Growing up in the Church, I was always taught that what makes our baptism different from everybody else’s was that we had the authority from God via the Priesthood to preform them. This also extended to all the other ordnances. God’s authority was required, so much so that in many of the ordnances the words “By the authority of the Melchesidec Priesthood” is part of the actual wording of these ordnances.
We Mormons believe that there was a general apostasy from the church as founded by the Apostles. They used to have that priesthood authority, but lost it, although no one can point to a particular date or action that caused this loss of priesthood power. We are thus called a restoration church, since we have restored something that is lost.
But (and there is always a but in Bishop Bill’s posts!) how does D&C 121: 36-37 affect this authority?
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degree of unrighteousness, behold, the heavens withdraw themselves; the Spirit of the Lord is grieved; and when it is withdrawn, Amen to the priesthood or the authority of that man.D&C 121
What it is saying is that if a man exercises “unrighteous dominion” he loses the power of this priesthood, and the authority to use it. This rises all sorts or questions.
The Stake President that set me apart as a missionary was excommunicated a year into my mission for carnal knowledge of the Stake Relief Society (she was also excommunicated). If his horizontal extracurricular activity was going on when he set me apart (which it probably was), I believe that meets the very definition of unrighteous dominion. So his priesthood authority was withdrawn. Was I really a missionary? By what authority did I preach the gospel? Is that why my dusting of the feet did not work?
Another example, what if the person that performs a baptism was beating his kids and wife at home? Another classic definition of unrighteous dominion. So he loses his priesthood. Is the baptism valid?
One explanation put forth by church members I’ve heard is that if the person getting baptized believes faithfully that it’s valid, then God will recognize it. If this is true, then one could extrapolate this and conclude that a person getting baptized by a Baptist minister and believes that he has the authority to baptize them, then the baptism is also recognized as valid by God. Extrapolating even further, everybody who received ordinations and baptisms throughout the last twenty centuries believed in the authority of the priests performing the rites, and are thus recognized by God.
Another possible explanation put forth by faithful Mormons is to claim that priesthood authority is like a professional license, and is valid until forfeited in some kind of legal proceeding, which would be an excommunication in a religious context. D&C 121 has nothing about a formal proceeding to strip the man of his authority. Also, there is no historical evidence that the entire Christian clergy went through such a proceeding over the past 2000 years, thus requiring the restoration.
So which is it? How do you solve this paradox? Is D&C 121 sacrosanct, and do men lose their priesthood when they practice unrighteous dominion, so everything they do is invalid, done without power? Or are the ordnances still valid because of the faith of the recipient, thus diminishing the actual restored power because it lies in the mind of the recipient and not actual keys passed down. What of other faiths ordnances if the recipient believes it is of God?