Priesthood, Temple, and Semantics

Most people know that in our current arrangement, young men tend to receive the priesthood at age 12, when they are ordained to the office of Deacon in the Aaronic priesthood. This has been the case only since the 1880’s or so, according to this fascinating Journal of Mormon History article. (That page it opens to isn’t blank. You just have to scroll to see the text.)

What we don’t really have is a good definition of priesthood in terms of offices or ritual. For those readers mumbling “uh, yes we do,” let me confuse the issue for you.
First, we know that “priesthood” is not synonymous with “priesthood office,” according to D&C 107:1-5.

Second, in terms of etymology, “priesthood” means something like “the condition or status of being a priest; the order of priest.”

Third, the biblical way one becomes a priest is not by laying on of hands. (At least, we have no record of Aaron undergoing laying on of hands.)

Rather, according to Exodus 29 and Leviticus 8, it involves a ceremony of ritual purification, entering into sacred ground within the temple boundaries, being washed, anointed, clothed in priestly clothing, “filling the hand,” and some other things. We certainly don’t do that with 12-yr olds (anymore), although we do something similar with adults.

The question then, becomes this. Does an LDS male become a priest when he receives the (Aaronic) priesthood and becomes a deacon, when he is ordained to the office of priest (in the Melchisedek priesthood), or when he undergoes the LDS equivalent of the Biblical ritual which makes one a priest?

(It has been pointed out in print that if one goes by the Biblical standard, than the LDS Church  has de facto female priests who are not ordained to any particular office.)

The OED notes in its definition of priesthood that it can also refer to “Priests collectively; a body of priests.” That certainly applies to the 12-year old, who, upon being ordained, joins that collective body of males. But it doesn’t provide us a good definition of priesthood with regard to the offices and LDS rituals.

Some of the semantic issue here is due to the LDS doctrine of priesthood as some kind of authority instead of priesthood as service (ie. teaching and performance of ritual). That is, the usual definition of priesthood given is “the authority to act or speak for God,” but that definition is not entirely consistent with the role of priests in the Bible. Nota bene, I’m not saying it’s wrong. I’m just saying that we view things differently today. Our view of priesthood (definition, responsibilities, offices) doesn’t map very well onto the OT, the NT or the Book of Mormon.

Food for thought.

17 Replies to “Priesthood, Temple, and Semantics”

  1. The LDS concept of priesthood is clearly more developed that that which we find in the Bible. So much so, that it almost takes on a metaphysical existence of its own. Hence, the priesthood bearer is said to “hold” the priesthood.

    We often see ex-Mormons continue in the same developed mind-set when attempting to prove that Hebrews 7 forbids the transmission of this metaphysical priesthood from one person to another (which I wrote about here).

  2. I think it depends on what you mean by “becoming a priest”. Someone becomes a priest in one sense of the word when they receive the priesthood. They become a priest in another sense when they receive the office of priest. And they become a priest in another sense when they receive the ordinances of the temple and become “kings and priests” to God. As you have pointed out, there are many more senses of the word priest than one, and I think the word can encompass them all.

  3. Your thoughtful posting led me to hobble partway up the stairway and pull off the wall a framed calligraphic quote a close friend gave us years ago. Since I’m going to take the time to type this all in, I’ll probably post it over on my own blog as well, but the quote deserves to be part of this discussion here:

    To be a real disciple and representative of Jesus Christ, bearing witness against the sins of the age, we must be clean every whit. Then from the depths of a pure soul will come a testimony that will burn where it goes, and condemn where it is rejected.

    This then is the true priesthood — to be images of the living God, exhibiting in our characteristics His brightness and His strength; to be girt and endowed with the purity of His nature; to be unsullied in heart and mind; to stand by the strength of redeeming saving qualities; to bless, and bless, and bless again, notwithstanding ingratitude in some — building, sustaining, and protecting all the time; to fight all spirits of division and all principles of death; to help the weak, the downtrodden and the helpless, ’til helping becomes our natural food — working on all principles that yield nourishment, support and strength — ’til our very presense is as the sun, cheering and blessing all. So shall God increase with us, refreshing our own spirits and watering all around. And characteristics of the Holy Priesthood will grow out from us like the branches of a fruitful tree that yield shelter, shield and fruit.

    Let a man do this, and he shall be a Priest indeed. His authority shall be like a two-edged sword. It shall be confirmed on him for all eternity; for God shall love him and shall bless him. His heart shall increase in richness, and his mind shall grow in strength. No good thing shall be withheld from him. He shall save and gain influence over the hearts of men. He shall be as God among his own; and they shall feel the attributes that live within him, ’til their hearts are stolen from them and linked to him forever. So shall he gain dominion and increase in strength, and really, truly and eternally be a representative of the Most High.

    — E. L. T Harrison, The Millennial Star 20:644

    Something like that? 🙂 ..bruce..

  4. Of course, my own poking around shows that E. L. T. Harrison ended up excommunicated as one of the Godbeites — but it’s still a wonderful quote. 🙂 ..bruce..

  5. De facto female priests? The “Biblical standard” involved Aaron and his seed (D&C 107:13) who were the sons of Levi being washed, anointed, clothed in priesthood robes, and consecrated. The ordination for the restoration of the Aaronic Priesthood was done by the hands of an angel, John the Baptist (D&C 13).

  6. Indeed Howard. Why does the same ritual have a different result on a woman?

    If a man becomes a priest by reason of this ritual, why doesn’t a woman become a priestess by undergoing the same ritual?

    Hence, de facto female priests.

  7. “Why does the same ritual have a different result on a woman?”

    In the calling of Aaron and his sons, the Lord made it known that this presiding authority over this Priesthood should be handed down from father to son. (Joseph Fielding Smith, Church History and Modern Revelation)

    The ritual must be ratified by the Holy Spirit of promise.

  8. Howard, I confess I don’t see how your last comment explains anything, or its relevance. Can you clarify for me?

    Let me restate with an obtuse metaphor.

    We have a factory with a process. You dump cored apples in one end and the process turns them into apple pies.

    If we took, say, potatoes to the factory and dumped them in to the exact same machine and process, why wouldn’t we get pies out from the other end?

  9. God gave instructions regarding who is to receive the Priesthood.
    This power comes from God, not from us or the ritual.

    When we disregard His instructions, do you think that the Holy Spirit will ratify those ordinations?

  10. “God gave instructions regarding who is to receive the Priesthood.
    This power comes from God, not from us or the ritual.”

    Well that’s exactly the question this raises, isn’t it? 🙂

    Again, these aren’t ordinations. This is the biblical process of becoming a priest.

  11. I don’t know if this is approriate or not, so please delete if not, but I was strongly struck in the Temple friday when I said “…..” last time I was there. I asked my wife and she definitely says the same thing…

    Edit by Nitsav: I’ve edited to my comfort level Matt, but I agree with you.

  12. Nitsav,
    Gender and linage are issues, the biblical process you refer to is one of Aaron and his sons becoming a priest.

  13. I wonder if there is a thin line between metaphor and reality. If Christians are called upon to offer “spiritual sacrifices” and perform the works of a “royal priesthood,” perhaps ALL those who are “washed, anointed [and] clothed in priestly clothing” can be said to have a priesthood.

  14. Men can certainly be said to have a priesthood since they were ordained prior to being “washed, anointed [and] clothed in priestly clothing”

  15. Hi Nitsav. Sorry this is off topic but I was interested in what you were saying on BCC and couldn’t continue there because Steve Evans is deleting my remarks and then misrepresenting what I said, although to his credit he did correct one of the misrepresentations. I followed your links but couldn’t find an email or a more appropriate thread.

    I appreciate the sources you provided and will look them up. I actually didn’t argue that BY was misquoted, but I can only guess what you thought I was saying with all the “moderation” games that were going on at BCC. I tend like Nibley to think of it as “this Adam mess” and since I’m not on the BCC thread, my own doctrinal take on it is this:

    who knows what BY was thinking, but whatever it was, was wrong. The inarticulate stuff that came out of his mouth whenever he tried to address the idea in General Conference, where it might become official doctrine, bear testimony to the “stupor of thought” promise and the promise that the prophet won’t lead us astray. Apparently, even if he tries to. Anyway, feel free to delete this, move it, and/or email me.



  16. If we took, say, potatoes to the factory and dumped them in to the exact same machine and process, why wouldn’t we get pies out from the other end?

    What’s the “process”? Laying on of hands?

    Again, these aren’t ordinations. This is the biblical process of becoming a priest.

    No. It’s the process by which some people become priests. Some folks according the the Scriptures are born with the priesthood. Women do perform ordinances in the temple; and earlier in the church they did lay on hands, without having been ordained. Perhaps they possess some form of priesthood innately, without laying on of hands.

    To my knowledge there’s no record of men in the church laying on hands without having been ordained to the priesthood.

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