Tuesday, October 27, 2015
Authority (Part 8: Priesthood Keys)
Continuing with the theme of terms we assume we understand but maybe don’t, let us look at a rather nebulous term that over time has grown in importance in the LDS lexicon: priesthood keys. First, though, let me point out that the concept of priesthood keys exists only because of the unique LDS definition of priesthood. If priesthood meant simply the state of being a priest, we would have no such thing as keys. Keys exist only because priesthood has become an abstract principle, a generalized authority. Keys unlock this authority so that it can be used in various ways.
So, what exactly are priesthood keys? According to Bruce R. McConkie, “The keys of the kingdom [which may not be the same as priesthood keys] are the power, right, and authority to preside over the kingdom of God on earth and to direct all of its affairs.”1 Joseph F. Smith taught that every man ordained to the priesthood has authority, but “it is necessary that every act performed under this authority shall be done at the proper time and place, in the proper way, and after the proper order. The power of directing these labors constitutes the keys of the Priesthood.”2 The Encyclopedia of Mormonism defines priesthood keys as “the right to exercise power in the name of Jesus Christ or to preside over a priesthood function, quorum, or organizational division of the Church. Keys are necessary to maintain order and to see that the functions of the Church are performed in the proper time, place, and manner.”3 Robert Millet and his coauthors explain that “the keys of the priesthood are the right of presidency.” They also point out, “While such persons as the Sunday School president, the Relief Society president, the Primary president, the Young Women president, and the Young Men president all have the right to inspiration and divine guidance because of the responsibility they bear, they do not hold keys.”4 This last statement again tosses us into murky definitional waters. Most presidents of auxiliary organizations in the Church do indeed preside, as their title suggests, but they apparently preside without keys, which indicates that keys are not really necessary in order to preside, except in priesthood functions.
The notion that the presiding officer in a ward or branch of the Church holds the keys pertaining to the performance of ordinances in that unit was apparently not understood as late as 1838. In the early Church, teachers were specifically assigned to preside over congregations, so that high priests, elders, and priests could travel and preach. Therefore teachers presided, even though they did not have sufficient authority to baptize or bless the sacrament, which suggests that they also did not possess priesthood keys regarding the performance of ordinances in the branches over which they presided.5
Did Keys Exist Anciently?
Joseph Smith is reported to have taught that “the fundamental principles, government, and doctrine of the Church are vested in the keys of the kingdom,”6 and “the keys have to be brought from heaven whenever the Gospel is sent.”7 If this is true, we might well ask why there is no mention of this concept in any ancient scripture. Not only does the term priesthood appear very infrequently and then only in a very specialized usage in the Bible and Book of Mormon, but the word key appears even less frequently in ancient scripture. Key appears only one time in the entire Book of Mormon and, interestingly, occurs in the setting of Jerusalem, referring to the treasury of Laban (1 Ne. 4:20). This term appears only two times in the Old Testament, once as a literal key to open a door (Judg. 3:25) and once as a figurative expression: “the key of the house of David will I lay upon his shoulder” (Isa. 22:22). Similarly, this term, in singular or plural form, appears only six times in the New Testament, all of them used figuratively—“the key of the bottomless pit” (Rev. 9:1; 20:1), “the keys of death and hell” (Rev. 1:18), “the key of David” (Rev. 3:7), “the key of knowledge” (Luke 11:52), and “the key of the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 16:19). This last reference is the only one even loosely associated with priesthood keys, where Jesus is telling Peter he will build his church upon “this rock” and give him “the key of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven,” suggesting that this key involves making earthly acts valid in heaven. Of course, this key is never directly connected to priesthood in the New Testament, for Peter is never said to have priesthood. This reference, however, is probably where Joseph Smith came upon the idea of priesthood keys, even though this notion is far from clear in Matthew’s account. In contrast to the infrequent use of the word key(s) in ancient scripture, it appears 63 times in the Doctrine and Covenants, referring to the keys of the priesthood, of the kingdom, of patriarchal blessings, of the ministering of angels, of mysteries, of spiritual blessings, of salvation, and so forth, all usages being figurative.
This disparity in usage raises an obvious question. Could it be that mention of figurative keys is an indication of how prevalent literal keys might be in the society in question? A literal key opens a lock, generally on a door. That is its function. This sort of lock is mentioned only four times in the Old Testament, all in the book of Nehemiah. Door(s), by contrast, is mentioned 198 times. In the New Testament, we find no lock(s), although door(s) is mentioned 38 times. Could it be that most doors in ancient Palestine did not have locks and therefore had no keys either? As mentioned, the word key appears only once in the Book of Mormon, referring to Laban’s treasury, which understandably would have had a door and a lock. But the word lock does not appear in the entire Book of Mormon, and door(s) appears only eight times. One of these instances is a quotation from Isaiah (2 Ne. 16:4), so it tells us nothing about Nephite society. Another is from the Savior’s New World version of the Sermon on the Mount (3 Ne. 13:6), about praying in secret with the door shut. Of the remaining six instances, two refer to prison doors (Ether 7:18; Alma 14:27), two refer to tent doors (1 Ne. 16:10; Mosiah 2:6), one refers to the door in the Jaredites’ barges (Ether 2:17), and one is a figurative usage: “Yea, even at this time ye are ripening . . . for everlasting destruction; yea, and except ye repent it will come unto you soon. Yea, behold it is now even at your doors” (Hel. 8:26–27). From evidence in the book itself, the only doors among the Nephites that would probably have had locks and keys were prison doors. There is no direct evidence that the Nephite homes even had doors, although the verse in Helaman suggests they did. But nowhere do we read that those doors had locks or keys. Considering the scarcity of literal doors and the absence of locks in the Book of Mormon account, it is not surprising that the concept of figurative keys, especially keys to priesthood power or to salvation, likewise does not appear in the record. The figurative usage of words has little or no meaning where the literal usage is rare or totally absent. It should be mentioned, however, that the Book of Mormon does not include any other metaphor that might correspond to our modern concept of priesthood keys. Certain individuals had authority from God, although not a generic priesthood, and they did not apparently require keys or any other metaphorical device to use authority themselves or give it to others. Alma1 and his descendants presided over the church, but none of them is said to have exercised priesthood or keys.
So if the ancients had no abstract concept of priesthood similar to the LDS notion of priesthood today, and if they had no figurative concept of keys connected to priesthood, where did this idea of priesthood keys come from? Michael Quinn suggests that “the doctrine of ‘the keys of the priesthood’ (and the related ‘keys of the kingdom’) became central to the question of presidential succession.”8 The concept of presiding, of being at the pinnacle of a power structure, requires some sort of mechanism for maintaining order. Priesthood keys serve that function in Mormonism. But hierarchies have existed and continue to exist without any concept like priesthood keys. As long as established patterns of granting authority and providing for orderly succession are in place, organizations can and do thrive. As an aside, it is interesting to note that the presence of priesthood keys did not prevent multiple relatively credible claims to succeed Joseph Smith after his death. So apparently this concept was not widely understood (or perhaps not understood the way we view it today) prior to Joseph’s death.
One circumstance that arises from the LDS view of authority is that lesser (local) priesthood keys are bestowed upon leaders in one branch (male) of the organization, but they are not bestowed in the other branch (female), thus creating a situation in which there are presiding officers who have keys and there are other presiding officers who do not have keys. This produces not only organizational confusion but also inequalities that cannot be easily explained away.
Perhaps Joseph Smith would have eliminated these inequalities if he had lived long enough. We cannot know. As mentioned earlier, Joseph saw the Relief Society as having some part in the priesthood, and on April 28, 1842, “he spoke of delivering the keys to this Society and to the church.”9 What keys these might be he did not explain clearly, but he did say “that the keys of the kingdom are about to be given to them [the Relief Society], that they may be able to detect every thing false—as well as to the Elders.”10 If this seems confusing, it is likely because Joseph used many terms loosely, keys included. For Joseph, a particular word could mean many things, and meanings often shifted over time. For instance, in 1842 Joseph, speaking about the keys of the kingdom, explained that “the keys are certain signs and words by which false spirits and personages may be detected from true, which cannot be revealed to the Elders till the Temple is completed.”11 Regardless of the several meanings he may have attached to the word keys, the general figurative idea of keys was obviously important to him.
So, where does this leave us? I’m not sure. Priesthood keys serve a purpose in the Church—of maintaining order, particularly in terms of succession at the top—but they also add a layer of complexity and of perplexity to the lower levels of the organization. For instance, we make a big deal of the fact that a deacons quorum president holds priesthood keys. But what do those keys do? Frankly, nothing. They purportedly permit the deacons president to assign other deacons to pass the sacrament and collect fast offerings (activities that were not always priesthood functions), but he could just as easily do this without the concept of keys. According to our standard explanation, these keys permit the deacons president to preside over his quorum. But how is this different from what the Beehive class president does?
So, just for the sake of asking the obvious, what would happen if we removed the term priesthood keys from our LDS vocabulary? Would the organization, in practice, function any differently? Would the Church become more simple, or more chaotic? Would the absence of this concept open the door to greater equality? These are questions we perhaps ought to examine more carefully.
1. Bruce R. McConkie, Mormon Doctrine, 2d ed. (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1966), 411, italics in original.
2. Joseph F. Smith, Gospel Doctrine: Selections from the Sermons and Writings of Joseph F. Smith, 5th ed. (Salt Lake City: Deseret News Press, 1919), 136.
3. Alan K. Parrish, “Keys of the Priesthood,” in Encyclopedia of Mormonism, ed. Daniel H. Ludlow, 4 vols. (New York: Macmillan, 1992), 2:780.
4. Robert L. Millet, Camille Fronk Olson, Andrew C. Skinner, and Brent L. Top, LDS Beliefs: A Doctrinal Reference (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2011), 361.
5. Gregory A. Prince, Power from On High: The Development of Mormon Priesthood (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1995), 52–53
6. Joseph Smith Jr., History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, ed. B. H. Roberts, 2d ed., rev. 7 vols. (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1971), 1:338 (hereafter cited as History of the Church).
7. History of the Church, 3:385–88.
8. D. Michael Quinn, The Mormon Hierarchy: Origins of Power (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1994), 16.
9. Nauvoo Relief Society Minute Book, 36, April 28, 1842.
10. Nauvoo Relief Society Minute Book, 37, April 28, 1842.
11. History of the Church, 4:608.