Mormons are generally familiar with division of the priesthood into the Melchizedek priesthood and Aaronic priesthood. In this blog post, I will suggest that both of these priesthoods are a subset of something called the priesthood of all people.
Priesthood is the power to act in God’s name. What does it mean to act in God’s name? Our Heavenly Parents’ motivating force is love: They love us and They ask us to love Them and each other. I therefore propose that anyone who can act in a loving way toward others (i.e. any being with moral autonomy) has the capability of acting in God’s name or, in other words, holds the priesthood.
The priesthood of all people is divisible in as many ways as people themselves are divisible into groups. There is a priesthood of mothers, of fathers, of children, of spouses, of siblings, of friends, of ecclesiastical leaders, of musicians, of construction workers, of astronauts, and so on. These categories of priesthood are not meaningless: people in each of these roles can perform loving acts in ways that are specific to that role.
What then of the Mormon priesthood? I propose that when our Heavenly Parents were organizing the church in various dispensations, they carved out part of the larger priesthood for people who would perform specific functions within the church. For example, ancient temple priests could act in loving service (i.e. use the priesthood) by following the instructions for priests set down in scripture.
In carving out priesthood for the church in this dispensation, our Heavenly Parents specifically stated that it could be exercised only through love. In Doctrine and Covenants Section 121, God states that priesthood has no authority except to persuade “by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned.” Those who exercise their priesthood with love will have an “everlasting dominion, and without compulsory means it shall flow unto thee forever and ever.” (vv. 41-46). In other words, when Mormon priesthood holders act out of love, others may feel an increase of love that will naturally incline them to follow. This is true, of course, for all people.
I suggest that the Mormon priesthood is not more important than the priesthood of all people. Mormon priesthood holders are given opportunities to show love to others in a particular context, but I suggest that our Heavenly Parents are concerned not so much with context in which we show love but that we do show love where we can.
Finally, what implications does the priesthood of all people hold for Mormon women? Should they be allowed to exercise the Mormon priesthood? It is not my place to make decisions for the Mormon church. It seems to me, however, that priesthood is given to people based on their ability to exercise it. The priesthood of all people is available to those beings who have moral autonomy because beings without moral autonomy are incapable of exercising it. The priesthood of, say, musicians (or of mothers or fathers) is given to them because they are capable of exercising their priesthood in a way that other people cannot.
The question, then, is whether women are capable of performing the functions that Mormon male priesthood holders perform. Are women capable of administering the sacrament? Making decisions for an entire ward or stake? Witnessing of Jesus Christ to all people, as do apostles? The answer is obviously yes. This position is supported by the scriptures—which speak of prophetesses and female apostles—and Mormon church history, which shows that Joseph Smith organized the Relief Society as a “kingdom of priests” to “move according to the ancient priesthood” and ordained Emma Smith and other Mormon women to the priesthood.
If the scriptures and church history support a female Mormon priesthood, why are Mormon women not currently allowed to exercise it? Again, I would not presume to say. One possible explanation, however, is that in the social milieu of past times, women seemed less capable of performing priesthood functions and were therefore not allowed to. Looking about the world now, however, we have ample evidence that women can lead and serve at the highest levels. To the extent the exclusion of Mormon women from the priesthood rests solely on historical rather than doctrinal grounds, I personally see no reason why it ought to continue.