ALL are called?

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:

A Brief History

It turns out that the priesthood started off rather egalitarian. Oliver Cowdery was able to write scripture (see D&C 8: 3F), all elders were considered apostles, your calling to priesthood didn’t need the permission of those already in priesthood (see D&C 4: 1b-1C and D&C 11: 4-5), and power wasn’t consolidated into one priesthood body.

However, over time the priesthood became more hierarchical and autocratic with Joseph Smith Jr. at the top. Among other things, Smith prevented others in the church from having revelations (see D&C 27), used his position to excommunicate people like Oliver Cowdery for exposing his extra-marital affair, chastise Edward Partridge (the Bishop of Missouri) for making financial decisions without his permission, re-wrote revelations so that he had Divine authority (see Book of Commandments 28 VS D&C 65), and had the Nauvoo Expositor (the newspaper which exposed his polygamy and him crowning himself king of the world in the Council of Fifty) burned to the ground.

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 prophet says is synonymous with what God says – it set up the prophet 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, he wanted a reformation, and you can learn more about this reformation here. 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.

The Smith affinity for autocracy continued on even into the 3rd generation with Frederick M. Smith. Fred M. was fascinated by his grandfather’s understanding of Zion as being a literal place, and wanted to consolidate power into the First Presidency to make it a reality. Between 1920 and 1925 Smith successfully launched this theocratic coup d’état in a controversy that has come to be called “Supreme Directional Control“. After he consolidated power, Smith took on a large amounts of debt during the Great Depression 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.

The powers that be in the priesthood go above and beyond simply consolidating power; they often have determined who is considered an equal. In joseph Smith III’s day it was a hot topic whether black men could be permitted to hold priesthood (D&C 116), women weren’t permitted to be seen as equals until 1984 (D&C 156) despite decades of activism, and lay members weren’t permitted to engage in the worship services until the 1970s/1980s. Globally the default for LGBT folks is still exclusion, but after D&C 164 a handful of nations have been permitted to decide upon “interim policies” to recognize our worth. However, even still the church’s leaders drag their feet in finalizing these policies and continue to discriminate against us based on how we structure our families. Even with the progress we have made on paper, if you point out racism, sexism, or queerphobia that still exists in the church you are often met with gaslighting or harsh criticism.

A Path Forward

I hope I have given you a decent brief overview of how the priesthood has changed over the years, and not always for the better. Those who know me know that I have a deep love for the heritage of the Restoration. Studying our history is my chief hobby. One of the people who has made a great deal of our history easily accessible is scholar 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 thee 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 priesthood. The foundations of it lie in the autocratic quest for power from men who lived over a hundred years ago. In that time, the world and the church has changed, but the priesthood has changed very little. I believe that the Divine is calling us to rediscover how we are being called to organize the priesthood so that it prevents autocrats from rising to power while also preventing the marginalized from being excluded from 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 lies in the system of calling.

Luckily, Lester gives some suggestions of what an alternative to the current system may look like. 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. Each person is expected to embody as much of the will of God as he can perceive 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. Competence ought always to be graced by humility, cherished in accountability, and guaranteed in faithfulness. 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.”

These quotes gave me a rather dramatic shift in my perception of the priesthood, yet amazingly it harkens back to precedent within our heritage. This spawned a series of questions:

  • Would our church benefit from restructuring how to we organize priesthood?
  • What would our priesthood look like if callings didn’t need the approval of higher priesthood members?
  • What would a priesthood structure look like if it were based off of what D&C 4: 1b-1C and D&C 11: 4-5 recommends?
  • How would we choose Seventies, Apostles, Standing High Council, and the First Presidency?
  • How would someone lose priesthood if they abuse it or lose the confidence of those they are serving?
  • How does our Enduring Principle “All Are Called” mesh with this egalitarian view of priesthood?

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?