In Helaman 10:4-5, the Lord told Nephi, the son of Helaman – and father of Nephi the Nephite disciple – the following:
Blessed art thou, Nephi, for those things which thou hast done; for I have beheld how thou hast with unwearyingness declared the word, which I have given unto thee, unto this people. And thou hast not feared them, and hast not sought thine own life, but hast sought my will, and to keep my commandments.
And now, because thou hast done this with such unwearyingness, behold, I will bless thee forever; and I will make thee mighty in word and in deed, in faith and in works; yea, even that all things shall be done unto thee according to thy word, for thou shalt not ask that which is contrary to my will.
This is one of my favorite scriptures. I dream of someday being so trusted of the Lord that he says, “…all things shall be done unto thee according to thy word, for thou shalt not ask that which is contrary to my will.” Looking a little deeper, though, it appears that the Lord actually granted unto His servant Nephi the keys of the priesthood – all the keys of the priesthood – at least all of those granted unto men in that time and place. In verses 7-10, the Lord says:
Behold, I give unto you power, that whatsoever ye shall seal on earth shall be sealed in heaven; and whatsoever ye shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven; and thus shall ye have power among this people.
And thus, if ye shall say unto this temple it shall be rent in twain, it shall be done.
And if ye shall say unto this mountain, Be thou cast down and become smooth, it shall be done.
And behold, if ye shall say that God shall smite this people, it shall come to pass.
The Lord granted unto Nephi power over the elements, mountains, and “this people”…but only “among this people”. Apparently, Nephi held the keys to the priesthood over this church. With this power, of course, came great responsibility. Nephi not only had power and authority – he had “stewardship”.
Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary defines stewardship as, “the activity or job of protecting and being responsible for something”. So, what was Nephi responsible for? Obviously, he was not responsible for anyone’s individual salvation – or was he? And what about the salvation of the people as a whole – what about the church among the people of Nephi? Later in the story, in Chapter 11, Nephi saw what was going on around him and cried unto the Lord:
O Lord, do not suffer that this people shall be destroyed by the sword; but O Lord, rather let there be a famine in the land, to stir them up in remembrance of the Lord their God, and perhaps they will repent and turn unto thee. (verse 4)
A few verses later, of course, Nephi asked that the famine be lifted as a result of the repentance of the people. Chapters 10 and 11 of the book of Helaman are the story of Nephi receiving and exercising the priesthood keys and his stewardship which were delegated to him by Jehovah. His stewardship was apparently over the people and everything required for their salvation.
Keys Unlock the Power – but is that all?
A traditional explanation of priesthood keys is that they “unlock” the power of the priesthood, primarily through the ordinances of the gospel. I acknowledge that this is part of the definition. Nephi certainly had unlocked the power of the priesthood – he commanded the weather, for Heaven’s sake! However, it was quite recently, in my blog post on Church Discipline, that I first mentioned the idea of priesthood keys representing a stewardship. I’ve continued thinking about this, and as a result I think I have a more clear understanding of the mysterious (at least to me) topic of “priesthood keys”. I don’t want to upstage or critique Elder Oaks’ talk from this past conference. I’ve heard that it enhanced the understanding of many, but it really didn’t help me understand the concept any better than I did before. Allow me, however, to explain why I think the concept of a “stewardship” makes this so much clearer, and thus why the keys to the priesthood are so important.
As I said in my earlier post:
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints has a stewardship from the Lord. I think the keys of the priesthood represent that stewardship – in other words, “stewardship” is a great way to look at the keys of the priesthood. Those who hold priesthood keys have stewardship over the ordinances to ensure that they are administered consistently by those who have authority from God to do so. (I have authority to administer many ordinances, but I have no keys.) They have stewardship over the finances of the church. They have stewardship over the welfare of the membership. Their attempts to honor this stewardship manifest themselves in many, many ways. I think these manifestations are actually what we have come to call “The Church”. Church policies, temples, curriculum, buildings, commercial investments, missionary work, the welfare system, humanitarian aid…these are all manifestations of that stewardship.
Manifestations of the Priesthood Stewardship – Baptism
We can witness this stewardship, as I suggested, in many ways. One very familiar example is with the sacrament. The Nephite disciples were given the keys to the ordinance of baptism in 3 Nephi11:18-30:
And it came to pass that he spake unto Nephi (for Nephi was among the multitude) and he commanded him that he should come forth.
And Nephi arose and went forth, and bowed himself before the Lord and did kiss his feet.
And the Lord commanded him that he should arise. And he arose and stood before him.
And the Lord said unto him: I give unto you power that ye shall baptize this people when I am again ascended into heaven.
And again the Lord called others, and said unto them likewise; and he gave unto them power to baptize. And he said unto them: On this wise shall ye baptize; and there shall be no disputations among you.
Verily I say unto you, that whoso repenteth of his sins through your words, and desireth to be baptized in my name, on this wise shall ye baptize them—Behold, ye shall go down and stand in the water, and in my name shall ye baptize them.
And now behold, these are the words which ye shall say, calling them by name, saying:
Having authority given me of Jesus Christ, I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
And then shall ye immerse them in the water, and come forth again out of the water.
And after this manner shall ye baptize in my name; for behold, verily I say unto you, that the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Ghost are one; and I am in the Father, and the Father in me, and the Father and I are one.
And according as I have commanded you thus shall ye baptize. And there shall be no disputations among you, as there have hitherto been; neither shall there be disputations among you concerning the points of my doctrine, as there have hitherto been.
For verily, verily I say unto you, he that hath the spirit of contention is not of me, but is of the devil, who is the father of contention, and he stirreth up the hearts of men to contend with anger, one with another.
Behold, this is not my doctrine, to stir up the hearts of men with anger, one against another; but this is my doctrine, that such things should be done away.
Here, Christ gave them the keys to the ordinance, then told them how to do it, then made a point that part of His purpose was that there should be no disputations among them. In other words, He didn’t want any arguments about how the ordinance should be carried out.
Christ later instituted the sacrament among the Nephites in 3 Nephi, chapter 18, and in verse 34 he said:
And I give you these commandments because of the disputations which have been among you. And blessed are ye if ye have no disputations among you.
He had now made this point pertaining to both baptism and the sacrament. How to best ensure that this injunction of “no disputations” is carried out? That would be through priesthood keys, of course – through trusted “stewards”. The Bishop, who holds the keys in the ward over these ordinances, is responsible to make sure that they are performed the same way every time. How many times have you heard the bishop asked the nervous young priest to repeat the words of the prayer? The bishop holds the keys to that ordinance – he has the stewardship to ensure that the prayers, the emblems, etc. are given within the bounds the Lord has set. The priests have authority to administer both the baptism and the sacrament, but the Bishop has the stewardship.
I have mentioned before that I am an ordinance worker in the Salt Lake Temple. We are responsible for learning the words of the endowment so that we can deliver them “word-perfect” in the live endowment sessions. We also, of course, administer the initiatories, the name issue, etc. Our studying and memorizing can only be done in the temple – we cannot take things out to study at home. Now these sessions are rarely delivered perfectly, simply because people are imperfect, but the temple presidency has the keys – the stewardship – to ensure that the presentation of these sacred ordinances do not start to diverge, and they do exercise them. With hundreds of ordinance workers delivering hundreds of ordinances each week, this is a sobering task, one of eternal import.
Keys of Creation
A fourth example of priesthood keys – one that is frankly beyond my comprehension, but which follows the same pattern – is that of creation. The keys to creation – the organization of matter – were delegated to Jehovah by Elohim (interestingly, except for the creation of man). The power which is “unlocked” by these priesthood keys is pretty obvious to us – at least on the surface – but what about the stewardship? If the laws of creation, of the organization of matter, were to be diluted or violated, our whole universe would likely disintegrate into chaos. The universe maintains its order because creation chooses to obey God, in turn because they know that God is always perfectly righteous. If the stewardship were not maintained; if the keys were not exercised; their obedience would not be insured, and we would have no order. (Intelligence Theory of the Atonement from Cleon Skousen). This is a very speculative theory, but I like it. It rings true and it strengthens my discussion, although it is not essential.)
Chaos vs. A House of Order
Given this perception of the keys of the priesthood, it’s not difficult to make a case for how essential they are to maintaining the “order” that the Lord declares is characteristic of His house (D&C 88:119, D&C 109:8, D&C 132:8), as well as to avoiding the disputations and contention that Christ commanded should not be allowed among us. We need only take the ordinance of baptism as an example. In the absence of priesthood keys, this saving ordinance did in fact descend into chaos, with sprinkling reportedly being introduced in the 14th century. (I have not validated the historical accuracy of this source – but only the date is arguable. The fact that sprinkling is a common practice in both Catholic and Protestant churches today is indisputable). The baptizing of infants is another abomination that was allowed to develop in the absence of priesthood keys. The sacrament itself is performed differently among different churches, so much that the Catholics introduced the doctrine of transubstantiation, reportedly in the 11th century (again, the timing is not important here). Temple ordinances completely disappeared in the absence of priesthood keys – nobody had a stewardship over them. The doctrine of receiving the gift of the Holy Ghost likewise disappeared. The Great Apostasy itself came about as the result of the absence of priesthood keys – no one had the stewardship to make sure the ordinances and doctrines of the gospel were passed along as they were taught by the Savior. Those who defined doctrine did so without the priesthood keys.
The Great Apostasy was not the first time this happened, either. The doctrine of dispensations is based on the fact that the gospel, introduced by a dispensational prophet, was allowed to deteriorate over the centuries at the hands of careless men – men without priesthood keys – until it became unrecognizable, requiring a new introduction through the next dispensational prophet. The most dramatic example, I think, is the dispensation of Noah. According to the traditional interpretation of the Genesis account, after the flood, Noah and his family were the only people left alive. Noah held the priesthood, and exercised all the keys that existed on the earth at that time. Over the millennia, though, men abandoned their stewardship, and the result is the myriad religions that are observed on the earth today. Today, we live in the last dispensation – the dispensation of the fullness of times – and we have been told that the keys of the priesthood are here to stay:
Upon you my fellow servants, in the name of Messiah I confer the Priesthood of Aaron, which holds the keys of the ministering of angels, and of the gospel of repentance, and of baptism by immersion for the remission of sins; and this shall never be taken again from the earth, until the sons of Levi do offer again an offering unto the Lord in righteousness.(D&C 13:1)
Exalt not yourselves; rebel not against my servant Joseph; for verily I say unto you, I am with him, and my hand shall be over him; and the keys which I have given unto him, and also to youward, shall not be taken from him till I come. (D&C 112:15)
We likewise have Oliver Cowdrey’s testimony that the Melchizedek Priesthood shall remain upon the earth as long as the earth stands:
“The channel is here, the priesthood is here, I was present with Joseph when an holy angel from god came down from heaven and confered, or restored the Aronic priesthood. And said at the same time that it should remain upon the earth while the earth stands. I was also present with Joseph when the melchesideck priesthood was confered by the holy angles of god,—which we then confirmed on each other by the will and commandment of god. This priesthood is also to remain upon the earth untill the Last remnant of time. (Conference Address, Kanesville, OH, October 21, 1848).
Perhaps the most frightening thing about this phenomenon is how long it takes. It took approximately 1300 years for the ordinance of baptism to devolve into sprinkling. It took 1000 years for the doctrine of transubstantiation to creep into the sacrament. It was about 600 years between the dispensation of Abraham and the dispensation of Moses, and 1400 years before the birth of Christ. These time frames point to the fact that these apostasies developed in tiny, tiny, incremental, barely noticeable steps. In other words, it sneaks up on us. Only the greatest diligence in wielding priesthood stewardship can halt the historically repeated descent into chaos.
The Miracle of Order
One of the things that impressed me when I first joined the church was that, no matter where we went to church, everything was recognizable. I could go to church in a different country – speaking a different language (and I did) – and I could still make it through the meetings with a good understanding of what was going on. This was a great testimony builder to me that the church was being led by the spirit. This cannot be said of any other church with the possible exceptions of the Catholic and European Orthodox churches – whose rites and services I understand pretty much follow a set format or script. I now realize that this consistency in the LDS Church is the result of priesthood keys, and of the diligence and honor with which they are exercised. It is through the priesthood keys, and the stewardship that accompanies them, handed down from the Lord through the Prophet to every stake president, bishop and elder’s quorum president – that the church will be able to combat the natural or social forces of entropy that have infected every other church since the beginning of time.
Imagine how quickly the ordinances of the gospel would change and “evolve” if we started doing our own baptisms, our own sacrament, etc – each individual adding his or her own twist. It wouldn’t take very long before these saving ordinances would become grievously altered. Even worse, it wouldn’t take very long, even, before disputations would arise as to whose version was more accurate and more efficacious. It wouldn’t take very long before new churches would arise, built around different doctrines and different versions of the ordinances. The priesthood keys are ultimately what define the Lord’s church. They are what make it “one Lord, one faith, one baptism” (Ephesians 4:5) Perhaps, in Zion or in the millennium, when we have transcended this telestial existence, such diligence will be less of a requirement because the spirit will have a more direct influence (even though I’m sure the Lord’s house will still be a house of order, and there will still be priesthood keys and ordinances) but the reality is that we live in a telestial world at this time, and it is the priesthood keys that hold the church together.
Looking at priesthood keys in the context of a stewardship is so enlightening and clarifying to me. Every dispensational apostasy in recorded history was a direct result of the loss of priesthood keys. Perhaps even more importantly, Christ Himself repeatedly commanded that we must avoid disputations and contention. (The word disputation is used 10 times, and the word contention 81 times in the Book of Mormon alone.) He emphasized this in direct reference to the ordinances of baptism and the sacrament. Obviously this was important to Him and to us. This stewardship required to honor these commandments and to stave off the deterioration into disputation and contention is not easy to maintain. It is a miracle, even with the LDS Church’s inspired hierarchy, that it has been preserved as much as it has – a miracle directly attributable, in my mind, to the power and influence of the Holy Ghost, and to the good intentions of the men who hold the keys. My testimony has been strengthened as a result of this understanding. I hope it may serve to “unlock” your understanding as it did mine.