A Sincere Question on Priesthood Keys

April 21, 2011    By: Matt W. @ 8:53 pm   Category: PH/RS Lessons

I am teaching Elder’s Quorum this Sunday, and have been asked to teach on Elder Oak’s “Two Lines of Communication”. In getting ready, I thought I would take Natalie B.’s advice and search out the priesthood line more deeply. (This admonishment, after all, dovetails nicely into Elder Uchtdorf’s encouragement in conference to learn more, which my past few posts have been on.)

Anyway, according the “Handbook 2: Administerng in the Church” section 2.1.1:

“Priesthood keys are the authority God has given to Priesthood leaders to direct, control and Govern the use of his priesthood on earth.” It is “the right to preside over and direct the Church within a jurisdiction.”
Jesus Christ holds all the keys and confers them to his Apostles on the earth. The President “is the only person on earth authorized to exercise all priesthood keys.”

The president of the Church delegates priesthood keys to other priesthood leaders. For their designated responsibilities, and in their jurisdiction, they become the “presiding authority”

Counselors do not receive priesthood keys, the function by “delegated authority”. Auxiliary presidents do not receive keys. They receive “delegated authority”.

If Priesthood keys are “authority” to perform “designated responsibilities” that are “delegated” to them, what is the difference between priesthood keys and the “delegated authority” that Auxiliary presidents and Counselors have?

Is this a distinction without a difference? If not, what is the difference?


  1. I am licensed to drive a car. However, I can’t drive your car because I don’t have your keys to it even though I am licensed to drive cars.

    Though I have a license to drive any and all cars, I only have keys to those cars in my stewardship, and so if I tried to drive someone else’s car I would find it wouldn’t work. (Despite the fact I have a licensee/authority to drive cars in general.)

    However, if someone wanted to extend to me more cars in my stewardship who has keys to these other cars, they could give me keys so that I could have more cars that I had keys to drive. And I wouldn’t have to change anything about my licensee because so that if anyone with authority over keys decides to give me some more, I can instantly start driving the new cars.

    Somewhere in there is an analogy. :)

    Comment by Joseph Smidt — April 21, 2011 @ 9:15 pm

  2. The whole metaphor of “keys” breaks down as soon as we try to do anything with them–especially how it is used today.

    Though I think most Mormons today see them as more than just a metaphor and actually descriptive of a metaphysical thing–the bishop really HOLDS certain keys.

    And then when we look back and see how J Smith gave Emma and the RS keys, and told them to do the exact same things that now PH “keyholders” only get to, it just gets even messier.

    Comment by the narrator — April 21, 2011 @ 9:37 pm

  3. Matt: “Is this a distinction without a difference?”

    Yea, probably.

    Comment by Geoff J — April 21, 2011 @ 10:51 pm

  4. Matt: let me remind you of a post I wrote that you commented on.

    Comment by BrianJ — April 21, 2011 @ 11:05 pm

  5. Taking an ordinance based view: If you hold “keys”, you are supposedly the only one who can authorize other priesthood holders of a certain office to do certain ordinances. So a bishop holds the “keys” of the Aaronic Priesthood, so his permission is necessary if someone is to baptize a child. Of course, since the “keys” of the Melc. Priesthood are held by the stake president, he delegates to the bishop the right to authorize the confirmation of an 8 year old. Neither has the “keys” for preaching the gospel (the responsibility to proselyte is there but not the responsibility to officially proselyte), so the missionaries act independently in their baptizing and confirming of the over 9 year olds.

    Does that make sense, or did I just confuse myself?

    Maybe this simpler definition, having “keys” means you preside over a certain group of men and/or boys and how they will work in the church. Women are so (fill in the blank), (insert ‘no’ or ‘any’ or ‘some’ here) (insert ‘key’ or ‘priesthood’ here) holder presides over them in the church and/or home.

    Comment by Paul 2 — April 22, 2011 @ 12:51 am

  6. There is a huge difference between the authority that comes with keys and that of authority that has been delegated to a person.

    Keys hold the ability to govern how the Priesthood will be used.

    If a person does not have the keys, they cannot transfer the keys to someone else.

    If a person is given an authority to perform some ordinance (delegated only) they cannot transfer that authority to someone else. It’s a one time transaction (with potentially indefinite scope).

    If a person is given the keys, that person may delegate authority, as well as pass the keys on to allow the other person to govern that authority as well which is a transaction that is not a one-time delegation.

    Comment by DriveByCommenter — April 22, 2011 @ 4:53 am

  7. My initial thought is that Priesthood keys are the right to administer the functions of the church, whereas delegation is the right to minister under the direction of the president who has stewardship over that area.

    So when the President of the Church delegates keys, he is delegating authority to administer (call, set apart, etc). When the president of a quorum delegates, he is not delegating his authority; he is delegating by authority to those who have been called to assist.

    Comment by Alex T. Valencic — April 22, 2011 @ 4:58 am

  8. One who holds priesthood keys has the responsibility to direct the work of the priesthood holders within his jurisdiction, which responsibility cannot be delegated. He may be assisted by his counselors, but “the buck stops here.”

    For example, a Temple President has the responsibility to see that the Temple functions properly, and according to the will of the Lord. Obviously, he cannot do all the work himself, but it is ultimately his responsibility to see it gets done.

    One who holds priesthood keys also has the right and responsibility to receive revelation on behalf of the priesthood holders within his jurisdiction, concerning those functions over which he holds the keys.

    Comment by Matthew Chapman — April 22, 2011 @ 6:06 am

  9. To phrase the question another way, An Elder’s Quorum President has Priesthood Keys, and a High Priest Group Leader has Delegated Authority. What’s different there?

    Comment by Matt W. — April 22, 2011 @ 6:18 am

  10. I kind of get that keys are necessary to administer the church. And I kind of get that Bishops in each ward are given “keys” to administer the affairs of that ward. But then why are keys necessary for each of the presidents of Elders, Teachers and Deacons? Can’t they just be given the authority to act in their office like the RS/YW/Primary? Decisions in these quorums aren’t being made independently of the Bishop anyway, right?
    Also if a Deacon’s Quorum President decides on making house visits to fellowship less actives, we say that those decisions are made because he has the keys of the quorum. But what about a Beehive President? It seems she can make those same decisions without keys.

    Comment by stephen — April 22, 2011 @ 7:07 am

  11. Since we were reminded yet again in the last conference that Deacon and Teacher quorum presidents also hold keys, how does that mesh with the comments already made? Does the Deacon’s quorum president really administer anything? Does the Teacher’s quorum president really direct anything? I know in the idealized world of GC talks they do; they reactivate the inactive and probably make the lame walk. But when you take this group of 13 and 15 year old boys living in the real world and put keys into their hands I think the answer to Matt’s question is more clear. It doesn’t really mean much in practice.

    Comment by KLC — April 22, 2011 @ 7:42 am

  12. If we can delegate authority in the temple (I’m not sure I buy that, but it’s the traditional response to how women perform ordinances therein), can I delegate baptismal authority to my wife?

    A fun hypothetical. Maybe not on point.

    I agree with the others, the difference, if there is one, is one degree of removal. Delegatees can’t further delegate, nor is it permanent.

    Comment by Ben S — April 22, 2011 @ 8:07 am

  13. re- Permanence. Bishops, EQ Presidents, Stake Presidents, etc, are not permanently in those roles. Their authority is not permanent.

    Here’s another interesting one: Mission Presidents hold priesthood keys, Ward Mission Leaders do not.

    I think the difference between priesthood keys and delegated authority has a lot to do with scope. Priesthood keys are a subtype of delegated authority. There are designated responsibilities and jurisdictions that would belong only to the priesthood key holder. What is tricky is defining what those are.

    Comment by Matt W. — April 22, 2011 @ 8:47 am

  14. Your question is a valid and, at times, puzzling one. My first big mistake that I made on the high council was to permit an elders quorum president to set apart his new councilors. My logic: he has the keys, whereas I don’t. Well, wrong. I was to set apart the councilors using my “delegated authority” from the Stake President. It had to be done over, and was just one of many mistakes I would make in my illustrious 7-year stint.

    Comment by larryco_ — April 22, 2011 @ 11:52 am

  15. Though I think most Mormons today see them as more than just a metaphor and actually descriptive of a metaphysical thing–the bishop really HOLDS certain keys.

    This is in tune with what I was taught in seminary.

    Comment by Manuel — April 22, 2011 @ 1:22 pm

  16. One thing I think is worth remembering: Both the Aaronic and Melchizedek Priesthoods were restored out in the woods. In contrast, the keys of the priesthood required a temple to be built. In fact, that is about the only thing the Kirkland temple was built for. It was not built in a way we could have done the modern temple ordinances. They were not revealed yet.

    I would describe the keys as power to accomplish something. Notice, each of the keys restored in the temple there were power to accomplish some certain thing, like gathering Israel. Priesthood=authority; keys=power.

    My 2 cents anyway.

    Comment by Zen — April 22, 2011 @ 2:58 pm

  17. Ok, I found a bit more, in section 7 of the handbook, that I found helpful, It says “Those who hold priesthood keys direct the administration of the ordinances of the gospel, the preaching of the gospel, and the government of the kingdom of God on the earth.”

    So baptismal/temple recommends, calling teachers and assigning speakers, and disciplinary councils, budgets, and welfare. I think that covers Bishops up, but still leaves the EQP in a lurch.

    Comment by Matt W. — April 22, 2011 @ 10:42 pm

  18. “I think the difference between priesthood keys and delegated authority has a lot to do with scope. ”

    I think it also has to do with God’s house being a house of order. I know I don’t come close to grasping what that means, but I think it has something to do with priesthood quorums, stewardship, and a system of returning and reporting that ensures (in the ideal) that every sheep is cared for and all have access to priesthood ordinances necessary for salvation.

    I think it’s also interesting to ponder what Elder Oaks has said in previous times about the priesthood in the Church vs. in the family. Activities in the family do not require priesthood keys, and authority functions differently than in the Church.

    It seems to me the priesthood keys are a temporary (albeit eternally important) thing until they are all given back to Christ (hm…makes me think of each dispensation head and the keys they hold, which could be yet another layer to the order; they will all then give them back to Christ, no?)

    Zen has a good point. I was intrigued to read that Moroni had keys of the stick of Ephraim.

    “Both Mormon and Moroni understood their stewardship over the sacred records as part of a grand plan through which the Lord’s covenants to restore the gospel to their brethren would be fulfilled. (See W of M 1:2, 8; Morm. 8:15; Moro. 1:4, Moro. 10:1.) It is in this connection that the Doctrine and Covenants refers to Moroni as the holder of the keys of the stick of Ephraim. (D&C 27:5.) ” (from this article)

    Keys in this context seem to also include special responsibilities in the process of bringing covenants to the people.

    To me, it seems that perhaps we underestimate the breadth of what having a prophet hold all the keys might mean….

    Comment by michelle — April 23, 2011 @ 1:46 am

  19. Priesthood keys are what allow one priesthood holder to preside over another priesthood holder of the same office.

    Comment by Eric Nielson — April 23, 2011 @ 5:23 am

  20. Eric- So the High Priest Group Leader doesn’t preside over the High Priest Group in the same way the Elder’s Quorum President Presides over an Elder’s Quorum? He Leads But Doesn’t Preside? What Functional differences are there?

    Comment by Matt W. — April 23, 2011 @ 9:06 am

  21. The Bishop is the presiding High Priest in a ward. Yet he only holds Aaronic priesthood keys. The Stake President holds the keys over the High Priests quorum which is at the stake level. This is why they call them High Priest group leader instead of president.

    Elder is a different office, and is presided over by a quorum president who has keys.

    So I think the main difference there, is to avoid the question of who presides over the HP group at the ward level. The HPGL or the bishop? The answer is neither. There is no such question regarding the EQ since it is an entirely different office from that held by the bishop.

    Comment by Eric Nielson — April 23, 2011 @ 1:13 pm

  22. The short answer is there is virtually no practical/functional/ground-level difference between a High Priest group leader and an EQP.

    Comment by Geoff J — April 23, 2011 @ 1:57 pm

  23. “The short answer is there is virtually no practical/functional/ground-level difference between a High Priest group leader and an EQP.”

    In a sense, isn’t that true of an EQP and a RS president? The functional difference isn’t there, but I still think there is something to keys…trying to get my head around that.

    Comment by michelle — April 23, 2011 @ 3:30 pm

  24. Yes Michelle it is true of an EQP and a RS president.

    There may be something to keys but whatever it is, it isn’t discernible on a practical earthly level.

    Comment by Geoff J — April 23, 2011 @ 5:18 pm

  25. It is sort of like where your name is on the org chart, and who your supervisor is. Even if the job description is the same.

    Comment by Eric Nielson — April 23, 2011 @ 5:25 pm

  26. Keys are a limitation on the “priesthood of all believers” contemplated by ordination of virtually all men in the Church. They bring order where universal ordination means chaos. A corporate org chart is a good analogy, Eric: yes, we’re all employees, but some give direction to the rest of us.

    Comment by Paul — April 23, 2011 @ 6:00 pm

  27. #26…yes, the concept of a house of order.

    It’s interesting to contemplate who has stewardship for whom within the realm of their keys. I think it’s worth considering why.

    Comment by michelle — April 23, 2011 @ 10:14 pm

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  29. I know that I am coming late to this discussion but I have had a question that has been plagueing me over the last couple of weeks and it pertains to keys and presiding authority that maybe someone can give me some insight. I attended a convert baptism a couple of weeks ago and the Mission President was in attendance at the baptismal service. The Bishop conducted the meeting and stated that he was presiding. Shouldn’t the Mission President been the presiding authority since it was a convert baptism? Handbook 2 is quiet on the matter. Does anyone have any insight on this issue?

    Comment by Bob B — July 9, 2011 @ 8:43 pm

  30. The Mission President ultimately presides over the missionaries, while the Bishop has full jurisdiction over missionary work within his ward. So I’d say it was correct that the Bishop was the presiding authority.

    Comment by Matt W. — July 10, 2011 @ 1:32 pm

  31. Matt, I don’t quite agree. Mission presidents authorize convert baptism, not the local Bishops. So I don’t think it is correct to say Bishops have full jurisdiction over missionary work in their ward. Although the baptism is preformed under the keys of the mission president it seems like the baptismal service is a ward function so I am not surprised that they said the bishop was presiding. It is an interesting question though, I don’t know the answer. The relationship between missions and the local branches/wards/stakes has always been a bit odd to me.

    Comment by Jacob J — July 10, 2011 @ 1:59 pm

  32. Thanks all for this discussion. What is interesting is that the Mission President holds the keys to the Melchizedek Priesthood, similiar to the Stake President, however in a Stake he does not exercise those keys. He does however hold the keys to Confirmition into the Church as defined in the General Handbook book 2, and authorizes the Bishop to oversee the confirmation process. Given that the Bishop does not have a right to interview a new convert prior to confirmation and that the Mission President has to interview the new convert in the event there has been something in their life, then why would the Bishop be the presiding authority. I agree if the Stake President or a General Authority is present they would preside, but why wouldn’t the Mission President preside when there is a Bishop present. I initially thought it was because the Bishop held the keys to the Aaronic Priesthood, but that doesn’t seem right because the Mission President holds the keys to the Melchizedek Priesthood, which includes the keys to the Aaronic Priesthood along with the keys to conversion and confirmation.

    Comment by Bob B — July 10, 2011 @ 3:54 pm

  33. Handbook 2 says: “For Converts. If possible, a member of the bishopric attends each convert baptismal service. When the services involve only one ward, he presides unless a member of the stake presidency attends.”

    I think that Jacob is right and the line is drawn as such because this is a church meeting, and mission presidents are not in the hierarchy there.

    I agree, it is confusing though. I wonder if it is any different in a district than a stake, as a mission president is above the district president in district hierarchy.

    Comment by Matt W. — July 10, 2011 @ 4:15 pm

  34. Mission presidents are not in the line of authority for wards, so a mission president would never preside over a ward function. Branches in areas where there are not organized stakes, however, are different. A mission president is in the line of authority for all such branches, and would preside at any such branch baptismal services.

    As far as the high priest group leaders goes, the answer is that a high priests group is not a quorum, and by convention we don’t consider anyone to have keys unless he holds a priesthood office with the title of president, bishop, or apostle.

    D&C 107 doesn’t go into a lot of detail about the role of stake presidents, but I believe that each is considered to be the president of a high priests quorum for his stake.

    Comment by Mark D. — July 10, 2011 @ 4:22 pm

  35. In addition, I might suggest that it is purely a matter of convention that baptism of converts in organized wards require interviews under the direction of a mission president. Eight year olds certainly don’t.

    Baptism is an Aaronic priesthood function, and barring direction to the contrary, the bishop, who is a priests quorum president, has all the keys necessary to authorize a baptism of anyone. Similarly, barring direction to the contrary, any branch president, elders quorum president, bishop, or stake president holds the necessary keys to confirm anyone. See D&C 20:68.

    It is only by convention that those keys are currently only exercised by bishops, branch presidents, and mission presidents.

    Comment by Mark D. — July 10, 2011 @ 4:38 pm

  36. Mark, you are absolutely right that Mission Presidents are not under the line of authority in wards. However is a baptism a ward event or in the case of convert baptisms rather a mission event where the Mission President holds the keys to conversion and also confirmation. While Sacrament is clearly a ward event, in the case of a confirmation of a new convert during Sacrament meeting the confirmation ordinance is under the authority of the Mission President. Book 2 states: The bishop holds the keys for confirming 8-year-old members of record. The mission president holds the keys for confirming converts. However, the bishop oversees the performance of this ordinance, whether it is for an 8-year-old member of record or a convert. The bishop ensures that it is performed soon after baptism.

    Given that the Mission Presidnet hold the keys to conversion and also confirmation and that book 2 is not worded strongly as it seems to suggest that the Bishop is not even required to attend a convert baptism, seems to cast this as a gray area.

    Additionally I have always understood and the old Church General Handbook of Instructions indicated that the Mission President “directs the teaching and baptising of investigators”, would seem to me that he would preside. Now that the new handbooks have jurisdiction and are quite on the matter raises the question of presiding authority when a Mission President is present at a Baptismal Service. Does he still not hold the keys to conversion and the keys to the Melchizedek Priesthood which include the keys to the Aaronic Priesthood for all matters concerning the mission? I guess the real question is,is a convert baptism a ward event or is it a mission event. Again Book 2 seems to indicate the Ward mission leader usually works with the full time missionaries to plan the baptismal service. The word “works with” doesn’t seem that the ward clearly has responsibility.

    Comment by Bob B — July 10, 2011 @ 6:26 pm

  37. UPon further reading of the General Handbook of Innstructions Book 2 I came across 5.1.6 which states: The mission president holds the keys for baptizing and confirming converts

    Therefore if he holds the keys he should preside….I would think

    Comment by Bob B — July 10, 2011 @ 6:56 pm

  38. Bob B, as a matter of current practice I completely agree that mission presidents have presiding authority over whether and when converts can be baptized. The keys with regard to convert baptisms are dormant in all other priesthood leaders, because that is the current order of the church.

    As far as actual baptismal services go, however, in order for a mission president to properly preside, he (or someone he presides over) has to direct and be responsible for the baptismal service itself.

    Since a mission president never formally presides over a bishop or a stake president, that would require that the mission organize and prepare the baptismal service. If they did so, the mission president could rightly preside over the occasion.

    But if the mission is going to leave organizing and preparing such services to a collateral line of authority, it is that line that will preside at the meeting, in part because they are the only ones who have any idea what is going on. That is my understanding.

    Of course this could be changed by a simple announcement to that effect, but as far as I know it is simply contrary to the order of the church for a mission president to tell a bishop what to do.

    Comment by Mark D. — July 10, 2011 @ 9:01 pm

  39. There are perhaps other practical reasons why mission presidents don’t preside at baptismal services – the occasion marks a transfer of responsibility for the new member from the mission to the ward, and if missions organized and ran baptismal services, converts would be far more likely to get lost in the cracks. That is a serious enough problem as it is.

    Comment by Mark D. — July 10, 2011 @ 9:06 pm

  40. Mark,

    Thank you so much for your insight, it is very helpful

    Comment by Bob B — July 11, 2011 @ 8:51 am

  41. I have an interesting questions. We know that the work of the priesthood could not continue without the keys of the priesthood.
    The Bishop and EQP hold the keys of the ward
    If the Bishopric are all away who presides at sacarament meeting? EQP or HPGL ?

    If there was a natural disaster and the Bishop got killed – Who would preside in the ward councillours in bishopric or EQP who has the keys of the ward ?

    Is this info in any handbook?

    With Thanks for your time

    Comment by Perry — August 13, 2011 @ 6:46 am

  42. Excellent Question. I have no idea. I’d assume the 1st Councilor, but have no basis for that.

    Comment by Matt W. — August 13, 2011 @ 9:12 am

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