Last week in priesthood class a member asked, “How can one tell when a man, whom we sustain as prophet, is speaking as a prophet or giving his own opinion?”
President Brigham Young taught that
What a pity it would be if we were led by one man to utter destruction! Are you afraid of this? I am more afraid that this people have so much confidence in their leaders that they will not inquire for themselves of God whether they are led by Him. I am fearful they settle down in a state of blind self-security, trusting their eternal destiny in the hands of their leaders with a reckless confidence that in itself would thwart the purposes of God in their salvation, and weaken that influence they could give to their leaders, did they know for themselves, by the revelations of Jesus, that they are led in the right way. Let every man and woman know, by the whispering of the Spirit of God to themselves, whether their leaders are walking in the path the Lord dictates, or not. This has been my exhortation continually. Journal of Discourses 9:150.
So, in other words: we know when the prophet is speaking as a prophet, because the Holy Spirit confirms the truth of those words into our hearts. This is the same principle we should apply when we have questions about something said by anyone in the Church, from a primary teacher up to an apostle:
And whatsoever they shall speak when moved upon by the Holy Ghost shall be scripture, shall be the will of the Lord, shall be the mind of the Lord, shall be the word of the Lord, shall be the voice of the Lord, and the power of God unto salvation. Doctrine and Covenants 68:4, emphasis added.
Therefore, why is it that ye cannot understand and know, that he that receiveth the word by the Spirit of truth receiveth it as it is preached by the Spirit of truth?
Wherefore, he that preacheth and he that receiveth, understand one another, and both are edified and rejoice together. Doctrine and Covenants 50:21-22.
Now, a caveat: A major reason that we need prophets and apostles is because the whisperings of the Spirit are so easily missed, ignored, or misinterpreted. Prophets and apostles are intended to serve as a separate line of revelation that is not easily ignored, or rationalized away by our own prejudices or predispositions. In a revelation that was intended to warn Hiram Page and his followers that Page’s own individual ability to receive revelation had become obscured, the Lord advised the Church that “I have given him [Joseph Smith] the keys of the mysteries, and the revelations which are sealed, until I shall appoint unto them another in his stead.” Doctrine and Covenants 28:7.
Of course, this does not mean that we must blindly accept everything a prophet says as completely doctrinal. However, it suggests to me that I can approach most statements by apostles and prophets, with the presumption that they probably know more than I do about any given Gospel topic. And we do have a promise from President Woodruff that the Lord will never permit the head of the Church “to lead the children of men astray from the oracles of God and from their duty”. Official Declaration 1, explanatory material. It was in this sense, I believe, that Brigham Young observed,
I do not wish any Latter-day Saint in this world, nor in heaven, to be satisfied with anything I do, unless the Spirit of the Lord Jesus Christ, the spirit of revelation, makes them satisfied. I wish them to know for themselves and understand for themselves, for this would strengthen the faith that is within them. Journal of Discourses 3:45
Thus, while we do not need to slavishly change our opinions to conform to every little thing a Church leader says; a conflict between what Elder Oaks calls the “priesthood line” of revelation versus our individual “personal line” of revelation should be a cause for serious introspection and soul-searching before we dismiss what we think we have received through either line. As Elder Oaks teaches in his Conference address entitled “Two Lines of Communication“,
We must use both the personal line and the priesthood line in proper balance to achieve the growth that is the purpose of mortal life. If personal religious practice relies too much on the personal line, individualism erases the importance of divine authority. If personal religious practice relies too much on the priesthood line, individual growth suffers. The children of God need both lines to achieve their eternal destiny. The restored gospel teaches both, and the restored Church provides both.