Priesthood and Ministry
There appear to be at least three principle positions with regard to women and male priesthood. Most Latter-day Saint women support the status quo. The latest Pew Study “finds little support for the notion that women should be eligible for the Mormon priesthood. Only one in ten Mormons (11%) believe that women should be ordained to the priesthood of their church, whereas 87% think the priesthood should be open only to males. Large majorities of both men and women express this view.” Surprisingly, perhaps, “women [are] somewhat more likely than men to say the priesthood should be open only to males (90% vs. 84%).”
Nine in ten women, in other words, do not wish to see the male priesthood shared by both genders. However, recently a minority of women have recently garnered headlines for their efforts to move the church leadership to make ordination to the priesthood available to all worthy members, including women.
Presumably, a third group would consist of those who are undecided; who, when questioned, indicate a predisposition to support or oppose the present policy, but with reservations. My remarks are directed to all three constituencies. I want to express my solidarity with those who find present practice to be in harmony with the Lord’s will, and a cause for celebration rather than lament. I want to suggest to those who agitate for change that, while I respect their choice, there may be alternatives to the stark deprivation vs. equality rhetoric than sometimes accompanies their world-view. And I hope most of all to encourage the undecided of the middle ground to consider more nuanced ways of thinking about ministry in the kingdom, the priesthood, and Relief Society that can, hopefully, move us all in the direction of a more unified Zion community.
Ministering vs. administering
It is important at the outset to clarify what I have in mind in talking about priesthood. Jesus Christ was and is the Great High Priest. His exemplification of priestly conduct was three-fold: a lifetime of service to the marginalized, the vulnerable, and the solitary individual; a paradigmatic enactment of meek and selfless devotion to serving rather than supervising (when He washed his disciples feet); and His culminating self-effacing gesture whereby, in Bonhöffer’s words, He drew men to Him through his weakness rather than strength, his surrender rather than triumph (His sacrificial death). The world equates greatness with mastery, success with power, and status with hierarchy. But priesthood is rightly predicated on a model that turns worldly paradigms upside down. If this radical model was largely lost to the Christian tradition, Joseph restored it in section 121. Priesthood is there emphatically, unambiguously, and dramatically severed—completely dissociated—from contemporary versions of power structures. “No power or influence, can or ought to be maintained, by virtue of the priesthood.” In other words, any seeking for priesthood—by men or women—who are even partially motivated or inspired by a desire for influence or control, is anathema to the spirit of Christ. This is not reading between the lines. This is the clear and explicit warning that is this section’s essence. (Note that when Abraham sought the Priesthood, it was to become “a greater follower of righteousness”. He was not seeking for power.1
In Mormonism, culture often insinuates itself into the church in corrosive ways. Mormons too often talk of “priesthood advancement,” aspiring missionaries aim to be APs, as later in life they plot their rise to the office of GA. The Lord seems to indicate that most Mormons will fail the test of purity in priesthood service. “It is the nature and disposition of almost all men, as soon as they get a little power, as they suppose, that they immediately begin to exercise unrighteous dominion.” “Almost all” fail the test. All too often priesthood is equated with influence, control, status, power, honor, or visibility. And people seek priesthood for the power it gives them to administer, rather than to minister. Those may all be reasonable motives, and in the political world at large, equal access to the corridors of power and influence is a fine agenda. I am simply asserting that the Lord has pleaded with His people not to apply the standards and aspirations of the world to service in His kingdom, because His kingdom is to be constituted differently, with an agenda the world cannot understand or appreciate.
Because D&C 121 reads: “it is in the nature and disposition of almost all men” to abuse power one might speculate that priesthood is given to men to foster an inclination to service for which they are not naturally inclined. And, indeed, LDS women by and large leave men digesting dust when it comes to ministering to the Lord’s family. We had dinner with an LDS couple last night. In answer to a casual question, the wife summarized some of her activities, with one child still at home and another at university. Beth works as a CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocate) for Henrico County. 2 She also volunteers at a Title 1 elementary school in the City of Richmond as a mentor, Reader’s Cafe Discussion Leader, and “Room Mom” for a 4th grade classroom. In addition, Beth has lunch with a group of four 4th grade girls once a week during lunch where they read a book and discuss it. She also organizes the holiday parties for a 4th grade teacher. (Beth herself has no children at this school). She learned of this opportunity to serve these children through a friend who belonged to the Jewish Community Federation of Richmond, which Beth was required to join in order to volunteer in this capacity.
Beth’s involved and time-consuming service is not atypical. The following is an email that was recently sent by my ward Relief Society President:
“Dear Sisters, I want to thank you so very much for so willingly signing up to help care for Alice3 [who is not a member of our church]. You all did a remarkable job over the past 3 months of taking meals to her, helping feed her, doing the dishes, sweeping the floor, changing her diaper, rubbing lotion on her back and legs, sorting through her bills and just visiting with her and being her friend. I know she appreciated all of you. And the Lord is pleased with our service. You are a wonderful group of ladies that I am privileged to call my Relief Society sisters. The next door neighbor, Jennifer4 is recovered from her knee surgery and assumed care of Alice on Sunday. Even though we are not running a RS schedule to care for her, you can stop by and visit or take a meal anytime you just want to. The Relief Society Presidency will continue to give her a bath periodically. Thanks again for your love and kindness towards each other.
Please let me be clear about what I am, and am not saying. I am not saying that women have enough to do making quilts for orphaned babies, so let the men get on with running the church. Neither am I saying that women are incapable of abusing power. I am saying that the discrepancy between men’s ways of serving and administering, and women’s ways of ministering and administering, deserves to be examined in terms other than exclusion and deprivation. With the progressive organization of the church, the democratization of the male priesthood became more hierarchically driven. What began early on as a virtual priesthood of all (male) believers, became increasingly ordered into quorums, and then into quorums situated in a hierarchy. To this day, men talk of priesthood lines of authority, file leaders, stewardships and keys. The incredible detail and orderliness and structure of male priesthood is one of its strengths—but it comes at a cost. Male priesthood lines of authority are great in communicating and addressing critical needs for disaster relief when they occur. However, the corporate nature of priesthood administration has a tendency to stifle initiative, consume one’s time, distract from the work of ministry proper, and instill jealousy, covetousness, and unrighteous dominion. The Lord counters the predilection to priesthood abuse by encouraging men (and women) to be agents unto themselves, to take righteousness in their hands, not to wait to be commanded in all things, not to let the weightier matters be overwhelmed by the minutiae, to serve with purity of heart, and not to aspire to the honors of men.
It seems to me that disburdened of the hierarchical structure of male priesthood women are more easily able to take righteousness into their own hands when it comes to ministering in the kingdom. What the examples of my friend and Relief Society President suggest to me, is not a gender on the peripheries doing the inconsequential. As these two sisters powerfully illustrate—women are free to work and serve without restraint or confinement, without the distractions of status or the straightjacket of supervision, seeking service rather than approval, discipleship in a horizontal sisterhood rather than advancement in a pecking order. In my mind’s eye, I see male priesthood holders as all too often imprisoned in an Eiffel Tower of “return and report” up and down a priesthood chain; myself and my sisters I see as ranging freely over a large and spacious field, like the Savior, going about and doing good, without being instructed as to where to do that good, as agents unto ourselves. This is also the key to understanding, as far as I can see, the other Pew finding: “The belief that women should be ordained to the [male] priesthood is less common among those who exhibit the highest levels of religious commitment than among those with lower levels of commitment.” When I asked a number of stake and ward relief society presidents as well as other very engaged Mormon women whether they would be open to the possibility of male priesthood, they laughed. They informed me that they already had too much on their plates without adding men’s issues or aspirations to them.
Priesthood Power and Priesthood Authority
What much of the conversation about women and the priesthood comes down to is priesthood as administration, versus priesthood as ministry. I think it is unfortunate to dichotomize the two. While I feel it is imperative that people feel free to be anxiously engaged in a good cause of their own free will and choice, there are some instances in which administration and organization greatly enhance the effectiveness of ministry. For example, starting on September 4, 2010 Christchurch (New Zealand) was submitted to a barrage of 8,000 quakes and aftershocks (the largest of which measured 7.1) over a period of 18 months. While the LDS Church in Christchurch responded immediately to the call for help, it was the Relief Society who organized water distribution around the city in the first few days and continued to provide nutritional and emotional support to the victims as well as working with the Civil Defense to provide people with financial and other pertinent advice. In response to parliamentarian Nicky Wagner’s tribute to the heroic services rendered by the sisters of the church to the community of Christchurch and the exceptional organizational skills employed by the Christchurch Relief Society sisters, the Relief Society president replied: “It is just something we naturally do in Relief Society.” 5 Women and men who have been to the Temple have both been endowed with power from on high with the keys to minister and administer in the Lord’s kingdom. In an August 2012 address given at BYU Education Week Elder Ballard stated: “When men and women go to the temple, they are both endowed with the same power, which by definition is priesthood power.”6
During the organization of the The Female Relief Society, Sister Cleveland stipulated: “we design to act in the name of the Lord—to relieve the wants of the distressed and do all the good we can” 7 Sister Snow followed with: “as daughters of Zion, we should set an example for all the world, rather than confine ourselves to the course which had heretofore pursued.” Presidentess Smith added “we are going to do something extraordinary…we expect extraordinary occasions and pressing calls.”
Priesthood power is a wide umbrella. I would like to suggest that women also have access through that priesthood power to priesthood authority and the keys to administer in a branch separate but parallel to the men who function within the Melchizedek Priesthood (more properly called “The Holy Priesthood After the Order of the Son of God”8). According to the Old Testament, Prophets and judges could be women but the priesthood was reserved for men only. Even in the New Testament, while it is true that the Saviour surrounded Himself with women, there is no clear textual evidence that women were ever initiated into the prevailing male priesthood. This is not to say that Christ did not initiate women into a separate female priesthood or into the male priesthood for that matter. There is no compelling textual evidence that He did so, however. The Book of Mormon is even more stark in its male-centeredness. There are no prophets or judges let alone priests who were women according to that text. And there is no alluring Apocrypha attached to that text—not yet, at least.
The precedent, therefore, to which we must look for female priesthood authority is to our own restoration scripture and history and, specifically, to the organization of the Nauvoo Relief Society. America allowed for the greatest religious innovation, not being bound by ingrained religious tradition. New churches were sprouting up like mushrooms all over the place. Yet, of all the religious innovators of the time, it was Joseph Smith, the leader of the Mormons whom Harold Bloom called “A true American genius.” Brother Joseph felt no compunction to stay within any boundaries at all—social or religious. It was he who pushed the boundaries of priesthood access further than anyone had done since the coming of Christ. Not only does Joseph democratize priesthood to such an extent that ethnic minorities were originally included, the access to priesthood power and authority was greatly expanded in restoration scripture to include all worthy women as well as all worthy males.
As Elder Ballard stipulated, both men and women receive “priesthood power” in the Temple. Therefore, women who receive their endowment are ordained with the same power as men, and are “ordained after this manner—being called with a holy calling, and ordained with a holy ordinance, and [taken] upon them the high priesthood of the holy order, which calling, and ordinance, and high priesthood, is without beginning or end–/Thus they become high priests forever, after the order of the Son, the Only Begotten of the Father, who is without beginning of days or end of years, who is full of grace, equity, and truth…./9. And now I say unto you that this is the order after which I am called, yea, to preach unto my beloved brethren, yea, and every one that dwelleth in the land; yea, to preach unto all…10. “[F]or he [the Lord]…inviteth them all to come unto him and partake of his goodness; and he denieth none that come unto him…” 11
For Mormons the journey to the temple is the most sacred for it is there that we all are “endued with power from on high” 12 irrespective of gender. “The power and authority of the higher, or Melchizedek Priesthood, is to hold the keys of all the spiritual blessings of the Church–/To have the privilege of receiving the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, to have the heavens opened unto them, to commune with the general assembly and church of the Firstborn, and to enjoy the communion and presence of God the Father and Jesus the mediator of the new covenant” 13
Indeed Joseph explained to the nascent Relief Society organization that “the institution they were forming had ‘existed in the church anciently…When the Priesthood was taken from the earth, this institution as well as every other appendage to the true order of the Church of Jesus Christ on the earth, became extinct, and had never been restored until’” now. 14 The original Relief Society Minutes show that Joseph considered himself to be authorizing the women of the church to form an institution equal in authority to that of the male priesthood he had organized earlier. It is important to note that the organization of the The Female Relief Society of Nauvoo took place during the same period as the organization of the Nauvoo Masonic Lodge 15. Indeed, the first meeting of The Female Relief Society of Nauvoo took place in the Masonic Lodge Room right above the Red Brick Store. Joseph was heavily influenced by Masonry and considered its founding tenets: Truth, Friendship and Relief to be in total harmony with the Gospel of Jesus Christ 16
After convening the women’s meeting, President Smith, together with Elders Taylor and Richards, “withdrew” while the sisters decided as to whom should be admitted into the society. In other words, the men left while the women organized themselves. When the gentlemen returned, Joseph expressed the hope that “the Society of Sisters might provoke the men to good works in looking to the wants of the poor— searching after objects of charity, and in administering to their wants”, concurring with section 121 that men were unable to fulfill the Divine mandate without the sisters’ encouragement and support.
In addition the sisters were “to assist” the male priesthood “by correcting the morals and strengthening the virtues of the female community, and save the Elders the trouble of rebuking; that they may give their time to other duties &c. in their public teaching.” This suggests, to my mind at any rate, that women were to be responsible for the moral education of the sisters of the church, including young women, thereby divesting male priesthood holders from so doing. The idea has recently been entertained that Relief Society Presidents rather than Bishops nurture the virtues of all of the women in her stewardship—young and older. Brother Joseph’s words appear to support that move.
Joseph also “propos’d that the Sisters elect a presiding officer to preside over them, and let that presiding officer choose two Counsellors to assist in the duties of her Office—that he would ordain them to preside over the Society—and let them preside just as the presidency preside over the church.” In other words, the sisters and not the brethren would be responsible for calling their organization’s officers. And the Relief Society President would be ordained to preside over the Relief Society and, I would suggest, the Relief Society auxiliaries—Young Women and Primary. It is quite obvious that Joseph intended for the Relief Society to have status equal to the male priesthood. Relief Society is the female equivalent of male priesthood. Or, in the words of President Taylor “this Institution was organiz’d according to the law of Heaven—according to a revelation previously given to Mrs E. Smith, appointing her to this important calling–[with]…all things moving forward in…a glorious manner.”
In addition, Joseph, did not presume to dictate to the sisters how they should run their organization or how they should preside: “if” the sisters needed the prophet’s instruction—“ask him [and] he will give it.” Joseph expected the sisters to be fully capable of running their own organization with no help from the male branch of the priesthood unless they asked for it. He also did not presume to organize the Relief Society according to male priesthood rankings. He suggested that if the sisters wished to pattern their organization after the male priesthood they were at liberty to do so: “If (emphasis mine) any Officers are wanted to carry out the designs of the Institution, let them be appointed and set apart, as Deacons Teachers &c. are among us.” Again, Joseph is reiterating the power and authority of the women to organize as the Spirit moves upon them rather than in obedience to male priesthood, emphasizing the equality of the women’s organization to that of the men’s. It is significant that Emma Smith, the first Relief Society President, chose not to model her organization on the hierarchical structure of the male priesthood.
The naming of the female branch of Christ’s Priesthood was also the organizers’ prerogative. The Brethren had suggested the name “The Nauvoo Female Benevolent Society,” which the sisters rejected in favour of “The Female Relief Society of Nauvoo.” The name “Relief Society” is no coincidence to my mind. Relief is one of the fundamental principles of Masonry, together with truth and friendship. As female organizations of the Masonic order had been founded in the US, it is more than likely that the founding members of the Relief Society were very much aware of the significance of the term they chose.
Their branch of the priesthood would be linked to that of the male branch in “friendship” and “truth”—hence the designation “The Female Relief Society.” In other words, both branches of the Melchizedek Priesthood would work together in mutual support, encouraging each other and meeting together in council to deliberate upon the affairs and future direction of the church as well as to expound truth. In turning the keys to Emma to found the female priesthood, Joseph encouraged Emma to “be a pattern of virtue; and possess all the qualifications necessary for her to stand and preside and dignify her Office, to teach the females those principles requisite for their future usefulness.”
As Maxine Hanks has pointed out, the structure of the RS Presidency is identical to that of the male priesthood: a president and two counsellors and when one looks at the structure of the male and female organizations of the church they also follow the same but parallel patterns: President, two counsellors and a board or a quorum or council.
It is also apparent to Joseph that just as he had been called by God to be Prophet, Emma had been called by God to be the first Relief Society President. In setting apart Mrs. Cleveland as counsellor to Emma, John Taylor refers to the new president as “the Elect Lady.” The title, “presidentess.” further validates Emma’s authority to preside over an autonomous organization and to share responsibilities equally with that of the male priesthood. To emphasize this point, Joseph re-read Doctrine and Covenants section 25 “and stated that [Emma] was ordain’d at the time, the Revelation was given to expound the scriptures to all [the church]; and to teach the female part of the community, that not she alone, but others, may attain to the same blessing.” Like Joseph, therefore, Emma was not ordained of man but of God to her calling as was the organization she was called to lead. This was her work as Joseph’s was to be prophet. The Relief Society was to foster the building of a “kingdom of priests” among the women in the church just as the male branch of the priesthood fostered the same among men. A paper by Don Bradley demonstrates that Emma’s office of elect lady was intended to be a female office equivalent to Joseph’s office of presiding elder. 17
The Lord frequently uses marriage as a synonym for unity and mutual service. Eve is a help “meet” or equal to Adam. As were the roles of Adam and Eve equal but complementary, so too are the roles of Relief Society and Male Priesthood to be equal but complementary. The historical and spiritual record show that Emma (Presidentess) and Joseph (President) were to preside over their respective branches of the priesthood as the High Priestess, Eve, and the High Priest, Adam, were called to preside in the ancient church. As husband and wife, the two branches of the The Holy Priesthood after the Order of the Son of God (female and male) are to support and sustain each other and to prepare those belonging to their organizations to become priestesses and priests unto the Most High God. Joseph clearly saw the Relief Society organization as an institution destined for the creation of “priests”—a kingdom of them, in fact. The Relief Society and its male equivalent are to co-operate in their respective responsibilities to build a society of mutual respect, love, unity and understanding in which the King of Kings may take up His residence.
The “provoking” to good works should be mutually edifying and beneficial. Only the female and male priesthoods working independently as well as conjointly have the power to create Zion. Historically speaking, the women’s sphere of primary influence is that of other women—particularly during pregnancy, labour and childbirth as well. The education of young women in the virtues has also always been the purview of women as well as the protection and education of children and other vulnerable members of society. It is no coincidence, therefore, that the current governing body of the church has recently moved all of the organizations presided over by women to conference together rather than separately. The Relief Society and her two auxiliaries shall have their own meeting. Originally, the office of the Relief Society President was adjacent to the office of the prophet but was moved upon the completion of the new church office building. All that is needed are a few furniture movers to restore the Relief Society Presidentess to her original and rightful place next to that of the Prophet. On the other hand, the Relief Society President may prefer to remain in her own quarters with her counsellors and quorum close at hand.
Together with the restoration to parallel but equal standing in the priesthood, we might hope to one day see returned the Temple priesthood powers to offer healing blessings and other blessings in behalf of family members and all those who fall within the purview of the Relief Society Priesthood, which would be a great boon to those sisters, for whom the responsibility for raising their families in the Gospel rests squarely and unrelentingly on their shoulders. Perhaps someday we might see the stewardship returned to the Relief Society Presidency for the disbursement of funds for its own organization and that of her auxiliaries. With luck, so too will The Relief Society and auxiliaries once again have the oversight for the writing and distribution of RS, YW and Primary manuals. And maybe the future will see the mandate given to Emma “to make a selection of sacred hymns” for the edification of the global church and the “delight” of the Lord restored to the purview of the Relief Society18.
Only men and women working collaboratively, calling down the powers of Heaven with the priesthood power and authority with which they have been endowed in the Temple can face down the deluge of evil that is now upon us. Such is my belief. That being said the minutes record that “Whatsoever the majority of the house [Relief Society] decide upon becomes a law unto the Society.” In other words, no changes should be made to the Relief Society organization without the assent of the majority of the sisters in the Church.
33 thoughts on “A Society Meet For Male Priesthood”
I love this and agree completely. Thank you for this marvelous post!
Excellent Article: I liked the analysis of Christ’s ministering among real people as he moved through his world. The reminder of endowment blessings and covenants is also powerful and across all cultures, genders, abilities, etc.
While there is much to be said on this topic I would like to add several thoughts concerning precedent as it pertains to female priesthood authority particularly in regards to ‘fullness of the priesthood’ or patriarchal priesthood. Elder William R. Bradford speaking in a saturday evening’s session of Stake Conference, 2/1998, in Wilmette, IL asked the question, “What is God’s great name”? His response was, “it is Father and when you hear Father, you hear Mother.” This says volumes especially since Elohim is often importantly used with a plural definition. In addition the wives of Old Testament patriarchs provide powerful models even with the limited information available.
Last comment concerns councils: women were involved in those coucils before the world was and can be an integral part of every institutional council from the ward to GA levels. The most important of such is the only one which is eternal in nature, the Family Council!
Again, Thank You for your thoughts . ~ k.c. 1/18/14
I don’t normally comment on blogs, but I must be in a slump in the fear/confidence rollercoaster ride that is my relationship with gender in the Church.
This post makes many great points–but so much of this picture the author so beautifully constructs is not a present reality, nor does it seem to be likely to change any time soon. I would love to be living in a world where the Relief Society was seen and treated as an equal and autonomous women’s priesthood. I would love to live in a world where women could bless their own children and their friends in need. Where they had the authority to coordinate their service on an institutional rather than an individual level without being swallowed up by the negative aspects of the male hierarchy.
As one of the undecided on the issue of women’s ordination, I think I could feel fulfilled, utilized, and trusted in that world. But, despite the promise of history, it seems no less imaginary to me than the sometimes equally tantalizing idea of having women’s talents and voices embedded in the current structures of the church. Can we ask, or even hope, for any change at all without bringing condemnation upon ourselves?
In the meantime, I am left calling the Elder’s Quorum president to line up a chaperone for Relief Society meetings, while consuming questions grow in my heart. Will heaven be more of this? Will I be like my Mother, neither seen nor heard? Will I be but one of many? Will a man always stand between me and God? Would I be happier in a lower kingdom where I can at least be a person? If women are so fundamentally different from men, are we even the stuff of gods, or are we, like the other animals created for Adam, capable of fulfilling the measure of our creation, but no more? Does God even care much about us?
I know I am an outlier. I’m not sure any of us in the ten percent can ever forget how alone we are with our questions and our fears. I honestly do not know how other women find peace and confidence. I try to believe that if I follow Christ, he will be my advocate on the other side and help me find a place. But when so many details of Mormonism’s practice and worship, from budgets to the temple, prick open these questions, I feel like I can never forget them for long. All I can do is silently long for something else, whatever that might be.
Fiona, thank you for this thoughtful post. (I blog at T&S with your son, btw.)
Since I was four (in 1968) I’ve been bothered by and wondered about the church gender disparity. (If you’re wondering, no, my mother was not bothered at all.) I’ve thought, prayed, and after decades finally started to talk and write about it.
From personal experience, I have to say that I find polling data barely worth discussing on the issue. In the church, a righteous woman would never question most parts of the status quo. In doing so she is, ipso facto, not faithful. While this is true for men as well, women in a patriarchal system are less likely to be willing to speak up and their voices are always less authoritative.
My entire life I’ve heard women (who didn’t and don’t want female ordination) admit that many things (gender differences, polygamy, etc.) bothered them but rather than try to work them out they “put them on the shelf.” And they all felt — in spite of extraordinary evidence to the contrary — that is how faithful women SHOULD respond, by patiently waiting on God. (By evidence I mean that almost no revelation is poofed to those waiting. Almost all comes after those with authority question the status quo.) Many believe that very, very most (and you can look at the responses to many of my posts on the subject) the most “activist” you can be is to pray…more…privately.
From what I understand most FLDS women are also content with the status quo and even girls who are rescued from forced marriages in those communities have great difficulty denouncing even some of the most horrendous, predatory behavior. I’m not comparing LDS to FLDS — I’m an active LDS woman in all respects — but I’m unconvinced that group opinion is indicative of truth.
I grew up in Utah County and in spite of the fact that my Orem neighborhood actually flooded with people hugging and shouting in joy when the 1978 black priesthood ban was lifted, until that day I never ONCE heard any member denouncing the policy publicly. Instead, they “stood by the brethren” and (much to the detriment of people like Randy Bott) formed theories to justify the church’s position or, at least, to make sense of it.
I’m not a member of OW. My position is that I’d like more information about Heavenly Mother (the “we can’t talk about her because she’s sacred” mantra is an old wives’ (husbands’?) tale), about priestesshood, about when “men” means “mankind” and when it really just means “males.” I’d like to know how much of our policy is culture and how much doctrine. (Apparently after all these years women CAN actually pray in General Conference after all. And some of us are old enough to remember when women couldn’t speak or pray in sacrament meeting…)
Ultimately, I find historical references wanting. Certainly there is no explicit reference to women being ordained, but are we using the treatment/position of women in New Testament times as some kind of benchmark simply because Christ lived then?
Even earlier modern church history is problematic. Women gave blessings by laying on of hand. We are no longer allowed to do to. The Relief Society was largely autonomous. Correlation changed that. It’s easier to see some of the equality you claim (via Joseph Smith) in Relief Society of the past than of the present.
It would also be easier to understand the Joseph (high priest) Emma (high priestess) model if we knew what a priestess was and/or what she did. (And, yes, also if it weren’t for Joseph’s polygyny and polyandry, which are just baffling to me.)
As it is, it’s hard to even ASK about a priestesshood or Heavenly Mother or anything NOT status quo because it’s interpreted as being edgy or rebellious or just out of turn because, after all, women don’t have authority.
This is much longer than I intended. So I’ll just end this now wishing you the best and thanking you, again, for a lucid and thoughtful post. (And I wish you and your husband would bring your “tour” to Utah again. I’d love to hear you in person. I’m a huge fan of your book and those of your husband.)
It is interesting to read the responses to your well written and thoughtful article. . I find the same themes in many of them. Unfortunately, I also find misinformation, misunderstandings and hear-say. For example: What is the source of the idea that a sister can not bless her family or close friends. Of course it would not take the same form as an “official priesthood blessing” any more than a father’s blessing takes the same form as the patriarchal blessing. . As a professional reader of church history I think many of the questions could be answered with a serious study of the culture surrounding early church events. Which gospel practices are tradition and culture and which are gospel truth is a question that needs to be applied to early church history too.
I wanted to add a thank you for your ideas, Fiona. I have listened to you speak on several podcasts and felt very inspired by your words. The image of God you and your husband present in The God Who Weeps is the God I hope for and want to believe in. Thank you for what you are doing!
I very much liked your comments and agreed with them. See Daniel C. Petersen’s essay on Nephi and his Asherah http://publications.maxwellinstitute.byu.edu/publications/jbms/9/2/S00003-50be458eb2b313Peterson.pdf
as a great starting point for information on Heavenly Mother. Hugh Nibley notes that tradition was that Sarah was every bit Abraham’s equal as a Prophetess and a seer before she met Abraham.
Once you bring Heavenly Mother into the discussion, and the fact that her role was much more commonplace anciently, which the Catholics have preserved in an interesting way with their veneration of Mary (foreign to the Protestant mind), it changes the concept of priests and priestesses. I see Heavenly Mother and Heavenly Father as a team, perhaps with specific roles, but nonetheless co-equals. Since Jeremiah appears responsible for the purging of Asherah (he not being married) from the historical record, it seems fitting that the knowledge of Heavenly Mother is part of the restitution of all things. See also the essay in Dialogue about Heavenly Mother written by Kevin Barney which is as scholarly as any Hugh Nibley article. Hugh notes that the terms Patriarchy and Matriarchy have the root “-archy” meaning conflict. Love is not about conflict or superiority of a sex, it is mutual respect and admiration, the teamwork that allows the solving of life’s problem’s and painful situations together via counsel and discussion — not apart.
I think the present Church administration style poses problems for both men and women without meaningful callings. Note the recent article in Sunstone by Michael J. Stevens, Passive-aggression among the Latter-day Saints. The point being, how do we engender true council and discussion in the Church rather than blind Patriarchal leadership?
Fiona, thank you for you post.
I do not have a profile on ordain women, but I have crossed swords with your son on T&S posts (not all of them his) on the topics relating to gender and roles in the church, and am a blogger on W&T.
The primary reason I do not have a profile on OW is because I so dislike the hierarchical priesthood structures and titles associated with office that have developed over the lifetime of the church. I wholeheartedly agree with your summary of the problems caused by that development. (It is also for this reason that I would wholeheartedly oppose the introduction of the use of titles for women in auxulliary presidencies etc., as has been suggested by Neylan McBaine and others.) I don’t see however, that your description of Relief Society addresses those issues, which surely need to be addressed for men labouring under that burden too. I also did not recognise your description of Relief Society, which is not what it once was, and is similarly bound by those same hierarchical reporting structures to priesthood authority with no female autonomy (though I also doubt that the extent of that autonomy was ever as great as it is often painted as having been in the early days of the church as well). I also feel that too much of the administrative structures have become both unnecessarily and hopelessly entangled with priesthood.
I mourn the loss of women giving blessings, a topic I raised in question in a relevant RS lesson last year. This was a topic the poor Stake RS president had no knowledge of whatsoever, so I’d unintentionally blind-sided her. A few sisters related examples they’d heard of women giving blessings as they had felt so inspired and directed by the Spirit to give, but the upshot was that the following week the Bishop was instructed by his leaders to come and tell us that this was not something we were allowed to do. Healing is a spiritual gift, but that now apparently comes under the control of priesthood office. It is my feeling that as things currently stand we are all of us hog-tied. Structures have developed that give the institutional church an iron grip on what is happening, instead of permitting members to follow the Spirit. I long for a time when parents can together bless their children, when not only can husbands bless wives, but wives their husbands also. What have I come to see currently is a hierarchical structure of dependency where women depend on husbands (or in the absence of, other male members), and husbands are dependent on other priesthood holders/leaders. The autonomy of the family, given lip service only as the most important unit, is thereby undermined. And I think that is dysfunctional and damaging.
So I suppose the only thing that would satisfy me on the subject is complete root and branch reform of everything structural, which I hardly dare hope would cross the radar.
I am also thoroughly confused by priesthood power v. priesthood authority, and the supposed differences that seems to be under discussion recently, both on the blogs, and in talks at the last general conference. I am aware that many women (somehow or other) feel they have been ‘given’ the Priesthood in the temple endowment. This is not something I have ever seen in my years of attending the temple, and I am baffled as to how this conclusion can be drawn. The conclusion I draw is that it is clear that women should be ordained, I hold it our as a hope for the future, and I don’t think it is helpful to assume that the things we learn in the temple mean women have the priesthood now. We should, clearly, but we don’t. Men are required to have been ordained before entering the temple, and the description of the priesthood for men and women does not differ in the temple ie. Aaronic, then Melchizedek. I have been given to understand that when a man is first ordained, he is first given the Aaronic or Melchizedek Priesthood, and then ordained to an office within it. Since that possession of the Priesthood need not necessarily require ordination to a specific office, it neverthless seems clear to me, that the Priesthood as we in the church understand it, is something that needs to be formally bestowed by the laying on of hands by those who are in authority.
When women first organized for the cause of obtaining for women the right to vote in this country, the majority of women were opposed to this and it took over 50 years to accomplish winning this right for women. It is really no surprise that the majority of women in the church oppose ordination (although it may be less than when the survey was done over three years ago, given the events of the past year). This is a well known phenomenon called internalization of oppression and it takes time to overcome this, but it will happen eventually, in spite of valiant efforts and mental gymnastics put forth by intelligent women such as yourself, to preserve the status quo.
There is a new generation of women coming up in the church that is not going to be so accepting and if the church doesn’t change, many women will leave. You seem to be assuming that the Pew survey results showing a correlation between religious commitment means that high commitment leads to this lack of support and those who support OW were not as committed. However, surveys such of this cannot determine cause and effect. The opposite could just as well be the case, that women who are troubled by the lack of equality of women in the church who might otherwise have been more committed, have been less inclined to want to be as committed to the church. Separate but equal “drinking fountains” are not acceptable to this generation and as a result we see most people supporting OW are in their 20s and 30s, although of course there are exceptions on both sides..
Things are also beginning to change, slowly but surely in the oppressive patriarchal cultures you fear alienating lest they should lose converts. The women in those cultures are beginning to recognize the egregious human rights violations and are no longer tolerating them and the last thing they will want is to belong to a church that makes them second class citizens with a separate drinking fountain.
Let’s check back in about 10 -20 years and see where things are.
Jennifer, if you’re asking for a source that explicitly says, “Women cannot place their hands on their children’s heads and say a prayer,” you are correct. There is no authoritative source that I can find that will confirm this.
Of course, I also cannot find an authoritative source that explicitly gives the revelatory directive that women cannot and will not hold the priesthood — only those that (like Bott) support that tradition and status quo.
But I think we both know that even though both men and women can pray (and ask for God’s blessings), the church DOES teach that priesthood blessings (laying on of hands, sometimes oil, etc.) has a special meaning and power — and AUTHORITY. And we both know that the church doesn’t teach nor authorize nor condone women using this special power or authority.
We can’t logically say, on one hand, that a healing blessing is meaningful and, on the other hand, it’s not. If you don’t need the priesthood or the laying on of hands or the oil — if what women are encouraged to do (pray) carries the same meaning and power — then what’s all the pomp about?
Very thought provoking and beautifully written. Sentiments I have held for years but lack your eloquence to convey. Thank you for this article.
“When women first organized for the cause of obtaining for women the right to vote in this country, the majority of women were opposed to this and it took over 50 years to accomplish winning this right for women.”
I’ve heard this said a lot in discussions regarding female equality, but I’ve never actually been shown a source for this claim outside a pamphlet distributed by the Nebraska Association Opposed to Women Suffrage entitled “Ten Reasons Why The Great Majority of Women Do Not Want the Ballot.” In other words, the claim is merely asserted in the title of an anti-suffrage pamphlet. Do you have another source demonstrating that “the majority of women were opposed” to the suffrage movement? My admittedly limited searching on the matter as well as my constant questioning of those who make the claim has never yielded any results. I’d appreciate any light you could shed on the subject.
I don’t have stats for you, but can suggest research on the anti-suffrage movement. Very interesting and often very familiar arguments.
I’d be more than happy to hear reading suggestions. I’m always looking to expand my reading list, even though there are still a couple suffrage books I already own that I need to get to.
But I’ve just heard this “majority” claim thrown around and I’ve yet to see anyone substantiate it. I’m just curious as to whether or not it is actually true.
It is worth remarking that Jesus broke all kinds of contemporary social rules in his ministry to people – fraternising with prostitutes, tax collectors and despised foreigners, for examples – and yet chose not to select any women among his 12 disciples/apostles. It would have seemed consistent with his other attitudes for him to have broken that taboo, as well.
Any idea on why did he not?
I agree that Christ broke many social rules during his ministry. But it is folly to assume he was not still bound by the constraints of a people struggling to keep up with his new teachings. For example, it was not until several years after his death that the gospel was taken to the gentiles, and even later for the church to resolve the question of whether circumcision was required of converts. Using your argument, one could just as easily proclaim to Peter in 40AD, “considering that Christ broke all kinds of contemporary social rules in his ministry, if he really wanted to end the requirement of circumcision, he would done that during his ministry.”
In reality, we have very little information about Christ’s mortal ministry (less than 1/100th, I belive the NT says). And the fact that many great and important truths were revealed after his death (baptism for the dead, word of wisdom, etc.) strongly support the 9th Article of Faith’s claim that “He will yet reveal many great and important things pertaining to the Kingdom of God.”
Specific to women’s ordination, if we limited our good sisters to the actions Christ explicitly allowed women to perform in the NT, we would not have any sister missionaries, not have have women in the Tabernacle Chior, and not have any women speaking or praying in General Conference. In other words, we would be a much poorer church.
Good thoughts – thank you.
How are there not more comments??? Well written. Loved it. Thank you!
This is very beautiful…but honestly, it is just speculation. I agree there are three movements in the church: people who speculate why God does not allow women to exercise the priesthood, people who are trying to convince leaders of the church that women should exercise the priesthood, and then those who are doing nothing. Personally, I think everyone in these categories is misguided.
I believe the reason why women don’t hold or exercise the priesthood is because God set it up like that in 1830. End of story. But 1830 was a long time ago. And there’s no official document explaining why women can’t hold and exercise the Priesthood.
As interesting as all of this discussion is (and it is very interesting, I mean no disrespect), I don’t care what any of you have to say as much as I care to know what God has to say on the subject. And I don’t care what you all think God thinks. I want to know for myself what He thinks. If I can’t hold the Priesthood, I at least want to know why. I’m not a bad person for wanting that. I’m an intelligent, humble child of God. The answer might be: I’m not going to tell you right now…but currently, I don’t even know if the Church has formally brought up the issue with the Lord. I’m almost positive that the Brethren have been praying about it, but I don’t know that for sure, and it’s something I would like to know.
In my opinion, it seems perfectly reasonable for the women of the church to join together and ask the First Presidency to ask God why women can’t hold the priesthood.
Those who want the status quo changed, and women who are okay with the status quo remaining as is (which I don’t really believe is the majority of women in the church. Yes, no one wants to be a bishop, but we’d all do it if the Lord asked us to, and we’d all shout for joy if a revelation was given stating that women could now hold the Priesthood), I suggest we stop speculating about what God would say, and start asking for His direction.
I have faith in the Lord’s living Church. I believe revelation exists today and we can have access to it. Not just personal revelation, but church-wide revelation as well. Our Church is built on sincere questions from the faithful. That’s how the Priesthood was first established: by a question.
That’s what happened with blacks and the Priesthood. Social pressure didn’t change Church policy. Social pressure pressured the Brethren to formally ask God for an answer and He gave it.
Regarding the Church’s stance on same-gender marriage, the Proclamation on the Family is pretty clear, so good luck on that one to those who disagree. I’m not saying give up, but the Proclamation is enough for me to put that issue at rest.
But women and the Priesthood? We don’t have any formal revelation or document directing this issue or offering an explanation.
Let us appeal to the First Presidency and request an answer from God. And appealing doesn’t mean trying to get into the Conference Center during priesthood meeting or wearing pants to church. Although these gestures are not wrong in and of themselves, and I probably wouldn’t be so interested in the subject if these gestures had not occurred, I believe that this is the wrong way to go about it. But more importantly, I also believe this the long way to go about it. And sitting around speculating why things are the way they are without any formal doctrine to back it up is also not very effective.
Let’s go to our bishops and tell them we want some formal guidance on the issue and we want it from the First Presidency. Let’s write Linda Burton and ask. If all the women of the Church ask for this, then I think the First Presidency will respond. They love us. They want to connect us with the Lord. This is their purpose. And yes, there is personal revelation, but this issue is so worldwide, I believe it deserves a worldwide response.
The First Presidency might respond, “We have asked and what we’ve said in Conference is all we’ve got right now.” But at least we’d know. They might also respond stating, “The Lord has heard the appeal of the women of the church and this is His response…”. And wouldn’t it be wonderful to have that knowledge?
Stop speculating, stop strong-arming church leaders, stop doing nothing. This worldwide discussion has revealed that a lot of women in the Church are thinking about the issue. Now let’s ask God to join the discussion.
“It is the nature and disposition of almost all men, as soon as they get a little power, as they suppose, that they immediately begin to exercise unrighteous dominion.” Shall we assume the brethren are exempt from this temptation? Or might it explain the priesthood bans? One for blacks and another caused by the dismantling of the Relief Society and consolidating it’s authority under men, both apparently beginning on Brigham Young’s watch.
It seems to me that disburdened of the hierarchical structure of male priesthood women are more easily able to take righteousness into their own hands when it comes to ministering in the kingdom…women are free to work and serve without restraint or confinement, without the distractions of status or the straightjacket of supervision Well not everyone who holds the priesthood is too burdened to volunteer and not all of the Relief Society sisters have leisure time for volunteering so I think a mixed group can work together very well combining their talents. Sure the sisters can take righteousness into their own hands now right up to the point that the use of church resources might act as a significant multiplier of their personal volunteer efforts and then…they must ask a man!
The precedent, therefore, to which we must look for female priesthood authority is… Okay, well why not the time honored precedent of the priesthood being offered to more, different and wider groups of people?
The original Relief Society Minutes show that Joseph considered himself to be authorizing the women of the church to form an institution equal in authority to that of the male priesthood he had organized earlier….the men left while the women organized themselves…women were to be responsible for the moral education of the sisters of the church…Joseph also “propos’d that the Sisters elect a presiding officer to preside over them…In other words, the sisters and not the brethren would be responsible for calling their organization’s officers… if the sisters wished to pattern their organization after the male priesthood they were at liberty to do so…Emma’s authority to preside over an autonomous organization…someday we might see the stewardship returned to the Relief Society Presidency for the disbursement of funds for its own organization… oversight for the writing and distribution of RS, YW and Primary manuals… All of this and more was taken from Mormon women by Mormon men and consolidated under men who are immune? to unrighteous dominion? If so, Why?
Relief Society is the female equivalent of male priesthood. No, today it is not!
Regarding ministering vs. administering and D&C 121. I don’t speak for OW, I find them kind of hard to get close to but I do favor ordaining women. Why? Because men are often blind to their own chauvinism and I offer “forgetting” to invite women to pray at General Conference for 182 years as clear evidence of that. So in a subtle probably mostly but apparently not totally subconscious way D&C 121 appears to have been a been a factor with our male leaders at the top. How? During the history of the restored church as you outlined aboue men took both administering and ministering powers from away from women and consolidated it under themselves. The offset to this is to welcome women with a meaningful voice (heads with voices, not just the necks) to all levels of leadership including the very top. Since the priesthood implies both administering and ministering powers ordination appears to be required to accomplish this and given even the most well intended typical man’s ability to be sometimes clueless to women’s need it is probably required to gain their respect for a women’s input.
Excellent article. I feel that it’s too easy for most of us to see and interpret the world according to uni-linear, hierarchical power structures – in fact, I think it’s the default worldview for the majority of Americans. This article gives us an alternative way of looking at the “power structure” of the LDS church that is more polyvalent and much more cognizant of how complementarity might exist and function within the church’s ecclesiastical structure. The question remains, though – how can we achieve the greater complementarity that is suggested here? I don’t have any good answers for this one.
Thanks for the thoughtful article, Fiona.
I have yet to read through later comments, but – Ah, A Beautiful Dream! You are writing the things that consumed my heart for years. I felt like the Spartan boy who held the fox in his chest and let it consume him because he had been trained not to cry out.
For what it’s worth, I have come to believe that this kind of argument is wrong – I think to be Zion we have to be one, and we will never be one while we insist on the ‘separate but equal’ doctrine.
Extolling the virtues of women’s organizations while patting ourselves on the back for not having to deal with the bureaucracy of the priesthood makes me want to cry. Why are we not striving together? Why are we two separate teams, competing to see who can do the most good, rather than individuals with one purpose, sharing and bearing each others’ burdens, strengthening each other, and yes absolutely influencing each others’ lives! Furthermore, what is ‘equal’ about being told you will always be ‘presided over’ and will never preside? That you follow a man, and not God?
I think there was value in the male leaders of the church bowing out and allowing women the opportunity to organize the RS on their own, but surely this is not the ideal! Surely an ideal would be for men and women together to understand, coordinate, and accept and assign tasks (I think we are getting closer to this in many ward councils).
I absolutely believe that in an ideal world, men and women might prefer doing some things with other members of their own gender – that specialization might nudge groups of men and women to take on different tasks. It is the bright line distinction, the claim that “This organization is mine!! You may not participate!” that worries me.
I don’t know whether you want to be persuaded to get off the fence, but I do talk frequently (you know, to friends and family) about the need for women to participate in the priesthood. This is not only for the reasons above, but because I believe Fiona is fundamentally misreading the line from D&C 121 about maintaining power or influence by virtue of the priesthood. What a sad world it would be if, as Fiona argues, one could never yearn for power or influence! Was Alma an ‘anathema to the Spirit of God’ when he yearned to be an angel so that he might have greater power and influence to teach and persuade? If we never ‘agitated’, or fought, or defended, or asked for things that were important to us, we would be denying the commandment of Christ to knock and to seek. Indeed, as I read the line, it is saying that the priesthood does not automatically convey power and influence over others, not at all that we should not seek for the priesthood (indeed, I am unsure how she gets that reading out of it!)
Well said, Alison! I finally, much to my own chagrin, had to give up on the notion of a priesthood blessing conveying more or different or better healing power because it did not make sense to me that God would listen more favorably to two male strangers with oil than to the heartfelt and sincere plea of a mother or father.
When I read opinions that state the younger female generation is different than we, and won’t stand for the practices of the church as it is now, and will leave the Church, my thought is “Where will they go?” I hope Mothers, teachers, friends and those who have influence upon this generation. I hope these young women (and young men) will be taught that the Church is the organization of Christ, and they should hold it dear to themselves and their families.
There is no other refuge in this descending world to which one can flee.
And I hope others are not planting the seed of disharmony because of their own biases.
As far as insisting that the Prophet give us a revelation regarding the priesthood, who are we to insist of God’s prophet? One has the permission to pray for oneself and receive knowledge.
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