Zelophehad’s Daughters

Amen to the Priesthood or the Authority of that Man

Posted by Ziff

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degree of unrighteousness, behold, the heavens withdraw themselves; the Spirit of the Lord is grieved; and when it is withdrawn, Amen to the priesthood or the authority of that man.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.

  1. My experience isn’t typical, and the Church actually withdraws men’s priesthood all the time when they exercise unrighteous dominion.
  2. 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.
  3. Formal revocation of priesthood isn’t necessary. Everyone knows whose priesthood is valid or invalid.
  4. It doesn’t really matter whether a man’s priesthood has been revoked.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.
  5. 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.
  6. “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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.]

26 Responses to “Amen to the Priesthood or the Authority of that Man”

  1. 1.

    The influence of the spirit comes and goes according to our personal preparation. Why cannot the same be true of the influence of the priesthood? Surely the “Spirit of Elijah”–that which makes the workings of the priesthood efficacious in heaven as well as on earth–can come and go just as frequently.

  2. 2.

    I enjoyed your analysis. I’m thinking that we could perhaps distinguish between what I might call the spiritual power the priesthood confers upon men (to perform ordinances and give blessings, to draw upon the powers of heaven), and the institutional/relational power (to preside in the home or in the Church). When it comes to the former, I don’t really see a problem, since the outcome more directly depends on God, who can presumably judge whether the person’s priesthood is valid and respond accordingly. On the other hand, it seems like most potential abuse has to do with the second category. And there, as you note, there really isn’t anything built into the system that nullifies priesthood authority if it’s being exercised unrighteously. In a strictly theological sense the person’s priesthood may no longer exist in such cases, but that doesn’t necessarily entail any loss of power in terms of earthly relationships.

  3. 3.

    Well said Lynette. That was my thought as well. That passage in D&C 121:37 is not talking about earthly institutional authority at all.

  4. 4.

    “So why do I so rarely see “amen” being said to someone’s priesthood or authority?”

    I don’t know…

    Probably because women don’t typically sit in on disciplinary councils.

  5. 5.

    Good point, Lynnette and Geoff J. I guess if this verse is entirely (or even primarily) about things other than earthy authority, this really makes my argument for me: People who suffer under a priesthood holder’s unrighteous dominion on earth have little recourse.

    Jack, sure, I expect that you’re right about a particular man’s priesthood being able to wax and wane. My point was that if it’s waning, and a man is leaning toward exercising unrighteous dominion in a particular situation, there’s not much in the way of institutional response, as long as he doesn’t go really overboard.

    Seth, I like your answer, and the implied remedy. :)

  6. 6.

    Excellent post, Ziff! The typical apologetic response to questions about the practical checks and balances on priesthood authority essentially boil down to comments like “well, he wouldn’t be exercising his priesthood if he’s exercising it unrighteously”. I find this answer wholly unsatisfying. For example, in our secular society, laws against assault and battery, sexual harrasment, undue influence, laws protecting minority shareholders, etc. protect people from “unrighteous dominion”.

    In the LDS Church, however, I see no counterpart to these laws to prevent or compensate the harm done to those who are unrighteously presided over in the name of priesthood authority. It’s cold comfort to the people who are inevitably unrighteously dominated that the abuse of priesthood power was illegitimate.

    Along these lines, your points #7 and #8 are well made. But we need to recognize the sacrifice and vulnerability of people who are intentionally and structurally relegated to weaker positions of power (women, especially) and question whether the stark differentials in power really are necessary to effectuate the administration of the Church.

  7. 7.

    It seems to me that, theologically based, no woman must follow any man except “in righteousness.” So who gets to decide if something is “righteous”–she does. The checks and balances here are that when she ignores “priesthood counsel” she is then directly accountable to God. If she is sure that unrighteous dominion is been exercised, this is not a problem for her–and the unrighteous priesthood holder is left “to kick against the pricks.”

  8. 8.

    Well, I’d say most people don’t really have *real* authority.

    BTW, I wrote an essay, kind of on the topic, at http://adrr.com/living/ss_5.htm

    I’ll only note that it hasn’t changed much in two thousand years:

    D&C 64:8 “My disciples, in days of old,
    sought occasion against one an-
    other and forgave not one another
    in their hearts; and for this evil
    they were afflicted and sorely
    chastened …”

  9. 9.

    Ziff, great post. As I was reading through the numbers, I thought #6 came the closest to the way I understand it. However, I liked the way Lynnette explained it; priesthood operating in two spheres.
    Although I think women are often the ones who suffer from these excercises in unrighteous dominion, sometimes they can be part of the problem. Perhaps it is because the institution and the spiritual gift of the priesthood are hard to differentiate, but I don’t know of a clear line that separates excercising righteous dominion from unrighteous dominion. Maybe if women were more direct and vocal about the injustices they see, they could help identify and hopefully stop some of the abuses of the priesthood. And if not abuses, at least insensitivities. Today, in my ward, our Stk Pres. stood up and thanked Sis. Jennifer and Bro. Smith for their talks. The church has a culture of inequality, and it’s not surprising that there are no checks and balances for those in power.
    Along these lines, I was asked to speak in church about the founding fathers/constitution, in a scriptural framework.
    I’m considering taking a little time to compare the checks and balances in our government to those lacking in the church. Is there any way to present that idea without sounding completely apostate?
    I just thought of the connection as I was writing this post. . .

  10. 10.

    Thanks, ECS. I really like your comparison to secular laws design to punish unrighteous dominators. And I completely agree with you that the power differences in the Church warrant examination. Certainly I can see the need for some administrative power to be given to some people, but I don’t see any reason why the power needs to be divided so strictly along gender lines.

    Jessaway, perhaps it would be helpful if the less powerful people in the Church spoke up more if they saw abuses. I’m concerned, though, that there’s not really any institutional support for such speaking up (witness, for example, the overwhelming social norm against opposing someone’s calling, for example). Sure, there’s some support for people speaking up about extreme abuses, but not really for more everyday stuff like the sexist language you describe. That’s one of the points I was trying to get at toward the end: There’s effectively one response less powerful people being unrighteously dominated in church have. They can say that the dominator’s behavior is so bad that his priesthood should be revoked. But you can only say that so many times and be taken seriously, especially for smaller issues.

    Regarding your question of comparing checks and balances in the US government to lack of checks and balances in the Church, the only way I can think of to approach that from an orthodox point of view would be to claim that there’s no need for checks and balances in the Church because the leaders are so inspired. :) I would be interested to hear how you worked this out, though.

    Marjorie, that’s Hugh Nibley’s approach, isn’t it? Woman as judge of whether man is righteous enough to be listened to? I think that may be a comforting theory, but in practice the Church is set up for women to follow men without being concerned about whether the men are righteous or not. I mean, I think that if this theory were actually put into practice, it would be incredibly disruptive (not that that would be a bad thing :) ).

    Stephen, do you mean most of us don’t have authority in the ordinance performing sense or in the administrative sense (referring to Lynnette’s distinction)?

  11. 11.

    There is a hand-wringing tone on parts of this thread as well as many others all over the bloggernacle, implying, if not downright stating, that it is just the way things are, always have been, always will be, especially in regards to “priesthood” and women. Baloney!

    Change comes one person, one comment at a time. If we individually won’t do it, who will? For over 20 years I have made it a point to speak to leaders who make egregious sexist comments, like the one of Sister Jennifer and Bro. Last Name. These comments never challenge doctrine only thoughtless words and actions. Being pleasant but still unappologetically firm when you say it and having credibility, usually from being a “workhorse” in the local kingdom makes it possible to repeatedly do such things without being written off as simply a troublemaker. I know I have made a substantial difference in my little corner of the world and if more people spoke up, those little corners would get bigger and bigger and eventually merge.

    We are all responsible.

  12. 12.

    Thanks for your work for positive change, Marjorie. I agree with you that the way things are with women and the priesthood isn’t the way they will always necessarily be. And I like your idea of being sure to build credibility through hard work rather than simply bringing up complaints.

    I would prefer perhaps a more major change than I think you’re discussing, simply extending the priesthood to women. I know that technically no such change could come bottom-up, but I hope that it might work that way practically.

    There is a hand-wringing tone on parts of this thread as well as many others all over the bloggernacle

    I can’t imagine how you would ever think you detect a tone of hand-wringing. I have never seen even a whit of hand-wringing either here or anywhere else in the bloggernacle. ;)

  13. 13.

    Ziff, I think you left out some other possibilities. It’s my understanding that if enough people complain about any given priesthood leader, it does increase his likelihood of being released early, or at least receiving counsel or a “talking to” from his superior in the chain of command.

    A couple scriptures come to mind: Matt 18:15-17, and DC 42:88-89. The sequence is pretty clear on what to do if you’re offended, even by a priesthood leader:

    1. Tell the person in private.
    2. If that doesn’t resolve it, take one or two others, and go to that person in private.
    3. If that doesn’t resolve it, go to that person’s higher-up in the chain of command.

    If the offender (the priesthood holder who is exercising unrighteous dominion) is also doing it to others, and the others also complain to him, maybe he’ll take notice. And if he ignores you and the others who complain, and if several people go to his higher-up with the similar stories, his higher-up will likely take notice.

    Going up through the chain-of-command can be hard to do. We don’t want to look like whiners. But that is exactly what the Lord commanded us to do in those two scriptures, escalating the involvement if need be: 1) complain in private, 2) take others with you to complain in private, 3) go up the chain of command to complain, again in private.

    And you wonder why the unrighteous dominators are not released? Easy. If no one complains about them, their higher-ups never know that anything is amiss.

    I’m in a situation now where I need to go to someone’s bishop and request his help in resolving something. This other person just doesn’t realize what they are doing is hurtful, or how hurtful it is, or how what they are doing is crossing a serious boundary line. I’m trying hard to forgive, because they just don’t realize what they are doing, and how bad it is. However, the behavior just won’t stop, and it _has_ to stop; for their sake as well as mine.

    But I’m a big chicken. I don’t want to be seen as a complainer and whiner. My male ego is at stake too. By going to their bishop, I’m admitting I can’t handle it on my own. Ouch, ouch, ouch.

  14. 14.

    Bookslinger, ideally, I think that’s how things should work (and how they often do). But as this story shows, it’s often much more complicated and problematic than that.

  15. 15.

    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.

    A thought that I had while reading your post, this quote specifically, is that the same logic may work to contribute to the problem of abuses. The unrighteous dominator does some unrighteous dominating, and then, when he is not released, hit by lightening, or stricken with leprousy he concludes that he is necessarily righteous. He* reasons: “Since I excercise authority, and only the righteous can exercise authority, I must therefore be righteous. I couldn’t be a [insert calling here] if I wasn’t worthy- God just wouldn’t allow it.” I don’t think many people reason this way explicitly, but I do think that it is a frequent undercurrent to self-assessments and private reflection in many people.

    *I say ‘he’ in this context because we are talking about Priesthood leaders. To the extent that this is applicable in other situations feel free to insert ‘he/she’ or ‘they’ while reading.

  16. 16.

    Thanks for the outline of the ideal case, Bookslinger. I’m glad I’m not the only one who struggles applying it because I feel like an idiot. I tend to agree with Seraphine that this ideal frequently doesn’t work out. And Seraphine, thanks for linking to that appalling, and very relevant, account.

    Great point, Starfoxy, that when authority isn’t yanked away with unrighteous dominion, not only are the dominated harmed, the dominators are mislead about what’s righteous and what isn’t. In the end, I wonder if this isn’t even a larger problem in the end because it facilitates the perpetuation of such behavior as a person (a man, in this case) gets higher and higher levels of authority.

  17. 17.

    A little background: Section 121, as well as 122-123, were taken from an epistle that Joseph wrote from Liberty jail in 1839. You can find the full letter in several sources, including The Essential Joseph Smith. It is a fascinating read. Joseph, sitting helpless in jail while the saints are forced to flee to Illinois, is attempting to do something useful to give courage to others. But, by the 4th paragraph, he is in utter rage, detailing the atrosities committed against the Lord’s people and calling the heaven’s to do a serious smackdown on the citizens of Missouri! I envision him shaking with anger and feeling totally justified based on similar actions by prophets in the old testment. After a few more paragraphs, he calms down, and hears the voice of the Lord telling him that He will not strike down the Missourians. Now, under the guidance of the Holy Ghost, he delivers some marvelous guidance. But I have always felt that he sees his own near misuse of the priesthood for vengence as the person who almost executed “unrighteous dominion” and through such behavior could have had an “amen” to his own priesthood.

    As far as I know, he never clearly defined what he meant by the amen statement, so it is hard to know it’s proper application, but I have viewed the whole epistle as being about an event in the life of Joseph which we can “liken” to ourselves and our use of the priesthood.

  18. 18.

    Thanks larryco; that background is fascinating. I really like your idea of Joseph realizing that “amen” might be said to his priesthood.

  19. 19.

    Ziff,
    I like 7 and 8, but I have another way of looking at the whole thing.
    It springs from your example of the constant controlling and dominating possible in parenting and relationships. so, any mom can tell a kid to “pick it up NOW” just because she’s bigger and can make them, or because it’s convenient. And though that’s not nice, not especially righteous or serving, when you ask why there’s no “amen” to her authority, I want to point out that the verse only claims relevancy to authority claimed on the basis of *priesthood*.

    If you said “eat that last bite NOW by order of the priesthood”, and you did have that power (another day, another post!) then maybe we’d have a parallel to a man abusing authority in a church setting.

    But I think a man unrighteously dominating at home or work or whatever is more like your typical mom- messing up but not referencing any priesthood power to justify his many abuses and mistakes.

    I hope that made some sense- squirmy baby on my lap!

  20. 20.

    But I think a man unrighteously dominating at home or work or whatever is more like your typical mom- messing up but not referencing any priesthood power to justify his many abuses and mistakes.

    I think I understand what you’re saying. A man doesn’t explicitly invoke his priesthood whenever he’s trying to get his kids to do something, so it’s not actually a priesthood issue. Is that right? Well, you’ve certainly highlighted the weakness in my example. :)

    I guess my concern is that priesthood can be implicitly invoked, certainly in church settings, and even perhaps in family settings. The case is weaker for the family case because, as Elder Oaks pointed out in his talk on presiding, even a mere woman ;) can preside in a family if circumstances warrant it, so clearly the priesthood is not required. In the situation I’m most concerned about, where unrighteous domination is subtle and pervasive–the one that sometimes comes up in discussion and someone helpfully says that once a husband has exercised unrighteous dominion, his authority is gone–I guess I’m not so much concerned about what he considers the source of his authority to be (priesthood or just that he’s the man of the house) as that he doesn’t, as a practical matter, lose it once he exercises it unrighteously.

    But you make a good point about men not necessarily invoking their priesthood as a source of authority in family situations. I’ll have to think about it more.

    I hope that made some sense- squirmy baby on my lap!

    Perfect sense. It makes me feel bad that I have a hard time making sense even with no baby on my lap. :)

  21. 21.

    7 and 8 sound good to me.

    This is an interesting post because authority, outside of a priesthood office at church, is hard to pin down. There are certainly homes where the father exercises implicit authority, in a head-of-the-house way, but that happens outside the church, too, so I don’t know if we can attribute his domineering behavior to the priesthood.

    Also, now that I think about it, unrighteous dominion is pretty difficult to define too, particularly in the home. If we aren’t careful, we start to see any disagreement between husband and wife as an instance of unrighteous dominion on his part. And when I yell at my kids, I like to think that I am “rebuking with sharpness” in response to spiritual promptings. Don’t you? :-)

  22. 22.

    Ziff, yeah, you got it. I had that idea away from the computer and by the time I came back to post it, it was all fuzzy :)

  23. 23.

    most of us don’t have authority in the ordinance performing sense or in the administrative sense (referring to Lynnette’s distinction)?

    Most of us don’t have authority in the sense that the Spirit of God resonates and acts upon what we are doing.

    Instead, we are just children in a sand box, playing at things. That goes for most administrative authority as well as anything else.

  24. 24.

    I think the Amen does not refer to excommunication but the efficacy of priesthood power. In other words, those in transgression are made ineffective by their disobedience hence ‘Amen to their priesthood (power)’.

    And folks, I have revoked recommends, denied brethren the right to perform in ordinances and released brethren who were uprepared to live gospel and priesthood standards – it’s just that the Church never needs to publish a list of miscreants.

    I didn’t want to do those things; I often struggled with having to do them but when a brother persistently criticsed my Stake President or failed to pay tithing what was I to do? As the local leader the options were simple – counsel for change, review expectations, monitor progress and take apporpriate action/no action. Don’t assume because you haven’t heard of it that it doesn’t happen…

  25. 25.

    I agree with Pete Howlett — he is dead on. Pete is correct on the appropriate actions to take — counsel, monitor progress, and take appropriate action. “Amen to the priesthood or authority of that man” is applied by the denial of blessings such as the blessing of serving in a calling or the blessing of attending the temple.

    Let me add one other area where men commonly do not live up to obligations — home teaching. There is a question in the temple recommend interview that goes something like, “Do you strive to keep the covenants you have made, to attend your sacrament and other meetings, and to keep your life in harmony with the laws and commandments of the gospel?” As a Bishop, I applied that question to home teaching since HT’ing is an inherent part of the obligation that goes along with the priesthood.

    In my ward, HT’ing is especially critical for the women because 2/3rds of the women in the ward do not have priesthood in the home.

  26. 26.

    But what are the practical effects–in the home–to the temporary revocation of an individual’s priesthood? Hoish and Pete have mentioned restrictions placed on community and ritual participation for those whose inappropriate behavior has merited the attention of the bishop. What if, though, unbeknownst to anyone else in the ward, a certain brother has sought to gratify his pride in his relationship with his wife and the spirit has withdrawn?

    As Lynnette pointed out, the priesthood gives one spiritual power as well as institutional/relational power, and even when the the heavens withdraw and the priesthood bearer can no longer access the spiritual power, his institutional power is not directly or necessarily affected.

    So imagine this poor brother’s priesthood is void. What does that look like? Does his wife preside over him until he recovers the spirit? If so, who gets to determine that his motives are sufficiently impure that he has temporarily relinquished his priesthood–must he declare that himself? Or can his wife play that card against him and appoint herself the presiding authority in the home, until she deems him worthy again?

    Or is presiding ultimately unconnected to priesthood authority–does the husband continue to preside, with or without the priesthood? (If so, his priesthood may be void, but his authority in the home is nevertheless virtually unimpeachable.)

Leave a Reply