In my series exploring the point of various aspects to church life, none garnered so much excitement as the Priesthood. I wonder why that is. Regardless, I’ll take a crack at it.

First, let’s start with some possible reasons that we have Priesthood in the Church. According to Wikipedia:

In the Latter Day Saint movement, priesthood is the power and authority of God given to man, including the authority to perform ordinances and to act as a leader in the church.

The function of priesthood in the Church appears to be twofold: administrative function, and an ordinance-performing role. Examples of each follow:

  • Administrative: presiding at meetings, conducting meetings, conducting worthiness interviews, heading quorums, making welfare and budget decisions, tracking and auditing finances, completing reports, staffing ward callings.
    • Gray areas:  These functions are related to specific callings individuals have been given, not to “all” priesthood holders, and women in specific callings also perform these functions for specific organizations. Pres. Oaks has recently claimed that when women perform these types of callings, they are using “borrowed” priesthood from the male leader who has set them apart for that role.
  • Ordinances: administering the sacrament, performing baptisms and confirmations, anointing and blessing the sick, performing temple ordinances.
    • Gray areas: healing blessings did not used to require priesthood ordination for the first century of the church when it was customary for women to perform blessings by the laying on of hands, particularly for women preparing for childbirth (exclusively done by women).
  • Other: there are some functions that are not administrative nor ordinances that are exclusively assigned to members of the priesthood, including witnessing ordinances and overseeing all women’s activities.

I have not included pastoral care or mediation in that list of reasons, although many have used the priesthood roles to fill this need, with widely varying results. In other religions, paid priesthood roles require additional education to ensure pastoral care meets a minimum standard. In our Church, we assume people who have successful marriages and are financial solvent businessmen and dentists can provide pastoral care without professional training or education. But being a “mediator” acting on Christ’s behalf is listed by most other faiths as a primary function of the Priesthood (along with performing rites and ordinances). In our Church, the “mediation” role is replraced by being a “Judge in Israel” for bishops at least (not for Priests doing the sacrament, for example). Depending on the sect, this mediation could be more pastoral or more adjudication-based intercession. In ours, it is primarily “assessing worthiness,” or in other words, more emphasis on adjudication and less on pastoral care.

Our Church is somewhat unique in a few ways Priesthood is discussed:

  • Pairing “leadership” roles with Priesthood. While other churches may likewise only assign decision-making roles to those with Priesthood, this is not described as an explicit function or responsibility of Priesthood. Within Mormonism, we do specifically call it a function of Priesthood, even when performed by women who are barred from ordination. [1]
  • That all men are eligible for Priesthood (vs. a sub-set of men who specifically attend a “seminary” to become Priests)

Just a quick reminder of the three / four-fold mission of the church:

  • Proclaim the gospel
  • Redeem the dead
  • Perfect the saints
  • Care for the poor and needy

Of these, the priesthood is designed to do the ordinance work associated with the first three, and having the priesthood is theoretically supposed to perfect the saints, but only the males, by giving them administrative and leadership experience that can enrich their lives and help them develop the leadership skills required for eventual godhood (maybe). When I was set apart as a full-time missionary, my Visa identified me as a “minister,” a term at that time that was exclusively applied to males. While I didn’t have the ability to perform ordinances, I did plenty of proclaiming the gospel without receiving the priesthood (see again, footnote 1). However, the Church views missionary work as a male responsibility, optional for women. Redeeming the dead is an activity that requires the work of both women and men (since some dead people are women and it is proxy work performed by the same sex as the deceased), but men perform most of the ordinances [2].

Blowing past all that “why the priesthood exists” business, let’s get to the heart of the matter. Why is “priesthood” the vehicle to do these things, particularly an all-male (meaning every male can play) priesthood? Here are some possibilities for your consideration.

Engaging men in church. Idle hands are the devil’s tools, as they say. We wisely recommend that all new Church members have both a friend and a calling. For men who are newly baptized, Priesthood ordination usually follows quickly to fully engage them and make them eligible for male callings. Giving people a responsibility requires that they show up and engage (actively in a good cause, ideally). So why do men get the Priesthood when women only get “borrowed” Priesthood (that nobody told us we got before 2013)? Women don’t seem to need it in the ways men do to feel engaged–and I’m not saying that from experience or personal belief, but simply from the polling data for religious engagement. Women, for whatever reason, engage at higher rates and fall away at lower rates, across all religions. Another way to describe this theory is the “I’ll take my ball and go home” theory; (some) men will only engage if they get to run things. Again, by contrast, many other Churches fail to engage men at similar rates. Even the earliest recorded criticisms of the early Christian Church included that it was a Church “for women and children and slaves” (that might not have even been three separate categories). Origen, the early Church Father and apologist, defended against this charge by detractors.

Domesticating men. This kind of goes along with the first one, but with a twist. In Spain, where I served my mission, most of the men spent the evenings in the bar with their male friends every night. After baptism, that all changed, but it’s a macho culture in which people separate by sex and gender norms (for better or worse–I say worse) prevail. When we visited several years ago, we were having dinner with a group of church friends, and while the meal was cooking, the men said they needed to go do “men things.” Before baptism, that would have meant the bar, but we were amused to find that they went out to do visits to the needy in the ward. Those were the “man things” they were doing. Priesthood is a way to redirect male need for hierarchy, recognition, titles, and male camaraderie into something positive that supports families rather than something negative that only supports their poor impulse control and base instincts. Studies show that if you want to lift people out of poverty, give money to women and not men. When you give money to impoverished men, it often ends up wasted in alcohol, gambling or prostitution. When you give money to impoverished women, it more often goes into micro-businesses, education (usually for their children), and food and shelter for their family. [3] To add to this theory, while all men are eligible for Priesthood ordination, they also must be living the standards to be “worthy” to receive it. So, there are hoops to go through for the men, and those hoops are designed to train them in “correct” behavior that is pro-social and family-oriented.

Bringing priesthood into the home. Here’s where we get to a really unique LDS feature of a “Priesthood of every male.” This approach theoretically puts priesthood into every home, or at least into every home that the Church usually thinks about as being a “home.” The only parallel I could come up with for Catholicism is putting a shrine in the home, and the tendency of large Catholic families to have one son enter the Priesthood.[5] In a way, it franchises Church to each household, meaning that within the walls of the home, if there is a father or adult son who holds the Priesthood, the house functions like a mini-Church with Priesthood oversight and support. In most families I know, this literally means the dad asks people to say prayers, but it might even extend to offering Priesthood blessings. There are plenty of caveats here due to the invisibility of some types of households: single, divorced, and widowed women [4]. Rather than the Church being the focus of worship, every home can be Christ- or Church-centered, but only if it has an adult male in it–of course, as we alluded to in #1, maybe women don’t require that; maybe it’s just for the men. If you have a child to baptize, a sick or injured family member, a demonic possession, or what have you, you have your own Priesthood holder right there, ready to handle it. No need to bake a lasagna to the Parish Priest to coax him into swinging by with a vial of holy water.

Let’s see what you think.

Discuss.

[1] Although this is a novel explanation that originated in a 2013 talk by then E. Oaks, explaining that women in leadership roles were operating on “borrowed” Priesthood authority of the Priesthood leader who set them apart in their assigned calling.

[2] with a notable exception for washings and anointings that should give us all pause before declaring women don’t now and will never have the priesthood, but whatevs.

[3] Studies also show more women than men give to charity.

[4] One recent study I’ve read said that 60% of the women in Relief Society are unmarried, so this is not a small population.

[5] I get most of my Catholic family information from living in New Jersey in 5th grade, watching The Sopranos, The Godfather trilogy, and Veronica Mars’ Fighting Fitzpatrick crime family.