The LDS church is an Apostolic church. It has a Prophet, but the Prophet is chosen according to seniority of his position among the Apostles upon the death of his predecessor. Further, the Twelve in Salt Lake City are considered successors in office to the Twelve originally called by Jesus in Jerusalem.
It’s a bit different in the Community of Christ, where there is very definitely a First Presidency and a Second Presidency (the Twelve). Historically, the Community of Christ has described itself as a Prophetic Church rather than an Apostolic Church, and its Prophets regularly add revelations to the Community of Christ’s Doctrine and Covenants.
But what is the difference between the functions of prophets and apostles, and why might it make a difference whether a church sees itself as prophetic or apostolic? To get to that, let me make an analogy using the way computers play chess to the way a human grandmaster plays chess.
When computers play chess, they make use of the ability to calculate all possibilities for more moves into the future than can their human counterparts. This alone makes them superior to most human players. To me, the Apostle is like the computer that sees the “best” move when calculating one or two moves ahead. He — or, in the CofChrist, she — finds the best move established doctrine can come up with given those limitations. This gift of the Spirit alone makes the Apostle “superior to most human players” at sensing the will of God.
In contrast, I would liken the prophetic gift to the ability of a chess master. In more detail, the ability of a “Prophet” is the ability to see what chess players call “deep combinations”. In these combinations, the first move seems inferior to another move by all conventional doctrine, yet opens up hidden possibilities for the second, third, or forth move that would have been closed off by what conventional doctrine teaches.
To reach the highest levels of chess playing ability, machines have to learn how to imitate the “inspiration” of a chess master and add that to their calculating ability. Programmers struggle to put that ability in computer algorithms because the chess master can only explain or understand part of what he or she is seeing or even what he or she is looking for. The “prophetic” chess master senses as if knowing the combination is there. So, too, “apostles”, even when they act on faith that the prophet is correct, understand the combination only later after they analyze it and test the robustness of the combination against alternative responses.
In religion, the ability to see those combinations is often associated precisely with the ability of the prophet to “unbind time” and know not only what God is doing today in the present, but also recognize what He has already unleashed in the past and what He will unleash in the future that will make those unconventional combinations possible. It is faith not just that God will do something, but that God will act in specific ways and times that others cannot yet identify. And it is such identification of what God is/will be doing that permits those who believe the prophecy to effectively align their lives with God’s will. It’s not just about correct principles, it’s about correct tactics applied in a specific historical situation .
But here we run into a quandary. In the traditions that descend from Abram, such prophets do not institutionalize well. It’s easy to see why. Prophets demonstrate their ability precisely by selecting moves that the other types of religious leadership would regard as morally irresponsible if not irrational, and so those leaders believe they must resist if they are to be faithful to their own understanding of God’s will and their own responsibility to the church. For this reason, prophetic leadership of any religious tradition always seems to be temporary.
As part of that recurring institutionalization process in all prophetic religious traditions, the prophetic line is gradually “domesticated” by the priestly and/or governmental classes. In the Western Church and the enlightenment cultures that sprang from Christendom, that has had to involve demolishing any prophetic claims to see beyond the immediate.
Interestingly, this concept is conveyed quite openly and unapologetically by a brochure put out under the Imprimatur of the Catholic Archdiocese in Washington that I was given by friends in connection with the 2008 visit to DC of the Pope:
“The Lord… entrusted the keys of the Church to him [St. Peter]. The Bishop of the Church of Rome, successor to St. Peter…functions as the head of the Bishops, to work in unity with them to teach, lead, and sanctify – to safeguard what has been handed down, not invent new ideas.” [Emphasis added].
But true prophecy must also be profoundly disturbing to many of the leaders of the church itself. After all, like the chess example, the deep spiritual combination can not be vetted in advance, precisely because the first move of a deep combination will seem inferior to elaboration of established doctrine. Note that if it didn’t seem inferior, the gifts of the Apostles and other leading orders would have enabled them to see that move without the prophet. It would have been merely elaboration of established doctrine, and the prophecy would have been unnecessary to open the creative possibilities! A prophet that is not disturbing to the leaders of the church (and to the larger society) is likely to be irrelevant.
An Apostle asked to prophesy may be likely to affirm the conventional rather than come out with something truly disturbing. In such a case, the leaders may correctly feel the touch of the Spirit confirming that the conventional move is good. But the Spirit has no opportunity to confirm the greater good of a move that those who are not prophets cannot see in the first place. To paraphrase the New Testament, the Lord may truly have many more things to tell the Apostles – things that might open unimaginable creative possibilities – but the Apostles could not bear them now.
To the contrary, to follow a true Prophet can feel like a betrayal of duty to a faithful religious leader. Leaders must risk that their own sense of the Spirit is mistaken in order to follow prophetic leadership, at least until the combination materializes or fails. That hesitancy, that freezing of the conventional doctrine and settling for minor elaboration because of the very real (and too often justified) fear of the false prophet and the heretic seems eventually to bury the prophetic within every religious line until the Spirit breaks forth again somewhere else, often in institutions or movements as opposed by the religious establishment as Jesus was Himself by the Masters of the Temple in Jerusalem.
Thus, you cannot, even in principle, establish your credentials as a prophet until you’ve gone against the judgment of the legitimate religious and cultural elites and the deep combination materializes – until the prophecy comes true. Until the situation arises where the deep combination is vigorously pursued against the resistance of the religious leadership, the prophet can never prove himself. That’s the “catch-22”.
But notice that the argument doesn’t work the opposite way! The longer the Prophet goes on identifying the gospel with the pre-existing views of the elite of any current religious or civil culture, including his own, regarding the best move, the more likely it becomes that the “Prophet” is merely a caretaker Apostle sitting behind the Prophet’s desk. Even when the elites are right, the caretaker thereby only demonstrates Apostolic qualifications, not Prophetic ones, because someone else must have passed the truth to the elites first, and the elites are already better positioned to implement the truths given them than is the Prophet. The prophecy is not false; the new prophet is merely irrelevant.
Let me emphasize this, because it is a subtle point: the prophet must not only be right, but must be right before the elites of any culture embrace that “rightness” in order to be considered a Prophet. The true Prophet must be looking ahead to moves the elites cannot see or advocate, asking questions they do not ask, not echoing either side of an inter- or intra-cultural debate (even if the side being advocated is correct). The latter advocacy role is instead that of the Apostle.
Thus, an inability of the prophet to meaningfully state differences with the surrounding elites (even the elites within the church) marks the transition from a prophetic church to an apostolic one, and it also marks the diminishing of further ability to “invent new ideas” (to see deep combinations) that God inspires to open new creative opportunities. Thereafter, the Apostolic church may preserve and spread the best gifts God has placed within its culture, but such a church gradually adopts the limitations and fate of that culture as well, no matter how strongly it may assert it is still Prophetic, proclaim the injustices inherent in continuing the existing system, or express hope for greater justice in the future.
The ministry of a prophet comes from the ability to see how doctrinal principles can be combined in new ways when they do come into conflict with new evidence and new realities. In doing so a deeper, more general doctrinal principle comes through as a guide to “apostles” as they translate those principles into practical creative opportunities in the lives of those to whom they minister. This ability is equal in importance to the gift of time unbinding in creating a true prophet, and is essential to providing protections against moral error and to avoid wandering into theological dead ends. This dual requirement is why such prophets are so rare and so important in the history of what God is doing in human civilization.
To be a true prophet, you first have to beat the apostles.