On Stewardship and Revelation

In a 1997 talk, Elder Gerald Lund spoke of 5 ways you can distinguish between real and counterfeit revelation.  For number 5, he stated the following:

5 A person is not given revelation to direct another person unless they have priesthood or family responsibility for that person.

This principle is described by Elder Dallin H. Oaks of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles as the principle of “stewardship in revelation.” This means that “only the President of the Church receives revelation to guide the entire Church. Only the stake president receives revelation for the special guidance of the stake. The person who receives revelation for the ward is the bishop. … When one person purports to receive revelation for another person outside his or her own area of responsibility … you can be sure that such revelations are not from the Lord” (“Revelation,” New Era,Sept. 1982, 46).

I always found the topic of stewardship and revelation an interesting and somewhat puzzling topic within the LDS church.  When this topic is discussed it is usually within the framework that is laid out above: only the President of the Church can receive revelation for the whole church, only the Bishop can receive revelation for the ward, etc.  It makes perfect sense that someone in a given calling should receive revelation about organizational decisions related to that calling.  However, the question of stewardship and revelation gets a bit trickier when, for example, a Bishop is counceling a member of the ward about personal decisions in her life.  Can the Bishop receive revelation for the ward member?  Because of the mantle of his calling, is the Bishop privy to revelation about that individual’s life that the individual herself doesn’t have access to?  If so, why does God speak to us this way?  Why doesn’t God just reveal something directly to the individual instead of revealing it through the Bishop?  When I was a missionary, the area authority would visit our mission every few months.  Most of the talks that he gave were about specific actions we should do or words we should say in order to get more baptisms.  When I had only a couple of weeks left on my mission, the Area Authority came and spoke.  He laid out what we all needed to do differently in order to have more success.  Later in my apartment, I cried with tears of frustration.  I had been working really hard for the last several months without a lot of success.  If there was really something I should have been doing differently, why hadn’t God just told me directly?

There are three kinds of stewardship that we commonly talk about within the LDS church: the Bishop’s stewardship over the ward, the husband’s stewardship over the wife, and the parents’ stewardship over their children.  I am going to discuss the question of revelation and stewardship within each one of these relationships.

Bishop and Ward Relationship

As I mentioned above, it is assumed that when a Bishop is set apart in his calling he is privy to specific information about how to run the ward that nobody else is privy to.  I think most members of the LDS church would agree that this is the case.  However, there is the question about whether the Bishop is privy to revelation about an individual’s life that the individual himself is not privy to.  Of course this can’t always be the case as individual members pray about and make a wide variety of decisions without consulting the Bishop.  Problems in this area seem to arise when the Bishop’s revelation conflicts with an individual member’s revelation about that member’s life.  I have heard of cases of individuals praying about a calling that has been extended to them, and feeling inspired that they should not accept the calling.  The Bishop then told them that his revelation trumps theirs and thus, they cannot turn down the calling.  I have no idea how frequently this has happened (I hope that it is fairly infrequent), but it does illustrate the conflict that is sometimes found between personal revelation and revelation given to a church leader.  Another question is whether stewardship and revelation function in the same way for all church callings, or if there is something unique about the Bishop’s calling.  It is fairly common that when someone is set apart for a calling, they are blessed that they may receive revelation for that specific calling.  But do they also receive revelation for how an individual member should be conducting their personal life?  Is the RS president, for example, privy to information about an individual’s life that that individual is not privy to?  I admit that when I was growing up I saw stewardship and revelation as uniquely priesthood responsibilities, so I was puzzled about the RS president’s role.  Doesn’t she also have stewardship over the sisters in RS?  Doesn’t she also receive revelation about or even in some cases for those individuals?

Husband and Wife Relationship

The issue of stewardship and revelation within a marriage is an even more complicated one than that of Bishops and ward members.  Growing up in the 1980s, I remember hearing a lot of rhetoric about husbands having stewardships over their families and receiving revelation for their families.  The idea, as it was presented to me, was that the husband was privy to revelation that the rest of the family was not privy to.  I admit that asking women to covenant to hearken to their husbands makes sense within this framework.  However, I was always puzzled by this rhetoric.  Couldn’t a wife also receive revelation about her family?  How is the revelation that the husband is receiving different from the revelation that the wife is receiving?  In my mind, I saw two possible models for this chain of revelation.  One is a straight line in which God tells the husband something and then the husband tells the wife.  There is plenty of support within the temple ceremony for this model.  However, the other model is that of a triangle, in which God talks to both husband and wife and they also talk to each other.  This model makes a lot more sense to me and there is plenty of rhetoric within the current church to support it.  Anecdotally, a lot of younger members of the church seem to think that husbands and wives receive the same revelation from God instead of a chain of revelation.  Do you think the two models (of a line and of a triangle) are incompatible?  What are the advantages and disadvantages to each model?  As a side note, I have heard plenty of arguments that it is not problematic to ask the wife to follow the husband because we all have stewards over us that we must follow (such as the husband following the Bishop).  However, to me it is a lot different to ask the wife to follow the husband than it is to ask the husband to follow the Bishop.  First of all, living with someone who has stewardship over you and with whom you make a wide variety of decisions (from the mundane to the very important) is very different than following a Bishop.  The Bishop is just not going to have the same level of involvement in your life and thus, is going to give you a lot less direction than a spouse would.  Secondly, while all members are asked to follow the Bishop and Stake President etc, women always have an extra layer of command over them.  What is the justification for this extra layer?  Furthermore, while these other stewardships dissolve after we die, the stewardship of husband over wife remains throughout eternity.

Parent and Child Relationship

I think that most members of the church would agree that parents can receive revelation about how to raise and guide their children.  However, similar to the relationship between Bishops and ward members, there is the question of when personal revelation trumps parental revelation. Hopefully as the child grows, they will depend more and more on their personal revelation and less on the revelation that their parents receive for them.  But there are sure to be a number of times that the parents will feel strongly about something and the child feels differently.  Whose revelation trumps in this case?  There is also the question of when the parents’ unique access to revelation for their child ends.  Unlike being released from a calling, parents remain parents their entire lives.  However, they are (hopefully) not going to have the same level of involvement in their adult child’s life as they did when the child was young.  For daughters, we tend to think of the stewardship ending when they get married.  The idea is that they move from their father’s to their husband’s stewardship.  However, what about women who never marry or marry much later in life?  Are they under their father’s stewardship all of that time and does the nature of that stewardship change based on the age and maturity of the child?  What about sons?  When do they move out of their father’s stewardship?  When they marry?  Or when they receive the Melchizedek Priesthood?  And why is it that men become their own stewards when they grow up while women move from being under one steward to being under another?

When the System is Broken

I don’t know that we have clear doctrinal answers to the questions I raised above.  There is definitely a fuzziness to what stewardship means as well as when one person’s revelation should trump another.  There are even more questions that arise when you think of individual circumstances that don’t fit within the model.  For example, what if you don’t have a righteous Bishop?  In that case, one would hope that someone higher up would feel inspired to release him, but that isn’t always the case.  It gets even trickier when you think of issues of parenthood and marriage.  What if you don’t have righteous parents or don’t have a Priesthood holding father?  For women, what if you don’t have a righteous husband or what if you never marry?  In the cases where the steward is not in tune to revelation, does God start telling things directly to you?  Is an unmarried adult woman her own steward?  Is she privy to certain information in that role?  And does she lose access to that information when she marries?

Now I will turn it over to you.  How do you think stewardships and revelation function within the LDS church?  Do you see contradictions in how these issues are discussed?  Do you think the rhetoric surrounding these issues has changed over time?  How so?


  1. Excellent, thought-provoking post, Beatrice!

    For example, what if you don’t have a righteous Bishop? In that case, one would hope that someone higher up would feel inspired to release him, but that isn’t always the case.

    This, along with Whoa-man’s recent fantastic post on power over at exponent ii (http://www.the-exponent.com/shades-of-power/), has got me thinking about problems of asymmetries of power in the running of the institutional church.

    Doctrinally, there are (at least theoretical) checks and balances to ward off unrighteous dominion: if a man is behaving unrighteously he loses his priesthood (D&C 121: 36-37). But, practically speaking, he very well might not lose his institutional power unless his actions are both public and/or egregious enough to merit some form of church court. Even though presumably an unrighteous bishop would lose his stewardship, what does that mean if he isn’t released?

  2. This struck me yesterday:

    Matthew 10:40-42 He that receiveth you receiveth me, and he that receiveth me receiveth him that sent me. He that receiveth a prophet in the name of a prophet shall receive a prophet’s reward; and he that receiveth a righteous man in the name of a righteous man shall receive a righteous man’s reward.

    “When Jesus said this he was using a way of speaking that the Jews regularly used. [They] felt that to receive a person’s envoy or messenger was to the same as to receive the person himself. To pay respect to an ambassador was to pay respect to the king who had sent him. To welcome with love the messenger of a friend was the same as to welcome the friend himself.” William Barclay, The Gospel of Matthew p. 397-398

    Jews in ancient Israel also understood that this admonition to pay good attention to and welcome a messenger with love and heed the message would only be true if the ambassador, envoy or messenger were carrying a true and accurate message. If he was carrying a message that he thought was authentic but which was not, or if he was carrying a message that he had invented himself, there was no virtue in receiving him as if he were the sender he represented. And it was your responsibility, as host, to determine whether or not the message was truly from the person it purported to be. Hence the use of seals and sealing wax verify that the message had not been tampered with. The recipient would use his own eyes and reason to check the state of the seal and the content of the message to determine its validity.

    A quick search of the concordance reminds me that the admonitions in the standard works are to hearken to prophets (hearken, in the years following the KJV translation meant to listen; to listen eagerly or curiously, to attend, to pay regard (Samuel Johnson’s 1785 dictionary) but the admonitions to “follow” only refer to Jesus and righteousness. I think that’s significant.

    From the above I assume that we may say that messages may be sent by messengers, but it is the recipient’s responsibility to determine the accuracy of the message and act accordingly.

  3. I found this post intriguing for two reasons. First, I have personal experience with a bishop and a member of the stake presidency criticizing me for my lack of obedience and humitily in accepting their word years ago about a calling they issued to a family member. The new bishop the following year apologized for a call that never should have been issued. It drove a wedge between my son and former wife that is still present in my son’s mind.

    Second, after coming to the realization I was gay I made the decision to stay single and celibate, even though I was inactive in the church at that point. The issue of personal revelation hit when I had a strong premontion last year to come out, resign from the church, and look for a gay partner. It has been a challenging experience, to say the least. It has been richly rewarding, though.

    Thanks for you very insightful post. I agree with the above comment the ultimately we are responsible for determining the accuracy of messages that we receive.

  4. President Eyring’s wife seems to have stewardship over his career choices:
    “My wife…had a strong impression that we were not to leave Ricks College. I said, ‘That’s good enough for me.'” (https://www.lds.org/general-conference/2012/10/where-is-the-pavilion?lang=eng)

    RS presidents I know definitely feel that they have stewardship over the sisters and that they receive revelation about things like visiting teaching assignments and callings. I think this is more parallel to a YM or YW president having stewardship over youth of the ward though, because it’s clearly a sub-stewardship of the bishop. Also, what about people who say “I felt prompted to share this story in my talk”? Isn’t that receiving revelation for the ward?

  5. In my experience women are always an awkward fit in the chain of priesthood authority. One of the strangest callings I’ve ever had was as a member of the stake RS presidency. Our mandate seemed to consist of throwing elaborate parties and guilting all the ward RS presidents into guilting their sisters to attend, making brownies for Scout jamborees, and attending ward conferences to tell the ward RS presidencies the they were doing it wrong. In short, we were useless.

    But the truly bizarre thing was that the ward RS presidencies were directly accountable to their bishops, not to us. We seemed to constitute this secondary and potentially contradictory source of authority. I suspect stake women’s auxiliary presidencies made more sense before correlation, but now they seem to make no sense at all.

  6. I further suspect this sort of contradiction underlies the silence on Heavenly Mother. We’ve got a whole chain of priesthood authority carefully laid out. With a few strange exceptions like those laid out above, men hold stewardship over women. So where would you put a female god in the chain? In our current terms the very notion of female godhood is contradictory.

  7. Great point Eve. “Does Heavenly Mother have stewardship over anyone?” is a really interesting question. Does she have authority over all her children, or like a RS President in the sky, does she only have authority over her daughters? And, if so, how does her authority over her daughters interact with the authority that the Priesthood chain has over her daughters?

  8. ZD Eve #5, I suspect that all auxiliaries, not just women’s, made more sense before correlation. Your critique of the stake RS applies to stake YM, YW, Primary and SS, none of them are directly accountable to the stake. To me most of the stake organization as it currently exists makes much sense at all.

  9. As to people being prompted to share a story in a talk, I think that is revelation as to what you should say, not necessarily revelation to the entire ward.

    Similarly, and in response to a latter section, as the parent of some adult children, I am frequently prompted as to what to SAY to them, but I never assume that particular thing is what the Lord wants for them. Only that it is something they should consider. And of course sometimes considering and actively rejecting an option makes for a better decision.

    So I think the parental stewardship endures, but the nature changes to one of counsel rather than decision-making on their behalf. And I personally think that age starts around 16…I would never tell a young person where to go to college; they have to make that choice themselves.

  10. Great post and questions, Beatrice. This is probably oversimplifying, but I wonder if the whole idea of these hierarchical stewardships weren’t cooked up by men, and most (or all?) of the difficulties come about when they try to graft women into the hierarchies. It would look too out-of-step even for an organization as conservative as the Church is, to leave women out entirely, but women have been added in in a kind of a chicken stewardship way, so like you observed, it’s a real mess.

  11. Such good questions! My first thought is that the Lund/Oakes quote means that stewardship is necessary but not sufficient for revelation on behalf of another.

    Personally, I am fine with receiving inspired advice from anyone – my husband, visiting teacher, bishop, even my 6 year old son. But I would call it inspired advice, probably not revelation. In my experience revelation feels like an epiphany, like something that suddenly dawns on me and feels completely true, and I’ve somehow always known it. It’s a somewhat rare experience that is eminently personal. No one can have it “for” me.

    Which means that insofar as someone has revelation “for” me, it’s only revelation if I have that eminently personal spiritual experience of knowing it’s true myself.

    All these hierarchies make my head hurt. And my heart.

  12. Thanks for your comment Emily U. I like framing it as inspired advice. There are just too many complications that can arise from someone receiving revelation for you, and I think one of the great strengths of Mormonism is the idea that God speaks to each person directly about their individual life.

    Just curious, what about the hierarchies make your head and heart hurt?

  13. Oh man!!! two thoughts. I got into HUGE kucka a few months ago when I was asked by the stake president to present my concerns on missionary work in the stake. I was and still am the ward mission leader. I submitted 15 items one of which was the “bureacracy of revelation”

    “From what I understand myself, the Bishop, High Councilor (why doesn’t he attend his home ward at least once in a while?)Stake President, Mission President, Area Authority Seventy, General Authority all can receive revelation for missionary work. It’s a bureaucracy of revelation and who’s revelation is more important then someone else’s? “If a Kingdom is divided against itself it cannot stand”

    nothing is more frustrating then being told to do 50 different things from 50 different people and all 50 claim revelation and you are accountable to them all.

    I have had two Bishops who played the “I received revelation for you” card. I followed it and my life is a wreck. I don’t know what to believe from whom anymore, I can’t even trust my Patriarchal Blessing.

  14. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and some other Latter Day Saint denominations claim to be led by revelation from God to a living prophet , who receives God’s word just as Abraham , Moses , Peter , and other ancient prophets and apostles did. It also teaches that everyone is entitled to personal revelation with respect to his or her stewardship . Thus, parents can receive inspiration from God in raising their families, individuals can receive divine inspiration to help them meet personal challenges, church officers may receive revelation for those whom they serve, and Apostles and Prophets may receive revelation for the entire church. The important consequence of this is that each person may receive confirmation that particular doctrines taught by a prophet are true, as well as gain divine insight in using those truths for their own benefit and eternal progress. In the LDS Church, personal revelation is expected and encouraged, and many converts believe that personal revelation from God was instrumental in their conversion.

  15. Great points Cameron, what do you do when there is not a clear chain of command? We do have a lot of fuzziness to this chain of command as pointed out in the comments about Stake RS presidents. It is weird when we are “under” a number of different people, but those people are not organized in a obvious hierarchical way.

  16. @beatrice-I just be honest if I get told different things, I say well bro. or Pres. X said this so what do you suggest I do? An example-a few weeks ago I told the elders to only put progressing investigators on the progress sheet. They put down three people. Not everything they did that week. So in ward council they got it from the visiting High Councilor who was saying, “Is this all you did this week? you should have this whole sheet filled up with information” and so I fought for my missionaries and said look fella… we don’t have time do discuss people that we only taught one and they weren’t interested or whatever, so just speak up is my advice

  17. There is a lack of precision in the language of the OP that I believe weakens some otherwise very good points and questions. Perhaps we should refer to alleged revelation, rather than just revelation. After all, it’s not as if God would tell a Bishop “Sister X needs calling Z” and then tell Sister X to turn down calling Z.

  18. Thanks for pointing this out, Brian. To clarify, within the post when I state “revelation” I mean “alleged revelation”. I think this comment raises an interesting point about revelation, though. Within the church, church leaders and members often talk about revelation as if it is a direct message from God. They rarely frame it with uncertainty such as,”I think God is trying to tell me X.” I think the certainty with which we discuss revelation is what often leads to problems. For example, the Bishop thinking “Why would God tell this person to reject a calling, when I so clearly feel like they should accept the calling?”

  19. I know this is a month old, but I’m just catching up on my google reader feeds and this is far too interesting of a post for me to refrain from commenting. So: apologies for the resurrecting of an old post.

    When I was called to the YW presidency in my ward, I definitely felt a stewardship for those YW. (Which was pretty hard to lose when I was released). I felt connected to those girls in a way that I haven’t before or since. I didn’t receive any revelation about their personal lives, but I did for actions that I should take, that would affect them.

    I was always taught (in the context of husband-wife revelation) that if it was true revelation, you would always receive a confirmation of The Lord (if you sought it). I think this would be true of others who have stewardship over an individual. To clarify, I think that a husband and wife both have stewardship over their relationship with each other. The whole point is to cleave together. And, again, that parents will have revelation about actions they should take, but anything they feel inspired to tell a child about their life, if it is true revelation, the child will be able to receive confirmation.

    I have a perhaps radical view of children’s agency, and I think that they have the right to make decisions about their own lives from the age of accountability. Obviously not, for example, who to marry at that age. But about baptism, I definitely think children should receive their own confirmation that it is the right thing to do.

  20. Thanks for your comment, Olea. The way you lay things out seems so logical and straight-forward, it is surprising that this is not always the way people view this issue.


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