Feast upon the Word Blog

A blog focused on LDS scriptures and teaching

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.

16 Responses to “Why the Organization of the Priesthood Will Never Make Sense”

  1. Ryan said

    It gets even worse when you define priesthood in terms of service, which may or may not require the authority of keys to use the authority of the priesthood to perform.

  2. Jacob J said

    Brilliant summary of the problem.

    Other Apostles, therefore, hold keys that they are not authorized to use.

    This cracks me up. I was trying to think of an adequate analogy. Maybe it is like nuclear keys where you have the key, but you can only use it when the captain turns his key for you. See, totally clear, no confusion whatsoever.

  3. ricke said

    I think you would enjoy the series on priesthood as outlined in D&C 107 beginning at http://boaporg.wordpress.com/2010/08/09/dc-107-part-1-background/

  4. BrianJ said

    Ricke: thanks a lot for the boap recommendation. A very good read.

  5. joespencer said

    Great post, Brian. Very apt. Issues like that are what convinces me that we have to do serious historical-critical work in addition to serious hermeneutical work in scripture. :)

  6. NathanG said

    Excellent Brian. I guess if someone understands your post without getting confused they probably have a typical Mormon view of the priesthood.

  7. Matt W. said

    Just a thought, but priesthood is the condition of being a priest, and a priest is a person with the authority to administery the oridinaces of their religion.


    So priesthood can be understood as the condition of having authority.

  8. Lol! I personally think our definitions are all messed up. Recently I did some research on the priesthood to figure it all out. Here is what I came up with:

    The Priesthood

    An alternate view of the keys

    The above is the only way I’ve been able to make sense of the priesthood.

    • Jay said

      Wow, it took me a while to read those links you provided LDSA — but they really helped me better understand this topic.

      So much of what I hear at Church confuses me, but those posts clarified things in my mind.

  9. Jim F. said

    Like Matt W, I think our use overlaps with the use of others more than the OP seems to. This from the Catholic Encyclopedia, speaking of Old Testament priests: “By the term is meant a (male) person called to the immediate service of the Deity and authorized to hold public worship, especially to offer sacrifice.” Clearly authority is important to this concept of priesthood.

    The Catholic Encyclopedia makes it clear by its argument against the Protestant doctrine of the priesthood of all believers that in Catholicism “priesthood” means power, such as the power to consecrate and sacrifice of the elements of the Eucharist (the bread and wine) and the power to forgive sin. Protestants may not understand priesthood as we do, but Catholics and others do.

    In addition, even the OED (which has perhaps been influenced in its work by the fact that it finds itself in a predominantly Protestant or unbelieving nation) leaves some room for priesthood as power: “A group having specialized (freq. arcane) knowledge combined with power or influence and (usually) high status.” That’s the third definition, the one you elided.

  10. BrianJ said

    “Protestants may not understand priesthood as we do, but Catholics and others do.”

    I can agree with that. And I’ll readily acknowledge that I played some favoritism with my OED quote. That Catholics and others similarly use “priesthood” to refer to the power/authority, the person, and the group doesn’t change my main point: that our use of “priesthood=authority” becomes confusing as we dig deeper into our doctrine—namely, when we try to define keys, distinguish between Apostles and the President of the Church, etc.

    • Jim F. said

      I guess I can agree with you when you say that there is the potential for confusion, particularly by someone who is new to the Church and trying to figure out what these things mean. But as you yourself point out, there isn’t really much confusion in practice. Since most people learn these things in the practice of them, that seems to remove even the potential for confusion.

      Perhaps I am missing something here, on this thing I’m dense, but I don’t see the problem.

      • BrianJ said

        If you’re missing something then it is my fault as the author of the post. Here are two factors that drove this post:

        1) I have on countless occasions witnessed members of the Church struggle to explain what priesthood keys are even though they completely understand the concept of members seeking leadership approval for certain ordinances. I asked myself, “Why do people struggle to explain something that makes sense to them?”

        2) In Sunday School this year, especially the last two weeks, we’ve gotten into a discussions about Old Testament prophets and hierarchy; e.g., someone talked about how Elijah was The Prophet and therefore head of the Church (whereas actually the temple high priest would have been more of the religious leader). Clearly some class members were reading modern priesthood organization back onto OT and it was causing confusion and difficulty reading the text.

        I admit that the problem I’m discussing is mostly academic—then again, so are most of the topics I write about on this blog. For someone who doesn’t really care about the “academics” of the Church or the gospel, the problem I’m discussing may not be a problem at all—”it all works so who cares how it all works?”

  11. Jacob said

    This probably just intensifies the confusion, but you should also note that not everything I do with my priesthood requires me to seek out another priesthood holder with keys: fathers blessings (blessings in general), home dedications, etc.

  12. Brandon said

    My father once told me that if the Church wasn’t an inspired organization, it could never survive in the “real” world because there are too many bosses and levels of “authority”. I think this adds to that point.

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