Lately I have been incredibly fascinated by the priesthood, particularly how it operates today and how it came to do so. some of the resources I have found include:
- “The Power of Godliness: Mormon Liturgy and Cosmology” by Jonathan A. Stapley
- “The Mormon Hierarchy: Origins of Power” by D. Michael Quinn
- “Evolution of Mormon Authority Claims parts 1 and 2” by Dan Vogel
- LDS Discussions’s timeline
- “Early Mormonism Evolved Rapidly” by John Hamer
- “Re-Examining Priesthood in the Restoration” by John Hamer
Hello everyone! I am Evan Sharley. I live in Boise, ID and am a part of the Beyond the Walls congregation. I joined the church on February 6th, 2021, and have been extraordinarily passionate about it since. I often tell people that my chief hobby is studying our scriptures and history! I am honored to be an heir and steward to our wonderful heritage and tradition.
One of the beautiful things about our church is that are open to where the Spirit is calling us, even if it takes us into the unknown. Looking back at our history I can see how and why we have taken this journey time and time again. One of the church historians that I respect the most is pastor and Seventy John Hamer. In a lecture several years ago, John said:
“Rather than being timeless or a restoration of the ancient order of things, priesthood roles and practices, ancient and modern, I believe, are products of their own time and place in history; they’re answers to individual spiritual needs of people at the time when they’re being introduced.
Just as scripture is a human response to the Divine, priesthood and spiritual practices are human responses to the Divine. In my view, scripture, priesthood, and sacraments shouldn’t be worshipped, idolized, or be put between us and God, but rather they should be used to point us to the Divine.”
Modern revelation has affirmed this view. Over the last several decades we have been encouraged not to be captive to timebound formulas (D&C 161: 5) or be unduly bound by interpretations and procedures that no longer serve us (D&C 162: 2D), but to instead discern what the needs are for our time, and it is even alluded to that the priesthood may need restructuring (D&C 162: 2C). We were also reassured in D&C 162: 2E: that:
“… The spirit of the Restoration is not locked in one moment of time, but is instead the call to every generation to witness to essential truths in its own language and form. Let the Spirit breathe.”
Additionally, in a recent address, President Veazey said:
“The world is changing. Old forms are crumbling. New possibilities are emerging. We live between ‘What was’ and ‘What will be’. We need faith, curiosity, openness, and boldness. God is challenging assumptions, shaking up structures, disrupting routines, and making connections.“
I believe that one of the assumptions that are being challenged and structures that are being shaken up is our current understanding of how our church is structured. I believe that in order to be Practice Faithful Stewardship we must re-examine things from time to time. If necessary, we must also change things so that the Spirit can better speak to us in our communities. There must be no sacred cows that are exempt from re-examination.
I would like to give a brief history of some of the problems that I have seen within our church’s structure, and then afterwards give some recommendations on how we could practice faithful stewardship and mitigate or even eliminate those systemic problems while still honoring our heritage.
A Brief History
Joseph Smith Jr. Era
The early years of our movement were quite different than they are to day. People other than the president were able to write scripture as described in D&C 8: 3F, all elders were considered apostles, your calling to priesthood didn’t need the permission of those already in priesthood as explained in D&C 4: 1b-1C and D&C 11: 4-5, and power was shared equally among those in the church.
However, over time the church became more hierarchical and autocratic with Joseph Smith Jr. at the top. Among other things, Smith prevented others in the church from having revelations such as Hiram Page in D&C 27, used his position to excommunicate people like Oliver Cowdery for exposing his extra-marital affair, chastised Edward Partridge (the Bishop of Missouri) for making financial decisions without his permission, re-wrote revelations so that he had sole Divine authority as seen in the differences between Book of Commandments 28 and D&C 65, and had the Nauvoo Expositor (the newspaper which exposed his polygamy) burned to the ground.
Joseph Smith III Era
This power consolidation also carried on into the Reorganization. Apostle Zenus H. Gurley Jr was very concerned about the power that was concentrated in the prophetic office. Gurley pointed to D&C 19: 2 which essentially said that anything that the president says is synonymous with what God says – it set up the president of the church to be infallible. Gurley talked about how this mentality led to many of the hardships that occurred in the Nauvoo era of the church, and that we should consider putting limits on the president of the church, give the common member of the church more power, and rethink what our relationship was with the D&C. In short, apostle Gurley wanted a reformation. Joseph Smith III, who was simultaneously the president of the church and editor of the Herald, refused to let Gurley’s point of view to be published for quite some time, but eventually did allow his counselor in the First Presidency to launch attacks against Gurley through the Herald. Ultimately Gurley’s reformation failed, and power remained consolidated in the priesthood hierarchy and the president of the church.
Fred M. Era
The Smith affinity for autocracy continued on even even into the 3rd generation with Frederick M. Smith. Fred M. was fascinated by his grandfather’s understanding of Zion as being a literal physical place, and wanted to make it a reality. However, traditionally, scripturally, and doctrinally (D&C 104: 11-15; 122: 9-10; 124: 4; 126:10; 141: 6-8; 164: 8), the First Presidency, Council of Twelve, and Council of Seventy are all equal in authority. Joseph Smith III compared this system to a “three-fold cord”. However, Fred M. believed that in order to actualize his and his grandfather’s vision of Zion that he had to have “Supreme Directional Control“. To begin, Fred M. released apostles from the council of 12 who would oppose him, and called those who would be loyal to his vision. Between 1920 and 1925 Smith successfully launched this theocratic coup d’état. After he consolidated power, Smith continued to release folks and silence the priesthood of those who disagreed with him. When Fred M. attempted to materialize his vision of Zion during the Great Depression, he took on a large amounts of debt and put the church at risk of defaulting on its loans. In the end, the power that Smith had centralized into himself was decentralized less than a decade later because of this crisis. Despite this, “Supreme Directional Control” echoes on even to this day in the church’s leadership.
W. Wallace Smith Era
There are instances of this mentality pervading into W. Wallace Smith’s tenure as well. One of Smith’s First Presidency counselors, Maurice L. Draper, had some interesting things to say regarding Wallace. In short, Draper felt that Wallace steamrolled discussions regarding the Joseph Smith III Blessing Forgery. Smith desperately wanted to legitimize his own church as well as his family’s lineal claims to authority. Draper felt as if the committee that was appointed to explore this wasn’t permitted to freely speak because of Smith’s influence. The president of the church’s pride and stubbornness led to him disregarding the cautions of those closest to him, which in turn resulted in the embarrassing situation of us adding a forgery into the D&C for a number of years.
The autocratic powers that be in the priesthood didn’t just exist on a macro level, but also on the micro level, and they often have determined who is considered an equal and worthy of performing church service.
In Joseph Smith III’s day it was a hot topic whether black people should be permitted to hold the priesthood. Some believed black folks could hold the priesthood, but only with white supervision. Others questioned whether black folks should even have the gospel preached to them. We failed to see the self-evident and inherent worth and dignity of our family and friends, and we shamefully needed a revelation to teach it to us, which today exists as D&C 116.
The reorganization was largely founded upon a negative identity – namely that we are NOT polygamists. The Nauvoo era of our history experimented with this unethical form of non-monogamy, and it often came with threats and coercion. We wanted to do everything we could to prove that we weren’t associated with these deplorable things. However, in the process we failed to see that there are healthy, happy, and thriving non-monogamous families that have nothing to do with Nauvoo or Utah polygamy. We denied these people access to even the sacrament of marriage for a majority of our history. It wasn’t until we started doing missionary work that we were forced to confront our biases. Luckily, with D&C 150, the resolution to this controversy, we recognized that breaking up families is a horrific practice and that non-monogamous families are worthy of baptism.
Practically since our movement’s inception there were movements to have women included in the priesthood. It took decades of activism and brave women who were willing to put their reputations on the line for this equality to finally be recognized within our walls. Unfortunately, this was also such a divisive issue that a revelation was needed to clarify that women are worthy of equality, and it now exists as D&C 156.
It took many painful years for LGBTQIA+ equality to come through D&C 164 and the national conferences. Many people think the work has been done and that all is well in Zion, but this is not the case. The nations who have recognized the worth, dignity, and equality of the LGBTQIA+ have not implemented this as official policies; they remain “interim policies“. Synonyms for “Interim” include “Temporary” and “Provisional”. It does not feel good to have my rights be described in this way. Additionally, the global default for the church is to discriminate against LGBTQIA+ folks. We require nations and mission centers to opt-in to not oppressing the marginalized.
Despite all the progress we have made, if you point out we still have work to do to stop the oppression and achieve equality you are often met with gaslighting or harsh defensive criticism from those who are in positions of power. Many feel like Samuel the Lamanite who stood on the wall and called the Nephites to repentance for systemic oppressions like the ones that we currently engage in. If we can’t even openly talk about where we still need to improve, then how confident are we that we are not contributing to the marginalization and oppression of other classes of people today?
A Path Forward
Doctrine and Covenants 161: 3 gives us wise counsel:
A. Open your hearts and feel the yearnings of your brothers and sisters who are lonely, despised, fearful, neglected, unloved. Reach out in understanding, clasp their hands, and invite all to share in the blessings of community created in the name of the One who suffered on behalf of all.
B. Do not be fearful of one another. Respect each life journey, even in its brokenness and uncertainty, for each person has walked alone at times. Be ready to listen and slow to criticize, lest judgments be unrighteous and unredemptive.
C. Be patient with one another, for creating sacred community is arduous and even painful. But it is to loving community such as this that each is called. Be courageous and visionary, believing in the power of just a few vibrant witnesses to transform the world. Be assured that love will overcome the voices of fear, division, and deceit.
D. Understand that the road to transformation travels both inward and outward. The road to transformation is the path of the disciple.
I don’t want anyone to have the wrong impression that I don’t care about our Community; on the contrary, I am deeply in love with our spiritual home. I love the tradition so much that I feel strongly that we have a spiritual and moral obligation to leave it better than we found it. In order to do this, we MUST recognize what the problems are, and also talk about what we could do to solve them. Doing this is difficult, but ALWAYS worth it.
As I illustrated, the foundations of our current ecclesiastical structure lie in the autocratic quest for power from men who lived over a hundred years ago. Since that time, the world and the church has changed, but the church’s structure and methods of ordination have changed very little. I believe that the Divine is calling us to rediscover how we are being called to organize the church and the priesthood so that it prevents autocrats from rising to power and allows prophetic people to guide the church forward. I best heard this described in an RLDS article from 1971 entitled “In Search of the Phoenix” by N. James Weate, Jr. This article, in part, says:
In Search of the Phoenix
Indian legend conveys the idea that dead ashes of a people have no potency or constructive use. But from the smoke of that burned there arises a Phoenix or the true spirit or true meaning which does have power to enter into men’s beings and change them. In like manner, we need to make sure we do not worship the dead ashes but instead search for the Phoenix. The following ideas are some of the ones which may represent the Phoenix which mankind should now be finding if we are to continue in our search for meaning in religion.
Attitude Toward Hierarchical Control
The view that the prophet should be the president of the church, as is found in RLDS organization, presents a built-in conflict. The Hebrews had high priests who ruled over the temple with other men called prophets who served as ecclesiastical watchdogs over the priests. Such division of responsibility between the administration and prophetic offices would have eliminated the embarrassing situation of the 1968 World Conference when the Bishopric was called into question by the same personality with whom they had had contention. The separation of the two offices of prophet and president would have allowed an impartial third party to exercise judgment.
The Phoenix to be sought after is the creation of a chief administrator of the church who is open to a freely functioning church populace. The substitution of a presbyterian or congregational framework for the present episcopal structure would be one facet of the needed change. The separation of the offices of prophet and president so that the president could be viewed in a more fallible frame of reference would be the second facet. The democratic spirit of our times indicates the need for such reformulation.
In short, I believe that we need to mindfully reconsider our church’s polity – system of government.
There are several different types of church governmental systems. The system that we currently have is called the Episcopal Model. In this model, there is a single person who heads the church, such as Arch Bishop, Pope, Metropolite, or in our case President. This model is used by the Episcopals, Anglicans, Catholics, Orthodoxes, Methodists, and by us. As I have illustrated earlier in this article, there are many problems with this model, especially within our tradition.
Much like Weate, I believe that we should restructure to accommodate a more Presbyterian model. The highest authority in this model is the church’s general assembly – in our tradition being called World Conference. The next highest authority is the Presbytery, which in our tradition could reasonable be seen as the national level of the church. The level after that is a “Session of Elders”, which could be thought of as the Mission Center level. After this is the congregational level.
Even today in Community of Christ I constantly hear people say that “the Conference with the delegates assembled is the highest authority in the church”. I believe it is time to structure our church to more fully live out our theo-democratic ideal, and start moving away from the episcopal model which we created in order to better serve the men who led the church.
I would like to see the First Presidency’s job to be carrying out the will of the World Conference, the Apostles’ job being carrying out the will of the National Conference, and the Seventies’ job being carrying out the will of the Mission Centers.
I believe that things need to change on a more micro level as well. As I have illustrated, our church has had a knack for systemically discriminating and marginalizing people through determining who has access to the priesthood.
Over the years there have been various ideas about how we could restructure the priesthood. Carolyn Raiser once wrote that the priesthood is an inherently authoritarian and patriarchal power structure and didn’t believe that reformation was possible and instead she called for the total abolishment of the priesthood. However, I am more partial to Rita Lester‘s approach. She said that it isn’t the priesthood which is flawed, but our system of calling and ordaining which is flawed. She explains how the call system is dependent upon those who are already in the priesthood to recognize the call of the unordained, which as we have explained in this article can often lead to systemic discrimination. In short, the priesthood is an oligarchy, and this is the crux of what I believe needs to change in the system of calling and ordination.
Luckily, Lester gives some suggestions on an alternative to the current system . Ironically, she references the 13th chapter of the 1970 Community of Christ book “Exploring the Faith: A Series of Studies in the Faith of the Church, Prepared by a Committee on Basic Beliefs”. In this chapter is written:
“The authority of every member of the body in his respective calling emerges out of divine endowment to him and his faithfulness in servanthood with Christ. … All are called, and every member is set in his place by the nature of his gifts and his recognition of the lordship of Christ. In a sense, confirmation is his ordination. His authority is in the measure of his embodiment of the life of Christ … and to express it by means of those gifts with which his life has been endowed.
The source of authority, then, is God himself who has endowed, called, and ordained us. He is the Source of life and of the capacities by which we may achieve. The authority we have because of his endowment may be enhanced by the sharpening of skills and the enlargement of our store of knowledge, but each of us must trace back to his Creator the origin and authenticity of his gifts. … The work of God among men has been too frequently devastated by fitful loyalty. Perseverance and growth in discipleship is the need in every age and especially in this one.”
Lester then goes on to also read a selection from Carter Heyward’s “Touching Our Strength”:
“the value and meaning of authority… is to shape justice, the logos of God. As such, authority is the power to elicit among us, between us, and within us that which already is, to give birth to who we are when we are related rightly. The authority of God is not to create out of nothing (the mythos of patriarchal deity), but rather the power to cocreate out of the fabric of our daily lives who we are when we are related mutually-with justice and compassion.”
This presents a model which I believe more closely resembles the earliest days of the church, where all you needed to be in the priesthood is a God-given call to it, not a human one that depends of behavioral litmus tests. I am beyond intrigued with the idea of “Confirmation as Ordination” – what if the gifts that God has given people was THE thing that qualified them for the work of priesthood, and ordination was essentially just a ritual in which the community was recognizing those gifts?
Such a model as this would have allowed black men to be ordained, women to be ordained, and full LGBT inclusion without the uninspired bureaucratic restrictions that the First Presidency had to remove via revelation (and often put those restrictions in place themselves).
That said, we have always deeply valued education – it has always been one of the chief purposes of the Temple. I believe that even with this reformation of our ordination system an educated ministry should be expected. Luckily, through the blessing of technology, priesthood courses are made globally available. In fact, the Seminary just began a certification course called “Center for Innovation in Ministry and Mission“, I would love to see Temple School be made available for cheap or free for everyone who wants access to it and hone their skills and knowledge for priesthood ministry.
All of my research for this article has given me a rather dramatic shift in my perception of the priesthood, yet amazingly it harkens back to precedent within our heritage. I have come up with a list of questions to contemplate on as we move into our future:
- Is how our church government and ordination system structured continuing to contribute to marginalization and oppression? Is the Divine calling us to a new system?
- Is the Divine calling us to keep our hierarchical Episcopal model or asking us to explore others like the democratic Presbyterian model?
- What does “ALL ARE CALLED” mean within the walls of our own church? Do we truly mean that ALL are called?
I am not going to pretend like I have the answer, but I definitely want to be a part of the conversation. What do you think would be a good path forward?
Before you leave this page to go contemplate these questions, I feel it is fitting to leave you with a song that touches on this theme: CCS 362 – Prophetic Church, the Future Waits: