by John Gee
Many years ago, a friend reported to me on a mutual friend’s conversation with his bishop. Our mutual friend wanted to ordain his twelve-year-old son to the Aaronic Priesthood. The bishop said to him: You do not believe that angelic messengers appeared to Joseph Smith. What exactly do you think you will be conferring on your son?
I never heard what his answer was, but I have long thought about the question.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is a covenant organization. It consists of those who have made at least one specific covenant with God: baptism. This covenant is an agreement between God and an individual whose terms are dictated by God and it is administered by those specifically authorized by God to represent him. Both parties of the covenant need to participate in the covenant for it to be binding. God is party through his representative or agent who administers the covenant on his behalf; they are “agents . . . on the Lord’s errand” (Doctrine and Covenants 64:29). We act as agents on our own behalf, or agents unto ourselves (Doctrine and Covenants 29:35, 39; 58:28; 104:17).
Not just anyone can represent God. God needs to designate them and recognize them. Thus, in the Church, “we believe that a man must be called of God, by prophecy, and by the laying on of hands by those who are in authority, to preach the Gospel and administer in the ordinances thereof” (Article of Faith 5). God must determine and designate who receives his authority. We might want to have a particular individual receive that authority, but God is the one who decides. That decision is communicated by revelation to those who are in authority.
When God no longer recognized anyone on earth as his authorized representative who could administer his covenants with his children, he provided a way for that authority to be restored to earth. This required sending an angel with the authority, to authorize mortals to represent God. This is the background to Doctrine and Covenants 13, when a resurrected John the Baptist appeared as an angel to Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery, laid his hands on their heads and said: “Upon you my fellow servants, in the name of Messiah, I confer the Priesthood of Aaron, which holds the keys of the ministering of angels, and of the gospel of repentance, and of baptism by immersion for the remission of sins” (Doctrine and Covenants 13:1). John the Baptist gave Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery the authority to administer certain ordinances and covenants. Other authority came with later angelic visitations.
Joseph Smith was clear on the importance of having the proper authority. In the earliest (1832) draft of his history he noted the two priesthoods that he had received from angels. Among the reasons that he gave for writing the document were “thirdly, the reception of the holy Priesthood by the ministering of Angels to administer the letter of the Gospel—the law and commandments as they were given unto him—and the ordinances; fourthly, a confirmation and reception of the high Priesthood after the holy order of the Son of the living God, power and ordinance from on high to preach the Gospel in the administration and demonstration of the Spirit, the keys of the Kingdom of God conferred upon him and the continuation of the blessings of God to him.” (Joseph Smith Papers, Histories 1:10, spelling, capitalization, and punctuation normalized.) That authority has continued in unbroken succession to the present.
The Book of Mormon usually refers to what we call the priesthood as “the power and authority of God” (Mosiah 13:6; 18:17, 26; 27:14; Alma 5:3; 17:3; Helaman 11:18; 3 Nephi 7:17; 12:1; Moroni 8:28). It is his authority because he controls it and it allows individuals to act in his name in administering covenants. The power that accompanies that authority comes as those who are authorized do the will of God which they learn through revelation.
When individuals have difficulties with the way God administers his priesthood, perhaps they need to ask themselves the question my friend was asked: What exactly do you think the Priesthood is?
If the priesthood is the authority to act for God in making covenants, then should God not have a say in who represents him? Those who wish to dictate who should be given that authority are either claiming that (1) they either know better than God, (2) that their moral judgment is superior to God’s, (3) or that there is no authority from God to be transmitted. If there either is no authority from God or God did not transmit that authority, then there is no point in entering into an unauthorized covenant with God because there is no way of knowing that God will recognize an unauthorized covenant. After all, God has said, “I, the Lord, am bound when ye do what I say; but when ye do not what I say, ye have no promise” (Doctrine and Covenants 82:10). (The logic is sound even if one does not believe that God was talking.) God is bound only when we do what he says. We do not get to make our own covenants, nor do we have any guarantees if we do not keep them. Nor are there any guarantees if we try to enter into them outside the channels that God has authorized.
If God sent angels to Joseph Smith to give him divine power and authority, then there is no point in quibbling about how God has chosen to administer that authority. If he did not, then there is nothing to quibble about.
Since I, unlike my friend, believe that God did send angels, then I am willing to let God set the terms and conditions for how his authority is used and to whom he gives it.
More Come Follow Me resources here.
John Gee is the William (Bill) Gay Research Professor in the Department of Asian and Near Eastern Languages at Brigham Young University. He has authored over one-hundred and fifty publications including three books and editor of eight books and has edited a peer-reviewed international professional journal. He has served on the board of trustees of national and international organizations.