Elder Bednar: Restoration and the uniqueness of the Priesthood

Elder Bednar began his address in the Priesthood session with a quotation from President McKay. “If at this moment each one of you were asked to state in one sentence or phrase the most distinguishing feature of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, what would be your answer?” President McKay’s response was, according to Elder Bednar, this: ‘“divine authority” of the priesthood’. This comment was especially pertinent to me because the previous weekend I had somewhat downplayed the uniqueness of LDS claims to Priesthood authority in a conversation with some of my fellow co-bloggers. Over the last few years I have come to frame the restoration in two ways: first, I see restoration and apostasy as concurrent processes occurring both within and without the Church and second, I believe that it is the particular assemblage of doctrines, ordinances and covenants that makes the prophetic restoration of Joseph Smith unique. One of the implications of this second principle is that the restoration cannot be hung on a particular doctrine or ritual as the unique feature of our religion. Rather the uniqueness follows the theological and institutional accumulation of a particular constellation of characteristics. As a result I have been in the process of rethinking Priesthood and Elder Bednar’s talk has given me impetus to hash this out in slightly more formal terms.  This post, more than anything else, in as opportunity to think through these ideas a little more in this community.

Although I appreciated much of Elder Bednar’s remarks on the importance of service I also felt some concern over where Elder Bednar seems to locate, in practical terms, the power of the Priesthood in the home. It is not entirely clear to me why God would need Peter, James and John to visit Joseph Smith in order to restore the divinely sanctioned right to lead out in family prayer or Family Home Evening. We do a disservice to our view of restored Priesthood when we frame it in these terms. I understand that these suggestions come from attempts to make the Priesthood meaningful in the everyday, but such practices do not need Priesthood and we implicitly undermine the efforts of others who do not hold the Priesthood when they lead out in family prayer etc.  In contrast to Elder Bednar, what I hear in the concerns of the women to whom he spoke was this: “I wish my husband would do more. I wish he would help organise Family Home Evening and scripture study. I cannot motivate him, but maybe you can, as his Priesthood leader”. The theological overlay, in my opinion, is not a reflection of some truth about Priesthood.

Before offering some thoughts on the uniqueness of Mormonism in light of Priesthood let me acknowledge, as a caveat, that I neither a theologian nor a historian. These more rigorous approaches to this question will have to be offered by others at a different time. In that context let me outline two conflicting sensibilities that under-gird this list of approaches to Priesthood. First, I feel a responsibility to unpack the ‘patriarchal privilege’ of holding a male-only Priesthood. Second, I believe that there is a divine and redemptive power (ie the Priesthood) that has been granted to the world by God. Therefore I have tried to understand this list in ways which are faithful to these two sensibilities but I recognise at the outset that I have not done this particularly well.  Below I outlined five models and given them my own labels: The legal, covenantal, conservationist, kinship and performative-symbolic models.

The legal model is scripturally grounded in D&C 132. In this revelation JS teaches that a legal administrator must be authorized to perform particular ordinances. Priesthood keys are the right to authorize an individual to perform a particular ordinance and to invite the initiate into a new form of covenant making. I struggle with this model because I cannot see the importance, in God’s eyes, of being authorized. The legal model rests on notions of worthiness but is, therefore, inherently problematic because of the possibility of deceit between the authorizer and the authorized.

The Covenant model is located in the view that Christ’s high priestly role involved a capacity and a divine obligation to suffer-with His fellows. His ministry was guided by a sacrificial covenant to experience, to the fullest extent he was capable, the pain of those around him. This model suggests that this suffering-with is redemptive to the extent that the other person accepts this shared suffering. This attempts to focus on the redemptive quality of Priesthood by emphasizing an obligation rather than a specific set of gifts. This is not to say that people who do not hold the LDS Priesthood cannot suffer-with but that the obligation to do so is of a different kind. I find this view problematic because this self-sacrificial role of priesthood is not discretely different from the baptismal covenant outlined in the Book of Mormon.

The Conservationist model explains the unique claims of Priesthood through a charge to preserve the assemblage of ordinances and covenants given to the JS (and his successors). In this view, Priesthood is very similar to the obligation met by many of the Book of Mormon authors in relation to the sacred records, which were passed from one generation to the next. Just like Mormon, Thomas Monson has been given and accepted a responsibility to conserve this particular assemblage of doctrines, ordinances and covenants while emphasizing their importance to the world. This conservationist model also highlights the institutional nature of Priesthood. Because of my view of the restoration and the apostasy I am somewhat persuaded by this approach but I feel like it lacks an emphasis on the redemptive quality of Priesthood activity. However here is where my ‘privilege’ might be manifesting itself most clearly.

The Kinship model is most apparent in early Mormon practices of adoption and sealing. In short, Priesthood ritually expresses our connectedness to a divine lineage that can be traced to Adam and Christ, and which potentially envelopes the whole human family. Priesthood is the means by which this family is structured, formed and maintained. However, this theological approach to priesthood somewhat relies on the legal model or the symbolic model (discussed below) for its efficacy. In other words, it seems to me that Kinship itself is not a robust form of priesthood separate from the legal sense of being authorized to bind on earth etc. or the symbolic significance of rituals which bind us together.

The Performative-symbolic model is somewhat similar to the notion of the Priesthood of all believers. Ronan and Brad have discussed the implications of the appearance of Christ on the road to Emmaus and also the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats. They suggest that the life of a Christian is based on the capacity to see Christ in another; to see treat the hungry, the naked etc. as if they were Christ. In this view, it does not matter whether the stranger on the Road to Emmaus was Christ, or an authorized administrator, but what matters was that they (the disciples) were able to see Christ in this stranger as he took bread, blessed it, brake it and gave it to them. In this sacramental act they were able to see Christ and herein lies the power of Priesthood. Priesthood ordinances (especially in the Temple) help us see the other people around us as if they were another. These ordinances reminds us that we are all a multiplicity. In the Temple for example, we learn to see each other as if we were Adam, Eve, Jesus or the person for whom we are a proxy etc. Priesthood is about developing the capacity to see each other with new eyes, and these ordinances and rituals help us to do that.

I do not understand fully the statement of Elder Bednar, nor of Elder McKay before him, that priesthood is the unique claim of the restoration. I am open and willing to being persuaded otherwise, but at this time I tend to see Priesthood as one part of a unique constellation of doctrines, ordinances and covenants which draws our hearts outward and binds us to others in particular forms of association.


  1. I also have not fully understood what it means to have priesthood in the home. When people say they are grateful for the priesthood in their home, I often wonder if they are regularly receiving father’s or healing blessings. If they are just talking about family prayer, FHE, etc, then does that even count? What are all those testimonies about how wonderful it is to have the priesthood in the home really about?

    On the other hand, the need to have authority and keys to perform ordinances and receive revelation for those under your stewardship makes perfect sense to me.

  2. Something I removed from the post was an anecdote which your comment brings out. When I had just turned 12 my mother, who was at that time divorced, sat with me on the couch and told me how grateful she was to have the Priesthood in her home again. I remember, even back then, thinking that this was incredibly strange. As far as I was concerned my duties involved the sacrament only. It seems to me now that there is an assumption in Mormon culture that the mere presence of a Priesthood holder raises the spiritual tone of the home/meeting etc where they are present. That is deeply problematic.

  3. I’ll quote Sister Beck about how our homes have the priesthood… “It isn’t just when Dad is there. It isn’t just when Mom is there. It isn’t just when a priesthood ordination or blessing is being performed. It’s every hour as covenants are made and kept.”

  4. I think the Priesthood in the home idea ought to be more of “there is someone here who is serving in the unique capacity of a priesthood holder, and therefore brings that spirit with him” than just there being someone here that is ordained.

    My wife leads out almost all the time in family scripture study and FHE, that being more natural to her role in the home. I preside, she conducts (essentially) and that seems to work for us. Aside from the specific ordinances and blessings that a priesthood holder is authorized to perform, there is no difference whatever in who does what. Often, she calls on me the same as anyone outside the family would, to give a blessing to one of the children or herself. The priesthood is a tool, and she can use it the same as I can, except for one thing: I can’t get a blessing. She knows she can give a blessing anytime she wants, using me to do it (and she does). The one person in the house she cannot bless in that way is, ironically, the priesthood holder himself.

  5. Chris, I am not entirely sure what you mean when you say that the priesthood holder brings ‘that spirit with him’. If we are talking about the loose notion of spirit that seems to correlate with personality or character (the feeling we get when we are in the presence of another person) then I do not think that Priesthood holders necessarily share particular character traits that provide a similar feeling. Or, if we are talking about the Holy Spirit then I do not see how the Priesthood holder can bring the presence of the Holy Spirit in an increased measure (quantitatively or qualitatively) than any other person who is serving and loving in a particular home; unless I have misunderstood what you mean by ‘serving in the unique capacity of a priesthood holder’.

  6. Last Lemming says:

    My issue with President McKay’s statement is quite different. I read it as the equivalent of “Our church is uniquely true because we have the divine authority of the priesthood and the others do not.” So imagine God selected a church to receive the divine authority of the priesthood by picking a name out of a hat. The winner could make the same claim that President McKay did. But who is interesting in holding the priesthood of such an arbitrary God? Not me. I think God must have had a reason for giving the priesthood to Joseph Smith and not to Martin Luther, John Wesley, Alexander Campbell, or Ellen White.

    To me, the reason is the doctrine of eternal progression. Joseph Smith may not have been teaching it when he received the priesthood, but he was open to it, unlike his competitors, and was eventually able to introduce it to the church. It is that doctrine that makes the LDS church uniquely true, and the priesthood is a means to achieving that end, not the end itself.

  7. Legrand Richards: “You take the Holy Ghost out of this Church, and this Church would not be any different than any other church.”

    I believe I’ve seen this particular point expressed by others as well.

  8. I’ve been thinking a great deal about priesthood and what I think it’s for since recent online discussions as well. I haven’t listened to Elder Bednar’s talk yet, but I’m more comfortable with this multi-modeled view than single definitions of the importance of priesthood. I see Abraham’s children blessed to be keepers of covenantal opportunity (your conservationist model) for the benefit of all God’s children, not by birth, but by righteousness (a point the first 2000 years of history records insist on making). That only one authorized to officiate in ordinances for salvation is a protection from perverted ordinances giving God’s children a false sense of security and drawing people to religions/doctrines that cannot save. It’s certainly not a perfect system, but it seems very sensible to me. So I like the legal model and see it as a natural outgrowth of conservationist intent. In addition, I think the legal model fits nicely with the covenantal model and since I think priesthood also serves as God’s training for men to become like him (your kinship model), the suffer-with aspect is a necessary element.

    I don’t think people would have as much trouble with a male-only priesthood if the purposes of the different models were more often separated and understood as aspects of priesthood that are not all distinct to men who hold the priesthood. The legal model being conflated with the grow-men purpose confuses people, since, as your symbolic model points out, being grown as people is open to all God’s children. Relief Society, properly organized and implemented, grows women to godhood and is a model that provides different structure to the kingdom and the sociality of heaven we are intended to create here. I certainly think we have a lot of room to grow in fleshing out the many purposes Relief Society was created to fulfill.

    I really liked this post because it organized very nicely for me the ideas in my mind. I can understand the Priesthood, a very large subject, as a unique and well-constructed conflation of many purposes. It fires my mind to begin to analyze Relief Society as a similar but not well-discussed conflation of purposes.

  9. The wonderful thing about the Preisthood is your worthyness is the activating of a the power of the Preisthood. I have seen blessing beyond belief and ofcourse it is with the assitance of the Holy Ghost. There is no bottom line in the lords equasion. Ask your self which is the most important part of the body? These questions had been asked and talked about for ever and you should not make up your mind so quickly. Grace or works? People think to linear. Thing quadraic equasion or better yet calculus. We are one.

  10. In response to observations that it’s the spirit of the Lord that makes our gospel unique, or it’s the priesthood that makes the gospel unique, or it’s the divine establishment of RS that makes the gospel unique (you don’t hear that so very often, hmmm) … why do we assume that any of those statements are superlative or mutually exclusive? As has been nicely stated, the gospel is divine and the church the best vehicle for it because it contains all of those things. Broccoli is one of the healthiest things we can eat. Grapefruit is one of the healthiest things we can eat. Olive oil is one of the healthiest things we can eat. None of them are so healthy that they can be eaten exclusively.

  11. Trevor (#7), are you saying that you disagree with Elder Bednar? If so, what role do you ascribe to the Priesthood?

    Bonnie (#8), thanks for engaging the various models that I have outlined. I like how you are linking conservation with the legalistic mode and I can see how that might work. At the same time it would negate the need for worthiness.

    RJG (#9), I have not made up my mind yet, as I observe in the post.

  12. Trevor (#7), Joseph Smith said that, and it was reiterated in the GAS manual we are currently studying.

    I do however think that this is a challenging post. It seems particularly difficult for me as I tend to view various “priesthood” traditions, which are spliced together acontextually in modern parlance. That said, I generally prefer the legalistic modes of understanding for the general use of priesthood in the administration of the church and its rituals.

  13. J., thanks for your comment. Although I could not do justice to those various traditions you mention I wanted to try and provide a framework for how Priesthood has been conceptualized. I hope I have not done too much violence to these different traditions in the process.

  14. Aaron R. (#11) My post wasn’t necessarily a disagreement with Elder Bednar per se (or an agreement with LeGrand Richards), but instead a thought to add to the mix. I share your concerns about priesthood being tied to trivial matters.

    We had a lesson some time back based on President Uchtdorf’s “Your Potential, Your Privilege“. I think it was telling that our EQ struggled to come up with specifics and practical implementations of the message.

  15. Rechabite says:

    What Bonnie said in #8. Amen.

  16. I’m thinking of the story Elder Bednar told about his dad’s question:

    “Here is my question. Each week in priesthood meeting I listen to the bishop and the other priesthood leaders remind, beg, and plead with the men to do their home teaching and to perform their priesthood duties. If your church truly has the restored priesthood of God, why are so many of the men in your church no different about doing their religious duty than the men in my church?”

    He admitted to not having an answer when he was a kid. Does he have an answer now?

  17. Trevor #16 Because many are called, but few are chosen. Because holding the priesthood doesn’t make one better than someone who doesn’t hold the priesthood. Hence the emphasis on authority versus power in the priesthood. Women often say they’re glad to have the PH in their home. Sometimes I think it’s analogous to any person saying they have a helpmeet in the home. Obviously a son is not the equivalent of a husband, but if you believe you held, as an AP holder, the keys to the ministering of angels, I think that would be nice to have in a home.

  18. Exactly, Steven. I think many times we as members minimize the authority and opportunity of the AP, and with 3 of them living here, we have a lot of time to talk about what they could/should be doing. My oldest son (child 2) is 18 and will graduate from HS this May. He came up to me with eyes glowing a couple of weeks ago and said, “Mom, do you realize that in a couple of months I could give anyone here a blessing if they needed one?” He was catching the fire of being able to give back in a meaningful way, a way that truly effected people and brought them happiness. I could have said, “you know son, I don’t think it will change the running of our home one bit because I’m not feeling unable to provide those blessings my own way and we haven’t been suffering all this time.” What a damaging thing that would have been. (I could also have said, “I’d love to see you catch the vision of doing your chores.” Pa ha) Instead I caught his vision about blessing just as I did when he wanted to learn to drive or cook or fix things and I want to help him see how he can contribute in ever-expanding ways. Sometimes I think we need to catch the visions of others and help them give back, at home, and at church.

    Aaron, I don’t think it at all negates the need for righteousness. We have by revelation that the power in the priesthood is exercised on principles apart from the authority of the priesthood. That the priesthood can exist without power is evidenced by the apostate churches that have existed on earth. Your models are a lovely way of separating out many functions of the priesthood, but I don’t think any of them can function without the others. They’re rather like looking at 5 different sides of the elephant. I think it’s a valuable way to look, as long as we are putting together a cohesive image.

  19. I am of the opinion that we have misunderstood the priesthood, what it is and what its purpose is.

    The priesthood is not the office, the ordinance, the rite of passage, the organization, the power to act in God’s name, or any other thing that I have heard it equated with. A careful reading of D&C 107 makes this clear.

    D&C 107:18-19
    The power and authority of the higher, or Melchizedek Priesthood, is to hold the keys of all the spiritual blessings of the church—
    To have the privilege of receiving the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, to have the heavens opened unto them, to commune with the general assembly and church of the Firstborn, and to enjoy the communion and presence of God the Father, and Jesus the mediator of the new covenant.

    The priesthood is essentially the power to experience ascension.

    An example of this is seen in Moses’ time when the Melchizedek priesthood was to be given to the Israelites, but since they did not ascend the mountain to see the Lord, they received the Aaronic priesthood instead, which holds the keys to the ministering of angels rather than the power of ascension.

    D&C 107:20 The power and authority of the lesser, or Aaronic Priesthood, is to hold the keys of the ministering of angels, and to administer in outward ordinances, the letter of the gospel, the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins, agreeable to the covenants and commandments.

    On a related note, if one sees the priesthood like this, it also becomes clear that every endowed adult in the church, male or female, holds the priesthood, or this power of ascension.

  20. If, as prometheus you says, “the priesthood is essentially the power to experience ascension” then it is *the* defining factor between our religion and others.

    I agree with this — that it is the central feature of the restoration. Without it nothing else would have any sticking power. We could restore doctrine and ritual until we were blue in the face and it would get us no nearer to God than any other nice set of ethics or pretty thoughts for the day.

    Joseph Smith was trying to get the saints into the presence of God — and I’m sorry but there is a difference between loving parents and loving parents who are empowered to lead their children towards Joseph’s end goal. Both have their rewards but the latter definitely has its advantages.

  21. It is in the ordinances of the priesthood, and only in those ordinances, that the power of Godliness is made manifest to us on the earth.

    Why priesthood? I don’t know. But for some reason, it is important to God. And it is important to mankind, as the power of Godliness is made manifest to us only through the ordinances of the priesthood and the authority of the priesthood.

  22. If, as prometheus says…

  23. Last Lemming says:

    If, as prometheus says, “the priesthood is essentially the power to experience ascension” then it is *the* defining factor between our religion and others.

    Excellent point, which I completely overlooked in #6.