16 And now, Alma was their high priest, he being the founder of their church.
17 And it came to pass that none received authority to preach or to teach except it were by him from God. Therefore he consecrated all their priests and all their teachers; and none were consecrated except they were just men.
18 Therefore they did watch over their people, and did nourish them with things pertaining to righteousness.
After leaving the land of King Noah, Alma and his people established a new city. Some of the people wanted Alma to be their king, but he taught them that they should not give up their newly claimed liberty. They should not “esteem one flesh above another,” and therefore they should “trust no man to be a king over [them]” (Mosiah 23:7, 13).
Then he taught them about church government. The people had to decide for themselves whom they would follow. Alma cautioned them that they should “trust no one to be [their] teacher nor [their] minister, except he be a man of God, walking in his ways and keeping his commandments” (Mosiah 23:14).
They trusted Alma. They had gathered regularly at the waters of Mormon to hear him preach, even though he was hiding from the king’s soldiers, who had been commanded to kill him. They had accepted his invitation to be baptized and to become part of the newly organized church. They had subsequently abandoned their homes and followed him into the wilderness to establish a new city. They absolutely believed that he was a “man of God, walking in his ways and keeping his commandments.” So they also trusted the people whom he selected to act as their spiritual leaders.
In the passage above, we read that all of the priests and teachers were chosen and consecrated by Alma personally. This was logistically possible in their case: they were a relatively small group of people, about 450 when they established the city (Mosiah 18:35). The church organization was intentionally simple. Alma ordained one priest for every 50 members, so there were about nine priests. It’s not clear how many additional people were chosen as teachers, but the total number of church leaders was small. The people took confidence from their knowledge that every one of these leaders was selected by Alma himself.
In a revelation given to Joseph Smith in Kirtland, Ohio in 1831, the Savior taught the members of His church how their leaders were to be chosen:
Again I say unto you, that it shall not be given to any one to go forth to preach my gospel, or to build up my church, except he be ordained by some one who has authority, and it is known to the church that he has authority and has been regularly ordained by the heads of the church (D&C 42:11, italics added).
And our fifth Article of Faith states:
We believe that a man must be called of God, by prophecy, and by the laying on of hands by those who are in authority, to preach the Gospel and administer in the ordinances thereof (Articles of Faith 1:5).
I’ve always thought of authority as something that is imposed upon me, that I am obligated to respect. But as I’ve pondered this passage today, I’ve begun to think of authority in a new way: as a mechanism for transferring trust from one person to another. Let me give two examples:
- I trust President Russell M. Nelson as my spiritual leader. I have had a number of experiences which have convinced me that he is a man of God. I have had fewer experiences with Elders Gerrit W. Gong and Ulisses Soares, but I accepted them as new members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles last April because I know that they were called by President Nelson.
- Yesterday at church, several members of my congregation were called to serve in various responsibilities, including teachers. I don’t know all of them, but I raised my hand to sustain them in their new responsibilities because I know that they were called by my bishop, whom I know and whom I trust.
Of course, this places a serious responsibility on the people who have been chosen. They are literally borrowing the trust of the people they serve from the leader who chose them. Perhaps that is why Alma instructed his priests “that they should teach nothing save it were the things which he had taught, and which had been spoken by the mouth of the holy prophets” (Mosiah 18:19). They were now acting as representatives of the church, and specifically as representatives of the high priest who had called them. They needed to recognize that their actions and their words would reflect on Alma personally, since they had received their authority directly from him.
Today, I will be grateful for a church organization which allows an orderly transfer of authority from one leader to another. I will remember Alma’s caution: I must ultimately decide whom I will trust as my spiritual leaders and teachers. I will be grateful that I can have confidence in the people who have been assigned to teach me because I have confidence in the people who made those assignments.