A friend of mine recently asked if there was any reason to believe that 1) the gospel requires a Church and 2) the priesthood is limited to the church? Below is part of my response.
My view is that 1] salvation comes through the gospel (faith, repentance, baptism, gift of the Holy Ghost, faithful endurance, etc), 2] administering gospel ordinances require priesthood authority, and 3] priesthood is only exercised by individuals in the church when the church is organized.
I think 3 Nephi 11 is instructive on these points.
The resurrected Savior appears. After establishing sufficiently who he was and his authority, he “called” Nephi and “others” and gave them “power to baptize” (v.18-22) This was a public event that everyone could witness so there would be “no disputations” among them (v. 22, 28). Their authority to baptize included in it the authority to bring people to repentance (“whose repenteth of his sins though your words” should be baptized [v. 23]).
Now the clincher: “And whoso believeth in me, and is baptized, the same shall be saved; and they are they who shall inherit the kingdom of God. And whoso believeth not in me, and is not baptized, shall be damned. Verily, verily, I say unto you that this is my doctrine…And again I say unto you, ye must repent, and become as a little child, and be baptized in my name, or ye can in nowise receive these things. And again I say unto you, ye must repent, and be baptized in my name, and become as a little child, or ye can in nowise inherit the kingdom of God. Verily, verily, I say unto you, that this is my doctrine…” (v. 33-39)
In other words, ‘believe, repent, be baptized, and received the Holy Ghost, or be damned. And, these guys over here are the ones who have the power to declare repentance, baptize, and,’ as the Book of Mormon explains later, ‘give the gift of the Holy Ghost.’
I think the above establishes points 1 and 2 very clearly. Point 3 is not as clear in 3 Nephi 11. I think that’s why Moroni included the information in Moroni chapters 2 & 3. It was “his disciples, the twelve whom he had chosen” (2:1) who were also “called the elders of the church,” (3:1) and they ordained others and gave them authority in the church as teachers and priests (3:2-4).
As those disciples died, “there were other disciples ordained in their stead” for some period of time (4 Nephi 14). These weren’t free roaming individuals claiming authority to baptize individuals outside of the church. Nor is there any indication that Christ or an angel had to come and ordained their replacements. Rather, they operated inside of the church and they gave authority to others inside of the church, per the commandments of Christ.
It is the same pattern today. “Again I say unto you, that it shall not be given to any one to go forth to preach my gospel, or to build up my church, except he be ordained by some one who has authority, and it is known to the church that he has authority and has been regularly ordained by the heads of the church” (D&C 42:11). Preaching the gospel requires ordination by someone who who “has been regularly ordained by the heads of the church” and that the ordination is public knowledge (“it is known to the church”). Note also the future tense “it shall not be…” indicates to me that this is a permanent, standing injunction.
Priesthood ordination always happens this way when there is a church that is organized. Joseph Smith pointed out that Cornelius wasn’t taught how to be saved by the angel who appeared to him. Rather, the angel told him to ask for Peter.
“The angel told […] Cornelius that he must send for Peter to learn how to be saved: Peter could baptize, and angels could not, so long as there were legal officers in the flesh holding the keys of the kingdom, or the authority of the priesthood. There is one evidence still further on this point, and that is that Jesus himself when he appeared to Paul on his way to Damascus, did not inform him how he could be saved. He had set in the church firstly Apostles, and secondly prophets for the work of the ministry….[S]o Paul could not learn so much from the Lord relative to his duty in the common salvation of man, as he could from one of Christ’s ambassadors called with the same heavenly calling of the Lord, and endowed with the same power from on high—so that what they loosed on earth, should be loosed in heaven; and what they bound on earth should be bound in heaven” (Times and Seasons, Sept. 1, 1842).
What this all means to me is that there is no functioning priesthood authority outside of the Church, if the church is in existence. We know the Lord organized his church in 1830. So, the only question is whether or not the church is in existence still.* If it is, then the priesthood is with the church.
*I will address this in my next post.