Local Priesthood Keys – Our Religious Lynchpin

Peter BrownMormon 15 Comments

From the devout to the skeptic to the disaffected, our experience with the Church is personally contextual. We take issue with belief systems as well as the performance aspect of the religion i.e. do we practice what we preach? Our experiences are most often influenced in the sociological atmosphere of our local church branch. Even Church theology influences us locally if we take general belief cues from our local Priesthood leadership. It dawned on me recently that our own judgments of church efficacy in practice are largely based on our experiences with local leadership. Aside from the few firesides where Apostles and Seventies have attended, our views of prophets and apostles are myopically understood only telescopically. We see them in General Conference and on the pages of history as well as in the media, hardly laboratories for us to judge them personally as to the efficacy of their Priesthood leadership in practice. We are left to largely judge them based on feelings, spiritual witnesses, how their words affect our own prejudices, etc. What we are left with in the concrete of religious action and orthpraxy is our own local leadership.

Local leaders, stake presidents and bishops, are the only ones who are Judges in Israel. They are where the rubber meets the road. Keys of the Priesthood are only given to them locally. With those keys they can rent out ordinance labor with the local Priesthood pool, but it is under their approval only. Area Authorities do not have it, neither do the Seventies. Only the Twelve and the First Presidency hold keys other than stake presidents and bishops. How we see the Church, at least sociologically, is in a greater part how our bishops and stake presidents exercise their keys. Here, you find a wide variety, which was a surprise for me, as I assumed that stakes took very specific marching instructions from Salt Lake.

What I found is that this is not true. There are some very specific rules that must be followed (commandment rules). Aside from that, how they practice as Judges in Israel, as well as policy implementation is subject to personal revelations, interpretation, and culture. The Church is a loose confederacy, where stakes are given general principles in the Church Handbook of Instruction (a thin book) and the rest is left up to the man with the keys. Some stakes will take a statement in the handbook like fundraisers, where the text is ambiguous, and run in either one of two directions, either they will have no fundraisers, and all of their allocated budget money is sufficient to provide for the needs of the stake activities, including Scout camps, and another stake will follow another tack where fundraisers are allowed under certain stipulations (those outlined by the General Young Men’s President). Stake Presidents and to a smaller extent Bishops are their own prophets for their flock. The chain of command in 99% of all instances stops there.

Another personal example is from my life, where I was confessing to sins in my rebel days to my stake president in Salt Lake. He was an inch from excommunicating me based on a single situation that had occurred. I was relocated to Sacrament, California for a job where that stake had a more liberal stance (no sacrament until behavior improves for three months). It was quite confusing and I realized how different those with keys interpret their responsibility to judge. In Utah, I have noticed a pattern of very conservative judgment (harsher punishment and longer probation) versus other places I’ve lived such as Florida and California where judgment is more lenient and probation periods lighter. There is discretion of judgment in stakes and it seems that local culture is taken into consideration, as well as personal upbringing of the key holder, his political attitude, etc. Now, I do want to say that I had positive experiences in the two church courts held in my behalf and the several times I met with bishops and stake presidents. The Brethren were loving, positive, encouraging, and helpful, despite any verdict. Indeed, the only injustice I ever felt was in the length of some of the probations, especially when I felt that I was forgiven of any sin. I learned to accept the decisions despite any personal differences I had with the individual, the conclusions, or the judgment. The bottom line is that the only person that keeps me from God is me and my humility and state of repentance. This was very liberating for me and made me not fear local judgment from my local leaders. The only thing they could withhold from me was officiating in the Church as well as denial of ordinance renewal, which was a pain, but I could still approach God in prayer, and no one can take that away from you.

The final example from my life was from my own stake president who sent me out on my mission and brought me back home. Months after I returned he was released and excommunicated. Life went on, and eventually ended up without his family, poor, and he died recently. While he was ministering to me in my mission, and some of the problems that ocurred for me before my mission, the mantle was definitely there. All this time, he was abusing his position as judge with young women. I didn’t know this at the time, but my mother did. It took that long to get it investigated by Salt Lake. Although our family knew this was going on, we still respected the keys he held until they were passed on to another. It was a very humbing experience, but showed that the Church must be true, or the “local leadership” would have destroyed it along time ago – to twist a familiar phrase about missionaries. At least, I felt this way. I felt that in his ministry to me, he was exercising keys he had, they worked, but he shouldn’t have had them. Nevertheless, while he had them, they worked. Perhaps it was my faith justifying their use and not any specifics of his title. Who knows? That’s always a good discussion.

Which brings me to philosophy of responsibility of Priesthood: Whom the Lord calls, the Lord qualifies. That doesn’t mean it happens overnight, or in the first instance. I believe that Priesthood judgment and efficacy is an evolutionary process, just as we in our everyday Christianity must evolve to be better Christians. That understanding keeps us from judging our local leaders too harshly. We can be more accepting of judgment calls if we realize they aren’t perfect and let bygones be bygones. Sometimes that interferes too much with personal needs and we can’t afford to let a sloppy priesthood leader mess things up for us. Another approach we can take is to ward and stake shop. If we feel unduly judged or oppressed by a Priesthood leader we can vote with our feet. I know that Church hates this, but it is effective and can often put the person in need in the arms of a Priesthood holder that will truly understand.

Finally, one hopes that brethren up the chain will be more effective than those who are green under the proverbial collar, and that it isn’t just politics. One hopes that there is a weeding our process that our Apostles and prophets have Priesthood experience in exercising and judging. One hopes that there is a refining process that occurs. Indeed, because the general lay member’s judgment is local, we have very little personal experience with them. Our local leaders, on the other hand, are ministered by these General Authorities, so we are indirectly affected. We are also ministered in General Conference, but one gets the feel that the GA’s have been playing good cop and letting the local leaders play bad cop.

It’s a tough job to be a bishop or stake president. Thankfully it’s not a lifetime calling. I wouldn’t covet it for anything; however, those that have been in those positions consider it the best time of their lives as they learn to love their flock.

Comments 15

  1. We had a situation this past Sunday that caught my wife and I completely off guard. My wife and I are fairly well educated members, knowing the rules, regulations and culture of the church backwards and forwards. So this Sunday, in our small branch, the new Branch President, just called a month ago, began giving callings in the District Presidency and other branches in the district! My wife and I were shocked. He’s just the branch president, but here he is asking members of this branch to support callings above him! I pulled him aside later and confronted him about this. He said that the District President gave him the go ahead to do this.

    Is this right? Can the District/Stake president delegate to the Bishop/Branch President callings from the Stake/District level?

  2. Dan,

    Can’t the mission president be asked about this?

    Speaking of which, Peter, in areas where stakes are not organized, isn’t a lot of power concentrated in the hands of the mission president? I realize he usually has two counselors as well, but branch presidents report to district presidents and they report to the mission president, right? Especially in disciplinary matters, I would think…

  3. Ah, there are some others that hold priesthood keys, but you may not be used to thinking about it this way: Elder’s Quorum President, Teacher’s Quorum President, and Deacon’s Quorum President all hold keys to the priesthood in addition to those held by the Bishop and Stake President. The only reason those two callings hold keys is because they are quorum presidents as well–> Priest’s Quorum and High Priest’s Quorum respectively.

    In addition, the President’s of the Seventies Quorum (all Seven Presidents, I believe) I think hold keys. Finally, I am reasonably certain, but this is one that may require some correction, that Patriarchs and a few other select callings (Temple President?) hold keys as well, but I’d need clarification on that particular issue. The holding of keys is based on Quorum membership. Essentially if you are the leader of your quorum and not someone else, then you have priesthood keys. The Elder’s Quorum president is a position that has really been under-utilized because of this–doctrinally he could do so much more, but culturally it has become a position of ‘don’t do much beyond oversee hometeaching’. Frankly, he’s responsible for the spiritual development of the adult members of the ward, and that’s a big deal that usually gets shouldered to the bishop.

  4. We are all familiar with D&C 121:

    34 Behold, there are many called, but few are chosen. And why are they not chosen?
    35 Because their hearts are set so much upon the things of this world, and aspire to the honors of men, that they do not learn this one lesson—
    36 That the rights of the priesthood are inseparably connected with the powers of heaven, and that the powers of heaven cannot be controlled nor handled only upon the principles of righteousness.
    37 That they may be conferred upon us, it is true; but when we undertake to cover our sins, or to gratify our pride, our vain ambition, or to exercise control or dominion or compulsion upon the souls of the children of men, in any degree of unrighteousness, behold, the heavens withdraw themselves; the Spirit of the Lord is grieved; and when it is withdrawn, Amen to the priesthood or the authority of that man.
    38 Behold, ere he is aware, he is left unto himself, to kick against the pricks, to persecute the saints, and to fight against God.
    39 We have learned by sad experience that it is the nature and disposition of almost all men, as soon as they get a little authority, as they suppose, they will immediately begin to exercise unrighteous dominion.
    40 Hence many are called, but few are chosen.
    41 No power or influence can or ought to be maintained by virtue of the priesthood, only by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned;
    42 By kindness, and pure knowledge, which shall greatly enlarge the soul without hypocrisy, and without guile—
    43 Reproving betimes with sharpness, when moved upon by the Holy Ghost; and then showing forth afterwards an increase of love toward him whom thou hast reproved, lest he esteem thee to be his enemy;
    44 That he may know that thy faithfulness is stronger than the cords of death.

    If we can say “Amen to the priesthood or the authority of that man”, as in the case of your stake president that “was abusing his position as judge with young women”, then can we also say “Amen” to the keys this man possesses? I think so…

  5. In which case (that is, if we can say “Amen” to his keys as well as his priesthood), then I would say that uncritically following your ward and stake priesthood leaders is Satanic rather than Christ-like, especially if you know of their abuses of power and that they are not merely making a mistake in giving judgment or advice like all of us do.

  6. Here is another story for you. King Limhi dies and his son Noah takes over. He dismisses all of the priests that his father had consecrated and installs his own. His criteria is that they have to be full of pride as he is. Abinadi comes along and is villified and killed because of his message of Jesus Christ. One of Noah’s comrades, Alma, sees the truth that Abinadi taught and speaks out. Noah casts him out and orders him killed.

    Alma flees and secretly begins to teach people the message preached by Abinadi. He then decides that those who gathered with him at the waters of Mormon are in need of baptism.

    Question: Does Alma have the ‘keys’ to baptise?

    My answer: Apparently he doesn’t as he asks God (Mosiah 18:12-18) that he may ‘do this work with holiness of heart.’ In answer to the prayer, the Spirit of the Lord comes upon him and he baptizes those with him. Where did he get his authority? He got his authority from God. There was no passage of keys from human to human, God gave him the right and authority to baptize.

    What does that have to do with this discussion? Keys and authority can be given to man directly if the condition warrants. The same could equally be true today. A righteous man can receive from God what he needs in order to do the will of God.

  7. Post

    “Question: Does Alma have the ‘keys’ to baptise?”

    I think Joseph asked that question and he was answered by the revelation on keys in the D&C so I guess that clarifies Alma, unless translator Joseph is true and prophet Joseph is fallen.

  8. Haven’t read the post and all the comments yet, but to #6: We just don’t know enough about the background of that story to know what it teaches us. Personally, I don’t think Alma had the priesthood – but it doesn’t matter, at all. Anyone can baptize in all sincerity, and if there is no priesthood authority to do so, the work will be done at some point – and the intent of the action will be honored. That’s something very few members stop and think about, but our core eternal doctrines make it a given.

    However, he might have been given the authority and priesthood. His statement (“do this work with holiness of heart”) says exactly NOTHING about whether or not he held the priesthood. That’s basically my own prayer any time I perform any priesthood ordinance.

  9. Wonderful post, Peter. Truly insightful. Most members have no clue how different the “practical church” is in its local iterations; most think there is MUCH more hierarchical control than there actually is. Read most of the posts and comments on many of the Mormon-themed blogs in the Bloggernacle, and you will see what I mean – even posts and comments from highly-educated, intelligent individuals who have been members for years.

    The person who has the most influence on most individual members is their Stake President, followed very closely by their Bishop. (and that order is debatable) The President of the Church is not in the top five – and, in many cases, the top dozen.

  10. Interesting comments about the differences in priesthood leaders as far as discipline. I know two people who did pretty much the exact thing. Both had church disciplinary councils – one was put on probation for six months, the other was excommunicated. Both went through the repentance process and are doing fine, so one must assume it worked out well, despite the vastly different consequences.

  11. “”I didn’t know this at the time, but my mother did. It took that long to get it investigated by Salt Lake.””

    This is disturbing to me–a stake president is using his position of authority to take advantage of young women for more than TWO YEARS (if I understand Peter right, this was happening since before the SP sent him on his mission and until after he returned). The church took two years to investigate this and stop it, and all the while his abuse continues? I am very disturbed that the church wouldn’t take quicker action. Almost sounds like the Catholic Church’s problem with not identifying pedophile priests and taking action against them to protect church members from further abuse.

    “At least, I felt this way. I felt that in his ministry to me, he was exercising keys he had, they worked, but he shouldn’t have had them. Nevertheless, while he had them, they worked.”

    If personal righteousness has nothing to do with one’s ability or divine right to exercise priesthood keys (which is what seems to be implied here), then I don’t see how there could have been an apostasy or a need for restoration. Don’t we LDS teach that the early church fell away from the truth into wickedness, and thus the church lost its divine authority? If they still had valid priesthood keys that were operative in spite of their wickedness (as is claimed with the SP), then it stands to reason that their successors (the Catholics and Orthodox churches) still have their keys and valid divine authority today.

    Since that cannot be right, it seems the best conclusion that I can come to is that your SP didn’t have true divine authority. Along the same lines, I’ve always been taught in the church that the spirit cannot dwell in unholy temples–so it would have been impossible for your SP to have the spirit or any sort of divine guidance when exercising his duties. I have never seen a scriptural exemption clause for those who hold keys or positions of authority. When the 118 pages were lost, Joseph Smith, who was the prophet, lost the spirit, the power of revelation, and the power to translate. I don’t think that a SP who was taking advantage of girls could fare any better than Joseph.

  12. Re: Alma and the priesthood

    Kings were ordained to be kings, and they were in turn able to ordain priests. Noah was validly ordained to be king by a priest he did not appoint and so those that Noah ordained likewise would have had lawful ordinations even though Noah was unworthy of the priesthood he held. Hence, Alma had a lawful priesthood ordination.

    Once he repented of his sins, he was free to exercise that priesthood without coming under condemnation. Noah however would stand under condemnation for exercising the priesthood when he was not worthy to do so, but that would not invalidate his ordinations.

    It’s like this: If someone is baptized, and the person who performed the baptism had just committed adultly the night before, they would not have to re-do the baptism. Also, if the person baptizing had just committed adultry, and the person being baptized was also unworthy of being baptized at that time, they would not nave to be re-baptized, but they would not have the blessings of baptism until they repented.

  13. Re: Church discipline

    Bishops and Stake Presidents do have a lot of leeway because each case is an individual matter. Consider two teens, both of the having broken the law of chastity.

    One of them is from a non-member household, verbally and emotionally abused, and suffers from clinical depression. He is deeply sorrwoful over what he has done.

    The other has grown up with every advantage of the gospel from the day he was born, but ‘really loved’ the girl. Now that it’s over he casually wants to wipe it off his ‘record’ quickly so he can go on the youth temple trip coming up.

    There is no ‘one size fits all’. As for cases where a person moves from one stake or ward to another and find the new leader has a different outlook, that seems a lot like when God told Abraham to go sacrifice his only son.

  14. Church disciplinary councils are not about handing down a punishment that fits the crime. The objective is to identify the vehicle that will help the transgressor complete the repentance process, experience the needed change of heart, and qualify for the full blessings of the Atonement. That vehicle differs from person to person because individuals’ hearts are different. One may need a 6 month formal probation, while another who has committed what appears to be the same transgression needs a longer probation or excommunication.   

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