Wednesday, April 9, 2014

9 Thoughts about Women and the Priesthood

I have been doing lots of thinking about women and the priesthood.  I feel comfortable with the organization of the Church as it stands and don’t have a great desire to ask for priesthood ordination, but I do have a great curiosity and desire to understand as much as I can about why the Church is organized as it is and what is to be my individual role in the Church, in this life, and in eternity.  I’ve been doing lots of research and thinking and pondering, and have come to some conclusions.  Those conclusions were confirmed and expanded upon by Elder Oaks in the Priesthood session of General Conference.  I am so grateful for that talk; I’d been praying for it. 

By describing my comfort with the Church and my starting points of faith, I do not wish to elevate myself above those who may be struggling with doubt in regard to this issue.  First, because knowing is a spiritual gift and I can’t take much credit for having it in this case (D&C 46:11-26).  Second, because there are other things in the gospel that do give me pause (see missionary work, for example), and I certainly do not pretend to complete faith or complete obedience in every case.  I just want to share what I’ve learned and been thinking about this particular topic.

For my own benefit and that of anyone interested, I’m going to lay out what I’ve discovered.  Some of it is doctrinal and comes from sources of authority.  Some of it feels right to me but I would hesitate to declare it as truth.  Some of it is wild speculation, which I don’t believe the Church has ever discouraged.  In order to lay out my thought processes and conclusions, I will start by laying out my premises. 

Here are some things that I know, and some things that I believe:
I know that I am a daughter of God and that he loves me.  I believe that I have a Heavenly Mother as well, who is equal to Heavenly Father in power and authority.  I know that God values women and men equally as his children.  I know that gender does not define the extent of the potential of any of God’s children.  I believe that men and women have distinct qualities and characteristics of spirit, emotion and mind stemming from gender, far beyond visible physical characteristics.  Of course I know that individuals may vary greatly, but taken on average, I believe there are distinct gender differences and gender roles.  I know that each of God’s children has agency and that that agency is given and honored by God.  I also know that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the true church of Christ on the earth.  I know the prophets and apostles will never lead us astray in a major or significant way that will harm our chances for salvation or for understanding on topics of critical importance.  I believe that gender, family, and earthly responsibilities and duties are topics of critical importance.  I believe in the Restoration, and in continuing revelation as described in the ninth article of faith.  I also believe that even if new revelation may soon be forthcoming, we will do no wrong by abiding by the revelation as it currently stands, and indeed are expected to obey the laws as they have been given to us.  The Nephites obeyed the law of Moses until it was fulfilled in Christ, even though they knew there was a new covenant on the very near horizon.  (3 Nephi 1:23-25)

Beginning from these premises, I limit my speculation to that which will fit in line with what we have learned from the scriptures and from modern-day revelation.  Here are some points I have been considering.

1)   Satan is a great imitator and perverter of truth.  The greater population of the world is coming to accept doctrines that are partially true.  It’s so easy for us humans, as children of God, to see and feel truth that we occasionally run off with a partial truth that feels good without making sure it’s true to the core.  In my opinion, the idea that men and women are inherently the same but for certain physical parts is an example of this.  The partial truth:  men and women are of equal value and potential.  The untruth:  men and women, taken as a whole, have the same characteristics and responsibilities and should have the same roles.  (We read in The Family, a Proclamation to the World that “Gender is an essential characteristic of individual premortal, mortal, and eternal identity and purpose.  Meaning, to me, that I was a woman before I had a body, and that that fact influences my purpose.)  Here’s another example:  Equal means identical in opportunity and role.  The truth:  equal means having the same value, the same access to the same amount of happiness, the same grace and forgiveness through the Atonement, and the same eventual goal:  becoming like God. 

Not only that, Satan gives us counterfeits of application beyond just counterfeits of doctrine.  I can’t even use the phrase “separate but equal” in my argument, because of the horrible connotation that has of the evil perpetuated on blacks in the last century.  (The difference here is that there is no difference beyond the physical between black people and white people.  There are plenty of differences between men and women that go beyond the physical).  For another example, compare the counterfeit of socialism (consistently seen to fail and to limit the agency of Heavenly Father’s children) to the true ideal of a Zion people.

2)  It is easy to come to incorrect conclusions if we do not check our premises.  A year ago, Elder Holland addressed this so touchingly in General Conference.  When problems come and questions arise, do not start your quest for faith by saying how much you do not have, leading as it were with your ‘unbelief.’ That is like trying to stuff a turkey through the beak! Let me be clear on this point: I am not asking you to pretend to faith you do not have. I am asking you to be true to the faith you do have.”  Questions arise for all of us.  This is normal.  Weaknesses are not given to us so we can feel guilty about them and hide them and pretend to be better and more faithful than we are.  Weaknesses are given to us (were given to us by Christ, let’s remember that) so that we “may be humble; and my grace is sufficient for all men that humble themselves before me; for if they humble themselves before me, and have faith in me, then will I make weak things become strong unto them.”  (Ether 12:27).  Having questions is part of the plan.  But the idea is to address the questions we have within the frame of reference we’ve already developed, not to clear the decks, throw out all the old evidence, and start all over every time something new comes along that distresses us.  Begin with what you know.  Also, check what you think you know to make sure it is actually true.  Compare your premises to revealed doctrine and scriptural teachings.  Ask in prayer if every one of your starting points is true.  Make sure your premises are correct or your conclusions may not be. 

3)  It is easy to let terminology get in the way of our understanding.  Ever since the tower of Babel, we speak in imperfect language—and by we I mean everyone in the world.  Our words aren’t powerful the way God’s words are powerful, and often that means we are stuck trying to describe something that is difficult or impossible to get across in human language.  That’s one reason we need the Holy Ghost.  I’m afraid that sometimes the necessarily imperfect terminology that we use gets in the way of our understanding critical points of doctrine.  Let me give you three examples of this: 

a.     The Relief Society.  We know from Joseph Smith’s words in the early meetings of the Relief Society that this is a grand organization with a grand scope.  It existed in Christ’s original church.  It is clearly much more than homemaking night and super Saturday and even much more than a wonderful opportunity for women to learn from other women, as uplifting and enlightening our Sunday lessons may be.  Are we overlooking the gift and power given to us in Relief Society because of the terminology?  Are we looking “beyond the mark” for something to get ordained to when the Lord has provided us a divine organization that offers us ample opportunities to learn, grow and serve?  We may be missing what’s right in front of us because we are not “living up to our privileges,” and instead mistaking a divine organization for a nice little club that teaches us how to make chintzy crafts and occasionally does service projects. 
b.     It is all too painfully common to hear Church leaders speak of priesthood holders as “the priesthood.”  This is not the case:  they are not the priesthood, they hold priesthood authority.  The power of the priesthood is available to all of us.  In her book Women and the Priesthood:  What One Mormon Woman Believes, Sherri Dew describes her frustration with the phrase, “not having the priesthood in your home.”  She feels strongly that not having a priesthood holder in her home does not limit her access to the blessings and power of the priesthood, even in her home. 
c.      The fact that we have a word and a system of ordination for the power men possess, while there is none for the power women posses, tends to be misleading.  However, we often hear things like this in General Conference (too often, in my opinion, for it to be mere conciliatory speech or human speculation on the part of general authorities): “God placed within women divine qualities of strength, virtue, love, and the willingness to sacrifice to raise future generations of His spirit children.”  (Elder Cook, “LDS Women are Incredible!”)  We are so frequently told we are by nature more charitable, more eager to do service, more faithful and devoted than our brothers.  I understand this can have a sting of superciliousness or false flattery to some women.  I agree that it doesn’t really fit with my belief in the equality of men and women.  However.  Let me submit my own idea here:  these words about being given divine qualities may be referring to a power given to women, complimentary to the power being given now to men.  What if all we’re missing is the terminology?  We women don’t get ordained to any sort of power in this life, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t given to us at some point.  I believe that our Heavenly Mother is immensely powerful, and in order to be like her I must be immensely powerful too (I don’t believe that power is necessarily priesthood power as it is now given to men, but I’ll get to that in point 7).  If that power isn’t being given to me in this life, well then one of three options remains to me:  it was given to me before I came to earth, I am expected to develop it on my own, or it will yet be given to me after this life.  I don’t yet have a clear guess about which of these options it is. 

4)  Creation keys exist.  This one is mostly my own speculation, but speaking of things that may or may not have been given to women in the pre-earth life, let us not fail to mention the power of creation.  I thought it was very significant that during his talk in the Priesthood Session of General Conference, Elder Oaks mentioned that among the priesthood keys not available to us on the earth are the keys of creation, thus identifying creation as a priesthood power.  However, the power of creation is very clearly available to us on earth.  This applies widely to all God’s children, as in the sense President Uchtdorf employed in his October 2008 talk, “Happiness, Your Heritage”: “The desire to create is one of the deepest yearnings of the human soul. No matter our talents, education, backgrounds, or abilities, we each have an inherent wish to create something that did not exist before.”  However, it also applies, in a very specific sense, to women alone.  When I was younger I understood procreation to be a power shared equally by men and women.  But when I became pregnant with my first child and saw the changes in my own body and thought more deeply about the process, I had a grand realization.  While my husband was a necessary and absolutely critical part of the procreative process and I could not have begun it without him, after providing half of our child’s DNA his role in physical creation was over.  And that is where my body took over in the most miraculous way.  Every nutrient, every molecule that went into the building of the mortal body of a new human being, passed through my body first.  My body, without any effort or know-how on my part, effectively nourished, protected, and built another human body.  And not just up until birth, after birth while my son was still exclusively breast-fed.  And, in another sense, I continue to nourish, protect and build his body as I feed, clothe and snuggle it.  None of us possess perfect bodies (yet) but the vast majority of God’s daughters are able to do all or part of this at least once.  (Certainly a greater percentage of God’s daughters on earth are able to bear children than the percentage of God’s sons on earth who are able to bear the priesthood).  THIS IS AN ASTOUNDING POWER.  And, in the words of Elder Oaks, “What other power could it be [than priesthood power]?”  If one is looking for a power given to women in the pre-earth life, conceiving, bearing and nursing a child might be a good place to begin.  Scientific findings about mothers (like this and this) seem to me to be further symbolic of the essential and divine role of mothers.  I do not intend to intimate that a woman’s only value or role is her ability to bear children.  I do not imagine anyone has ever hinted that a man’s only value or role is his ability to hold the priesthood, either.

5)  Physical power, in the Gospel sense, is no less valuable than a spiritual power.  In order to consider this clearly, we need to revisit point number 1 for a moment.  Many of Satan’s great perversions of truth have to do with our bodies and their value.  The Gospel teaches us that our bodies have immense value, that they are particular gifts from God, that we need bodies to become like Him, and that at the news we could receive them we “shouted for joy”!  But it also teaches that we are not our bodies, that we existed before we possessed them and will continue to exist though separated from them at death.  The Gospel teaches that our bodies have great value but that our personal value is not based on our bodies.  Satan would have us believe one of two extremes regarding our bodies:  either that our value is based solely on our bodies, or that our bodies are not valuable at all.  We see the first on the covers of celebrity magazines, we see the second in Hellenistic philosophies such as Gnosticism and asceticism that are perpetuated even today in various schools of religious thought, in and out of the Church.  Because we know all to well Satan’s counterfeit application of our bodies’ value (that people, and particularly women, are valuable only for our bodies) we as women and supporters of women are inclined to cry foul when we see any hint that a woman’s role may involve her body.  But as with most of Satan’s fallacies, his emphasis on the value of women’s bodies is a perversion of truth and based (however remotely) in truth.  Women’s bodies ARE MIRACULOUS.  They have great value.  They are critical in women’s earthly purpose. 

Actually, all of our bodies are miraculous.  Think of Christ’s body.  Those who administered to him during mortality were administering to the very body that he would lay down for our sins, and that he would later take up again, providing resurrection for all mankind.  A huge part of Christ’s role on the earth hung on the fact that his body was unique—that it could bear immense pain and suffering without involuntary death.  It seems to me that the creation, care, keeping, and health of bodies, such a pivotal part of the Plan, would be very important.  Indeed, aren’t all of our bodies as important as our spirits?  The goal of the whole Plan is for us to become like God.  And God has a body and a spirit, perfectly and forever joined together in eternal life.  Gaining a body was a huge part of why we came to earth, and why we are told we rejoiced when we heard of the Plan!  Paul emphasized the importance of the Resurrection (and our bodies) to the Corinthians: “If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable. And if Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain, …And if Christ be not raised, your faith is vain; ye are yet in your sins.”

Without bodies, nothing, not our prayers, not our efforts, not sacred ordinances, not even Christ’s Atonement for our sins, would be adequate for salvation, because we would still, without bodies, be unable to become like God.  “O the wisdom of God, his mercy and grace! For behold, if the flesh should rise no more our spirits must become subject to that angel who fell from before the presence of the Eternal God, and became the devil, to rise no more” (2 Ne. 9:8).  Without our bodies, we are left no better than those spirits who did not keep their first estate and never got to life on earth at all. 

We are told today that our bodies are temples.  Many of the commandments we are given are related to their care and keeping – how we are to clothe them, how much to let them rest, what to feed them (and what not to feed them), what words to let them speak, not to mention the sacred controls that are placed upon the creation or destruction of bodies.  Doesn’t it seem like the Lord loves our bodies and wants us to love them, too?  These are not temporary vehicles for our life on earth.  These are the very imperfect seeds of the perfected souls that we are to become.  Same bodies; made perfect, but same bodies nonetheless.  If our bodies are perfectly half of our souls, and Christ’s Resurrection was perfectly half of the great Atonement process (mirrored by the spiritual half in the Garden of Gethsemane), then the creation, mastery, care, keeping, and service of our bodies and the bodies of others must surely be a noble endeavor indeed.   It’s the same kind of work, with the same goal, as service to the spirits of others.  Sometimes it can be the same thing entirely.  To me, suggesting that a major (note I do not say THE major or THE ONLY) responsibility of men is overseeing spiritual growth and development while a major responsibility of women is overseeing physical growth and development is not demeaning, it is a beautiful example of the opposition in all things and a type of the Atonement itself. 

6)  Our agency is inherently limited.  God has given us a wonderful world full of choices and the precious agency to choose between them.  He has not, however, given us the agency to choose anything we please.  If it’s not one of the options, it’s not one of the options.  We are the children and He is the parent and he chooses what options are set before us.  We can ask for another option if we want, but that doesn’t mean it will be granted.  Asking to be received into His kingdom without doing the necessary work and while partying merrily away in Babylon will be futile.  Similarly, no matter how great your desire, I don’t think you’d be suddenly turned into a bird.  Some options are not on the table.  This is why I think that complaining about your gender role in life is futile.  This is who you are, and there are things that you’re meant to be doing.  I believe we should seek all the personal revelation we can get to find out what exactly those things are, and become familiar with God’s personal plan for us as individuals, but we should also not complain if His will for us as individuals does not include some of the things we hoped it might.  As I have heard a mother say to her children, “you get what you get and you don’t throw a fit.”  Ask for more options, but don’t insist.  This, I believe, is part of becoming “as a child… willing to submit to all things which the Lord seeth fit to inflict upon him, even as a child does submit to his father.” 

7)  The Priesthood that is on the earth is the power that belongs to Jesus Christ.  I have heard voiced a concern that women are to become like God just as much as men, and if the priesthood is the power of God (whom we understand to be a male/female union) then women need the priesthood.  Let me suggest a possible response:  what if the priesthood we have now only represents a part of the power of God the Parents?  Now that I write it, it seems more likely than not, actually.  We certainly know (see Elder Oaks’ Priesthood Session talk) there are keys of the priesthood that aren’t currently on earth.  We know the priesthood is the “power of God given to man on earth” but the true name of the higher priesthood indicates that it is the power of Jesus Christ (who is God).  Because He is God the Son, I imagine his power must have been given/delegated to/shared with Him by God the Father.  Jesus is male; maybe the part of the heavenly power we have on the earth, because it is Jesus’ power, is the part given to males to bear? If there was or is yet to be a power given to women (see point 3.c.), it may perhaps be called after our Heavenly Mother, or modeled after Her example.  You see the pattern I’m suggesting.  Maybe men hold the priesthood because the portion of God’s power that we have currently on this earth is a man’s portion.  This is of course my own wild speculation, but I don’t think it is too far-fetched to be worth considering. 

8)  The Servant/King Paradox.  Christ himself said that one “who is greatest among you shall be your servant.” (Matt. 23:11).  We do not worship Christ for the miracles he performed—many prophets throughout the ages have performed miracles.  We worship Christ for the unimaginably selfless service he did for mankind.  Humility and service are the marks of greatness.  And each of us has opportunities to serve, regardless of priesthood ordination.  Harold B. Lee said, “The most important of the Lord’s work you will ever do will be within the walls of your own homes.”  I do think the Lord approves of honest ambition to learn, grow and develop, but President Boyd K. Packer also tells us, “Do not ever belittle anyone, including yourself, nor count them, or you, a failure, if your livelihood has been modest. Do not ever look down on those who labor in occupations of lower income. There is great dignity and worth in any honest occupation. Do not use the word menial for any labor that improves the world or the people who live in it.  There is no shame in any honorable work.”  We know that all honorable work is worthwhile, and we know where the most important work is to be found.  There is usually time for all kinds of work in this lifetime, but because our lifespans are very limited, we are told “do not spend… your labor for that which cannot satisfy.” (2 Nephi 9:51).  We are given priorities for our work, and families are first on the list.  Do we really believe that the family is central to God’s plan, that it is the fundamental unit in time and eternity?  The Church is not eternal—families are.  Service to our families and those of others is the most accessible and efficient way we can bring souls to Christ. 
We know that service is what makes someone great and that families are the most important place to spend our service.  I do not say that service in the family is a woman’s only role, but if it were—what would be so very wrong with that? 
I am currently a stay-at-home mother.  If I never get to do anything else, that would be disappointing to me, but I don’t think it would ruin anything in the greater plan.  Beyond feeling sorrow for my disappointment, I don’t think it would matter very much to God, who I believe cares more about the order of our priorities and the manner in which we do our work and the kind of people we become than what particular earthly opportunities we might have. 
9) This life is the time to prepare to meet God.  In this most recent General Conference, Bishop Gary E. Stevenson gave a talk that relied heavily on the symbolism of Olympic athletes’ brief performances.  In it he said, “You are an eternal being. Before you were born, you existed as a spirit. In the presence of a loving Heavenly Father, you trained and prepared to come to earth for a brief moment and, well, perform. This life is your four minutes. While you are here, your actions will determine whether you win the prize of eternal life. The prophet Amulek described, “This life is the time … to prepare to meet God; yea, behold the day of this life is the day … to perform [your] labors.”  Mortality is a brief, brief blip on the grand timeline of our eternal lives.  4 minutes seems a good approximation.  The Lord has given to us a beautiful, vibrant, and scientifically and culturally fascinating planet on which to “work out our salvation,” and I believe he expects us to experience and enjoy what there is to experience and enjoy here.  But I think He doesn’t lose sight of the real goal of this life, which is to prove ourselves, receive bodies, form families, and become like God.  If we’re doing or trying to do those things, I don’t think it matters to Him (again, beyond sorrowing with us for our personal disappointments) if we got to see the Taj Mahal, hold the priesthood (as women) or even bear our own biological children.  Amulek, who was just quoted with regard to the purpose of this life, learned that all too well.  Just a few chapters later he is forced to watch as all the believers among his people are burned to death.  When Amulek wishes to stop this by the power of God, Alma tells him, “The Spirit constraineth me that I must not stretch forth mine hand; for behold the Lord receiveth them up unto himself, in glory; and he doth suffer that they may do this thing, or that the people may do this thing unto them, according to the hardness of their hearts, that the judgments which he shall exercise upon them in his wrath may be just; and the blood of the innocent shall stand as a witness against them, yea, and cry mightily against them at the last day.”  These people were already prepared to meet God, so to God their “premature” death was not as much of a tragedy as it might seem to us.  This is the same God we deal with today.  There is a purpose to our life on earth.  Within our 4-minute mortality, we are each given ample time and enough opportunities to fulfill this purpose as much as is individually necessary.  If we are trying to fulfill our purposes, everything else we may get to do is just extra. 
I don’t know all of this is true.  Some things I do know, and many of those I have already stated.  I also know that what God says about his ways is true:  For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the Lord.  For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.”  I understand a very small part of the Gospel.  So when I come upon something new that I don’t understand or that doesn’t seem to fit, I am inclined to think the flaw is with my own understanding and not with the Lord’s Gospel, or with His Church.  If they announce tomorrow that women will be ordained to the priesthood, I hope I will have faith enough to scratch my previous theories and start back at what I already know for certain.  


  1. Nicely done, Ria! Well thought and elegantly written. I appreciate your efforts in both the thinking and the writing! I think it's important for us to figure out the issues of the day based on revealed truth and prayer like you have done. Thanks for sharing your ideas--some of which I hadn't thought of but all of which ring true to me!

  2. Wonderfully written Maria. I've written about this subject before too. It's quite a big task, since addressing gender pretty much means addressing EVERYONE in the world, and we do vary quite a bit. But I definitely know that there are divine truths, and that no matter how different we are, we are ALL God's children and that gender IS an essential characteristic from before this mortal life. Again, I really enjoyed reading this post :)

  3. I love this. I have been thinking and studying about this as well and I loved all of your points. I especially was grateful for this paragraph...

    "I am currently a stay-at-home mother. If I never get to do anything else, that would be disappointing to me, but I don’t think it would ruin anything in the greater plan. Beyond feeling sorrow for my disappointment, I don’t think it would matter very much to God, who I believe cares more about the order of our priorities and the manner in which we do our work and the kind of people we become than what particular earthly opportunities we might have.

    That is so true and so beautiful. I needed to hear that, so thank you!