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Mormon gender roles and the Ordain Women movement have been in the news recently. Most arguments I’ve seen used to denounce the movement is that their goal is contrary to the doctrine of the Priesthood. Regardless of where you stand on Mormon gender roles and the ordination of women, I think it is vital for us to start the dialogue on common ground. We need to review our doctrines regarding priesthood. We need to know what they actually are before we can discuss whether or not something is a violation of said doctrine.

What is doctrine?

From the Mormon Newsroom (and reiterated in General Conference):

Not every statement made by a Church leader, past or present, necessarily constitutes doctrine. A single statement made by a single leader on a single occasion often represents a personal, though well-considered, opinion, but is not meant to be officially binding for the whole Church… This doctrine resides in the four “standard works” of scripture…

Additionally, we have church handbooks which outline church policies and practices. These policies are to be based upon doctrine, and as a result, each section of the church handbook points to scripture in our canon to highlight the doctrines influencing the policies.

Doctrines of Priesthood

I’m going to focus exclusively on our Doctrine and Covenants to review our Priesthood doctrines, because the Priesthood we read about in the Bible and Book of Mormon function much differently (for example, Deacons are supposed to be the husband of one wife, ruling their children and house well). However it should be noted that as the previous example highlights, our canonized scripture contains ‘doctrines’ or teachings which don’t match our practice; so even with matters of doctrine, there is more flexibility than we often acknowledge. Let’s look exclusively at the offices of the Aaronic Priesthood. In our Doctrine and Covenants, we learn that deacons:

We learn that teachers:

We learn that priests:

So, what is and isn’t in our canon about these offices of the Aaronic Priesthood.

What’s there?

There are some interesting things here that perhaps some may not have realized we do. Most likely recognize the size limit on quorums and voting on ordinations (it must be at a conference, and is one of the few ‘functional’ reasons I’ve heard for why we continue to have regular ward and stake conferences). There are some very interesting things here that we no longer follow. First, because we have shifted the Aaronic Priesthood to quorums of teenagers, many of the duties listed don’t functionally happen (for example: how many deacons in your ward “warn, expound, exhort, and teach, and invite all to come unto Christ”, or how many priests travel abroad setting up appointments for missionaries). There is also the interesting fact that section 20 says that priests are only to administer the sacrament in the absence of an elder. We also see ‘doctrines’ (actually policies, though that is not explicit anywhere, as to which is which) that are now outdated and superseded by modern technologies such as the need to have signed documents as proof of membership or priesthood office. I do find it interesting that ordination from priests are decidedly less authoritative as the certificate has to be presented to an elder for the calling to be ‘licensed.’

What’s not there?

There is some symmetry around the offices of deacon/teacher and priest/elder. Deacons assist Teachers and Priests assist Elders. However, Teachers can’t explicitly assist Priests in their duties based on the text. One could extrapolate this to the sacrament. Administer means either to manage/oversee or to dispense/pass out (or some mix of both). Only elders and priests are to do this (and priests only when there aren’t sufficient elders). If this means to pass out, then that is a major difference between our current practice and our canon. That alone would imply that even doctrines or practices of the Priesthood are subject to change (more on that later). However, if we assume that “administer” just refers to managing or overseeing the sacrament, then there isn’t much of a discrepancy between the canon and our practice, but it would also mean that Deacons and Teachers have no particular claim or authority to do anything related to the sacrament and only do so now because the administrators of the sacrament have delegated it to them. This also implies that there are no innate ties to the priesthood with regards to preparing and passing the sacrament. It would mean that our current practice is a tradition/policy in the church. Practices and policies can and do change, which opens the door to having any member prepare and pass the sacrament; this would still be in perfect conformity with the doctrines of the priesthood contained in our canon.living

Why the difference?

Some people have left the church over seeing the (at times large) discrepancy between our scriptural teachings and our current practice. Some hold up large changes like the doctrines surrounding the Aaronic Priesthood as evidence that the church is wrong because “it was either wrong then, or it is now.” I would suggest that this is better viewed as progression, as a line upon line development. We read in our canon about how truths are revealed in this manner. We have latter-day prophets because there will continue to be change. If there wasn’t going to be change, we could make do with just the Bible. We also believe that “God will yet reveal many great and important things pertaining to the Kingdom of God.” We are a living church with a living priesthood. Viewed in this light, we can gain a deeper understanding and appreciation for how we got to the Priesthood we know today. Let’s here make an overview of some of the history of the unfolding of Mormon Priesthood, looking especially at when things were recorded. Additionally, the book Power From on High by Greg Prince goes over all of this in more detail, and it is on my “to read” list.

Priesthood line upon line

The first written wording for a current LDS ordinance came in the Book of Mormon: the Sacramental prayers. Notice that there is no claim of authority and no mention of “priesthood” in the prayer. In section 20 we read about four different offices of the church, Deacon, Teacher, Priest, and Elder (bishop and high priest weren’t added into the text of this section until the 1835 edition). However, these offices aren’t part of a “priesthood” in the revelation. In fact, people are ordained to the office by the Holy Ghost and the vote of the congregation. While it lists elders and priests as being able to ordain others, it appears from the text that this is more like a confirmation of the ordination by the Holy Ghost and vote of the congregation, similar to being called and set apart for a generic calling today. Joseph Smith Sr’s “license” from June of 1830 emphasizes that he is a priest by the gift and power of the Holy Ghost. Additionally, if we look at the wording for the ordinance of baptism, we also don’t see “priesthood” mentioned, simply that the priest or elder performing the ordinance was “commissioned of Jesus Christ.”

The earliest use of the word “priesthood” that I’ve found is in October of 1831, though Joseph apparently introduced the “high priesthood” in June 1831. However, the names Aaronic Priesthood and Melchizedek Priesthood don’t appear until the summer of 1832 in church history records . While we have the date of May 15, 1829 for our section 13, the first recording we have of it was in a church history record written in 1834-1836 in which it says “in the name of Messiah I confer this priesthood” and in which there is no date given for the experience. In the 1839 church history the beginning of the account says that: 1) it occurred on a certain day in May, 2) it finally reads as we have it now “Priesthood of Aaron,” and then 3) at the end of the account it gives the date as May 15th. The first instance I’ve found of the “high priesthood” (first mentioned in 1831) being called the Melchizedek priesthood, or even priesthood after the order of Melchizedek, was in meeting minutes from December 1834. It is worth noting here that very little was added to the Doctrine and Covenants during Joseph’s life after 1835. Most of the teachings and doctrines we have that were revealed in Nauvoo are recorded in journal entries and temple rituals, but rarely in our standard works.

By the 1840s we see other developments with priesthood. Joseph introduced a third order of Priesthood. In addition to Melchizedek and Levitical (or Aaronic) there is the Patriarchal. During this same time period Joseph was establishing the Nauvoo Female Relief Society, which “should move according to the ancient Priesthood” and about which he said “there are many Benevolent Societies abroad designd to do good but not as this[;] ours is according to the order of God connected with the priesthood.” He said “he was going to make of this Society a kingdom of priests as in Enoch’s day— as in Pauls day” and that “without the female all things cannot be restored to the earth[;] it takes all to restore the Priesthood.” When some sisters were concerned that their work with the poor would interfere with the Bishop’s calling, Joseph told them not to worry and that the “objects and principles of this society are vast not fully understood,” that “a most important part of the Church [is] to look after the sick… Notwithstanding the Bishops there would be a lack in the Church,” and regarding the Relief Society “the Order of the Priesthood is not complete without it.

In 1843 Joseph Smith’s journal noted that he was “anointed and ordained to the highest and holiest order of the priesthood” as was Emma Smith. This was the second anointing. There was a semi-secret group of those initiated called the “Holy Order,” the “Quorum of the Anointed,” the “First Quorum,” or still more often as the “Quorum” or “Council;” this group was making Church decisions. By 1844 this quorum was having prayer circle meetings weekly and sometimes daily. Women held the same status in the Quorum as men. They acted as priestesses in administering the ordinances of the Temple. They also acted in common consent to select members of the quorum. This group played a significant role in the succession crisis after Joseph’s death (all of the Quorum of the Twelve were also members of the Anointed Quorum).

In the succession crisis some followed James Strang and traveled north to Wisconsin. The Strangites believe that Joseph Smith in fact ordained Emma Smith to the office of teacher based on section 25 of the Doctrine and Covenants (“thou shalt be ordained under his hand to expound scriptures, and to exhort the church, according as it shall be given thee by my Spirit.“). They did ordain women to be deacons and teachers in their church and this was not seen as a strange new innovation from James Strang, but a natural development of priesthood.

Meanwhile, under Brigham’s leadership, our church priesthood underwent continued development. Some of the developments moved away from Nauvoo innovations back towards Kirtland era doctrines/practices (as contained in our Doctrine and Covenants). Leaders have stated that while Joseph taught that there were 3 grand orders of priesthood, that there are really only two, and the patriarchal order is really part of the order of Melchizedek (thus making it harmonize with section 107).

We also see developments which affected the demographics of the Priesthood. We begin to see the Aaronic priesthood transition to being a priesthood filled with teenagers. The priesthood language used with Relief Society essentially disappeared. Whereas the Relief Society sisters were actively anointing and sealing blessings for health in the early church, this practice was slowly and incrementally discouraged until being explicitly stopped in 1946, at which point anointing and blessings for health were deemed to be priesthood responsibilities. The Anointed Quorum also underwent many changes after Joseph’s death. Under Brigham, most members become initiated in temple ordinances. Prayer circle meetings initially continued. In January of 1896 the First Presidency decided that women should no longer attend prayer circle meetings; this demographic change remained until 1978 when the First Presidency announced the end of all prayer circle meetings. The most infamous demographic change in the priesthood, which began with Brigham was the racial ban on priesthood. This continued for many years with many leaders and members making up ‘folk doctrine’ to explain the reason for the ban. This ban was finally removed in 1978.

As can be seen, rather than some never-changing, dead structure, Priesthood is dynamic and living. It has grown and developed. Changes have occurred. I believe that it will continue living and growing. Please, let’s keep our history in mind when we decide to engage with others about Priesthood and the possibility of the gender ban being removed.

Geoff was born in Northern Utah and raised primarily in Central California. He received a BS in Biomedical Physics from Fresno State, a MS and PhD in Bioengineering from Stanford, and is now an Assistant Professor at the University of Utah working as a Clinical Medical Physicist. He served his LDS Mission in Donetsk Ukraine. He’s married and has two boys and two girls. He is currently the ward organist and primary pianist.

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