Last Sunday, I attended a Latter-day Saint Elders Quorum meeting for the first time since March of 2020, when I taught Elders Quorum on the last Sunday before Latter-day Saint services shut down because of COVID. I had enjoyed most of the sacrament meeting (I took issue with some parts of some talks, but I have to admit that I miss the size, songs, and sense of community of Latter-day Saint services), but Elders Quorum turned out to be kind of a disappointment. Truth be told, I had been hoping that it was a Sunday School week, but I couldn’t remember which weeks are Sunday School and which are Elders Quorum/Relief Society after being out of practice for so long.
The lesson for that Sunday was focused on how to perform priesthood ordinances. By coincidence, I had just barely read (that day or the day before) the chapter on sacraments and ordinances in the excellent Restorations: Scholars in Dialogue from Community of Christ and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, so that provided some interesting food for thought throughout the hour. What stood out to me more, though, was another thought that came to mind. The instructor for the lesson—along with the students—established that in Latter-day Saint practice, four things are necessary in order for an ordinance to be valid:
- having proper authority to perform the ordinance (i.e., to hold the priesthood and the correct office therein)
- obtaining permission from higher authorities to perform the ordinance (i.e., from those holding priesthood keys)
- following the proper procedures for the ordinance (e.g., saying the correct words of an associated prayer)
- being worthy so that the power of God is present with you
At some point during the lesson, I started thinking about Alma. Alma (the Elder) is one of my favorite characters from the Book of Mormon, to the extent that I sometimes joke to myself that I’m not totally sure that there’s an afterlife, and I’m even less sure about the historicity of the Book of Mormon, but I certainly would not mind meeting Alma in heaven one day. As I blogged about last month, Alma is not an intuitive choice as a religious example. In fact, it occurred to me during the lesson, when Alma performs baptisms at the Waters of Mormon, he fails all four of the criteria that this Elders Quorum meeting (backed up with ample evidence from the Latter-day Saint Church handbook) established as strictly necessary for performing this ordinance. Let’s walk through them.
First, there’s no indication in the Book of Mormon that Alma has received the true priesthood of God. In fact, this was a point that William Bickerton made when organizing The Church of Jesus Christ after the Mormon succession crisis of 1844: Alma seems to attribute the validity of his baptizing to the presence of the Holy Spirit rather than to any priesthood office. Now, Alma was a priest under the corrupt King Noah, but if I remember correctly, Noah set up his own priesthood after taking the throne, so that’s a bit of a stretch—as is an argument that Alma is ordained “off screen” and the narrator can’t be bothered to bring it up.
Second, Alma doesn’t seek permission to baptize. The Book of Mormon record is pretty clear at this point that King Mosiah—a contemporary of Alma living far away—is considered a “prophet, seer, and revelator.” By Latter-day Saint logic, this would make him the person who holds the priesthood keys for this period of time in this part of the world. Yet, Alma arguably doesn’t know who Mosiah is, because his people have been separated from Mosiah’s for so long; he certainly doesn’t get permission from Mosiah to start baptizing people. (He does seem to get permission from Mosiah to start a church once the two figures are in contact with each other, but I kind of read that as Mosiah’s ceding of religious authority to a charismatic newcomer he can’t hope to compete with).
Third, Alma does not follow the proper procedures for baptism—not, at least, the way that Latter-day Saints understand them today. The Latter-day Saint (and Community of Christ, for that matter) baptismal prayer is found in the Book of Mormon, but it differs significantly from the prayer that Alma uses in Mosiah. Plus, Alma does this strange thing where he appears to baptize himself, and that’s certainly a no-no in contemporary Latter-day Saint thought. The way Alma does baptism isn’t recognizable to modern Latter-day Saints, so what are they to make of that?
Fourth, Alma’s “worthiness” is pretty dubious at this point. Up until very recently, he’s been living a life of debauchery and sin, and while I’m on board with the idea that Alma had a miraculous encounter with Christ that wiped away that sin, that’s not exactly how worthiness gets measured in contemporary Latter-day Saint thought. I’d expect a Latter-day Saint leader to want Alma to show some sustained repentance over time before ordaining him and giving him permission to baptize, but that’s not what we see here.
I think it’s valuable for believers to notice the ways in which scripture doesn’t correspond with the policies and procedures of their church. I think this is particularly valuable for Latter-day Saints, who hold the Book of Mormon to be “the most correct of any book on earth.” If the Book of Mormon is as correct as that, and if Alma so clearly defies Latter-day Saint expectations about what makes for a properly performed ordinance, can we really say that those expectations are strict requirements?
At the end of the day, this does bring me back to that chapter in the Restorations book, I guess. In contemporary Community of Christ, we’re more inclined to see ordinances (or “sacraments” in our lingo) as expressions of God’s grace rather than as strict steps that must be followed to return to God. I think Alma’s take on baptism seems to better fit that approach.
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