The Four Sources of Priesthood Authority

This is largely a follow up to my post “ALL Are Called?“, which explored the need for us to reinterpret our relationship with our church’s ecclesiastical structure and the sacrament of ordination.

I was recently reading the 2004 edition of the Priesthood Manual. I found many of the quotes in this authoritative work quite interesting, but the largest part that I found intriguing was Chapter 10, which is entitled “Authority”. I believe that this chapter provide a unique framework for us to create a new relationship with not only the church and the priesthood, but with the sacraments and the Divine.

I would like to recount each sections from Chapter 10 and then give my commentary on what sort of implications they have for us.


Priesthood and the Church

The Community of Christ believes that God acted through divine initiative to establish the church in modern times. Part of God’s actions in the establishment of the church was to provide for a divinely authorized ministry. There is vested in the church a priesthood authority to represent God through celebrating the sacraments, ministering to people, and seeking to establish God’s reign of justice and peace in the world. In 1832 the church received the following instruction:

“the Lord confirmed a priesthood also upon Aaron and his seed throughout all their generations, which priesthood also continueth and abideth forever, with the priesthood which is after the holiest order of God. And this greater priesthood administereth the gospel and holdeth the key of the mysteries of the kingdom, even the key of the knowledge of God.”—Doctrine and Covenants 83:3a–b

It is our belief that authority has been granted to the church and that God works through it in ministering to people both now and forever. The authority held by the church and exercised by its priesthood has its basis in many facets of the church’s life.

This pre-amble essentially says that the priesthood is important to us because it helps facilitates celebrating the sacraments, ministering to people, and bringing peace and justice to the earth.

One thing that’s important, though, is that this scripture verse says that the Aaronic priesthood was eternal. The historical record shows that this isn’t quite entirely accurate, since the Aaronic Priesthood was never mentioned until 1832.

Major events happened before the Aaronic Priesthood was ever mentioned – things like the founding of the church and section 17 (“The Articles and Covenants of the Church”) (see: original Book of Commandments 24). These are major things which conceivably should have been mentioned extraordinarily early on in the church’s history. However, early church members of the church had never heard of “the priesthood” until after Sidney Rigdon had joined the church. David Whitmer once said:

An Address To All Believers in Christ: By a Witness To The Divine Authenticity Of The Book Of Mormon, pp. 32, 33, 64

In August, 1829, we began to preach the gospel of Christ. The following six elders had then been ordained: Joseph Smith, Oliver Cowder, Peter Whitmer, Samuel H. Smith, Hyrum Smith and myself… We preached, baptized and confirmed members into the Church of Christ, from August, 1829, until April 6th, 1830, being eight months in which time we had proceeded rightly; the offices in the church being Elders, Priests and Teachers… We were as fully organized—spiritually—before April 6th as were on that day… In no place in the word of God does it say that an Elder is after the order of Melchisedec, or after the order of the Melchisedec Priesthood. An Elder is after the order of Christ. This matter of “priesthood,” since the days of Sydney Rigdon, has been the great hobby and stumbling-block of the Latter Day Saints. Priesthood means authority; and authority is the word we should use. I do not think the word priesthoods mentioned in the New Covenant of the Book of Mormon. Authority is the word we used for the first two years in the church—until Sydney Rigdon’s days in Ohio.

This matter of the two orders of priesthood in the Church of Christ, and lineal priesthood of the old law being in the church, all originated in the mind of Sydney Rigdon. He explained these things to Brother Joseph in his way, out of the old Scriptures, and got Brother Joseph to inquire, etc. He would inquire, and as mouthpiece speak out the revelations just as they had it fixed up in their hearts. As I have said before, according to the desires of the heart, the inspiration comes, but it may be the spirit of man that gives it …This is the way the High Priests and the “priesthood” as you have it, was introduced into the Church of Christ almost two years after its beginning—and after we had baptized and confirmed about two thousand souls into the church.

Further and more detailed timelines of the early development of the concept of priesthoods can be read here and here. Even Chapter 9 of the 2004 Priesthood Manual gives a very cursory overview of the historical changes.

I am a very big fan of Community of Christ’s “Church History Principles“. These principles encourage us to explore our past with honest and responsible scholarship. They also reiterate that our past isn’t worthy of worship, and only the Divine is worthy of that honor.

In light of that, it is appropriate to see the priesthood, as we understand it in the Restoration, to be a concept developed by Sidney Rigdon.

1. Legal Authority

Chapter 10 speaks about the “Legal Authority”, whether or not it explicitly defines it as such, quite a lot of the time. I believe that it is important to remember that it is actually the Legal Authority which created this resource to begin with. They have a vested interest in emphasizing and prioritizing this source of authority. That should be remembered as you continue reading about this source of authority.

Legal Authority

When considering authority most people probably think of legal authority first—the legal right to act for another or to command or exercise dominion over others. Legal authority is bestowed through ordination after one has been called and the church has approved the ordination by vote. The authority that is exercised by ordained ministers is defined in the duties of the office to which they are called and ordained.

Under national governments throughout the world, humans are subject to authority that is imposed by law. Absolute compliance is often required. Subjection to authority within the church is modified by the fact that membership in the church is voluntary. We can discipline or disfellowship unruly members but we cannot compel them to obey church rules.

There are times when legal authority must be employed with full power. There should be no pride, selfishness, vanity, oppression, greed, or personal ambition used in this exercise of authority. However, the one who is appointed to take charge of a meeting is expected to do so—and must do so—if the work of the church is to be done. Someone must make decisions, and the government of the church provides that those in various priesthood offices have the right to lead in ways prescribed as the legal rights of that office. The application of church law must sometimes be interpreted in specific cases. This authority to interpret rests with those who are called to minister through administrative responsibility.

Traveling and supervising ministers occasionally find situations in which they must use their legal authority to protect the church and its people. Legal authority must be exercised sometimes when it is necessary to withdraw ministerial authority from one who acts in ways unbecoming of a minister.

Legal authority applied for disciplinary purposes, however, should be used only as a last resort. The labor of love and kindly persuasion should be employed as far as possible. Reconciliation should always be the hope of the church and the goal of any attempt to work with one who is struggling with ministerial responsibilities. In all human interactions the principles of reconciliation and repentance should be primary. If persons can be led to see the value of church policies and procedures, and persuaded to take the right course of action voluntarily, we have succeeded in the exercise of our authority on a very high level. We are told that “all things shall be done by common consent in the church” (D. and C. 25:1b). This is one of the wisest and finest laws of the church. The idea of common consent does not preclude the need for moral persuasion and loving-kindness that may modify people’s actions.

There are situations, however, in which moral persuasion is rebuffed and the maintenance of order requires the use of legal authority. The law of the land in many nations respects the legal authority of the church and its representatives in some acts such as marriage ceremonies, or the right of the church to regulate its internal affairs. In these the church is held accountable for the actions of its representatives.

We believe God has established the church and granted it legal authority to act to bring about divine purposes. We have felt God’s power at work in the church and are assured that God is accepting us and participating with us in this work. We have a testimony that God has called us into service. We are assured of the authority resident within the church to do those things that bring ministry to people and build the kingdom of God. The legal authority that is given to ordained ministers is limited to the right to function within the church and to those ways in which the church may be recognized to function for society.

God, however, is not limited to working within the confines of the Community of Christ. God is at work in many places in the world and grants to those chosen the authority to accomplish the task they are called to do. It is not wise for us to become concerned about what authority others may have. It is important to know that we function with authority given by God through the church.

This section immediately introduces an interesting element. One source of priesthood authority is the permission of our institutional church to conduct the sacraments, minister to people, and bring peace and justice to the earth in the church’s name. This section also specifies that if a priesthood member are not in compliance with church policies and procedures they can have their legal authority removed. This very much reiterates the hierarchical nature of the priesthood from the legal source of authority.

This section concludes with a pivotal paragraph that I would like to repeat again:

“God, however, is not limited to working within the confines of the Community of Christ. God is at work in many places in the world and grants to those chosen the authority to accomplish the task they are called to do. It is not wise for us to become concerned about what authority others may have. It is important to know that we function with authority given by God through the church.”

This is a reiteration that we are not the one true church; there is the global human family which collectively is the Divine’s church. This is actually expanded quite a bit earlier in the priesthood manual, which describes how confirmation is a sort of ordination to the priesthood. This view was advocated by Rita Lester in her article “Envisioning a Liberating Church and an Inclusive Ministry within an RLDS Context”, which quoted 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”. Amazingly, this mentality of a more universal priesthood was expanded upon in the 2004 handbook, which described “The Office of Member” as being a part of the priesthood structure.

Priesthood’s Relationship to the Church

Some have accepted priesthood believing that their call from God makes them responsible in their ministry to God only. Perhaps our understanding of this issue would be helped if we remember that God establishes and nurtures the church. God authorizes the church as the body of Christ to minister in Christ’s stead. This does not mean that the church is free from sin or error. It does mean that by grace God accepts the immaturity, rebellion, and ignorance of the church as well as the glory. God works with the church through the power of the Holy Spirit to draw it ever nearer to the divine will and to use the church to bring about the salvation of humankind.

Because the church is called to minister in Christ’s stead, it may be expected that the Holy Spirit will work in the church to designate individuals for special ministries. The call comes through and for the church, and ordination is authorized by the church through the common consent of the body.

Individuals who are ordained, therefore, are responsible to the church and its administrative officers. They should function in their priesthood as a part of the team. Priesthood members are not free to flaunt the church’s rules or frustrate the work of the body; when they persist in doing so, they may be removed from the priesthood, and their authority to represent Christ and the church be taken from them. Neither are priesthood members free to engage in activities or styles of living that bring disrepute on the church.

The church has a right to expect that those it authorizes to represent it in the priesthood will affirmatively support and promote the work of the church.

This section reiterates a couple of interesting things.

Firstly, it exclusively associates the priesthood with being a representative of Jesus Christ.

Secondly, this is the the Legal Authority reasserting that compliance to the rules and behaviors it deems acceptable.

Again, as I have already illustrated in my previous article, certain races, genders, family structures, and sexual orientations have been excluded by the Legal Authority in the past by citing the rules that they themselves created. We as a church and a people have collectively agreed to move on from those bigoted rules that the Legal Authority dictated. We should be leery of blindly accepting what this Legal Authority dictates considering its track record of discrimination.

In the “Legal Authority” section of chapter 10, we also are counseled not to dwell upon the fact that others have authority and just focus on our church’s authority. This is a bit troubling to me, because, again, the people who wrote this handbook are the people who are in a position of legal church authority. They have a vested interest in us not critically examining what authority means outside of the parameters that they define.

In light of this, should we really be putting that much emphasis on and faith in a hierarchical power structure to facilitate the sacraments, ministering, and bringing peace and justice to the earth?

2. Moral Authority

Moral Authority

Moral authority is an important element in the authority exercised by ordained ministers. This is the authority that comes to a person because of the goodness or moral quality of his or her life. An honest, compassionate, and righteous person carries a quality about his or her life that gives authority far beyond the one who is known to be deceitful, crafty, or untrustworthy.

Part of the authority exercised by Jesus was the goodness and righteousness of his own life. This moral authority was seen in such situations as when the scribes and Pharisees brought Jesus a woman taken in adultery and stated that Moses commanded such should be stoned. Jesus replied to his questioners, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her,” and the scriptures record that “When they heard it, they went away, one by one, beginning with the elders” (see John 8:3–11).

This moral right to act is felt by the minister and by the people who receive that ministry. Ordained ministers who do not seek to grow closer to God will seldom be able to provide ministry that will lift up others spiritually. Ministers who are themselves not generous with their resources will rarely be able to be effective at teaching others the spirit of generosity. Priesthood members who are unwilling to forgive or be reconciled to a brother or sister will not be fully authoritative in the ministry of reconciliation.

There is a moral authority that grows out of the quality of the life and actions of ordained ministers. People often reflect this when they say, “Is this right? Is this good? Will this be fair?” The letter of the law is legal but the spirit of the law reflects moral rightness, and this carries an authority that is very important.

The fact that these verses from John means that this section stands as a stark contrast from the Legal Authority. The Scribes were the “experts in the law”, and were eager to stone a woman to death, as was permitted by Lev. 20: 10 and Deut 22: 22-24. However, Jesus displayed moral authority by condemning those who were eager to punish with the law while also forgiving the woman.

The third paragraph was particularly powerful for me. It says that moral authority can just be felt by the minister and those being ministered to. It requires no ordination; it is an authority that is endowed simply by how you treat other people and the earth. Then this paragraph goes on to likewise condemn priesthood members who do not follow this example which Christ set in John. It goes as far as to say that even if you have legal authority, if you don’t have moral authority then you aren’t truly authoritative.

The Legal Authority is described as as the “Letter of the Law” and the Moral Authority is described as the “Spirit of the Law”. This is a pretty profound statement to make. Are we a church that seeks to follow the letter of the law or the spirit of the law?

3. Spiritual Authority

Spiritual Authority

At the time of his ascension Jesus promised, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you” (Acts 1: 8). This, of course, points particularly to Pentecost, but in the larger sense God empowers the church and those called through the gift of the Holy Spirit. An important element in ministry should be the quickening influence of the Holy Spirit expanding and using those abilities, talents, and skills that may be latent within the minister.

It is unfortunate that many people think of spiritual authority as being primarily exercised in such gifts as speaking in tongues, prophesying, or healing the sick. While it is true that these gifts of the Spirit sometimes occur, it is often the case that the power of the Spirit is present and quickening ministers in much more subtle ways. Through the touch of the Holy Spirit, those ordained to the priesthood many times will be able to speak publicly, offer insightful prayer, care for those in need, and perform other ministries in ways they never supposed possible. Occasionally it becomes necessary for ordained ministers to perform tasks that call for gifts they feel they do not have. If they will prayerfully do their best they will sometimes find the quickening power of the Holy Spirit giving them insights and abilities to act beyond anything they had felt possible. In a very real sense when they feel that their talents and gifts have been quickened by the Spirit, the ministry has such new dimensions that one may say, “It wasn’t so much me as God working through me that brought the ministry.”

Ministers themselves need the ministry of the Holy Spirit to enlighten their minds, quicken their abilities, and increase their love and compassion for those who are in need. They should avoid any attempt to substitute a pseudospirituality for lack of preparation. The Holy Spirit is not a substitute for study but will help those who prayerfully enter into study. Priesthood members should expect the Holy Spirit to bless their ministry with authority as they prayerfully give their best in service to God and the people.

In short, Spiritual Authority is what empowers, enlightens, inspires, and quickens while increasing love and compassion for those in need. The Divine works through the gifts that we naturally have. Another document I found in my archival research describes some of these gifts here.

One thing I also think is important is that everyone has access to this authority, but it is endowed as the Divine sees fit. There is no requirement that Legal Authority be given first.

4. Competency Authority

The Authority of Competence

Competence is an indispensable element in priesthood. Legal authority may be given through ordination, but incompetence or lack of discipline make that authority hollow. Priesthood members should study to become skilled in ministry. Each task requires preparation so that the very best service can be given.

The apostle Paul advised Timothy to “Study to show thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth” (II Timothy 2:15 IV). Similar advice is given to us in contemporary scriptures: “Behold, you have not understood; you have supposed that I would give it unto you, when you took no thought, save it was to ask me; but, behold, I say unto you, that you must study it out in your mind” (D. and C. 9:3a–b).

Authority depends on ministers having the skills, understanding, and insights to be competent in their ministry. Priesthood members should learn the duties of the office to which they are ordained and make as much preparation as possible to perform the ministries required. They should pursue ongoing development through individual study and courses available from Temple School, Community of Christ Seminary, and other institutions.

Much of this chapter has concerned legal authority to act for God and the church. However, when one considers the authority to effect those conditions in the present age that can assist in bringing about the Peaceable Kingdom on earth, then competence assumes a much more significant role. Ordination in and of itself does not make one an architect capable of drawing up plans for a church building, or knowledgeable regarding finances qualifying one to advise others about financial planning, or skilled in medicine to treat the sick. Ordination to priesthood may well bring a ministerial dimension that supplements and adds to the authority of competence, but in the totality of ministry, skill and competency are essential to true ministerial authority.

The first paragraph blew me away. It explicitly says that without Competency then the Legal Authority is kinda useless. I believe this makes sense; after all, the whole point of the Temple was to be a place of education. Even to gain Legal Authority they have Temple School classes to verify that you at least have a certain degree of competency.

This source of authority is rather interesting, because it is one that people can actively work on and hone. Reading and learning improves your competency and gives you more priesthood authority. In this regard, the most well educated hold a higher level of authority than those who are not educated. However, the Restoration has always recognized that access to education has often been a class issue. Indeed even today in America many people have to choose between an education and life-long debt. Again, this is one reason why one of the main purposes of the Temple has been to be a sort of school. In the Independence temple we have an archive, public library, and many functions for Graceland University are conducted there – all free of charge.


The Legal Authority wants the church to believe in the dominance of its authority. Even if someone is HIGHLY educated, very competent, and clearly has a spiritual authority, if they don’t meet whatever trivial requirements the Legal Authority dictates, they are formally denied the right to assist in facilitate celebrating the sacraments, ministering to people, and bringing peace and justice to the earth.

Since women and LGBT folks have access to the priesthood today, many people want to believe that the days of the Legal Authority having such trivial rules are gone. However, this reminds me of 2nd Nephi 12: 25-26, which says:

“The devil will lull others away into a false sense of security and they will say ‘Everything is fine in Zion. Zion is prospering and everything is fine!’ This is how the devil cheats their souls and carefully leads them to hell.”

Quite frankly, all is not well in Zion. The church still continues to discriminate and oppress marginalized people to this day. There are 2 glaring issues that immediately come to mind:

  • The Co-Habitation Policy ignores the historic systemic discrimination that LGBT folks have experienced for the majority of our lives, and in doing so we continue to oppress LGBT folks. Strict adherence to this outdated rule prevents the church from actualizing the full potential of our LGBT ministers. Even if the minister is THE perfect minister – competent, spiritual, and moral – they could still be denied the Legal Authority because of this policy.
  • Polyamorous folks are systemically discriminated against to this day. In fact, the Council of 12 is trying to pass a resolution at World Conference next year which will continue this historical discrimination. The church tolerates polyamory, even in the “legal” priesthood, IF these polyamorous people are closeted. The moment that polyamorous people live an open and authentic life the Legal Authority deems them unworthy to be a part of the “Legal” priesthood. This discriminatory policy, which has never been written or spoken about in public, is eerily similar to how the Standing High Council treated the LGBT community in 1962 and 1982. You would have thought that the journey we’ve taken with the LGBT community had taught the Legal Authority some lessons that could be applied elsewhere, but apparently not.

In light of all this, I propose a relationship with the priesthood for members of Community of Christ: We correctly see that the Legal Authority is only 25% of the priesthood pie, and have it be considered a minority priority. In terms of recognizing the priesthood in others, we should be more concerned about if the Spirit is with them, if they are well-studied and competent, and if they are moral leaders in their community. If someone has 3/4 of the priesthood authority, I believe that they should be permitted to facilitate celebrating the sacraments, ministering to people, and help bringing peace and justice to the earth.