I attended a district conference during a business trip recently. One of the branch presidents from the district spoke in the priesthood session about priesthood keys, and his talk moved me to do a little more study to confirm some of the things he said, and to reinforce my own understanding. Yesterday in the Gospel Principles class I teach, we talked about keys, too, so this all dovetailed nicely.
Church leaders have spoken on keys of the priesthood from time to time. Generally keys of the priesthood are required in directing the work of the priesthood. We believe that when John the Baptist came to Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdrey that not only did he give them priesthood power, but also priesthood keys. And others came to restore other keys.
Shortly before his death, Joseph Smith conferred those keys on the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, which allowed for the orderly direction of the Lord's work after Joseph was gone. Wilford Woodruff reported: “On that occasion the Prophet Joseph rose up and said to us: ‘Brethren, I have desired to live to see this temple built. I shall never live to see it, but you will. I have sealed upon your heads all the keys of the kingdom of God. I have sealed upon you every key, power, principle that the God of heaven has revealed to me. Now, no matter where I may go or what I may do, the kingdom rests upon you’ ” (quoted by Eyring in "Faith and Keys" in October 2004 General Conference).
Today, priesthood keys are held by those who lead in the priesthood: The First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve, stake presidents, bishops, and elders, teachers and deacons quorum presidents, as well as mission presidents and temple presidents. Their counselors do not hold keys (see Priesthood Keys in "Priesthood" at Gospel Topics at lds.org).
So is the matter of keys simply an arcane item of church government? I don't think so. It is through keys that the authority to perform ordinances is given. For instance, a bishop authorizes a faithful priest or holder of the Melchizedek priesthood to baptize in his ward. A deacon's quorum president makes assignments for the passing of the sacrament. A stake president authorizes the ordination of a new elder, and grants keys to a new bishop to serve in his stake. Without the proper keys, the proper exercise of the priesthood is impossible. And it is through the exercise of the priesthood in the ordinances of the gospel that we see the power of God in our lives (see D&C 84:19-22).
Elder Eyring gives other reasons for the importance of keys. He says:
"…All of us who serve others in the true Church want to help those we love gain a lasting testimony that the keys of the priesthood are held by the Lord’s servants in His Church. I speak today to encourage all who labor to instill and strengthen that testimony.
"It will help to recognize some things. First, God is persistent and generous in offering the blessings of priesthood power to His children. Second, His children must choose for themselves to qualify for and receive those blessings. And third, Satan, the enemy of righteousness, has from the beginning tried to undermine the faith necessary to receive the blessings made possible by priesthood power" (Faith and Keys).
I was touched by the third one. Elder Eyring goes on at some length to teach the need not to see our keys-bearing priesthood leaders as who they were before they held keys, but rather to recognize that they are more than who they were because of the keys they hold.
My present bishop is a very good friend of mine. We have served together in a variety of ways over the years, and our sons (now 13) have practically grown up together. I know him to be a good man, and as a friend I would do anything for him. But it is important for me to see him as more than the good man who is my friend. He is also my bishop. He carries that mantel (and he carries it well because the Lord loves him and is blessing him in his service). I cannot fully express the blessing it was to me when the Spirit confirmed for me that he was called of God to serve as he does. One day he'll be released, and maybe I'll be able to call him by his first name again.* But for now, I pray for him and I honor him as my bishop because he holds priesthood keys.
Elder Eyring continues:
"We must…know for ourselves that the Lord restored His Church and the priesthood keys through the Prophet Joseph Smith. And we must have an assurance through the Holy Ghost, refreshed often, that those keys have been passed without interruption to the living prophet and that the Lord blesses and directs His people through the line of priesthood keys which reaches down through presidents of stakes and of districts and through bishops and branch presidents to us, wherever we are and no matter how far from the prophet and the apostles....
"Satan will always work on the Saints of God to undermine their faith in priesthood keys. One way he does it is to point out the humanity of those who hold them. He can in that way weaken our testimony and so cut us loose from the line of keys by which the Lord ties us to Him and can take us and our families home to Him and to our Heavenly Father….
"To keep ourselves grounded in the Lord’s Church, we can and must train our eyes to recognize the power of the Lord in the service of those He has called. We must be worthy of the companionship of the Holy Ghost. And we need to pray for the Holy Ghost to help us know that men who lead us hold this power. For me, such prayers are most often answered when I am fully engaged in the Lord’s service myself" ("Faith and Keys").
My own experience is similar. I will see the keys of the priesthood active in priesthood leaders when I'm engaged in the Lord's service.
*Don't get hung up on this point. I call my good friend Bishop because he's my bishop. Others still call their good friends by their first name privately, but use official church titles in public.