Academic journal article Dialogue : A Journal of Mormon Thought

Authority and Priesthood in the LDS Church, Part 1: Definitions and Development

Academic journal article Dialogue : A Journal of Mormon Thought

Authority and Priesthood in the LDS Church, Part 1: Definitions and Development

Article excerpt

The issue of authority in Mormonism became painfully public with the rise of the Ordain Women movement. The Church can attempt to blame (and discipline) certain individuals, but this development is a lot larger than any one person or group of people. The status of women in the Church was basically a time bomb ticking down to zero. With the strides toward equality American society has taken over the past several decades, it was really just a matter of time before the widening gap between social circumstances in general and conditions in Mormondom became too large to ignore. When the bomb finally exploded, the Church scrambled to give credible explanations, but most of these responses have felt inadequate at best. The result is a good deal of genuine pain and a host of very valid questions that have proven virtually impossible to answer satisfactorily.

At least in my mind, this unfolding predicament has raised certain important questions about what priesthood really is and how it corresponds to the larger idea of authority. What is this thing that women are denied? What is this thing that, for over a century, faithful black LDS men were denied? Would clarifying or fine-tuning our definition-or even better understanding the history of how our current definition developed-perhaps change the way we regard priesthood, the way we practice it, the way we bestow it, or refuse to bestow it? The odd sense I have about priesthood, after a good deal of study and pondering, is that most of us don't really have a clear idea of what it is and how it has evolved over the years. Many women, even though they want to be supportive of their leaders, feel varying degrees of distress and pain over the mere mention of priesthood. They know they are being left out of something important, and they know that this signals unequal treatment, regardless of how the institutional Church portrays it, but perhaps they, like most of us men who "hold" the priesthood, don't really grasp what it is, particularly if we compare the modern Mormon conception of priesthood with certain scriptural or historical clues. And this may partly explain why the two sides of this encounter often seem to be speaking past each other and are unable to find any common ground. Perhaps some clarification about this issue's basic vocabulary might improve our collective communication and might help us find a path forward, because this issue is not going to go away, even if it has temporarily slipped into the shadows. But when it becomes more public again, if both sides just dig in their heels, the Church and its individual members will be poorly served. So, this pair of articles is intended to lay a conceptual foundation on which more productive communication might take place.

Over the space of several years, I have come to view authority in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as something quite different from what I previously assumed it to be. Primarily this is because I started seeing distinct differences between the concept of priesthood and the larger notion of authority. Growing up Mormon, I simply assumed the two were the same, and this perception is quite common in the Church.1 But as I will explore in detail in this article, priesthood and authority are quite distinct ideas, especially in ancient scripture, with authority being a much broader and more general concept. Authority can be a difficult topic, and inadequately understood authority can be problematic on multiple levels, but the unique Mormon definition of priesthood creates a structure that complicates rather than simplifies matters related to authority. In this article, I will address the question of what priesthood is, but first we need to establish a context for understanding priesthood, so let's step back and look at the nature of authority in general.

Two Sources of Authority

I hate to do this, and some readers will probably never forgive me for beginning this investigation like a really bad sacrament meeting talk, but let's look at the dictionary definition of authority. …

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