Ecclesiastical versus Governmental Authority

Posted by

Jeffrey Thayne

Church and state
Latter-day Saints agree that a church must have authority in order to be valid before God. But what about a government? Where does its authority come from?

Jeffrey R. Holland, in the April 2005 General Conference, quoted President David O. McKay who said that the most distinguishing feature of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was “divine authority by direct revelation.” Holland continues:

Clearly, acting with divine authority requires more than mere social contract. It cannot be generated by theological training or a commission from the congregation. No, in the authorized work of God there has to be power greater than that already possessed by the people in the pews or in the streets or in the seminaries—a fact that many honest religious seekers had known and openly acknowledged for generations leading up to the Restoration.1

In other words, authority in ecclesiastical affairs cannot be generated from nowhere; it has to be given to us from a divinely authorized source. A congregation, no matter how large, cannot authorize a single baptism; only someone given authority from God can do so. “We believe that a man must be called of God, by prophecy, and by the laying on of hands by those who are in authority, to preach the Gospel and administer in the ordinances thereof” (AoF 1:2).

Government Authority

As Latter-day Saints, we are very familiar and comfortable with this idea of divine authority in ecclesiastical affairs. I think we draw a line too quickly, however, between ecclesiastical affairs and the rest of our lives. If this divine principle of authority is essential in regards to the saving acts of the gospel, might this same principle have a more universal application as well? For example, where do I get the authority to teach and raise my children? I believe I do have that authority, but like any authority, I can’t generate it from nowhere. I believe that authority is given to us by God.

Another example: where does the government get its authority to govern? Clearly, “we believe that governments were instituted of God for the benefit of man,” (D&C 134:2) but we all recognize that not every government is good and not every government act is proper. Its authority doesn’t come from nowhere and is not unlimited. Now, I am not talking about priesthood authority, but I am talking about authority. For example, as a citizen, I do not have power to issue a speeding ticket to my neighbor; but a police officer does. This has little to do with priesthood in the ecclesiastical sense, but it has everything to do with authority.

In future posts, I will explore possible sources and limits of government authority. I will operate under this assumption: just as man cannot generate authority from nowhere to baptize and ordain, man cannot generate authority from nowhere to govern other men. That authority has to come from somewhere. I hope that my readers do not accuse me of blurring the lines between church and state with the assumption that what applies to the church applies to the state; I hope to make this argument on scriptural and philosophical grounds, because I do not believe in modern version of the ancient philosophy taught by Protagoras that “man is the measure of all things.”2 We do not generate truth, nor are moral rules and codes human inventions. There are certain human rights, I believe, that are God-given, and therefore no mortal can self-generate authority to revoke them.


1. Jeffrey R. Holland, “Our Most Distinguishing Feature,” General Conference, 2005.
2. Wikipedia, “Protagoras.”


  1. The Declaration of Independence is a great document that outlines the idea of social contract and helps us understand from where governments (should) get their authority.

  2. Stay tuned for several follow-up posts on this subject! This is the first of a series I am doing. I agree that the Declaration of Independence is a valuable resource, and I will address it 4 or 5 posts down the road. I’ll also talk about John Locke and his philosophy of government. It will be an adventure!

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