Church Organization: High Council

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This post is in a series about the structure and organization of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

In each stake of the LDS Church (a stake is a collection of 8-12 congregations) there is a High Council composed of 12 men who have been ordained as high priests. In modern times the first high council was organized on February 17, 1834 in Kirtland, Ohio.

“This day a general council of twenty-four high priests assembled at the house of Joseph Smith, Jun., by revelation, and proceeded to organize the high council of the church of Christ, which was to consist of twelve high priests, and one or three presidents as the case might require. The high council was appointed by revelation for the purpose of settling important difficulties which might arise in the church, which could not be settled by the church or the bishop’s council to the satisfaction of the parties.” (D&C 102:1-2).

In part, the high council is patterned after the organization of the children of Israel by Moses as suggested by his father in law Jethro (see Exodus 18). Members of the high council are called to assist others (stake presidency) in directing the work of the Lord’s church at a local (stake, ward, and branch) level. Members of a high council have no authority except that given them by a stake president – all responsibilities are supportive and administrative. High councilors never preside (except maybe in very rare circumstances where there is not a more senior person to preside). An overview of the core responsibilities of a member of a high council are found in the LDS Church’s administrative handbook in section 15.3.

Here are selections about the high council role of supporting the stake president because the stake presidency cannot be everywhere they could or need to be: “High councilors counsel about and sustain the stake presidency’s decisions to ordain brethren to the offices of elder and high priest. The stake president may authorize high councilors to represent him when men are ordained to the offices of elder and high priest.

“High councilors also counsel about and sustain the stake presidency’s decisions to issue callings to members. For some callings, the stake presidency may authorize high councilors to represent them in issuing the callings, presenting members to be sustained, and setting members apart as indicated in chapter 19.”

Each high councilor is also assigned to oversee a unit within a stake: “To assist them in overseeing the Melchizedek Priesthood, the stake presidency assigns a high councilor to represent them in each elders quorum, high priests group, ward, and branch in the stake.”

For this responsibility, high councilors typically visit their assigned unit at least monthly, attending as many general and leadership meetings within the unit as necessary.

High councilors also are assigned to speak regularly in units throughout the stake: “The stake presidency may assign high councilors to represent them by speaking in sacrament meetings and other settings.” These talks often occur monthly but there is leniency for talks to be given less often. There is a well-worn (and outdated) running joke in the church about how boring high councilors are as speakers. In listening to hundreds of high councilor talks over the years, I’ve found the majority of them quite enjoyable. In fact, the quality of the average high councilor talk has been higher than the quality of the average ward member talk (although I’ve had the opportunity to live in wards where church members generally give excellent talks). The joke or belief about boring high councilors might have had some truth in the past but has not been generally true for the various stakes I’ve lived in over the years.

Another responsibility members of a high council have is in church disciplinary councils. I’ve written about them in the past and will not expand more  at this point other than to state that those councils are meant to be as supportive to the member under disciplinary action as possible.

Members of high councils have other responsibilities too – service, meetings, committees. In the past, high council callings tended to be cushier – not particularly busy – but recently high councilors are being used more as the church expands. In order to reduce the load on individuals (e.g., stake presidencies) more tasks are delegated to help spread the work and reduce time away from families. At its core the high council is structured to support and edify families – for families are the core unit of the Church.

Church Organization in The Book of Mormon

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In Mosiah 18 and Mosiah 25 we learn much about the proper organization and role of Christ’s church. Let’s set the context. An off-shoot of the Nephites were under the reign of a wicked man named Noah. The king ordained priests who shared his love of wickedness. A righteous man, a prophet, Abinadi came among the people and testified of their wickedness. He fled for his life and then later came back in disguise to preach more. Abinadi was taken before King Noah and his priests. He testified against their wickedness boldly. He also taught the gospel of Christ in power and purity. Abinadi was killed for his beliefs but one of the wicked priests believed his teachings. This priest – Alma – fled for his life but began to teach the people in secret after he repented of his sins. So the setting for Mosiah 18 is a wooded area where there is a fountain of pure water (how very appropriate for a setting for Alma’s teachings about the Source of Living Water, even Jesus Christ).

What did Alma teach and what do we learn about the organization of Christ’s church? Alma started teaching “repentance, and redemption, and faith on the Lord” (Mosiah 18:7). Those are the foundational principles of the gospel – faith in Christ and repentance (which is made efficacious through the reception of the Savior). In verses 8-10 we read about baptism and the reception of the gift of the Holy Ghost.

“8 And it came to pass that he said unto them: Behold, here are the waters of Mormon (for thus were they called) and now, as ye are desirous to come into the fold of God, and to be called his people, and are willing to bear one another’s burdens, that they may be light;

9 Yea, and are willing to mourn with those that mourn; yea, and comfort those that stand in need of comfort, and to stand as witnesses of God at all times and in all things, and in all places that ye may be in, even until death, that ye may be redeemed of God, and be numbered with those of the first resurrection, that ye may have eternal life—

10 Now I say unto you, if this be the desire of your hearts, what have you against being baptized in the name of the Lord, as a witness before him that ye have entered into a covenant with him, that ye will serve him and keep his commandments, that he may pour out his Spirit more abundantly upon you?”

What’s important is in these verse we learn the covenant that those who are baptized make. Those who are baptized and confirmed members of Christ’s church are “called his people” – they take upon themselves the name of Christ (or at least are willing to and Christ puts His name upon them in their worthiness). Then we read of the responsibilities of the baptized members of Christ’s church:

  1. Bear one another’s burdens
  2. Mourn with those who mourn
  3. Comfort those who need comfort
  4. Testify of God in all things and times (particularly through the example of their lives)

Those in the church have a primary responsibility to take care of each other. Our devotion to God and our discipleship of Christ is evident in what we do and how we serve others. This sentiment echoes what the Savior taught His disciples on the eve of His death – “By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another.” (John 13:35).

As we continue through Mosiah 18 we understand more about the true nature of Christ’s church. Before Alma performed an ordinance (baptism), he prayed for the Lord’s Spirit to be with him (verse 12). Then Alma baptized a man – Helam – “having authority from the Almighty God.” (verse 13). He did not receive authority of himself, it was given to him by God (either his ordination to the priesthood under the direction of Noah was valid or he was ordained and given authority by a heavenly messenger after that time {I believe that the former is true though, which could lead to an interesting discussion about the priesthood}). The priesthood authority is something you cannot receive but from God (“And no man taketh this honor [ordination to the priesthood] unto himself, but he that is called of God, as was Aaron.” Hebrews 5:4).

Then Alma baptized Helam who was then filled with the Spirit (Alma also baptized himself, which is done only in this special circumstance; normally, it is not possible to baptize oneself; UPDATE: a statement by Pres. Joseph Fielding Smith was brought to my attention; Pres. Smith stated that the self-baptism was merely symbolic {http://seminary.lds.org/manuals/book-of-mormon-seminary-student-study-guide/bm-ssg-05-mos-8-12.asp}. This brings up a whole point I did not initially bring up about where Alma’s priethood authority came from. Was his ordination as one of Noah’s priests valid (my guess is yes, it was)? Was he ordained secretly under the hands of Abinadi before Abinadi’s death? Did he already have the priesthood before being raised to the level of one of King Noah’s priests? Was he ordained by an angel? These are all unanswered questions and not entirely pertinent to this post, which is why I did not bring them up initially. However, if Alma’s baptism was symbolic, it means he was previously baptized by the proper authority). As Alma baptized more people, he did not go under the water again – one baptism is enough. These verses show that entrance to Christ’s church is dependent upon baptism and reception of the Holy Spirit: “And they were called the church of God, or the church of Christ, from that time forward. And it came to pass that whosoever was baptized by the power and authority of God was added to his church.” (Mosiah 18:17).

Next, to get the church set up further, Alma ordained priests over the people (initially about 4 – one for every 50 church members; there were 204 individuals baptized at that time). What did these priests do? Teach the people “nothing save it were the things which he had taught, and which had been spoken by the mouth of the holy prophets. Yea, even he commanded them that they should preach nothing save it were repentance and faith on the Lord, who had redeemed his people.” (Mosiah 18:19-20). They were commanded to teach only the basics of the gospel as taught by the prophets.

The people of the Lord were then commanded to be unified and without contention (verse 21). The church members were also commanded to preach (to one another and to others) – they were to be missionaries (verse 22). They were also commanded to keep the sabbath day holy and thank the Lord in all things (verse 23). Related to this, the church members were to meet together one day a week for church services but also meet together as often as they could.

Next we get to something important – Christ’s church had a lay ministry (“he also commanded them that the priests whom he had ordained should labor with their own hands for their support” – verse 24). This was also important in the context of King Noah and his priests who were supported by taxes of their people. Alma did command church members to be free with their substance, to give freely to support those in need; the needy could be the priesthood leaders but they were not otherwise supported: “And thus they should impart of their substance of their own free will and good desires towards God, and to those priests that stood in need, yea, and to every needy, naked soul.” (verse 28). The lack of coercion is important – the giving needs to be freely done. This support was both temporal and spiritual (verse 29).

Doesn’t this sound like The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints today? I think there are great reminders for us in Mosiah 18 about our responsibilities and duties as members of Christ’s church.

In Mosiah 25 we learn a little more about the nature of Christ’s church. It was divided into multiple congregations (we call these wards today):

“And Alma did speak unto them, when they were assembled together in large bodies, and he went from one body to another, preaching unto the people repentance and faith on the Lord…And it came to pass that king Mosiah granted unto Alma that he might establish churches throughout all the land of Zarahemla; and gave him power to ordain priests and teachers over every church. Now this was done because there were so many people that they could not all be governed by one teacher; neither could they all hear the word of God in one assembly; Therefore they did assemble themselves together in different bodies, being called churches; every church having their priests and their teachers, and every priest preaching the word according as it was delivered to him by the mouth of Alma. And thus, notwithstanding there being many churches they were all one church, yea, even the church of God; for there was nothing preached in all the churches except it were repentance and faith in God.” (Mosiah 25:15,19-22).

Alma was given authority by King Mosiah (who was also the prophet). Mosiah held the priesthood keys, he authorized Alma to direct and organize the different congregations. Alma essentially acted as an apostle under the keys of Mosiah. He traveled to the different conjugations to teach them the gospel. Even though there were different congregations, they were all one church. This is just like The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Wherever you go in the world, there is likely to be a congregation (there are many places the LDS Church is not but it is spreading). All of these different congregations are part of Christ’s church. They are different bodies of people but all are one.

While this church structure as found in the Book of Mormon is not novel to members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, it was when Joseph Smith was translating the Book of Mormon. It served as an important guideline in conjunction with revelation for Joseph Smith to use to set up Christ’s restored church.

Meetings and Covenants of Consecration

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In The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints we meet together in what are called wards (local congregations) every week on Sunday. We attend Sacrament Meeting, Sunday School (called Nursery and Primary for the kids 1.5 to 3 and 3 to 12, respectively), and Priesthood, Relief Society or Young Women’s meetings. In all we have 3 hours of church each Sunday. In the meetings we partake of the Sacrament (bread and water), listen to talks given by members of the congregation (or occasionally, the local church leadership), sing songs, and pray and worship together. During the rest of church we attend classes and are taught (or teach). Some leaders in the ward attend meetings before and/or after church to coordinate efforts and discuss the needs of LDS Church members in the area. There are other meetings held regularly too.

Twice a year our normal Sunday meetings are canceled as we listen to and watch General Conference, an event that occurs on the first Saturday and Sunday in April and in October. Men and boys 12 years old and older have five sessions of Conference to attend, each session is 2 hours long and is broadcast from Salt Lake City. Women in the Church who are 18 years and older attend a Relief Society (women’s) broadcast the last Saturday in September each year. Young Women (12-18) attend a broadcast the last Saturday in March each year.

Additionally, twice per year in lieu of regular church meetings, we attend Stake Conference. Stakes are the superordinate group of wards in an area. There are typically 6-10 wards in a Stake. Stake Conference is conducted by the Stake President – a man called to watch over and organize the efforts of the wards in the stake. For Stake Conference there is usually an adult session (for 18+) on Saturday night and a general session (for all ages) on Sunday. Also on Saturday there is usually a Priesthood Leadership meeting for those men who are called into leadership positions within the wards and stake. Each of these meetings last 2 hours. Stake General Priesthood Meetings are also held twice per year (often on a Saturday or Sunday night) as are various meetings for the Relief Society, Young Men, Young Women, and Primary.

The Young Men and Women (ages 12-18) have weekly night time meetings (to work on Scouting or service or education or just to have fun). I could go on but one thing we usually are in the LDS Church is busy. Much of this busy-ness comes because we do not have a paid clergy – all the local administration and ministration in the Church is done on a volunteer basis (technically we are called by the Lord {through church leaders} to serve in various capacities within the church. If we accept these callings – most do – then we fulfill that job in the ward or stake (or broader church) until we are ‘released’ from the calling or until we move to a different geographic location). For example, I currently serve as the 1st Councilor in the Young Men’s Presidency in our ward; this means that I directly with the 14 and 15 year old young men in the ward (and indirectly with all those 12-18). I teach them every Sunday as well as attend meetings on Wednesday nights (and others as scheduled). I also play the organ in church – in Sacrament Meeting – as well as sing in the ward choir (although I’ve not been consistent in singing in the choir in the past few years).

Yesterday (Saturday) I was sitting in the Priesthood Leadership session of Stake Conference (held from 3-5 PM). Our Stake President asked the question of all in attendance: “Why are you here on this Saturday afternoon?” We could have been home with our families, we could have been working on our house, paining a picture, napping, playing, reading, working, or whatever else we might do. Some in attendance gave various answers as to why they were there: duty, responsibility, knowledge, and so forth. My thought on the matter was similar to the duty answer.

I thought that I was there because I had made a covenant of consecration to the Lord, to the building up of His Kingdom. I’ve covenanted that I will consecrate my time and everything else I can to serve Him. This means that if there is a meeting on a Saturday afternoon, I will be there. Now, there might be circumstances when I cannot be there – that is understandable – but it is important to be true to the covenants we make.

Our Stake President then brought up the reason he hoped we were there – because of love: love for God, love of the gospel, and love of those for whom we hold responsibility. Our service and sacrifices are a way to show and grow our love. A William James quote came to mind: “Begin to be now what you will be hereafter.” If we want to love others more, we should act like we love them and eventually we will love them. If we want to love others we need to serve them and sacrifice for them. Jesus loves us more than any other person who lived on the earth and He provided the greatest act of selflessness and sacrifice and love ever performed. He atoned for our sins and sorrows because He loves us. It is this love of Christ’s that we should seek. This charity is Christ’s pure love; it should be our motivation for all we do in His service. If it isn’t then by our righteous actions of service we can gain this love. We gain if by faith, sacrifice, righteousness, and prayer. Charity is a gift from God.

We can keep very busy within The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. There are meetings and more meetings; there are programs upon programs but what is most important is not the programs but rather the people. The organization of the Church has been established by God to provide the means of bringing His children back to His presence. We covenant to serve God and to consecrate our whole lives unto Him. We show this consecration and love by our actions towards and for others.