What is the priesthood? What is the power of the priesthood and how does that work? What is the difference between authority and power?
I come across questions like these regularly from friends, family, at church, and in online forums; I’ve asked myself similar questions throughout the years. After many years of gathering up pieces here and there, I’d like to share some of the things that I have learned thus far.
The answers that I have found are simple in principle, but therein lies the challenge.
What is the priesthood?
I’ve heard language such as “priesthood holder”, “holders of the priesthood”, and “he used his priesthood to…” from fellow ward members and from the highest echelons of the Church.
Personally, I don’t like this phraseology.
Please don’t get me wrong, I’m not seeking to be overly critical here or imply that false doctrine is being taught. I do understand what is meant by these phrases, but I think they obscure certain aspects of what the priesthood actually is.
I think that some of the confusion I have seen in those around me and in such movements as Ordain Women could be ameliorated through a better understanding of what the priesthood actually is and how it works.
The Webster’s 1828 Dictionary defines the word priesthood as:
The order of men set apart for sacred offices; the order composed of priests.
The suffix “–hood” implies “a group sharing a specified condition or state.” (Webster’s 1828). Thus a priest-hood is a group of priests, much like a neighbor-hood is a group of neighbors and father-hood denotes the condition or state of being a father. This is primarily why I dislike the phrase “priesthood holders” because you wouldn’t say “neighborhood holders” or “fatherhood holders” it’s kind of redundant at best and potentially confusing at worst.
If “priesthood holder” as a phrase implies anything it should be in regards to holding membership within the order rather than being a “holder” of a mystical power of some kind like a Jedi or Wizard. A member of a neighborhood is a neighbor, fatherhood involves being a father, and a member of the priesthood is, well, a priest.
Where it gets tricky for us is that the word priest is being used for a particular office of the priesthood, so it may cause further confusion by calling every member a priest. I suspect that the phrase “priesthood holder” came to be as a general term representative of any priesthood member to avoid that confusion.
Joseph Smith taught:
“All Priesthood is Melchizedek, but there are different portions or degrees of it” (TPJS, p. 180)
You could rephrase that to say “All Priesthood is [after the holy order of the Son of God], but there are different portions or degrees of it.” Since the word priesthood refers to the order itself which is already composed of set apart individual priests, just saying “the priesthood” should be sufficient without adding the “holders.”
The priesthood is an order and those belonging to that order are called priests and are set apart into various sacred offices. If there was any doubt to this definition I refer you to the entire chapter of Alma 13 (my favorite discourse on the priesthood) which contains 7 of the 8 references to the word ‘priesthood’ in the entire Book of Mormon.
In that chapter, the word power is not mentioned once but the word order is mentioned 14 times. This order, Alma taught, is God’s “holy order, which was after the order of his Son” (Alma 13:1) and that the purpose of “being called by this holy calling, and ordained unto the high priesthood of the holy order of God, [is to] to teach his commandments unto the children of men, that they also might enter into his rest.” (Alma 13:6) The purpose of the priesthood and the mission of a priest is to teach people and lead them to God.
That, in a nutshell, is the what the definition of the priesthood is. “But wait! What about power and authority and all those miracles, healings, and all that stuff?!”
Don’t worry, we are going there next but first, we need to have a working definition of the priesthood – that it is God’s holy order of priests set apart into offices.
What is God’s power?
I’ve heard comparisons to the priesthood and the force in the Star Wars franchise. There are superhero movies where individuals, good or evil, can summon and wield forces by the power of sheer will to whatever ends they desire.
Some may get the idea that God works the same way, almost in Zeus-like fashion hurling lightning bolts down from his throne above. In these examples from modern pop culture, no matter how the individual uses their powers for good none of them reflect how God’s power actually works.
In the Church’s guide to the scriptures, priesthood is defined as “The authority and power that God gives to man to act in all things for the salvation of man.” This is a true statement, but I would like to unpack the word power and explore its meaning.
The word power can be defined in the following ways that I think apply to the priesthood:
- Command; the right of governing, or actual government;
- Influence; that which may move the mind; as the power of arguments or of persuasion.
- One invested with authority;
- Legal authority; warrant; as a power of attorney; an agent invested with ample power
Rather than being a mystical force, power, as it pertains to the priesthood, involves authority and influence, not force. Power flows through this order in two ways.
- Power in the priesthood is derived from the authority which belongs to the order itself and
- the individual faith of intelligences (Abraham 3:21-22, D&C 93:29-36).
While the word intelligences is not very well-defined in LDS theology except as a reference to premortal children of God, I think there is evidence that all physical matter is composed of intelligence that has the capacity to hear God and obey him.
Joseph Smith taught: “Latter-day Saints believe that animals, like humans, have spirits, in the form of their bodies (D&C 77:2). Like humans and plants, animals were created first as spirits in heaven and then physically on the earth (Moses 3:5). Mortal and subject to death, animals will be saved through the Atonement of Christ (TPJS, pp. 291-92).
In Moses 3, God “formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul” (vs.7).
Then in subsequent verses God says “And out of the ground made I, the Lord God, to grow every tree, naturally, that is pleasant to the sight of man; and man could behold it. And it became also a living soul. For it was spiritual in the day that I created it;” (vs.9)
And finally the animals are mentioned as being living souls as well “And out of the ground I, the Lord God, formed every beast of the field, and every fowl of the air; […] and they were also living souls; for I, God, breathed into them the breath of life.” (vs.19)
D&C 93:30 states:
“All truth is independent in that sphere in which God has placed it, to act for itself, as all intelligence also; otherwise there is no existence.”
Another way of saying this is that existence depends on intelligence being placed in a state where it can act for itself. We see this illustrated in the unique creation account contained in Abraham chapter 4, note the following verses:
“And the Gods ordered the expanse, so that it divided the waters which were under the expanse from the waters which were above the expanse; and it was so, even as they ordered.” (vs.7)
“And the Gods ordered, […] and it was so as they ordered; (vs.9)
“and the Gods saw that they were obeyed.” (vs.10)
“and it was so, even as they ordered.” (vs.11)
“and the Gods saw that they were obeyed.” (vs.12)
“And the Gods watched those things which they had ordered until they obeyed.” (vs.18)
“and the Gods saw they would obey.” (vs.25)
“And the Gods said: We will do everything that we have said, and organize them; and behold, they shall be very obedient.” (vs.31)
Agency is at work here and what is hearing and obeying throughout this process is not human, it is the elements, plants, and animals. They are all listening and obeying the instructions they are given and there seems to be an indication that there was time between the order and the compliance with that order. (vs.18)
Mormon, the abridger of the Book of Mormon taught:
“For behold, the dust of the earth moveth hither and thither, to the dividing asunder, at the command of our great and everlasting God.” (Helaman 14:8 [the whole chapter is worth reading])
With this in mind, we can get to the root of understanding God’s power. In a very short sentence embedded in D&C 29:36, God reveals the source of his power:
“[the devil] rebelled against me, saying, Give me thine honor, which is my power;”
God reveals that his power is derived from “honor.” But what is honor and how does that equate with power? A definition of honor that is fitting here is:
“Reverence; veneration; or any act by which reverence and submission are expressed, as worship paid to the Supreme Being.” (Webster’s 1828)
God’s power is derived from the honor he receives as his commands are obeyed by intelligence exercising agency. This means that he cannot and does not use force, after all, as D&C 121:41 famously states:
“No power or influence can or ought to be maintained by virtue of the priesthood, only by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned;”
Think about it. All of creation was a conversation, God spake and he was answered with order. God’s power is faith.
This faith is a trust maintained by God in the intelligences he commands and by the intelligences who trust and honor him.
The power of God and man is faith
“…faith is not only the principle of action, but of power, also, in all intelligent beings, whether in heaven, or on earth.” (Lecture 1:13)
“We here understand, that the sacred writers say, that all these things were done by faith—It was by faith that the worlds were framed—God spake, chaos heard, and worlds came into order, by reason of the faith there was in HIM. So with man also—he spake by faith in the name of God, and the sun stood still, the moon obeyed, mountains removed, prisons fell, lions’ mouths were closed, the human heart lost its enmity, fire its violence, armies their power, the sword its terror, and death its dominion; and all this by reason of the faith which was in them.” (Lecture 1:22)
I highly suggest reading the entire Lectures on Faith if you want to know more about this.
When one exercises sufficient faith aligned with true principles, or God’s will and order, power is made manifest. To mortals, power in the priesthood does not exist without faith.
Jesus did not teach that he healed people ‘by the power of his priesthood,’ instead, he often said that it was their faith that made them whole. (Matthew 9:22, Enos 1:8, Mark 10:52, Luke 17:19, Matthew 8:13, 3 Nephi 17:8, Matthew 9:2, etc.)
“Faith, then, is the first great governing principle which has power, dominion, and authority over all things: by it they exist, by it they are upheld, by it they are changed, or by it they remain, agreeably to the will of God. Without it, there is no power, and without power there could be no creation, nor existence!” (Lecture 1:24)
Even the great Melchizedek, who was ordained after the order of the Son of God had power, BY FAITH do to the great things he did:
“And thus, having been approved of God, [Melchizedek] was ordained an high priest after the order of the covenant which God made with Enoch, It being after the order of the Son of God; which order came, not by man, nor the will of man; neither by father nor mother; neither by beginning of days nor end of years; but of God; And it was delivered unto men by the calling of his own voice, according to his own will, unto as many as believed on his name. For God having sworn unto Enoch and unto his seed with an oath by himself; that every one being ordained after this order and calling should have power, by faith, to break mountains, to divide the seas, to dry up waters, to turn them out of their course;” (JST Genesis 14:27-30)
Priesthood doesn’t heal, part seas, move mountains, or create worlds, these things are all done by faith. This is illustrated in Lecture 1 and 7, and in the long lists of miracles done by scripture heroes in Hebrews 11, and Ether 12 by their faith.
Jacob described the power of his people’s faith:
“Wherefore, we search the prophets, and we have many revelations and the spirit of prophecy; and having all these witnesses we obtain a hope, and our faith becometh unshaken, insomuch that we truly can command in the name of Jesus and the very trees obey us, or the mountains, or the waves of the sea.” (Jacob 4:6)
Nephi, the son of Helaman was told by the Lord:
“behold, I will bless thee forever; and I will make thee mighty in word and in deed, in faith and in works; yea, even that all things shall be done unto thee according to thy word, for thou shalt not ask that which is contrary to my will. Behold, thou art Nephi, and I am God. Behold, I declare it unto thee in the presence of mine angels, that ye shall have power over this people, and shall smite the earth with famine, and with pestilence, and destruction, according to the wickedness of this people. Behold, I give unto you power, that whatsoever ye shall seal on earth shall be sealed in heaven; and whatsoever ye shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven; and thus shall ye have power among this people. And thus, if ye shall say unto this temple it shall be rent in twain, it shall be done. And if ye shall say unto this mountain, Be thou cast down and become smooth, it shall be done. And behold, if ye shall say that God shall smite this people, it shall come to pass.” (Helaman 10:5-10)
Nephi’s faith was so aligned with God that he was given authority and power to speak in God’s name and do his will. Imagine being trusted to that degree by God himself.
Jesus himself famously said:
“If ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye shall say unto this mountain, Remove hence to yonder place; and it shall remove; and nothing shall be impossible unto you.” (Matthew 17:20)
Power, in general, comes when our will unifies with God’s and his faith and our faith converge.
Power in the priesthood operates according to the same principles but with the added framework of a line of authority and office to which one is both called, set apart, and sustained.
Many are called, but few are chosen. (D&C 121:34) This is because “the rights of the priesthood are inseparably connected with the powers of heaven,” and “the powers of heaven cannot be controlled nor handled only upon the principles of righteousness.” (vs.36)
Ultimately, “faith, hope, charity and love, with an eye single to the glory of God, qualify him for the work.” (D&C 4:5)
Hopefully what I have presented here lays a foundation to demonstrate what priesthood is and how the power of God works.
Both men and women are received into the order of God at varying degrees, beginning with boys at age twelve, and both men and women in the holy temple. While male priests officiate in the church hierarchy the highest purpose of the order is the salvation and exaltation of souls which cannot be done by men alone.
When is understood that it is ultimately faith that is the true power upholding all things and that the priesthood is like a lens focusing that power to specific purposes that God desires, both men and women can unite their unique gifts within God’s order and receive of his power.
Larry Barkdull expresses these truths eloquently:
“The priesthood “rights” that the Lord mentions are not “rites,” that is, those sacred ordinances and ceremonies necessary for salvation. Rather, these “rights” are privileges that flow from recognizing the source of priesthood power. This power can be accessed only by obedience to the laws of heaven where the power originates; this power comes by magnifying our priesthood calling and by living a life distinguished by persuasion rather than force, long-suffering rather than impatience, gentleness rather than harshness, meekness rather than pride, love unfeigned (not pretended or insincere) rather than contrived, and kindness rather than abusiveness.Clearly, the priesthood is a lifestyle. The scripture states that if we will assume the true lifestyle of the priesthood, the Holy Ghost will distill upon us pure knowledge. It is pure knowledge that has the effect of aligning us, sincerely and with no devious motive, with the character of God.
[…] a man who sanctifies himself has greater power in the priesthood than a man who does not; a man or woman who sanctifies himself or herself by honoring his or her temple covenants has greater power to ask for and receive blessings than a man or woman who does not; a husband and wife who sanctify themselves in the patriarchal order of the priesthood have greater power to bless their family than a couple who does not.” [via ldsmag.com]
God’s holy order, his priesthood, exists to save and exalt every human soul and to bring us all into unity so that we may share in the same blessings and eternal destiny.
I believe that although much more will be revealed to us in the future, there are volumes of things still to learn here in the present.