. Prior to his tenure, many revelations combined spiritual counsel with administrative counsel (i.e., changes in senior church leadership). Or, sometimes a revelation would contain only the latter.

This resulted in the Doctrine & Covenants becoming cluttered with a great deal of content that largely dealt with just changes in senior church leadership.

Under President McMurray, changes in church leadership would no longer be combined with spiritual counsel, and would be presented in documents for just that purpose.

Such documents are termed “Letters of Counsel”. So, a Letter of Counsel provides administrative counsel (changes in church leadership), and the documents known as Words of Counsel provide spiritual counsel (encouragement, admonishments, direction, guidance, etcetera).

Sometimes a Letter of Counsel will be the only revelation presented at World Conference (as God does not provide spiritual counsel every single time).

Generally, the same process of consideration is utilized. The delegates consider the changes, the various bodies present reports, and there is a vote to approve the changes.

However, the outcome is not the same. Letters of Counsel do not become new Sections in the book of Doctrine & Covenants. For this reason, when President McMurray first made this alteration, and presented the first Letter of Counsel, explaining how things were now going to work, he was asked if such documents are to still be regarded as revelations, and he replied “yes”.

Are all revelations subjected to the approval process?

On rare occasion, a revelation containing spiritual counsel has been presented to the church and *not* subjected to a vote. The first time this happened (that I’m aware of) was in 1996. President McMurray presented a document to the church, but felt that God had more to impress upon him, and therefore, he did not permit the World Conference to take any action on it. Nor was that permitted in 1998. However, in 2000, an expanded version of the document was formally submitted for consideration, and became Section 161.

More recently, during the 2013 World Conference, a new inspired document (“Words of Counsel”) was presented, which President Veazey, from the start, said would not be voted on at that time, as he wanted to let it rest with us during the three years between that conference and our next World Conference in 2016. This was highly unusual, but represents I feel a very sober and mature approach to revelation: let the people really study it and ponder it and explore it before taking action on it.

Another more recent development is for Letters of Counsel to be shared outside of World Conference. Between World Conference 2010 and World Conference 2013, some key church leaders had to resign for personal reasons. Therefore, two different Letters of Counsel were issued naming interim leaders, with the understanding that they would officially fill the vacancies if accepted by the delegates at the 2013 World Conference.

During that conference a new Letter of Counsel was released summarizing the prior two and announcing some additional changes, and so that single document was actioned during that conference.

Note that, while in the above examples, immediate action was not taken on various items presented, everything that was (or is), intended to be canonized, was eventually (or will be), subjected to a vote. Likewise, before changes are made to the presiding leadership bodies, a vote is eventually taken, *before* the new leaders are installed. So, in all cases, if it is intended for an inspired document to be canonized, or for leadership changes to go into effect, the Words of Counsel and Letters of Counsel are subjected to the formal approval process. The point of this section was simply to show that, sometimes the church has provided the membership with more deliberation time than in previous eras of the church’s history.

However, if there is a revelation that is not intended to be canonized, and which does not impact leadership changes, it does not have to be voted on.

The only example of this that I’m aware of pertains to a short revelation that was presented to the church in 2009, towards the end of President Veazey’s first ever annual address to the church (and first ever annual address ever made). He shared, at the end of his talk a beautiful revelation which took the form of God providing encouragement.

It reads as follows:

(with a short introduction)

As I was preparing this address, I prayerfully asked God many times, “What more does the church need to hear?” On several occasions, I sensed the impress of the Spirit. In response, I want to give voice to what I sensed through the following words to the church:

Fear not! Do not be afraid to become who God is calling you to become. God, the Eternal One, has been with you in your past, continues with you in the present, and already is waiting patiently for you in the future. Through your lives the sacred story of the Restoration still is being written.

Engage the current challenges and opportunities before you with commitment and hope worthy of the dedication and sacrifices of those who went before you. Creatively build on the faith foundations they laid. Open windows and doors to the future.

Beloved community, God has chosen you to assist in accomplishing divine purposes if you will choose to live out of your better natures and potential. Deepen your faith. Refine your sensitivity to the guidance of the Spirit so that you are not distracted by other influences. Explore your scriptures with openness to new insights that will come. Increase your compassion and generosity. Strengthen your relationships so the peace of Christ may be magnified through you.

Have courage and hope. Gather in the gifts of all ages and cultures so the ministries of the body can become whole and fully alive. Others are being prepared around the world to join their efforts with yours, if you will move ahead according to the direction offered to you by the Spirit. Amen.

Being Responsible

I really love the way Community of Christ handles revelation in our church. I love that throughout our entire history, we have added new counsel from God to our book of Doctrine & Covenants, and I love that we practice responsible revelation: we don’t just treat everything that the the prophet says, writes, or does as being the result of Revelation. We don’t just accept all impacting revelations as authoritative simply because the prophet has said that he’s received a revelation. I love that the revelations are written, circulated, deliberated upon, prayed over, and finally voted on, as moved by the Holy Spirit.

And I love that we have grown in corporate church maturity to understand that if you’re going to claim that God has blessed the world with new scripture, its best to let the people voting on it have more than just a few days to delve through it, if the issues or themes are complex. This change, is perhaps the clearest example of how Community of Christ practices responsible revelation. Not only does the prophet’s revelation have to be written down, circulated, studied by whoever wishes to, and ultimately voted on; but he has given us three years to study it, before asking us to take the critical step of affirming to the greater church and the word that what has been presented warrants being upheld as scripture, and becoming part of our threefold standard of authority.

I also love how we ceased adding administrative changes to our scriptures, and I love how we have continued to embrace revelation in new ways, by seeing the revelatory process take place outside of World Conferences; and I love that the members of the church, are part of the ongoing prophetic process. We are, as others have said before, not just a people with a prophet, but a prophetic people. It is not one or the other, but a partnership.

I am so thankful to belong to a church that not only believes in continuing revelation, but celebrates it, finding new ways to incorporate it into the life of our church. And its on the rise! As near as I can determine, we have been blessed with approximately 15 revelations since they year 2000. Continuing revelation is truly a blessing to us all, and I am grateful to God for His never failing love and patience for His people, and His eternal patience for a flock that does not always listen, or which often fails to understand His purposes. Thank you Lord for never giving up on us, and for continuing, even now, to speak to us. It is my hope and prayer that we will become better at hearing you.

Responsible revelation. What a concept!

Where I can find the most recent revelations?

Examples of our most recent additions to the Doctrine & Covenants can be found here:

https://www.cofchrist.org/doctrine-and-covenants-section-161
https://www.cofchrist.org/doctrine-and-covenants-section-162
https://www.cofchrist.org/doctrine-and-covenants-section-163
https://www.cofchrist.org/doctrine-and-covenants-section-164

The 2013 Words of Counsel can be found here:

http://www.cofchrist.org/presidency/041413wordsofCounsel/

An example of a letter of counsel can be found here:

http://ddonblog3.wordpress.com/2013-letter-of-cousnel/

A Personal Testimony

If you’ve read this far, I thank you. The rest is bonus content.

I want to add that being part of the process of approving a Revelation is hugely rewarding. There is something really exciting about holding in your hands a copy of a new revelation from God, and there is something exhilarating about getting to be at World Conference where a new revelation is considered, voted on, and ordered for inclusion in our Doctrine & Covenants.

I’ll never forget how I felt during a conference several years ago. I was not able to attend, but I heard there was a rumor that there was a new revelation. But I was not sure if that was true, or if the document was perhaps something else (like a pastoral letter).

When I found the document, I was still not sure what it was being presented as. Then I felt a chill, when I noticed that the paragraphs had been versified. This was not just a pastoral letter, but a revelation.

And then I saw these words:

“To the Councils, Quorums, and Orders, to the World Conference, and to the church”

I should mention, that a large number of our revelations begin with those words. I don’t think they are used in any other way. At least, not that I’m aware of.

And they are just words. Not even part of the actual revelation. Nothing special about them. Pretty boring right? Pretty non-significant. And yet, when I began to read those words that day, I started to cry. For you see, as soon as I read those words, I knew it was official. I knew that I was reading God’s most recent counsel to the church, and it connected me to an experience, a sacred experience, taking place far away from my home, that I could not be at.

I’m getting choked up right now as I write this, as I think back on that experience. They are, for me, despite otherwise being meaningless, among the most powerful words I have ever read.

No matter how many revelations they commence. Its funny how something so minor can resonate with me so much, and draw me closer to God. I noticed that they were not used for the 2013 Words of Counsel, but I hope that if that document is one day formally submitted to be considered for inclusion in the Doctrine & Covenants, that they will be added, and I hope to be sitting in the conference chamber, to hear someone speaking into a mic, reading those words, calling us into the presence of the divine, as God’s guidance and counsel are shared with His people.

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