Category Archives: D&C 20

D&C 20:38-67

We’ve chosen to do all of v. 38–67 in one post because A) these verses are more practical and less overtly theological, so we can move through at a faster pace, and B) we’re interested in how the various offices relate to each other, and that’s best determined by looking at all of them in one large chunk. Of course, it also means that this will be a shallower reading than we gave to Alma 13, and it will necessarily skip over some of the finer details. I hope that what I offer in this post will provide a helpful framework, and that we can devote the comments to a discussion of those details.

D&C 20:38–67 is pretty straightforward in its organization:

v. 38–45 ~ duties of an elder
v. 46–52 ~ duties of a priest
v. 53–59 ~ duties of a teacher (with passing reference to deacons)
v. 61–67 ~ administrative details (timing for conferences & priesthood certificates)

But while the different offices appear sharply delineated on the surface, their duties overlap in complicated ways.

First, I think it’s important to note that there seems to be the beginnings—vague and implicit though they may be—of a split into higher and lower priesthoods. Although the demarcation into Aaronic and Melchizedek priesthoods wouldn’t happen for several more years, I think we see some signs of these offices being aligned into two groups. Twice we are told that one priesthood office is to be assisted by the members of another: priests are to assist the elders (v. 52), and deacons are to assist the teachers (v. 57). No mention is made of teachers helping priests. To me this suggests that the proto-“higher” priesthood consisted of elders, with priests as their assistants, while the proto-“lower” priesthood consisted of teachers, with deacons as their assistants. (It’s worth mentioning that our current Melchizedek and Aaronic priesthoods do not split along the same lines; priests are part of the Aaronic priesthood, not the Melchizedek, as this “proto” organization might suggest.)

Things are not so clear-cut as that may make it appear, however. For example, the priests’ and teachers’ unique duties have more in common with each other than they do with the elders’ or deacons’, respectively, and there are other complicating factors, as well.

Tracing out the individual duties of each office quickly becomes confusing because of all the repetition. Phrases are repeated both across the several offices and within the several offices. In the first case, for example, “lower” offices can fulfill the duties of “higher” offices where needed; priests can lead meetings where no elder is present, and teachers can lead meetings when neither an elder nor a priest is available; both priests and elders can administer the sacrament and baptize, etc. The result is that phrases like “take the lead of meetings” and “baptize and administer the sacrament” are scattered throughout the section across several offices in a way that makes it difficult to sharply delineate responsibilities. As another example, all of the offices (elder, priest, teacher, and deacon) are required to “expound, exhort, and teach,” though there are variations on that responsibility depending on the office (compare v. 42, 46, 50, 59).

In the second case—repetitions within a single office—we often get a double reminder of the office’s duty. We are twice told that elders can baptize (v. 38, 42) and confirm (v. 41, 43), and twice told that priests ought to visit the members, exhorting them to pray (v. 47, 51).

Because of all that overlap and repetition, I chose to focus on the duty that was unique to each office (and there was only one in each case, which is interesting). Here’s the chart I drew up, with the unique duties in red:


Here’s the sense I’m getting for each office, with special emphasis given to their completely unique duties:

Elders seem to be primarily responsible over the boundaries of the church. They are the missionaries, seem to be chiefly in charge of baptism, conduct the fellowship meal that marks the saints as a community (the sacrament), and confirm new members, which we understand today to be the ordinance by which converts become full members. This responsibility for the growth of the church–if I’m right to see it this way–can also be seen in their duty to ordain other men to offices of the priesthood; just like they are to oversee the growth of the church membership, they are responsible for growing the ranks of the priesthood, as well.

Priests I understand to be primarily responsible over the church as individual members. Their unique duty is to “visit the house of each member” (v. 47, 51, emphasis added), making sure that those members pray and attend to their family duties. Their ministry is to individuals, ensuring that those members are fulfilling their individual duties.

Teachers, then, are primarily responsible over the church as community. They uniquely ensure “that there is no iniquity in the church, neither hardness with each other, neither lying, backbiting, nor evil speaking” and “that the church meet together often” (v. 54-55, emphasis added). Teachers are liable for the interrelational space between and among the members.

(Deacons receive hardly any direct attention in this section, and don’t have a duty that is uniquely their own. They’re pretty much lumped in with teachers.)

If that schematic is correct, it leaves me with a few other questions and points for discussion:

1.) What we’re seeing here is a strongly ecclesiastical priesthood, completely focused on the church–its boundaries, its individual members, and its community dynamic. This is something very different from the ritual priesthood of the Old Testament, or Alma’s teaching priesthood in the Book of Mormon.

2.) The elders have a really interesting relationship with the Holy Ghost that I’d like to figure out.

The Holy Ghost is mentioned four times in this section, and it’s always in conjunction with the Elders:

Elders lay on hands for confirmation for the Holy Ghost (v. 41)
Elders lay on hands to give the Holy Ghost (v. 43)
Elders lead meetings as led by Holy Ghost (v. 45)
Holy Ghost is in the one who ordains (v. 60)

In the last case, of course, it need not be entirely unique to the elders, since priests also have the ability to ordain (v. 48), but ordination is also one of the very first duties assigned to elders (v. 39), and I think the other mentions of the Holy Ghost are indicative.

So what is this relationship? In each instance I see the elder acting as a kind of conduit for the Holy Ghost to others–he’s the conduit for their confirmation, the conduit who receives inspiration about leading the meeting, and the conduit for ordination. I’m not sure what more to say about it than that. I mentioned that elders also seem responsible for the boundaries of the congregation; could it be that the Holy Ghost is a kind of liminal figure that aids with that duty, somehow? I don’t know. I’m open to ideas.

3.) Relationship between priesthood and spiritual gifts.

Verse 60 is interesting, and sits largely outside of the organization I suggested at the beginning. Here it is in full:

“Every elder, priest, teacher, or deacon is to be ordained according to the gifts and callings of God unto him; and he is to be ordained by the power of the Holy Ghost, which is in the one who ordains him.”

The fact that we mention “gifts” and “the Holy Ghost,” both tied to ordination, makes me think we could talk about “gifts” here as referring specifically to the “gifts of the spirit” along the lines of D&C 46, or something. That’s a pretty speculative gesture to make, I realize, but I think it might be productive.

It sounds like ordination is to come according to spiritual gifts one already has. God has given someone certain “callings,” indicated by accompanying “gifts,” and ordination is to be performed according to those talents. On that reading, priesthood begins to look like an official or institutional sanction corresponding to one’s spiritual gifts, licensing them for use in the church community. It’s a way of bringing the charismatic gifts of the spirit into the institutional hierarchy in an organized, controlled fashion.

This appeals to me for three reasons. First, how cool is that?! 🙂 Second, it reminds me of the way the Law of Consecration worked under its earlier model–an individual comes to the bishop, suggest how they would like to build the kingdom according to their own interests and talents, and receives the resources to do it. It’s entirely self-directed and according to one’s own gifts. Third, I think this connects up in interesting ways with D&C 46:27:

“And unto the bishop of the church, and unto such as God shall appoint and ordain to watch over the church and to be elders unto the church, are to have it given unto them to discern all those gifts lest there shall be any among you professing and yet be not of God” (emphasis added).

Bishops and elders have the ability to discern the gifts of the spirit. Here spiritual gifts are explicitly connected with the priesthood. I’d like to think more about the reason listed for that (this is done to identify those who are “not of God,” a further aid in policing congregational boundaries?), but I think there’s enough here to warrant further thought.

What else of interest do you see in D&C 20? What do you think of my wild speculations? Discuss!


Filed under D&C 20