Handbook 2, Chapter 2: Priesthood Principles

Our series continues by looking at Priesthood Principles, the second of three foundational chapters found in the recently published Handbook 2 (“H2”). I’ll first touch on the status of H2, then discuss some of the topics covered in the three pages of Chapter Two.


H2 is the handbook for administering the Church. The focus of the handbook is organization, procedures, and leadership at the local level. H2 is accessible at LDS.org and therefore available to anyone on the planet with an Internet connection. I assume that publicly posting H2 at LDS.org means that public discussion of H2 is approved, even encouraged, by LDS leaders. I have noticed that it is increasingly cited in LDS meetings (Ward Council, PEC, etc.) and in LDS talks over the pulpit. All of this seems like a very positive development.

However, within H2 itself is the following directive: “This handbook has been prepared solely for use by general and local Church officers to administer the affairs of the Church. It should not be duplicated or given to other persons.” This suggests that public discussion of H2 is not approved or encouraged, which seems inconsistent with publicly posting H2 at LDS.org. What the Church is saying (in H2) and doing (by posting H2 at LDS.org) seem to be out of sync. I thought Correlation was supposed to correct this sort of problem. Anyway, I am proceeding on the assumption that public discussion is permissible. If I am mistaken, the good folks at Correlation can contact me directly.


Section 2.1, Priesthood Authority, reviews the dual Aaronic and Mechizedek priesthoods, then discusses priesthood keys, ordinances, and covenants. One of the very positive things about the LDS lay priesthood is that it is described not just as a power but also as a covenant. As noted in section 2.1:

When a man receives the Melchizedek Priesthood, he covenants to be faithful, to magnify his callings, and to live by every word of God and His servants (see D&C 84:33-44).

Let’s face it, men generally need a little extra encouragement to “live by every word of God.” Giving that encouragement in the context of the priesthood as covenant, a calling to serve, is an effective and uplifting approach.

The Keymaker

The Keymaker

There are six paragraphs in 2.1.1, Priesthood Keys. When reading these paragraphs, it is easy to forget that the keys are just a metaphor: there aren’t really any keys. The term is simply a way to talk about authority and responsibility within the dual LDS priesthoods, or more particularly “the authority God has given to priesthood leaders to direct, control, and govern the use of His priesthood on earth.” Telling a young president of the deacon’s quorum or teacher’s quorum that he holds keys helps him take that responsibility seriously. That is helpful.

But metaphors can be misused. One unintended consequence of the keys metaphor is what might be called the plight of the keyless — the counselors, auxiliary presidents, and priesthood leaders who are certainly given authority and responsibility but who are told they do not hold keys. Contrast the local elder’s quorum president (keyholder) with the local high priests group leader (no keys). The fact that each ward has an independent quorum of elders with a key-holding president, whereas there is only one high priests quorum for each stake and the key-holding president for that quorum is the stake president, seems like an incidental feature of the historical development of LDS governance structures rather than an independent, preordained arrangement of authority at the local level. That does not seem like the basis for a distinction between the ward’s EQP (you are important, you hold keys) and the HPGL (you don’t hold keys, figure it out). Here is H2’s short list of local leaders who hold keys: “Priesthood keys are bestowed on presidents of temples, missions, stakes, and districts; bishops; branch presidents; and quorum presidents.”

So I see overemphasizing the keys metaphor as having two drawbacks: (1) it tends to disparage the authority and responsibility of non-key-holding persons; and (2) it creates confusion between reality (people and the authority and responsibility that is given) and metaphor (keys).

Section 2.2, The Purpose of the Church, is just three short but helpful paragraphs. The Church assists God in bringing to pass “the salvation and exaltation of His children,” a gentle reminder that LDS doctrine distinguishes between the terms salvation and exaltation. The last paragraph reflects the expansion of the traditional threefold mission of the Church (proclaim, perfect, and redeem) to include a reference to the poor and the needy. The divinely appointed responsibilities of the Church

include helping members live the gospel of Jesus Christ, gathering Israel through missionary work, caring for the poor and needy, and enabling the salvation of the dead by building temples and performing vicarious ordinances.

Section 2.3, The Priesthood and the Family, and 2.4, Use of Priesthood Authority, wind up the chapter. I know that some readers take offense at the following description of ideal LDS family life: “With his wife as an equal partner, he [husband and father who holds the Melchizedek Priesthood] presides in righteousness and love, serving as the family’s spiritual leader.” Maybe that is best read as encouraging men to be righteous and loving, another example of the priesthood as covenant concept discussed above.

What Is the Priesthood?

God and Cosmos

God and Cosmos

I will throw out a final topic as sort of a discussion question that probably merits its own extended post at some point. The first paragraph of the chapter states very succinctly, “The priesthood is the power and authority of God.” This seems like a reference to power as an attribute of God, just as love or compassion are held to be attributes of God. Those who exercise priesthood power on earth are (somehow) accessing or exercising a small portion of God’s power.

Yet the balance of that first paragraph takes a different approach, describing the priesthood as an independent entity, a thing existing independently of God, what one might term a cosmic priesthood:

It has always existed and will continue to exist without end (see Alma 13:7–8; D&C 84:17–18). Through the priesthood, God created and governs the heavens and the earth. Through this power, He exalts His obedient children, bringing to pass “the immortality and eternal life of man” (Moses 1:39; see also D&C 84:35–38).

These appear to be two distinct concepts of what priesthood is and how it can be said to exist. As in the first paragraph of Chapter Two, both concepts are often reflected in LDS doctrinal discussions of priesthood.

Prior posts in this series:

21 comments for “Handbook 2, Chapter 2: Priesthood Principles

  1. If you are trying to say that the organization (or culture) of the church can lead to passivity on the part of counselors, I would probably agree with you. On the other hand, in my own experience the keys are real. By that I mean there are spiritual gifts that accompany the person who presides (even if it is me) that are not there after the release.

  2. I thought the statements on priesthood keys were insightful but made me wonder. It states that certain men hold keys. But what about auxiliary leaders (primary YW/YM, RS, etc)? Where does their authority come from? Are they “borrowing” the keys? They direct their organizations by inspirations as much as a bishop/SP, etc. does in their spheres.

  3. I’m uncomfortable with making a big deal about priesthood keys. I agree with your distinction of metaphor and reality.

  4. My understanding that the metaphor is supposed to hearken back to Matt 16:19, with the idea being that those “with” priesthood keys have the authority to make decisions binding in heaven as well as earth. Anyone (worthy and authorized) with the priesthood can perform an ordinance binding in heaven as well as earth; but only those “with” the proper “keys” can actually do the authorizing. So e.g. Bishops can authorize an ordination in the Aaronic priesthood and stake presidents an ordination in the Melchizedek priesthood, but their counsellors can’t. That is: what “keys” is a metaphor for is the authority to authorize ordinances, etc. that will be binding in heaven as well as on earth.

    That said, having been an EQ president, I never did anything like that, nor do I see how in my calling I could have possibly been in a position to. What ordinances does an EQP ever authorize? Or a Deacon’s quorum president?

    My guess — pure speculation — is that the metaphor started out representing the “authority to authorize”, but at the time it was also given to all presidents of priesthood quorums, who (guess I with zero historical research) really did have a reason to have it back in the 1840s. As time has gone on, we’ve kept associating the image of “keys” with quorum presidents; but as they (some of them) have lost that function, the purpose of the image has gotten blurred between, on the one hand, authority to authorize, and on the other, presiding in the priesthood.

  5. In general I feel that too much key rhetoric can get silly pretty fast, but there is a benefit if handled responsibly.

    I remember when I was set apart as a deacons quorum president the bishop told me something to the effect that I was one of only four people in the ward who held keys, which I took very seriously. It made me feel special and committed, and that my office was a real and important part of the gospel to be taken seriously, not some rinky-dink thing to keep the kids busy.

    These kinds of experiences bind people to the gospel. I just wish we included the women and girls.

  6. Thanks, Dave. I don’t immediately have much to respond to, except that I enjoy the posts.

    Re: keys: we recently spent some time in Italy, and, in religious painting, it was interesting how identifiable certain figures were. Peter was always painted holding a key, so that metaphor seems to be relatively durable, across time and religious denomination (or, at least, across early Christianity, Catholicism, and Mormonism–I’d be surprised if Protestants really latched onto the Peter-with-keys image).

  7. I have always thought that the priesthood was an organizing principle. The miracle principle is the Holy Ghost, which everyone has, who dispenses all spiritual gifts equally and according to faith.

    If God creates by the priesthood, he is using the organizing power. The power of faith comes by a different route. Therefore, since faith can also make things happen, the Relief Society operates by faith.

  8. Michelle B, I suspect that the normative interpretation is that auxiliary presidents do not have keys. The direct their organisations but under direction of the Bishop who has keys. The other Priesthood organisations should by this logic have some sort of autonomy but this is not always the case either. There are quite large issues with what keys mean and I think your question gets at some of those.

  9. Aaron, as you probably know quorums were once almost completely autonomous. I think the keys rhetoric is a remnant of those days so it is strange that it has such a persistent and even growing presence in the modern church. I’ve never understood it. How can you take a concept seriously when of the four people in a ward who hold priesthood keys half of them are a 12-13 year old deacon and a 14-15 year old teacher?

  10. While the Church is certainly more correlated than it has been, the “keys” concept makes sense to me. In the not-so-distant past, there was a separate President of the High Priest Quorum in every stake (President Howard W. Hunter held that position in the Pasadena Stake before he became stake president). I’m fairly sure that the reason that position was subsumed into the position of stake president was that there were areas where the HP president had a difference of opinion about what the HPs should do than did his stake president.

    But the keys I have as EQP mean that, though I consult with the bishop about EQ callings, I make those callings, I set those called apart–the EQ is autonomous in that sense. Similarly, the other three with keys in the ward, the deacons quorum president, the teachers quorum president, and the bishop (the priests quorum president) also use their keys to run their quorums. And the stake president uses his keys to run the high priests quorum throughout the stake.

    And, ultimately, what keys are really about is responsibility. I’ll be held accountable for what happened when I held the keys to the EQ in my ward. If I was (as I am) a pretty lousy EQP, I’ll be responsible for the consequences of that. If I get my act together and somehow manage to get more than the usual three elders to a service project, or more than six to an activity, I might get blessed for it.

  11. KLC, the Aaronic Priesthood was not always something set aside for young men. I think that when the understanding of keys developed, it was more common for men to be serving as deacons and teachers and hence as presidents of those quorums.

  12. I think the prior quorum autonomy observation has lots of merit. And remember, that the priesthood, as conceived by Joseph Smith, didn’t reach down to 12 year olds. That modification/reform/inspiration didn’t come until around 1900, in an effort to revitalize the Aaronic Priesthood. I think most of the key doctrine and rhetoric, however much honored in these days, comes from that earlier period.

    It is a little difficult, from a practical point of view, to see that the deacon’s quorum president has more “authority” because of his keys than the High Priest Group leader, who has none. Or has more leadership demands than the Relief Society president. If it does help to make a deacon feel his responsibility more deeply, as Scott (#5) points out, it is probably good, as far as it goes—kind of a useful fiction.

    It’s also a pleasantly quaint doctrine and image that, as Sam points out (#6), goes back to Peter, which tend to buttress our ‘line of authority’ type arguments, while not very useful in understanding current church administrative practice. Working it to death in talks, the Handbook, etc., is probably not helpful because the theory so starkly contrasts with the practice. Someone might notice.

  13. On a practical level, I think the distinction between holding the priesthood and holding priesthood keys is often lost on a good portion of Church members. The idea that you hold the priesthood but can’t use it unless someone with priesthood keys directs you to isn’t taught very well, IMO.

    I’ve seen situations where, for example, home teachers never think to ask the Bishop if they should take the sacrament to a home-bound member. While its an obvious thing to do, according to this idea of keys you must have the Bishop’s OK to do it.

    More significantly, I wonder if this wasn’t a factor in the incident (or were there incidents) of ordination to the priesthood of African-Americans prior to the 1978 revelation. I don’t know much about it, but I understand that a priesthood holder performed an ordination without permission before 1978. Could the priesthood holder not have understood or not remembered the need for permission?

  14. You’re right john f. quorums used to have a different age composition as well as being much more autonomous, hence my observation that the keys thing is a remnant from our past. But changed age requirements doesn’t explain our present 21st century obsession with priesthood keys given 50% of the people in a ward with them can’t even drive yet.

  15. I have always read D&C 121 to depict the priesthood as a living authority that is limited to those ordained to certain offices, but is also limited in its power to those who are exercising their offices in righteousness. When I act in a self-serving way within my priesthood office, my action lacks the sanction of the Holy Ghost and is of no effect in the eyes of heaven. It is distinct from concepts like magic and “the force” (Star Wars(R)), which can essentiall;y instrumental in nature and can be perverted in their use.

    This concept, of a living priesthood that requires righteousness to exercise, is what I heard Bruce McConkie teach to the Japanese saints whenb I was on my mission. He emphasized the need to be in tune with the Holy ghost when pronouncing blessings on the sick or durinig any priesthood ordinance.

    This is in contrast to claims I have heard people make that the have the ability by dint of the priesthood they hold to order someone to be healed, or be blessed in some other way, that the power belongs to them like a possession, with total discretion as to how it is used. I think that is one of those false traditions that grew out of a misinterpretation and has a life of its own as a meme that gets passed on because it is so self-aggrandizing and ego-stroking.

    The only way I see the priesthood being depicted as being “at the disposal” of someone is in the example of one of the Nephis in Helaman who was given power to cause a drought to make the people humble. In giving him that authority, God told him that it only worked because his will was in total synch with God’s will. I think that is a truer descrioption of the function of the priesthood.

  16. Kent, the incident that comes to mind (with the help of my friend Google) involved a man in Washington named Douglas Wallace, who ordained Larry Lester, a black man, to the priesthood in April 1976. He conceded that he was going beyond what was permitted, but hoped to bring about a change in the church policy. Instead, he brought about a change in his membership status, and the ordination was declared void.

    There was a post about this and some other pre-1978 ordinations at Mormon Heretic last Sunday.

  17. Mark B (16) Yes, that was what I was thinking about.

    BUT, by saying he was “going beyond what was permitted,” did he mean that he knew it was against Church policy? Or did he mean that he knew that the person with the proper keys hadn’t approved the ordinance? Or both?

  18. Is the concept of priesthood keys a recent construct, or has it been with the Church since the restoration? I suspect the former. At some point, someone recognized that a universal (well, universal male) priesthood needed some hierarchical controls. Thus, the practice of “asking permission” to use authority previously granted. Plus, the concept is unevenly applied: specific authorization by key holders is required for some priesthood ordinances (ordinations, baptism, confirmation sacrament), but not others (blessings of children – at least in the home, healing blessings).

  19. Joseph Smith’s discourse on the “three grand orders of priesthood” as referenced in Hebrews 7 and contained in The Words of Joseph Smith is a wonderful source of information in reference to the concepts discussed in this post.

    If I remember correctly, Brigham Young also had some fascinating things to say about the intricate ways in which priesthood keys are established and used within the church and kingdom of God on earth.

    In Elder Oaks’ recent conference address on the two lines of communication he mentions that “in its fulness the personal line does not function independent of the priesthood line.”

  20. In last February’s worldwide training meeting, Elder Holland said perhaps off-handedly that we don’t well understand priesthood keys.

    Sometimes we see the forest, but we fail to see the individual trees. Sometimes we think of the church as an institution, but in reality it is individual people. When I deal with my bishop for Aaronic Priesthood business or with my stake president for Melchizedek Priesthood business, I am not dealing with the institutional church — I am dealing with individual men who hold priesthood keys — and those men are my neighbors, not agents of the institutional church.

    A biologist could choose to study a forest and its patterns and ways, or cold choose to study an individual tree. I prefer the latter as being better suited to my location — from my perspective way down here, all I can see is a few trees around me — I cannot see the forest — I can imagine it, but I cannot see it.

    To me, there is a reality to priesthood keys. But to see that reality, one has to look at the individual trees. And one has to appreciate that one holder of keys might approach his duty in a manner differing from someone else.

    I think we also look at an individual officer’s key too broadly. For example, in my mind, a bishop is not exercising his keys when he asks a member to help put away the chairs after an activity.

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