A Priesthood of Half the Believers
There are two major viewpoints in Christianity regarding priesthood. Though it’s a bit more complex than this, for the sake of simplicity I’ll call them the Catholic view and the Protestant view. Under the Catholic view, ordination matters. Priests are priests because they have been consecrated as priests by someone who has been consecrated by someone who has been consecrated, etc., and priests have power and authority to do things that regular people don’t. Under the Protestant view, ordination isn’t as big of a deal, and many Protestant sects subscribe to what is referred to as “the priesthood of all believers”. This means that no human intermediary is necessary to reach God – all Christians have direct access and are therefore all priests in a sense.
Traditionally, Mormonism has subscribed to a variation on the Catholic model of priesthood. The Mormon view is more expansive, in that more people are eligible for and expected to seek ordination, but it still relies on ordination. We teach in the missionary discussions that ordination is so important that God had to send angels to ordain Joseph Smith so that he would have the proper priesthood authority. Even today, when a man or boy is ordained to the priesthood, he is given a line of authority showing who ordained him, who ordained the man who ordained him, etc. all the way back to Jesus Christ.
Recently, in response to calls to ordain women to the priesthood, some church leaders, led by President Oaks, are trying to put forth a more Protestant view of priesthood. Tellingly, however, this view of priesthood is only directed at women. Men still get the ordination version – the one with the authority to perform ordinances and sit on decision-making councils in the church. But women are being told that we don’t need the priesthood because we have the priesthood (but not one with any real authority or anything). And this priesthood we supposedly have is indistinguishable from gifts of the Spirit and basic Christian living. In essence, proponents of this viewpoint are creating a “priesthood of half the believers”.
This is problematic for a couple of reasons. The first is that they’re not acknowledging that they’re using two different definitions. In informal logic, the fallacy of equivocation is using the same word to mean two different things in the same argument while obscuring that definitional change. When this fallacy is used, the argument appears to be sound but actually fails.
The second reason this is problematic is because it undercuts the restoration. If priesthood is just nice Christian people doing nice Christian things, then the entire reason for the restoration falls apart. The reason Joseph Smith needed to start a new church was because none of the others had the priesthood. But if suddenly everyone who does righteous deeds has the priesthood, there would be no need for a restoration. Any Christian church would do.
By trying to have it both ways, the church is undercutting its entire reason for existence.
I applaud the idea of all church members of any sex or gender being counseled and invited to further develop spiritual gifts, and I applaud the efforts to seek further information on how women fit into the priesthood, but the church needs to pick one definition of priesthood and stick with it. Muddying the waters with logical fallacies won’t help to answer the burning questions of so many.