Saturday, May 5, 2012

"Preach the Gospel and Administer in the Ordinances Thereof": Some Possible Alternative Meanings

My New Year's Resolution topic for this month is the Fifth Article of Faith.  In its entirety, it reads:

We believe that a man must be called of God, by prophecy, and by the laying on of hands by those who are in authority, to preach the Gospel and administer in the ordinances thereof. 

Nearly always, when I have heard someone talk or write about this Article of Faith, that person has focused on the first part of what it says - the idea that someone must be called of God and that such a calling must be the result of prophecy and the laying on of hands by those who have the authority to act in the name of God.  That focus is fine, but my resolution for this month is to focus on the part that gets overlooked and, I believe, misunderstood in the vast majority of discussions regarding the Article of Faith itself.  That ignored part is the final clarifying statement - that the laying on of hands is by those who are authorized specifically to preach the Gospel and administer in the ordinances of that Gospel (and not necessarily anything else) - AND/OR that the calling of God ratified through prophecy and by those in authority to lay hands of confirmation is specifically for those callings related to preaching the Gospel and administering in the ordinances of the Gospel (and not necessarily anything else) - AND/OR that only men "must" be called in this manner, while women can preach the Gospel and administer in the ordinances of that Gospel without such a formal process of calling and laying on hands. 

Those are very different readings, but each is a reasonable parsing of the actual words themselves.  The purpose of this post is to present each interpretation in short, summary form and set the stage for my other weekend posts this month, in which I hope to explore each possibility in more detail - and also look at some of the cultural and policy implications of the less traditional interpretation. 

1) If the final phrase is focused on those who are authorized to lay hands of confirmation on one who is called, the wording overall suggests that such authority is limited to those who can preach the Gospel and administer ordinances of the Gospel.  Such a reading can fit nicely into the standard construct of men who hold the Priesthood ordaining other men to receive that Priesthood, thus perpetuating the man-driven structure in which the Gospel is preached and ordinances are performed - but it doesn't have that narrow application if read strictly on its own, without the reinforcement of our modern organizational and "authority" structure.  It also is a bit circuitous when used to say only men can hold the Priesthood - meaning it presupposes the Priesthood has anything to do with what it being taught (since the Priesthood is not mentioned directly and only can be inferred if that belief is held prior to reading it).  I believe that is important to understand, at least, no matter what conclusion(s) one reaches ultimately.   

2) If the final phrase is focused on the calling through prophecy that is being confirmed by the laying on of hands, the wording suggests that the authorization process of that calling relates ONLY to preaching the Gospel and administering in the ordinances thereof.  The questions that spring to mind immediately with this interpretation are:

"What is "the Gospel"?  What is meant by "preach" the Gospel? What are the ordinances of that Gospel?"

3) If the final phrase is focused on the idea that only a man needs to go through this process, but women are not required to go through it, it opens a plethora of possible implications that are mind-boggling and tradition-challenging for many members - and I only will say that such a reading would not be completely foreign to the early Mormon saints

Finally, I hope to be able to discuss at some point this month the fascinating use of the following wording: 

"administer IN the ordinances thereof" 

as opposed to

"administer the ordinances thereof" 

What are your initial reactions to these possibilities?  Have you ever considered that there are potential readings that are different than what is assumed generally today?  Have you ever seen this particular Article of Faith as perhaps our most complex and difficult to parse without the over-whelming influence of our current culture and administrative policies? 

1 comment:

Bonnie Atkinson said...

I've been thinking about this a lot (obviously, in light of ongoing discussions.) I think he meant to define the church as a holder of keys, just as we define the prophet as the one holding the sealing power, which he can delegate to others. I don't think this AoF was intended to discuss men and women. I think it was intended to define what kind of church God would authorize: one that had keys to preaching of the gospel and the administration of ordinances. That the prophet, in whom those keys are necessarily invested, delegates them, is a tertiary principle and not what, I think, this revelation is discussing. By the by, I think men are as free to act without priesthood ordination as are women, as would be the case if someone newly baptized were called to teach Gospel Doctrine (either male of female.) The difference is only that our tendency is to ordain men as soon as they prove a willingness to regularly attend, so all worthy men serving also happen to also be ordained. So I don't think God discriminates against men by requiring them to be ordained.