If I am baptized on July 11, 2006, is that the effective date of my baptism, or is my baptism effective as of an earlier date? You may think the question is bizarre and the answer obvious, but stick with me. I think you’ll find there’s something to it.
In Spain I knew a woman who was almost a saint, and almost a Saint. She was good friends with us missionaries because she was so good-hearted, because she loved religion and loved that we loved it, because she believed much of what we preached, and, a little, because she was an expatriate who missed talking English. Naturally we invited her to come down to the waters a lot. She always refused. Years ago in England, as a young housewife, she decided to be baptized by the Methodists (I think) and recieved a strong spiritual witness that in so doing she had made a real commitment to Christ and that Christ had accepted this commitment. She could not square our exclusive claims to authority to baptize with the genuine success of her Methodist baptism. She had a spiritual witness of the latter. I had and have a spiritual witness of the former. How to reconcile them?
That’s one problem. Consider another. The Doctrine and Covenants tell us that priesthood is conditional, such that a great many priesthood holders do not actually possess it. This raises a Donatist problem–can an unworthy person perform a valid ordinance? The ordinary Mormon response is to shrug and say, sure, why not? There’s support for this answer in scripture, but it doesn’t quite satisfy me. What difference is there between a man performing ordinances who doesn’t hold the priesthood because he sinned and a man performing ordinances who doesn’t hold the priesthood because he never recieved it in the first place?
One possible solution to the problem is to say that its not the worthiness of the priesthood holder at the time of the ordinance that matters, but at the end of time. If our sins are remembered no more when we repent–and, as some descriptions of Christ’s sacrifice seem to suggest, our ultimate, defining choices are in some sense with us from the foundation of the world–then a priesthood holder who is redeemed and found spotless at the judgment will have been spotless his whole existence. He will always have been a worthy bearer of the priesthood and an acceptable stand-in for the Lord.
But this solution is only partial. Some unworthy priesthood holders won’t repent, and some priesthood holders who are worthy will fall away later. What about the ordinances they performed?
Another solution is that the unworthy’s man bishoprick will be taken from him and given to another. (We’ve discussed this elsewhere with reference both to children and to priesthood ordinances (see comments)). The idea simply is that the ordinance performed by the unworthy man becomes as if it were performed by another, who gets the credit and the relationship. But this is unsatisfactory too, for some of the same reasons its unsatisfactory to think about children being given to worthy parents. Our experiences are who we are. Whether bad or good, we don’t want to overwrite them. I’ve made that argument before with respect to children, though I can’t find it now, but in any case commenter Tatiana said it better. The identity of the person who performed your ordinance doesn’t matter nearly as much, but we still shrink, I think, from having them unwritten from our history and replaced.
A different solution to the problem of unworthy priesthood holders could also be a solution to the problem of the exclusivity of LDS authority and the apparent effectiveness of my friend’s non-LDS ordinance. That is, we can agree that non-LDS ordinances and unworthy LDS ordinances are formally ineffective and will have to be redone at some point. But since the persons receiving the ordinances are not to blame for this, perhaps the ordinances take effect for them as soon as they are performed. The later, formally-valid ordinances are either retroactive to the date of the prior, invalid ordinance, or the prior ordinances are provisionally valid until a formally-valid ordinance can be performed.
This still leaves us with the problem of people who felt that the ordinances they recieved outside the church did nothing . . .
I’ve said a lot here. Comments can go in lots of different directions (I list a few below). But please start from the premises that LDS ordinances have some kind of exclusive validity and that spiritual experiences such as my friends are genuine in some way.
1) How to reconcile the exclusive validity of LDS ordinances with genuine spiritual experiences that sometimes seem to accompany non-LDS ordinances? And how to reconcile your answer to this question with the genuine experiences of those who felt a lack of spiritual effect in non-LDS ordinances and not in LDS ones?
2) What real difference is there between a man performing ordinances who doesn’t hold the priesthood because he sinned and a man performing ordinances who doesn’t hold the priesthood because he never received it in the first place?
3) Can an unworthy man validly stand-in for Christ by performing ordinances?