“Changing Concepts of Priesthood Authority” by Howard J. Booth

This is an essay from “Restoration Studies VI” which was published in 1995.

Donald Messer writes: Defining Christian ministry is like trying to nail Jell-O to a tree – it is never quite possible” 1 The same thing might be said about priesthood. On the one hand, priesthood signifies something concrete and particular. In the Christian tradition, for instance, it may refer to an order or fellowship to which people belong, or to an office that certain individuals may hold. Priesthood, at this level, is seen in terms of function and organizational structure at a particular time and place.

On the other hand, the concept of priesthood includes the notion of something beyond the concrete, the idea of a sacral center or ground of power through which those with priesthood minister. At this level, a “symbolic, intangible mystery to ministry” 2 is acknowledged that cannot be reduced to function alone. Taking both elements into account, and speaking specifically about the Christian community, Messer concludes: “Ultimately Christian ministry, both lay and clergy, must be acknowledged as God’s mystery, never fully understood or disclosed. It is both a human profession and a gift of God; it is both cultural and transcendent. It is rooted in this time and place, yet belongs to no time and place.” 3 any conception of priesthood must keep both dimensions in mind.

There is no simple definition of authority either.

Authority and its relation to priesthood has been approached in a multitude of ways. For our purposes, and for the sake if simplicity, I want to mention two ideas. In the early 1960s, as a young staff member in the Religious Education Department of the church, I relished the opportunity to discuss at lunchtime and breaks interesting and often controversial topics with custodians, secretaries, another departmental staff members, and occasionally Joint Council members. I will never forget one occasion when the director of the Religious Education Department shared with us his experience at a local congregation where he had guest-taught a church school class the previous Sunday. For the sake of discussion, he had proposed that perhaps the RLDS church was not the only body with “Priesthood authority.” He shared that not only was there no desire to discuss the issue; he was quite sure that he would not be asked back to teach.

This connects to the first idea about authority. It has to do with something that one possesses or is granted. It would appear that on that particular day the members of the church school class were convinced that priesthood authority had been given only to the RLDS church. They apparently believed that authority to minister for Christ had been restored to us and that we were the only bearers or possessors of authoritative ministry. This is the kind of authority that enables some professors to continue to teach long after they are no longer competent or relevant. They have authority; that is, they possess tenure.

The second approach to authority has to do with what one expresses. What a person is speaks louder than what a person claims he or she has ben given. Priesthood authority, in this sense, will be assessed in terms of the competence and integrity expressed in one’s ministry. As Richard Neuhaus puts it: “The most determined challenger of our ministerial authority is within ourselves … our authority derives from the risk we take.” 4 Both forms and interpretations of authority, of course, are to be found in the Latter Day Saint tradition.

Developing Images of Priesthood

A cursory overview of the development of priesthood in the Jewish-Christian tradition to the present reveals a number of changes in the notion of priesthood and concepts of priesthood authority. Ancient societies commonly identified certain individuals with responsibilities to serve as guardians and preservers of sacred places and traditions. The Hebrew scriptures refer to the priesthood of the Levites and Zadokites. As a function of lineage they assumed the responsibilities mainly of oracular direction and teaching. Over time, cultic or mediatorial sacrificial duties became the predominant function of this Aaronic priesthood. A second form was traced to Melchizedek, whose authority was independent of an ancestral line but who was in a position to claim divine sanction.

In the New Testament, the idea of priesthood as a designated group of people within the church authorized to provide special mediatory ministries is not found. If priesthood is to be used at all, it refers to the entire church, the whole people of God who are a “royal priesthood”. 5 There was need for leadership in the New Testament churches and functions were designated, but all members were “priests” through Christ and, according to the apostle Paul, every service offered for the building up of the congregations was an essential ministry. Every form of such ministry was authoritative. With the Epistle to the Hebrews’ understanding of Christ as the high priest who offered the final sacrifice, the notion of a cultic priesthood was made obsolete. 6 The whole church, in so far as it expressed the sacrificial love of Christ, had become a hold priesthood of believers.

By the fourth century, however, the notion of the priesthood of the whole church was, for the most part, lost. The priesthood of Christ came to be conferred directly on the ordained, ministerial priests who functioned as mediators between Christ and the believers. Concerned about preserving the apostolic faith and maintaining unity and order in the developing church, the Catholic Church proclaimed its bishops to be the inheritors of apostolic authority and its priests to be special channels of God’s grace. As a consequence, the ministry of the clergy became separated from that of the laity. As Robert McAfee Brown explains it,

“A distinction grew between “clergy” and “laity” that transformed them from different forms of the same ministry into different ministries altogether, one superior, the other distinctly inferior … the church is ministry was replaced by the notion that the church has ministry, and that its ministry is exercised only by the ordained clergy. 7

It was precisely to this development that the Reformers most strongly reacted. They sought to recover the New Testament emphasis on the priesthood of all believers. They did not eliminate the role of an ordained ministry, qualified by conviction and training to provide a ministry of leadership. But they rejected the notion of an essential difference in the ministry of the ordained and the ministry of the laity, both rooted in the ministry of Christ.

No consensus exists in the Christian community about priesthood authority today. Nevertheless, the crucial theological task of revisioning the nature of the church’s ministry and its authority goes on. An exploration of just a few of the fundamental images of that contemporary search may be helpful.

1. Increasingly we are being reminded that ministry is the responsibility of the entire church. It is the gift if God to every member. In the spirit of the concept of priesthood of all believers, each person is a priest to every other person. A community of ministry is necessary. Those who are ordained assist the church, to the extent of their preparation and commitment, in fulfilling its mission. But they do not alone constitute the authority of the church. Nor is theirs, in any sense, a higher calling or a superior responsibility. Reflecting this position, Messer contends: “Power and authority are bestowed not on the individual, but on the congregation of Christians. What power and authority the clergy have are gifted from God to the church to the persons holding the given office.” 8

2. The idea of a universal priesthood has seriously challenged the traditional notion of a specialized priesthood who have been granted unique spiritual gifts, and consequently special authority, to minister for Christ. Certainly there are “diversities of gifts” and the need for leadership remains. But increasingly today the authority of an ordained ministry, or priesthood, is being measured primarily by the service rendered rather than by the power conferred. In his book Revisioning the Church, Peter Hodgson champions this point by proposing a “democrative-participative-secular” model for ministerial leadership as contrasted to a “hierarchical-authoritative-sacerdotal” model. He maintains:

“What authorizes ministry is not the possession of jurisdiction, office, consecration, or special “call” but rather the possession of knowledge, skill, and commitment. Ordination … does not confer sacral power or authority, and it should not lead to a separate clergy class.” 9

3. Authoritative ministry in the church in increasingly seen as a function of the willingness of the church to freely organize its life, and even its policy, around its specific vision of mission in the world. Less concerned about preserving traditional structures and patterns of ministry, and defending them as authoritative, many churches are discovering the promise of flexibility and diversity with respect to their ministry. They are determined to risk new forms of ministry in response to the specific structures, needs, and circumstances of our contemporary world.

4. In their chapter in scripture and tradition, Edward Farley and Peter Hodgson declare: “The house of authority has collapsed, despite the fact that many people still try to live in it.” 10 They are referring to the revolutions of modern consciousness that have shaken the secure foundations of our faith and left us without unique deposits of divine truth to which we can refer for authoritative or final answers to our questions about God, the church, the priesthood, or authority. Interestingly, this collapse has been praised rather than lamented by many theologians. It has exposed some of our ways of claiming authority as idolatrous, whose effects have often been oppressive and dehumanizing. But it has also freed us up for reinterpretations in and for the community of faith. What does this say about the question of authority? Jeffery Hopper has spoken poignantly to this question:

“Neither theologians nor ecclesiastical institutions can reasonably claim the right today to “possess” revelation or grace in such a fashion as to assert definitive authority over the beliefs and conduct of individuals and communities. It is not simply that churches do not in fact have such authority, but that, viewed theologically, they have no right to such authority. The grace of God is, by definition and experience, both free and beyond our full comprehension” 11

Implications for Ministry

What are the general implications of the foregoing for our tradition? Three brief observations appear most pertinent:

1. We have been challenged in recent decades to recognize that there is nothing ultimate or eternal about our priesthood system. This is what Alan D. Tyree intimated in his article “Divine Calling in Human History,”, when he wrote,

“The weight of the evidence seems to require us to look at priesthood as being particular, rooted in human history, evolving in human culture, serving divine and universal purposes (as best these may be perceived) but within a context of human society.” 12

we remain ambivalent, however, about this issue and wonder just what this confession might mean for our understanding of priesthood authority.

2. We are challenged to see that the priesthood system we have inherited reflects essentially a hierarchical worldview, and we are forced to ask what damage this brings to our community. Vague references to office of “member” and steady reminders that “all are called” remain overshadowed by a structure that divides our body into two groups: the priesthood who are responsible for “spiritual things” and who hold the “keys of all the spiritual blessings of the church” (Doctrine and Covenants 104: 9A) and the rest of the body who depend on the priesthood’s governance and instruction. Although many in the church have for some time been critical of the circumstance, a clear authoritarian and hierarchical relationship continues to exist between the priesthood and the laity. The same thing is also revealed in the very nature of the priesthood caste system, despite our protests to the contrary. One only needs to turn to Doctrine and Covenants 104 again to be reminded of the central role of “higher authorities” and a system in the Restoration movement of “higher” and “lesser” priesthoods. Without ignoring our historical and scriptural justifications for such hierarchical schemes, how can we begin to develop new models of relationship in the church and in our priesthood system that will unequivocally promote the equality and worth of every member and that will enable in everyone a fuller sense of responsibility for the church’s ministry to the world?

3. Increasingly our traditional concept of authority coming from above is being challenged by the idea that authority more genuinely arises from the efficaciousness of our ministry below. For many years we claimed in front of the few who would listen that the authority of a priesthood lost to the rest of the Christian community had been restored to us through angelic visitations. The image of authority exclusively bestowed to us was crucial to the identity of the early church. Even if people were to believe such a story today, few, if any, would not be more interested in viewing the practical results of such a “restoration”. In the 1950s, Roy Cheville was not alone in defining the fundamental meaning of priesthood authority in terms of “competency,” 13 and in the early 1970s Maurice Draper declared, “In the final analysis, priesthood authority is expressed in effective ministry.” 14 However, only in recent years have we seriously acknowledged the significance of competency, preparation (particularly theological), and training in relationship to the question of ministering with authority. To a certain extent, perhaps, we are only beginning to see the results of this development. Finally, most encouraging of all, is an apparent shift in perspective, in which the authority of ministry is defined primarily as the ability to foster growth in others, rather than merely the right to lead.

  1. Donald E. Messer, Contemporary Images of Christian Ministry (Nashville, Tennessee: Abingdon, 1989), 80.
  2. Ibid., 65.
  3. Ibid., 80.
  4. Richard John Neuhaus, Freedom for Ministry: A Critical Affirmation of the Church and its Mission (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1979), 58-59.
  5. 1 Peter 2: 9-10.
  6. Hebrews 7: 26-28
  7. Robert McAfee Brown, The Spirit of Protestantism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1965), 103.
  8. Messer, 64.
  9. Peter C. Hodgson, Revisioning the Church: Ecclesial Freedom in the New Paradigm (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1988), 99.
  10. Peter C. Hodgson and Robert H. King, eds., Christian Theology: An introduction to Its Traditions and Tasks, 2nd edition, revised and enlarged (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985), 76.
  11. Jeffery Hopper, Understanding Modern Theology II: Reinterpreting Christian Faith for Changing Worlds (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1987), 95.
  12. Alan D. Tyree, “Divine Calling in Human History,” in Restoration Studies III: A Collection of Essays about the History, Beliefs, and Practices of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, Maurice L. Draper, ed. (Independence, Missouri: Herald House, 1986), 89.
  13. Roy A. Cheville, By What Authority? (Independence, Missouri: Herald House, 1956), 16-17.
  14. Maurice L. Draper, “The Restoration of Priesthood,” in A Guide for Good Priesthood Ministry, Norman D. Ruoff, ed. (Independence Missouri: Herald House, 1971), 11.