Strangers in Paradox
by Margaret & Paul Toscano

Chapter Thirteen
The Nature and Purpose of Priesthood

[p.143]In Mormonism priesthood is central. Recently, however, priesthood has become a source of concern for some Mormons. This is due in part to the tension created by competing church traditions. On the one hand the revelation of priesthood is seen as the central pillar of ecclesiastical hierarchical governance. On the other hand the Mormon doctrine of free agency reenforces the desire that many Latter-day Saints feel for equality, individual liberty, personal empowerment, and consensus government, all of which seem at odds with priesthood hierarchical rule. This tension is complicated because both sets of ideas can be derived from the scriptures and the teachings and revelations of Joseph Smith.

These opposing aspirations press us to question and reevaluate our assumptions about priesthood. What exactly is the priesthood? How is it related to the gospel? To faith? To spirituality and spiritual gifts? What can be done with priesthood that cannot be done without it? Does the popular concept of priesthood encourage unrighteous dominion, elitism, and hierarchy? Why are only males ordained? How is priesthood related to fatherhood? To motherhood? Are women entitled to priesthood? If so is there any difference in the manifestation and function of the priesthood in females? If women were ordained, would the priesthood be diminished? Would women be corrupted or male-identified by holding it? Would they dominate men? Would men lose interest in church service? Would important distinctions between male and female be lost? Should women hold priesthood but not function as church officers? If everyone holds the priesthood, does it become meaningless or trivial? Should priesthood be dispensed with entirely in order to avoid problems and inequities? Is priesthood essential to the gospel, to godhood, to the godhead? And if so how?

[p.144]The answers any of us give to these questions will depend upon our understanding of the nature and purpose of priesthood and its relationship to the gospel of Jesus Christ. In reexamining our priesthood doctrines, we wish first to reconsider some of the priesthood statements of Joseph Smith. Although Joseph is identified as the source of most priesthood teachings in the modern church, there is some discrepancy between what he taught and what most Mormons now believe about priesthood.

For Joseph priesthood was not simply a status. It was an ordinance of salvation. This contradicts the view that sees priesthood principally in corporate terms as the authority to act for God, to organize and manage the church, to keep it running smoothly and efficiently, to correlate and control its operations, and to insure a homogeneous and cost-effective organization. Joseph Smith taught that the primary purpose of priesthood is spiritual. For Joseph priesthood was raw spiritual power inextricably tied to the holy spirit, to the glory of God. This power centers in the person of Jesus Christ and emanates from his presence to fill the universe. It is the divine will, a supernatural light giving life and order to all of God’s creation (D&C 88:5-11). It is the law by which all things are governed. It is a “perfect law of theocracy” (TPJS, 322; WJS, 244).

The essence of priesthood, then, is the power of the spirit. Any person who receives a degree of the spirit through faith, or repentance, or baptism and confirmation receives some portion of the priesthood. This is why Joseph Smith could say that the “testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy” (TPJS, 119), that the “rights of the priesthood are inseparably connected with the powers of heaven” (D&C 121:36), and that women have the right to heal and bless by virtue of the “ordination” they receive at the time they obtain the gift of the Holy Ghost (WJS, 115). In these teachings, Joseph reflected to a certain extent Martin Luther’s notion of a priesthood of all believers.

However, there is more to the priesthood than the spirit. The power of the priesthood must be held together with the rights of the priesthood, which consist of the agency to act for Christ and the keys or authority to perform certain functions in Christ’s name. The rights of the priesthood are transmitted in two ways: by the laying on of hands and by the temple endowment.

By the laying on of hands, males are constituted agents of Christ when they are provisionally inducted into the Aaronic or the Melchizedek priesthood orders by the ordinance called “priesthood [p.145]conferral.” As a member of the Aaronic order a man becomes a limited agent of Christ, entitled to be ordained only to one of the offices of the Aaronic priesthood—deacon, teacher, priest, or (if a lineal descendent of Aaron) bishop—offices that carry with them the restricted duties and responsibilities to administer the ordinances of justification and care for the temporal needs of the church. As a member of the Melchizedek order a man becomes an agent of Christ with greater authority and is entitled to be ordained to one of the offices of the Melchizedek priesthood—elder, high priest, patriarch, seventy, or apostle—offices that carry with them the duties and responsibilities to administer some of the ordinances of sanctification and to care for the spiritual needs and the governance of the church. In the church today the conferral upon men of the Aaronic and Melchizedek priesthoods and their ordination to the priesthood offices of bishop and apostle is seen technically to convey to them priesthood keys, that is, the authority to perform gospel ordinances or to authoritatively discharge functions of church governance and service. However, these keys are said to remain inoperative until the ordained individual is “set apart” by the laying on of hands to a church office, at which time the dormant keys become functional. It is important to note that, by the act of setting apart, keys may also be temporarily transmitted to and exercised by others, including women.

The other mechanism for the transmittal of the rights of the priesthood in the modern church is the temple endowment, which personally and nonprovisionally vests in both men and women the fullness of the keys of the priesthood while simultaneously inducting them into the Aaronic and Melchizedek priesthood orders as full-fledged members. This happens as they receive the lesser and greater ordinances of the priesthood. Once endowed, men and women may be sealed in the new and everlasting covenant of marriage in preparation for jointly receiving the last anointing, by which they are inducted into the most comprehensive of the priestly orders—the Holy Order of God. As members of this order men hold the office of priest and king and women, the office of queen and priestess. Membership in this order must be held jointly by the husband and the wife, symbolizing that the male and female are equally necessary to reflect the true image of God. Those of the Holy Order have general authority to perform any ordinance of the gospel and to assume any responsibility and perform any function in the church and kingdom of God.

In our view, then, both the power and the rights of the priesthood [p.146]are equally necessary. The keys of the priesthood were first revealed to Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery so that they could administer to each other the ordinances of baptism and confirmation, by which they in turn, could receive power in the priesthood to carry on the work of the restoration. Later the endowment ordinances comprising the fullness of the gospel were revealed to provide additional power as well as the full complement of priesthood keys. From this perspective, Joseph Smith could say “that the rights of the priesthood are inseparably connected with the powers of heaven, and that the powers of heaven cannot be controlled nor handled only upon the principles of righteousness,” that is, upon the principles of the gospel by which righteousness is imputed to us by Christ. “That they may be conferred upon us, it is true; but when we undertake to cover our sins, or to gratify our pride, our vain ambition, or to exercise control or dominion or compulsion upon the souls of the children of men, in any degree of unrighteousness, behold, the heavens withdraw themselves; the Spirit of the Lord is grieved; and when it is withdrawn, Amen to the priesthood or the authority of that man” (D&C 121:36-37). Hence, failure to live the gospel and retain the spirit separates the rights of the priesthood from the powers of heaven so that the priesthood no longer has any spiritual authority. For without the power of the priesthood—the Holy Ghost—there is no revelation, or vision, no speaking in or interpreting tongues, no discernment of spirits, no comprehension of mysteries, no union with God.

The priesthood serves a further gospel purpose not only because it administers the ordinances and powers of the gospel, but because, by receiving and exercising the priesthood, a person follows in Christ’s footsteps. This connection between the gospel and the priesthood is suggested by the name of the priesthood: The Holy Priesthood after the Order of the Son of God (D&C 107:2-5), signifying that to receive the priesthood is to share with Christ his power, profession, and spiritual mission, to receive the image of Christ in our countenances. Our spiritual journey was not meant to end with rebirth and justification. We are to be made holy, to be sanctified, as well. Ordination to the priesthood is part of this process because it enables us to act in Christ’s name, to be remade in his image by drawing closer to him and our fellow beings through spiritual and priestly service. To reach “the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ” (Eph. 4:13), we must accept the same priesthood rights and powers bestowed upon him and then [p.147]freely extend ourselves beyond our own ego-centricity to care about the spiritual welfare of others as much as we care about our own.

This work is represented in the scriptural image of cultivation and nurture. The faithful are like seedlings sprouting in fertile ground. If nurtured and cared for, they will become trees “springing up unto everlasting life.” In other words we will become like Christ, the tree of life. But the symbol is more complex than this; for we are also similar to the laborers who cultivate the trees. “I have planted,” said Paul. “Apollos watered, but God gave the increase” (1 Cor. 3:6-9). This is another way of representing the work of the priesthood: participating with God to bring about spiritual rebirth, nurture, and perfection in ourselves and in others. Through the priesthood we share in God’s work and glory “to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man[kind]” (Moses 1:39).

It is important to see that both the giving and receiving of spiritual blessings is essential to the process of sanctification and to the magnification of priesthood. Maturation is a matter of give and take. The cliche tells us that “it is better to give than to receive.” But is this so? Giving puts us in the dominant position, and this is flattering to the ego. Receiving takes humility, because it requires us to acknowledge our reliance on others for help. Giving and receiving are equally necessary to spiritual growth. Like breathing out and breathing in, they are part of a single process.

This process points us to what is perhaps the central purpose of the priesthood: the unification of polarities. The highest objective of the Holy Priesthood after the Order of the Son of God seems to be atonement or bringing into unity and harmony all the fragmented elements lying broken and scattered in ourselves and others—in our families, in our communities, and in the cosmos. The priesthood is the power to reconcile the contraries of the universe into a living whole and to heal and perfect them. The work of the priesthood is to seal or bind together not only the families of the earth but also spirit and body, male and female, heaven and earth, humanity and divinity. Because priesthood makes atonement, it lies at the heart of the gospel. In this sense Christ himself is the priesthood, and we grow in priesthood power only as we become like him.

The questions about priesthood initiating this chapter arise upon the tension between polarities. We fail to see clearly how the priesthood encompasses and reconciles male and female, inner and outer, [p.148]public and private, equality and hierarchy, individual and community. In future chapters we will explore how priesthood harmonizes such opposites in the context of the gospel. Here we will focus on the inner and outer aspects of priesthood, often seen at odds with one another.

A person can have inward priesthood power or an outward ordination or both. The individual with both is not problematical. However, a person with only an outward ordination and few spiritual gifts can be spiritually unedifying, a quite common circumstance which does not usually trouble us because we do not often think of priesthood in terms of inward spirituality. Less common in Mormonism and more perplexing to us is the person with only the inward power. Such an individual worries us because he or she suggests that the need for priesthood ordination is contradicted. But neither of these conclusions is true. Let us illustrate this by comparing priesthood to baptism.

Baptism is an outward sign of an inward spiritual change occurring through faith in Jesus Christ and repentance. A person can be spiritually reborn long before she/he is authoritatively baptized. When this happens the person is still justified and accepted by God as being in a state of grace. The inward change is efficacious. This has led some Protestants to conclude that baptism is not absolutely necessary since it is only a sign of the more important inward change. This view is a reaction to Catholicism, which holds that the sacraments are the primary means of salvation. One of Joseph Smith’s most important contributions to Christianity, in our view, was the integration of these views. Joseph said that we might as well baptize a “bag of sand” as a person who has not repented and had faith (WJS, 230). But he also said that through the ordinances “the power of godliness is manifest” (D&C 84:20-22). A person who experiences inner transformation without baptism later may need to be baptized or accept a vicariously performed baptism, while a person who is not spiritually reborn at the time of his or her baptism may nevertheless be encouraged by such ordinances toward a genuine spiritual transformation.

Like baptism, ordination to priesthood is an outward sign of an inward spiritual state, which can lead to spiritually-motivated acts. As with baptism a person can receive the outward ordination without receiving the inward power which should accompany it. But here again the ordinance may facilitate genuine spiritual development. And a person’s priesthood will have legal efficacy even if it is not accompanied by inward spiritual power. But there is also validity in many of the words and works of a person with only the inward power of the [p.149]priesthood. Jesus and Joseph Smith both tested a person in this latter situation by asking whether the person’s spiritual acts resulted in good fruit, assuming that good fruit points to God’s inspiration.

This is sometimes hard for Mormons to accept. We want to believe that only those duly ordained to the Mormon priesthood can have genuine contact with the divine. We cannot accept the power of God when it manifests itself in a non-traditional way or in other religious traditions. Because we are members of the “only true and living church” (D&C 1:30), we often believe there is no truth or spirituality or salvation outside the church. We confuse our claim of divine institutional authorization with the claim that no priesthood or spiritual power functions outside the church. We forget that the priesthood was restored before the church was organized and can exist and operate independent of a church structure or formal ordination.

But it is clear from the religious experience of many Mormons and of millions of religious people throughout the world that, though Christ is Mormonism’s Great High Priest, he is not our God alone. He has planted on the earth at different times many true churches and many authorities. He has, as the Book of Mormon tells us, many trees in his vineyard. There are many promised lands, many chosen people, many lost tribes, many records of his doings yet to emerge. To say that we have the fullness of the priesthood is not to say that others are without spirituality, vitality, or priestly callings. We have said before that the religious traditions of others are valid to those who sincerely accept them. This same concept applies to the priesthood. We must recognize legitimate spiritual power and a form of priesthood among Hindus, Buddhists, Catholics, Protestants, Jews, and pagans. We must see that God bestows gifts and callings upon all cultures and all people. If we have the true priesthood in its fullness, this is no cause for arrogance or complacency. We ought to be compassionate and humble enough to admit that God will not require others to accept the truth he has given to us without requiring us to accept the truth he has given to them. We cannot simply export our religion but must also import from others.

Within our own tradition, however, the inner and outer aspects of priesthood are reflected in both public and private ways. Each member of the priesthood order stands as his or her own priest or priestess before God working out his or her own salvation in personal and individual terms. In D&C 1:20 we are admonished that the gospel was restored so that every person might “speak in the name of God, the Lord, even the Savior of the world.” This teaching reinforces the dignity and [p.150]worth of each individual. But each person is also part of and responsible to a community or priesthood order. The apostle Paul invokes the image of Christ’s body. Members are not like machine parts, interchangeable and expendable, but like body parts, precious and irreplaceable. One part cannot say to another, “I have no need of thee.” Each member is unique and necessary but also part of the church.

This interconnection points to another paradox: the balance between the power of the individual and of the community. On a practical level this means that though decisions and revelations in the church can come from the head, we must not prohibit the participation of the members in the governance of the church. Already we have nearly lost the concept of common consent. The voting procedure in our general conferences is all that remains of the general assemblies which sometimes met in Joseph Smith’s time to direct church affairs. These assemblies appointed priesthood committees to arrange and publish doctrines and revelations, excommunicated presidencies (David Whitmer, John Whitmer, William W. Phelps, Martin Harris), and even recommended the excommunication of Assistant President of the Church Oliver Cowdery.

It can be argued that the church membership constitutes a general assembly, whose authority equals the First Presidency of the church (D&C 107: 19-32; Smith 1950, 184-86, 206-206; HC 3:16-19). We are to be a kingdom of priests and priestesses. “Would that all God’s people were prophets,” said Moses, not at all jealous of the spiritual gifts and powers of others but rather desirous to bring all his people to the mountain to talk face to face with God. We can never have true community in the church nor can we ever realize a Zion society until we understand that the governing principle of the celestial kingdom is unity and equality in things temporal and spiritual. We must hold all things in common, without strife, without contention, without jealousy, and without fear.

The individual and community dimensions of priesthood are mirrored in the very word “priesthood.” The term “priest,” derived from the Greek word presbyter meaning elder, suggests an individual wise in the counsels of God. The suffix –hood probably derives from the word hat and refers to a covering for the head. People did and sometimes do wear a hood or hat as part of a uniform to show membership in a community or profession. In such garb an individual becomes a new person and attains a new status as a member of a distinct order. The [p.151]author of the Epistle to the Hebrews speaks of Jesus as the “Apostle and High Priest of our profession” (Heb. 3:1).

The essential unity of the inner and outer, the individual and community aspects of priesthood, demonstrate that any division of priesthood by levels or degrees is only cosmetic. The priesthood has a single underlying nature. Joseph Smith recognized this when he taught: “All priesthood is Melchizedek; but there are different portions or degrees of it. That portion which brought Moses to speak with God face to face was taken away; but that which brought the ministry of angels remained” (WJS, 59). In the Mormon tradition the Aaronic and Melchizedek priesthoods exist to administer the ordinances of rebirth and the higher ordinances which enable us like Moses to speak face to face with God. Joseph Smith described “three grand principles or orders of priesthood”:

1st Levitical which was never able to administer a Blessing but only to bind heavy burdens which neither they nor their father[s were] able to bear

2 Abrahams Patriarchal power which is the greatest yet experienced in this church [27 August 1843]

3d That of Melchisedec who had still greater power even power of an endless life of which was our Lord Jesus Christ which also Abraham obtained by the offering of his son Isaac which was not the power of a Prophet nor apostle nor Patriarch only but of King & Priest to God to open the windows of Heaven and pour out the peace & Law of endless Life to man & no man can attain to the Joint heirship with Jesus Christ without being administered to by one having the same power & Authority of Melchisedec. … (ibid., 245)

In another discourse, Joseph Smith explained that there were three spirits or powers connected with the priesthood: “[T]he spirit of Elias is first Elijah second, and Masiah last. Elias is a fore runner to prepare the way, & the spirit & power of Elijah is to come after holding the keys of power building the Temple to the Capstone, placing the seals of the Melchezedek priesthood up on the house of Israel & making all things ready then Mesiah comes to his Temple which is last of all. Mesiah is above the spirit & power of Elijah, for he made the world & was the spiritual rock unto Moses in the wilderness” (ibid., 331-32).

From these statements we conclude not only that all priesthood is one but that all priesthood is Messianic or Christological. To receive the full blessings and powers of the priesthood is to become a Savior on Mount Zion, a joint-heir with Jesus Christ in all the Father has. The [p.152]Holy Priesthood after the Order of the Son of God, was linked by Joseph Smith to the “Spirit of Messiah,” who has “all power in Heaven and in Earth [for he is] Enthroned in the Heavens as King of Kings and Lord of Lords” (WJS, 336).1

That Christ is designated as the head of the priestly order has been used by some, particularly Catholics, to support the view that only males should hold priesthood. Mormons too have denied priesthood to women mainly because the scriptures present us only with male priesthood figures and male members of the godhead. In our view, however, the doctrine of God the Mother calls us to accept the legitimacy of priesthood for women. Because godhood is the highest and final dimension of priesthood and because godhood is male and female, it follows that priesthood must be male and female as well. This fact is recognized in Mormon scripture dealing with the fullness of the priesthood (D&C 132:19) and in the practice of anointing to the fullness of the priesthood in Mormon temples men and women jointly.

In defining the scope and privileges of priesthood, Joseph Smith stated: “Now for Elijah, the spirit power & calling of Elijah is that ye have power to hold the keys of the revelations ordinances, oricles powers & endowments of the fullness of the Melchezedek Priesthood & of the Kingdom of God on Earth & to receive, obtain & perform all the ordinances belonging to the Kingdom of God even unto the sealing of the hearts of the fathers unto the children & the hearts of the children unto the fathers even those who are in heaven” (WJS, 329). According to Joseph the “fullness of the Melchizedek Priesthood” opens the “windows of Heaven” out of which are poured the “peace & Law of endless Life” (245). Joseph also taught that receiving this fullness guaranteed one’s calling and election “for while the spirit of Elias is a forerunner the power of Elijah is sufficient to make our calling & Election sure. … we must have revelations then & we can see that the doctrin of [p.153]revelation as far transcends the doctrin of no revelation as knowledge is above ignorance for one truth revealed from heaven is worth all the sectarian notions in exhistance” (330). Among the keys embraced by the fullness of the priesthood is the key to commune with God: “thus we behold the Keys of this priesthood consisted in obtaining the voice of Jehovah” (42). Joseph Smith further stated: “This is why Abraham blessed his posterity: He wanted to bring them into the presence of God. They looked for a city, &c—Moses sought to bring the children of Israel into the presence of God, through the power of the Pristhood, but he could not” (9).

This statement suggests that the fullness of the priesthood and the gospel are connected and share the same nature and purpose. Both were given to bring about spiritual renewal and oneness with God. In this vein Joseph Smith said: “Here then is eternal life—to know the only wise and true God [Goddess] and you have got to learn how to be Gods yourselves, and to be kings and priests [and queens and priestesses] to God, the same as all Gods have done before you, namely, by going from one small degree to another, and from a small capacity to a great one; from grace to grace, from exaltation to exaltation, until you attain to the resurrection of the dead, and are able to dwell in everlasting burnings, and to sit in glory, as do those who sit enthroned in everlasting power” (TPJS, 346-47; WJS, 350).

The calling of king and priest and queen and priestess embraces the fullness of this priesthood’s keys over temporal and spiritual matters. Those who possess these keys hold authority to unify the spiritual and temporal, the transcendent and the immanent, the earthly and the heavenly. Thus men and women may have a fullness of joy. This priesthood exists to bestow life not merely to impose order. It transforms not merely reforms. It is given to those who accept rather than control, love rather than judge, and bless rather than dictate.

For us the fullness of the priesthood is not merely an esoteric, historical tidbit to be whispered in the corridors of our chapels. Like the doctrines of the Creation, the Fall, the Atonement, and the universal judgment, the doctrine of the fullness of the priesthood is at once a cornerstone of the gospel, a pillar of the temple, and the capstone of Mormonism. Receiving the fullness of the priesthood means being called to the “measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Eph. 4:13), to the image of the divine, male and female, to the work of reconciliation, to the community of the pure in heart, to fellow citizenship with the saints in the household of God.


1. The various degrees or portions of the priesthood have been named after noted priests of God’s order. The Aaronic priesthood is named for Aaron and associated with John the Baptist, both of whom functioned in the spirit and calling of Elias, the forerunner, to gather the House of Israel. We associate the patriarchal (and matriarchal) priesthood with Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, and Jacob and Rachel. And we associate the fullness of the priesthood with Melchizedek, Elijah, and Elisha, all of whom wielded supernatural powers and were types and shadows of Jesus Christ. Yet though these individuals are associated with one or more degrees of priesthood connected with their primary missions, we believe that they possessed the fullness of the powers of the Messianic or Melchizedek priesthood.