Mormon women and the priesthood of God

The first time I was asked to teach Sunday School, I was petrified. Though I’d grown up with a mother who teaches for a living, surrounded by other family members who were interested in teaching in one form or another, I’d never considered myself a teacher and didn’t imagine I could be at all effective in that role.

The joke is that since then I’ve fallen in love with teaching and am in fact a teacher by profession, but I’ve never forgotten how frightening and difficult that first teaching experience can be. At the time, I was team-teaching the Sunday School class with someone else, and when we came upon a lesson about the priesthood, I was grateful that it was his week to teach. As a woman, I don’t hold the priesthood, and after growing up without anyone in my home holding the priesthood, I felt like I knew nothing about it and felt like I’d make a muddle of the manual’s lesson plan.

But when I tried to express my relief to my male co-teacher, a funny miscommunication occurred: “I’m so glad it was you teaching this week,” I said, “and not me, given the topic.” To which he responded, “Me too. I know you feel, as a feminist.” I’d never expressed any of my views on the topic with him, but knowing that I was a feminist, he assumed a) that I resented not holding the priesthood and b) that those feelings would make me unfit to teach a lesson on the topic.

It’s no secret that Mormon feminists tend to have strong feelings about The Church’s gender division when it comes to leadership in the church. It’s also no secret that the gender division is largely mediated by the question of who possesses the priesthood, and which roles and callings require a member who holds the Melchizedek priesthood (held by most adult men who are active in the church). But the way Mormon feminists approach this issue varies greatly from person to person, as one article pointed out last year, many Mormon feminists take moderate stances, looking for changes in church policy that do not require extending the priesthood to women.

I’m definitely among the moderate camp when it comes to Mormon women and the priesthood, but I still have strong feelings about the way members discuss the priesthood, and this past Sunday all those feelings resurfaced when I sat in yet another troubling Sunday School lesson about the priesthood. I want to make it clear before I continue that I’m not trying to criticize anyone in my current congregation, and in fact there were some really wonderful, inspiring, and interesting comments and questions mixed in with the issues that troubled me. Plus, I’m grateful to any teacher who tackles this topic, since it still intimidates me a little. But given that the standard Sunday School lesson manual has Mormon congregations all over the world covering that lesson in February, it seems like an opportune time for the Mormon feminist in me to talk about the way we talk about the priesthood.

1. The priesthood is not just for men, so let’s stop discussing it like it is. I know some of my fellow feminists will differ with me as to whether the priesthood is about men, but that’s not the type of discussion I’m critiquing: what I’m concerned about are all the times that, with excellent intentions, members nevertheless approach lessons with one take-away for men: you need to hold the priesthood, and an equally male-centered take-away for women: you need to encourage the men in your life to hold the priesthood. But as the church leaders make clear, “the blessings of the priesthood are available to all” (see Conclusion). If the point of the priesthood is service, then let’s focus on that aspect when we discuss its purpose in our life. Let’s all, male and female alike, share stories of times we’ve been blessed by the power of the priesthood, which is God’s power, not the power of men. And yeah, priesthood holders should probably also share stories about being able to bless others through the priesthood.

2. Men are not synonymous with the power of the priesthood, so let’s not use “priesthood” to refer to both concepts. Linguistically, there are reasons why we occasionally refer to the men who hold the priesthood as “the priesthood.” Linguistically, there is some precedence for using it that way, and I’m not going to deny that. BUT because we Mormons use that term to refer to God’s power, it is incredibly important that we not conflate the two. So please, if you’re in the habit of saying “the priesthood” as a general term for a group of Mormon men, STOP. We’ve all done it, I’m not judging, but let’s try a little of President Uchtdorf’s good old advice to STOP IT. Not convinced? Well, peruse the lesson manual and you’ll note that the church went to great lengths to use the term “faithful priesthood holders” when referring to the men who hold the priesthood. Let’s respect that distinction.

3. Priesthood is NOT the male counterpart to motherhood, so cut the “separate but equal” crap. As a feminist, I am actually okay with not having the priesthood in my mortal life. If President Monson announced tomorrow that the priesthood would be available to all faithful, worthy women, you can bet I’d rejoice. But I accept this current division of roles, on faith. What I’m not okay with is other people spouting silly speculation to explain this division, because the speculation itself tends to be hurtful to men and women alike. For instance, telling women that motherhood is their version of the priesthood is hurtful to all women who can’t have children yet, despite living a faithful life.

And it’s hurtful to men who are excellent fathers when we take fatherhood out of the equation. And when we say that men have the priesthood because without it they’d be lazy, or that they need it in order to grow close to God, while women are already there – that’s incredibly hurtful to men. So let’s just cut the speculative crap. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t have thoughtful discussions on these roles, just that we need to stop presenting speculation as if it were doctrine.

4. Lessons should help us change and improve our own lives, so let’s make sure that when we’re assigned to teach lessons on the priesthood, we always come back to questions and comments that can relate directly to members’ own lives. In past congregations, I’ve been in some lessons where we spent all class diagramming hierarchies on the board. While I am not opposed to learning about the leadership hierarchy in the church and how it relates to the priesthood, those discussions do us no good if we don’t also discuss specific ways to apply that knowledge in our own lives. And no, “it’s just good to know” is not a specific application to anyone’s life. So teachers, if the church’s hierarchy is the one aspect of the manual’s lesson plan that you choose to focus on – you better have and communicate a very good reason.

5. Everything we study in church should be centered on the Savior and his Atonement. We all know that, but sometimes in the midst of a lesson we can forget. Well, we can’t afford to forget. So, no matter what sub-topics of the priesthood we choose to cover as teachers, and no matter what comments we choose to make as students, let’s take the time to ask ourselves what it has to do with the Savior. If what you’re teaching and saying is doctrine, I promise you, the connection is there – we simply might need to tease it out.

  • Eleanor

    Excellent, excellent post Emily. Thank you for expressing so many thoughts so well and succinctly.

  • Max

    I like your perspective here. I’ve been guilty of saying #3 in recent memory. It’s not that I believe that to be the case, but it’s perhaps the only way I’ve seen it framed before. Thank you!

  • JohnH

    I wonder what in the temple ceremony makes you think that when women receive the priesthood their roles within it will be the same as mens. If anything it would appear to reinforce the idea that the roles of men and women are different and complementary.

    There are reasons that people find #3 appealing, Men can not bear children which is a sacred experience of water, blood, and spirit leading to birth, men with the priesthood can participate in baptism which is a sacred experience of water, blood, and spirit so that both man and women are needed working together to bring exaltation to a soul. Also the well known scriptures from Paul’s writings on women not having leadership in the church, being saved in childbirth, and men being the head of women as Christ is the head of the church (which is an impossible bar to reach as Christ suffered death and hell for the church, I just have to change dirty diapers.)

    We are all of equal worth to God but that doesn’t mean that everyone has or will have equal roles. A nursery leader teaching pure little children the plainest and most precious truths of the gospel in what is probably the holiest place in a chapel is just as needed as the bishop being a judge in Israel or the relief society president caring for the needs of the ward members or the faithful member whose only calling is that of home or visiting teaching, all those individuals are of equal worth to God and all of their responsibilities are just as important as any of the others; the head can not say to the body I have no need of thee, nor can the body say to the head I have no need of thee.

    • Emily Belanger

      John, you seem to be inferring a couple things I never said.

      1 – You ask “what in the temple ceremony makes you think that when women receive the priesthood their roles within it will be the same as mens” (oh, that’s right – you didn’t ask me, just said that you wonder. Asking would require listening to an answer, yes? ;-)). In answer to the question I’m sure you *meant* to ask, I never said the roles would be the same once women have the priesthood. Nor did I say those roles would be different. Like you, I don’t know. The temple ceremony doesn’t tell us what those roles will look like in the eternities. If the Spirit has whispered a special answer to you, well, I guess that’s something you won’t be sharing in the anonymity of the internet.

      2 – Your vehement explanation that we’re all of equal worth to God, despite women not holding the priesthood, seems to assume that I think otherwise? Like I said in my article, I have no issue with not holding the priesthood at the moment, or even in mortality. What I am *not* okay with is having someone tell me that the reason I can’t hold the priesthood is because I, like the vast majority of female mammals, have at least the theoretical capability to bear and raise children. Or that I shouldn’t be annoyed (hint: I wasn’t annoyed until folks told me NOT to be) because just like I can’t bless the sacrament, men can’t bear children. Yeah, well plenty of righteous women can’t bear children either. And know what? No woman can get someone pregnant. So please stop conflating female biology with female spirituality.

      Also, Paul told women not to even talk at church. We’ve had the good sense to leave that rubbish behind us, so let’s stop pretending that a husband gets to be in charge of his wife.

      But I’m glad you change diapers, I really am. Diapers are no fun to change.

      • JohnH

        2-You have theoretic capability to participate as a joint-creator with God as all females do, since the power of God is that of creation and the purpose and glory of exaltation is a “continuation of seeds forever and ever” then the physical fact of not being able to bear children now seems irrelevant to female spirituality but the theoretical and spiritual fact of that being a possibility does seem relevant to me as without that spiritual ability there is no exaltation. The purpose of eternal marriage appears to be in creating child bearing units in the eternities if I am reading it right. If I am reading it wrong then perhaps you would like to explain what is the purpose of marriage and what section 132 of the Doctrine and Covenants is referring to in that verse and verse 63?

        No man can baptize someone that hasn’t been born, both birth and baptism while performed by one gender require the efforts of the other as well.

        As I follow the council of the Lord and act in righteousness as I have covenanted to do I would hope that my wife would uphold the covenants which she has made with God as she is a Queen and more to me, her husband. That is how I understand what Paul is explaining there, but perhaps you understand it differently?

  • WI_Member

    Please see this article for a particularly cringe-worth explanation of women’s relationship to Priesthood.

  • dana

    Loved the content, and this was so well-written–per usual. Wonderful work, Emily.

    Just one question and I’m curious as to what you think. I remember my Mission President telling me in the temple that he felt the equivalent of priesthood was womanhood. He expressed that he felt women had innate power and connection with God’s power that could be exercised less formally but just as powerfully. Anyhow–I see already how this can be problematic as it makes priesthood synonymous with men, but I was just curious as to your feelings.

    • Emily Belanger

      Dana, yes, good point. If priesthood is God’s power, not man’s power, then the female counterpart to holding the priesthood as a priest would be… holding the priesthood as a priestess. I maintain that we have plenty of evidence to suggest that’s in store for women in the long run.

  • Jettboy

    “Priesthood is NOT the male counterpart to motherhood, so cut the ‘separate but equal’ crap”
    Actually, yes it is. Now, it is true that motherhood isn’t a Priesthood per se, but the division of roles is defined by men holding the Priesthood and women having and raising children.

    “I’m not saying that we shouldn’t have thoughtful discussions on these roles, just that we need to stop presenting speculation as if it were doctrine.”
    Before you declare its speculation, you have to show what is or how its not doctrine. My reading of the scriptures both modern and Biblical has reinforced that the separate but equal roles of men and women are doctrine. My series isn’t done yet but there I’m working on it:

    • Emily Belanger

      Jettboy, can you explain to me how the counterpart to motherhood is not fatherhood?

      And where does the Relief Society fit in this comparison you’re making?

  • Unknown

    With respect to your point # 1, I think that it bears noting that our doctrine teaches that both men and women can have equal access to the gifts of the Spirit. Some of these are listed in D&C 46 and Moroni 10. Moroni 10 makes clear that there is a difference between the power of God and the gifts of God and exhorts us not to deny either thing. Thus, while women are not ordained and do not exercise priesthood power, they still have access to great power from heaven by virtue of being given the gift of the Holy Ghost and qualifying for the gifts of the Spirit. Whether they are feminist or not, I think most members do not focus enough on the great spiritual power that women can yield through the gifts of the Spirit. Many assume that because they do not have the priesthood, women are excluded from receiving and exercising spiritual “power”. This is not the case.