While I was growing up, I had the distinct impression that the apostles and prophets of the LDS Church had seen Christ. But not only had they seen him, but that they saw him regularly. It was, after all, Christ’s Church, and he was running it, directing it, and revealing himself to those who he has called to lead the church today, just as he did to Joseph Smith when the church was restored. This is why they were called “special witnesses.” Why was it special? Because they had first-hand knowledge of the reality of the living and resurrected Christ. They were eye witnesses of the Savior, and could therefore bear direct testimony of his existence, his life, his sacrifice, and his resurrection. They had received the Second Comforter, their calling and election was made sure, and they abode often in Christ’s presence.
When I got older, I started to doubt this. There were only a few anecdotal stories of earlier prophets or apostles having seen Christ, and some of those were in a dream, or while they were unconscious. Most of the time they did not say that they had seen Christ. They bore testimony of him but dodged the question of having actually seen him. If asked point blank they would usually say something to the effect that such sacred experiences could not be shared, that they were commanded that they should not be shared. That’s convenient – maybe too convenient. Didn’t Joseph Smith declare many times that he had seen Christ, as well as other early Church members, apostles, leaders, etc., and it was recorded all over in the scriptures by prophets throughout history? Why were modern prophets and apostles suddenly commanded to not share their direct personal witness of Christ?
So what does “special witness” of Christ really mean then? Fortunately, Elder Oaks clarified this a few weeks ago in an address with Elder Turley in Idaho:
Elder Turley: Another claim we sometimes hear is that current apostles have no right to run the affairs of the Church since they do not meet the New Testament standard of apostles, because they do not testify of having seen Christ.
Elder Oaks: The first answer to this question is that modern apostles are called to be witnesses of the “name” of Christ in all the world (D&C 107:23). This is not to witness of a personal manifestation. To witness of the “name” is to witness of the plan, the work, or mission, such as the atonement, and the authority or priesthood of the Lord Jesus Christ, which apostle who holds the keys is uniquely responsible to do. Of course apostles are also witnesses of Christ, just like all members of the Church who have the gift of the Holy Ghost. This is because the mission of the Holy Ghost is to witness of the Father and the Son.
This is something that has never been taught Church-wide that I’m aware of, that church leaders are called to be witnesses of the “name” of Christ, which is not to witness of a personal manifestation. Wow! That certainly makes it more clear. But it is contrary to everything I use to believe, and what I think most members of the LDS Church believe. When the leaders of the Church say they are “special witnesses” of Christ, and bear “solemn witness” of his reality, that apparently does not necessarily mean that they have seen him. It means they are witnessing of his “name,” which is to witness of the plan, the work, the mission of Jesus Christ. Ok. But isn’t that what every member of the Church does when they bear their testimony in fast and testimony meeting? What is “special” about our leaders’ apostolic witness of these things? What makes their witness any different, unique, or special?
Luckily, Elder Oaks did grant that personal manifestations of Christ can happen to Church leaders:
In addition, while some early apostles and other members of the Church have had the sublime spiritual experience of seeing the Savior, and some made a public record of this, in the circumstances of today we are counselled not to speak of our most sacred spiritual experiences. Otherwise, with modern technology that can broadcast something all over the world, our remark made in a sacred and private setting can be sent abroad in violation of the Savior’s commandment not to cast our pearls before swine.
I don’t understand the reasoning behind this at all. Like I said before, Joseph Smith declared boldly of having seen Christ, as well as other early Church members and leaders. And there are numerous accounts in the scriptures, which are published in the millions, perhaps billions, of copies. This has been the fundamental role of prophets and apostles in times past, to bear witness of his very reality because they knew it, from first-hand personal experience. Are the apostles called to bear witness of him, but not bear personal eye witness of him, because that would be casting pearls before swine? That doesn’t make sense to me.
Stating that they are “special witnesses” of Christ, but hiding the fact that they may not have seen him, seems disingenuous at best, and deceptive at worst. They put on the impression that they have seen him, but the reality may be that they have not. It may be that none of them have really seen him. So instead of having to lie by saying they have seen him when they really haven’t, and lose credibility as apostles, they say they are “special witnesses” of him to obfuscate that detail and just put on appearances of having seen him. The members of the Church end up believing they have seen him, but that’s probably not the truth. It’s sophistry at its finest.
If Church leaders have seen Christ, then apparently we’re among the swine. We will never know if the living prophets and apostles have seen Christ, or if they solely bear witness of him from general experience. How that is a “special witness” is questionable. Those pearls will never see the light of day. On the other hand, it’s more likely that they have not seen him, but don’t want to come out and say it because of the damage it could do to members’ faith, and so are putting on appearances of having seen him, masqueraded behind carefully skilled language which makes it seem like they have. They won’t say positively or negatively whether they have seen him, and so they leave the members to flounder in speculation, or worse, believing they have seen him when they really haven’t. What is the truth? Does believing in something that is not true help anyone?
Do I doubt that Church leaders are “special witnesses” of Christ? I do.