Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Authority (Part 1: Introduction and Overview)

If you’ve been visiting this blog over the past several months, you know that my interests orbit around the double star of economics and organizational ethics, producing now and then a few observations about the LDS Church as an organization. You can’t really talk about organizational ethics for very long, though, without addressing the topic of authority. Authority is quite central to everything that happens in and around any organization. It affects all relationships within the organization and determines the organizational structure and culture, among other things.
Understandably, then, authority is a foundational principle in the restored Church. In 1937, Elder David O. McKay asked the following question, “If at this moment each one [of you] were asked to state in one sentence . . . the most distinguishing feature of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, what would be your answer?” He then gave his own opinion: “My answer would be . . . divine authority by direct revelation.”1 The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints bases its claim as the true restoration of primitive Christianity largely on the visitation of John the Baptist to the Prophet Joseph Smith, followed by the appearance of Peter, James, and John, who as resurrected (or, in John’s case, translated) beings restored the ancient priesthood authority that had been lost to the world as Christianity apostatized from its foundation of true ordinances and principles. This claim to divinely bestowed authority, perhaps more than any other factor, is what sets us apart from the body of mainstream Christian denominations. Consequently and appropriately, we make it a point of particular emphasis. Having correct authority is critically important. But exercising that authority correctly is perhaps equally important, for if we do not exercise God’s authority correctly, it is as if we do not even possess it (see D&C 121:37).

Authority and Equality
The issue of authority in Mormonism became painfully public with the rise of the Ordain Women movement. We can attempt to blame (and discipline) certain individuals, but this development is a lot larger than any individual or group of individuals. 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 (and is still scrambling), 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 many women who are clamoring for equal treatment regarding priesthood, ironically, is that they may not clearly understand exactly what it is they are asking for. They know they are being left out of something important, and they know 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 understand clearly 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, and if both sides just dig in their heels, the Church and its individual members will be poorly served.

A Synopsis of this Series
Because the topic of authority is so intertwined with everything organizational, and because authority is so crucial in the LDS universe, I’m going to do something rather unprecedented. I am going to run a series of sixteen posts on authority in Mormondom. Some of this material will be new to just about everybody. And some of it will have far-reaching implications that I don’t intend to explore in much detail. I’m more interested in laying out some basic concepts that may be useful as the Church tries to navigate its way through the tempestuous technological seas of an increasingly gender-equal modern society.
To give you a preview of what’s coming, I will outline here the basic contour of this series on authority:
1. Overview
This is today’s installment. Its purpose is to whet your appetite for what’s coming, in the hope that you’ll be curious enough to drop in weekly for each new segment.
2. What Is It?
I’m willing to bet that 99 percent of you have never thought carefully about what authority actually is, so I’m going to define it and explore two distinct types of authority.
3. Exercising Authority in the Church
Authority is obviously extremely important in Mormonism, but how we define it is a bit problematic, and how we exercise it is often fraught with difficulties and misconceptions. The scriptures contain some specific (and somewhat surprising) instruction on how God views the exercise of authority.
4. Priesthood as an Abstract Idea
Priesthood as understood in the LDS Church is entirely a modern idea. What we understand priesthood to be is very different from the notion of priesthood found in ancient scripture (both the Bible and the Book of Mormon). This has far-reaching implications.
5. Priesthood as Authority to Perform Ordinances
Priesthood is often connected to the performance of ordinances, but, surprisingly, we don’t even have an official list of ordinances in the Church or a definition of what is and what is not an ordinance. Some acts that very well could be ordinances aren’t, and some that are could possibly be declassified.
6. Priesthood as Institutional Authority
The modern Mormon understanding of priesthood opens the door to the idea of priesthood as institutional authority. Indeed, priesthood as institutional authority has overwhelmed the more traditional notion of priesthood being connected to the performance of religious rituals.
7. Nonpriesthood Authority
We often assume that priesthood is the only authority in the Church, but there are at least three other types of authority. Recognizing these other forms of authority for what they are may open the door to new possibilities regarding gender equality.
8. Priesthood Keys
Similar to our unique definition of priesthood, the notion of priesthood keys is also an entirely modern concept. Not only is priesthood barely mentioned in the Book of Mormon, but priesthood keys are completely missing in action, and for good reason.
9. Priesthood Quorums and Presiding
Interestingly, priesthood quorums have no necessary connection to specific ordinances. What purpose do they then serve? Quorums are led by presidents, another word virtually absent from ancient scripture. The words president and preside are very closely related. Why do we have so many presidents in the Church, and why do we have such a fetish for presiding?
10. Priestesses
The term “priestess” is prominent in Mormon temple worship, but what does it have to do with priesthood, both here and in the hereafter?
11. Priesthood Bans and Temple Worship
A close examination of the pre-1978 priesthood ban suggests that it was also a temple ban, and in ways that do not make a lot of sense. What implications does this have for us today, after the momentous revelation of June 1978?
12. The Unsettled Doctrine of Premortality
Joseph Smith never spelled out certain details about the premortal existence. In fact, he taught contradicting ideas. After his death, two general camps formed, each supporting a different narrative regarding our distant, veiled past, and, interestingly, this unsettled doctrine has some very significant ramifications regarding authority, both God’s and ours.
13. Doctrinal Possibilities for Premortality
The various theories of premortality that have been expounded over the years can be distilled down to two fundamental possibilities: either we always existed as individual, sentient beings or God created our personalities out of some sort of eternal element. The possibility we choose has serious ramifications in defining our relationship with God, and his authority over us.
14. The Source of God’s Authority
Depending on which of the two general premortal narratives you espouse, you will get two very different accounts of the source of God’s authority. What was Joseph Smith really trying to teach us? Where was he headed when he died prematurely? If he was saying what I believe he was saying, then we perhaps need to rethink both the source of God’s authority and our position in the grand scheme of things.
15. Obedience: The Flip Side of the Authority Coin
How we view authority has a definite impact on how we view obedience. How do we deal with the fact that our leaders are not infallible, even as we are expected to treat them as if they were?
16. Personal and Priesthood Inspiration
What do we do when our leaders are wrong? Are we really blessed for obeying faulty directives? The answer to this question, like so many others, is “It depends.”
As I’ve said before, the LDS Church is one of the most complex and inscrutable organizations on earth. This means that authority in the Church cannot help but be complicated too. I hope you’ll join me for the next fifteen installments as I scratch the surface of this very involved topic and, I hope, give you some new things to think about.
1. In Conference Report, April 1937, 121.


  1. I have enjoyed so many of your posts. Thank you for the thought-provoking and unique perspectives you are bringing to many LDS topics.

  2. Roger, I rarely comment but wanted to second what Sean said. Based on your synopsis, I'm really looking forward to the series. What you are proposing to cover is at the heart of so much of what I personally wrestle with.

  3. Authority may be essential to the restored church but I don't think it's essential to religious people in the western world today. Who has the authority to do ordinances seems to be a very 19th century concern. I can't imagine that any of the people I work with or associate with in my community spend any time at all obsessing about who has the authority to baptize their child or seal their marriage. I think Luther won, for most everyone I know, priesthood authority is bestowed by consensus of the believers.

  4. Thanks, Sean and James. And I would have to agree with Anonymous for America in general, but for Mormons authority is a very big deal and is especially important today, since there is so much emphasis on priesthood. But keep reading, because eventually you may be surprised at how close to Luther I am when all is said and done. Authority must have a source, and Joseph Smith, I believe, was more revolutionary in this regard (especially in Nauvoo) than even he may have realized. So, on we go . . .

  5. I look forward to this series of posts. Very relevant topic.Thanks for taking the time to do this.

  6. This should be interesting. We moderns, having rejected hereditary kingship, seem only to understand authority as the result of power seized by tyrants, or by inherent organizational authority such as the military, or elected authority such as the Sheriff or other officer or legislative agent.