What Do Mormons Believe: The Mormon Priesthood
Mormon priesthood differs somewhat from the priesthood found in most Christian religions. Mormons (a nickname for members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) do not send people to seminary to prepare for the priesthood. Although there is a Mormon program called Seminary, it is a weekday class for teenagers, not a priesthood preparation program.
Mormons operate a lay church, which means no one goes to school to learn to do their job. Mormons have secular employment and then volunteer without pay in various church positions at all levels, including full-time international positions. Those few who work full-time for the church, both male and female, who have no private means of support can receive a very modest stipend to cover living expenses, but this money does not come from tithes. It comes from a for-profit arm of the church.
The priesthood is held by all worthy males ages twelve and older, which is one important way it is different from other religions. Worthiness is a matter of church membership and adherence to high moral standards. The priesthood has several levels, each with its own responsibilities.
The first priesthood a boy receives is the Aaronic Priesthood. This priesthood is named after Aaron and is found in the Old Testament. The original Aaronic priesthood was open only to Aaron and male members of his family who met rigid requirements, including a lack of blemishes.
Twelve and thirteen year old boys can serve as deacons, the first level of the Aaronic priesthood. These boys are responsible for care of the church building—for instance, many congregations have these boys empty waste baskets and tidy the church building after meetings. They pass the Sacrament of bread and water (communion) to the members of the congregation. They also assist the bishop (lay pastor) in any way that is needed.
Fourteen and fifteen year old boys are Teachers. They can do everything the deacons do, but have additional responsibilities. They prepare the Sacrament before the meeting begins—placing bread on trays and pouring water into the small disposable cups, as well as making sure the Sacrament Table is completely set up properly. During the month they are assigned to serve as home teachers—the source of the name of their level of priesthood. Working with an adult priesthood holder, usually their father, they visit a small number of families each month. They are expected to build a relationship with the family members, serve them in any way they are needed, and be aware of any needs they may have the bishop should be aware of, such as serious illness or financial difficulties that might be causing suffering. They deliver a brief spiritual message while there. This helps to prepare the boys for a lifetime of service and to learn to be aware of the needs of others.
The remaining teenage boys are priests. This is not the equivalent of a priest in other religions. The priests bless (pray over) the Sacramental bread and water, and, as can all priesthood holders, fulfill the duties of the lower levels of priesthood. They can also baptize and perform some other religious duties.
Around age eighteen, young men gain the Melchizedek priesthood. The initial level of this priesthood is the office of an elder. If you’ve ever met a Mormon missionary, you may remember they are called by the title of Elder with their last names. Elders do not use this title at other times. Female missionaries, who do not hold the priesthood, are addressed as Sister with their last names. Elders can perform all Aaronic Priesthood duties and can confirm people a member of the church, convey the gift of the Holy Ghost, giver healing blessings, and give a name and blessing to newborns (similar to a Christening.) Men must be at least elders to serve full-time missions and to marry in a Mormon temple. Women may do both these things without the priesthood.
Some men also become High Priests. This priesthood is required for certain leadership positions in the church, such as bishop or stake president. Once a man attains this level, he continues to hold it even when he no longer has the position that caused him to become a high priest.
Men who join the church start by holding the Aaronic priesthood, although they attend meetings with men their own age, rather than with the teenagers.
Women do not hold the priesthood. This is not a problem for women with testimonies who understand what the priesthood is. Jesus Christ did not select women to be his apostles because to be an apostle requires the priesthood. He was not discriminating against them—Mormons believe they held other religious positions in the church. We see that Jesus treated women with great respect and in the story of Mary and Martha, we learn that He considered them more than capable of, and responsible for, learning the gospel. God no more discriminates against women by not giving them the priesthood than He discriminates against men by not allowing them to give birth. Each gender has specific roles to fulfill and no role is more important than the other.
Priesthood is a service position. It is important to understand that women are not kept from any blessing God has to offer by not holding the priesthood. They have as many ways to serve as do men. A man cannot use his priesthood to bless himself. If he needs an ordinance performed on himself, he must find other priesthood holders to perform it, just as women do. Because the priesthood is an unpaid position, it does not keep women from being employed.
Some church callings (unpaid positions) require priesthood, but others do not. Some positions, including leadership positions, are open only to women and others only to men. Some are available to either. In some positions, men may serve in organizations they may not lead, so they are led by women.
No Mormon ever lacks for opportunities to serve. Most have more service than they can reasonably carry out. A recent study showed Mormons do more service than any other population in the United States—with or without the priesthood.