Keys and Authority

In Gospel Doctrine class today, we read several verses from Doctrine and Covenants in which the keys of the priesthood are referred to. (We are on lesson eight.) An example is D&C 84:19: “This greater priesthood administereth the gospel and holdeth the key of the mysteries of the kingdom, even the key of the knowledge of God.”

I was struck by the image of keys because it doesn’t fit with our standard view of authority. Having a key doesn’t make it possible to command someone. The power it gives is the power to open doors, to make things available and possible.

That helped me see events and priesthood in a different light than before:

Joseph received the keys of translation–the power to make the Book of Mormon translation work possible (D&C 6:28). He received the keys of the mysteries and of sealed revelations: he opens the possibility of understanding them (D&C 28:7). He received the keys of the school of the prophets, making that school possible for and available to the early Saints (D&C 90:7).

Peter, James, and John received the keys of “this ministry” until the coming of Christ–they have the ability to take the gospel to the world, to make it available (D&C 77:7); they can open the door to the kingdom of God (D&C 27:13), making it possible for others to enter.

Elias can open the restoration of all things, and Elijah’s keys make it possible for the hearts of the children and fathers to turn to each other. (D&C 27:6, 9).

Michael has the keys of salvation–“under the counsel and direction of the Holy One” (D&C 78:16); under Christ’s direction, he makes salvation possible for us. (Is this a reference to the Fall or to something else?)

The Melchizedek Priesthood makes the spiritual blessings of the Church available to us (D&C 107:18).

The Twelve have the keys for preaching the gospel, they make it possible for us to do so (D&C 107:35).

Oliver Cowdrey and Joseph Smith received the ability to make the gathering of Israel possible (D&C 110:11).

Etc., etc.

Perhaps this insight is peculiar to me and obvious to everyone else. Or sometimes something that I have always known becomes suddenly even clearer. Perhaps that is what happened. In any case, seeing priesthood as that which makes things possible rather than power over things or power to command made this Sabbath a good one.

14 comments for “Keys and Authority

  1. Jim,

    Thinking about the priesthood in this way may help us with the question of women and priesthood. Men hold the keys but both men and women pass through the doors. Everyone enters a space ordered by the priesthood. As Kathleen Flake reminds us, “we don’t hold the priesthood, the priesthood holds us.” We hold the keys but the possibilities hold us.

    Also, I think the power to make things possible involves the question of temporality. Those who hold the keys are given the power to know when to open the door and when to keep it closed. The possible may be possible at some times but not at others (e.g., building a temple in Dresden, East Germany comes to mind). The key holders are like the master of the vineyard who knows when to plant or prune or dung or when not to–“long season” or short. God tells the key holders, “Open the door now,” or, “Hold back.”

  2. Extending the idea further, the key holders may be charged with being the something like bouncers at the door (“watchmen on the tower”), allowing some but not others to enter based on worthiness or on some other criterian.

  3. Dr. F., I believe the Catholic/Orthodox use of the word “mystery” as synonymous with sacrament or ordinance helps us out with this verse and understanding the priesthood, for in verse 20 of DnC 84 (right after your 19) says, “Therefore, in the ordinances thereof the power of godliness is made manifest.” I think, then, that the keys are for the unlocking of this knowledge and power through the performing of ordinances for as many as are willing to receive it. While for us Mormons, “mystery” may mean ordinance, but it’s easy to see at least how it applies to temple ordinances. I don’t know if what I’m saying is valid, it seems to be a very broad way of looking at keys whereas you’ve delineated well what keys do in many particular instances of our history.

    Totally unrelated, but I just have to let somebody know. Our first sacrament meeting speaker today just read a complete talk from general conference followed by the words of every verse of “I need thee every hour.” Well, when he got to the chorus and said “I need thee, oh, I need thee. Every hour I need thee” in a tone drier than you’ve ever heard I couldn’t contain my laughter. Wicked of me, I know, but I also wondered whether you can report somebody who uses an entire talk by someone else for academic dishonesty or intellectual property theft. Probably not, especially since he told us whose talk it was.

  4. Thank you Jed for your perceptive comment about women and the priesthood in regard to authority vs. power! I have been following some of the other “women issue” threads here, but have been too terrified to post in regard to them.

    I do not wanting to turn this discussion into something else (it is such a wonderful subject itself!)… however, on a personal note, I would just like to say that I (as a woman) have struggled tremendously with issues related to Priesthood, authority, etc. Sitting in Sunday School today and hearing this lesson was the first time IN MY LIFE that I can remember hearing a lesson on the Priesthood, yet not coming out in some way feeling slightly smaller, more insignificant, or confused as a female member. Not that it didn’t essentially teach us anything we didn’t know before, but, like Jim pointed out, the organization of this lesson suddenly helped things become “clearer” in their relationship.

    My Sunday School instructor used the powerful, simplistic object lesson of pilfering a woman’s set of keys before the start of class. He had someone hold them up and asked whose they were, then pretended to deny the person that came forward the right to claim them. He asserted that they were his, and this unfortunate “reflective-object person” began to get a little flustered as they argued and finally demanded (rather crossly!) that they would need a ride home if they could not get their keys back. When the teacher asked what they intended to do at that point (since they were obviously locked out of their warm house) we saw the frustration and anger melt out of this woman as she began to realize this was probably part of the lesson. :) Illustration achieved: because she had “lost” those keys, she had lost the very authority she held over her own life to accomplish such simple yet completely necessary tasks. The whole classroom was silent this morning as we all considered this old information in a slightly new light. As a woman who has closely struggled with such issues, the effect of this was very profound on me. Anyway, I don’t have anything doctrinally or spiritually profound to insert in relation to this discussion, but I did want to share what a beautiful, slightly perception-shifting experiment this lesson proved to be for me.

    Thank you Jim F. for creating this thread, as I look forward to personally delving deeper into this new Priesthood perspective and am eager to consider the comments that people make in response. You were not alone, in having a good Sabbath.

  5. Steve, that is so me. I am famous for that sort of thing. I wish I’d been there.

    I heard a good story once, it’s supposed to be true. This lady got up and bore her testimony and thanked the ward over and over for the wonderful help they’d given her family when her husband was recovering from scrotum surgery, describing how it’s hard to walk and do things when you have your scrotum operated on. People sat politely, slightly appalled.

    Then her husband got up and said, “I have just one word for my wife. The word is sternum.” That was pretty much the end of the meeting.

    Sorry, I had to share that. We should have a thread on funny things in church.

  6. You might be interested in Elder Oaks “The Aaronic Priesthood and the Sacrament” October General Conference 1998. (I actually think some of this talk was included in the manual.) In speaking of the keys of the ministering of angels held by the Aaronic Priesthood he states:

    “In general, the blessings of spiritual companionship and communication are only available to those who are clean. As explained earlier, through the Aaronic Priesthood ordinances of baptism and the sacrament, we are cleansed of our sins and promised that if we keep our covenants we will always have His Spirit to be with us. . . . I believe that promise not only refers to the Holy Ghost but also to the ministering of angels, for “angels speak by the power of the Holy Ghost; wherefore, they speak the words of Christ” (2 Ne. 32:3). So it is that those who hold the Aaronic Priesthood open the door for all Church members who worthily partake of the sacrament to enjoy the companionship of the Spirit of the Lord and the ministering of angels.”

  7. Opening doors is a wonderful image. Many years ago, my father-in-law was talking with us at his kitchen table, and we were talking about keys and what it means to preside as a priesthood holder — in the home or at church. He said, “It means you are responsible to see that things happen, not necessarily to make to decisions, but to see that decisions are made.” I have thought of that over the years, and it fits into this idea of opening doors. On one of the threads at FMH on priesthood, someone named Kurt posted an idea that has stayed with me. He said that women are able to provide a physical birth for God’s children, and men are able to provide (through priesthood ordinances) opportunities for a spiritual birth. Both of these are doorways, and God’s hand is present in both. Kurt also said that the ideal is for both to be available to a child within the family.

  8. Steve L., that’s a very funny story. Your description of the dry (perhaps deadpan?) reading from “I need the every hour” reminds me of McConkie’s talk that he began in his authoritative drone, “The morning breaks! The shadows flee! Lo Zion’s banner is unfurled.”

  9. Steve L., I’ve also always wanted to recite Jethro Tull’s “Aqua Lung” in sacrament meeting in a tone drier than you’ve ever heard, but I’ve never been able to tie it in to the themes that I’ve been assigned.

  10. It is my understanding that our current usage of the words “key” or “keys” has narrowed greatly from the time of Joseph. If you look at their occurrence in The Words of Joseph Smith (WOJS) and in the D&C their usage eludes the small box that we went to fit them in.

    The following are a couple of the many examples that might not fit the current popular definitions:

    D&C 27:5
    Behold, this is wisdom in me; wherefore, marvel not, for the hour cometh that I will drink of the fruit of the vine with you on the earth, and with Moroni, whom I have sent unto you to reveal the Book of Mormon, containing the fulness of my everlasting gospel, to whom I have committed the keys of the record of the stick of Ephraim;

    WOJS 2 July 1839 – Willard Richards Pocket Companion
    I will give you one of the keys of the mysteries of the kingdom. It is an eternal principle that has existed with God from all Eternity that that man who rises up to condemn others, finding fault with the Church, saying that they are out of the way while he himself is righteous, then know assuredly that that man is in the high road to apostacy…

  11. Tears are running down my cheeks and I’m glad I visited the bathroom recently. FUNNY, post #5!

  12. Elaine, post #4, I missed yours the first time I looked at this thread. I just want to comment that if I were investigating and I saw a lesson like that, someone used and frustrated, even humiliated, publically…I wouldn’t pursue further the idea of joining this Church. Such a method of teaching reminds me of the diversity lesson sometimes played on grade schoolers where teachers compell students to deliberately shun, make fun of, and otherwise treat blue-eyed students as blacks were once treated in the South, to make the point that such treatment is not allowed or ethical.

  13. Steve L: Indeed, “sacramentum” is the translation into Latin of “mysterion,” mystery. (And some scholars have argued that “sacramentum” and “signum”–sign–mean much the same thing in the ancient and early medieval church.) In traditional Christian theology and, I think, even in the early Church, a mystery is something that is hidden, something that is, in fact, in principle hidden to “natural eyes.” Only revelation can reveal a mystery.

    My understanding of Joseph’s Smith’s possession of those keys is that he receives revelation and, thus, can usher us into the mysteries. You were right to point also to verse 20 of section 84. I don’t have any difficulty with the idea that the ordinance are instances of those mysteries (something that verses 20-21 seem to me to make explicit), revelations of things that cannot be known otherwise. The temple ordinances are a particularly apt example, but I think more public ordinances, such as baptism, are also mysteries. Only by being baptized and receiving the Holy Ghost can one know what it means to be reborn, to live in the world anew, a new world.

  14. Sheri Lynn-
    Indeed, utilizing methods of humiliation or ridicule to teach would be very undesirable and totally lacking in ethical judgment. However, this was not the case in my ward last Sunday, (and I would be horrified to think that it might ever be the case on any Sunday!). I am sorry if my meager expression of the event left you with that impression.
    Sometimes, negative aspects of emotions, such as frustration, can emerge inside a safe circle of love and not become the negative emotion itself. If these negative aspects do not become something larger, than they are also not capable of taking control of other emotions and situations, which is the way we usually envisage such emotions as a whole. (And, I imagine, this may have been part of your interpretation…)
    It was certainly not a “you” against “us/me” situation where the teacher (and everyone else) knew what was going on and effectively “pitted” himself (themselves) against this woman. The woman involved was neither offended nor hurt, and the teacher did act with love, gentleness, and the highest of moral intent. I do not believe that anyone in that room experienced negative feelings in relation to the event as you interpret it. Thus, I must share some fault if I gave you this impression with my words, and I hope that you will now be able to receive the purpose of my original communication, in light of this further delineation, with peace.

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