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Mormon Priesthood Offices and the Bible

Mormon Priesthood Offices and the Bible

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“Whether we be boys who have received the lesser or Aaronic Priesthood, or men who have received the higher or Melchizedek Priesthood, we each have had bestowed upon us something wonderful and magnificent, something of the very essence of godhood.”—Gordon B. Hinckley, “Loyalty,” Ensign (conference report), May 2003, 58.

The “priesthood” in Mormonism is essentially a system for the advancement of men in the religion through a series of offices through which the LDS Church’s exclusive authority as the only true church on earth today is expressed. But is this priesthood system biblical? We have already seen in our article on priesthood power that the LDS doctrine of priesthood is very different from the biblical doctrine. In this article we will look at the Aaronic priesthood in more detail and compare the LDS priesthood offices with the teachings of the Bible.

 

A. Moses and the Aaronic Priesthood

According to LDS teaching, the Aaronic priesthood is open to all worthy males of at least age 12 who have been baptized in the LDS Church. The problem for this claim is that both the Old and New Testaments teach that the Aaronic priesthood (also called the Levitical priesthood) was an office that only physical descendants of Aaron within the tribe of Levi could hold (Ex. 28-31; Lev. 1:5-11, etc.; Num. 3:2-10; Heb. 7:5-16). Joseph Smith agreed with this restriction in principle: “The Levitical priesthood is forever hereditary—fixed on the head of Aaron and his sons forever, and was in active operation down to Zacharias the father of John” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, 319). He even affirmed this principle in one of his revelations: “The second priesthood is called the Priesthood of Aaron, because it was conferred upon Aaron and his seed, throughout all their generations” (D&C 107:13). However, Joseph set forth a provision for allowing men who were not literal descendants of Aaron to serve in this priesthood:

“The bishopric is the presidency of this priesthood, and holds the keys or authority of the same. No man has a legal right to this office, to hold the keys of this priesthood, except he be a literal descendant of Aaron. But as a high priest of the Melchizedek Priesthood has authority to officiate in all the lesser offices, he may officiate in the office of bishop when no literal descendant of Aaron can be found, provided he is called and set apart and ordained unto this power by the hands of the Presidency of the Melchizedek Priesthood” (D&C 107:14-16; see also 68:15-21).

In this passage, Joseph Smith taught that the office of bishop in the Aaronic priesthood was limited to literal descendants of Aaron, but that even this restriction need not apply in the case of a man who holds the higher “Melchizedek” priesthood, which is not limited to descendants of Aaron. This “loophole” establishes a principle in LDS teaching to allow males who are not members of the tribe of Levi to hold the Aaronic or Levitical priesthood if a man holding the Melchizedek priesthood confers the lesser priesthood on him. The Encyclopedia of Mormonism explains:

“In the Restoration [of the LDS Church as the one, true church], the Aaronic Priesthood has not been restricted to those who are literal descendants of Aaron or of Levi, since those lineages are not at present identified and the priesthood authority that implemented the ordinances of the Law of Moses has been replaced by the higher priesthood and laws and ordinances of the gospel of Jesus Christ” (1:2).

There are at least two objections from a biblical perspective to the LDS claim that since the coming of Christ males can hold the Aaronic priesthood despite not being literal descendants of Aaron (or even members of the tribe of Levi). The first is that the Bible allows no such loophole as the LDS Church teaches. The Mosaic Law not only restricted the priesthood to Aaron and his descendants, but it warned that anyone else was subject to death if they violated the exclusive domain of the Aaronic priests. For example, only Levites were allowed to set up the tabernacle or to take it down, and any non-Levite who got too close to the tabernacle would be put to death. To protect non-Levites from accidentally getting too close, the Levites were to encircle the tabernacle whenever they set up camp (Numbers 1:50-53; 3:10, 38). Levites who were descendants of Kohath had certain duties to help move the tabernacle as the Israelites traveled in the desert, but even they were not permitted to touch or see the sacred things in it on pain of death (Numbers 4:15-20). In a famous incident, God struck Uzzah (who was not even a Levite, let alone an Aaronic priest) dead when he merely touched the ark to steady it while he and other non-Levites were moving it (2 Samuel 6:1-11; 1 Chronicles 13:1-14). It’s hard to imagine a more graphic illustration of God’s disapproval of anyone outside the Levitical tribe performing duties that the Mosaic Law restricted to the Levites. Nothing in the New Testament suggests a relaxing of these standards with regards to the Levitical priesthood.

Second, the New Testament does not support the idea that the Aaronic priesthood has a functioning place in the Christian church. As we explained in our response to chapter 13 of Gospel Principles, the Levitical system of temple, sacrifices, and priests was all part of the Mosaic covenant, a temporary covenant that God made with the nation of Israel. The Aaronic priesthood functioned in that context, serving in things that were “a copy and shadow of the heavenly things,” and was made obsolete by the heavenly priesthood of Jesus, the mediator of the new covenant (Hebrews 7:11-16; 8:5-13). If the Aaronic priesthood is obsolete—which it is—there is no reason to have it today or expand it to include non-Levites.

 

B. Hierarchy Preparation and Conditioning: The LDS Priesthood Offices

The fact is that the Aaronic priesthood in LDS religion has no significant relationship or similarity to the Aaronic priesthood in the Bible. In the LDS system, the Aaronic priesthood is open to any worthy male of age 12 and up. Everyone who holds this priesthood is ordained to one of four offices: deacon, teacher, priest, and bishop (Gospel Principles, 75-76). Of these offices, all but the office of bishop are basically functions that all “worthy males” are expected to perform in their early years as church members, typically in their teen years. The LDS offices of deacon, teacher, and priest are not, then, actual “offices” in the usual religious or ecclesiastical sense of the term.

One cannot help but be struck by the differences between these LDS “offices” and what the Bible calls the Aaronic priesthood or to New Testament Christian ministry offices. The titles of these offices come from traditional Christian language, but with little connection to how Christians historically have used these terms, let alone how they are used in the Bible (see Table 1).

 

Table 1: LDS Aaronic Priesthood Offices and the Bible

LDS Aaronic Priesthood Offices

Biblical Perspective

Deacons (ages 12 and up) are assigned such duties as collecting offerings, passing the sacrament to other members, delivering messages for the bishop, and taking care of church properties.

The notion that a twelve-year-old could hold the office of deacon is difficult to correlate with Paul’s instruction that a deacon was to be a man whose character was beyond reproach as evidenced by his fidelity to one wife, his responsible care for his family, and their general behavior (1 Timothy 3:8-13).

Teachers (ages 14 and up) are assigned to prepare the bread and water for the sacrament and “to help Church members live the commandments” by visiting members in their homes to “encourage them to live the principles of the gospel” (Gospel Principles, 75).

The New Testament writers speak of the ministry position of teacher as one that only a minority of Christians can or should hold (e.g., Acts 13:1; 1 Corinthians 12:28-29; Ephesians 4:11; James 3:1), not as a position for every worthy fourteen-year-old boy.

Priests (ages 16 and up) are authorized to baptize, administer the sacrament, ordain others, and preach the gospel.

The New Testament never refers to a Christian office of priest (see the article on the LDS concept of the priesthood).

Bishops (adults) preside over other holders of the Aaronic priesthood in his ward (local congregation), administering finances, records, and charitable activities. Bishops in practice also have spiritual responsibilities as “high priests.”

“Bishops” (the Greek word episkopos means an overseer or guardian) were mature spiritual leaders responsible for teaching and leading local congregations (Acts 20:28; Philippians 1:1; 1 Timothy 3:1-7; Titus 1:5-9), not managers responsible for temporal affairs and financial accounts. In other words, bishops were primarily pastors, not business administrators.

 

The LDS Church’s redefinition of such biblical terms and offices as deacons, teachers, and priests is appalling. It is a fine thing to encourage teenagers to begin getting involved in religious activities and cultivating a sense of responsibility for their own faith. However, telling twelve-year-old boys that they have “the priesthood”—a spiritual authority supposedly no non-Mormon has and that even mature LDS women are denied—does not make it so. The practice of calling fourteen-year-old boys “teachers” and assigning them to visit LDS families to encourage them to “live the commandments” severely diminishes the importance and responsibility of teachers in the Bible.

These LDS “offices” appear to be the “entry level” positions in an elaborate hierarchy in which males are groomed to pursue increased power in the religion by rising in the ranks. By regularly advancing boys through several levels of this hierarchy, the LDS Church conditions them early in life to associate participation in the hierarchy with spiritual development. They learn to submit to those of a higher office and to see themselves with authority over both those who rank below them and those who do not have priesthood authority (namely, women and those outside the LDS religion). Sadly, this runs counter to Jesus’ teaching to humble ourselves and seek the lower place (Luke 14:11), echoed elsewhere in the New Testament (“in humility consider others better than yourself,” Philippians 2:3). The same hierarchical system and freewheeling redefinition of terms is evident in its Melchizedek priesthood offices (elder, high priest, patriarch, seventy, and apostle). Although each of these terms is a biblical expression, all of them are defined and applied in LDS religion in a way very different from their biblical usage (see Table 2).

 

Table 2: LDS Melchizedek Priesthood Offices and the Bible

LDS Melchizedek Priesthood Offices

Biblical Perspective

Elders (18 years old and up) are all males who hold the Melchizedek priesthood; they are authorized to go on missions, to lay hands on people to bestow the gift of the Holy Ghost, and to conduct Church meetings.

The term elders in the context of the New Testament church refers literally to older, more mature men appointed as spiritual leaders in a local congregation (Acts 14:23; 20:17; 1 Timothy 5:17, 19; Titus 1:5; 1 Peter 5:1, 5).

High priests are authorized to officiate in the LDS Church and to hold such leadership positions as stake president or mission president.

High priests in the Old Testament are men whom God authorizes to offer sacrifices on behalf of the people. In the New Testament, Jesus Christ is our final and only high priest (Hebrews 2:17; 3:1; 4:14-15; 5:10; 6:20; 7:26; 8:1; 9:11).

Patriarchs are ordained to give “patriarchal blessings” to individual LDS Church members, by which is meant a revelation of the tribe of Israel to which the member belongs and some personal words of comfort, warning, or promises.

The Bible uses the term patriarchs to refer to heads of nations, tribes, and families in ancient Israel, notably Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Jacob’s twelve sons (the fathers of the twelve tribes), and David (1 Chronicles 24:31; 27:22; 2 Chronicles 19:8; 23:20; 26:12; Acts 2:29; 7:8-9; Hebrews 7:4). The term never refers to anyone living in New Testament times, let alone to an office in the Christian church.

Seventies in principle are “special witnesses of Jesus Christ to the world”; in more practical terms, they are organizational leaders organized in a hierarchy for the purpose of managing the administration of the Church in different parts of the world.

Jesus during his earthly ministry appointed seventy disciples to go out in pairs to villages and towns in preparation for his own arrival there (Luke 10:1). There never was any such thing as an office of “seventies” in the Christian church.

Apostles are the leading officers of the LDS Church. These include the twelve members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and the three members of the First Presidency, one of whom is the President of the Church.

The dominant use of the term apostles in the New Testament is to refer to those disciples whom Jesus appointed to be eyewitnesses to his resurrection and authoritative teachers of the gospel for the foundational generation of the Christian church (Acts 1:2-8, 21-26; 1 Corinthians 9:1; 15:5-9; Ephesians 2:20; 3:5).

 

Some of the LDS “offices” associated with the Melchizedek priesthood are not church offices at all in biblical usage (patriarchs, the seventy, high priests). The idea of an LDS man appointed as a “patriarch” so he can provide on request “sacred” revelations to individuals telling them the Israelite tribe to which they belong is at best a frivolous diversion from the real business of the Christian life (see 1 Timothy 1:4-5). And if LDS males all hold the Aaronic priesthood, should not they all be assigned to the tribe of Levi?

Just as calling fourteen-year-old boys “teachers” is obviously problematic, there is something patently amiss with calling eighteen-year-old males “elders.” Most troubling, however, is the idea of numerous (presumably thousands if not tens of thousands) of LDS men thinking of themselves as “high priests,” a claim that flies in the face of what the New Testament teaches about Jesus as our only mediator and high priest (1 Timothy 2:5-6; Hebrews 2-9). 

 

For Further Reflection

  • Does the Bible allow any exception for non-Levites to hold the Aaronic or Levitical priesthood?
  • Is the LDS concept of the Aaronic priesthood compatible with that priesthood’s relationship to the Mosaic covenant?
  • Why is there such a consistent mismatch between the Mormon priesthood officesand the biblical use of such terms as deacon, teacher, elder, high priest, and patriarch?