Why do we refer to people in the church as president? Why are Elder Eyring and Oaks presidents instead of one of the 14 apostles (and not twelve)? When we say we believe in the same organization that existed in the primitive church these titles seem to be different and the way of the world. If I were in their position I don’t think I would appreciate the title of President so why do we do this to people? Who came up with the titles. Why not prophet Nelson?
The best answer to your question lies in researching how the leading quorums of the Church were restored, step by step, through the agency of Joseph Smith. Such an answer is beyond the scope of an Ask Gramps column. I’ll go a shortcut route by explaining how today’s quorums fulfill the needs of Christ’s kingdom and actually do fill the same structure and needs as the original organization Jesus put in place in the meridian of time. I will give a brief overview of how Priesthood offices were restored, but I encourage you to spend a few weeks (or months) researching the restoration of these leadership positions.
In the meridian of time, Jesus himself led his Church. He needed no counselors; he was himself the Lord of creation, and as the head of his Church and kingdom took counsel only from his Father. But he invited all to come unto him, and he called twelve that he ordained as apostles, special witnesses to help carry his message to the world.
Today, we have the same structure: Twelve apostles, ordained of Christ, who travel the world preaching the gospel and caring for the kingdom, with Jesus himself at the head of his kingdom. But since Jesus no longer dwells among us in person, he has appointed a man to hold and exercise the keys of Priesthood leadership in his stead. Today, that man is Russell M. Nelson. Christ has also instructed that the man who holds and exercises these keys call counselors to assist him in these duties and, as the name “counselor” implies, counsel with him in the decision he makes. Together, these men constitute the First Presidency. They stand in the place of the Lord in leading Christ’s kingdom on earth in these days, just as the mortal Jesus led the kingdom in the meridian of time. And just as the ancient apostles looked to Jesus for leadership in guiding the kingdom, so our apostles look to the First Presidency for instruction on how they should proceed with their duties.
Where do these men in the First Presidency come from? In our day, the senior apostle functions as the President of the Church, and he normally selects his counselors from the members of that quorum. These three men then form the First Presidency, a separate quorum higher than the Quorum of Twelve Apostles. As such, they are no longer members of the Quorum of Twelve Apostles. That leaves the Quorum of Twelve with only nine members, so the First Presidency calls more apostles until the requisite number of twelve apostles are present.
Upon the death of the president of the Church, the First Presidency is dissolved, and the counselors take their original places in the Quorum of Twelve. This means that the Quorum of Twelve actually consists of fourteen members for a short time. This is not a problem, and when the new First Presidency is put into place (usually within a week or so of the previous president’s death), three of the fourteen will constitute the new First Presidency, leaving the Quorum of Twelve with only eleven members. One of the new First Presidency’s first duties is to call another apostle to fill the vacancy in the Quorum of Twelve.
Why “President”? The First Presidency is the highest presiding authority on earth. As a quorum, these three men hold and exercise the keys of the kingdom and ultimately make the decisions that guide the Church. Since they preside over all other quorums on the earth, including the Quorum of Twelve Apostles, each of them can appropriately be called “President”. Note that the members of the Quorum of Twelve Apostles are not called by the title “Apostle”, but by that of “Elder”. Any General Authority, whether of the First Presidency, the Quorum of Twelve Apostles, the Presiding Bishopric, or one of the Quorums of the Seventy, may be appropriately addressed as “Elder” or “Brother”.
So the structure of the primitive Church is preserved in the Restored Church. That we call our leaders “president” instead of “apostle” is of no moment; indeed, the ancients apostles were apparently not ever addressed as “apostle Peter” or “apostle Paul”, but simply by name. The title such as “president” functions not so much as an honorific, like “Sir” or “Your Majesty”, as it does a recognition of position. In the same way, we call the US President by the title “president” not to laud his magnificence, but simply to identify him as the leader. Keep in mind that the presiding officers of the Church are not on a quest to seek the honors of men, even within the Church. They do not flaunt their position as a way to gain status, but humbly go about the work to which they have been called. We do well to recognize their sacrifices and help them in their sacred duties.