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Where Do You Get Your Authority? 

Examining the Priesthood and Apostolic Offices


 Ben Rast

 Contender Ministries

 April 13, 2005


 Jesus entered the temple courts, and, while he was teaching, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him. “By what authority are you doing these things?” they asked. “And who gave you this authority?” – Matthew 21:23

Claus, a Mormon from Sweden, wrote to us and asked, “Who has been authorized to change the calling of 12 apostles as a foundation of the Church of Christ?”  This is a fairly typical question from a Latter-day Saint.  The issue of “authority” is a biggie when it comes to Mormon arguments against Christianity.  “Who gave you the authority?” echoes interminably in many discussions with Mormons.  Their position lies in the belief that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints has been given the “restored” authority of two priesthoods and apostolic succession. 

The LDS Church structure has at its head a first presidency, consisting of the president (prophet, seer, revelator, etc.) and two counselors.  Below the first presidency is the Quorum of the Twelve (apostles), followed by the Quorum of the Seventy (also known simply as “The Seventy”).  Lower still are the stake presidencies and the bishopric.  These latter offices are concerned with the temporal day-to-day matters of the Church, whereas the upper echelon (also known as The Brethren) are the creators and guardians of Church doctrine, concerned with matters of eternal consequence. 

One may wonder how a religion that began in the nineteenth century can claim apostolic succession.  According to the LDS Church, Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery were baptized in 1829 and given the priesthood blessing by an angel who at one time in history was known as John the Baptist.  They then received apostolic blessings from three resurrected persons who were none other than the Apostles Peter, James, and John.  It is this event that cements in the minds of the Mormon faithful the notion of apostolic succession and priesthood authority.  It is vitally important to the Mormons that their church, like the first century church, is built on a body of twelve apostles.  However, there are just a few problems we must address at this point. 

First, the earliest accounts (found in various journals and the 1833 Book of Commandments) make no mention of angels or resurrected first century apostles.  The earliest accounts state that the Holy Spirit led Joseph Smith to baptize and bless Oliver Cowdery, who then returned the favor.  This was the source of the apostolic and priesthood blessings – not angels or resurrected apostles.  One of the three witnesses, David Whitmer, later said that it wasn’t until 1834 or 1835 that he first heard the story include any mention of angelic visitation.  Grant H. Palmer, a BYU graduate and three-time director of the LDS Institutes of Religion in California and Utah, confirms that the earliest accounts are devoid of any mention of angelic visitation.  His theory?  “It may be more than a coincidence that in February 1835 when the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles was organized, the detail regarding Peter, James, and John was added to the revelations.  It was sometime between January and May 1835 that Peter, James, and John were first mentioned as the restorers of apostolic keys to Joseph and Oliver.  This new link of succession undoubtedly bolstered President Smith’s and Assistant President Cowdery’s authority in the eyes of the new Quorum of the Twelve and the church.”[1]

There’s another problem with this scenario, aside from the later addition of the official account.  The LDS Church is adamant that the true church would have the structure of the original church, at least with regards to having twelve apostles (we’ll ignore the fact that the first century church has no first presidency, Quorum of the Seventy, or stake presidencies).  The tenth Mormon Prophet, Joseph Fielding Smith, wrote: "Christ chose twelve men and conferred upon them the apostleship, and these twelve men constituted the only Council of Apostles in the Church in that day, and there is but one Council of Apostles in the Church today. These twelve men are endowed with the power and responsibility to serve as the special witnesses for Christ" (Doctrines of Salvation, vol. 3, p. 146).  However, through a mistaken interpretation of John 21:22 (and a complete ignorance of verse 23), Joseph Smith wrote Doctrine and Covenants section 7, which states that the Lord Jesus Christ told John the Beloved explicitly that he would “tarry” until Jesus returns again.  If D&C 7 is true, then the Apostle John is still on the scene.  If the LDS Church is true, and D&C 7 is true, then that puts the apostle count at thirteen!  The situation gets worse though.  In the Book of Mormon, Jesus promises three Nephite apostles that they too will tarry until Jesus returns (3 Nephi 28).  This passage states that these Nephite apostles were “translated” but continue to “minister” among men.  If we add these three into the pot of Apostles, we find the count has risen to sixteen!  This is a far cry from the twelve apostles in whom the LDS Church takes such pride.

Now let’s turn our attention to the issue of priesthood and apostolic authority.  By examining the biblical and historical role of the priesthood and the office of Apostle, we’ll find no other likely conclusion but that the LDS Church is wrong to restore functions that have long ago served their purpose. 

The LDS Church claims two priesthoods – the Aaronic Priesthood and Melchizedek Priesthood.  The Aaronic Priesthood is a lesser priesthood, typically held by the young men in the Church.  This priesthood has three offices or levels within it: Deacon, Teacher and Priest. Those who are worthy may be ordained to offices in the Aaronic Priesthood at the following minimum ages: Deacon, age 12; Teacher, age 14; Priest, age 16.  At a later age, a faithful, temple-worthy Mormon will receive the Melchizedek Priesthood blessing.  Mormons believe that the “keys of the kingdom”, which were given by Jesus to His apostles (Matthew 16:19), represent the priesthood authority.  Let’s first examine the Aaronic (or Levitical) Priesthood, which has the most mention in Scripture and history. 

The Aaronic Priesthood is so named for Aaron, the brother of Moses.  It is also known as the Levitical Priesthood after Levi, the great-grandfather of Moses and Aaron (they were sons of Amram, son of Kohath, son of Levi).  The descendents of Levi, known as the Levites, were God’s handpicked lineage of priests.  This role was amplified in the person of Aaron.  There are several rules in the Old Testament with regards to this priesthood, but one primary qualifier for holding the Aaronic Priesthood is that the candidate MUST be descended from Aaron.  Lineage is of such importance in this regard that it cannot be cast aside.  When Mormons receive a patriarchal blessing, they are told to which Israelite tribe they allegedly belong.  Now, in most cases (with the exception of Jewish converts) this information is as wrong as wrong can be, but with regards to the priesthood, it presents another problem.  Not all Mormons are told they’re from the tribe of Levi through Aaron.  This would disqualify such a person from holding the Aaronic Priesthood, but that doesn’t seem to be much of an obstacle within the LDS Church.  Moreover, those from the correct lineage must have no physical defect (Leviticus 21:17-23), and serve their priesthood commencing at age 25 and retiring at age 50 (Numbers 8:24-25). 

The functions of a Levitical priest were quite different from the Aaronic Priesthood of Mormonism.  The job description included: offering the sacrifices (Leviticus 9), the teaching of the Law (Leviticus 10:11), officiating in the Holy Place (Exodus 30:7-10), maintaining the Tabernacle and the Temple (Numbers 18:3), inspecting ceremonially unclean persons (Leviticus 13 and 14), adjudicating disputes (Deuteronomy 17:8-13), and even functioning as tax collectors (Numbers 18:21,26; Hebrews 7:5).  The Aaronic priests were assisted in many of their duties by the Levites.  In the LDS Church, those in the Aaronic Priesthood collect fast offerings on the first Sunday of each month, prepare and clear the sacrament elements, and pass the sacrament.[2]   Worthy priests in the Aaronic order may also perform baptism.  While some of the duties may seem analogous, most are not.  The biblical duties of the Aaronic priests kept them at work in the temple, not outside of it.  One of the primary functions of the true Aaronic priesthood, that of animal sacrifice, has no corollary in Mormonism. 

As LDS boys become men, they receive the Melchizedek Priesthood, and are known as Elders.  Biblically, there are only two people who have ever held (or will ever hold) the Melchizedek Priesthood – Melchizedek and Jesus.  Melchizedek is a person of whom very little is written in the Bible.  Genesis 14:18-20 says, “Then Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine. He was priest of God Most High, and he blessed Abram, saying, ‘Blessed be Abram by God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth.  And blessed be God Most High, who delivered your enemies into your hand.’ Then Abram gave him a tenth of everything.”   This is the only direct mention of Melchizedek in the Old Testament.  He is a person who seemingly came out of nowhere, blessed Abraham, accepted his tithe, and then dropped out of the scene.  Since he blessed Abraham, who then gave him a tithe, it is clear that Melchizedek held a station higher than Abraham.  There is an indirect mention of Melchizedek in a Messianic prophecy in Psalm 110:4, which says of the coming Messiah, “The LORD has sworn and will not change his mind: ‘You are a priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek.’” This can seem a little puzzling if you interpret “order” as being analogous to the Levitical order of priests.  However, this usage does not imply lineage.  Rather, it should be read as “in the manner of…” In what manner would the Messiah be a priest like Melchizedek?  The answer is given in the book of Hebrews.  I hesitate to copy long passages of Scripture, but in this case, the explanation provided by Paul is too clear and compelling.  Therefore, let’s see what Paul said in Hebrews 6:19b-7:28:

It enters the inner sanctuary behind the curtain, where Jesus, who went before us, has entered on our behalf. He has become a high priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek.

This Melchizedek was king of Salem and priest of God Most High. He met Abraham returning from the defeat of the kings and blessed him, and Abraham gave him a tenth of everything. First, his name means “king of righteousness”; then also, “king of Salem” means “king of peace.” Without father or mother, without genealogy, without beginning of days or end of life, like the Son of God he remains a priest forever.  Just think how great he was: Even the patriarch Abraham gave him a tenth of the plunder! Now the law requires the descendants of Levi who become priests to collect a tenth from the people–that is, their brothers–even though their brothers are descended from Abraham. This man, however, did not trace his descent from Levi, yet he collected a tenth from Abraham and blessed him who had the promises. And without doubt the lesser person is blessed by the greater. In the one case, the tenth is collected by men who die; but in the other case, by him who is declared to be living. One might even say that Levi, who collects the tenth, paid the tenth through Abraham, because when Melchizedek met Abraham, Levi was still in the body of his ancestor.

If perfection could have been attained through the Levitical priesthood (for on the basis of it the law was given to the people), why was there still need for another priest to come–one in the order of Melchizedek, not in the order of Aaron? For when there is a change of the priesthood, there must also be a change of the law. He of whom these things are said belonged to a different tribe, and no one from that tribe has ever served at the altar. For it is clear that our Lord descended from Judah, and in regard to that tribe Moses said nothing about priests. And what we have said is even more clear if another priest like Melchizedek appears, one who has become a priest not on the basis of a regulation as to his ancestry but on the basis of the power of an indestructible life. For it is declared: “You are a priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek.”

The former regulation is set aside because it was weak and useless (for the law made nothing perfect), and a better hope is introduced, by which we draw near to God. And it was not without an oath! Others became priests without any oath, but he became a priest with an oath when God said to him: “The Lord has sworn and will not change his mind: ‘You are a priest forever.’ ” Because of this oath, Jesus has become the guarantee of a better covenant.

Now there have been many of those priests, since death prevented them from continuing in office; but because Jesus lives forever, he has a permanent priesthood. Therefore he is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them. Such a high priest meets our need–one who is holy, blameless, pure, set apart from sinners, exalted above the heavens. Unlike the other high priests, he does not need to offer sacrifices day after day, first for his own sins, and then for the sins of the people. He sacrificed for their sins once for all when he offered himself. For the law appoints as high priests men who are weak; but the oath, which came after the law, appointed the Son, who has been made perfect forever. [NIV, emphases added]

Let me digress into unprofessional editorializing and say, WOW!!  This passage is so powerful, and you will no doubt see why I felt it necessary to paste this lengthy passage.  Paul explains clearly what it means to be a priest “in the order of Melchizedek.”  The Aaronic Priesthood, which was necessary under the law, has been set aside under the new covenant.  In this new covenant, we have no priesthood of men, because men are imperfect and they die.  Our Melchizedek priesthood is composed of one person – Jesus Christ, who remains the only priest of this order because He never dies.  Because He never dies, there is no need to transfer this priesthood on to a successor.  Biblically, a priest is a mediator who presents sacrifices to God on behalf of men.  Under the law of the old covenant, this function was filled by the Aaronic priesthood.  Under the new covenant, Jesus became our one and only high priest by sacrificing Himself “once for all” for the forgiveness of sin.  We need no other mediator (2 Timothy 2:5).  Christians believe in the universal priesthood of believers (1 Peter 2:5,9).  This by no means negates the belief that Jesus is our one and only high priest.  Rather, it metaphorically refers to our ability to approach the throne of grace with confidence (Hebrews 4:16), presenting ourselves as spiritual sacrifices to our God and Savior, Jesus Christ.  It is logical to suppose that had Jesus conferred the Melchizedek priesthood onto His Apostles, Paul would most certainly have mentioned that.  However, not only do none of the Apostles make such a claim in their writings, the Apostle Paul actually contradicts that claim in the seventh chapter of Hebrews. 

Speaking of the Apostles (a pitiful segue, I know), let’s examine the historical and Scripture role of the office of “apostle”, and the reasons why that office did not continue out of the first century church.  After all, Mormons place a great deal of importance on the idea that the LDS Church is structured like the church of the first century. 

“Apostle” is derived from the Greek word apostolos, which Thayer’s Greek Lexicon defines as “A messenger, delegate, one who is sent forth with orders.”  The Apostles of the first century church were Christ’s commissioned messengers of the gospel.  Their job was to spread the gospel of Jesus Christ throughout the lands, and to build up the Christian Church.  The Apostles were not only evangelists, but they were also church planters.  My oldest brother was involved in a church-planting ministry when he graduated from seminary, and co-authored a manual on church planting.  The Apostles were engaged very much in this type of work.  They would go to a city to preach the gospel.  As a number of people converted to Christianity, The Apostles would organize them into house churches, and train up leaders from within.  Many cities or provinces would have multiple small house churches.  In order to maintain unity and integrity of the doctrinal teaching among the various churches, the Apostles would raise up leaders to fill the role of overseer (also known as bishop), who would oversee the various house churches in the particular area.  When the churches were in capable hands, the Apostles would move on to continue this work.  Most of Paul’s epistles were letters sent to churches he had planted, in order to give them guidance and straighten out doctrinal errors.  When we read Paul’s letter to the Galatians, we must remember that there were actually several congregations in Galatia.  Paul’s letter was no doubt delivered to the presbyter(s) in Galatia, who would then share Paul’s teachings and admonitions with the various congregations. 

Jesus did not send his Apostles out empty-handed.  Paul tells us that there were three “things that mark an apostle–signs, wonders and miracles…”  Jesus knew the Apostles would be fighting an uphill battle in winning souls for the kingdom, so He gifted the Apostles with the supernatural ability to work miracles.  He had given to them “keys of the kingdom” to act on His behalf.  In Acts 5:1-11, we find Peter pronouncing sentence on Ananias and Sapphira, who lied to God.  The Holy Spirit used Peter, giving him the words to use when he pronounced death on Ananias and Sapphira.  The sentence was carried out immediately and supernaturally.  Paul displayed his gift of miraculous powers by raising Eutychus from the dead (Acts 20:7-12).  It was a worthy use of this God-given power, as it was Paul’s speaking that had lulled Eutychus to sleep in the first place, causing him to plummet out the window.  In this case, actions were far more persuasive than words.  No doubt there were many more displays of these gifts than were recorded in Scripture.  Such signs and wonders went far in a skeptical world in which Christianity was viewed as a new and bothersome Jewish sect by the Gentiles, and a blasphemous abomination by the Jews. 

After the replacement of Judas and the addition of Paul, there were no inductions of new apostles.  As a result, the number of the apostles dwindled through the first persecutions as each met a martyr’s fate or died a more peaceful death.  With the passing of the Apostle John around the turn of the century, the last of the apostles had died.  No successors were given the role or title of Apostle.  Some of you are objecting, “But I though apostolic succession was a big deal in the early church!”  This is quite right, but the successor of an apostle was not an apostle.  Apostolic succession was claimed when a presbyter/bishop had studied and been trained up under one of the Apostles.  Tradition indicates that Peter trained up leaders in the church at Antioch, to include the bishop of Antioch.  By this right, the church at Antioch could claim apostolic succession, even though the bishop (Evodrius) never claimed the role or title of Apostle.[3]  Apostolic succession therefore refers to a succession of doctrinal teaching and not to the transference of a role or title.  Evodrius was trained by Peter, an Apostle.  Therefore Evodrius was considered credible and worthy to pass along apostolic teachings to the Church in Antioch.  Evodrius’ successor had studied under Evodrius, who had studied under Peter.  This is what apostolic succession was really all about.  We need not reconstitute the role and function served by the first century apostles.  They bravely and faithfully fulfilled their duties as messengers of Christ.  They spread the gospel and trained up new leaders.  They used the keys of the kingdom and miraculous powers to open doors and cause the truth of the gospel to spread like wildfire. 

When people today claim a priesthood or a body of apostles, they are resurrecting offices that are dead and unnecessary in the eyes of God.  There was a mission for Apostles in the first century, but that mission is complete and that office is now superfluous.  There was a time in God’s plan for the Aaronic priesthood, but it is long since past.  Jesus was sacrificed once for all for the forgiveness of sins, and where these sins are forgiven, no further sacrifice is required (Hebrews 10:10-18).  There were only two occasions in history for a priest in the order of Melchizedek.  The first was Melchizedek, and the second (and final) is Jesus Christ.  He alone is our mediator.  He alone allows us to approach the throne of grace with confidence.  We enter the Most Holy Place as part of a universal priesthood by His grace and the sufficiency of His sacrifice (Hebrews 10:19-22).  To claim a modern need for a priesthood is to reject Scripture and deny the sufficiency of the death and resurrection of the Lamb of God.  To claim a modern need for Apostolic authority is to be ignorant of both Scripture and history.  

 

NOTES:

1.  Grant H. Palmer, An Insider’s View of Mormon Origins (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2002) pp 230-231.

2.  “Sacrament” in Mormonism is quite similar to the sacrament of Communion within Christianity.  One notable difference in the form of the sacrament is the use of water instead of wine or grape juice. 

3.  Let me be clear that “Apostle” was never meant to be considered a rank or title.  It was a role or function.  The various offices of church ministry (elder, deacon, pastor, etc.) should rightly be considered roles and not ranks.  The same can be said of Apostle.