Elder McConkie refers to the Hebrews chapter 7 many times in his article on the Aaronic Priesthood, as this is the clearest reference to the distinction between Aaronic and Melchizidek priesthoods that can be found in the New Testament. Yet other Christian traditions read this chapter not as an endorsement of two priesthoods, but rather as a repudiation of the need for any priesthood at all.
Rather than establishing a higher order of Melchizidek priests, they interpret the message to be that Christ eliminated the need for the “weak and useless” Levitical/Aaronic priesthood. (NIV Bible, Hebrews 7:18
) For much of the Christian world, these verses describe Christ as the perfect priest after the order of Melchizedek, so there is no need for another.
To come to that conclusion, however, one would have to read these verses in isolation and ignore plentiful references to Church offices and administration throughout the New Testament and the Pauline epistles. For Latter-day Saints, Hebrews 7 isn’t rejecting the necessity of priesthood, but rather acknowledging the supremacy of Jesus to priesthood and everything else. A critical component that Elder McConkie ignores, however, is that the author of Hebrews distinguishes between the two kinds of priests by pointing out the superiority of a priesthood that is based on righteousness, not lineage.
Hebrews 7 proclaims that Melchizedek was a truly great high priest, but he “did not trace his descent from Levi, yet he collected a tenth from Abraham and blessed him who had the promises.” (NIV Bible, Hebrews 7:6
) Jesus, the writer points out, was also not a Levite but a descendant of Judah, but he is the greatest of all priests “after the order of Melchizedek,” i.e. after the order of a priest whose great righteousness trumped his incorrect lineage. The clear message is that after Christ, only righteousness counts when it comes to priesthood administration, and lineage no longer matters.
Unfortunately, this was a principle lost on many leaders of the Church, who cited the Levitical tribal distinction in the pre-Christ administration of the priesthood as justification for denying people of African descent the priesthood for well over a century. It is certainly a principle that Elder McConkie didn’t fully grasp in 1958 when he first wrote Mormon Doctrine, although his later writings contained clear and refreshing admissions of error in this regard
Latter-day Saints in 2019 accept the necessity of priesthood authority to administer in the kingdom of God, and much of what Elder McConkie wrote about the responsibilities of Aaronic priesthood holders fifty years ago accurately reflects what the Church still teaches today. However, the assumption of lineage that clouded the Church’s administration prior to 1978 ought to allow for greater humility with regard to the possibility of additional light and knowledge on this subject. Nowhere, for instance, do the revelations in the Doctrine and Covenants demand that the Aaronic priesthood be confined to a single gender.