Passing the Sacrament: The Radical Nature of Mormon Priesthood

In light of recent discussions here at Approaching Justice and other places about female ordination, I wanted to take a step back and look at how the Mormon practice of priesthood is unique and interesting, apart from recent debates.

In many ways, the LDS priesthood can be viewed as a symbol of hierarchy. However, I think this is a mistaken view. While the church organization is hierarchical, the priesthood itself is inherently egalitarian and universal.

On a recent Sunday, during our sacrament service, the meeting was presided over by the stake president, one of his counselors, the bishop, and his two counselors. This is an element of hierarchy. However, I think we can overstate this.

The bishop is the communications director for a nearby city government. One of his counselors is an attorney and the other is a high school science teacher. Their church assignment is not one that gives them power, instead they get additionally responsibilities and considerable demands on their time.

Some might argue that local leaders have power because they get to decide who receives welfare assistance and who is authorized to enter LDS temples. This is a form of power, but a very minor one in the big picture. They cannot take away your car, house, or job. They have very limited power when it comes to the use of Church funds.

This applies differently in the case of employees of and students at Church institutions. However, this is a condition the employees and students at BYU are well aware of. It may well be a reason to not teach or study at such institutions.

Outside of the BYU context, your local leaders are not any different than other neighbors. You will like some better than others. You will relate to some better than others. They only have the power to impact your life (positively or negatively) to the extent that you let them.

The sacrament ordinance that Sunday was prepared by a software designer and an eighth-grader. Together, they placed the sheets on the table and placed the cups of water and slices of bread in their proper places.

The bread and water was blessed by the same software designer and an unemployed teacher/blogger/graduate student. The same emblems were passed to the congregation by 5 boys (one twelve year old and four thirteen year olds) and 2 adults (one has Downs Syndrome and the other with a developmental disability).

That EVERY male can participate in the priesthood is in itself radical, or at very least radically different. When we talk about ordination, we are talking about something very different than ordination in the Episcopal Church or the Catholic Church. Ordination applies within other religions very differently. It applies only to a small segment of the religious community, specifically the leadership.

All males have the priesthood if they are at least twelve years old, attend church and adhere to basic practices of the Church. One is likely to never have a prominent leadership responsibility and might not have a calling at all at times (in the LDS Church, most practicing Mormons have some sort of voluntary assignment or calling within their congregation).

To be ordained to the Catholic priesthood, one must graduate from seminary. Likewise, ordination in most mainline churches requires a three year master’s degree from a seminary, theology school, or divinity school. Other churches often have a lay clergy along with a professional clergy. While the LDS Church has primarily a lay clergy, I think there are pros and cons that come with having a lay clergy. However, a professional clergy model comes with it’s own very complex set of pros and cons.

While certain priesthood titles, high priest in particular, are specifically associated with leadership positions, it is only to a certain extent. One will be made high priest if one is called to a position that requires one to be a high priest (like a Bishop over a local congregation). However, some are called to be high priests because of age or overall fit with the generally older group of high priests.

Mormon priesthood, by and large, requires one to show up, believe, and participate.

Other Christian traditions deny the need for any institutional priesthood at all. Instead, they believe in a priesthood of believers. In some ways, the Mormon approach falls in between these two approaches. Any male can hold the priesthood. They are not just eligible, they are part of the priesthood by being part of the religious community.

While it is an institutional priesthood, it is at the same time a priesthood of believers.

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Chris Henrichsen has moved Approaching Justice off of Patheos. Find his latest posts and the new Approaching Justice. Thanks!

  • Lyndee

    It is not the bishop who has the power to give us a recommend. It is the members. The requirement of worthiness is the same for every member. If we the member chooses to live worthily, he/she can chose to enter a temple. It is not subjective. The worthiness questions are the same for every one.

    • jrs

      That’s a rather naive view of the way the process actually works. When I was a single twenty-something, our bishop unilaterally added a couple of questions to the temple recommend interview. Specifically, his interpretation of the law of chastity required that people refrain from touching others “anywhere the garment is worn.” In other words, he claimed it was a violation of the law of chastity to, for example, put one’s hand on the thigh or back of one’s boy/girlfriend, even over clothing and in a non-sexual manner. He made an exception for giving hugs, but only “in public,” such as at church. Of course my then-girlfriend, now-wife and I did plenty of hugging in private–and let’s not even start with our violations of said bishop’s idiosyncratic views on kissing! It sure felt like that bishop had “power” over me and was making a decision about my “worthiness,” even though I knew that I had done nothing wrong according to every other bishop I’d ever had.

      Another example. I have a friend who is going through a messy divorce. Her husband has been emotionally abusive for years to both her and their kids. He started getting physical: throwing things, punching walls, etc. Finally she moved out and is now fighting for custody of the kids etc. But guess what–their bishop has taken HIS side. He (husband) comes across as a really nice, sincere guy in public, so the bishop assumes she (wife) is overreacting. He told her she should not get divorced etc. Now she feels ostracized from the ward. And of course he (husband) retains a temple recommend and position as gospel doctrine teacher, despite being a grade-A a$$hole.

      It’s nice to think we members have the power, but that’s often not reality.

  • Y. A. Warren

    Thank you for this insight into your faith tradition.

  • axelbeingcivil

    If it were a priesthood of its believers, wouldn’t it also include women?

  • http://nickscrusade.org NickDupree

    The Mormon priesthood makes much more sense if you have studied Leviticus and the Levitic priesthood, and view it in that context. I once saw a member of the priesthood do what I consider a medical miracle, have never experienced anything like it since… and though my theistic belief system is far from Mormonism or even Christianity, after those experiences I know that there’s something special and legit here with the Mormon priesthood.

  • pagansister

    And why are just males eligible for the priesthood? Females don’t have the ability to do the same things as males? Some how it seems totally unequal

    • gruevy

      Unequal in the sense of power as Marx understands it, maybe. Inequality is just a part of life–ask my mother when she needs a jar opened. However, in faith, respect, commitment, honor, insight, and every godly virtue, women are considered at least equal to men. A man might have the Priesthood allowing him to serve as Bishop, but he can’t be a Bishop unless he’s married. I believe this is because a man can’t do that job without the help and counsel and support of his wife. Furthermore, women serve in other capacities in the Church, and can preach, pray, teach a class, etc, as much as men can. The Priesthood is best understood as a special requirement to serve, with power from God to perform your duties in service, with that power depending on your faith and worthiness. If someone asks me to give them a blessing of counsel or healing, I am duty-bound to provide it. Since I may be asked at any time, I have to remain as spiritually pure at all times as I can, so that God’s power can work through me without my personal wickedness getting in the way. And frankly, my mother was as much a spiritual leader in my home as my father was, if not more so in many important ways.

      • trytoseeitmyway

        I don’t want to be very specific in referring to temple ordinances, but if you think about it, worthy sisters do have the priesthood.

      • pagansister

        My brother-in-law is a Mormon, my sister is a Methodist. One daughter chose her father’s faith, one daughter, her mother’s—both now being adults. Neither are currently married, both pursuing careers. I think a woman could also do blessings and live spiritually pure—-the Methodist’s find that women ministers are capable of doing so. No, my Methodist niece isn’t pursuing the ministry. The Catholics also don’t allow ordination of females, so—more inequality there too.

  • David Tiffany

    “All males have the priesthood if they are at least twelve years old, attend church and adhere to basic practices of the Church.”
    “Mormon priesthood, by and large, requires one to show up, believe, and participate.”
    So, for Mormons to hold the Meldchizidek Priesthood, their prerequisites are, “must be 12 years old, they must attend church, adhere to basic practices of the Mormon church, requires one to show up, requires one to believe, and requires one to participate.”
    Yet in Hebrews chapter 7:3 we read, “Without father or mother, without genealogy, without beginning of days or end of life,” And in verse 26, “Such a high priest truly meets our need—one who is holy, blameless, pure, set apart from sinners, exalted above the heavens.”
    So the Biblical prerequisites for being in the Melchizidek Priesthood are, “Without father or mother, without geneology, without beginning of days, without end of life, holy, blameless, pure, set apart from sinners, exalted above the heavens.”
    Everyone on this planet falls way short of meeting these standards. Only One person meets these standards…and He is exalted above the heavens.
    http://downtownministries.blogspot.com/

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/approachingjustice/ Chris Henrichsen

      “So, for Mormons…”

      No, this is my description of the practice and likely not how most Mormons would describe the scriptural or doctrinal requirements.

    • gruevy

      So did Melchizedek have the Melchizedek priesthood? Because it’s an awfully strange thing to call it if he didn’t. Maybe you suppose Christ came twice?

      • trytoseeitmyway

        David Tiffany makes up doctrine on his own authority. I think he’s in a cult. He should try reading the Bible. There is no biblical basis for claiming that no one can be admitted to the Lord’s priesthood. 1 Peter 2:9 is contra. But David Tiffany doesn’t care about the Bible or accuracy as long as he can smear Mormons and Mormonism. It’s a cult thing.

        • gruevy

          Ya, I’ve seen his comments before. Everyone is entitled to follow the dictates of their own conscience and wrest their own meaning from whatever scripture they accept, and I’m cool with that, but I just thought this particular point of his was illogical enough to merit a response :)

          • trytoseeitmyway

            He never did explain how Melchizedek could be in the Melchizedek Priesthood, or if dave thinks that Melchizedek wasn’t a member of that priesthood. I guess that confounded him.

        • David Tiffany

          There is no Biblical basis for saying you can be admitted into the Melchizidek Priesthood. 1 Peter 2:9 doesn’t say anything about the Melchizidek Priesthood.

          • trytoseeitmyway

            “Royal priesthood” isn’t specific enough for you then. Oh well. But at least you agree that there is no biblical basis for claiming that no one can be admitted to the Lord’s priesthood, even if you think that the Lord’s priesthood isn’t the one after the order of Melchizedek. Nothing in the Bible supports the idea of a priesthood to which no one can be admitted and even Hebrews 7 doesn’t proclaim “qualifications” for that priesthood as you claim. You just make stuff up that isn’t in the Bible. “Preaching another gospel,” I say! :-)

          • David Tiffany

            Royal doesn’t say Melchizidek.

            “I am here to answer. I shall be on hand to answer when I am called upon, for all the counsel and for all the instruction that I have given to this people. If there is an Elder here, or any member of this Church, called the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, who can bring up the first idea, the first sentence that I have delivered to the people as counsel that is wrong, I really wish they would do it; but they cannot do it, for the simple reason that I have never given counsel that is wrong; this is the reason.” (Journal of Discourses, vol. 16, p. 161). Bringham Young, second prophet of the Mormon church.

            A great site to read:

            http://carm.org/brigham-young-quotes

          • David Tiffany

            Brigham Young said you must confess Joseph Smith as a prophet of God in order to be saved.
            “…and he that confesseth not that Jesus has come in the flesh and sent Joseph Smith with the fullness of the Gospel to this generation, is not of God, but is Antichrist,” (Journal of Discourses, vol. 9, p. 312).

          • trytoseeitmyway

            The quotation doesn’t support the statement about the quotation. You’re just making stuff up now.

          • David Tiffany

            Brigham Young said that Jesus was not begotten by the Holy Spirit.
            “I have given you a few leading items upon this subject, but a great deal more remains to be told. Now, remember from this time forth, and for ever, that Jesus Christ was not begotten by the Holy Ghost.” (Journal of Discourses, vol. 1, p. 51).

          • trytoseeitmyway

            The Bible says that Jesus was the only begotten son of God. John 3:16. Mormons believe that even if you don’t:

            What Do We Believe About Christ?

            We believe Jesus is the Son of God, the Only Begotten Son in the flesh (John 3:16). We accept the prophetic declarations in the Old Testament that refer directly and powerfully to the coming of the Messiah, the Savior of all humankind. We believe that Jesus of Nazareth was and is the fulfillment of those prophecies.

            We believe the accounts of Jesus’ life and ministry recorded in Matthew, Mark, Luke and John in the New Testament to be historical and truthful. For us the Jesus of history is indeed the Christ of faith. . . .

            We believe that He was born of a virgin, Mary, in Bethlehem of Judea in what has come to be known as the meridian of time, the central point in salvation history.

            http://www.mormonnewsroom.org/article/what-mormons-believe-about-jesus-christ

            So anything that you write about Mormon beliefs that is not consistent with those things is a deliberate lie on your part. Of course I know that won’t stop you, because you don’t mind lying if it smears the religion of your ancestors. I wonder why.

          • David Tiffany

            Brigham Young comments about blacks
            “You see some classes of the human family that are black, uncouth, uncomely, disagreeable and low in their habits, wild, and seemingly deprived of nearly all the blessings of the intelligence that is generally bestowed upon mankind….Cain slew his brother. Cain might have been killed, and that would have put a termination to that line of human beings. This was not to be, and the Lord put a mark upon him, which is the flat nose and black skin.” (Journal of Discourses, vol. 7, p. 290).
            “In our first settlement in Missouri, it was said by our enemies that we intended to tamper with the slaves, not that we had any idea of the kind, for such a thing never entered our minds. We knew that the children of Ham were to be the “servant of servants,” and no power under heaven could hinder it, so long as the Lord would permit them to welter under the curse and those were known to be our religious views concerning them.” (Journal of Discourses, vol. 2, p. 172).
            “Shall I tell you the law of God in regard to the African race? If the white man who belongs to the chosen seed mixes his blood with the seed of Cain, the penalty, under the law of God, is death on the spot. This will always be so.” (Journal of Discourses, vol. 10, p. 110).

          • trytoseeitmyway

            All of these ideas have been repudiated by the Church. Brigham Young and others were influenced by the popularity of these same ideas within the broader realm of Christianity until the ideas were contradicted by revelation. That you quote them here shows that you are just trying to smear Mormonism unfairly. As a Protestant, you must know of the long pedigree of these ideas within Protestantism, including most of the main denominations. But you know that you don’t believe them and would take offense if someone falsely claimed that you DO believe them, by quoting some churchman or other from 150 years ago. Yet you are perfectly happy to do that, and worse, to Mormons and Mormonism, as you work out your hatred for you ancestors and others of your family. Shameful.

          • trytoseeitmyway

            So I notice when you’re wrong about something (e.g., priesthood) you just load up the page with a lot of irrelevant stuff.

            Which you’re also wrong about. Not to say that you can’t find the quotes in the Journal of Discourses but only to say that Mormons don’t regard it as canonical or even necessarily accurate as a transcription. (They didn’t have tape recordings back then you know.) You provide links to a cult website which is notable for its disinterest in accuracy or fairness, a disinterest that you obviously share. Too bad.

            If you begin a sentence with the words “Mormons believe …” accuracy and fairness requires you to state what Mormons do in fact believe, as opposed to an historical assertion about what someone said once which is NOT something that Mormons believe. But, again, accuracy and fairness aren’t your interests. Bearing false witness is what you care about. It’s a sin, but you don’t care about that either.

          • David Tiffany

            Is it really irrevelant? The following link is recorded as Bringham Young’s speech about blacks and the priesthood:
            Brigham Young’s Speech on
            Slavery, Blacks, and the Priesthood
            (Brigham Young Addresses, Ms d 1234, Box 48, folder 3, dated Feb. 5, 1852,
            located in the LDS Church Historical Department, Salt Lake City, Utah
            http://www.utlm.org/onlineresources/sermons_talks_interviews/brigham1852feb5_priesthoodandblacks.htm
            And here is an excerpt:
            “Let this Church which is called the kingdom of God on the earth; we will sommons the first presidency, the twelve, the high counsel, the Bishoprick, and all the elders of Isreal, suppose we summons them to apear here, and here declare that it is right to mingle our seed, with the black race of Cain, that they shall come in with with us and be pertakers with us of all the blessings God has given to us. On that very day, and hour we should do so, the preisthood is taken from this Church and kingdom and God leaves us to our fate. The moment we consent to mingle with the seed of Cain the Church must go to desstruction, — we should receive the curse which has been placed upon the seed of Cain, and never more be numbered with the children of Adam who are heirs to the priesthood untill that curse be removed.”

            Now there is a problem here. The Scriptures tell us that if a man prophecies something and it doesn’t come to pass, God didn’t send that person. Bringham Young, who is considered a prophet, prophesied that on the day and hour that blacks were allowed into the priesthood, the priesthood would be taken from you and you would be left to yourself. If he was a prophet, then the Mormon church lost the priesthood in 1978. If he was wrong, then he wasn’t sent by God and you can’t trust what he said. And since God is not a man that He should lie, nor a son of man that He should change His mind (Numbers 23:19), you can’t use the excuse of progressive revelation.
            It’s either one or the other.

    • laverl09

      There are actually two levels of Priesthood–the Aaronic or Levitical Priesthood and the higher Melchizedek Priesthood. Before it was named after the King of Salem, it was called the Holy Order after the Son of God.
      It is this power from God that is “without father or mother, having neither beginning of days nor end of life.”
      According to LDS scripture “this greater priesthood administereth the gospel and holdeth the key of the mysteries of the kingdom, even the very key of the knowledge of God. Therefore in the ordinances thereof, the power of godliness is manifest.” (D&D 84:19-20)
      The great High Priest who stands at the head of it all is the Lord God himself.


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