When Jesus Christ organized His church, He chose twelve men to assist Him in His work. He called them apostles, which means, “one sent forth.” (See Luke 6:13.) In John 16, He taught them their role in His ministry:
Ye have not chosen me, but I have chosen you, and ordained you, that ye should go and bring forth fruit, and that your fruit should remain: that whatsoever ye shall ask of the Father in my name, he may give it you.”
From this we learn that a man cannot call himself to be an apostle—the call must come from God. Their assignment was to be a special witness to the divinity of Jesus Christ and to be missionaries to the world. Later in the chapter, he warns them the world will hate them, not because of who they were as people, but because of Jesus and His teachings.
We can see the Savior considered it important to have twelve apostles, because when Judas turned on Jesus Christ and was removed as an apostle, he was replaced by Matthias.
The structure of the early church, then, was to have Jesus at the head of the Church, with twelve apostles serving under Him. From the Old Testament, and the earliest days of the New Testament, we see that God placed a prophet as the earthly head of the church. Jesus Christ, of course, was always the head of the church, with the prophet serving as His representative.
The apostle Paul outlined how the Savior’s church was meant to operate. In Ephesians 2:20, he said, “20 And are built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief corner stone;” In Ephesians 4:11 he enlarges his explanation of how the church is to be built:
11 And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers;
12 For the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ:
13 Till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ:
Since this was meant to be the form for God’s church until we were all unified in the faith, it is clear there is a still a need for that structure. We are not yet unified as a world in the Christian faith.
However, most churches have abandoned the original, Christ-chosen method of leading God’s church. They have abandoned the concept of prophets and apostles for newer structures. Many churches reject the idea that God will continue to provide prophets today to help us navigate these complex religious times, and some believe prophets were not needed once Jesus came. That, of course, is not found in the Bible. In fact the Bible reports that at least two of the apostles were considered prophets after Jesus died:
And Judas and Silas, being prophets also themselves, exhorted the brethren with many words, and confirmed them (Acts 15:32). This chapter helps to illustrate the reason apostles and prophets were still needed after Jesus died. In this chapter, we learn the Saints at Antioch were arguing over the need for circumcision. The apostles made the decision. In times in which there were no apostles and prophets, people simply had to guess and these types of dissentions led to the formation of many different churches.
Because God understood the wisdom of having a church structured with prophets and apostles, when He restored the church in modern times, He instructed Joseph Smith to use this same structure. Since Jesus is no longer on the earth, a prophet takes the place of earthly head of the church, under the direction of Jesus Christ.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, whose members are nicknamed Mormons, structure their church under the ancient pattern described in Ephesians 4:11. They demonstrate the truthfulness of God’s promise to do nothing except through His prophets. (See Amos 3:7.)
Today, the apostles are the second highest presiding body of God’s modern restored church. The highest presiding body is the First Presidency, consisting of the prophet and two counselors. Together, these fifteen compose a group of full-time servants of God, who travel the world testifying of the divinity of Jesus Christ. They also manage the work of the church.
The apostles hold the keys to the kingdom of God. This term means they hold the authority to preside over the church. We read of these keys of authority in the Bible, in Matthew 16:19, when Jesus tells Peter:
And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.
We saw that the Bible described two of Jesus’ apostles as prophets. All apostles are called as prophets, seers, and revelators, although only the prophet, who also acts as president of the Church, holds all the keys and can receive revelation for the entire church. He must then take that revelation to the apostles and allow them to receive personal revelation on the subject for themselves. Finally, the prophecy is given to the entire church for a sustaining vote, meaning the members promise God they will live by the revelation and support it. Revelation is never received and then kept private. It is given for the purpose of helping God’s children understand what God wants them to do or to know, just as it was in Biblical times.
Having a church built on prophets and apostles protects us. During the long apostasy that began when Jesus and the apostles were dead and ended when Joseph Smith was chosen as the first prophet of the restoration, the Christian faith survived, but it lacked a foundation. Just as the apostles found church members arguing over circumcision, throughout history, churches have debated a wide range of critical doctrine. These debates could not be resolved by having the prophets and apostles ask God for the truth, because there were none. Church leaders could search the Bible, but often interpreted it in different ways. When they could not agree, they had to either put the doctrine to a human vote or divide the church. Over the years, many churches have formed due to disagreements over important saving doctrines.
A foundation of prophets and apostles avoids this. Just as in ancient times, Mormons can turn to the apostles and prophets to guide them when they don’t understand a scripture reference or don’t know how to apply Biblical teachings to decidedly modern issues. In those who have prayed to God to know who today’s prophet really is, there is security in knowing God is at the head of the Church, still guiding, directing, and teaching His children through his apostles and prophets, just as He promised to do in the Bible.
Terrie Lynn Bittner
The late Terrie Lynn Bittner—beloved wife, mother, grandmother, and friend—was the author of two homeschooling books and numerous articles, including several that appeared in Latter-day Saint magazines. She became a member of the Church at the age of 17 and began sharing her faith online in 1992.