Tag Archive | priesthood


One of the primary reasons given for the Restoration is the necessity of ordinances performed under the proper authority. This earth is a probationary time (so we are told), and one of its main functions is to give us an opportunity to receive the ordinances of the gospel. These ordinances set us on the path to exaltation, and baptism is the gate.

I feel a deep ambivalence about ordinances (an ambivalence that is probably responsible — at least in part — for the long gap between my last post and this one). On the one hand, the idea that there is something essential about performing certain rites and rituals during our brief time on earth is strange. Although Mormons get around some of the more problematic logical issues with requiring ordinances for salvation by allowing for vicarious work for the dead, this solution comes with its own problems that I’ll talk about in a future post.

There is still something deeply strange about the gospel plan as its been described to us. Speaking of the temple endowment, Brigham Young said:

“Your endowment is, to receive all those ordinances in the house of the Lord, which are necessary for you, after you have departed this life, to enable you to walk back to the presence of the Father, passing the angels who stand as sentinels, being enabled to give them the key words, the signs and tokens, pertaining to the holy Priesthood, and gain your eternal exaltation in spite of earth and hell” (Discourses of Brigham Young, sel. John A. Widtsoe [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1941], p. 416).

I can’t imagine any contemporary member of the Church defending this quote in it’s most literal sense. I don’t think that most members of the Church actually believe that there will be angels guarding the door and checking to make sure you have some arcane knowledge of the ‘key words, the signs and tokens’ necessary to enter the Celestial Kingdom, but this doesn’t seem to prevent us from thinking that the other ordinances of the gospel work in an analogous way.

Is there something supernatural about the fact of being baptized that is so crucial it must be performed vicariously for every person that hopes to receive exaltation? I do find some beauty in the notion that we turn our hearts to our ancestors and bring them one by one through the stepping stones of the gospel path, but at a certain point the logistics get so overwhelming that one begins to wonder.

On the other hand, there is something beautiful about a community of believers coming together to welcome a new soul into their fellowship. The old spiritual says it best: “Shall we gather at the river?/… /Gather with the saints at the river/ That flows by the throne of God.” (see this beautiful rendition).

My favorite scripture about baptism is in Mosiah 18:

[N]ow, as ye are desirous to come into the fold of God, and to be called his people, and are willing to bear one another’s burdens, that they may be light;

Yea, and are willing to mourn with those that mourn; yea, and comfort those that stand in need of comfort, and to stand as witnesses of God at all times and in all things, and in all places that ye may be in, even until death, that ye may be redeemed of God, and be numbered with those of the first resurrection, that ye may have eternal life—

Now I say unto you, if this be the desire of your hearts, what have you against being baptized in the name of the Lord, as a witness before him that ye have entered into a covenant with him, that ye will serve him and keep his commandments, that he may pour out his Spirit more abundantly upon you?

The idea that ordinances are ‘outward signs of inward commitment’ is a little cliche, but I think there is real power in it. Being able to point to a particular moment in time when something momentous happened is a powerful motivator (this makes child baptism a little problematic, but that might be a topic for another post).

At its best, baptism represents a turning point in a life, and an initiation into a new community.


The Church of Jesus Christ in Former Times

I’m not sure why us Mormons insist that the Church is the same today as it existed anciently. For some reason organizational resemblance has become an evidence of the ‘truthfulness’ of the Church. This seemed to be of particular importance to truth-seekers in Joseph’s day, but I’m not sure why it should remain the hallmark of the ‘one true church.’

The manual lists several characteristics of the ancient church and our modern church. Let’s take them in turn:


I’ve talked about revelation before, and despite my own difficulties in this area, it makes a lot of sense to me that God would be talking in some way to the people who are leading the church.

The manual draws a parallel between the way that Jesus led his ‘church’ while he was on the earth and how God continued to direct the affairs of the Church after Christ’s death. I don’t want to quibble too much with the idea that Jesus was actively creating some kind of institution during his brief ministry. Let me just say that I think it is a pretty big stretch to try to see in Jesus’ band of followers the same kind of organization that exists in the Church today.

Reading through the New Testament, it becomes clear that these people thought that Christ’s return was immanent. Although we like to try to interpret some of Paul’s letters (or those attributed to him) as foreseeing a ‘falling away’ that needed to come first, it is plain that this wasn’t a generally held belief among ancient Christians (and I would be a little surprised to learn that Paul — or whoever wrote the epistle — interpreted ‘falling away’ in the same way as the popular Mormon reading of 2 Thessalonians 2). So, if God was leading the primitive Church, he or she wasn’t very interested in imparting specifics.

Authority from God

My last two posts dealt with priesthood in greater detail. Any organization needs leadership, and as I said before, the ‘House of Order’ idea seems obviously true.

But the manual tells us,

That there might be order in His Church, Jesus gave the greatest responsibility and authority to the Twelve Apostles. He appointed Peter chief Apostle and gave him the keys to seal blessings both on earth and in heaven (see Matthew 16:19). Jesus also ordained other officers with specific duties to perform.

I’ve talked before about Paul. I am persuaded by the accounts of Paul as something of a renegade apostle. He wasn’t a part of the original Twelve, and he was proud of that fact. He seems to openly challenge Peter’s authority, and he is constantly warning the churches that he is said to have established as part of his extensive proselytizing efforts against ‘false brethren’ and ‘false prophets’ and people preaching ‘some other gospel.’ We like to fit these into our own apostasy narrative, but it seems at least plausible that Paul could have been referring to the church in Jerusalem.

Church organization

The manual tries to tells us that Christ put together the church as a “a carefully organized unit.” However, as Elder Holland recently pointed out in General Conference, the first thing that Jesus’ inner circle did after the Resurrection was return to their former lives. This isn’t the behavior of people who have been installed in the leadership positions of a fitly formed together organization.

Indeed, it makes a lot more sense to me to interpret much of what the New Testament has to say about organizational structures in the Church as post hoc apologia to justify and give scriptural support for a hierarchical organization that was taking on the leadership of the Christ movement.

First principles and ordinances

I talked about covenants and ordinances last time… not much new to say here.

Ordinances performed for the dead

I remember as a missionary really loving 1 Corinthians 15. There it was staring anybody who was willing to look at it in the face. Proof positive that the ancient saints practiced baptism (and of course one can naturally assume other ordinances) for the dead.

I’ll talk more about this later in a dedicated post on temple work for the dead, but I really love the sentiment behind performing ordinances in behalf of those who cannot do them for themselves. However, this passing reference by Paul is pretty thin evidence, and it is not at all obvious that he is endorsing the practice. Apparently there is some more compelling evidence that ancient Christians practiced vicarious ordinances, but this scripture is rather controversial among biblical scholars.

Spiritual Gifts

This one is really interesting to me, and it perhaps highlights better than anything else the problems with too much yearning for the ancient order.

Reading accounts of the early days of the Church in Kirtland and Nauvoo, one gets a very different picture than our rather reserved, well-ordered Sunday meetings in the 21st century. Charismatic expressions of faith seemed to be commonplace (or at least not uncommon). People spoke in tongues (and not the ‘I-picked-up-Spanish-slightly-faster-than-I-might-have-otherwise’ kind of tongues, but the full-on ‘pure-Adamic-tongues-of-angels’ kind of tongues). Members of the congregation would prophesy. People would see angels and the heavens opened. It is really difficult for me to imagine any of this happening in my upper-middle class ward, and in those rare moments when someone goes ‘off-script,’ you can almost feel the waves of discomfiture sweep across the congregation.

So if the 21st century incarnation of the Only-True-And-Living-Church is so different from the ‘same’ church in the 19th century, why do we expect or even want there to be a high degree of similarity between the church in ancient times and the church today?

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.