That they [the rights of the priesthood] 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degree of unrighteousness, behold, the heavens withdraw themselves; the Spirit of the Lord is grieved; and when it is withdrawn, Amen to the priesthood or the authority of that man.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 121:37
So why do I so rarely see “amen” being said to someone’s priesthood or authority?
This verse is often cited in response to people who express concern about men having all the presiding authority in the Church. It’s fine to have only men running things, defenders of the practice will argue, because they can only do it in righteousness. If they try to do anything unrighteously, their priesthood is revoked.
My experience is that men’s priesthood is actually not formally revoked with any great frequency in the Church. I understand that if a man abuses his wife or kids, or if a bishop steals tithing money, he might be excommunicated and lose his priesthood. But having one’s priesthood revoked just isn’t a very frequent occurrence as far as I can see.
I can think of a number of possible reasons why it appears that men’s priesthood is rarely formally revoked.
- My experience isn’t typical, and the Church actually withdraws men’s priesthood all the time when they exercise unrighteous dominion.
- Mormon men have the Gift of the Holy Ghost, which helps us do an exceptionally good job of not exercising unrighteous dominion, so it’s rarely necessary to revoke anyone’s priesthood. In other words, the “almost all men”comment in verse 39 doesn’t apply.
- Formal revocation of priesthood isn’t necessary. Everyone knows whose priesthood is valid or invalid.
- It doesn’t really matter whether a man’s priesthood has been revoked. Just so long as he received it at one time, he can still act in leadership positions and perform ordinances even if he’s actually lost his priesthood.
- The scripture is using hyperbole. It’s not actually the case that men exercising dominion or compulsion in any degree of unrighteousness have their priesthood revoked. It only happens to those who do it in serious unrighteousness.
- “Amen to the priesthood or the authority of that man” refers to a temporary revocation; men may frequently be guilty of exercising unrighteous dominion, but they usually repent quickly so their priesthood is restored without the Church having to take formal action.
- Because “almost all men” are prone to exercising unrighteous dominion (D&C 121:39), it would be an institutional nightmare to try to formally keep track of whose priesthood needed to be revoked.
- Related to #7, if men’s priesthood were revoked when we exercised dominion or compulsion in any degree of unrighteousness, everyone’s priesthood would be quickly revoked and there would be nobody left who could perform ordinances or run the Church.
My preferred explanations are #7 and #8: I suspect all priesthood holders exercise some unrighteous dominion at least some of the time. Take me as an example. I hold no leadership position in the Church, but I’m supposed to preside in my family. And I attempt to “exercise control or dominion or compulsion” upon the souls of my children in unrighteousness all the time. I frequently tell my kids that they have to do something–pick up toys, take a bath, go to bed–at a particular time for no reason other than my own convenience. I sometimes lose my temper and speak sharply to them when they drag their feet in what I’ve told them to do. I don’t think I’m generally a bad parent, but do I exercise control in any degree of unrighteousness? You betcha! And I would guess that I’m not alone.
So I suspect that the Church doesn’t often formally revoke mens’ priesthood because it would be overwhelming to keep track of and would reduce the number of men eligible for Church leadership to near zero. I also suspect that there may be some truth to my reasons #5 and #6, although I admit that in this passage anyway, there isn’t really a basis for believing that revocation occurs only for more serious sins or that it’s temporary.
It appears, then, that the Church reserves formally revoking priesthood for only the most serious sins and egregious examples of unrighteous dominion. But to me this means that D&C 121 is of little comfort to those of us who are concerned about more pervasive, subtle unrighteous dominion. The reality is that nothing is going to be done formally by the Church to a man who is guilty of only everyday unrighteous power wielding.
In effect, those who feel like someone is exercising unrighteous dominion over them have a single recourse, but it’s so extreme that they have a strong disincentive to use it. Calling “Unrighteous dominion! Amen to your priesthood!” over a minor offense, while technically correct, will quickly make you unpopular with your Church leaders. It’s as though the penalty for all unlawful activity were death. You might not want to be so hard-nosed as to see people killed for speeding, but that wouldn’t mean that you didn’t want them to stop speeding.
[Thanks to Starfoxy, whose wonderful comment on this issue in a discussion last year at T&S got me to think about it more.]