Re-examining Priestcraft

One of the things our Church boasts is an incredibly dedicated lay clergy. It’s one of the hallmarks of our hierarchy – we do not pay anybody for what they do; the entire Church runs on volunteer work, an astounding claim since most non-profit organizations work night and day trying to scrounge up a handful of ragtag volunteers to help with this project or that. We provide no real compensation for the millions of hours put into running the Church organization and structure. It’s also the genius behind the seemingly constant bubbling energy in most members – President Hinckley even gave a famous talk concerning our lay clergy, insisting that a calling (a volunteer position) was one of the three essential things a member needs in order to stay active within the Church.

The idea of a lay clergy stems from a scripture in the Book of Mormon where one of the authors, Nephi, writes that God “commandeth that there shall be no priestcrafts; for, behold, priestcrafts are that men preach and set themselves up for a light unto the world, that they may get gain and praise of the world; but they seek not the welfare of Zion” (2 Nephi 26:29). We cite this scripture as the underlying foundation of our lay clergy – we don’t participate to get gain, and nobody should be paid for doing the Lord’s work; the work itself is it’s own reward. More depressingly, some members choose to use this as ammunition in attacking other faiths and attempting to use it as “proof” of the truthfulness of our own Church. However, they are in for a shocking surprise.

I admit, it startled me when I ran into a scripture in Doctrine and Covenants that seemed to contradict the anti-priestcraft message:

“And the elders or high priests who are appointed to assist the bishop as counselors in all things, are to have their families supported out of the property which is consecrated to the bishop, for the good of the poor, and for other purposes as before mentioned; Or they are to receive a just remuneration for all their services, as either a stewardship or otherwise, as may be thought best or decided by the counselors and bishop. And the bishop, also, shall receive his support, or a just remuneration for all his services in the church” (Doctrine and Covenants 42:70-72).

This demanded further investigation into the meaning of priestcraft. It’s obvious from this scripture that God didn’t really have any qualms of the members pitching in to support the bishop and his counselors; after all, they certainly provided a great deal of service to the church. I volunteer at an English class at my church at the same time as when the bishop of my congregation walks into his office and starts working, whether it’s counseling members, interviewing people for temple recomends, or simply just the mandatory bookkeeping and paperwork. My father is the branch president (the equivalent of a bishop for smaller groups) of a small Korean congregation. I know for a fact that these people clock a large amount of hours in order to keep their congregations running smoothly. They would never ask for compensation in return, but certainly, it’s not easy to have to support yourself financially while basically taking on a second full-time job for free.
Nephi did mention that it’s wrong for priests to “get gain” while working for Zion. But the entire chapter provides a context for what exactly he meant by the elusive mention of getting gain. It’s important to note that several verses before, Nephi sets the example by describing Christ. “Behold, doth he cry unto any, saying: Depart from me? Behold, I say unto you, Nay; but he saith: Come unto me all ye ends of the earth, buy milk and honey, without money and without price” (2 Nephi 26:25). He explains the reason behind the priestcraft ban when he writes “Behold, the Lord hath fobidden this thing; wherefore, the Lord God hath given a commandment that all men should have charity…Where if they should have charity they would not suffer the laborer in Zion to perish” (2 Nephi 26:30). Nephi then finishes with this warning, saying, “But the laborer in Zion shall labor for Zion; for if they labor for money they shall perish” (2 Nephi 26:31).

There are two basic dangers to compensating Church leaders, according to Nephi. The first is that your heart will not be in the right place; after all, the love of money is the root of all evil, Paul warns (1 Timothy 5:10). Secondly, there is the very real danger that priests will start charging admission – contrast Christ’s attitude towards humanity that all can come to him without money and without price and he will give freely to the attitudes of a specific sect in the Book of Mormon called the Zoramites:

“And it came to pass that after much labor among them, they begin to have success among the poor class of people; for behold, they were cast out of the synagogues because of the coarseness of their apparel – Therefore they were not permitted to enter into their synagogues to worship God, being esteemed as filthiness; therefore they were poor; yea, they were esteemed by their brethren as dross; therefore they were poor as to things of the world, and also they were poor in heart” (Alma 32:2-3).

Moroni, another Book of Mormon prophet, had some particularly harsh words to say about this subject:

“Yea, it shall come in a day when there shall be churches built up that shall say: Come unto me, and for your money you shall be forgiven of your sins…And I know that ye do walk in the pride of your hearts; and there are none save a few only who do not lift themselves up in the pride of their hearts, unto the wearing of very fine apparel, unto envying, and strifes, and malice, and persecutions, and all manner of iniquities; and your churches, yea, even every one, have become polluted because of the pride of your hearts. For behold, ye do love money, and your substance, and your fine apparel, and the adorning of your churches, more than ye love the poor, and the needy, the sick and the afflicted. O ye pollutions, ye hypocrites, ye teachers, who sell yourselves for that which will canker, why have ye polluted the holy church of God?” (Mormon 8:32, 35-38).

However, we can derive from the fact that the Lord had no problem with the Saints banding together to compensate for the work bishops put into making sure the Chuch runs smoothly. Therefore, it is not simply the act of being paid that is the sin. I have met many preachers, pastors, priests, what have you in my day, and they come in an array of motivations. Certainly, some are motivated by pride, by more crude, monetary concerns. They preach what is popular and exhibit all of the gaudy trinkets that money can buy. Others are faithful, loving, motivated by a desire to do good. They live in modest circumstances, and use the money wisely. They have not only refused to follow the siren call of greed and pride, but gained a healthy respect for the sacrifices of their members and love them all the more for it. Their ministry reflects that of Christ’s charity and compassion towards humanity.

While serving a mission in Oklahoma, members of other faiths often showed incredulity when we talked of a lay clergy. I thought this fact would impress people; instead, most became horrified when we told them we didn’t compensate our bishops and other local church leaders. They felt the idea cruel – why force people to do all of that work and provide for their family by their own hands? You would most undoubtedly work your leaders to death! Many found the idea of an unpaid clergy repungnant – it lacked charity towards the church leader and his family; we seemed content living off the labors of our leaders without providing any kind of compensation or support in return. I had never thought of it in this light and when I first heard their arguments, I dismissed them entirely without thinking. However, this recent discovery of the Doctrine and Covenants passage had me revisit the issue after I’ve calmed down and become more mature.

Once again, we start to see that it’s not really the act itself that is immoral – after all, Nephi mentions very clearly that while priestcraft for gain is wrong, it’s important to remember that “if they [the members] should have charity, they would not suffer the laborer [the leaders] to perish.” And Mormon reserved his harshest words for the byproducts of paying priests – the lack of love for the poor (reflected also in the Zoramites), restricting God’s mercy only to those who had the funds to pay up (a sick, twisted version of the already sick, twisted Gospel of Prosperity), the pride manifesting itself in priests who preach for the glory of men and not the glory of God. We should be careful separating the two. There is nothing wrong if a bishop should receive monetary compensation. In fact, as the son of a branch president, a first hand witness of the unannounced, rarely celebrated sacrifices made for members, I wish it were so. However, the real danger lies within the powerful allure of money. After all, Paul makes the important distinction that it is not money per say that is the root of all evil, but the love of money. They reflect two very different attitudes concerning the idea of compensation. Money, unfortunately, is required for survival, but all too often the need for money leads to a love for money, and rather than a tool or medium for trade, it becomes a vice and a master. Like politics, the safest route is a separation of church and bank, as to avoid the Church from becoming, as Mormon aptly describes it, polluted. However, if we avoid this sin entirely, could we also commit the sin of abandoning our church leaders, that after using them up, we discard them to the wayside without any thought? We provide much lip service towards the idea of sustaining our leaders – how many of us are willing to put our money where our mouth is?

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1 Comment

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One response to “Re-examining Priestcraft

  1. dteeps

    It is also interesting to note that General Authorities are compensated, monetarily, if they need it. I wish I could find the source on it now, but I read a article by Jeffrey R. Holland, who was very young when he was called, where he mentions that he gets a stipend from the Church to support him and his family. Some of the Brethren, however, have had successful careers and have large savings, or investments or other sources of income and do not need the Church to support them, but some do require this assistance, especially, since, as an Apostle, they can’t really have a day job.

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