Understanding the true nature of priesthood is challenging: there are so many contradictions in the scriptures, discourses and writings of early church leaders, and today’s traditions. Even the simple question of how many priesthoods exist isn’t obvious: SLC says two (Aaronic and Melchizedek), Joseph talked about three (adding Patriarchal), others say four (adding Apostolic). And don’t forget the Levitical Priesthood! Why is this so difficult?
There are several reasons. Joseph didn’t begin using the terms Aaronic Priesthood and Melchizedek Priesthood until 1835. Before then, authority came from the office you were ordained to, not from a priesthood. What really made this difficult was that Joseph retroactively applied those terms when revising revelations for the 1835 D&C, as well as in his historical accounts and discourses. Making matters worse, this began after the fullness of the priesthood had been lost, yet they continued using terminology that had been associated with the fullness. Then the SLC church airbrushed the history to resolve challenges to Apostolic rule over the church, and created a new priesthood office of Apostle that was supposedly higher than a high priest. Add in over a hundred years of false tradition and it’s no wonder we’re all confused.
This has been gnawing at me for a couple years. I knew the SLC version wasn’t correct, but still couldn’t figure out the inconsistencies. Several accounts claim the Melchizedek Priesthood wasn’t restored until June 1831, yet prior to that men were being ordained Elders and members were receiving the gift of the Holy Ghost.
I spent quite some time trying to unlearn everything I know about the priesthood, and walking though the historical records to piece together the progression of the priesthood, and trying to understand the shifting language used to describe it. I’m sure I’ve still got some things to learn, but I’ve made some major breakthroughs that explain the contradictions and harmonize many of the accounts. This does require purging all the traditions you’ve been taught about priesthood and starting from scratch. If you’re willing to commit to that, I’ll walk you through it.
There is only one priesthood (technically)
Why the first is called the is because was such a great high priest. Before his day it was called the Holy , after the of the Son of God. But out of or to the name of the Supreme Being, to avoid the too frequent repetition of his name, they, the church, in ancient days, called that priesthood after Melchizedek, or the Melchizedek Priesthood. All other authorities or offices in the church are to this priesthood.
That last sentence is critical. There is only one true priesthood authority – anything else is an appendage to it. To be specific, the office of high priest is that one true priesthood authority. We think of offices as things that are within the priesthood, but the office of high priest is the priesthood talked about here. It’s comprehensive:
The of the High Priesthood, after the order of Melchizedek, have a right to officiate in all the offices in the church. after the order of the Melchizedek Priesthood have a to officiate in their own , under the direction of the presidency, in administering spiritual things, and also in the office of an elder, (of the Levitical order), teacher, deacon, and member.
You can have a fully functioning church with only High Priests. There is no other priesthood office that can claim that, not even Elders. Why even have other priesthood offices if all that is required are High Priests?
APPENDAGE: Something added to a principal or greater thing, though not necessary to it, as a portico to a house.
This is from the Webster’s 1828 Dictionary. I like the example of a portico. Most would recognize a portico as a part of a house, without truly being part of the house. The house can function without it, and indeed the portico may have been built years after the house was built, but if your portico was damaged, you’d likely consider your house to be damaged. But you could also decide to remove the portico and the house remains intact.
This concept is critical to understanding the other priesthood offices.
All other authorities or offices in the church are to this priesthood.
Let’s start with the easy one.
The second priesthood is called the , because it was conferred upon Aaron and his seed, throughout all their generations. Why it is called the lesser priesthood is because it is an to the greater, or the Melchizedek Priesthood, and has power in administering outward ordinances.
The Aaronic Priesthood is not a separate priesthood, it is a subset of the one true priesthood. The High Priests already have the power to administer in outward ordinances such as baptism and the sacrament. Someone who has the Aaronic Priesthood conferred upon them cannot, however, administer in the spiritual aspects of the priesthood. Their authority is limited to the specific subset of authority they have been given. It’s an appendage to the one priesthood.
When this was conferred upon Aaron, there were two subsets. The priests, or the sons of Aaron, had the authority to run all the ordinances in the temple, and one priest each year would be chosen as the high priest (still an Aaronic priest) to administer in the outward ordinances of the day of atonement. The Levites, those who were not of the priestly line, had a smaller subset of authority to help run the temple and assist with the sacrifices and such. But a regular Levite would never be eligible to become a priest.
We are familiar with the offices of Deacon, Teacher, and Priest in the Aaronic Priesthood. The good news is that those names are correct, but the function they played in the true church was dramatically different than what we see today. We’ll cover that in a future post. But here’s another important distinction:
D&C 84:26-27, 30
The offices of teacher and deacon are necessary appendages belonging to the lesser priesthood, which priesthood was confirmed upon Aaron and his sons.
Teachers and Deacons are appendages of Priests. The greater priesthood consists of High Priests, the lesser priesthood consists of Priests. All other offices are appendages. That means that Bishops and Elders are appendages to the office of High Priest, and Teachers and Deacons are appendages to the office of Priest.
The of elder and bishop are necessary belonging unto the high priesthood.
The office of bishop is a necessary appendage to the high priesthood. It is a specific subset of the High Priest’s responsibilities.
Wherefore, the office of a bishop is not equal unto it; for the office of a is in administering all things; nevertheless a must be chosen from the , unless he is a of Aaron; for unless he is a of Aaron he cannot hold the keys of that priesthood. Nevertheless, a high priest, that is, after the order of Melchizedek, may be set apart unto the ministering of temporal things, having a of them by the Spirit of truth.
Here’s where this gets really wonky. The office of Bishop is a hybrid. Ideally it is filled by a descendant of Aaron, but if one can’t be found it is an appendage to the office of High Priest and is filled by a High Priest. In referring to the lesser priesthood (aka Aaronic) we learn:
is the presidency of this priesthood, and holds the or authority of the same.
So the Bishop straddles the greater priesthood and the lesser priesthood. The duties of the bishop today are dramatically different (and mostly unscriptural) compared to during the life of Joseph, but we’ll cover that in a future post.
This is the one that is going to take some serious re-education.
The of elder and bishop are necessary belonging unto the high priesthood.
Just as the offices of Deacon and Teacher are appendages the the office of Priest, and the entire Aaronic Priesthood is an appendage of the High Priesthood, the office of Elder is also an appendage. Let that sink in.
The office of Elder is not integral to the High Priesthood. It’s a portico — not necessary, but beneficial. It’s another subset of responsibilities – basically allowing the High Priests to outsource part of their duties. Or better yet, allowing God to delegate specific roles to men who either don’t qualify for the High Priesthood, or just don’t have access to the High Priesthood at that time.
Elders do not hold the Melchizedek Priesthood. They have received a subset of the Melchizedek Priesthood, just as Aaronic offices have received a subset. Only a High Priest holds the Melchizedek Priesthood.
The office of an comes under the priesthood of Melchizedek.
UNDER: In a state of pupilage or subjection; as a youth under a tutor; a ward under a guardian; colonies under the British government.
I like the last example. The Elders are like colonies. Semi-autonomous, but definitely not part of the main government or country. Their powers are limited, especially when a high priest is present.
An elder has a right to officiate in his stead when the high priest is not present. The high priest and are to administer in spiritual things, agreeable to the covenants and commandments of the church; and they have a right to officiate in all these offices of the church when there are no higher authorities present.
Putting the pieces together
Here’s what that organization would look like.
In this scripturally-based model, there really is only one priesthood, but there are subsets of that priesthood. In this model, your authority ties directly to the office to which you are ordained. You aren’t given all of the priesthood and then restricted in what you can do (as we do today by giving 11 year old boys the Aaronic priesthood but then telling them they cannot perform baptisms). Either you are a High Priest that holds all the priesthood, or you are ordained to an office that holds only a specific subset of that authority. When you read the early history of the church, men were ordained to offices, not priesthood.
Let’s say, hypothetically, that God wanted to restore his church to the world after a long absence. Just as you don’t go from sitting on the couch to running a marathon in the Olympics without some training in the middle, you can’t go from apostasy to the fullness of the gospel without some intermediate work. God could give a subset of authority (Priests and Teachers) to allow people to begin repenting and administering outward ordinances like baptism. Then he could give another subset of authority (Elders) to enable men to preach the gospel and give the gift of the Holy Ghost. Once the people were “in shape”, they would then be ready for the fullness, specifically the complete priesthood or the office of High Priest.
Let’s also say, hypothetically, that God decided to remove the fullness of the priesthood and there were no more men with the authority of High Priest. The office of Elder, being a subset and an appendage, could continue to function and run the church, albeit with some limitations. In this case the church would be downgraded from it’s previous status, but still have the opportunity to administer in both outward ordinances and give the gift of the Holy Ghost and preach the gospel to the world.
What would that look like?
That looks like two separate priesthoods: a higher priesthood and a lower priesthood. If the people kept using the term High Priest even though they didn’t have the authority anymore, it would be confusing and incorrect, but from an actual authority standpoint it would still look like two priesthoods, even though they were really two appendages or subsets of the true priesthood that is not available.
The key insight for me was to think in terms of offices rather than priesthood. That’s the language that was used for the first five years of the church when all this was being restored. It wasn’t until after the fullness had been lost that the priesthood terminology was introduced and muddied the waters.
In the next post, we’ll review the history of the restoration of priesthood offices, keeping track of the different wording used at different times, and show how this model reflects what actually happened.