At general conferences, we are reminded of a frequent practice of the Church, which, though common, ought never to be viewed as perfunctory, that being the sustaining of Church authorities and officers.
The practice, of course, reflects what has been called the law, or principle, of common consent, and it can be defined as the right and privilege that Church members have of sustaining or not sustaining the actions of their leaders. This is customarily expressed by members in a congregation by the uplifted hand to signify their assent, and is validated in the subsequent behavior of the members that verifies their loyalty and support.
At general conferences, the membership at large signifies by sustaining vote its on-going support of the general leadership of the Church. This is also done in stake and ward conferences, with local as well as general officers being sustained. Also at general conferences, newly called authorities and officers are sustained. Apart from Church callings, once in a while, an important action of the Brethren is sustained at conference, such as an addition to the scriptural canon.
That the principle was operative in earlier gospel dispensations is evidenced by such scriptural passages as Exodus 24:3 and Numbers 27:18-20, wherein the people sustained the actions of Moses.
Though it is in the form of a vote, sustaining the actions of Church leaders does not reflect democratic government, for the administration of the Church is not properly characterized as a democracy. "Democracy," President Harold B. Lee taught, "means a government where the sole authority is vested in the people — the right to nominate, the right to release, to change. The Church is not a democracy. It is more like a kingdom than a democracy — and yet it is not wholly like a kingdom, except that we accept the Lord as the king, who has under His direction an earthly head who operates and becomes His mouthpiece. It is an organization that is defined more accurately as a theocracy, which means that it is something like a kingdom as the world would define it, and yet something like a democracy" (Stand Ye in Holy Places, p. 151).
Why, then, do we practice the principle of common consent in the Church? A few reasons might be suggested as follows:
It is commanded by the Lord. He revealed through the Prophet Joseph Smith, "For all things must be done in order, and by common consent in the church, by the prayer of faith" (Doctrine and Covenants 28:13). In another revelation: "And all things shall be done by common consent in the church, by much prayer and faith, for all things you shall receive by faith. Amen" (Doctrine and Covenants 26:2).
The reference to "much prayer and faith" indicates that the formal sustaining of leaders should not be taken lightly; rather we should approach it as we do any other important assignment or duty, exercising the power of faith in consultation with the Lord.
It protects the Church from deceivers. No one is called to any office or position in the Church without being formally presented for sustaining vote to the Church members whom that calling will concern. (See Doctrine and Covenants 42: 11.) Thus if any individual arises professing to have been secretly ordained to this or that position, Church members can know with certainty that the claim is false. Again, the pattern is evident in the Old Testament in that Moses was commanded to present Joshua "before all the congregation; and give him a charge in their sight" (Numbers 27:18-20).
It affirms and validates the eternal principle of moral agency. Though a person be called of God, he may not function in the authority of that calling without the consent of the members over whom he has jurisdiction. Just as an individual may refuse to obey a commandment of God, so might a people collectively reject the will of God as pertaining to an action by the leadership of the Church. Such a choice will not be free of consequences, but the Lord honors our agency.
It provides opportunity to make a binding covenant with associated obligations and promises. In a solemn assembly at April 1970 general conference, at which President Joseph Fielding Smith was sustained as president of the Church, President Harold B. Lee, his counselor, conducted the voting. On that occasion, President Lee taught: "Every one is perfectly free to vote as he wishes. There is no compulsion whatsoever in this voting. When you vote affirmatively you make a solemn covenant with the Lord that you will sustain, that is, give your full loyalty and support, without equivocation or reservation, to the officer for whom you vote" (Conference Report, p. 103).
When we are called upon to give a sustaining vote, let us do so with the earnest solemnity and thoughtfulness that such an occasion requires.