Tuesday, October 20, 2015
Authority (Part 7: Nonpriesthood Authority)
The three preceding posts bring us to an interesting question. Although priesthood today does not exist without the institutional Church, is priesthood the only authority in the Church? There are two views on this. One is the perspective I grew up with—that priesthood and authority in the Church are synonymous (in other words, that priesthood is the only form of authority in the Church). This view of authority is a fruit of the unique Mormon definition of priesthood as an abstract idea, a general power that people can possess. If priesthood is God’s authority delegated to men on earth, then what other authority can there be in the Church? This is the perspective behind Elder Oaks’s recent general conference talk on the authority of the priesthood, in which he gave the following explanation:
We are not accustomed to speaking of women having the authority of the priesthood in their Church callings, but what other authority can it be? When a woman—young or old—is set apart to preach the gospel as a full-time missionary, she is given priesthood authority to perform a priesthood function. The same is true when a woman is set apart to function as an officer or teacher in a Church organization under the direction of one who holds the keys of the priesthood. Whoever functions in an office or calling received from one who holds priesthood keys exercises priesthood authority in performing her or his assigned duties.1
I will give some reasons why I find this explanation inadequate, or at least incomplete, later in this post, but for now let me just say that the other view on priesthood—the view I have come to see as more convincing—is that priesthood is not the only authority in the Church, which may open a side door through which we can get around the impasse we are now experiencing on this very difficult issue.
Four Examples of Nonpriesthood Authority
Now, don’t misunderstand me. I am not saying that priesthood is not the presiding, supervisory authority in the Church. No one would argue this. What I am saying is that there seem to be types of authority in the Church that, while usually created and directed by priesthood leaders, do not seem to be part of the priesthood. Let me illustrate what I mean by other forms of authority with some examples.
1. The Relief Society president in my ward has authority. In fact, I would argue that in a practical sense she has more institutional authority in our ward than I do, even though I am a high priest. She certainly has more institutional authority than the president of the teachers quorum, even though she does not “hold” the priesthood or possess priesthood keys and her calling is not a priesthood calling, as is the teachers quorum president’s. She can call meetings, give sisters visiting teaching assignments, coordinate the care of the afflicted, participate in ward council, and preside over Relief Society meetings. Of course she acts and presides under the supervision of the bishop, but so does the president of the teachers quorum. According to the first view presented above, both of these presidents “exercise priesthood authority,” but there is obviously a distinct difference between the two. One is a priesthood office; the other is not.
The relationship between Relief Society and priesthood is no simple matter, particularly if we consider statements such as the following, which Joseph Smith reportedly made when organizing the women’s organization: “I am glad to have the opportunity of organizing the women, as a part of the priesthood belongs to them.”2 What we may be encountering here is simply a question of semantics, perhaps even somewhat careless semantics. Joseph loved to give people authority, as long as it was subordinate to his authority as presiding officer of the Church, and he established a complex institutional hierarchy that required multiple levels of authority, but he called that authority priesthood, even when it had nothing to do with the office and ritual duties of a priest. In the early days of the Restoration, the lesser priesthood referred only to priests, and the high priesthood only to high priests. In April 1832, a revelation stated that “the offices of teacher and deacon are necessary appendages belonging unto the lesser priesthood” (D&C 84:30)—appendages, not the essential body—and “the offices of elder and bishop are necessary appendages belonging unto the high priesthood” (D&C 84:29). Later, as priesthood became more an abstract principle, these offices became integral parts of the two priesthoods, which came to be known as Aaronic and Melchizedek. Whatever authority Joseph was intending to bestow upon the Relief Society, however, it was suspended by his death, and when Brigham Young resurrected the society several years later, in several ways it was not really the same organization Joseph authorized.
2. Today we have a highly organized Church, with a complex hierarchical pyramid of authority that we call priesthood, but the institution—particularly the corporate support structure that has grown up around the ecclesiastical core—cannot easily fit within the naturally restrictive bounds of an all-male priesthood. Similar to the Relief Society president example mentioned above, middle managers in the departments at Church headquarters exercise authority in a variety of ways. None of these managers, however, exercise authority as a function of their priesthood. Indeed, some (the female managing editor of the Friend magazine, for example) do not hold the priesthood. Rather, these individuals exercise institutional authority in a manner very similar to that of a middle manager in any worldly corporation. They do this under the supervision of priesthood advisers, but they are not exercising priesthood in their jobs.
3. Another example of nonpriesthood authority in the Church occurs in its missions. Young male missionaries are called to be district leaders, zone leaders, and assistants to the mission president as if these were priesthood offices, but they are not. Missionaries called to these positions of leadership and administrative authority are not set apart or ordained or sustained by the vote of other missionaries. (I should add that mission president is perhaps the only high-level calling in the Church that is not sustained by the vote of those over whom he presides, which places it at variance with the law of common consent.) Because so many sister missionaries are now entering the field, new leadership positions have been created for them, called “sister training leaders.”3 Although these new positions are of course not priesthood offices, neither are the leadership positions occupied by male missionaries. But they are positions of institutional authority. Which brings up the question of why a sister missionary could not serve as a zone leader or assistant to the president.4 The argument may be made that this would allow women in the mission to preside over men, but we already have this arrangement in the Primary auxiliary in almost every ward in the Church, including mine, where I answered to the Primary president before I was recently released.
4. A final example that is quite different but very much related to the previous three can be illustrated by the frequent situation that occurs in part-member families where the wife is a member but her husband is not. Who presides in the home when a son turns twelve and is ordained to the Aaronic Priesthood? Certainly not the twelve-year-old, even though he is the only priesthood holder in the house. And what about six years later when that son turns eighteen, becomes an adult, and is ordained to the Melchizedek Priesthood? In no less an official source than “The Family: A Proclamation to the World,” we find this statement: “By divine design, fathers are to preside over their families in love and righteousness and are responsible to provide the necessities of life and protection for their families.”5 This statement in no way insinuates that the father must have the priesthood in order to preside. According to President Joseph F. Smith, “There is no higher authority in matters relating to the family organization, and especially when that organization is presided over by one holding the higher Priesthood, than that of the father.”6 The parenthetical clause here is just that, parenthetical, which means that it can be dropped from the sentence without impairing its basic meaning. Therefore, according to President Smith, the highest authority in any family is the father, whether he is a baptized member or not. But how can this be possible? The home is the fundamental unit of the Church, we are taught. How then, can someone who is not even a Church member preside over the fundamental Church unit, and in some cases preside over someone who holds the Melchizedek Priesthood? Apparently, the biological (or even adoptive) authority of the father outranks priesthood authority. And what about the situation where an aged high priest goes to live in the home of his son who became inactive at age fifteen and is still only a teacher in the Aaronic Priesthood. Who presides? In this case, home ownership would probably trump priesthood rank.
This concept of the father, or husband, presiding in the family runs into difficulties, however, when considered in tandem with another statement in the Family Proclamation: “Fathers and mothers are obligated to help one another as equal partners.” How can fathers and mothers be equal partners if the father presides over the mother? I will have more to say about the sometimes confusing notion of presiding, in families and elsewhere, later in this series, but for now let us merely acknowledge the very real possibility that priesthood is not the only authority in the Church, nor does it preside in every circumstance.
Women and Authority
What is the difference, then, between priesthood authority and these other possible types of authority in the Church? One of the primary differences is that performing certain ordinances is limited to the priesthood (the only function the word itself actually suggests). But, as mentioned in a previous post, even this was not always as strictly defined as it is today. Women and girls at an earlier time, for instance, were allowed to prepare the sacrament for church meetings and perform other tasks that are now the domain of priesthood holders.7 And for decades after the establishment of the Church, women also laid hands on the sick and afflicted and blessed them. They performed these healings not through the priesthood but through their faith, in harmony with this declaration in the Book of Mormon: “And these signs shall follow them that believe—in my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues; they shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick and they shall recover” (Mormon 9:24). We might well ask how laying hands on the sick and healing them through faith in Jesus Christ can be construed as not “acting in the Lord’s name,” which again illustrates the difficulty associated with the abstract definition of priesthood we embrace today. We might also ask how, in a more official ritualistic capacity, women are permitted to officiate in certain temple ordinances? How can they perform priestly functions without holding an authority we define as priesthood?
One answer is to insist that women do indeed exercise priesthood authority, but without actually having the priesthood. If we accept the idea that priesthood is the only authority in the Church, this explanation does indeed have some merit. But it leaves too many questions unanswered and even creates new questions that are very difficult to answer.
I don’t want to be difficult here, and I don’t want to openly argue with an Apostle, especially Elder Oaks, who has always been one of my favorite Genera Authorities. I realize that his assertion (that anyone who receives a calling from someone with priesthood keys is exercising priesthood authority) is a generous gesture toward women in a spirit of inclusion, but in the attempt to make space for women under the umbrella of priesthood authority, this assertion actually expands our already nebulous definition of priesthood and creates further ambiguity. If that is all priesthood is—the performance of a necessary function under commission from someone who holds priesthood keys—then everyone who performs any function in the Church, from the lowliest Primary teacher to the general president of the Relief Society, exercises priesthood authority in their calling. But this is where an expanding definition gets us into murky waters and can bruise already tender feelings. Regardless of how broadly we try to define priesthood, female Primary teachers, sister missionaries, and Relief Society general presidents know that they do not actually have the priesthood, an abstract authority that is bestowed on men and boys through ordination and that enables them to perform priesthood functions, such as baptizing, blessing the sacrament, and anointing the sick. If sister missionaries are really exercising priesthood authority in their labors, why then are they not allowed to baptize their investigators who desire to join the Church? If they really do have priesthood authority (you can’t exercise it without having it), it is difficult to understand why they should not be able to baptize under the keys held by the mission president. But they cannot, which means, quite plainly, that they do not have priesthood authority, and to tell them they do in an effort to smooth over troubled waters may only make things worse and bring a new level of confusion to the issue.
This notion (that anyone who has received an assignment from a priesthood leader is exercising priesthood authority) is also undermined by the status of black male members of the Church before 1978. Some of them served in their wards and branches in various nonpriesthood capacities. They received these callings from priesthood leaders. According to this reasoning, these black men were exercising priesthood authority by teaching Primary, leading the music, and coaching Young Men’s basketball teams. But according to teachings of Church leaders at the time, they were “denied the priesthood; under no circumstances [could] they hold this delegation of authority from the Almighty.”8 Any attempt to explain to them that they were actually exercising priesthood authority while being specifically denied that authority would have been confusing at best, offensive at worst. So why is this reasoning deemed acceptable when addressing questions about women and the priesthood? This is perplexing.
As suggested above, many women do have some sort of unnamed, undefined institutional authority, but I would argue that it is not priesthood. Consequently, all our attempts to try to include female Church members in the priesthood in some indirect or tangential way only end up offending and alienating many of them, because there are so many things this oblique “exercise” of priesthood does not include. If we are really serious about claiming that priesthood is the only authority in the Church and that anyone who fulfills a calling under priesthood direction is exercising priesthood authority, reason suggests that we simply make this official by ordination. Otherwise, we find ourselves in increasingly troubled definitional waters with no clear way to resolve the confusion created by our problematic priesthood lexicon.
Presiding and Nonpresiding Positions
Because of our abstract definition of priesthood, exercising this authority in Mormondom involves more than just performing ordinances; it also encompasses the right of presidency, or the right to preside. All presiding positions at the general Church level and in all major subdivisions of the organization (stakes, missions, districts, wards, and branches) are reserved for priesthood holders—for men.9 But what about nonpresiding positions? Is there any apparent reason why women could not be called as, say, high councilors or clerks, which are not priesthood offices and really have nothing to do with presiding? And what about a presiding position such as Sunday School president, which is not a priesthood office?
Interestingly, when we move past the “important” leadership positions, there are other presiding positions in the Church that seem almost of a different species. For instance, presiding positions in ward priesthood quorums or groups are, in practice, very similar to presiding positions in auxiliary organizations, especially Relief Society and Young Women. Thus, at lower levels in the Church hierarchy, there seem to be presiding positions for men and presiding positions for women. Both types are positions of authority, but only one is called priesthood, even though they are quite analogous in practice. I will explore the differences and similarities between these two types of presiding positions later in the context of priesthood keys and quorums.
In conclusion, the only acceptable avenue out of this increasingly confusing maze of explanations regarding priesthood and authority in the Church seems to be the admission that priesthood is only one kind of divine authority and that there are, in fact, other kinds. This admission may lead us to consider new possibilities, such as the validity of the ancient scriptural notion that priesthood and authority are distinct concepts, that priesthood is linguistically and logically connected to officiating in priestly rituals, and that priesthood and institutional leadership may not necessarily be coterminous. These are certainly radical ideas, but they have a fairly solid basis in the Bible and the Book of Mormon.
What I have tried to point out in this post and the previous three is that our unique definition of priesthood leaves us somewhat in no-man’s land.10 We are stuck somewhere between a rather restrictive scriptural/historical idea of priesthood as merely the capacity of being a priest (performing the ritualistic functions that a priest performs) and the more expansive (and apparently expanding) modern idea of priesthood as the institutional authority that enables a person to lead or speak or act in the Church in an official or governing capacity. The idea that there are other types of authority in the Church that are not designated “priesthood” illustrates the problematic nature of a priesthood that is neither completely restrictive nor completely expansive.
1. See Dallin H. Oaks, “The Keys and Authority of the Priesthood,” Ensign 44, no. 5 (May 2014): 51.
2. Sarah Granger Kimball, “Auto-biography,” Woman’s Exponent 12, no. 7 (September 1, 1885): 51.
3. “Church Adjusts Mission Organization to Implement ‘Mission Leadership Council,’” Newsroom, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, http://www.mormonnewsroom.org/article/church-adjusts-mission-organization-implement-mission-leadership-council.
4. I heard recently of a mission in which the mission president organized an entire zone of female missionaries, complete with female district and zone leaders. It is significant to note that these female leaders did not preside over any male missionaries.
5. The First Presidency and the Council of the Twelve Apostles, “The Family: A Proclamation to the World,” https://www.lds.org/topics/family-proclamation.
6. Joseph F. Smith, Gospel Doctrine (Deseret Book Company, 1968), 286–87. Father, Consider Your Ways, a pamphlet published by the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles in 1973, concurs: “Fatherhood is leadership, the most important kind of leadership. It has always been so; it always will be so. Father, with the assistance and counsel and encouragement of your eternal companion, you preside in the home.” Pages 4–5, quoted in Ezra Taft Benson, “To the Fathers in Israel,” Ensign 17, no. 11 (November 1987): 49. See also Dallin H. Oaks, “Priesthood Authority in the Family and the Church,” Ensign 35, no. 11 (November 2005): 24–27, where Elder Oaks explains why his single mother presided in the home even when he was ordained a deacon.
7. Many of the duties associated today with Aaronic Priesthood offices evolved over time and were not institutionalized until as late as the 1950s. Of course, at one time youth were not given the priesthood at all, and adults were ordained to the Aaronic Priesthood offices. For a recounting of the evolution of the Aaronic Priesthood and a listing of current priesthood duties that do not actually require the priesthood, passing the sacrament among them, see William G. Hartley, “From Men to Boys: LDS Aaronic Priesthood Offices, 1829–1996,” Journal of Mormon History 22, no. 1 (1996): 117–18, 129–31. This article is reprinted in William G. Hartley, My Fellow Servants: Essays on the History of the Priesthood (Provo, Utah: BYU Studies, 2010), 37–86. Hartley quotes President Heber J. Grant saying that “there was ‘no rule in the Church’ that only priesthood bearers could carry the sacrament to the congregation after it was blessed” (130).
8. Bruce R. McConkie, Mormon Doctrine, 2d ed. (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1966), 527.
9. Some would bring up the general auxiliary presidents in this context, but the Relief Society General President no longer presides over the Churchwide Relief Society. Ward Relief Society presidents are presided over by their bishops, not, I should add, by their stake Relief Society presidents. This fruit of Correlation creates the strange situation in which we have presidents who do not preside. General and stake auxiliary presidents function more in the mode of consultants, not file leaders.
10. It is tempting to render this idiom “no-woman’s land” here, but I’m sure any attempt at either humor or political correctness would be offensive to someone, so I will resist the temptation. By the same token, “no-man’s land” will probably offend others, so I’m in a no-win situation. Nevertheless, the term is exactly right, regardless of its sexist overtones, so I will use it.