As an example I’ll use my father, who won’t mind me doing so.
He was baptized a few years ago. Following his baptism he had conferred upon him the Aaronic Priesthood, and was ordained a priest. He remained active, and fulfilled his callings, and almost a year later had the Melchizedek Priesthood conferred upon him, and was ordained to the office of Elder. Some time after our family had gone to the temple, he was ordained an High Priest. Each of these ordinations was accompanied by “the vote of that church” (D&C 20:65).
There is the progression, and also the equation used for obtaining Priesthood in the Church. In case it wasn’t clear, that which was required of him to become an high priest in the Church was 1) activity in the Church, and 2) time.
I may be overemphasizing the point, but not much. I don’t mean to downplay the role of worthiness, service, or commitment to the Lord in my father’s example, or in the case of anybody else. Only the Lord knows our determination and dedication to Him. We have a system of interviews in place that is intended to ensure only those who are keeping themselves clean receive these ordinations. There are inevitably unsavory, and uninterested fellows who slip through the cracks and deceive men in leadership positions. I only use this example because it brings to light a couple of important points worthy of our consideration; points that stand in contrast to the high priests you read about in Alma 13 (and various other scriptures in the scriptures).
My father and I have talked about this. He’d be the first to admit that this is the formula as it’s currently laid out. As a matter of fact, my father had been attending the same High Priests Group since before his baptism. As a non-member, priest, elder, and high priest, he has enjoyed the company of the High Priests Group.
When he was ordained to the office of high priest not too long ago, he went to a few of the brethren that he respects and asked them what it meant to be ordained an high priest. They couldn’t provide an answer for him that made him feel satisfied he truly understood the ordination. What was the significance of the change from elder to high priest then? Did it confer the right to perform new, different, or higher ordinances? Did a greater endowment of the gifts of the Spirit accompany that ordination? What changed?
This had been my experience in the past, too. After many inquiries into the matter I decided that there were few people, if any, who might understand what is really going on. Nobody had a valid insight for me to help dispel the confusion.
There’s a reason few seem to understand what high priest in the Church means. Likewise, there are few who understand what high priest in Alma 13 means. Because the same words are used to describe both, we tend to think they’re the same. They’re not. They are different. Because we think they’re the same we understand neither as we should.
At an early point in our history we began conflating "the priesthood of God" and "a church office". We have fused and confused the two. This is not always the way it was, but the way it quickly became.
When Oliver Cowdery and Joseph Smith worked together to write what is now section 20 of the D&C they explained the offices of elder, priest, teacher, deacon, and member as offices in the church (“high priest” was not a part of that original document and was added later in 1835 when the D&C was first printed). These offices belonged to the Church, and not to the priesthood. Even “member” is described as though it is one of those offices, and the duties pertaining to that office are laid out in that section (D&C 20: 38, 68-70).
These offices provided order and established authority in the Church. These offices were the authority given, by which baptism was performed, the ordination of others as officers in the church was performed, and administration of the sacrament was performed (D&C 20). The organization itself, or the entity, empowered these offices, and the offices were established by vote of the church.
One example from the life of Brigham Young illustrates this point well:
“On December 27, 1847, in Winter Quarters, when Brigham Young became president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, he recorded he was ‘elected’ to the office. The common consent, or election by church members, was the power by which the president’s office became his. He did not believe he needed any ordination to the office, only the common consent through a sustaining vote. He was in fact, never ordained president of the church, only elected to the position. He explained why it was unnecessary to have anything other than a vote to ascend to the office: ‘If men are elected by this Church, it is by Election - Joseph was ordained an Apostle – but the Church elected him as a President, Prophet-Seer and Revelator – But he was never ordained to that office.’ Because a sustaining vote was all Brigham Young thought necessary to assume the president’s mantle, it was all he ever received. If his view is correct, then any person elected to the position has all authority required by reason of the vote or consent of the members of the church. The members consent or elect a person to the position, and the position exists through such consent.” (Snuffer,emphasis mine).
It is important that I bring up what little I did. These things are important to consider in order that we can get to the truth about these high priests in Alma 13. That’s the whole reason we’ve talked about any of it. I’m quite certain I may have caused considerable confusion to some people. If it doesn’t taste good, spit it out. If it begins to be helpful in understanding Alma 13, then consider it. Plant the seed, and let it work. See if it produces any fruit. That is the simple method Alma revealed to us to test the word (Alma 32). If you begin to see some discrepancy, you begin to believe that you don’t have all the answers. That is a good and necessary and humbling thing. That realization will cause you to begin asking the right questions.
Today, unlike the other ordinations we perform, ordination to the office of high priest in the Church comes to a man at a non-age-specific, leadership-selected time in his normal progression in the church, predicated upon his continued attendance and activity (the exception to this would be when a man’s calling in the Church requires him to be a high priest – i.e. a Bishop, for example). As with all other offices in the Church, the ordination can only take place after “the vote of that church” (D&C 20:65).
It is apparent to me that my father was ordained to the office of high priest in the Church. It is also apparent to me that this was something different than what we find going on in Alma 13. We’ll take a look at that next. Considering the text at face value, divorcing it from our expectations and prejudices, helps us learn what Alma’s message is. It is worth our attention. It’s an invitation to come unto Christ and to receive that which man and office cannot give.