You are here

The Mormon View of the Priesthood

Printer-friendly version

The Mormon View of the Priesthood

The Bottom-Line Guide to Mormonism, Part 11
Robert M. Bowman Jr.

One of the pillars on which the LDS Church bases its claim to be the only true church is its teaching that the true church must have “the priesthood.” The “priesthood” is God’s power and authority, which he delegates “to worthy male members of the Church.” Those who hold this delegated authority are “authorized to preach the gospel, administer the ordinances of salvation, and govern God’s kingdom on earth” (Gospel Principles [2009 ed.], 67). Anyone who preaches, baptizes people, or performs similar functions without the priesthood, no matter how sincere he may be, is acting without authority. 

The priesthood in Mormonism actually takes two forms. The Aaronic priesthood authorizes young men to serve in various ways in the church, to teach and baptize others, and to preach the gospel. The Melchizedek priesthood authorizes adult men to function as leaders in the church. Among other things, they have the authority to lay hands on others so that they may receive “the gift of the Holy Ghost.” 

Biblical View of Priesthood

LDS View of Priesthood

Only physical descendants of Levi could hold the Aaronic priesthood.

The Aaronic priesthood is open to all worthy males (12+) regardless of physical lineage.

Aaronic priests offered animal and other sacrifices in the tabernacle and temple.

Aaronic priesthood holders serve in the church and can baptize people.

The Aaronic priesthood was part of the old covenant that became obsolete and passed away after Christ brought the new covenant.

The Aaronic priesthood was a vital part of the Christian church that was lost but then restored in the 19th century through Joseph Smith.

Jesus alone is the high priest “according to the order of Melchizedek” because he alone serves as our high priest forever in heaven.

All worthy Mormon men (18+) may attain the office of the Melchizedek priesthood, which qualifies them to church leadership positions.

All believers in Jesus Christ are members of the royal priesthood, which is the church.

Only worthy Mormon males may hold a priestly office in the church.

According to LDS teaching, when the first-century apostles died off, the church became apostate and priesthood authority disappeared from the earth. Without the priesthood, the church ceased to exist on the earth for about seventeen centuries, until Christ restored it through Joseph Smith. Only Mormons are validly baptized, because baptism performed in any Christian denomination lacks the LDS priesthood authority. Christians of whatever denomination have no authority to preach the gospel and do not have the gift of the Holy Ghost, because it can be received only by the laying on of hands by someone who holds the LDS priesthood. 

None of these LDS doctrines and claims agrees with the teachings of the New Testament concerning priesthood. According to the book of Hebrews, the Aaronic priesthood was an office that only physical descendants of Aaron’s tribe of Levi could hold (Heb. 7:5-16). Of course, this is what the Old Testament says as well (Ex. 28-31; Lev. 1:5-11, etc.; Num. 3:2-10). That office administered sacrifices and offerings in the tabernacle in the wilderness and later in the Jerusalem temple. Those sacrifices prefigured the sacrifice of Jesus Christ for our sins (Heb. 7:27-8:5; 9:11-14; 10:1-21). The Aaronic priesthood was part of the old covenant that God made with Israel through Moses, a covenant that became obsolete once Christ had brought the new covenant (Heb. 8:13a). The author of Hebrews, apparently writing before the Jerusalem temple was destroyed in AD 70, speaks of this old covenantal order as “about to disappear” (Heb. 8:13b). Now that the Jerusalem temple no longer exists, and since the sacrifices that were offered there were only shadows or types of the sacrifice of Christ, the Aaronic priesthood—which was open only to physical descendants of Aaron in the first place—is no longer a valid priestly office. 

In the Bible, there is no Melchizedek priesthood that men hold and pass down from one generation to the next. Psalm 110:4 says the Messiah would be “a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek.” This does not mean that a priestly office had passed from one generation to the next from Melchizedek all the way down to Jesus. Melchizedek is a mysterious figure in Genesis 14 who stands alone in the narrative as a priest; he was, in effect, an order of one priest. Hebrews explains that Christ is a priest “according to the order of Melchizedek” (Heb. 5:6, 10; 6:20; 7:11, 17), meaning “according to the likeness of Melchizedek” (7:15). Like Melchizedek, Christ is a priestly order of one member. Jesus holds this office of priest “according to the power of an indestructible life,” because he is immortal (7:16). Anyone who is mortal is unqualified to hold this priesthood—and that applies to all Mormons! Unlike other priests who died and passed down their office to others, Jesus holds his office as high priest “forever” and “permanently” (7:17, 21, 24). The church never “lost” this office because Jesus has had it all along! To get around this clear teaching, Joseph Smith added several paragraphs of material into Genesis 14 as well as some additions to Hebrews 7 in his “translation.” 

Jesus never held the Aaronic priesthood (Heb. 7:11), even though Mormons believe that only those holding it can hold the Melchizedek priesthood. As our high priest, Jesus mediates a new and better covenant than the one the Aaronic priests mediated. He intercedes in heaven on behalf of those who enter into this new covenant, based on his own death as the atoning sacrifice that reconciles us to God (Heb. 2:17; 4:14-16; 7:22-27; 8:1-2, 6). No one on earth can do any of these things. This is an office that Jesus alone holds, performing functions that only he can do. 

There is a sense in which one can speak of a Christian “priesthood.” Peter describes the church as “a holy priesthood,” “a royal priesthood,” who can “offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Pet. 2:5, 9). Here Peter is referring to all Christians as members of this holy and royal “priesthood.” The language comes from Exodus 19:6, where God through Moses described the entire people of Israel (not just those holding a priestly office) as “a kingdom of priests.” This language also appears in Revelation 1:6, where John says that Jesus Christ “has made us kings and priests to his God and Father.” By “us” John means us believers in Christ—all of us whom he “has set free from our sins by his blood” (verse 5). Men and women, adults and believing children—all are part of this holy, royal priesthood. 

Under the old covenant God made with Israel through Moses, only men holding the Aaronic priestly office could approach the presence of God by entering into the manmade sanctuary. Under the new covenant that God made with the church through Christ, each believer has the privilege in Christ to “approach the throne of grace with boldness…. We have confidence to enter the [heavenly] sanctuary by the blood of Jesus” (Heb. 4:16; 10:19). The Mormon priesthood system denies Christians this relationship with God by seeking to impose religious offices that the New Testament makes clear are obsolete or held by Christ alone.