Summary: When members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are sick, they often call for the elders of the church to come use their priesthood to heal them, and in the LDS Church, only men hold the priesthood. This practice raises the questions of why is the priesthood needed to heal the sick and why are women not allowed to hold the priesthood? This article explains what the priesthood is and what it is used for.
The apostle James wrote, “Is any sick among you? Let him call for the elders of the church; and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord” (James 5:14).
When members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints read this verse of scripture they automatically think this refers to holders of the Melchizedek priesthood placing their hands on the head of a sick person and giving them a blessing of health.
However, among Christian churches, this is a unique practice. There are people in other faiths who are ordained priests but even so, very few of them use their priesthood to heal the sick. In some churches they have people who are called by the title of “elder” but they don’t refer to themselves as holding a priesthood and when they are asked to help the sick, all they do is simply pray for them.
To many Christians, a priest is someone who is primarily a preacher, whose main job is to proclaim the good news of Christ’s salvation. In the past, this role was exclusively given to men but in our day more and more women are being ordained as priests, with the reasoning that a woman is just as capable as a man in understanding and peaching the word of God. However, although in the LDS Church, women are allowed to preach, yet they are not given the priesthood, and only those who hold the priesthood are allowed to serve in certain leadership positions. For example, a woman can be a leader in the woman’s Relief Society program but she cannot become a bishop.
This practice has led to a number of questions. Among them are: What is the priesthood and why does someone need to hold it, especially to heal the sick? The scriptures say that “the effectual, fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much” (James 5:16), and, in fact, many people have been healed through the prayers of righteous people, therefore we see that praying for the sick is an effective way to heal them. In addition to this, since the sick can be healed by doctors through the use of medicines, then what is the purpose in calling for the priesthood elders when someone is sick?
Another question that has been asked is: Why are women not allowed to hold the priesthood in the LDS Church which then denies them being appointed to important leadership positions? However, these and other questions come about because of not understanding the purpose of the priesthood.
The definition of the priesthood is: The authority of God delegated to man to act in things pertaining to the salvation of man. What this means is that the priesthood is what God uses to save and exalt his children. It is God’s power that he uses to create worlds, to control the universe, and the means by which he is able to redeem us from our sins, all of which he does for the express purpose of enabling us to inherit eternal life. Without this priesthood God could do none of these things.
Although this priesthood is something God possesses, he delegates some of its authority to man so that we can act as his authorized representative in doing those things that he would do for our salvation if he were here. Thus, the priesthood we hold is not ours but is something we are allowed to use under the direction of God. When we say that the priesthood is not ours, that means we cannot use it any way we want. Rather, we are to use it for the purposes and in the way that God directs.
This is similar to an older teenager who wants to go on a date and asks if he can use his father’s car. Although the teenager is driving a car, it doesn’t belong to him. It belongs to his father and he can only use it according to the purpose for which his father has approved. In the same way, the priesthood belongs to our Father in heaven, and he allows us to use it but only to accomplish those things for which he approves. Thus, when someone holds the priesthood, whenever they use it they do so according to the will of God for the simple reason that they are acting for and in his behalf.
The Lord has explained that “The Melchizedek Priesthood holds the right of presidency and has power and authority over all the offices in the church in all ages of the world, to administer in spiritual things” (D&C 107:8).
From this we learn that the priesthood has two components to it. It has both power and authority, but these two aspects of the priesthood are not the same. For example, a person can have authority but no power to enforce their authority, as can someone have power but no authority to use it. To understand this principle, we can look at a number of different examples.
Authority is generally associated with someone who has the right to tell someone else what to do, such as a king, or a president, or a supervisor. In the military, someone who holds a higher rank than someone else, has the authority to tell those of a lower rank what to do. On the other hand, the word “power” means the ability to accomplish some sort of action. Thus, in order for someone’s priesthood to be effective they must have both authority given to them from God and the power to exercise that authority.
It is the priesthood that gives man the authority to act in the name of God, and it is God who confers the priesthood upon man through his delegated representatives. Thus, when a man holds the priesthood he has the right to do certain things in behalf of the Lord, meaning that he is acting as a representative of God. Likewise, when someone does not hold the priesthood, they have no authority to act for the Lord.
As we look at the verse just quoted, the Lord explains that the priesthood gives someone the “right of presidency,” or in other words, they have the right to preside over someone, and it is that right that authorizes them to exercise authority over others. But how do they acquire that right? If everyone had the same rights there would be chaos as multiple people seek to hold the same authority over everyone else therefore, it is obvious that someone with greater authority has to give that right.
Although there are many people who hold the priesthood, they don’t all have the same authority or the same rights. For example, when people are called to preside over a designated area such as what happens with a bishop, stake president, mission president, Elder’s Quorum president, etc., they are given the “right of presidency,” meaning that they have the right to preside over their specified area of responsibility. This is what having the authority of the priesthood means.
But, as we have already seen, the priesthood not only confers its holder with the authority or the right to do certain things but the priesthood carries with it certain powers to act. The Lord has explained that although the priesthood can be conferred upon someone, if they exercise it “in any degree of unrighteousness, behold, the heavens withdraw themselves, the Spirit of the Lord is grieved, and when it is withdrawn, Amen to the… authority of that man” (D&C 121:37).
What gives the priesthood its power is the righteousness of the person holding it. Thus, someone may have the authority to act in the name of the Lord but because of unrighteousness, they may not have the power to implement their authority. In the same way, although someone may be very righteous, yet without the priesthood they have no authority or right to use that power to act in the name of the Lord.
This is why baptisms performed by ministers, pastors, or priests of other faiths are not recognized by God. Even though these people might be living a righteous life, righteousness, in and of itself, is not enough to authorize someone to act for God. Yet, just because someone has been given that authorization doesn’t automatically give their priesthood any power.
But if that is true, then what are we to make of the story where “a woman who was diseased with an issue of blood [for] twelve years, came behind him (Jesus) and touched the hem of his garment, for she said within herself, If I may but touch his garment, I shall be whole. But when Jesus turned him about, and when he saw her he said, Daughter, be of good comfort, they faith hath made thee whole. And the woman was made whole from that hour” (Matthew 9:20-22).
There are a number of stories in the New Testament where Jesus said that people were healed, not because of some power he used but simply because of their faith. And, in fact, many people have been healed simply through the power of prayers uttered in faith. If that is true, then why do we need the priesthood to heal people? More than that, if people are healed because of their faith, then why is it necessary to have an authorized priest in order to heal someone?
To understand the answer to that question we have to remember what the definition of the priesthood is. It is the authority – not the power – that God delegates to man to act in things pertaining to the salvation of man. Although healing someone who is sick or infirmed is certainly a blessing to them, it does nothing to save them, therefore the power to heal someone comes from the faith of the sick person or the faith of the priesthood holder.
The primary function of the priesthood is to act in things pertaining to the salvation of man and is what authorizes or gives someone the right to perform the ordinances of salvation in the name of God. To illustrate this point, in the scriptures we read where Jesus taught, “Except a man be born of the water and the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of heaven” (John 3:5). In order for someone to be saved and enter into heaven they must be baptized and receive the Holy Spirit. That is an absolute requirement. No matter how righteous someone may be, or how much faith in Christ they have, without doing those two essential things, they will never inherit eternal life.
But God doesn’t recognize a baptism performed by just anyone. That ordinance has to be performed by someone who is authorized by God to do it. And the same is true of giving someone the Holy Spirit. That too is done by an ordinance by someone who is authorized to perform it, as is the blessing of the sacrament, and the ordinances of salvation that are made in the temples of the Lord. Thus, it is by the authority of God’s priesthood, that he has delegated to man, that makes the performance of any of these essential ordinances valid.
In addition to this, the purpose of the church is to “for the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry (i.e., preaching the gospel), for the edifying of the body of Christ, till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:12-13).
The church is an essential part of our salvation because it is needed to oversee the preaching of the gospel both among the unsaved as well as the saved. The church is also needed to help us come to a correct knowledge of Christ and to help us become perfect, as God the Father and his Son are. Therefore, in the church the authority of the priesthood is needed to oversee the work of salvation which it does under the direction of God through his authorized representatives.
But what about using the priesthood to heal the sick?
This term is a misnomer because a priesthood holder doesn’t “heal” anyone. Notice that James 5:14 doesn’t say, “Is any sick among you? Let him call for the elders of the church; and they will heal you.” What a priesthood holder does is gives a blessing and that blessing comes from the Lord, not the priesthood holder. Again, the priesthood is the authority to act in the name of God, therefore when a priesthood holder places their hands on the head of someone who is sick, they become God’s mouthpiece, giving voice to whatever the Spirit prompts them to say.
Priesthood holders don’t go around offering their services to heal people. Instead, they come in response to someone’s request, and that request isn’t to be healed so much as it is to receive a blessing from the Lord. And because they have asked in faith that the Lord will bless them with health, God uses his authorized representative as the instrument through whom he gives whatever blessing he is inclined to give.
But that’s not to say there is no power in the priesthood. The scriptures tell us that God made all things and that it was through faith that God created the world (Hebrews 11:3). Jesus said that if we had the faith the size of a mustard seed “ye might say unto this sycamine tree, Be thou plucked up by the root and be thou planted in the sea, and it should obey you” (Luke 17:6). That is real power! And that power comes from our faith.
Because of his priesthood God is sovereign over all things because he has authority over all things, but it is because of his great faith that he has the power to do all things and he exercises that power through the authority he has. In other words, he not only has the power to create worlds, but he has the right to do so. But without the priesthood that gives him that right, his great power of faith would be useless. On the other hand, without faith, he could do nothing, despite all the authority he has. Thus, it takes both authority and power for the priesthood to be effective.
This is what the scriptures mean when it says that whenever we use the priesthood in any degree of unrighteousness, amen to the authority of that priesthood holder, notwithstanding the fact that he’s had the priesthood conferred upon him. But if that is so, then what is the relationship between faith and righteousness?
First of all, we have to understand that the faith spoken of here is not in ourselves, or in material things, or in institutions, or in governments or people. The faith spoken of in the scriptures specifically refers to our trust, reliance, belief, devotion, commitment, and loyalty to God. As such, it is impossible to have faith in God without becoming righteous, and it is impossible to be truly righteous without having faith in God because the two are inseparable from one another. As the apostle Paul said, our “faith is counted for righteousness” (Romans 4:5; 10:6).
It is this kind of faith and righteousness that gives the priesthood its power, and when used in conjunction with the authority of the priesthood, it allows someone the right and power to do great things. But someone doesn’t need to hold the priesthood in order to have access to its power. Throughout history there have been women of great unwavering faith in God who have lived a steadfast life of righteousness who have had great power in shaping the destiny of men and nations, and who have been a tremendous blessing to those around them such as Ruth, Queen Ester, Hannah, the mother of Samuel the prophet, and Mary, the mother of Jesus, just to name a few of the countless number of other women who could be cited.
Everyone can have access to this great power without needing the authority to act in the name of God. It doesn’t take permission from God to have faith in him and someone doesn’t need to be a representative of God to enjoy the benefits of faith or of living righteously.
The woman who had an issue of blood for twelve years was healed, not by the power of the priesthood, but because of the power of her faith in Christ, which is the same dynamic force that gives the priesthood its power. There was “a woman of Canaan [who] came out of the coasts and cried unto [Jesus] saying, Have mercy on me, O Lord, thou Son of David.; my daughter is grievously vexed with a devil… Then Jesus answered and said unto her, O woman, great is thy faith: be it unto thee even as thou wilt. And her daughter was made whole from that very hour” (Matthew 15:22,28).
It was Noah’s faith in God and not the priesthood that saved him and his family when he obeyed God by building a boat when there was no sign he needed one. It was Peter’s faith in Christ that allowed him to walk on the water and it was when his faith faltered that he began to sink.
What the scriptures show is that women have as much access to the same power of faith that men in the priesthood have. As such they are not denied any of its blessings and neither are they dependent on someone else to provide them with that power. The purpose of the priesthood is to grant men the authority to act for God in performing the ordinances of salvation, therefore the need for authority in using the power of the priesthood is when we are exercising it to help the Lord save his children. However, the power of faith and righteousness can do much more than just be the means of salvation.
Yet, despite this, there are those who complain that because women cannot have the same authority in the church as men that somehow this means they are being denied a great privilege and that they are being treated unfairly, unequally, and made to feel inferior. But if that is true, then shouldn’t men feel the same way when they are not called to be a bishop or a stake president, or an apostle? Isn’t it just as unfair that there should only be fifteen men who hold the position of an apostle at any one time when there are so many other men who are just as righteous and diligent in serving God? Shouldn’t they feel like they are being denied a great privilege, being treated unfairly, and being made to feel inferior?
However, nowhere in the scriptures or in the teachings of the LDS Church is salvation dependent upon a person’s position or on them holding the priesthood. Instead, the scriptures tell us that we “are kept by the power of God through [our] faith unto salvation” (1 Peter 1:5). It is our faithfulness in keeping the commandments of God and the righteousness of our lives that determines whether or not we are saved.
In that regard, women have the same equal opportunity to inherit eternal life as do the prophets and apostles. As such, holding the priesthood offers no one an advantage nor helps improve their chances of being saved in the kingdom of God. Therefore, rather than complaining about what we don’t have, and spending our time worrying about things that don’t matter, it is in our best interest to focus on doing what is most important and that is being faithful and righteous.
Related articles can be found at The Nature of the Priesthood