The Priesthood

In my experience, priesthood — at least in the popular Mormon imagination — is ill-defined. There are a few phrases that will be thrown out in Sunday School or other settings (“power and authority of God,” “order of Heaven”, etc.), but I’m never sure what people are actually talking about when they talk about priesthood.

The manual is organized into five sections, so let’s just take them one at a time.

What is the priesthood?

This seems like a reasonable place to start. As the manual informs us,

The priesthood is the eternal power and authority of God. Through the priesthood He created and governs the heavens and the earth. By this power the universe is kept in perfect order.

That is heady stuff for anyone, but perhaps especially for a 12 year old boy. I’ve revealed a lot of my embarrassingly naive beliefs in these posts. Priesthood is no different. As a boy who had a great deal of enthusiasm for fantasy novels, priesthood was naturally associated in my mind with magic. When we talk about the ‘power of God,’ it conjured up in my mind images of Zeus hurling lightning bolts or Luke Skywalker levitating things with the Force.

The closest we get to this kind of magical power in the Church today is when we talk about the healing power of the priesthood. Faith healings in different traditions are a fascinating subject, and I’ve written a little already about some of the problems I see with petitionary prayer (and priesthood blessings, in my mind, feel like amped up petitionary prayers).

As I think about the ‘power and authority of God’ now, the only way I can make sense of it is by appealing to a concept like the Tao. If we must link the priesthood with the power that creates and sustains the universe, I think these lines from the Tao Te Ching do a better job of describing that power than the six days story (from this translation):

The gate of the Mystic Female
Is called the root of Heaven and Earth

It flows continuously, barely perceptible
Utilize it; it is never exhausted

And we have hints of something like this in Mormon scripture. Section 121 talks about the priesthood in terms that disappointed my youthful self who thought it would be awesome if I could summon down fire like Elijah or make the walls of Jericho tumble down. The priesthood, Joseph taught us, works by ‘persuasion,’ ‘long-suffering,’ ‘gentleness,’ ‘meekness.’ The power that it grants is not like earthly power; it flows ‘without compulsory means.’ A few more lines from the Taoist philosophers,

Yield and remain whole
Bend and remain straight
Be low and become filled
Be worn out and become renewed
Have little and receive
Have much and be confused
Therefore the sages hold to the one as an example for the world
Without flaunting themselves – and so are seen clearly
Without presuming themselves – and so are distinguished
Without praising themselves – and so have merit
Without boasting about themselves – and so are lasting

Why do we need the priesthood on earth?

If I were answering that based on my taoist perspective on priesthood above, I might say that we could all use a little more centeredness in our lives. The ‘Mystic Female’ could do a great deal to soothe and heal our broken world.

For the manual, the answer seems very different. It is all about authority and governance.

The argument that I’ve heard repeated a thousand times in Church goes something like this: God’s house is a house of order, and the priesthood ensures that there is a single line of authority so that no one gets confused. There is as Paul tells us (or rather, as he told the Ephesians), ‘One Lord, one faith, one baptism.’

So, if we accept the idea that ordinances are critical signposts on the journey to exaltation, this single authority argument makes some sense.

[That premise doesn’t make a lot of sense to me (but that is probably a topic for another day).]

The anonymous authors of the manual also use this section to make the point that the priesthood facilitates revelation from God (perhaps that was the rationale behind the thankfully defunct prohibition against women praying in regular Church meetings [although, puzzlingly the ban still seems to exist in General Conference]), and consistent with the ‘minimize confusion’ argument from above, revelation that comes from proper priesthood channels ensures that God — when he speaks — will be speaking with a consistent (perhaps, correlated?) message.

On the surface, this argument seems pretty good. We don’t want too many metaphorical cooks in the kitchen. However if the scriptures are any guide, this orderly vision of an authorized servant who relays God’s will to the people has plenty of exceptions.

Ancient Israel seemed to be overflowing with prophets who had no connection to the priestly class. The Book of Mormon continues the tradition of prophets who come from nowhere (Abinadi, Samuel the Lamanite, etc.). The New Testament is no better. Paul — as I’ve mentioned before — comes out of a tradition that was persecuting the early Christians and seems to be proud of his extra-institutional authority.

I have a difficult time imagining the institutional church reacting kindly to a modern Samuel the Lamanite type figure.

Authority, Hierarchy, and Patriarchy

The final sections in this chapter (“How do Men Receive the Priesthood?”, “How do Men Properly Use the Priesthood?”, “What Blessings Come When We Use the Priesthood Properly?”). Might be summed up in the following excerpt:

sons … male … men … himself … he … his … Men … man … he … he … he … He … he … himself … he … man … himself … Men … man … man … he … his … He … He … He … his … He … Men … Men … man … he … his … his … his … his … he

In case there was any doubt, men act; families, women, and children are acted upon. This is a benevolent patriarchy for sure, but a patriarchy nonetheless. Men are to act in service of their families and their stewardships, but power and authority are only given to them.

There seems to be a lot of evidence that Joseph was moving toward a more inclusive role for women in the kingdom. Others have written about the Quorum of the Anointed which was composed of men and women–high priests and high priestesses. Women in the early church blessed and anointed one another by the power of the priesthood (and still do so today in the temple), and there are suggestions that the original intention of the Relief Society was to help prepare the women of the Church for their priesthood roles. Micheal Quinn quotes Joseph as saying he was “going to make of this [Relief] Society a kingdom of priests as in Enoch’s day—as in Paul’s day.”

And so, I’m at a little bit of a loss… I don’t know what to think about the manual’s insistence that priesthood is a power–granted to men–that seems to exist primarily to perform ordinances and govern the Church.

In my view, this gets it all backwards. Priesthood seems to be better described as a way of being that puts us in harmony with the Universe. It is the better way of living that Christ exemplified. It is accessible to all.

Surely, being in line with this power should be a requirement for any who would call themselves leaders in God’s church, but from where I’m standing, a lot of the ritual surrounding priesthood seems unnecessary and perhaps unhelpful.


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About Brad

I am a rather typical — or perhaps just not atypical — example of a 21st century, “uncorrelated” Mormon. My “Mormon Story” is (I have learned) rather cliche. I was raised by goodly parents, we went to church, followed the letter of the word of wisdom, abstained from the baser elements of the culture, etc. I served an honorable mission, enrolled at BYU, got married in the temple, and never seriously doubted until beginning a PhD program far beyond the Mormon corridor.

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