Academic journal article Dialogue : A Journal of Mormon Thought

Authority and Priesthood in the LDS Church, Part 2: Ordinances, Quorums, Nonpriesthood Authority, Presiding, Priestesses, and Priesthood Bans

Academic journal article Dialogue : A Journal of Mormon Thought

Authority and Priesthood in the LDS Church, Part 2: Ordinances, Quorums, Nonpriesthood Authority, Presiding, Priestesses, and Priesthood Bans

Article excerpt

In the prequel to this article, I discussed in general contours the dual nature of authority-individual and institutional-and how the modern LDS concept of priesthood differs significantly from the ancient version in that it has become an abstract form of authority that can be "held" (or withheld, as the case might be). In the ancient world, priesthood was used to describe either the condition of being a priest or the collective body of priests. And in the ancient world, the duties of "the priesthood" revolved around rituals, with the priests standing in the place of the Lord, being his agents, as it were. By contrast, in the modern Mormon version of priesthood, those who "hold" this authority, especially the Melchizedek Priesthood, generally have only occasional opportunity to officiate in religious rituals, which we call ordinances. Priesthood is now much more expansive, involving many functions that have little to do with the ancient duties of priests. In certain ways, it is also less clearly defined.


According to the Encyclopedia of Mormonism, "The word 'ordinance' is derived from the Latin ordinare, which means to put in order or sequence; or to act by authorization or command. . . . The power to perform ordinances whose validity is recognized by God is inseparably connected with the divine authority conferred on mortal man, that is, the priesthood of God."1 Robert Millet and his coauthors, in a thick volume some see as a replacement for McConkie's now out-of-print and out-of-favor Mormon Doctrine, give a dual definition: "In a broad sense, a gospel ordinance is a law, statute, or commandment of God (D&C 52:15-16; 64:5)." In a narrower sense, "an act or ritual done with proper priesthood authority is known as an ordinance."2

The Millet book lists several of these ordinances and divides them into two categories-those that are necessary for salvation and those that are not. Gregory Prince, looking at ordinances from a historical perspective, makes an interesting observation: "In a Latter-day Saint context whatever tradition has defined as an ordinance is one. Otherwise what Latter-day Saints accept as ordinances defies simple definition."3 Prince points out that some ordinances are tied scripturally to priesthood; others are not. He lists seventeen separate ordinances, including casting out evil spirits, raising the dead, and the second anointing. Millet and his coauthors mention setting people apart for callings and dedicating graves, which Prince omits, thus helping underscore his point that the LDS definition of ordinance appears to be somewhat fluid.

The original version of the fourth article of faith, which was finally changed to its current wording in 1902, reads, "We believe that these ordinances are First, Faith in the Lord Jesus Christ; Second, Repentance . . ."4 indicating that Joseph Smith initially regarded faith and repentance as ordinances. Even disregarding this historical anomaly, the necessity of having priesthood authority is not always clear. For example, during Joseph Smith's and Brigham Young's administrations, women were permitted to lay on hands and heal the sick,5 and today they still help administer the endowment and perform washings and anointings in the temple. So ordinances may not always require priesthood for participation. Again, we run into definitional difficulties here.

Taking this line of thinking a step further, since our definition is not exactly set in stone, there may be some wiggle room for declassifying certain ordinances. This has already been done for the practice of cursing those who reject the gospel message, an ordinance that is mentioned in eight different early revelations but is no longer practiced in the Church.6 A similar though not identical change could occur, for instance, if Church leaders were to determine that dedicating a grave is not really a priesthood ordinance. They might conclude that there is no necessary reason why women or non-LDS family members cannot offer this particular prayer. …

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