Why the Organization of the Priesthood Will Never Make Sense
Posted by BrianJ on August 20, 2010
Year after year, we have lessons on one of the most static and impersonal of topics: the Organization of the Priesthood. Now, I don’t mean the act of organizing the priesthood—that was a dynamic, exciting process with lots of stones left to look under, and along the way we read inspiring accounts of personal sacrifice, delve into important doctrine, and so forth. No, I’m talking about lessons on the way in which the priesthood is organized today: its structure, offices, hierarchies, and protocols.
Should be an easy once-in-a-lifetime lesson, right? I mean, it should be no more complicated than discussing the political/geographical organization of a nation: neighborhood, city, county, state, region, country, continent, hemisphere—and my six-year old can tell you that! So why is it necessary to discuss every year? Is it really so hard for members to understand and remember the details of priesthood organization? Yes, yes it is!
The Priesthood is Not A Priesthood
What does the word “priesthood” mean? Well, it depends on who you ask. If you ask the Oxford English Dictionary, you’ll read:
1. The office…of a priest; the condition or status of being a priest; the order of priest.
2. Priests collectively; a body of priests.
3. A group….
So the priesthood—like any other “-hood”—is a condition of being or a group of whatever root comes before the suffix: neighbor-hood is a group of neighbors, sister-hood is a group of sisters, mother-hood is the condition of being a mother, Robin Hood is a group of—oh wait, forget that last one.
But what if we ask an LDS source, such as Mormon.org?
The priesthood is the authority to act in God’s name.
Oh, darn. Not a group or status; it’s a…something else.
Other LDS sources say similar things. The Encyclopedia of Mormonism lists four definitions. Priesthood is the:
1. power of God.
2. exclusive right (authority) to act in the name of God.
3. right to preside.
4. men of the Church.
Aha! There it is at #4: a group! So for LDS, “priesthood” can sometimes mean what it means to everyone else in the world…and it can also mean something else.
So what if we use a different definition?
Is it so wrong for us to have a different, or expanded, definition? No, not at all; we can use words however we please—but not without consequences.
And those consequences become apparent as we delve deeper into our Organization of the Priesthood lessons. To discuss how priesthood functions in the Church, we talk about how three men—an elder, a high priest, and an apostle—have the same Melchizedek priesthood but not the same authority. Part of the difference has to do with different offices having different rights and responsibilities, and the other difference has to do with what we call priesthood keys. Before we get into keys, just look at the potential confusion with the terms I italicized: priesthood (which we sometimes define as “authority”), authority, and rights and responsibilities (which together pretty much define the word “authority”). Thus, we could be understood as saying that “an elder and a high priest have the same authority but not the same authority because they have different authority.”
Keys Authorize but Are Not Authority
For someone already confused (or just uncomfortable with our terms), discussing keys only compounds the problem. What are keys? Elder Merrill J. Bateman defined it this way:
The priesthood is the power and authority of God delegated to man. Priesthood keys are the right to direct the use of that power.
(I don’t mean to single out Elder Bateman; other general authorities make equivalent distinctions.)
I don’t think there is any confusion about how that works in practice—I hold the priesthood but I don’t run around baptizing just anyone without checking with the bishop first—but it’s not easy to discuss in principle. Essentially, before I exercise certain aspects of
the priesthood the authority of God that has been delegated to me, I must seek permission (i.e., authorization) from someone else. Thus, I am not authorized to use my authority. It would be simpler if we just said that keys are authority, but we can’t do that because we’ve already stated that all Melchizedek Priesthood holders have the same authority/priesthood.
Sometimes Authority Authorizes Keys
It becomes even more confusing when we discuss the keys and authority of Apostles. I’ve mentioned that all Apostles have the same authority (Melchizedek Priesthood), and the Gospel Principles manual teaches that “Each [Apostle] is given all the keys of the kingdom of God on earth,” but President Boyd K. Packer (and others) explains that:
[The President of the Church] was specifically given the authority to exercise all of the priesthood keys of authority. Now, as the scriptures provide, he is the only man on the earth who has the right to exercise all of the keys. But we all hold them as Apostles.
Other Apostles, therefore, hold keys that they are not authorized to use. So while I must seek authorization from someone with keys before I use my authority, Elder Oaks must seek authorization from someone with authority before he uses his keys.
I’ll state again that I don’t think it’s wrong for us to use the definitions we use to describe our theology concerning the priesthood. In practice, it makes perfect sense to most members and investigators. I just think it’s worth noting the very real potential for confusion because not only do we use a different definition than others, it could be said that we use a different definition than ourselves! Such confusion has implications when we teach investigators and when we attempt to relate our current priesthood organization to the priesthood of individuals in the scriptures.
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