Zelophehad’s Daughters

What Is Priesthood?

Posted by Kiskilili

On the heavenly side, it’s the “eternal power and authority of God” whereby Creation itself was undertaken; on the earthly side, it’s the “authority to . . . act in [God’s] name.”

All sorts of grandiose claims have flown quite naturally from the claim that priesthood is the power of God; after all, if priesthood holders’ blessings aren’t any more effective than the prayer of  the faithful non-priest, what then does priesthood mean? But the closeness of the priesthood bearer’s connection to heaven in relation to his non-priestly counterpart can’t easily be assessed using earthly yardsticks, as God and his mercurial habits don’t submit well to the scholar’s probe, so I’ll bracket metaphysical questions and confine my remarks here to the sociological manifestations of priesthood. (I might note, however, that the views of those who are convinced worthy women have just as much access to the divine as priesthood-holding men fit the thesis I expound below beautifully. What they don’t fit is the above definition.) 

Whatever divine powers it may entitle one to invoke, in the human realm, priesthood is (male) ecclesial privilege. Priesthood is the conferring of a status that qualifies one to participate in a suite of activities of central importance to the community for which one would otherwise be ineligible.

It’s astonishing to observe that, in terms of general categories (but not all specific examples), there’s no activity priesthood holders are capable of engaging in that non-priesthood holding adults aren’t or haven’t been equally eligible to participate in. Priesthood holders give blessings, which women could also do at one point. Priesthood holders administer ordinances, as do women. Priesthood holders preside in the home; so do single mothers. Priesthood holders serve in Church presidencies, just like their female counterparts. Priesthood is important to missionary work, which women also engage in.

The boundary around what specifically constitutes “priesthood,” then, is shifting, arbitrary, and artificial; choosing to associate this particular set of activities under the single rubric of “priesthood responsibilities” is hardly intuitive. The only thread uniting the sundry behaviors labeled “priesthood” is that of exclusive male access. I submit that what priesthood means to the Mormon community can be subsumed specifically under the term “masculinity.” How else to explain how a man exercises his priesthood by presiding in the home but a woman, doing the same thing, does not?

When the subject of women and priesthood is raised, naysayers almost invariably suggest women’s ordination would propel men into barbarism, as priesthood is the single civilizing force keeping men from a life of criminal mischief (on good days a more watered-down version of this argument is proposed). Setting aside how insulting this is to those of the male persuasion, let’s examine its underlying assumptions. If priesthood simply refers to the “power of God,” men wouldn’t lose it if it were granted to women; surely God’s power isn’t about to run dry. Such arguments only make sense in the context of the assumption that priesthood is coterminous with masculinity, since this is the attribute men can’t extend to women without losing it themselves.

To a large extent, Christian virtues are coded as feminine. Where does that leave men in a Church also insisting gender is an essential aspect of eternal identity? They’re commanded to cultivate these virtues under the implicit understanding that they’re perhaps not able, or maybe even suitable, for such virtues. What’s needed in this framework is a conception of masculinity that makes virtue accessible to men through an avenue specifically coded as non-feminine, and priesthood provides exactly that. Priesthood is the means by which men publicly perform their masculinity through pro-social, community-sanctioned actions. It’s a way of being virtuous without being feminine—for the artificial reason that this particular set of activities has been deemed off-limits to women. I suspect any effort to increase women’s ecclesial opportunities (i.e., ordination) must wrestle seriously with this dynamic.

In other churches laypeople serve as a foil to a professional clergy; priesthood means something specifically in relation to those who don’t have it. It could be argued that women fill this role in the Mormon Church. In the end, the trouble with a kingdom of priests is that “priest” means nothing within a community itself unless someone is excluded. Priesthood is relative; it entails greater access to community opportunities and spiritual power than others have. If everyone were a priest, no one would be a priest.

23 Responses to “What Is Priesthood?”

  1. 1.

    How possible is it that homophobia also allows men in priesthood quorums to practice Christian virtues without fear of becoming feminine? To what extent does the specter of sexual inversion explain how and why Mormon men restrict priesthood to themselves and thereby police the boundaries of their masculinity?

    If charity is coded as feminine, then what does this mean for the new church purpose of caring for the poor and needy? What are the odds that men will not be exclusively in charge of programs for this purpose? Will we find Mormon women and men working side by side in administering charity to their communities? What would be the result if our activities created a public image of Mormon charity that was not gender segregated?

  2. 2.

    An interesting point, Kiskilili. I’m not sure I agree with it though. I have seen all sorts of men (in and out of the men) performing charity, being honest, standing for principles, and so forth and the thought never occurred to me that they were being feminine.

    Maybe I am in a minority though.

  3. 3.

    Wow, really interesting points, Kiskilili. Your last line reminds me of The Incredibles, where Syndrome threatens to give his technological “super” powers away so that “when everyone is super, nobody will be!”

  4. 4.

    That should read “in and out of the church”.

  5. 5.

    The Administration (paperwork and bureaucratic regulation) of ordinances is the realm of the priesthood. Again, the administration of the church is the realm of the priesthood. This is the only definition I can see which is consistent throughout the standard works.

  6. 6.

    Very interesting thoughts, kiskilili. I always feel a little uneasy in priesthood meetings, as if we’re in someone’s treehouse with a No Girls Allowed sign (with a backward s) prominently displayed on the front. What you say here makes a lot of sense to me.

  7. 7.

    Kiskilli, hope I’m not crashing the blog party here. That is really fascinating, and potentially very true. I’ve been wondering What IS the priesthood? recently, too. This explanation makes a lot of sense, but the implications, as you point out in the last paragraph, are potentially troubling…

    At the same time, I sort of get the sense that there is a priestesshood (for lack of a better word), but that it’s not really something that is formally recognized by the LDS church at this point. In fact I think that is its purpose… to be claimed, not granted. While the priesthood provides a “safe” place for men to develop these traditionally female traits, the priestesshood is something that women have to claim for themselves, without permission from men.

  8. 8.

    [Priesthood is] a way of being virtuous without being feminine

    I think you have made a pretty compelling argument with this post.

  9. 9.

    “Priesthood is relative…If everyone were a priest, no one would be a priest.”

    If women received the priesthood there would still be those without it. Unless by “everyone” you mean “everyone in the world.” But if you’re going to say that we may as well say if everyone in the world were righteous then nobody would be righteous, or if everyone were happy then nobody would be happy. I don’t see how this is a zero-sum proposition.

  10. 10.

    I think you hit the nail on the head with your statements that priesthood is associated with masculinity and that priesthood is a way of the masculine to practice Christian virtues without being feminine. Good points.

    However, your assertion that “[i]f everyone were a priest, no one would be a priest” is a non sequitur. If you define “priest” in the Catholic sense (exclusive authority to administer ordinances) then, yes, you are correct. But if you define “priest” in the Lutheran sense of a “priesthood of all believers” then this statement doesn’t hold. Especially if, as you suggest earlier, LDS priesthood is a masculinization of Christian (viz., feminine) virtues.

  11. 11.

    Thanks for the comments.

    Sterling makes a great point I didn’t consider, that homophobia is undoubtedly a prominent issue in the Mormon construction of masculinity, and likely playing right into the constraints on men not to behave in ways that are coded as “feminine,” whatever they be.

    Newt, you can crash my blog party anytime! I’m not sure what exactly the solution to lack of “priestesshood” is; the problem is patriarchy is self-sustaining, so that if the patriarchy reveals the need for a priestesshood that very fact in essence undercuts the very female authority which is being claimed; on the other hand, if women receive revelation for Heavenly Mother’s priestesshood outside Church channels, that would rightly be perceived as subversive.

    I don’t think Priesthood has always been basically coterminous with Mormon masculinity; I suspect it’s come to mean that within the community because gender is such a vexed issue in current Mormon discourse.

    It would be nice if there were a way to construct masculinity that didn’t code most avenues of authority in the Church as specifically male; I think it would also be helpful to stop making problematic statements that Jesus’s values were feminine, or charity is a female trait, etc.

    But sort of in the vein of Paul’s treatment of doctrine generally, the Church hasn’t developed any coherent theology around gender; instead it produces scattershot missives with equivocal statements whose implications often are not followed through on logically. So it’s difficult to get a fix on what’s going on.

  12. 12.

    I don’t think priesthood has to be understood as a relative rather than an absolute property, but I do think that’s often how we understand it, and if it is, then women serve as an important “negative space” in constructing what it means within the community itself. It’s true that where the intra-religious implications center on gender, the inter-religious implications center on exclusive authority and legitimacy generally, and that non-members are a potential Other that could possibly vitiate the need for a foil within the actually community.

  13. 13.

    Everything I know about the priesthood I learned from section 121


  14. 14.

    I appreciate your comment, Geoff. You have to believe the planets are aligning if the two of us agree. ;)

  15. 15.

    Rusty, that is an extremely good point.

  16. 16.

    Well considering the grief I usually give you I was thrilled to be able to be able to just sincerely compliment your really interesting theory in this post K.

  17. 17.

    Elder Oaks talked about how priesthood is different in the family and the church. I still don’t quite have my mind around it all, but I think that talk might be relevant to this conversation.

    For example, he said that:

    the authority that presides in the family—whether father or single-parent mother—functions in family matters without the need to get authorization from anyone holding priesthood keys.

    He points out that a woman won’t hold a priesthood office, but is the presiding officer in her home when a husband dies or is not there for some reason (e.g., single parenthood). I hear him saying that women participate as partners in the family authority when a husband is present. As such, I see him helping us understand a broader look at what authority means. He notes that family relationships (and roles) are more enduring than Church relationships and roles. And that authority in the family is different than in the Church (e.g., what he said about the fact that family duties require no keys or authorization).

    Lots to ponder there, imo.

    There is so much emphasis (understandably) on priesthood office and Church duties, etc. but imo often that is done without the essential companion understanding that all of this is to facilitate eternal family relationships, which are founded in an equal partnership between husband and wife. If we only focus on priesthood and authority as leaving women out arbitrarily (an assertion I strongly disagree with — I think there is order to it that is deliberate, even as I don’t fully understand it all), I think we miss a really important element of what the priesthood authority in the Church is all about in the first place. To me, when we think about its eternal purpose, we can see how, in the model we work toward (an intact marriage and family life), women are not arbitrarily left out of the picture, but play a *central* role in the big picture of God’s plan.

    Even when we talk about community, I think we can’t underestimate or miss what role women play in the community, even without priesthood office, even without roles and responsibilites that we don’t have in the Church proper. We actually don’t do a lot of things and never have done a lot of things that are central to the Church’s role (baby blessings, baptisms, confirmations, performance of sealings, settings apart, etc.), but we do a LOT that is central to the family’s role…which unit and responsibilities will continue into eternity.

  18. 18.

    Priesthood, as we define it, is definitely patriarchal. Since I can only accept these things on faith, I can’t quarrel with that. I do see some real challenges to growing the church in a society where women can be generals in the military, run multi-national corporations and be elected to high political office…but can’t even run their own organization in the church without a man’s approval.

  19. 19.

    I wonder. I like the idea, and the comments have added understanding to me.

    I think I remember hearing something to the effect that we have been anointed only to “become … priests and priestesses.” Why, every faithful woman is promised she’ll become a priestess. Or am I totally in the woods?

    That means, that priesthood is not exclusive. But I still like the idea that here and now men are given priesthood duties so we’ll develop certain traits of our personality, like taking good care of the elderly sister we home teach. People, this church is not meant to be a resting home for those who’ve attained perfection; it is a practice run.

    It may sound bitter to some women to say, that women bear children. I have tried to be close to our kids, but I’ll never be as close to them as their mother, who felt their every move for months… OTOH, carrying to term and giving birth is probably the easiest part of rearing a child. When they’re fifteen they don’t kick you in the kidneys. They break your heart!

    Anyhow, I wish that men would “get” that priesthood is not an “entitlement” thing. It certainly means different things at Church and at home. Priesthood does not mean that the father makes all decisions. It certainly doesn’t mean that his wife must obey his every whim. I have known such…


  20. 20.

    What a good post. I had never before thought about how women perform many of the activities that are part of the priesthood.

  21. 21.

    This is really awesome. I don’t know how you still manage to come up with a new take on a very beaten horse (one that I still love to take a swing at, of course).

    I’m going to have to think more about the “everybody can be a priest” concept, but like Ziff I thought of the Incredible’s line as well.

    Another well written post. You should seriously publish a book, Best of ZD.

    I’d buy it. Then I’d take it to church and teach from it.
    Or maybe just argue from it.

    Better yet, send it to all the missionaries in our ward. Yes!

  22. 22.

    Absolutely, Jessawhy +1

  23. 23.

    Interesting post, and more interesting comments. I don’t necessarily think a revelation of a preistesshood will be detrimental to women, if we truly believe that when that revelation comes it is comming from an Immortal and Perfect Man whom we do believe is our Savior Jesus Christ. He is the perfect example of what a man and woman should be. Just my beliefs. I enjoy reading this site. I get a different view every time I read (in between me reading on Feminist Mormon Housewives). Thank you for your post.

Leave a Reply