Priesthood — Its Power is a Gift, Not a Rite
Similar to the misperception about our claim to a one true church, there is a general tendency among members to reject the efficacy of any priesthood administered outside the institutional walls of the church. Good, honest, diving-seeking people outside of Mormonism have been culturally determined within as having no legitimate priesthood due to their lack of institutional mediation and ordination. This posture is misleading and non-scriptural and forgets that the priesthood was restored before the church was organized and can exist and operate independent of a formal organization. Our claim to divine institutional authorization does not need to be confused with the non-scriptural assumption that no divine priesthood or spiritual power can exist outside of Mormonism.
Joseph Smith, for example, taught that priesthood was first and foremost a divine, spiritual power inextricably tied to the Holy Ghost, and that the rights to the priesthood “are inseparably connected with the powers of heaven.” The priesthood, or any responsibility within it, cannot be purchased or commanded, but operates “only upon the principles of righteousness.” Failure to live the gospel and retain the spirit separates the rights of the priesthood from our ability to speak and act authoritatively. We may very well then believe we hold the priesthood and still not actually be empowered by the priesthood if our full-bodied desires — including our heart, mind, and might — are not in the right place.
Ordination, in other words, or mere membership alone, does not guarantee genuine spiritual transformation, nor does it guarantee the all-important power needed to sanction the priesthood as effective. What good, then, is the priesthood if it has no power? Priesthood without power is like Jesus without Christ. Without the power of the priesthood — the Holy Ghost — the legalistic function of the ordinance is dead, good for nothing. Or, as Joseph taught, we might as well baptize a “bag of sand.”
One reading of Section 121 implies that we should start viewing priesthood beyond ordination rites and more as inward spiritual power. This is not to suggest that ordination rites are unimportant, only that our preoccupation with them often swindles us into believing that priesthood can be compelled by position, office, gender, or mere membership alone, none of which are true. Priesthood power, and the ability to speak and act authoritatively, is contingent upon personal strivings, or light-of-Christ righteousness. Because this power cannot be patented except on these principles, I think it would be healthier to view priesthood beyond church governance, ordination, maleness, and the exclusive right to act for God, if only to avoid the dangerous arrogance of believing that we alone are right, that we alone can vie for God’s power, and that others cannot if they disagree. I believe that a very real form of priesthood — even if not its fullness — can exist among people outside our church who especially exhibit great “faith, hope, charity, [and] an eye single to the glory of God.” “Therefore,” the Lord says, “if ye have desires to serve God ye are called to the work.”
Institutionally, we are not accustomed to speaking of believers outside our faith as having legitimate priesthood because 1). it disrupts our narrative of formal ordination, 2). it makes us worried that the need for ordination is unnecessary, and 3). it opens the door for anyone to make false claims to priesthood authority. However, these beliefs do not take into account that many sincere people can and often are spiritually reborn long before a given community ever ritually embraces them. Joseph Smith and even Jesus understood that there was divine power in many of the words and works of people outside the covenant, demonstrated when they asked if a person’s spiritual acts resulted in good fruit. When outsiders are empowered by the Spirit, their fruits are empowered by God, and if empowered by God, what other priesthood could they be wielding?
What makes these points above disturbing is how quick we are to disclaim any priesthood that bears not the mark of ecclesiastical office, even if the power of God is palatably present in those without the mark. Even more disturbing is how willing we are to accept any priesthood that does bear the ecclesiastical mark, because we assume that proper ordination automatically implies a direct line to God. I find these postures idolatrous and perhaps even anti-scriptural because they place trust in the appearance of priesthood while denying the reality of priesthood whenever it manifests in non-traditional ways. Section 121 leaves open the possibility that individuals called of God but not necessarily ordained by the institution may access the power of the priesthood on mere principles of righteousness alone.
After all, there is no way to validate institutionally those who claim to speak for God except to know them by their inward, spiritual fruits. We do not often think of priesthood in terms of inward spirituality because we’ve somehow allowed outward priesthood (office and ordination) to take precedence over inward priesthood (spiritual gifts). There are reasons for this of course. My argument here is simply to invite us to accept the inward, spiritual priesthood of God wherever it may manifest, both inside and outside the church, both in traditional and non-traditional ways. My argument here is to showcase that there is more than one way to interpret our traditional narratives.
Personally, I am not inspired by narratives that perpetuate the primacy of male-dominated institutional power, nor am I inspired when we promote the primacy of Mormon-dominated priesthood power. Instead, I am moved by narratives that embrace the powers of the Spirit in conditions where males and females, members and non-members, share with God their power, profession, and spiritual mission to heal and bless human families. God’s work is not limited to Mormons, nor should it be limited to worthy, male Mormons either. As various church leaders have emphasized, “men are not the priesthood.” I would go one step further and state that Mormons are not the priesthood either, nor do they possess it when they undertake to “gratify [their] pride” or “grieve the Spirit of the Lord.”
Admitting that other religious and secular traditions can possess inward priesthood is no different than claiming that God bestows spiritual gifts and callings upon all cultures and people. It also means that if we do hold the fullness of the priesthood, both outer and inner forms, it is imperative that we forgo emotions of elitism, arrogance and complacency. As President Dieter F. Uchtdorf has challenged, “In order to exercise [God’s] power, we must strive to be like the Savior.” I would hope this “exercise” can include room for people outside our faith to do the same.