The Government of the Church: A Theocratic Democracy
Volume 18, Number 1 Jan/Feb/Mar 2017 Issue 70
By President James Vun Cannon
What do you think when you hear the word “government” in relation to the church? Maybe you get a mental picture of General Conference or stake conference or a branch business meeting? Some may view the government of the church as secular or institutional and separate from God. The idea of government is so ingrained in our culture and so much a part of us that it is sometimes hard to distinguish what God originally had in mind.
In the Remnant Church, we have a government similar to that of the United States of America. The founding fathers of the United States believed that the government would only work if its people were a righteous people.
” . . . that He (God) would make us deeply sensible that ‘righteousness exalteth a nation, but sin is a reproach to any people;'” John Adams, second President of the USA.1
However, in these last hours before the Lord comes, we must be careful not to judge the government of the church in the same way we judge the federal government. So what is the government of the Remnant Church?
In the early days of the church, Joseph Smith, Jr., defined the church as a “theocracy.” A theocracy is a government by God. Joseph stated this type of government when he referred to God’s dealings with the children of Israel when Moses was the leader of the Church. Joseph stated:
“Their government was a theocracy; they had God to make their laws, and men chosen by him to administer them; he was their God, and they were his people. Moses received the word of the Lord from God himself; he was the mouth of God to Aaron, and Aaron taught the people in both the civil and ecclesiastical affairs; they were both one; there was no distinction; so will it be when the purposes of God shall be accomplished; when the Lord shall be king over the whole earth…” 2
“For the Lord is our judge, the Lord is our lawgiver, the Lord is our King;…” 3
Joseph Smith III went on to help define this foundation further with the statement below.
“The church, as defined by the late President Joseph Smith, is a theocratic democracy – not manmade, but of divine appointment and origin. It was brought into being by command of God, is guided and administered by his authority, is sustained by the light of his Spirit, and exists for his purposes; but notwithstanding the primary rights of Divinity in his church, our heavenly Father has committed to the Saints an important share in the responsibility of governing his church.” 4
Joseph Smith III’s statement that the church’s government was a “theocratic democracy” adds more dimensions to understanding the government of the kingdom. The theocratic portion of this statement means theocratic government: “God himself is recognized as the head” of the government of the church. This is why the government of the church is considered “…not man-made, but of divine appointment and origin.” 4 The “democracy” portion of the statement must be considered according to the time period it was given, during the 1800s. In that time, the word “democracy” was synonymous with republic. This was due to the way many people of the time viewed the government of the United States. The prevailing thought of the day was that the word “democracy” meant a form of government in which the government derives its power from the people and is accountable to them for the use of that power. In this sense, the United States and the church might accurately be called a democracy. The United States, of course, has been a republic since the late 1780s. English orthography makes it difficult because of the multiple ways to spell nearly every phoneme (sound) and, depending on the context, the word may take on an entirely different meaning. Further compounded by those with little information, is they didn’t realize the change in the intent of the word from the beginning in 1776 when the United States was a pure democracy (which failed), to a form of a republic.
Founding father John Adams stated, “Remember, democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide.” 5
These two forms of government, democracy and republic, are not only dissimilar but opposing, reflecting the sharp contrast between “majority unlimited” and “majority limited.” A “majority unlimited” democracy lacks any legal safeguards of the rights of the individual and the minority (meaning you can create laws about anything to the point of diminishing human life). “Majority limited,” or a republic under a written constitution, provides safeguards of the rights of the individual and the minority. As we shall see, this is what God has intended. The worth of souls in the sight of God is great, 6 and their value cannot be changed, else God would cease to be God. 7 The worth of souls and the framing of “common consent,” in which the minority acquiesces to the majority, and the majority does not oppress the minority, 8 builds strong walls on the foundation of Christ for the government of a holy church.
The Remnant Church of Jesus Christ is then a theocratic democracy/republic in which the will of God is executed by divinely-appointed ministers, with the consent of the members.
Under the theocratic phase, the authority of God is primary. Under the democratic phase, the people (priesthood and membership) exercise the right to consent, to reject, or originate legislation that is not in opposition to God’s laws.
How is this possible that we can have authority in God’s holy church government? As with the government of the United States, if the members are not righteous, the government cannot work. So, we are called to be a people which have the law written in our hearts, to deny all ungodliness, to become perfect by grace, and to reach sanctification through sacrifice, to one day become the pure in heart.
1. John Adams, Letter to the Officers of the First Brigade of the Third Division of the Militia of Massachusetts, 11 October 1798,
2. Joseph Smith, Jr., “The Government of God,” Times and Seasons. July 15, 1842, Volume 3, page 857.
3. Isaiah 33:22.
4. Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, Rules and Resolutions, “Rules of Order,” Rule 6, adopted April 5th, 1952.
5. John Adams, “Letter to John Taylor,” 17 December 1814.
6. Doctrine and Covenants 16:3c.
7. Romans 2:11; Doctrine and Covenants 22:23b.
8. Doctrine and Covenants 25:1b; “The Mayflower Compact – Consent of the Governed.”