Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Authority (Part 5: Priesthood as Authority to Perform Ordinances)

In the previous post, I discussed how the modern LDS concept of priesthood differs significantly from the ancient version. If we take a more scriptural or historical view of priesthood, it is necessarily connected to the performance of sacred rituals, which in modern Mormonism we call ordinances.
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 in 1902, read, “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, women, who did not have the priesthood, were permitted during Joseph Smith’s and Brigham Young’s administrations 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. Expanding participation in ordinances might also extend to serving as witnesses for ordinances such as baptism or temple sealings. I can think of no reason why a woman could not serve as a witness to a baptism.
Ironically, Millet and his coauthors point out that “ordinances set things in order within the Church,” but our difficulty in specifying exact criteria for defining what an ordinance is seems to work against that desired order. Regardless, any attempt to define Mormon priesthood narrowly, as merely the authority to perform ordinances, becomes problematic. This is due both to the haziness of our notion of what an ordinance is and to the abstract nature of LDS priesthood authority, which allows it to extend far beyond the performance of sacred (or “priestly”) rituals.
In the next post, I will discuss the very significant function of priesthood as a governing institutional authority in the Church. It could easily be argued that presiding has become the most significant function of priesthood, far outweighing the ritualistic role that priesthood played in ancient times. Even our vocabulary reveals our priorities in the modern church: rather than performing sacred rituals, Mormons often speak of administering ordinances.
1. Immo Luschin, “Ordinances,” in Encyclopedia of Mormonism, ed. Daniel H. Ludlow, 4 vols. (New York: Macmillan, 1992), 3:1032.
2. Robert L. Millet, Camille Fronk Olson, Andrew C. Skinner, and Brent L. Top, LDS Beliefs: A Doctrinal Reference (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2011), 464.
3. Gregory A. Prince, Power from On High: The Development of Mormon Priesthood (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1995), 79.
4. See, for instance, The Pearl of Great Price: Being a Selection from the Revelation, Translations and Narrations of Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City: Latter-day Saint Printing and Publishing Establishment, 1878), 63. For a detailed description of the textual change, see Lyndon W. Cook, “The Articles of Faith,” BYU Studies 17, no. 2 (1977): 254–56.
5. See Jonathan A. Stapley and Kristine Wright, “Female Ritual Healing in Mormonism,” Journal of Mormon History 37, no. 1 (2011): 1–85. Female participation in the priesthood ordinance of blessing the sick still occurs, though rarely. Stapley and Wright relate an incident in September 1979, when Elders Bruce R. McConkie and Marion D. Hanks were called to the bedside of President Spencer W. Kimball, after his first surgery for a subdural hematoma. Elder McConkie invited President Kimball’s wife, Camilla, to join them in laying hands on her husband’s head during the blessing (84). A similar occurrence was related to me by an elderly high priest whom I home taught and who served earlier in his life in a stake presidency. He said that once, when giving a blessing to a family member, he laid his hands on the afflicted person’s head, but his mind went blank. He then had a strong impression that his wife was to join him in the ordinance. He invited her to lay her hands on the family member’s head, and when she did, the stupor of thought left him, and he was able to proceed with the blessing.
6. See Prince, Power from On High, 108–9.


  1. Yeah, my understanding is the word "ordinance" originally used by Joseph Smith simply meant "law" (as in "city ordinances"). So "ordinances of the gospel" simply meant "laws of the gospel". By 1902 within church vernacular ordinances came to designate salvific rituals performed by priesthood authority, hence the edit in the articles of faith to "principles and ordinances".

  2. Roger, I will let this one lay where it is. I'm not much for splitting hairs, I'd rather just cut the hair off, if it needs it. The Church is not just what you see on Sunday. It has a history a mile wide and infinitely long. What used to be considered the norm has been tossed out with the wash. A fresh set of eyes among the leaders may result in some linen being tossed out as well. Everyone wants to leave their own mark. Twenty years from now, who knows?