Mormon Priesthood: Do Mormons Alone Have the Power?
“The priesthood is the power and authority of God delegated to man on earth to act in all things pertaining to the salvation of men. It is the means whereby the Lord acts through men to save souls. Without this priesthood power, men are lost.”—The Teachings of Spencer W. Kimball, 494.
A. Is the Priesthood God’s Power?
One of the strangest and least-noticed doctrines of the LDS Church is its claim that the priesthood is God’s own power by which he created and sustains the world. “The priesthood is the eternal power and authority of God. Through the priesthood He created and governs the heavens and the earth. By this power the universe is kept in perfect order” (Gospel Principles, 67).
Given the importance of the priesthood in the LDS religion, one would think that this explanation of the priesthood would appear somewhere in the LDS scriptures. It does not. The “standard works” never say that God’s own divine power is identical with the priesthood. Joseph Smith gave several lengthy revelations about the priesthood in Doctrine & Covenants (D&C 20:38-67; 68:15-21; 84; 107; 121:36-45; 128:8-11; 132:58-64; see also Joseph Smith—History 1:69-74), but none of them mentions this idea. (The closest any LDS scripture comes to this idea is Joseph Smith’s statement in D&C 121:36 that “the rights of the priesthood are inseparably connected with the powers of heaven,” which is not the same thing as saying that the priesthood is the power of heaven.) Brigham Young was apparently the first to articulate this idea, in a sermon that is not included in the LDS scriptures:
If anybody wants to know what the Priesthood of the Son of God is, it is the law by which the worlds are, were, and will continue for ever and ever. It is that system which brings worlds into existence and peoples them, gives them their revolutions—their days, weeks, months, years, their seasons and times and by which they are rolled up as a scroll, as it were, and go into a higher state of existence…” (Brigham Young , in Journal of Discourses 15:127).
The idea that the priesthood is God’s own power of creation and providence is so foreign to biblical religion that the Bible does not directly mention the idea even to refute it. As a matter of fact, the Bible never links priesthood with power in any way. In the Bible, priesthood is simply an office or position held by human beings from among God’s people who serve as priests—that is, as intermediaries between God and the rest of the people. The whole idea of priesthood in ancient religion, including in the Bible, was that of a religious figure authorized to perform sacred rituals through which the people and their deity were connected. The high priest was simply a man, “taken from among men,” and appointed on behalf of other human beings in matters pertaining to God (Hebrews 5:1). Priests were invested with authority—not power—to perform their assigned religious duties. That is, priests had permission from God to do things others were not allowed to do (such as, in the case of the high priest, enter into the Holy of Holies on the Day of Atonement). But priests had no special power that other people lacked—let alone the same power by which God created and sustains the world!
Brigham Young’s idea that the priesthood is God’s own power of creation takes much further Joseph Smith’s teaching (not found in LDS scripture) that the priesthood is an eternal principle: “The Priesthood is an everlasting principle, and existed with God from eternity, and will to eternity, without beginning of days or end of years…. The Priesthood is everlasting—without beginning of days or end of years, without father, mother, etc.” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, 157, 158). Joseph’s comments here reflect his own revision of Hebrews 7:3, which he rewrote to say that the priesthood “order of the Son of God” was “without father, without mother” (Hebrews 7:3 JST). This revision—for which there is no justification in the Greek text of the book of Hebrews—actually turns the teaching of the passage on its head. Joseph Smith’s revision expresses his belief that priesthood is an eternal system that is needed on earth at all times, including today, if people are to have access to a relationship with God. What Hebrews is arguing is that the earthly priesthood was a temporary system that foreshadowed the heavenly priesthood that began when the Son of God, Jesus Christ, rose from the grave and ascended to the Father’s right hand (see Hebrews 1:3; 2:17; 5:9-10; 6:19-20; 7:15-16, 23-27; 8:1-6; 9:11-14; 10:11-13). In this context, Hebrews 7:3 states that the priest Melchizedek—a mysterious figure in Genesis 14 who has no genealogy and whose father and mother are not mentioned—is a type of Christ whose priesthood was to come. We have more to say about Melchizedek and the “Melchizedek priesthood” in our response to chapter 14 of Gospel Principles.
The notion that the priesthood is God’s own power by which he “created and governs” the universe is not merely an odd item on a list of curious or strange ideas taught in the LDS Church. The idea is part of the LDS worldview in which God, the world, and human beings are related in a very different way than in the Bible and historic Christian doctrine. In the LDS worldview, Heavenly Father is himself an exalted man, someone who attained Godhood through a process of exaltation. This means that he did not always possess divine power; it was rather something that he came to possess. Furthermore, human beings have the capacity to go through a similar process of exaltation and become Gods themselves, just as Heavenly Father did, with the result that they also will possess the divine power that the Father has. In short, in LDS thought, divine power is not something inherent to the being of God the Father but something that he gained in his process of exaltation and that we can also gain by a similar process. LDS doctrine since Brigham Young identifies this divine power as priesthood, so that LDS males who receive the priesthood are actually getting their first taste or infusion, as it were, of the divine power that they hope to have when they become Gods. This is what LDS Church President Gordon B. Hinckley was getting at when he said that those who have received the priesthood “have had bestowed upon us something wonderful and magnificent, something of the very essence of godhood” (“Loyalty,” Ensign [conference report], May 2003, 58).
The biblical worldview is radically different from the LDS worldview. The fundamental, root idea of the biblical worldview is the distinction between the Creator and the creation. The Creator is one, infinite, transcendent, eternal, self-existent God who has always been God, who made everything other than himself and whose divine characteristics or attributes derive from no one and nothing outside himself (e.g., Genesis 1:1; Exodus 3:14; Psalm 90:2; Isaiah 43:10; 44:6-8, 24; Romans 11:36; 1 Corinthians 11:12; 1 Timothy 1:17; Hebrews 1:10-12). Redeemed and glorified human beings will be adopted children of God, immortal, sinless, morally and spiritually perfect, and enjoy a quality of life we probably cannot even imagine, but we will not become Gods possessing his divine power or other infinite attributes (e.g., Romans 8:18-23, 28-30; 1 Corinthians 15:42-54; 1 John 3:1-2; Revelation 21:2-7). The divine nature, including God’s omnipotence, is fully and uniquely incarnated in Jesus Christ alone (John 1:1, 14; Colossians 1:18-20; 2:9). Priesthood, in the biblical worldview, is not divine power; it is an office by which God condescends to enable us to be reconciled to him through a human intermediary who represents us before God (Hebrews 5:1). In the Old Testament, men who functioned as priests did not obtain a foretaste of the divine power that could become theirs as Gods. Rather, they served as foretastes or types of the heavenly Priest, Jesus Christ, who as both God and man would accomplish reconciliation between sinful human beings and the holy God (Hebrews 1:1-13; 2:8-18; 5:5-10; 7:26-28).
The LDS conception of priesthood, then, represents a rejection of the biblical teaching that God is the absolutely unique Creator in whom all power eternally and intrinsically resides. It also denies the uniqueness of Jesus Christ as the only divine Son of God who alone is and forever will be incarnate Deity. Rather than viewing the personal Creator God who has revealed himself in Jesus Christ as the ultimate, eternal Power, LDS doctrine identifies as that ultimate Power an impersonal force called “the Priesthood” that both Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ attained through a process of exaltation and that we too can attain by faithful participation in the ordinances of the LDS Church. Jesus in this theology is simply the first of God’s spirit children to attain this priesthood power and through it was the first to become a God like Heavenly Father, but in principle we can—and according to LDS teaching some of us will—eventually do the same. Thus, as crucial as Christ is to LDS belief, ultimately it is this priesthood power that supposedly transcends Christ and God that is the object of LDS religion. In LDS doctrine, our ultimate source of authority and hope is priesthood, whereas in biblical, sound Christian doctrine, the ultimate source of authority and hope is “Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Corinthians 1:24).
B. Better than Priesthood
According to LDS doctrine, “We must have priesthood authority to act in the name of God when performing the sacred ordinances of the gospel, such as baptism, confirmation, administration of the sacrament, and temple marriage” (Gospel Principles, 67). One searches in vain for any statement along these lines in the New Testament:
None of the apostles ever lays claim to be a priest.
The New Testament never mentions any Christian being ordained as a priest.
No New Testament text ever says or suggests that a man must hold a priesthood office in order to be authorized to baptize someone else.
The New Testament never specifies that a person must hold any sort of office in order to be authorized to perform baptisms.
Priests are conspicuously absent from Paul’s lists of offices or ministry functions in the church (notably 1 Corinthians 12:28-29; Ephesians 4:11).
Paul never uses the terms priest, high priest, or priesthood in any of the thirteen epistles that bear his name.
The only earthly priestly order that the New Testament ever acknowledges existing in the first century is the Aaronic or Levitical order that administered the sacrificial system in the Jerusalem temple. All references to priests in the four Gospels and Acts (over 120 such references) pertain to those Levitical priests.
The point here is not that if the New Testament happens not to mention something it cannot be true. Such reasoning would be an argument from silence and thus logically fallacious. No, the point is this: If some doctrine or practice is essential to the Christian faith, we should expect the New Testament to mention it or to establish the basis for it in some way. After all, the New Testament contains four lengthy books that present the teachings of Jesus Christ in great detail as well as 23 other books that present the teachings of the first Christians, specifically Christ’s apostles and their ministry associates. Yet the idea of a Christian priesthood order that gives some Christians authority others do not have simply is without any basis whatsoever in the New Testament. On this point, we respectfully disagree with the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches, which also claim to have a priestly office. It is interesting that Joseph’s view of priesthood is in some ways more in line with Catholicism than the Bible, even though he almost certainly did not derive his ideas from Catholics.
In addition to the complete lack of any reference to a Christian priesthood office, the New Testament actually makes it clear that priesthood, in its literal sense of an earthly order of individuals authorized to perform special religious duties, has become obsolete. As has already been mentioned, this is a major theme in the Book of Hebrews. The earthly priesthood of Aaron has been superseded by the heavenly priesthood of Jesus Christ, an office that he alone holds. Hebrews uses the words priest and priesthood 36 times, always in reference either to the Aaronic priests, Christ as our heavenly high priest, or Melchizedek as a type of Christ—never in reference to an office held by some Christians. The Aaronic priests served in things that were “a copy and shadow of the heavenly things” and were superseded by Jesus, who is “the mediator of a better covenant…. When he said, ‘A new covenant,’ He has made the first obsolete. But what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to disappear” (Hebrews 8:5, 6, 13). A few years after these statements were written, the Aaronic priesthood and its earthly service literally did disappear, when the Romans destroyed the Jerusalem temple in AD 70.
Does this mean that Christians lack “priesthood”—that they are missing something valuable, or that they have lost something? Not at all. The lack of a priestly office within the Christian church reflects the fact that Christians have gained something that Old Testament believers lacked. Under the Mosaic covenant, rank and file believers needed a priest to offer sacrifices on their behalf. Priests functioned as intermediaries between other human beings and God, standing before God to offer sacrifices and intercede on their behalf. A believing Israelite’s relationship with God under this system was in large measure an indirect one. Now that our only “priest” mediating between us and God is the divine Son of God himself, we have a kind of immediate spiritual access to God’s presence and mercy that the Israelite high priest symbolized. Hebrews expresses this very idea: “Let us therefore come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4:16 KJV).
“Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water” (Hebrews 10:19-22 ESV).
Since all genuine believers now have spiritual access to God’s heavenly throne room to obtain mercy and forgiveness through the heavenly ministry of Jesus, we no longer need or have a place for a priestly order on earth interposed between us and God. There are two different ways of expressing this point. One is to say that we have no priest except Jesus; this way of speaking closely echoes the way Hebrews explains the point. The other way to state the matter is to say that through our relationship with Jesus, all believers are (figuratively speaking) “priests.” That is, all of us have the kind of access to God that priests under the old covenant symbolized. Both ways of speaking make the same point in verbally different ways—all true believers have immediate access to God, so that we do not need any earthly man to mediate between us and God. That is the point that the apostle Peter makes in his epistle:
“As you come to him [Jesus], a living stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious, you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ…. But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:4, 9 ESV).
Peter is not addressing a group of male “priesthood holders” within the community of faith. Rather, he is addressing all believers in Christ (see 1 Peter 1:1-2), all those who “have tasted the kindness of the Lord” (1 Peter 2:3). In place of a man-made temple built of stones run by a group of men, the church is “a spiritual house” composed of “living stones” each of which is also a member of the holy and royal “priesthood” (see the similar language in Revelation 1:6; 5:10; 20:6). Men and women, boys and girls, Jews and Gentiles—all are welcome to become members of this spiritual house, this royal priesthood. “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28 KJV). This is the biblical basis of the doctrine that Martin Luther called “the priesthood of all believers.”
C. The Priesthood Presumption
The LDS doctrine of the priesthood fundamentally misunderstands the meaning of priesthood. The LDS view is that priesthood is “the exclusive right to act in the name of God as his authorized agents” (Encyclopedia of Mormonism, 1134). One of the problems with this view is that it confuses the roles of priest and prophet. According to the biblical model, a priest was not God’s representative, speaking or acting on his behalf; that was the role of a prophet. Rather, a priest represented the people before God, speaking and acting on their behalf (Hebrews 5:1). Priesthood was not a right to act in God’s name; it was a right to seek God’s mercy through sacrifices in the tabernacle or temple, a right that the Mosaic covenant limited to select men of the tribe of Levi. Under the new covenant in Christ, all genuine believers have the right to come directly to God for mercy and grace through the sacrifice of Christ (Hebrews 4:16; 10:19-22).
In its attempts to defend its concept of the priesthood, the LDS Church actually distorts the teachings of the Bible. For example, Gospel Principles claims that “if a man does not have the priesthood, even though he may be sincere, the Lord will not recognize ordinances he performs,” and it cites Matthew 7:21-23 in support (67). Did Jesus really say that? No—not even close. Here is what Jesus said:
“Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven. Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name have cast out devils? and in thy name done many wonderful works? And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity” (Matthew 7:21-23 KJV).
Just by paying attention to what the text actually says, we can see that it has nothing whatsoever to do with the point Gospel Principles is trying to extract from it:
The persons whom the Lord will reject, according to this passage, are wicked people who “work iniquity,” not “sincere” people.
The works they claim to do in his name are supernatural works—prophesying, casting out demons, and other miracles—not ordinances like baptism.
The reason Jesus rejects these people is not that they lacked priesthood authority, but that they did not do his Father’s will and instead did “iniquity.”
Jesus does not merely reject these people’s works; he rejects them: “depart from me.”
Frankly, it is obnoxious, as well as erroneous, for the LDS Church to apply Jesus’ warning in this passage to the numerous sincere Christian missionaries, evangelists, pastors, and other Christians engaged in ministry throughout the centuries, who have taken the gospel to people throughout the world and baptized billions of new believers (and in many cases did so at the cost of their lives) without holding the LDS priesthood.
The LDS Church also uses a couple of other biblical passages to try to support its claim that Christians may not perform ordinances without the LDS priesthood. The first of these is Hebrews 5:4, “And no man taketh this honour unto himself, but he that is called of God, as was Aaron” (KJV). This statement is referring to the honor of being the high priest (see verses 1, 5). It is making the point that just as priests under the old covenant had to be called by God to serve as high priest, Jesus was appointed our heavenly high priest by God the Father. The passage has nothing to do with a supposed Christian priesthood authority needed to baptize or perform other Christian ordinances.
The second passage the LDS Church misuses in this way is the account of Simon Magus’s attempt to buy the authority to impart the gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 8:18-20). Gospel Principles claims, “He offered to buy the priesthood” (70). But the Book of Acts says no such thing. Simon tried to buy, not “the priesthood,” but the apostolic authority to impart the gift of the Holy Spirit. Furthermore, all Christians can and should agree that no one can buy religious or spiritual authority. This fact, obvious in itself, has nothing to do with whether priesthood authority is needed to perform ordinances or other functions in the church.
In light of the New Testament’s teaching, it is arrogant presumption for the LDS Church to claim that it alone is the custodian of authority to baptize or perform other Christian ordinances. This presumption leads LDS leaders to distort the Bible and to cast aspersions on the faithful service that Bible-believing, Christ-honoring persons in ministry were doing for centuries before the LDS Church even existed and have continued to do to this day. It even leads them to say, as LDS President Kimball said, that Christians without the LDS priesthood are “lost” (see the quotation at the beginning of this study). Over against these presumptuous and unbiblical claims, we affirm that we once were indeed lost, but that those of us who truly trust in Jesus Christ—in him alone, not in a church, priesthood, or ordinances—are lost no more.
For Further Reflection:
The current LDS teaching that God and Jesus Christ have power and authority because they have tapped into an impersonal “priesthood’ power is nowhere found in the Bible, the Book of Mormon, or any other LDS Scripture and in fact contradicts what God has revealed about himself in the Scriptures. Should sincere, honest church members be expected to accept teachings about God that contradict the Scriptures?
Why does the LDS church deny women the priesthood and use its male leaders to control which other males get “the priesthood,” when the Bible clearly teaches that we all have the same authority and access to God through Jesus Christ our mediator? “In Christ there is neither male nor female…”
Does it make sense to worship a God who was once himself a mere mortal and is a god now only because he accessed an impersonal power that he shares with other gods?
What do you think about the way the BYU FAQ page answers the question about how God can progress in knowledge and yet be all-knowing? It states, “All that God possesses in wisdom, knowledge, and power, are his through a union of property among all Exalted Fathers.” Doesn't this statement indicate that God is dependent on other deities for his wisdom, knowledge and power?
Does the LDS Church really give Christ the supremacy and the preeminence it claims to give him, when it teaches that there is a power of the priesthood that existed before Jesus Christ and that Jesus had to tap into and must use to act as God?
In light of this, which is ultimately the real source of eternal life according to LDS theology: Jesus Christ, or the power of the priesthood?
- Why do none of the LDS scriptures teach the idea that the priesthood is God’s own power of creation?
Is this idea consistent with the biblical concept of priesthood?
- Does the New Testament support the idea that we need a priesthood authority held by some members of the church?
According to the New Testament, what do true Christians have that is even better than a priestly office?
For further study:
Robert M. Bowman Jr. The Bottom-Line Guide to Mormonism. “Part 11: The LDS View of the Priesthood,” and “Part 14: LDS Temples.” Free for the asking from IRR.