I was recently asked, “By whose authority does your church baptize?” The question caught me off guard, but it was asked sincerely by a Latter-Day Saint friend. She went on to claim that her church, that is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, had its authority because of living prophets and apostles who had received their authority from prophets and apostles before them and then ultimately from Jesus Himself. The implication in her words was that her church’s authority was more direct or more authentic than whatever I could claim.
Living Prophet vs. Written Book
As I have lived and ministered in Utah, I have begun to recognize more and more the prevalence and importance of this appeal within the belief system of Latter-Day Saints. To understand its significance in their overall worldview consider this statement from the Latter-Day Saint website,
“Today, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints continues to be led by a living prophet and apostles as millions of people around the world experience the blessings of Jesus Christ’s restored Church and look forward to His Second Coming.”
According to this statement, following the leading of the living prophet and the apostles is the key to being a part of the blessings of Jesus Christ’s restored church. This fact of continuing revelation proves a central tenet to the Mormon faith, allowing for modern revelation to trump that which was previously revealed.
Looking at the Book
Let’s consider this claim in relationship to Paul’s final canonical letter, the book of Second Timothy. In the final two chapters, Paul commends to Timothy instruction aimed at maintaining the future fidelity of the church. Notably in contrast to Latter-Day Saints’ claim of a living prophet, Paul’s instructions center on the written revelation of God in Holy Scripture. In the face of increasing evil and deception, Paul charges Timothy to “continue” in those things which he had learned. That Paul has in mind specifically God’s revelation in written Scripture is made clear by the expression of verse 15, “sacred writings.” This phrase is followed up by verse 16 with Paul’s articulation of the doctrine of inspiration. All Scripture is God-breathed or said another way, ultimately authored by God Himself.
The historic view of the Christian church has acknowledged that the Bible, the Old and New Testaments, are the very words of God and are thus vested with His authority. One significant Protestant articulation of the Bible’s authority states it this way: “The authority of the Holy Scripture, for which it ought to be believed, and obeyed, dependeth not upon the testimony of any man, or church; but wholly upon God (who is truth itself) the author thereof: and therefore it is to be received, because it is the Word of God” (Westminster Confession of Faith 1.4). Notice how the framers of this statement make clear the connection between the Bible’s authority stemming from the Bible’s inspiration.
Paul goes on in 2 Timothy 4:1 to charge Timothy to “preach the Word.” The responsibility to faithfully steward this depository of divine truth is set in the context of future generation’s resistance to sound doctrine (2 Tim 4:3). In other words, Paul sees Timothy’s foremost responsibility as maintaining faithfulness to the Bible. When false teaching arises it will manifest its character by departing from that pattern of sound words which Timothy had already received. Thus, Timothy was to watch his doctrine closely to be sure it was in harmony with what God had entrusted in the Bible.
With this in mind, let’s return to the Latter-Day Saint focus upon the living prophet. Notice in the brief review of Paul’s charge to Timothy that we see no hint that he should expect God to continue to speak in the voice of a living prophet. If this was the case, one would expect at least some projection of Timothy’s need to heed that prophet. But Paul gives no such indication, he simply and repeatedly charges Timothy to hold fast to what he has been entrusted both by way of the Old Testament Scripture and the soon to be completed New Testament Scripture.
As we contemplate that question, “by whose authority…?” born-again believers should confidently go back to the Bible. As we engage in these conversations with our LDS friends, we should make it a habit of framing our arguments by the Bible’s teaching and trying to help them see that it is by this book that God speaks. We can do this with confidence because we know God works through His Word.