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Do you really know what priesthood keys are? Here’s a helpful breakdown


Editor’s note: The following excerpt has been adapted from the 2019 printing of The Priesthood Power of Women: In the Temple, Church, and Family.

A few years ago, I asked my class of 50 Doctrine and Covenants students if they felt confident in their knowledge of the doctrine, principles, and practices associated with the priesthood. Apparently, all did! I was so happy at that moment, thinking that we would save several hours of class time on the topic. In the silence of my office following class, however, I began to wonder how likely it was that they knew everything about the priesthood when I myself, and even Church leaders, were struggling to understand and explain some of the fundamentals. During the next class, therefore, I had them answer the following on a slip of paper: “How many people in this room hold priesthood keys?”

I was surprised as I read aloud their diverse responses! “1,” “50,” “25,” “4,” “all of us,” “none of us,” “just the men in the room who hold the priesthood,” “all who have been through the temple,” and my favorite, most sincere answer, “I have no idea!” There were literally almost as many answers as there were students in that room. At least 75 percent of these students, men and women combined, were returned missionaries! I stood speechless for a moment, then realized that the hour I thought I had saved was now multiplied. Although they thought they had a good handle on the priesthood, they clearly did not know how much they were missing—and, therefore, what privileges they were not taking advantage of.

After pondering upon the inability of my students to answer such a seemingly simple question, I went to one of my well-seasoned, mature, and wise colleagues in the Church history and doctrine department at BYU. I related the story of how my students didn’t know the answer to what seemed like such a basic question, to which he humbly responded, “What keys were you referring to?” I stopped cold in my tracks. I realized immediately that not only did my students not understand, but I still was not grasping the full concept of priesthood keys, and perhaps there were more keys than I had previously thought.

Through my continued study of priesthood keys, it has become clear to me that, just as there are various parts to the elephant when it comes to the priesthood, there are also various parts of the elephant when referring to priesthood keys. Just as there is an all-encompassing priesthood and a smaller segment of the priesthood on earth, which we commonly refer to, the same is true with keys.

A closer look at the definition of priesthood keys in the Church’s Handbook 2: Administering the Church helps us to understand this more clearly. The handbook states that “Jesus Christ holds all the keys of the priesthood pertaining to His Church,” and that He “conferred upon each of His Apostles all the keys that pertain to the kingdom of God on earth” in this dispensation. “The senior living Apostle, the President of the Church, is the only person on earth authorized to exercise all priesthood keys. … The President of the Church delegates priesthood keys [typically known as the keys of presidency]1 to other priesthood leaders so they can preside in their areas of responsibility. … This presiding authority [or, in other words, the keys of presidency] is valid only for the designated responsibilities,” for a specific time, “and within the geographic jurisdiction of each leader’s calling. When priesthood leaders are released from their callings, they no longer hold the associated keys.”2

The keys that are typically referred to in the Church—in the most common use of the term—would better be titled priesthood keys of presidency. In fact, these keys are so commonly discussed that we typically refer to them simply as keys or priesthood keys. These keys of presidency “are the authority God has given to priesthood leaders to direct, control, and govern the use of His priesthood on earth” for a specific time and over a specific location. “The exercise of priesthood authority is governed by those who hold its keys (see Doctrine and Covenants 65:2; 81:2; 124:123).”3 In Doctrine and Covenants 107:8–9, we read about the “right of presidency” associated with the Melchizedek Priesthood. This right of presidency is associated with the keys of the priesthood but is only a component.

Although there is a variety of uses of the term key in scriptures, listed below are the priesthood keys that are most common. These include: (1) keys bestowed upon the Apostles (otherwise known as keys of succession or apostolic keys), (2) priesthood keys of presidency, and (3) general priesthood keys. Let’s define each of these a little more carefully.

Priesthood Keys Bestowed upon the Apostles

As stated previously, “Jesus Christ holds all the keys of the priesthood pertaining to His Church. He has conferred upon each of His Apostles all the [priesthood] keys that pertain to the kingdom of God on earth. The senior living Apostle, the President of the Church, is the only person on earth authorized to exercise all priesthood keys (see Doctrine and Covenants 43:1–4; 81:2; 107:64–67, 91–92; 132:7).”4

Priesthood Keys of Presidency

“The President of the Church delegates priesthood keys to other priesthood leaders so they can preside in their areas of responsibility. Priesthood keys are bestowed on presidents of temples, missions, stakes, and districts; bishops; branch presidents; and quorum presidents.”5 The authority received for each of these keys depends upon the assignment or calling of the individual. “Priesthood leaders who receive keys also are given the right to special gifts or power. … For example, a bishop serves as a common judge and receives the spiritual capacity to help members who need counsel with important personal problems, including serious transgressions.”6

Those who hold priesthood keys of presidency may overlap in geographic boundaries but have different yet complementary authority. Often, these priesthood keys of presidency are similar, requiring each key holder to work carefully with other key holders in his area. A stake president, for example, has keys of presidency that authorize him to interview a couple and determine their worthiness to enter the temple to be sealed, but he does not have the authority to seal this couple, as the keys to seal belong to the Apostles and are delegated by them specifically to the temple sealers. Although there is some overlap in purposes, the authority of each of these keys is distinct.

When serving as the institute director in Boston, I worked closely with the stake president to help with activation and enrollment of young single adults within his geographic area. At the same time, I worked closely with the mission president to help young single adult investigators who came with the missionaries to be befriended and taught correct doctrine. As we tried to open a visitors’ center to attract those who were not Latter-day Saints to the Longfellow Park building, the stake president, who held presiding priesthood keys for that function, had the authority to decide if the building was to be so used. As the institute director, with an occupational assignment (but not holding priesthood keys for this assignment), I helped coordinate the efforts of the young single adults according to class schedule, facilitated instruction, and gave suggestions to the stake president. The mission president, who held presiding priesthood keys for the missionaries in that geographic area, assigned missionaries certain nights to be available to answer investigators’ questions. All three of us—two presiding priesthood key holders and one professional institute director—worked closely together for the benefit of the members and nonmembers in the area. (Perhaps it is worth saying that Church employees, such as someone in my position as an institute director, regardless of Church calling or priesthood responsibilities, do not hold priesthood authority as part of their work assignment. This has been confusing for some.)

This presiding authority as a priesthood key holder is limited to “the geographic jurisdiction of each leader’s calling,”7 and is delegated only for a specified period of time. “For example, a bishop serves as the presiding high priest in a ward and also as the president of the Aaronic Priesthood for the ward.”8 The bishop holds the priesthood keys of presidency and thus presides over all people living within his geographic jurisdiction, or ward boundary, for a period of time. Deacons quorum, teachers quorum, and elders quorum presidents hold the keys of presidency for the young men and men in their respective quorums for a specified period of time. “When priesthood leaders are released from their callings, they no longer hold the associated keys.”9

Further: “All ward and stake auxiliary organizations operate under the direction of the bishop or stake president, who holds the keys to preside. Auxiliary presidents and their counselors [as well as counselors to priesthood leaders who hold the keys of presidency] do not receive keys. They receive delegated authority to function in their callings.”10

General Priesthood Keys Held by Priesthood Holders

“The general use of the term ‘priesthood keys’ or ‘keys of the priesthood’ can be understood as rights belonging to and available to priesthood leaders,” but the blessings and privileges flowing from them also belong to all members of the Church who are worthy of them. “These rights must be defined in their respective contexts. For example, the keys of the ministering of angels are available to all Aaronic Priesthood holders by right (see Doctrine and Covenants 13:1),”11 and all worthy members of the Church may receive the blessings of this right or responsibility. In other words, the Aaronic Priesthood holder has the responsibility by right to turn the key of the ministering of angels, making it possible for all worthy, covenant-keeping members to have the ministering of angels. These keys are distinct from keys of presidency, as all Aaronic Priesthood holders have this key, regardless of whether or not they are the president of a quorum. The key of the ministering of angels, therefore, is not a key of presidency, as those who hold this key do not preside by virtue of receiving it. As President Oaks inquired, “How does the Aaronic Priesthood hold the key to the ministering of angels?” He then answered his own question:

Through the Aaronic Priesthood ordinances of baptism and the sacrament, we are cleansed of our sins and promised that if we keep our covenants we will always have His Spirit to be with us. I believe that promise not only refers to the Holy Ghost but also to the ministering of angels, for “angels speak by the power of the Holy Ghost; wherefore, they speak the words of Christ” (2 Nephi 32:3). So it is that those who hold the Aaronic Priesthood open the door for all Church members who worthily partake of the sacrament to enjoy the companionship of the Spirit of the Lord and the ministering of angels.12

President M. Russell Ballard further taught: “All who have made sacred covenants with the Lord and who honor those covenants are eligible to receive personal revelation, to be blessed by the ministering of angels, to commune with God, to receive the fulness of the gospel, and, ultimately, to become heirs alongside Jesus Christ of all our Father has.”13 These privileges stated by President Ballard are usually taught in context of those who hold the priesthood or who have priesthood keys, such as those holding the Aaronic Priesthood, or elders serving as missionaries. Again, these keys are not the keys of presidency, but rather, general priesthood keys given to ordained Aaronic Priesthood holders.

I have read and listened to many talks in which the young men have been told how significant it is that they have the right to the ministering of angels. Although this is correct, so do the young women! All may receive the ministering of angels based upon their ability to make and keep sacred covenants associated with baptism and every other covenant. What an incredible privilege our 8-year-old Primary girls could and should understand. It is critical to not only teach the young men about what it means to hold the keys of the ministering of angels, but to also teach both the young women and young men what it means to have the ministering of angels in their lives. Imagine the blessings a young woman could have as she is going through the early stages of maturation to know that she has the privilege of having angels, seen or unseen, accompany her, know her, and speak to her. In a recent class I taught, I asked 50 students, 35 of whom were female, “Who has the privilege of the ministering of angels?” Not one female student in the class raised her hand. How different the lives of these 35 young adult, mostly returned sister missionaries and young mothers could have been over the last decade of their lives, had they better understood this truth. …

Let us now go back to the question of “who in this classroom holds priesthood keys?” There is simply not a cut-and-dried answer to this question; it varies depending on what priesthood keys we are referring to. Frankly, I’m confident that at the time I asked the question, neither my students nor I knew the answer. Due to the age of these students, had I asked, “Who in this class holds the priesthood keys of presidency?” most likely only those students who were either bishops or elders quorum presidents would have raised their hands. Typically there are few, if any, in a group of young adults who hold these specific priesthood keys of presidency.

… It is also important to note that there are nearly forty different uses of the term key in the scriptures, not all of which are referring to priesthood keys. Many of these keys could better be described as rights, privileges, or blessings of the priesthood that are available to all worthy members (or, in the case of the temple, worthy endowed members). These keys do not require priesthood ordination but rather “are provided to the seeker of truth and righteousness” through the priesthood. “Each of these keys must be qualified for and sought after for them to be manifest in the life of the individual.”14

Finally, there are other keys listed in the scriptures that are less known. They have varied purposes and significance, but it is still important to recognize their existence. They include, for example, “the key of the bottomless pit” (Revelation 20:1), “grand keys” or key words (Doctrine and Covenants 129:9; 130:11), [and] “keys of the treasury” (1 Nephi 4:20). …

Our Father in Heaven is a God of order. Jesus Christ is the holder of all priesthood authority, keys, and power. The purpose of God’s priesthood is for the salvation of individuals and exaltation of families. In order to have full access to God’s authority, power, and blessings, we, as members of the Church, must live according to His commandments. These are His laws, unchanged by man, and used to bless the entire human race.

The Priesthood Power of Women in the Temple, Church, and Family

In The Priesthood Power of Women, author Barbara Morgan Gardner explores teachings of the living prophets and scriptures to increase our understanding of God's power as it operates in the temple, the Church, and the family. Her well-documented research demonstrates that women have more authority and power in all those settings than they may have previously supposed. This powerful book will help all members, especially women, more completely understand God's power and take full advantage of the powers, blessings, and privileges available to them in this mortal journey.

  1. Russell M. Nelson, “Keys of the Priesthood,” Ensign, October 2005.
  2. Handbook 2: Administering the Church (Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2010), 2.1.1; emphasis added.
  3. Handbook 2, 2.1.1.
  4. Handbook 2, 2.1.1.
  5. Handbook 2, 2.1.1.
  6. Doctrine and Covenants and Church History Study Guide for Home-Study Seminary Students (Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2017), 410.
  7. Handbook 2, 2.1.1.
  8. Doctrine and Covenants Home-Study, 410.
  9. Handbook 2, 2.1.1.
  10. Handbook 2, 2.1.1.
  11. Doctrine and Covenants Home-Study, 410.
  12. Dallin H. Oaks, “The Aaronic Priesthood and the Sacrament,” Ensign, November 1998.
  13. M. Russell Ballard, “Let Us Think Straight,” Brigham Young University Devotional, August 20, 2013.
  14. Doctrine and Covenants Home-Study, 410.
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