The Keys and Authority of the Priesthood

By Elder Dallin H. Oaks
Of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles

Priesthood keys direct women as well as men, and priesthood ordinances and priesthood authority pertain to women as well as men.


At this conference we have seen the release of some faithful brothers, and we have sustained the callings of others. In this rotation—so familiar in the Church—we do not “step down” when we are released, and we do not “step up” when we are called. There is no “up or down” in the service of the Lord. There is only “forward or back ward,” and that difference depends on how we accept and act upon our releases and our callings. I once presided at the release of a young stake president who had given fine service for nine years and was now rejoicing in his release and in the new calling he and his wife had just received. They were called to be the nursery leaders in their ward. Only in this Church would that be seen as equally honorable!


While addressing a women’s conference, Relief Society general president Linda K. Burton said, “We hope to instill within each of us a greater desire to better understand the priesthood.”1 That need applies to all of us, and I will pursue it by speaking of the keys and authority of the priesthood. Since these subjects are of equal concern to men and to women, I am pleased that these proceedings are broadcast and published for all members of the Church. Priesthood power blesses all of us. Priesthood keys direct women as well as men, and priesthood ordinances and priesthood authority pertain to women as well as men.


President Joseph F. Smith described the priesthood as “the power of God delegated to man by which man can act in the earth for the salvation of the human family.”2 Other leaders have taught us that the priesthood “is the consummate power on this earth. It is the power by which the earth was created.”3 The scriptures teach that “this same Priesthood, which was in the beginning, shall be in the end of the world also” (Moses 6:7). Thus, the priesthood is the power by which we will be resurrected and proceed to eternal life.

The understanding we seek begins with an understanding of the keys of the priesthood. “Priesthood keys are the authority God has given to priesthood [holders] to direct, control, and govern the use of His priesthood on earth.”4 Every act or ordinance performed in the Church is done under the direct or indirect authorization of one holding the keys for that function. As Elder M. Russell Ballard has explained, “Those who have priesthood keys … literally make it possible for all who serve faithfully under their direction to exercise priesthood authority and have access to priesthood power.”5

In the controlling of the exercise of priesthood authority, the function of priesthood keys both enlarges and limits. It enlarges by making it possible for priesthood authority and blessings to be available for all of God’s children. It limits by directing who will be given the authority of the priesthood, who will hold its offices, and how its rights and powers will be conferred. For example, a person who holds the priesthood is not able to confer his office or authority on another unless authorized by one who holds the keys. Without that authorization, the ordination would be invalid. This explains why a priesthood holder—regardless of office—cannot ordain a member of his family or administer the sacrament in his own home without authorization from the one who holds the appropriate keys.

With the exception of the sacred work that sisters do in the temple under the keys held by the temple president, which I will describe hereafter, only one who holds a priesthood office can officiate in a priesthood ordinance. And all authorized priesthood ordinances are recorded on the records of the Church.

Ultimately, all keys of the priesthood are held by the Lord Jesus Christ, whose priesthood it is. He is the one who determines what keys are delegated to mortals and how those keys will be used. We are accustomed to thinking that all keys of the priesthood were conferred on Joseph Smith in the Kirtland Temple, but the scripture states that all that was conferred there were “the keys of this dispensation” (D&C 110:16). At general conference many years ago, President Spencer W. Kimball reminded us that there are other priesthood keys that have not been given to man on the earth, including the keys of creation and resurrection.6

The divine nature of the limitations put upon the exercise of priesthood keys explains an essential contrast between decisions on matters of Church administration and decisions affecting the priesthood. The First Presidency and the Council of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve, who preside over the Church, are empowered to make many decisions affecting Church policies and procedures—matters such as the location of Church buildings and the ages for missionary service. But even though these presiding authorities hold and exercise all of the keys delegated to men in this dispensation, they are not free to alter the divinely decreed pattern that only men will hold offices in the priesthood.


I come now to the subject of priesthood authority. I begin with the three principles just discussed:

  • (1) priesthood is the power of God delegated to man to act for the salvation of the human family,
  • (2) priesthood authority is governed by priesthood holders who hold priesthood keys, and
  • (3) since the scriptures state that “all other authorities [and] offices in the church are appendages to this [Melchizedek] priesthood” (D&C 107:5), all that is done under the direction of those priesthood keys is done with priesthood authority.

How does this apply to women? In an address to the Relief Society, President Joseph Fielding Smith, then President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, said this: “While the sisters have not been given the Priesthood, it has not been conferred upon them, that does not mean that the Lord has not given unto them authority. … A person may have authority given to him, or a sister to her, to do certain things in the Church that are binding and absolutely necessary for our salvation, such as the work that our sisters do in the House of the Lord. They have authority given unto them to do some great and wonderful things, sacred unto the Lord, and binding just as thoroughly as are the blessings that are given by the men who hold the Priesthood.”7

In that notable address, President Smith said again and again that women have been given authority. To the women he said, “You can speak with authority, because the Lord has placed authority upon you.” He also said that the Relief Society “[has] been given power and authority to do a great many things. The work which they do is done by divine authority.” And, of course, the Church work done by women or men, whether in the temple or in the wards or branches, is done under the direction of those who hold priesthood keys. Thus, speaking of the Relief Society, President Smith explained, “[The Lord] has given to them this great organization where they have authority to serve under the directions of the bishops of the wards … , looking after the interest of our people both spiritually and temporally.”8

Thus, it is truly said that Relief Society is not just a class for women but something they belong to—a divinely established appendage to the priesthood.9

We are not accustomed to speaking of women having the authority of the priesthood in their Church callings, but what other authority can it be? When a woman—young or old—is set apart to preach the gospel as a full-time missionary, she is given priesthood authority to perform a priesthood function. The same is true when a woman is set apart to function as an officer or teacher in a Church organization under the direction of one who holds the keys of the priesthood. Whoever functions in an office or calling received from one who holds priesthood keys exercises priesthood authority in performing her or his assigned duties.

Whoever exercises priesthood authority should forget about their rights and concentrate on their responsibilities. That is a principle needed in society at large. The famous Russian writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn is quoted as saying, “It is time … to defend not so much human rights as human obligations.”10 Latter-day Saints surely recognize that qualifying for exaltation is not a matter of asserting rights but a matter of fulfilling responsibilities.


The Lord has directed that only men will be ordained to offices in the priesthood. But, as various Church leaders have emphasized, men are not “the priesthood.”11 Men hold the priesthood, with a sacred duty to use it for the blessing of all of the children of God.

The greatest power God has given to His sons cannot be exercised without the companionship of one of His daughters, because only to His daughters has God given the power “to be a creator of bodies … so that God’s design and the Great Plan might meet fruition.”12 Those are the words of President J. Reuben Clark.

He continued: “This is the place of our wives and of our mothers in the Eternal Plan. They are not bearers of the Priesthood; they are not charged with carrying out the duties and functions of the Priesthood; nor are they laden with its responsibilities; they are builders and organizers under its power, and partakers of its blessings, possessing the complement of the Priesthood powers and possessing a function as divinely called, as eternally important in its place as the Priesthood itself.”13

In those inspired words, President Clark was speaking of the family. As stated in the family proclamation, the father presides in the family and he and the mother have separate responsibilities, but they are “obligated to help one another as equal partners.”14 Some years before the family proclamation, President Spencer W. Kimball gave this inspired explanation: “When we speak of marriage as a partnership, let us speak of marriage as a full partnership. We do not want our LDS women to be silent partners or limited partners in that eternal assignment! Please be a contributing and full partner.”15

In the eyes of God, whether in the Church or in the family, women and men are equal, with different responsibilities.

I close with some truths about the blessings of the priesthood. Unlike priesthood keys and priesthood ordinations, the blessings of the priesthood are available to women and to men on the same terms. The gift of the Holy Ghost and the blessings of the temple are familiar illustrations of this truth.

In his insightful talk at BYU Education Week last summer, Elder M. Russell Ballard gave these teachings:

“Our Church doctrine places women equal to and yet different from men. God does not regard either gender as better or more important than the other. …

“When men and women go to the temple, they are both endowed with the same power, which is priesthood power. … Access to the power and the blessings of the priesthood is available to all of God’s children.”16

I testify of the power and blessings of the priesthood of God, available for His sons and daughters alike. I testify of the authority of the priesthood, which functions throughout all of the offices and activities of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I testify of the divinely directed function of the keys of the priesthood, held and exercised in their fulness by our prophet/president, Thomas S. Monson. Finally and most important, I testify of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, whose priesthood this is and whose servants we are, in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.

Show References

1. Linda K. Burton, “Priesthood: ‘A Sacred Trust to Be Used for the Benefit of Men, Women, and Children’” (Brigham Young University Women’s Conference address, May 3, 2013), 1;

2. Joseph F. Smith, Gospel Doctrine, 5th ed. (1939), 139.

3. Boyd K. Packer, “Priesthood Power in the Home” (worldwide leadership training meeting, Feb. 2012);; see also James E. Faust, “Power of the Priesthood,” Ensign, May 1997, 41–43.

4. Handbook 2: Administering the Church (2010), 2.1.1.

5. M. Russell Ballard, “Men and Women in the Work of the Lord,” New Era, Apr. 2014, 4; Liahona, Apr. 2014, 48; see also Daughters in My Kingdom: The History and Work of Relief Society (2011), 138.

6. See Spencer W. Kimball, “Our Great Potential,” Ensign, May 1977, 49.

7. Joseph Fielding Smith, “Relief Society—an Aid to the Priesthood,” Relief Society Magazine, Jan. 1959, 4.

8. Joseph Fielding Smith, “Relief Society—an Aid to the Priesthood,” 4, 5; see also Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph Fielding Smith (2013), 302.

9. See Boyd K. Packer, “The Relief Society,” Ensign, May 1998, 72; see also Daughters in My Kingdom, 138.

10. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, “A World Split Apart” (commencement address delivered at Harvard University, June 8, 1978); see also Patricia T. Holland, “A Woman’s Perspective on the Priesthood,” Ensign, July 1980, 25; Tambuli, June 1982, 23; Dallin H. Oaks, “Rights and Responsibilities,” Mercer Law Review, vol. 36, no. 2 (winter 1985), 427–42.

11. See James E. Faust, “You Are All Heaven Sent,” Ensign or Liahona, Nov. 2002, 113; M. Russell Ballard, “This Is My Work and Glory,” Ensign or Liahona, May 2013, 19; Dallin H. Oaks, “Priesthood Authority in the Family and the Church,” Ensign or Liahona, Nov. 2005, 26. We sometimes say that the Relief Society is a “partner with the priesthood.” It would be more accurate to say that in the work of the Lord the Relief Society and the women of the Church are “partners with the holders of the priesthood.”

12. J. Reuben Clark Jr., “Our Wives and Our Mothers in the Eternal Plan,” Relief Society Magazine, Dec. 1946, 800.

13. J. Reuben Clark Jr., “Our Wives and Our Mothers,” 801.

14. “The Family: A Proclamation to the World,” Ensign or Liahona, Nov. 2010, 129.

15. Spencer W. Kimball, “Privileges and Responsibilities of Sisters,” Ensign, Nov. 1978, 106.

16. M. Russell Ballard, New Era, Apr. 2014, 4; Liahona, Apr. 2014, 48; see also Sheri L. Dew, Women and the Priesthood (2013), especially chapter 6, for a valuable elaboration of the doctrines stated here.

rev. 21 April 2014


In one asspect of eternal conception in the philosophies of man, neither is the yin nor the yang the same thing. Yet in their functioning capacitiy they are just as equally important and necessary. One is not without the other. In a conceptual way the same is the truth of the power of womanhood and of the wife and mother in the eternal perspective of God's eternal plan. Of the man and the woman, the one is equally important and necessary as the other. The priesthood power, after the order of the Son of God, is held by and deligated to men. It is represented as priesthood keys by which God regulates, works and functions on earth and in Heaven to 'bring to pass the imortality and eternal life of man'. And that is equally matched with the concept and roll of women. This is God's work and glory, and neither is the man without the women or the women without the man in it 'in the LORD'. They are different with differing responsibilities and functions in God's plan and they are equals with equal importance but with different resposibilities, callings, duties and functions.

Women who seek to be something they are not, just don't get it. They inately have been given, endowed, and empowered with the power of creation to form and make within themselves the human body. That is the enabling power of all human society, without which it would not exist. And that power and responsibility so many women are willing and desiring to trade for something less. Some have even taken it upon themselves to be destroyers of that which is uniquely theirs, given to them by the hand of God. Why? Why would they want to deny that greatest of powers given them by God. They rebel against the very nature of eternal progression and God's plan. I can only suppose when once lost, they might some day come to appreciate that which was theirs to posses.

Which is greater to 'generally' posses the keys to direct the affairs of the church, to be a 'general authority' as it were or to have the specific direct power to form and create, to teach and raise, to nurture and instruct specifically a child of God in the privacy of the home environment? The one to one direct application or the general congregational over sight which lacks that very personal touch of direct application. She it is that specifically makes, creates, forms and builds the man or the one who merely generally regulates, who is it that has the greater possesion? Do not sale short or under estimate that power given, for nothing can ever compensate for failure in the home, which rests so solidly in the functioning and position held by the woman.

What good is the power of the resurrection
if there is no one there to resurrect?

There is a part of the concept of opposits which need not make of the opposits being one good and one bad. Both can be good and still be made to go together. There is no necessity for the yinyang of man and woman to be one good and the other bad. Both in God's great plan are good. The principle of opposition in all things is not always the oposition of good and evil. It can be the functioning joining to two functioning part which when positioned together come to form the functioning whole. That is yin and yang do not and are actually preferred to not being so dyametrically opposed as to be intent on the destruction of each other. Such is a non productive yin and yang. God rather sets out such yin and yang matters which are dyametrically of necessity one to the other. That is the one does not functionally exsist and meet its greatest potenial without the other.

That is, yin and yang, can and ought to be two complementary principles. They need not be opposing opposites but functioning compatibles. While Chinese philosophy speaks of Yin as negative, dark, and feminine, and Yang as positive, bright, and masculine, that is not to presuppose that they must fight each other. Quite the opposite is true if in fact their interaction is to maintain the harmony of the universe and to influence everything within it to the fulfilment of God's eternal plan.

Power of Women

Though from the 'Church Perspective' the terminology of the term 'Priesthood' is reserved solely for that 'male priesthood of the church' and 'church priesthood offices' such as teacher, deacon, priest, elder, seventy, high priest, bishop, stake president, apostle, or prophet of the church; there certainly is a power and authority give by God unto women which is totally theirs and unique unto them. And that power and authority is that of the making, creating and forming of life. That is the unique power and authority to form the human body and birth and raise the children of God as only a mother in Zion can and should do.

Now the church does not use the term 'the priesthood of woman', but by that same analysis used by Elder Oaks, by what other power and authority is such? And is it given and deligated by God uniquely to women? It is certainly a power and authority reserved uniquely to women. And as explained by Elder Oaks, women do participate in the exercise of 'priesthood authority' in the church through and by the delegation of that power and authority by those who hold the 'keys' to that priesthood.

In one sense it is an exercise in the application and use of terminology definition. Yet on the other hand there needs be that distinction between that 'power and authority' from God given solely to men as the 'priesthood of the Son of God' from that 'power and authority of God' given solely to women as the maker and former of life, which men while they participate in, it is not given to the man as it is been given and bestowed upon woman.

Totally different in their unique functioning roles of gender? Yes. But both equal and necessary in the Plan of God? Also yes. Women ARE NOT second class citizens in the kingdom of God. And in a very special sense and perspective, they are positioned above and beyond that role and position of the male. They are woman, that woman who all those of the earth call 'Mother'.

Man's Philosophical Understandings

Over the course of history and man's efforts of philosophically coming to an understanding of the nature of things, of God and of eternity, it is true, unfortunitly so, that there are some chauvinistic perspectives enjoined in that understanding. In an opposite frame, I became aware of the differences of such perspectives. My mother first read to me the little verses concerning little boys and littles girls. They go something like this:

    'Snakes and snails and puppy dog tails, that is what little boys are made out of.'
    'Sugar and spice and everything nice, that is what little girls are made of.'

I recall upon hearing that child's verse, I WAS NOT impressed by it. If my memory may recall, I at the time said something in response to it, that it was not the truth of the matter. And as I recall, I was teased that it was so.

Now just as effected is the historical development of man's understanding of the eternal concepts, such as that developed by the Chinese beginning as early as 1400 BC to 700 BC, of 'yin and yang'. In that male dominated time passed, some such statement was made to contrast opposite positions, as in a need for an opposition in all things. And it became associated and taught in terms of the nature of the male verses the female, as they are counter parts of each other. That historical, chauvinistic perspective is stated such:

    'YIN is female, which is negative, slow, weak and yielding, diffuse, cold, wet, dark and passive.'
    YANG is male, which is positive, fast, strong and unyielding, concentrated, warm, dry, light and assertive.'

Well that's the 'snakes and snails' verses the 'sugar and spice' of early assignments of yin and yang as male and female, though Which yin and yang states was not perminate states of man and woman, it does display an early chauvinistic atitude that has unfortunately been part of many ancient civilizations, the European civilization development as well. And much of civilization even today is still recovering from it.

A better and truer relationship between opposites or counter parts of such universal and eternal relationships is better stated by more correctly observed relationships, and the need for balance and shared cooperations, working together toward mutual and beneficial out comes. Yet, even so, men and woman are inately different in many ways, thank goodness and God for that.

And certainly, dispite my mother's teasings, I am not made from snakes and snails, nor puppy dogs tails. I am somewhat 'sugar' and 'spice' and even nice, but not so much as girls are.

God's Love

God loves his children equally. He is not a respector of persons when it comes to his love and care. God made no 'second class citizens'. Some times adults, including parents, need to remember this in regard to children, their children. And they need to treat and respect them as such. This is absolutely true. In the same breath, as an understanding parent and grand parent, I have come to understand that all my children and grand children are different. Each has their own different personalities and characters. None are absolutely the same. As our children and grand children have grown, I try to remind them that we love them all equally. Yet due to both our limited means at various times and more particularly, according to their individual needs, we have not treated them all the same in every way. We have tailored our treatments and givings to them according to their needs and wants as far as our limited resources have allowed at any given time.

Thus it is. It is not what one gets and what another doesn't. It is providing each according to who and what they do so do. The same is with God. He gives and ordains according to who and what we are, all the time loving us, considering us equals before him. He does what is best for us in terms of what our potenials are in eternity which lies ahead. Womanhood is a divine gift from God given only to a portion of his children and he blesses them with all of his resources accordingly.