What Is the Priesthood?


In Mormonism, there is probably nothing more confusing than the concept of priesthood. In the church we talk about keys, authority, and power all under the general concept of priesthood which makes discussions about the priesthood itself rather confusing. Scripturally, it does appear there is a priesthood of sorts however it seems to be a bit different from the LDS concept we actually call priesthood.

LDS View

In the LDS church, priesthood is understood as two general concepts. These are keys and authority. In the church, keys are the “right to preside and direct the affairs of the Church within a jurisdiction”. This means that only the specific individual with the keys for that area can direct the work of God there. In some ways this certainly makes sense, however in others it seems to consolidate all decision making into the hands of a single person. This leads to the person being a single point of failure in the chain of God’s work. Ultimately though, in any kind of organization there does need to be order for the group to actually accomplish its goals. This of course doesn’t directly imply the LDS understanding of priesthood keys. It just means that people need to work together instead of against each other.

The second concept would be the authority of the priesthood. This generally means the person has the priesthood or was given an assignment to do a specific task by someone that could direct them to do so. This is a much wider concept from the LDS understanding of keys. In the LDS church many people have the authority of the priesthood but very few have the keys of the priesthood.

Both of these concepts make sense to a degree, however in practice they almost always lead to a military style hierarchy of leaders following leaders. For instance, if a Stake President visits a ward, then whatever the Stake President says or does is automatically more pertinent. This same pattern applies at every level of the church. This leads to the natural pattern of leader echoing leader and is partly why we see new buzz words endlessly repeated in the church. When a leader does something then it is automatically more important than anything that was important previously.


Scripturally there is almost nothing that supports the LDS understanding of priesthood keys. This concept seems completely absent from the Book of Mormon, and Old Testament. This concept does appear in the Doctrine & Covenants, however to really understand it then it would be helpful to look at the New Testament first. In the New Testament, there is a brief mention of keys given to Peter which certainly suggests that he had a unique position in God’s kingdom.

In Matthew 16, Peter is asked who Jesus was and Peter famously responds that Jesus is the Christ the son of God. After this Jesus then tells Peter:

And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven; and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth, shall be bound in heaven; and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth, shall be loosed in heaven.

Matthew 16:19

A surface reading of this scripture certainly seems to imply that Peter was given the authority to direct the work of God, which of course supports the LDS understanding of priesthood keys. This particular scripture has been used this way in almost 150 talks according to the BYU citation index. However, this is not what the scripture is saying at all.

According to the 1906 Jewish Encyclopedia, which is a comprehensive study of Jewish culture and practices, the concepts of binding and loosening are legalistic terms declaring something forbidden or allowed. However, the terms themselves don’t inherently make the thing forbidden or allowed they just declare their decided state. This is a very important distinction. For instance today, a police officer can declare something as legal or illegal however they have no ability to make something legal or illegal. This is the critical difference.

This distinction is very obvious if we look at other biblical translations for this same verse. For instance, in the International Standard Version it reads:

I will give you the keys to the kingdom from heaven. Whatever you prohibit on earth will have been prohibited in heaven, and whatever you permit on earth will have been permitted in heaven.

Matthew 16:19 – ISV

In this verse then, Christ is not telling Peter that he controls heaven and can bind things eternally in heaven. Christ is instead telling Peter that he has the unique opportunity of telling people what is allowed or not in heaven. Essentially Christ is telling Peter that he understands God’s Kingdom to such a degree that he can inform others about it correctly. This is a massive difference in comparison with the LDS understanding. Peter has no individual right to direct or control things in heaven, he can only say what has already been decreed in heaven and what has been forbidden in heaven.

In the LDS church this specific verse is also used as justification to suggest that only Peter was given this ability. However, Christ while speaking to the broader group of his disciples, in Matthew 18, mentioned the exact same thing. The disciples Christ was speaking to had also followed Jesus and understood enough to now be declaring what is allowed and what is forbidden in heaven. Jesus was telling them to go and be missionaries informing others about the true nature of heaven. Jesus was not giving them the sealing power to perform polygamous marriages like the LDS church claims this means.

Therefore, it seems that the keys of the kingdom of heaven, would be the keys of knowledge pertaining to the kingdom of heaven. This is exactly what we see in the Doctrine & Covenants also, which explains this concept more fully. Some of the earliest references to this concept are in D&C 28, and D&C 35 which perfectly align with the idea that keys are knowledge instead of special rights of governing. In D&C 35 it reads:

I have given unto [Joseph] the keys of the mystery of those things which have been sealed, even things which were from the foundation of the world, and the things which shall come from this time until the time of my coming

D&C 35:18

In this verse, God is saying that Joseph had received special knowledge of things which others had not. This enabled Joseph to operate in a way that others could not. The keys of the kingdom then are not a right to direct and preside, they are simply knowledge which is available to everyone. Once we have this sure knowledge, which is revelation from God, then we can be like the disciple of old and obtain the keys of the kingdom of heaven as well. Naturally though, most don’t seek for these keys of knowledge so those that do are in the special position of helping those that don’t.

This idea of the keys being knowledge is also reiterated in D&C 84 which is an 1832 revelation on the Priesthood itself. In this revelation it mentions:

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.

D&C 84:19

If we were to always mentally substitute the word knowledge for the word key, then I think we would almost always be correct. This pattern holds all throughout the scriptures. As we learn more truth about God then we acquire nuggets of knowledge which are the keys we can use to unlock more truth. This is exactly how scientific discovery works. When researching something there are little tells here and there which can be used to seek out and unlock the next discovery.


In thinking about the Priesthood, the concept of authority is almost always implied. In the LDS church itself, priesthood is typically synonymous with authority. Men have the priesthood which means they have the authority from God to do something. This is a very black and white concept. You either have the authority from God or you do not. In typical LDS belief we almost never consider the case where someone has the authority, but is not worthy of it.

Scripturally, there does seem to suggest that there is some kind of unique status which we can call authority or Priesthood. It is not completely clear what this fully is however it is certainly there. For instance, in the Old Testament there is certainly a strict structure and distinction between the priests, the Levities, and the general body of the Israelites. Each group had specific roles which they were required to fulfil in order to help the other groups. No single group led the other groups. They all depended on each other.

In the Book of Mormon, this strict structure is not described however there is certainly a concept of priesthood. For instance, in Alma 13, almost the entire chapter discusses the nature and calling of someone to the high priesthood. It is clear that these individuals were called and set apart because of their faith and diligence. The word priesthood itself means a group of people that are set apart for sacred rites. This is exactly how it was used in Alma 13 as well.

In addition, Moroni 3, 4, 5, and 6, describe specific priesthood offices and roles. These chapters also describe how these individuals are the ones to officiate in the sacrament, and the elders were to have a supervisory role in protecting the church from those that may seek to do it harm. There is no indication that this was a rigid structure like we see today. However, it certainly does appear to be a set of distinct roles that were used to benefit the group overall.

These specific roles are made much more clear in D&C 20, which was received on April 10th, 1830. In this revelation the Book of Mormon offices of elder, priest, and teacher are explained in better detail. The office of apostle is briefly mentioned and indicated to be the same as an elder, but with a unique calling as a travelling elder. There is no indication that apostles were part of a higher priesthood like the LDS church claims today. According to D&C 20, an apostle is an elder and an elder is clearly not a high priest.

As mentioned, the original revelation was received in 1830 when the offices of the priesthood matched exactly with those from the Book of Mormon. The first printing of this revelation was in the 1833 edition of the Book of Commandments. However, in the 1835 edition of this revelation Joseph felt the need to add several additional offices to this revelation.

For instance, verse 65 of D&C 20 lists several offices which never existed in any other book of scripture. It is unclear why these additional roles are needed and how they would be uniquely different from the simple roles described in the Book of Mormon. It may be that after the high priesthood was introduced in 1831, and started to percolate through the church, these additional roles were created. However, it is difficult to tell with any degree of certainty. They also may have been present in the Book of Mormon churches and just not mentioned, however this seems doubtful.

One last point on this topic, is it does appear that in some cases individuals can have the priesthood and may not know it or at least the priesthood would have to be different from what we consider it to be today. This is evident in D&C 35, where God mentions to Sidney that he was sent to prepare the way and that his baptisms by water were accepted. He however wasn’t able to confer the Holy Ghost since he didn’t have the higher priesthood. This is important because Sidney was a pastor of a Campbellite church in Kirtland and didn’t even believe in a priesthood concept like this at that time.

Another example of this concept is John the Baptist. In D&C 84, the original wording says that John was baptized while in the womb and was ordained with the power to prepare the way for Christ when he was only eight days old. This makes it clear that priesthood ordination is completely different from what we consider it today. Many could have the priesthood and not realize it because they have been taught the incorrect traditions of men.

Orders of the Priesthood

On March 28th, 1835, the twelve met with Joseph and confessed that they had not taken their calling very seriously. According to the record, they admitted to being “light-minded and vain, and in many things have done wrong”. In consequence of this Joseph asked of God and received D&C 107. D&C 107 begins by discussing the Melchizedek and Aaronic priesthoods which we know today in the LDS church, however in verse 40 an “evangelical priesthood” is mentioned and described as being passed from father to son.

This Evangelical priesthood or Patriarchal priesthood is never discussed in the church, and would frankly confuse people if they even attempted to talk about it in a general Sunday school meeting. The account we have in D&C 107 doesn’t fully describe this priesthood, but it does describe that it pertains to the covenant promises God made to Adam. These promises are also passed to Adam’s descendants through this order of the priesthood.

On August 27th, 1843, Joseph clarified these orders of the priesthood and clearly remarked that there were three distinct orders of the priesthood. They were the Levitical, Patriarchal, and the Melchizedek. It is also important to note that Joseph mentioned, at that time, that the Patriarchal priesthood was the greatest priesthood the church possessed. They had lost the Melchizedek priesthood previously and were no longer operating under that authority. This discourse was confirmed by notes from Franklin D. Richards, and James Burgess.

According to the Richards account, Joseph spoke about the Melchizedek priesthood and mentioned:

[It] was not the power of a prophet nor apostle nor patriarch only, but of King or Priest to God, to open the windows of Heaven, and pour out the peace and law of endless life to man. And no man can attain to the joint heirship with Jesus Christ without being administered to by one having the same power and authority of Melchizedek.

Joseph Smith – August 27th, 1843 – Franklin D. Richards account

According to this then, it is clear to me that what we call the Melchizedek priesthood, in the LDS church, is not the same thing that Joseph is referring to here. Joseph is saying that those that receive this priesthood are Kings in God’s kingdom and heavenly Priests who have some kind of very unique access to heaven. Today young men will get the Melchizedek priesthood almost automatically if they are a basic decent human being. This is not how the real authority of God works.

It appears to me that, in the LDS church, we have ignored the actual Melchizedek priesthood and instead just relabeled the Patriarchal priesthood as that of the Melchizedek one. This seems to agree with Alma 13 which describes the Melchizedek priesthood very highly. According to Alma, no one would receive this high priesthood unless they were exceptional individuals. It most certainly wasn’t an automatic step along a predefined path. It was something that individuals sought out and earned through their devotion to God.

This also agrees with JST Genesis 14 which describes the Melchizedek priesthood has having complete dominion over all things physical. Yes, through the power of God we can do all things. However, this specific account is describing something completely different. This is not just a passive force, but an active one that can shape and change reality as the individual sees fit.

This idea of just relabeling the Patriarchal priesthood is also consistent with the fact that Joseph mentioned the Melchizedek priesthood was gone from the church. If that priesthood was gone then it would have had to have been given back, which we have no accounts of. Therefore, if it is gone from the church, then whatever we are calling the Melchizedek priesthood most certainly can’t be the true Melchizedek priesthood. It must be the Patriarchal or Levitical priesthoods instead which would be the only priesthoods left.


The priesthood is a somewhat confusing concept. Many have simplified it to an almost meaningless level, and others have complicated it to a rigid hierarchy of obedience. This latter approach is what we see in the LDS church today. In the LDS church, priesthood is synonymous with leadership and control. Therefore, a good priesthood holder is obedient to leaders exactly.

It does appear that scripturally, priesthood is composed of two core concepts. The first is a key of knowledge. This is unique new knowledge that is obtained as we seek out God to a greater level. I would imagine this knowledge is obtained in many different ways, however it always comes through revelation from God. This knowledge can then be taught to others as they are informed about the true operation of heaven. However, being told about a key is not nearly the same as finding the key yourself.

The second core component of priesthood is that of actual authority. Scripturally it appears the priesthood is required for very little. However, it most definitely is required for the ordinances of God, and the operation of his God’s Kingdom. However, as was shown, sometimes individuals can have the priesthood and not be aware.

This was the case with Sidney and John the Baptist. Therefore, we must be very careful how we judge others as they could correctly be operating in God’s Kingdom, and we wouldn’t even know it. This is exactly what happened in Luke 9. The apostles were upset because some outsiders were casting out devils in Jesus’ name, however they were not part of the inner group. Jesus told the apostles to leave the others alone because they were doing valid work in God’s name. This would apply today also. Just because you are not a member of a specific church, doesn’t mean you are not doing God’s work.

Lastly, there does appear to be three orders of the priesthood. However, it seems the LDS church has simply relabeled the lower level of Patriarchal priesthood as the higher Melchizedek priesthood instead. This is certainly reassuring however it doesn’t make it true. We still must obtain the high priesthood if we want to be Kings and Priests in the kingdom of God.

This high priesthood is not something that we automatically obtain just because we reach a certain age or get a certain calling. It is a direct link to God and the powers of heaven. There is nothing on earth which can remotely compare. When the true Melchizedek Priesthood returns, among God’s people, then we will see miracles that are impossible to comprehend.

Author: Patrick