I recently received this email from an online friend who happens be serving as bishop of a ward in a neighboring state:
"Tonight I received a leadership training video from the church. I didn't watch the DVD, but my wife and I did watch a few of the videos on the church's website. Needless to say, I found it AWFUL!! I thought, I can't show this to my ward council, it contains too much false doctrine and pride. It is horrible.
"I kept thinking, these people don't know what the priesthood is. I thought, the scriptures don't teach that at all!The DVD my friend referenced is entitled Strengthening the Family And The Church Through The Priesthood. It consists of a half dozen short training videos, and is being mailed to local church leaders with suggestions to have them shown to their congregations. The segment that left my friend so aghast, Priesthood Keys, is only nine minutes long, and you can view it right now from the Church's own website. I recommend downloading it directly to your hard drive though, because when headquarters gets wind that this video is having an effect other than the one intended, they may very well pull it from circulation. Please watch the video now, then rejoin me below for my analysis. Here is the link:
"I noticed in the first video from the church training that talked about priesthood keys, they never ONCE referenced the scriptures. They only looked at the handbook of instructions and showed it over and over again. It was the most prideful video I've seen in a very very long time, if not ever.
"I may receive some chastisement from my own leaders and from within my own bishopric, but I cannot show these videos to my ward council or anyone else at church. I feel these videos would stunt the growth of members rather than help them.
"In some ways with the new youth curriculum, I've felt that there are some good things coming from the church. However, these videos represent a huge step backward in my opinion. That or I may just be trying to be too optimistic. I still feel yuck inside from watching them. Their faces were so completely smug! I kept thinking, these guys are being coached on facial expressions! It lacked the Spirit."
The thing that most struck me upon watching Priesthood Keys is that for a video that purports to provide important training, it seems to be a bit short on anything in the way of usable information.
On one level what we have here is a bunch of suits sitting around a table metaphorically slapping themselves on the back with assurances about how important they are. There is considerable back-and-forth between them about possessing priesthood "keys," but if you're watching this stunning pridefest in hopes of coming to an understanding about what these "keys" are, what they do, or what they can be used to unlock -well, good luck figuring that out. The film was clearly intended to instill awe and respect for local Church leadership, but the unintended result is that priesthood power gets trivialized.
Welcome to the Restored Church of Christ in the 21st century. If you expect it to resemble the one founded by Joseph Smith 183 years ago, you're in for an unpleasant awakening. This is a corporate funded video, so terms will be defined by referencing the company's Standard Operating Procedure manual. For this group, that does not mean an appeal to scripture. For purposes of this video, the ultimate authority is the Church Handbook of Instruction.
I should not have to remind anyone that the CHI is not scripture, nor has it ever been sustained as scripture. It did not come down to us through revelation. It is not the word of the Lord, the mind of the Lord, nor the will of the Lord. It was not written by any prophet, or even any theologians on the Church payroll. The Handbook is mostly the work of corporate lawyers, and reflects Mormonism as filtered through the corporate collective.
Do you think I'm being too cynical? Well, if what we are watching is intended to train us in the way the Lord would have us go, shouldn't we consult the written words of the Lord Himself? You know, that thing Nephi referred to as "The Iron Rod," the only guide that will prevent us being diverted from the path back to Him?
Not today, apparently. In this video the only authority consulted is the handbook that contains the Policies and Procedures for the corporation that owns the trademark doing business as The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Scriptures down, eyes front. Get ready for the new theology.
At about the three minute mark in the video, Elder Hallstrom reads the definition of Priesthood Keys directly from the CHI: "Priesthood keys are the authority God has given to priesthood leaders to direct, control, and govern the use of His priesthood on earth."
This view is not appreciated by my friend, the irate bishop who emailed me about this matter. Here's what he had to say about it:
"Men DO NOT control or govern His priesthood on earth. The Lord bestows His priesthood by His voice out of the heavens and in no other way.But my friend is a mere Bishop of a ward in one of the many stakes of Zion. What does he know compared to the great collective minds coming out of Salt Lake City? Let's get back to that training video. After reading from the CHI, Elder Hallstrom addresses the young Teachers Quorum President to get his thoughts.
"We have been given authority to lead over the earthly church, authority to build temples, do ordinances, but this authority does not equate to priesthood power. They are two different things."
I almost feel sorry for this kid having to go first, because you can almost see in his eyes that he knows he really hasn't got a clue about any of this. But not to fear. Before the cameras started rolling he and the others were coached about the type of faith promoting responses expected. What this kid lacks in the ability to articulate, he makes up for in raw earnestness.
Hallstrom: "President Bryant, you're a Teachers Quorum President. How do you feel about that? How has that affected your life and your quorum?"
Bryant: "Well, I think it's just an amazing opportunity we have in this day to have keys, and to be able to be, um, have the authority to sit in a quorum and guide and kind of counsel people what they need to do, it's been just an awesome experience to use my keys to teach them and to show examples to them, it's been just an amazing blessing to my life."If that's a testimony, I'm going to have to revise my understanding of the word. To me that didn't sound like a testimony so much as an awkward attempt to grab hold of a fumble. But never mind. It's now L.Tom Perry's turn to direct the questioning, and he turns to the Stake President.
Hallstrom: "Has it changed your life?"
Bryant: "It has changed my life. I look at things differently because of it; I see a person for what they can be instead of what they are."
Hallstrom: "That is wonderful. A wonderful testimony."
Perry: "Now you, as a Stake President, hold the keys and have the responsibility of presiding over a stake of Zion. How do you feel about your role, and the keys that you hold?"
Stake President: "I take it very seriously. One of the opportunities that I have is to call Elders Quorum Presidents and Bishops who have keys, and one of the things that I can do, my part is to teach Bishops and Elders Quorum Presidents about what it means to have keys right when I extend that call."So far no one in this video has bothered to explain to us anything about these keys they keep mentioning, but at least now the Stake President tells us he has been teaching what it means to his Bishop and Elders Quorum President. Perhaps we'll get lucky and he'll elaborate for us.
But no. Now it's Elder Dean Davies' turn to play moderator, and he's moved on to the Bishop.
Davies: "Bishop Mulitauhlo, could you give us some understanding of how you view your keys and the relationship between the Bishop and the Elders Quorum President?"
Bishop: "I delegate as much as I possibly can to him. It's that simple. And what we do is, when we coordinate, we meet regularly, it's almost like we're side by side in the efforts to rescue both spiritually and temporally and in every possible way."What Bishop Mulitauhlo was saying is "Powerful"? Are we to understand that the power of the Priesthood consists of the powerful ability to schedule meetings and delegate responsibility? I guess if it's done "with trust and confidence" that's what makes it powerful. Better stand aside. With all that unchecked power flying around the room, someone could lose a clipboard.
Hallstrom: "What Bishop Mulitauhlo was saying is so powerful. Because when Bishops understand that Elders Quorum Presidents hold keys, and they delegate, and they do so with trust and confidence, it empowers the Elders Quorum President in his quorum to perform the labors to which they've been called. Plus, it allows the Bishop to be freed up to focus on other keys."
Keep in mind that the "power" these men are supposedly discussing is power of the Holy Priesthood of God. Yet for some reason no one at the table has managed to mention what this power is used for outside of holding meetings and getting together to help each other with their various "keys." Where are the powerful signs and wonders? Where are the miraculous healings and the casting out of devils? Why don't we hear about any of this in connection with these awesome and amazing powers of the priesthood?
All of these wonders were in abundance in the early LDS church during the Nauvoo and Missouri periods, just as they were in attendance in the first century church of Christ. How obviously anemic do things have to get before we begin to realize something is amiss here?
But I digress. Dean Davies now has the floor, and he directs his questions to what appear to be the Elders Quorum President and his counselor.
Davies: "President Cowley and President Mills, give us some understanding of how you view keys, and the relationship between the Bishop and the Elders Quorum President."
Cowley: "A lot of times the thing that, the thing that the people are working through are things that we could be doing in the Elders Quorum that aren't necessarily things that are related to worthiness, but things that are obviously going to be helpful to worthiness."I haven't the first idea what Cowley was trying spit out there, but ten bucks says he probably wants to hold another meeting.
If you're beginning to get the impression that none of these guys has any idea what he's talking about, you're right. They don't. They really, really don't.
We appear to have entered an age in this Church when few in authority feel it necessary to consult either the scriptures or the historical record in an effort to understand the doctrines of the Restoration. Our religious heritage demonstrates that those endowed with the Holy Priesthood after the Son of God should expect to exhibit actual, observable, palpable power that would stand as a witness to the world. This Priesthood power had nothing whatsoever to do with whether a person had the prenomen "Elder" or "President" in front of his name, but these guys on the video seem to think it does.
In his email to me, my friend the bishop reminds me there are plenty of places in scripture to show what we should expect from those who truly hold and honor the priesthood. This example from Genesis 14 of the Joseph Smith Translation is one example:
"Every one being ordained after this order and calling should have power, by faith, to break mountains, to divide the seas, to dry up waters, to turn them out of their course; To put at defiance the armies of nations, to divide the earth, to break every band, to stand in the presence of God; to do all things according to his will, according to his command, subdue principalities and powers; and this by the will of the Son of God which was from the foundation of the world." (JST, Genesis 14)But let's get back to the conversation. Ho, what's this? Another guy has interjected something, unprompted. I think this is Mills, and will you listen to that! What Mills says turns out to be a lot closer to actual doctrine than anything else put forth at the table this day.
Mills: "Keys allow us to do things that the Lord himself would do if he were in the ward. And that's when an Elders Quorum President can really minister, is when he has the power of the priesthood and he can know the mind and will of the Lord."Well now. Maybe there's someone in the group after all who has an inkling about what priesthood power is intended for. Who let that guy in?
Wait...whoops! Where did he go? There is a quick, awkward edit in the film and suddenly Elder L.Tom Perry is back on visual to steer the discussion back to the importance of holding meetings. This guy Mills has retreated along with his wacky ideas about ministering the will of the Lord, gone without so much as a word of acknowledgment or a thank-you-for-your-testimony. Quick, Tom Perry! Change the subject! Turn to the High Councilor and ask that guy something!
Perry: "Now, High Councilor, do you feel any responsibility in this?"
High Councilor: "It's a great responsibility to help them understand their oath and covenant of the priesthood and to sit in, to sit in counsel with them and teach them. It's a privilege to work with the Stake President and to bless the Elders Quorum Presidency with that."So that's what this is all about? Strengthening families? Okay, fine. Tell us how. How does this mysterious business of having keys end up strengthening other people's families? Would you mind explaining what that means and how that process works?
Stake President: "I feel that those of us that have keys, there's an opportunity to have presidency meetings; ward council, stake council. In those quorums is an opportunity to talk about needs and then you can zero in on this family, that family; this brother; this prospective Elder; this couple that needs to go to the temple. I think that's a way to utilize priesthood keys."
Davies: "There's a principle that's coming out here that is so wonderful, which is in the righteous exercise of priesthood keys, you are strengthening individuals and families. That's what this is all about."
Hallstrom: "Our greatest responsibility as leaders who hold keys is to help fathers in the home, mothers in the home, youth. We're really supplemental to the very important work that goes on in the home."Okay, now this is getting silly. Hallstrom is just talking to hear himself talk, stringing tired bromides together and slapping them against the wall in hopes maybe one of them will stick. You get the idea. It all sounds so momentous, but when you sit back and take a look at the words these very important looking gentlemen are actually spouting, it comes down to a whole lotta nothin'.
I don't wish to minimize the actual good that results when Bishops and Elders Quorum Presidents meet together to work out the logistics of performing their duties. I believe that pinpointing the needs of various members of the ward and providing the necessary assistance is the most important responsibility of ward leadership. But why are these guys acting as though it is only through the priesthood that they are able to get these things done? If priesthood keys are the things that make possible the fulfillment of their duties, how do we explain the fact that members of other denominations are providing the very same services to their congregations without benefit of having these essential keys?
On a recent Saturday I joined a group of friends who happen to be members of another church to help a single mother move her little family across town. None of these guys is LDS, so none of them held the keys to the priesthood, yet they managed to figure out how to get the job done anyway. An email had gone out describing a need, and at the appointed time a bunch of us just showed up. The entire event was efficient and fun, like an Amish barn raising.
Come to think of it, don't you wonder how the Amish ever get those barns put up without having the benefit of priesthood leaders exercising their keys?
This past Christmas eve, Connie and I took the two grandchildren who live near us to one of those mega-churches to see one of those lavish outdoor Christmas pageants these types of churches are known for. It was a huge event that featured a living nativity, live bands, a light show, and an amazing choir, all projected onto big outdoor TV screens so everyone present could see and hear. A bit gaudy? Perhaps. Joyful? You bet it was. Will I attend again next year? Yes I will.
By previous arrangement, two thousand disadvantaged children from the Sacramento area were in attendance, and at the end of the program the leaders of this church distributed 526 brand new bicycles and 2600 toys to those children.
How did the members of that church manage to pull off this incredible act of charity without having the benefit of priesthood keys? Beats me.
Where The Keys Are
By now you've probably gathered I am not satisfied with the way the guys in that video illustrated the importance of priesthood keys. Don't get me wrong; I am a firm believer in the importance of these keys. I just feel those guys have misunderstood and trivialized them.
The keys of the priesthood are of infinite importance, but the congregations these men serve would be better off if all hands understood what the keys actually are. The best description I know of for grasping the meaning of priesthood keys the way the concept was understood by Joseph Smith is to think of these keys as little packets of information that serve to unlock the mind to further light and knowledge. When the prophet organized the Ladies Relief Society, which was intended as a sort of parallel priesthood for women, he conveyed the keys by introducing a set of instructions and providing counsel. In departing this information to the women of the church, he was delivering certain and specific keys of knowledge.
Understanding Priesthood Keys by Mike Ellis, at his exceptional website Zomarah. Mike provides a thoroughly researched history of the subject, and when understood through the teachings of Joseph Smith, it's quite easy to grasp what keys are and how they are supposed to function. The true nature and purpose of keys cannot be found in the video above or by consulting the Church Handbook of Instruction. You'll have to look to the teachings of our founding prophet. He is, after all, the person our modern leaders claim to have received their keys from, so I would think he would know something about them.
Does the modern LDS Church's understanding of "keys" depart radically from that put forth by our founding prophet? Compare the nebulous nonsense spouted on the video above to the speeches and writings of Joseph Smith and judge for yourself.
Ellis provides scriptural examples as well as teachings from the Prophet, then provides an analysis of their meanings. Here's a short excerpt from his conclusion:
"In order to receive priesthood keys the recipient must be taught them. This concept is almost completely foreign to modern members of the church. However, this is exactly what was meant by Joseph Smith. And we know this is the case because of Joseph Smith’s early practices, his statements, and beliefs.
"Knowledge of what the keys are and how to use them cannot be transferred through simply uttering the phrase, 'I bestow upon you the keys.'"
"It would be like giving your car keys to someone, but not actually giving them the physical keys. Instead you just tell them that they now possess the keys to your car. But unless they do some hot wiring, they aren’t going to be starting the car anytime soon.
"No, the Keys must be taught to the recipient. Therefore, when Joseph Smith received the Aaronic and Melchizedek priesthood, the messengers who bestowed them must not have simply pronounced upon them the keys. Rather, they bestowed the knowledge of the physical and spoken manifestations that are the Keys."How is it that those who have placed themselves in positions of leadership in the Church today could be so far afield in their understanding of the purpose and use of priesthood keys? One answer might lie in the changes that have taken place at Church headquarters since the latter half of the 20th century.
When I was growing up in the church, many of the apostles were competent theologians and first rate scriptorians. They had a keen understanding of the history and doctrines of the Restoration, and the ability to teach them to the church at large. Today the quorums are made up mostly of men who, prior to accepting their current positions in Church leadership, built their reputations in professions such as corporate law, business, and finance. The paradigm for this new Organization Man was the wealthy Canadian tycoon N. Eldon Tanner, who admitted to knowing next to nothing about the scriptures, but plenty about how to help the Church turn a profit on its investments.
Local wards are no longer autonomous communities of believers unified in Christ, but are treated like franchised appendages to the Corporation. The Church today is governed by a flowchart mentality, with leaders at the top and members at the bottom.
Another reason things feel askew in the church is that we simply have not taken seriously Joseph Smith's admonition that the Lord has placed this Church under condemnation. We feel no anxiety about or need for institutional repentance. We want to believe we are somehow God's chosen people, and therefore our leaders are men with whom God is always well pleased. We wholeheartedly believe, in spite of the complete lack of evidence to support that belief, that all is well in Zion and that priesthood authority continues to flow uninterrupted from heaven.
You would think it a simple matter for the Saints to look around them and notice that the gifts of the spirit once abundant in the early church are virtually nonexistent today. But most prefer not to acknowledge that reality.
The LDS Church of today is a busy little make-work beehive run by self-aggrandizing men wearing the uniforms of corporate America, scurrying about handing out assignments. Goals are listed, meetings scheduled, and solutions arrived at using the corporate business model, which is the one familiar to those now in control. An inordinate amount of time and energy is expended not in saving souls, but in perpetuating the power, influence, and image of the institution itself. What gets lost in all this frantic hub-bub are the precious gifts of the spirit -the very powers those keys were intended to unlock.
When spiritual gifts are no longer in evidence, terms such as "keys" that represent abstract spiritual concepts get co-opted and given new meaning. Thus today, the word "keys" is used to bolster the idea that obtaining office and title in the Church equates to "awesome" spiritual powers and an ability to dispense solemn wisdom and provide superior insight. Why then should we be surprised when a fifteen year old boy whose prefrontal cortex is still a decade away from being fully mature believes he is somehow imbued with the the skills to "sit in a quorum and guide and counsel people what they need to do and use my keys to teach them and to show examples to them"? Why wouldn't he harbor such delusions about himself when he finds himself sitting across from a respected elder statesman who encourages him in those delusions?
I understand the outrage expressed by my friend the bishop who sent me the link to this video, and I applaud his decision to refuse to present these aberrant teachings to his own congregation. However, what I felt when I watched the video did not quite rise to the same level of outrage as my friend felt. Maybe I've just become accustomed to this sort of usurpation in the modern Church. I felt some type of emotion, to be sure, but I couldn't put my finger on just what that emotion represented. Was it anger? Frustration? Close, but not quite. Sadness? Yes, certainly sadness. But even sadness did not quite describe what I was feeling.
I watched that video over and over again because I wanted to be certain I was hearing what I thought I was hearing. Then I got to wondering about my friends who belonged to that other church, the ones who showed up to help a woman move without ever requiring a priesthood line of authority to assign them or motivate them to action. Suppose I was watching this video with them? How would I feel watching that video in the presence of people whose only requirement to act as disciples of Christ was to perceive an opportunity to serve and then simply get busy serving?
With that in mind, I sat down and watched the training video one more time, this time imagining what it might be like if I were to view it in the company of these true followers of the Christian imperative, men who recognized no authority in their lives other than Jesus. I watched once more as the well dressed LDS men in the video arrogantly congratulated themselves on the authority they held because they were the righteous possessors of magical keys that enabled them to perform whatever it was they were claiming the power to perform.
That's when I recognized what it was I had been feeling for these men in the video, and for the organization that spawned them, and for whatever committee at Church headquarters came up with the foolish idea to coach and then film a bunch of well-dressed men sitting around a table boasting about their imagined power and authority.
What I was feeling was embarrassment.
Update March 15, 2013: Zomarah has just posted a new piece pertinent to this discussion regarding the history of the Relief Society as intended as a parallel priesthood to the priesthood held by the men. I have no doubt that if our women had been allowed to continue to recognize that priesthood, the gifts of the spirit once abundant among the Saints in Nauvoo would still be very evident in the church today. You can read about it here:
The History and Purpose of the Relief Society
Update April 29, 2013:
Three more very informative analyses of the purpose and meaning of priesthood keys were recently posted on LDS Anarchy. There is plenty to learn and much food for thought in each of them:
An Anarchical View of the Keys Part 1
An Anarchical View of the Keys Part 2
An Alternate View of the Keys