One day when Jesus had come to Caesarea Philippi, He asked His disciples who people thought He was. After several comments were made He asked them, "Who do you say I am?" Peter immediately answered saying, "Thou are the Christ, the Son of the living God." Jesus told him that this knowledge had been given to him by the Spirit and then said, "That thou are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven" (Matthew 16:13-19).
The Catholic Church uses this scripture as their claim that Peter was chosen to be the head of Christ's church and, since he was the first bishop of Rome, that all succeeding bishops of Rome also are the head of the church. In this position the Pope has the supreme responsibility to watch over the members of Christ's church and insure they are being properly taught the same gospel of salvation that Christ taught. Since he is the chief bishop of the Church, this means he is the chief priest who presides over and directs all the other priests of the Church. From its very beginning it has been the duty of the priests to correctly teach the people the words of Christ and oversee the work of salvation.
In most Protestant churches they too have priests, although they may not be called by that name. Some are referred to as ministers, others as pastors, and still others are called by different titles, but all of them have the same responsibility as do Catholic priests, which is to watch over their members and teach them the gospel of Christ. However, hardly any Christian church talks about the "keys" that Jesus said He was giving Peter. That is except for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
These keys gave Peter the power that whatever he did on earth was also recognized and accepted in heaven. But what were these keys? Unfortunately, the Bible doesn't answer this important question and there is no standard, agreed upon answer among biblical scholars. But, before we can understand what these keys are, we first have to understand what a priest is and why they had to be the ones who performed the ordinances of salvation.
The dictionary defines a priest as "a person who has the authority to lead or perform ceremonies in some religions and especially in some Christian religions." In Old Testament times only a priest was authorized to perform the many ceremonies that were required in the Law of Moses and the same pattern was followed in the earliest Christian church. Even today most Christian churches follow this same tradition. In fact, in our civil laws, all state governments recognize ordained ministers as having the authority to perform legally binding marriage ceremonies. But what gives a priest this authority. In other words, what gives a priest a special right to perform certain religious functions that others do not have the right to perform?
The answer is that their authority comes from the particular denomination to which they belong. For example, a Catholic's priest's authority comes from the Catholic church, and a Methodist minister gets his authority from the Methodist church. For this reason a Catholic priest cannot perform a baptism in place of a Methodist minister and vice versa.
But where do these religious organizations get their authority? The usual answer is: From the Bible. However, since all denominations understand the Bible differently (which is what makes all of them different from one another), then it is obvious that the Bible can't be their authority if everyone is basing their authority on a different understanding of what the Bible teach. Even so, they all believe that God in heaven honors the ceremonies their priests perform on earth, such as baptism, marriage, communion, etc.
However, this raises a number of important questions that very few Christians ever ask. These questions are: Why does God require a priest to perform these sacred ceremonies? Does God accept these ceremonies as being valid regardless of who performs them, or are only certain people authorized to perform ceremonies here on earth so that they are recognized as valid in heaven? What gives someone this authority or, stated differently, how does someone get this authority from God? Are the keys that Jesus gave Peter what gives priests their power? The answer to all of these questions is found in understanding what the priesthood is.
It is safe to say that all Christian churches, except the LDS Church, believe that God invented the concept of a priesthood. That is to say, it was God who established the rule that there had to be an authorized priest needed to perform certain ceremonies or ordinances. However, that is not what the LDS Church believes. They teach that the priesthood is something that has always existed and which will always exist. In fact, they teach that it is the priesthood which allows our Father in heaven to be God and do what He does. In other words, if God didn't have the priesthood He could not be God.
Admittedly, this is a radically different concept than any other church, which then begs the question: If the priesthood is so powerful that it can make or prevent someone from being a god, then exactly what is it?
In the Bible we read that it was God who created the earth, that Jesus stilled a raging storm, that He healed the sick, and even raised the dead. Most Christians assume that Jesus could do all these things simply because He was God and that God can do anything and everything He wants at any time He wants. However, the LDS Church teaches that God can do all these things because of the priesthood He holds. That's why, without the priesthood, He would not have the power to do these things. Then what is the priesthood and why is it so powerful?
The laws of nature, such as gravity, weather, chemical reactions, etc., operate on their own through a natural process that needs no controlling force. For example, deprive plants of sunlight and they die. That's a natural law. Fish can live in water because they are able to extract oxygen from water but they can't live out of water by extracting oxygen directly from the air as we can. That's a natural law. But someone who has the priesthood is able to control the forces of nature and make them do things that are not natural. When God does this we refer to it as being supernatural or a miracle.
However, five hundred years ago it would have been a miracle to see a man fly in the air, but today we do it so often that we have to have a multitude of regulations to keep people safe as they travel through the sky. A hundred years ago it would have been a miracle to watch moving pictures with sound coming from a small box or a flat screen in our living room that today we call television. Yet we know these are not "miracles" because we have learned how to harness the forces of nature and use them to do what we want.
We have been able to perform all of these modern-day "miracles" because of the knowledge we have gained concerning the laws of nature. The priesthood has the inherent power to control the laws of nature and of the universe but for a someone who holds that priesthood to do that properly takes not only knowledge but skill. If you will, the priesthood is like driving a car. The engine of a car is its power but without a steering wheel, brakes, accelerator, ignition switch, and gears, the car can't do anything, no matter how powerful its engine may be.
Yet, to drive a car not only takes the proper combination of many mechanical parts but it also takes knowledge of how to use those mechanical parts skillfully and wisely, and the same is true of the priesthood. It is not only the means by which a person can control the forces of nature but someone who holds the priesthood must have the knowledge and skill to use it properly.
All Christians believe that from the time Adam and Eve were expelled from the garden of Eden man has been eternally separated from God, but why? Because there is a natural law that says God cannot dwell where there is sin and since we have sinned then God cannot "dwell" with us nor can we live Him. God didn't invent that law so He is as much bound to obey it as you and I. However, there is a way for Him to overcome the effects of that law, but to do that He needs the power of the priesthood.
No man can take the sins of one person and transfer it to someone else, and no one can sacrifice themselves to atone for their own sins. Then how was Jesus able to do that? Because of the priesthood which He held (see Hebrews 5:5). Without that priesthood His death on the cross would have been meaningless, but with that priesthood He had the power to satisfy the immutable laws of nature. It is the power of this priesthood that allows an authorized person to perform a saving ordinance. For example. baptizing someone has no power to remove their sins unless that ordinance is performed by someone who holds the same priesthood that God has because it is the priesthood that has the power to remove sin. And the same is true of all other saving ordinances.
But this priesthood exists only in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, not because its founder, Joseph Smith, said so but because this priesthood was given to him by those who received it from Christ Himself, and He got it from His Father (Hebrews 5:5). Since all other churches get their priesthood authority from their own interpretation of the Bible, rather than having it conferred upon them directly from God, then whatever priesthood or authority of God they claim to have is powerless. Therefore, any baptism they perform has no power to wash away anyone's sins, not because God refuses to recognize the ordinance, but simply because they are performing an ordinance without the same power that God has.
Most Christians are under the impression that just because they baptize someone that God is somehow obligated to recognize that ceremony and thereby is willing to take away all of a person's sins. But that doctrine is not scriptural nor is it logical. To understand why, imagine someone who is covered with dirt pretending to wash themselves without using water or soap or any other cleansing agent. No matter how much they go through the motions of "washing" themselves, they will still remain dirty. To really wash themselves clean they have to use some sort of a cleaning agent. In the same way, in order for baptism to have any real effect of washing away our sins, it has to be done by someone who holds the same priesthood as God because that is the only power that can actually wash away sins.
If that is true, then why can't a mortal man who holds this authorized priesthood of God sacrifice themselves to atone for their own sins? The answer is that they don't have the keys to do it.
If we think of the priesthood as being a car, then what keeps someone from getting into any car they want and driving it? The answer is, the keys to those cars. Without the right key someone can't legally even get inside of a locked car let alone turn on its engine. When someone buys a car they are given the keys to it and it is by virtue of having the legal right to those keys that someone has the right to drive a particular car. When someone sells their car, they give away the keys that go with it, thereby showing they no longer have any right to operate that particular vehicle. Thus, when someone has legal possession of certain "keys" it gives them the legal right to do whatever those keys allow them to do, whether we are talking about a car, a house, a padlock, or anything else. And the same applies to the priesthood.
If God allowed everyone who held His priesthood to do whatever they wanted, whenever they wanted, there would be chaos. Since God is a God of order, He gives certain people certain keys that authorizes them to do certain things. Furthermore, since God is a God of order and He has a kingdom, then we would expect to see His kingdom being managed in an orderly manner.
In any large organization, such as a kingdom, there is a hierarchy of leadership where there are higher and lower ranks of managers who oversee those under their stewardship or area of responsibility. This is what Moses did when he set up a system of judges (Exodus 18:25). As we study the New Testament we see this same kind of organization existing in the early Christian church.
In the beginning the apostles went out and preached the gospel, converting people to Christ and baptizing them, but as time went on and the membership of the church grew ever larger, it became necessary to appoint others to oversee smaller groups of Christians. These men were called bishops, from the Greek word meaning overseer. As these congregations grew there was a need for the bishops to have assistants known as deacons and after the death of the apostles the church began to not only grow larger but also developed greater needs such as schools and theologians. Before long the congregations became so large that they had to appoint more bishops, which eventually led to the creation of an office called archbishops who oversaw regular bishops.
Each of these positions had their own area of responsibility in which they had the right to perform their duties. For example, the bishop of one city did not have the authority to preside or rule over the saints of another city where there was already another bishop. In the priesthood, "keys" are given to those who preside (supervise, have charge of, oversee, manage,) others. Just like the keys of car give someone the right to operate that particular vehicle, so also, someone who has been given the keys to preside has the legal right and the responsibility to watch over and direct a particular group of people.
Jesus Christ holds the keys to every function of the priesthood and He delegates some of His powers to mortals and allows them to assist Him in His work of salvation. When Jesus gave Peter the keys to the kingdom of heaven, He gave him the authority to preside over the entire church, meaning that Peter had the right to manage and direct everything that happened in the church. As such, whatever he did on earth was recognized and approved of in heaven.
But that is too much responsibility for one man to do all by himself so Peter delegated some of his responsibility to others. Those, such as bishops, who also preside or rule over a certain congregation, would also be given keys, but not for the entire church but just for the area over which they presided. In this way, they were responsible for guiding and directing the work of salvation in their particular area but only as it assisted Peter in fulfilling his responsibilities because when a person "delegates" power, he doesn't relinquish it. He merely allows someone to use it in his place.
Just because someone holds or has been given the same priesthood that Christ has doesn't mean they have the right to use that priesthood in any way they want. They are allowed to use their priesthood only under the control or supervision of those who have or hold the keys of higher authority. [Without those keys the power of someone's priesthood is just about as useless as a brand-new car without the key to turn on its engine.]
But since only certain people hold keys, then where does the authority and power come from for those who serve in the Church but who don't hold any keys? In other words, since keys are given to certain people who have the right to preside over others and direct the work of salvation, then what about those who have responsibility over others but who don't hold any keys, such as the Relief Society President or the Young Men and Young Women presidents? The answer is that, just as keys can be delegated for a period of time, so also those who hold keys as part of their right to preside can delegate some of their responsibilities to others. In other words, they can assign or appoint people to perform certain duties in their place.
For example, a bishop presides and has full responsibility for those who live within his ward boundaries. As such, he receives priesthood keys at the time he is set apart to that position. However, even though every bishop presides with two counselors assisting him, his counselors don't receive any keys because they do not have the responsibility of overseeing the affairs of the ward. Only the bishop has that responsibility while his counselors only assist him in carrying out his responsibilities. But the bishop can and does delegate some of his responsibilities to his counselors, and the same is true of every ward calling.
For example, when someone is called to be a Sunday School president, their calling has been approved by the bishop, therefore, in effect, they are being assigned by the bishop to be the president of the ward's Sunday school program. As such, they are acting in the capacity of the bishop's representative in that particular calling. Since the president of the Sunday School is not a priesthood calling, they are not given any keys. Instead, they are acting as a representative of the bishop in managing and directing the work of the Sunday School.
On the other hand, all priesthood quorums are presided over by a priesthood leader therefore each priesthood quorum president, including a twelve-year old Deacon, is given keys, meaning they have the right to manage and direct their particular quorum. However, since the bishop is the president of the Aaronic priesthood, then the Deacon's quorum president had keys conferred upon him from the bishop, who has the right to confer those keys. Therefore, the bishop still is responsible for overseeing, guding, and directing the work of a Deacon's quorum president. In the same way, since the bishop was given keys from the stake president, the bishop works under the direction of the stake president, who works under the direction of an area authority, who works under the direction of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve, who works under the direction of Jesus Christ, who works under the direction of His Father.
The question has often been asked: Why aren't women given the priesthood? After all, they can receive callings that require them to preside. Shouldn't they have the same right to hold keys just as do men?
First of all, it should be realized that there are many men who hold the priesthood and preside but who do not receive any keys. For example, the Sunday School president, Young Men's president, and the High Priest Group Leader preside without being given any keys. In addition to these, no counselors, including those in the stake presidency hold keys even though they are called upon to preside in the absence of their priesthood leader. In addition to these, no area authorities or even members of the First Quorum of the Seventies have keys (except for the seven presidents of that quorum) and yet they have presiding responsibility over their assigned areas. So women are not the only ones who preside without keys.
However, women (and men) nonetheless do preside with just as much priesthood authority as do those with priesthood keys. To understand why, we have to revisit how keys work.
The scriptures clearly state that Jesus is the head of the Church, therefore, as we have already stated, He holds all of the keys, or has the right to preside over any part of His church, in the same way a king has the right or authority to make laws for any part of his kingdom. Jesus delegated some of those keys to Peter, meaning that He gave Peter the right, the authority, and the responsibility to preside over the entire earthly church. But that also means Peter is going to be held accountable to Christ for how he fulfilled his duties as head of the Church of God on earth.
As we have seen before, Peter delegated some of those keys to bishops, who then delegated some of them to others under their supervision. Therefore, we have to understand that all keys are delegated and God has set strict guidelines of who can and who cannot have certain keys delegated to them. And because these keys are only delegated rather than being given to someone permanently, that's why, when a person is released from their leadership position, they no longer have the right or the keys to preside anymore.
However, someone who has the right to preside, as signified by the keys they hold, can make assignments, and when people carry out those assignments they are acting under the direction and therefore with the authority of their presiding priesthood leader. For example, when a bishop calls someone to be a Sunday School president, that person is presiding over the Sunday School as a representative of the bishop and is therefore acting under the delegated authority they've received from their bishop.
The same is true of the Relief Society president or the Young Woman's president, as well as their councilors. They are presiding over a certain group of women and doing so with the bishop's priesthood authority that has been delegated to them. This is not much different from how the bishop presides over his ward under his stake president's authority, who is presiding under the delegated authority they received from the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve, who are presiding over the entire earthly church under the delegated authority they received from Jesus Christ.
So, even though women are not given keys, they still preside with full priesthood authority because that authority has been delegated to them from their bishop. In this way, women are not denied any priesthood blessings.
And the same is true of High Priest Group Leaders. The stake president presides over all the high priests in his stake, therefore he holds the keys of presidency over them. However, since the stake president can't be everywhere, he selects someone to preside over the high priests in each ward or branch within his stake. These chosen men are not presidents but are merely leaders over groups of high priests, therefore they are not given any keys. But what they are given is delegated authority from the stake president to preside over their particular group of high priests.
The difference between those who preside with keys and those who preside without keys is who they are accountable to. Since those who hold keys are presiding under the delegated authority of Jesus Christ, they are responsible to Him for how they perform their duties and responsibilities, while those who preside without keys are responsible only to that priesthood leader whose authority they're using.
For example, if a bishop calls someone to be the Relief Society president, she is accountable to him for how she performs her duties, but he is accountable to Christ for how she carries out her responsibilities. Since the bishop has the right to preside, he also has the responsibility to make sure that those under his supervision are helping Christ grow His kingdom. For this reason God holds him accountable for his stewardship. It is in this way that the Lord is able to regulate and direct the affairs of His church to make sure that the work of salvation takes place in an orderly efficient and effective manner.
To a Latter-day Saint, the priesthood is not only what allows God the power to control the universe and bring to pass the salvation of His children but it is also the authority by which He governs His kingdom both in heaven and on earth.