Seventeen centuries ago, on 28 October 312, the emperor Constantine, convinced that Christ had delivered to him recent military victories, officially converted to the by then rapidly spreading and increasingly powerful religion of Christianity. He would soon attempt to extend his personal conversion onto whole of his imperial dominion, if only symbolically. And, since Christianity was, among other things, a strategic tool for consolidating his power, the newly anointed Religion of Empire would itself be subjected to unification and centralization.
To implement this strategy of unified consolidation, Constantine convened a meeting of Christian bishops at a resort just outside the Imperial capital, on lake Nicea. Here is a description, from Eusebius’s Life of Constantine, of the celebratory feast that closed the Council:
Detachments of the bodyguard and troops surrounded the entrance of the palace with drawn swords, and through the midst of them the men of God proceeded without fear into the innermost of the Imperial apartments, in which some were the Emperor’s companions at table, while others reclined on couches arranged on either side.
The description is all the more strikingly ironic for Mormons — men of Christ entering the luxurious, exclusionary space where a Worldly God, whom they meet in the inner sanctum, offers them space at his holy table and rest in his almighty presence. The peasant from Galilee, the healer from Nazareth, who broke bread (and the bread of his body) to serve the least of these, is claimed and co-opted by powerful men who recline and feast with the Emperor himself and are served by others. The man who refused all forms of worldly power and defeated the might of empire, not by seizing it but by obviating it through surrendering to it and then deflating it through his resurrection, has become the very symbol, the figurehead, the logo for empire unrestrained.
So what, exactly, happened?
We Mormons think an awful lot about what we term the Great Apostasy. Indeed, that such a process or event occurred historically is a foundational claim for our entire understanding of the Restoration, of the prophetic call of Joseph Smith, and the need for Priesthood. Of course in Mormonspeak, you have apostasy and you have Apostasy. The former describes an individual’s break with — apostasy from — the Church. The latter, by contrast, denotes the break of the entire primitive Christian Church from God. It implies not only the cessation of revelation, but the disappearance of Priesthood. It seems fairly logical that a Church without Priesthood would be a church without revelation. But how can Priesthood just disappear, vanish from the earth (except as held by mysterious individuals like John, who preserve it in secret)? Or maybe Priesthood is removed because of a lack of revelation, because of the stopped ears of the Church? Chicken or Egg?
This is a vexing question, in no small part because Priesthood cannot disappear from an organization any more than it can be held by one. Institutions do not hold the Priesthood; only people with bodies do. So how can an individual forfeit his Priesthood? That, thanks to Joseph Smith, is an easier question to answer.
D&C section 121, to my knowledge, is the only scriptural account of how a man can lose his Priesthood. Put simply, when he misuses it, either to exercise compulsion over others, or to cover his sins, it’s game over. Bearers of God’s Priesthood are held to higher standards to prevent their abusing of such sacred power. Only by gentleness, meekness, humility, patience, long-suffering, and love unfeigned may a Priesthood-holder seek to influence others. Any deviation from those lofty standards, and you risk losing it.
Returning to the question of Apostasy (the collective forfeiture of Priesthood), what about an organization, an institution, a church? Well, almost any organization, but especially a large, growing one, requires some form of hierarchy. The question is, in the case of the ancient Church, can the relationships within the institution (and the cultural norms they engender) be structured in a way that undermines the righteous exercise of Priesthood and over-determines what section 121 terms unrighteous dominion? If so, such a state of affairs would not just neutralize Priesthood but threaten it existentially.
Let’s get to brass tacks with a little thought experiment. Imagine a 2nd-Century Christian community. The presiding Priesthood leader in said community sows contention by falsely (mistakenly or not) and publicly accusing some community member of some bad act. The result is division, between those who believe the accusations and those who defend the accused. Now imagine that this particular Priesthood leader attempts to use his position — that is, his Priesthood — to defend his actions and condemns those who oppose his position as undermining his Priesthood and, by extension, the Church, even God. The divisions now deepen. From the perspective of someone who supports the leader and his claims, opposition is now a sign not just that you oppose me but that you oppose the proper order of things, not just a particular Priesthood authority, but Priesthood Authority.
If this state of affairs persists (which I think we can all imagine it doing), another likely consequence would be that some of this leader’s subordinates in the priesthood would follow the pattern he has provided. The inappropriateness of questioning or criticizing a Priesthood leader — primarily and precisely because he holds the Priesthood — becomes increasingly central to general understandings of what Priesthood leadership is. Criticizing leaders is no longer capable of being seen as motivated by love or sincere concern, since, by definition, it is prideful, rebellious, and wicked.
This is a terribly dangerous situation. The more Priesthood is used as a pretext for eliminating or delegitimatizing checks against its abuse, the more abusive it becomes. And the more it ceases to be Priesthood at all. Aside from the potential abuses it capacitates, the most insidious and harmful consequence of unrighteous dominion is that it so thoroughly and efficiently conceals its own existence. The logic is circular as Priesthood reinforces itself; the power in question is redirected back upon itself, closing the circuit in a volatile feedback loop which, if Joseph Smith is to be believed, trips a breaker. God withdraws His support, the priesthood holder becomes a law unto himself, seeking to support and reinforce his actions and office, position and power, with an authority that no longer exists.
There is a profound existential irony at play here. Priesthood is the one thing that simply cannot be used to justify its own exercise: “no power or influence can or ought to be maintained by virtue of the priesthood,” writes the imprisoned prophet through whom that power was restored at long last after Constantine and his cohorts exorcised it from the ancient Church. When not questioning or criticizing leaders, precisely because they have the Priesthood, becomes a general norm by which leadership is defined; when that norm shapes the expectations that dictate how leaders behave and the deference to which they begin to feel entitled; and when we all internalize such logic and enforce it as an universal standard by stigmatizing or condemning any criticism of Priesthood authority; when this attitude prevails and structures our relationships, we aren’t just facilitating abuse. We are collaborating in the destruction of Priesthood itself, stopping up the heavens, driving away the Spirit that sustains Priesthood power, turning our leaders into unwitting tyrants who kick against the pricks, supporting an empty form of priesthood, but denying the power thereof.
This argument should not be taken as a call for unrestrained criticism of the men who serve us. I’m skeptical that the simplistic worst-case scenario I’ve outlined above conforms to the real experience of many, if any, Latter-day Saints. Just as Priesthood power is to be exercised only through love and humility, so should our responsibility to check it be governed and motivated by sincere charity. Even when criticism is justified (in the sense that something worthy of criticism has, in fact, taken place), it should be tempered and constrained by the same principles that Joseph outlined in that Missouri dungeon: kindness, love, patience, gentleness, knowledge, with an eye not on demeaning someone or putting them in their proper place, but on enlargening the soul, showing forth afterward an increase in love. But restraining from criticism because we are afraid that it will be seen as rebellious or arrogant, because we are afraid of how others will react, is not a great service to those whose sins we cover in the process.
We wonder how Priesthood could just vanish. But given what Joseph Smith has revealed, and given what we know about the nature and disposition of almost all men, there is no great mystery.