Notes on a Theory of Ordinances

Ordinances are a central part of the gospel, yet of late I find myself wondering what exactly they are. Here are some of my preliminary thoughts:

Although there are exceptions, it seems to me that ordinances consist of three elements: covenant, narrative, and authority. Although it is hard to find a covenantal basis in ordinances such as baby naming or blessing the sick, most ordinances involve making covenants of some kind or another with God. Think of the sacrament, baptism, or the endowment ceremony. We are making covenants to follow God’s commandments and he is promising to us certain blessings.

The second element is narrative. Again there are exceptions, but generally speaking ordinances re-enact some story from sacred history, with the participants in the ordinance standing in for characters in the story. In a sense, ordinances are theatrical, but we are the actors in the drama. The endowment is an extreme example of this, but it shows up in other ordinances as well. For example, the sacrament re-enacts the Last Supper, with the congregants as Christ’s disciples. Likewise, baptism re-enacts the early baptisms of Adam and Christ, but also Christ’s death and resurrection.

The third element is authority. It seems to me that this shows up in three ways. First, ordinances must follow a certain pattern. It is not enough that we make up our own set of rituals involving covenants and narrative. Rather, the rituals are given to us from above and participation in them involves conforming with the pattern. My own belief is that this is why we must do ordinances word-perfect. It is not that a priest’s mis-speaking the words of the sacrament prayer somehow renders the ritual ineffective, like a magical spell where the incantation is bumbled. Rather, we try to get the ordinance word perfect precisely because we are not the authors of the ordinance. Secondly, ordinances must be performed by one having authority. Again, it seems to me that this focuses us away from our own authorship of the ritual and emphasizes that we are participating in an order of things that is given to us from heaven. The emphasis on priesthood authority and its identification with divine power also serves to infuse the rituals with divinity. In the ordinances are the powers of godliness made manifest. Finally, ordinances are necessary. They are things that we must do in order to enter into God’s final kingdom. The point being, I take it, that we can only come to God on terms of his authorship rather than ours.

I group all of these things under the heading of authority because I believe that they emphasize that ordinances purport to be what philosophers call exclussionary reasons. One might imagine rituals that could do “just as well,” but the logic of ordinances suggest that this doesn’t matter. Even if — for example — different baptismal words could convey the same meaning, it doesn’t matter. Such words could not baptize someone. The efficacy of the rituals that we imagine is excluded by the logic of form, priesthood, and necessity.

If this trinity of elements is correct, it opens up, I think, an interesting set of questions. Why are covenant and narrative linked? How do we understand the necessity of ordinances? Is the authority of ordinances tied up covenant and narrative? Why? And so on…

25 comments for “Notes on a Theory of Ordinances

  1. mlu
    July 7, 2007 at 10:46 pm

    I sometimes approach these issues from the point of view of education–by which I mean the way generations succeed one another, passing on what is most needful. What appears vivid from this viewpoint is that we need to get the ordinance correct not because it becomes ineffective if misspoken but so that things are passed on uncorrupted–for the reason that you expressed well–we are not the author.

    It was observing the church–and comparing its rituals with those of mainstream churches with a longer history–that I came to have quite a profound respect for the modesty and restraint needed to pass things on without adding our own creativity and style. Otherwise, given time, the practices of every cultural group who encounter the gospel become incorporated into the liturgy and the everlasting covenants are changed.

    I started wondering about such things when, as a teenager, I learned it was forbidden to play the guitar in our chapel. That seemed unreasonable and old-fogeyish to me at the time. Now it seems just a pragmatic rule to constrain those who would innovate with what they barely understand.

    The ordinances teach. We learn what they teach gradually, here a little and there a little. They are authored to pass on teachings from generation to generation in the great narrative of history without unauthorized changes.

  2. Kevin Barney
    July 7, 2007 at 10:49 pm

    You might enjoy R. Dennis Potter, “Defending Magic: Explaining the Necessity of Ordinances,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, Vol. 35 No. 2 (Summer 2002):139-146.

  3. July 7, 2007 at 11:20 pm

    Most, if not all, ordinances also promise a remission of sins.

  4. Carlton
    July 7, 2007 at 11:26 pm

    “I started wondering about such things when, as a teenager, I learned it was forbidden to play the guitar in our chapel.”

    This is no longer true. I’ve played my classical guitar many times in chapels in Utah and Oklahoma. Policy changes, sometimes ordinances too. Why have some church authorities claimed that blessings (healings, patriarchal, etc.) are ordinances?

  5. Patata Brava
    July 7, 2007 at 11:53 pm

    This may be just my own opinion, but I have thought of the saving ordinances as symbols not only of “re-enacting some story from sacred history” but specific symbols of aspects of the atonement. Both the Sacrament and the Passover meal, and the related levitical sacrifices are fairly obvious examples of this – the Lamb of God was killed for our sins, by eating the flesh we accept this sacrifice.

    Baptism is a good example of this. The person ends a former life as a sinner/Christ died /we all die/and then the person starts a new life by leaving sins behind and is washed/Christ was resurrected/we are all resurrected and lifted out of the water by the Priest(hood).

    Consecrated olive oil is also a good example of this. Gethsemane means “oil press” – there the Lord was crushed by the sins of the world and bled great drops of blood.

    Obviously I think that very similar things could be said about temple worship. And that is why I also get very anxious when others get upset about certain aspects of ordinances. The symbols are there for reasons. Changing the ordinance dilutes down the meaning until you get meaningless proscribed acts that don’t add anything to worship.

  6. Jeremy
    July 8, 2007 at 12:01 am

    I would add that the fact that we have to get it right also reinforces the narrative and authority elements: the having-to-get-it-right of it makes it sacred to us. It’s a little circular–at least from the standpoint of what it conveys to us: we compelled to get ordinances right because we know they are sacred, and they are made sacred by our getting them right.

    (Note also that there are in fact certain flexibilities in wording of some ordinances: they can be uttered in English, Spanish, German, etc. Did a prophet, seer, or revelator come up with the wording of a particular translation? I doubt it, but once the translation has been approved by an authority, it conveys to us that compulsion to make it sacred by getting it right.)

    Perhaps also there’s a shadow of Mosaic sacrifice (sacred-making) in getting words right: our words, like ourselves, are supposed to be unblemished. Perhaps one could imagine that from God’s point of view the wording of this or that ordinance has a certain amount of flexibility or arbitrariness in particularities of language, but from our point of view once the standard has been decided the effort to adhere to that standard makes the ordinance, for us, more sacred.

  7. July 8, 2007 at 12:05 am


    I’ve wondered about the necessity of ordinances. To me, the enormous energy we put into vicarious ordinances is proof that each person must receive each of the necessary ordinances. Ordinances serve many functions–they remind us, they focus our thoughts, they teach us, they draw us closer to God–but there are other kinds of events which perform all of these functions and so none of these functions explains, to me, the necessity of ordinances. It seems to me that there must be an infusion of Grace–some transcendant transmission of a divine spark–from God to us during these moments. It is, to paraphrase Emma Lou Thayne, during prescribed sacramental moments that God “reaches my reaching.” Further, it would seem that such transmission, if it is to be succesful, is predicated upon an ordinance being performed in a very specific way; I would venture to say that if we stray from certain fundamental elements, the “spell” of the ordinances might indeed be broken. I realize, of course, that our work for the dead is also important because it turns the hearts of the children to the fathers; still, though, it seems to me that ordinances–performed in a specific manner and sequence–must have some unique and powerful purpose, else why the granite vaults East of Salt Lake City?

  8. lief
    July 8, 2007 at 4:20 am

    The same trinity of elements is observable in religious rituals from a wide variety of cultures – and, if I remember correctly, these points comprise the standard anthropological definition of ritual. The theory is that a community preserves it’s way of life in an otherwise hostile environment by binding its younger members to the pre-existing narrative – either by inviting the younger members to re-enact certain key points of the narrative, or perhaps by covenant. Although this seems a bit Darwinistic, the simple need to preserve the identity of the religious community could go a long way toward explaining the establishment of and emphasis on ordinances.

    Perhaps answers to some of these questions can be arrived at by analyzing the exceptional cases – such as baptism, where there is authority and covenant (perhaps), but no fixed narrative. Is narrative the most dispensable of the three elements – or can the narrative be inferred from background in some cases? Do the talks that accompany the baptism suffice as the narrative even when they are not given by the authority figure and may vary in content? Or can the narrative be found in the fixed missionary discussions that must precede baptism?

  9. Nate S.
    July 8, 2007 at 1:20 pm

    This theory of ordinances would, as you alluded to, exclude baby blessings, house dedications (which I don’t think is an activity that only the “priesthood” can perform), father’s blessings, and healing blessings from the official ordinances. I would agree with that. And it may explain, to a certain extent, why in the early days of the church, and some not-so-early days, women were, and presumably still are, welcome to participate in some of these. . . what do we call them now? . . . activities.

  10. July 8, 2007 at 4:32 pm

    Much of the genius and allure of the restoration was that it took (and takes) grand conceptual doctrines and ancient biblical ideas and made them into something present, physical, and personal. This is true of our ordinances. They are examples of Mormonism’s preoccupation with the physical and the material.

    You mention reenactment and I think that is just it. The narrative element is more than mere story—it is just as much about the theater.

  11. July 8, 2007 at 4:38 pm

    The words have to be perfect because the story is about a perfect and complete atonement.

  12. dkl
    July 8, 2007 at 6:40 pm

    I see a few problems with your analysis.

    I think that you are conflating ritualistic/ceremonial worship (as in the endowment) with priesthood ordinances. Whether or not the endowment ceremony contains ordinances is an interesting question, but it is, I believe, a mistake to call it an ordinance in-and-of-itself.

    Moreover, all the Aaronic priesthood ordinances have a fixed wording. The only non-temple Melchesidek ordinance with fixed wording is the fragment of the confirmation ordinance saying “receive the holy ghost.” Besides that, it’s the intention (in the semantic sense) of the person performing the ordinance that matters.

    Furthermore, there are some ordinances that bear directly on eternal worthiness that require no specific authority; e.g., civil marriages. The difference between a fornicator and spouse is a marriage by someone authorized by a state or treaty. This is especially significant for a valiant saint who happens to be a widow or widower. Such a member may already have been sealed and may want to marry for time only. They could do it in the Netherlands, on a cruise, in a chapel, in communist Cuba, or in Las Vegas. Moreover any set of vows at all would suit the purpose. In this case there is no specific requirements for legitimate authority, no specific covenants (though the arrangement will be governed by previous temple covenants — just as it was prior to the ceremony), and it participates in no specific narrative.

    I could go on, but suffice it to say, ordinances are quite a bit more diffuse than is allowed by your prolegomina to a theory of ordinanances.

  13. July 8, 2007 at 11:14 pm

    I think for baby naming there is a covenantal connection due to their being born in the covenant and being given one of the three important names that pop up for Mormons. While arguably the “text” of the blessing isn’t that important (I can’t recall it for either of my children) the fact that naming is put into such a religious ritualistic content is very significant. Further these names always have religious content, as I note, and play a part in later religious ceremony.

  14. July 8, 2007 at 11:27 pm

    DKL, while I agree he’s combining the two, I’m not sure it’s conflating in that I think the worship aspect is always present in most rituals for Mormons. Sometimes it’s more minor (as in say a grave dedication or so forth but I think it always there)

    The issue of civil marriages is interesting. While I think Mormons recognize it as an aspect to whether certain acts are sins I’m not sure it’s really relevant here. Sure we can argue it applies to worthiness but lots of contexts apply to worthiness. (i.e. I kill someone and in case one they were attempting to kill me and in case two they were minding their own business) Civil marriages function as a kind of quasi-religious ceremony but I think ultimately for Mormons aren’t really religious ceremony, despite their trappings. (Which is not a slam on mixed marriages, civil marriages nor their personal meaning – I’m just speaking in terms of LDS doctrine – of course it is a fact of life that we give religious meaning to many rituals in our life)

    I think that Nate’s point about authority being key to ordinances is apt. Indeed I think that the main distinguishing facet of Mormonism. Our focus on authority is really quite interesting. Different in many ways from say the various kinds of Catholicism. (Using the term broadly) We believe this authority is necessary. Yet, in some cases there clearly is a grey area. Say someone baptizes you who is unworthy. At what point do they not have authority?

    The issue of narrative that Nate raised is interesting. I think that the weakest element. Sure some things are broadly mythic narrative. That is a kind of archetypal narrative. But it is quite loose and often nearly non-existent except perhaps in the sense that we’re playing a part in a broader narrative. (What Mormons call the plan of salvation) I think though that interesting priesthood actions such as healing the sick, casting out devils, dedicating graves, and so forth, lack that narrative connection. The rites that have narrative typically are also part of worship, as you note. (i.e. baptism, endowment, sacrament)

    Still the question of what makes an ordinance as opposed to general worship or general rite is an interesting one. I’m not sure there’s a definitive answer. That is I don’t think we can ultimately provide definitions here.

  15. Ray
    July 8, 2007 at 11:30 pm

    I have been thinking a lot lately about conversion, and I have come to realize that a true and full conversion includes the whole soul – both body and spirit. If someone is not converted spiritually AND socially, that conversion is not complete. Joseph Smith preached community/kingdom building far more more than “personal” salvation. IOW, a full conversion is individually to the Gospel and collectively to the Church – carrying a personal understanding of the theology and doctrines, but literally losing social individuality within the greater unity of the Church.

    In this light, I think ordinances strengthen both aspects of full conversion – the individual and the communal. They teach and reinforce the Gospel, usually in symbolic ways that can bring continued understanding of Gospel nuances, but they also tighten communal bonds as they are shared – as our eyes behold others participating with us. That last point is as true of the sacrament (renewed baptism) as it is of the temple, and I view the endowment in its entirety as one ordinance – as the ultimate example of the power of ordinances.

  16. DKL
    July 9, 2007 at 1:57 am

    Clark, I’m not sure why you’re pointing out that both liturgy and ordinances are, in some sense, worshipful. The question is whether there is a difference between liturgy and ordinance, and, of course, there is.

    And of course I can provide definitions:

    I define an religious ordinance as follows: Any group of statements, usually indicative statements, that are uttered according to some convention such that they are recognized as efficacious by God or by his designated representative.

    I define worshipful ceremony as follows: the performance or observation of religious rituals that are fixed and that are conveyed using an authorized method.

    Thus, the question of whether something is a religious ordinance is logically independent of whether they’re worshipful ceremony.

    I think that you’re missing the boat on the marriage issue, too. The comparison to killing in self defense strikes me as a bit odd. Perhaps you’ve seen too many James Bond movies, but a license to kill is much harder to get than a license to marry. The family — even the ones that result from mere civil marriage — is a divinely ordained institution and consensual intercourse between a man and wife is a divinely sanctioned act, even when the legitimacy of the marriage comes from the Whore of Babylon, the Church of Satan, or a communist government.

    In addition to the problems I pointed out above with Nate’s three principles, his prolegomena places far too much emphasis on the performance of the ordinances and not the receipt of blessings from them.

    Take a patriarchal blessing as an example. This has the re-enactment aspect that goes back to the mythical blessings of Israel, but it contains no specific covenant. Just promised blessings that rely on other covenants — either those already made or those yet to be made. To the receiver of the patriarchal blessing, the text of the blessing is itself a blessing quite apart from the blessings enumerated within it. For this blessing, there is no covenant.

    Moreover, those who partake of the sacrament receive blessings for doing so; viz., those enumerated in the sacramental prayers.

    I wonder if a woman were to write a similar prolegomena, how likely would she be to have the same bias towards the performance of the ordinances? I think not likely. I’m surprised that none of the feminists here haven’t spoken up about it.

  17. Richard O.
    July 9, 2007 at 7:23 am

    If we use Nate’s interpretive framework of covenant, narrative, and authority for understanding ordinances, it could provide some light on why it might be rather difficult for gay marriage to become a religious ritual for Mormons.

  18. Struwelpeter
    July 9, 2007 at 11:04 am


    I’m sure you know this, but the original wording of the fourth article of faith had faith and repentance as ordinances, and it was only later that they were changed to principles.

    While this fact has helped me in thinking about faith and repentance, I’m not sure what it does for your theory.

  19. July 9, 2007 at 1:44 pm

    DKL, I wasn’t really attempting to distinguish liturgy from ordinance. (Although I frankly do find the distinction blurry at best)

    The problem I have with your view of ordinance is that it ignores the performative aspects. i.e. ordinance isn’t purely about words.

    I recognize what you’re attempting to do with covenant. I just think it breaks down somewhat.

    Let’s consider a more fuzzy example. Consecrating of oil. Is this an ordinance? Not according to your definition. Do most consider it an ordinance? Of course.

  20. July 9, 2007 at 1:51 pm

    Just to add, I think that the category “ordinance” is real, but I just don’t think any simple definition will do it justice. (Given your philosophical predilections I suspect you’ll disagree)

    Anyway, this is less what I was trying to get at. BTW – the point about killing was less authority than how context determines the category of killing. So you took it in a tangent quite different than I intended. I just meant that the fact there are civil marriages needn’t be taken to imply much beyond the fact that an act’s meaning is context dependent. We see that with killing so why not sex? There’s no need to make civil marriages quasi-religious. Personally I think the Church recognizes them more out of practicality than anything else. Especially given how early members viewed civil marriage and authority.

  21. July 9, 2007 at 1:51 pm

    Just to add, I think that the category “ordinance” is real, but I just don’t think any simple definition will do it justice. (Given your philosophical predilections I suspect you’ll disagree)

    Anyway, this is less what I was trying to get at. BTW – the point about killing was less authority than how context determines the category of killing. So you took it in a tangent quite different than I intended. I just meant that the fact there are civil marriages needn’t be taken to imply much beyond the fact that an act’s meaning is context dependent. We see that with killing so why not sex? There’s no need to make civil marriages quasi-religious. Personally I think the Church recognizes them more out of practicality than anything else. Especially given how early members viewed civil marriage and authority.

  22. Kathryn
    July 9, 2007 at 3:06 pm

    Nate –

    I LOVE, LOVE, LOVE your post! What a wonderful outline you have given and I HOPE that it will be recognized for the value that it is! THANK YOU for your inspired thoughts, for you have helped me put a few more things together. Maybe I can add a few back for you that might make some sense…

    Elder Bednar shared with our Stake when he was visiting these words… “KEYS are EVERYTHING”! I took those words to heart:-) And of course this means, AUTHORITY, just as you have brought up. So add that in to your equation. I taught Doctrine & Covenants this last year in seminary and WOW, what an eye opener that was in regards to keys and key holders.

    This has everything to do with the restoration of The Gospel of Jesus Christ and His Authority as the ONLY way to return back into the presence of The Father. Thus, the absolute need for the return of those who previously held those keys that would FIT (WORDS, ACTIONS, AUTHORITY). The number “three” is also the symbol for a “covenant”. Look for threes, it is everywhere in the church.

    Order – ordinance. God is law. Keys,etc… open doors. If we do not have the correct key to open a door it will Not open. Just any key will not do. It must be exact.

    The doors on the path back to God NEVER changes and once you have the right keys and keep them, the promise is SURE that when YOU are prepared the doors WILL OPEN UNTO YOU.

    We must also distinguish between the ordinances that are considered SAVING ordinances, which are…

    Priesthood Ordination – Melchizidek/Elder
    Endowment – Yes, this is an ordinance and the washing & annointing, etc.. is included with this as part of the whole experience.
    Marriage Sealing for Time and Eternity

    The receiving of ALL of these SAVING ordinances is referred to as “The New and Everlasting Covenant”.

    One more thing I will throw into the pot to look for is the two parts of the priesthood. You will find it EVERYWHERE.

    I really appreciated everyones comments on this topic. It is so fun to add all of these insights and have so many new thoughts. I hope these make sense to at least some of you.

  23. July 9, 2007 at 6:25 pm

    Is birth a saving ordinance over which a woman presides?

  24. Kathryn
    July 11, 2007 at 12:17 am

    Bev –

    In my humble opinion, I am not sure if I would call it an ordinance, but I would definately say it is saving IF it is applied to the other saving ordinances in our eternal progression to become like our Heavenly Father. If an ordinance is then order in the Plan of Salvation… and as men were fore-ordained in the pre-mortal world to hold offices in the priesthood to administer saving ordinances for mankind that are life giving of an eternal nature…. then perhaps women were fore-ordained by an ordinance to be mothers, as in Eve, The Mother of All Living to administer life of an earthly or temporal nature.

    Just as it is absolutely necessary for us to receive the ordinances of the Aaronic Priesthood, which are prepatory to the higher ordinances of the Melchezidik Priesthood, nonetheless, both are required to receive Exaltation.

    Just as it is a commandment to partake of the Sacrament worthily each Sabbath to retain a remission of our sins, it is also a requirement for one to obtain a Temple recommend and enjoy the blessings of the Temple, no matter how worthy one remains.

    The Lord honors women in the most incredible ways IF we but LOOK, it is everywhere around us. In all things we can see this pattern for these two priesthoods must be represented and one is never without the other in the Lord!

    Moses 6: 59-60

    59 That by reason of transgression cometh the fall, which fall bringeth death, and inasmuch as ye were born into the world by water, and blood, and the spirit, which I have made, and so became of dust a living soul, even so ye must be born again into the kingdom of heaven, of water, and of the Spirit, and be cleansed by blood, even the blood of mine Only Begotten; that ye might be sanctified from all sin, and enjoy the words of eternal life in this world, and eternal life in the world to come, even immortal glory;

    60 For by the water ye keep the commandment; by the Spirit ye are justified, and by the blood ye are sanctified;

    1 Jn. 5: 6, 8

    6 This is he that came by water and blood, even Jesus Christ; not by water only, but by water and blood. And it is the Spirit that beareth witness, because the Spirit is truth.
    • • •
    8 And there are three that bear witness in earth, the Spirit, and the water, and the blood: and these three agree in one.

    Just my thoughts,

  25. July 11, 2007 at 5:40 pm

    I have just now had the chance to read your post, Nate. I think it fits better with the modern church than it does with the early church and it fits better with salvific ordinances. You see a tremendous dynamism in the way things like healing and blessing are viewed in our history. You see women having implicit authority to administer oil and in the latter part of the nineteenth century, you see the governing quorums believing that non-Mormon participants in the Divine Healing and Christian Science movements as having the power of God to heal. While there is definite narrative, the covenant is obscure and the authority is implicit. As priesthood grew in primacy, you see things that previously weren’t ordinances become ordinances (e.g., grave dedication) or you see ordinances disappear all together (e.g., dedication the dying).

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