Sustaining Priesthood Officers
John A. Tvedtnes
“No person is to be ordained to any office in this church, where there is a regularly organized branch of the same, without the vote of that church; But the presiding elders, traveling bishops, high councilors, high priests, and elders, may have the privilege of ordaining, where there is no branch of the church that a vote may be called.” (D&C 20:65-66).
In the restored Church, the concept of “common consent” requires that each person selected to be ordained to a priesthood or presiding office must be sustained by the local members of the Church (D&C 26:2; 28:13). This was also true in early Christianity. For example, the synodical letter issued in AD 382 by attendees at the Council of Constantinople notes that
“Accordingly over the new made . . . church at Constantinople . . . We have ordained bishop the right reverend and most religious Nectarius, in the presence of the Ecumenical Council, with common consent, before the most religious emperor Theodosius and with the assent of all the clergy and of the whole city. And over the most ancient and truly apostolic church in Syria, where first the noble name of Christians was given them, the bishops of the province and of the eastern diocese have met together and canonically ordained bishop the right reverend and most religious Flavianus, with the consent of all the church, who as though with one voice joined in expressing their respect for him.”[i]
The late first-century Clement of Rome, in his epistle to the Corinthians, wrote: “Our apostles also knew, through our Lord Jesus Christ, and there would be strife on account of the office of the episcopate. For this reason, therefore, inasmuch as they had obtained a perfect foreknowledge of this, they appointed those [ministers] already mentioned, and afterwards gave instructions, that when these should fall asleep, other approved men should succeed them in their ministry . . . with the consent of the whole Church.” (1 Clement 44)[ii]
Pope Leo the Great (reigned AD 440-461), in his letter 14.6 to Anastasius, bishop of Thessalonica, wrote: “When therefore the choice of the chief priest is taken in hand, let him be preferred before all whom the unanimous consent of clergy and people demands, but if the votes chance to be divided between two persons, the judgment of the metropolitan should prefer him who is supported by the preponderance of votes and merits: only let no one be ordained against the express wishes of the place: lest a city should either despise or hate a bishop whom they did not choose, and lamentably fall away from religion because they have not been allowed to have when they wished.”[iii]
A text attributed to the twelve apostles describes the process by which the early Christians sustained bishops: “I Peter say, that a bishop ordained is to be, as we have already, all of us, appointed, unblameable in all things, a select person, chosen by the whole people, who, when he is named and approved, let the people assemble, with the presbytery and bishops that are present, an the Lord’s day, and let them give their consent. And let the principal of the bishops ask the presbytery and people whether this be the person whom they desire for their ruler. And if they give their consent, let him ask further whether he has a good testimony from all men as to his worthiness for so great and glorious an authority; whether all things relating to his piety towards God be right; whether justice towards men has been observed by him; whether the affairs of his family have been well ordered by him; whether he has been unblameable in the course of his life. And if all the assembly together do according to truth, and not according to prejudice, witness that he is such a one, let them the third time, as before God the Judge, and Christ, the Holy Ghost being also present, as well as all the holy and ministering spirits, ask again whether he be truly worthy of this ministry, that so “in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established.” And if they agree the third time that he is worthy, let them all be demanded their vote; and when they all give it willingly, let them be heard.” (Constitutions of the Holy Apostles 8.4)[iv]
Cyprian of Carthage (3rd century AD) acknowledged that Christians of his time had to approve ordinations. In his Epistle 51.8,he wrote, “Cornelius was made bishop by the judgment of God and of His Christ, by the testimony of almost all the clergy, by the suffrage of the people who were then present, and by the assembly of ancient priests and good men.”[v] In Epistle 54.5, he wrote that “no one would stir up anything against the college of priests; no one, after the divine judgment, after the suffrage of the people, after the consent of the co-bishops, would make himself a judge, not now of the bishop, but of God.”[vi] In Epistle 67.5, he instructed, “you must diligently observe and keep the practice delivered from divine tradition and apostolic observance, which is also maintained among us, and almost throughout all the provinces; that for the proper celebration of ordinations all the neighboring bishops of the same province should assemble with that people for which a prelate is ordained. And the bishop should be chosen in the presence of the people, who have most fully known the life of each one, and have looked into the doings of each one as respects his habitual conduct.”[vii]
Cyprian appealed to the Old and New Testaments as evidence for having the local congregation approve its leaders. In Epistle 67.4, he wrote, “Which very thing, too, we observe to come from divine authority, that the priest should be chosen in the presence of the people under the eyes of all, and should be approved worthy and suitable by public judgment and testimony; as in the book of Numbers the Lord commanded Moses, saying, ‘Take Aaron thy brother, and Eleazar his son, and place them in the mount, in the presence of all the assembly, and strip Aaron of his garments, and put them upon Eleazar his son; and let Aaron die there, and be added to his people.’ [Numbers 20:25-26] God commands a priest to be appointed in the presence of all the assembly; that is, He instructs and shows that the ordination of priests ought not to be solemnized except with the knowledge of the people standing near, that in the presence of the people either the crimes of the wicked may be disclosed, or the merits of the good may be declared, and the ordination, which shall have been examined by the suffrage and judgment of all, may be just and legitimate. And this is subsequently observed, according to divine instruction, in the Acts of the Apostles, when Peter speaks to the people of ordaining an apostle in the place of Judas.'”Peter,’ it says, ‘stood up in the midst of the disciples, and the multitude were in one place.’ [Acts 1:15] Neither do we observe that this was regarded by the apostles only in the ordinations of bishops and priests, but also in those of deacons, of which matter itself also it is written in their Acts: ‘And they twelve called together,’ it says, ‘the whole congregation of the disciples, and said to them;’ [Acts 6:2] which was done so diligently and carefully, with the calling together of the whole of the people, surely for this reason, that no unworthy person might creep into the ministry of the altar, or to the office of a priest.”[viii]
Joseph Smith wrote, “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” (Article of Faith 5). But he also taught that those called by this authority must be sustained by the members of the congregation in which the individual resides (D&C 20:65-66). Indeed, the first occasion for such a sustaining was on the day on which the restored Church was organized, 6 April 1830, when the six elders voted to accept Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery as the presiding officers of the Church. Like many other practices instituted by Joseph Smith, this was a restoration of an ancient Christian practice.
[See also John A. Tvedtnes, “Is There a ‘Priesthood of All Believers’?” posted on the FAIR web site, December 2008.]
[i] Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, eds., Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series (reprint, Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1994), 14:189.
[ii] Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, eds., Anti-Nicene Fathers (reprint Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1994), 1:17.
[iii] Ibid., 12:18.
[iv] Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, eds., Anti-Nicene Fathers, 7:481-2.
[v] Ibid., 5:329.
[vi] Ibid., 5:340.
[vii] Ibid., 5:371
[viii] Ibid., 5:370.