Zelophehad’s Daughters

Are gospel doctrines more vague when they are applied to women?

Posted by Beatrice

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints is built upon the idea that we can seek answers to fundamental questions about ourselves and our relationship with God.  Many celebrate the peace they find in the church through having answers to life’s deepest questions. However, I would contend, that many of the essential doctrines of the church are much more clear when they are applied to men than when they are applied to women. Subsequently, among members of the church, there appears to be a wider variety of opinions about how these doctrines apply to women, while the application of these doctrines for men is much less contended. Below, I have listed three essential areas of doctrine in which I think this is the case.

1-The Nature of God and Divine Roles: Gender roles are strongly emphasized in the church and church leaders teach that it is important to have both a mother and a father in the home so children can learn from same-gender models. Furthermore, according to The Proclamation on the Family, gender continues throughout the eternities. Men are provided with both earthly as well as divine role models. Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ are spoken of and worshiped every Sunday during church services and are represented in our most sacred rituals. Men are taught that if they are righteous, they will inherit all the Father has, and take on a role very similar to the one He demonstrates. Women are provided with a model in Heavenly Mother, but members are exhorted not to speak to Her and She is rarely spoken about in church settings. Furthermore, She is not represented in either artwork or in sacred rituals. Because of this silence surrounding Her, we know very little about Her characteristics or current role. Is She all knowing, all powerful, and all loving like the Father? What does She actually do? In the King Follett Discourses, Joseph Smith taught that “If men do not comprehend the character of God, they do not comprehend themselves.” Or in more contemporary words “You can’t be what you can’t see.” I would argue that within current church doctrine, women’s divine destiny is much more of a mystery than men’s, sparking a wider variety of opinions surrounding this topic. At one end of the spectrum, Heavenly Mother is thought to be a strong Goddess, equal in power and wisdom to Heavenly Father, and women are thought to be able to inherit all the wisdom and power of Heavenly Mother. At the other end of the spectrum, you have statements like the one made by former BYU professor Rodney Turner “Women are queens and priestesses but not gods. The Godhead, the ‘Presidency of Heaven,’ is a presidency of three male deities, similar to a stake presidency whose members each have wives who are responsible for domestic religious education but not ecclesiastical functions.” I worked with a fellow male student at BYU that was convinced the Heavenly Mother didn’t exist because She is not represented in the temple or any of our scriptural cannon. Unfortunately, there are plenty of members of the LDS church who aren’t on the spectrum at all, because they rarely think or talk about the characteristics or divine role of Heavenly Mother. Overall, the divine role and destiny of women remains largely an open question.

2-Priesthood: Within LDS doctrine, Priesthood is defined as “the power and authority of God” and “the power and authority that God gives to man to act in all things necessary for the salvation of God’s children.” Within the church structure, it is pretty clear which men hold that power and authority as they have had hands laid on their heads and were ordained to the Priesthood.  What is not clear, is whether women currently hold some form of the priesthood, whether they will hold the priesthood in the afterlife, or by what power they are able to “act in all things necessary for the salvation of God’s children.” The ambiguity surrounding this question has been discussed eloquently by others. Some questions that I have is whether women have to be married to a worthy priesthood holder or have to be set apart as a temple worker to hold some form of Priesthood or whether they hold some form of Priesthood through virtue of being baptized or receiving their Endowments. Additionally, I have heard leaders of the church discuss how Deacon Quorum Leaders lead their Quorums through exercising Priesthood Keys, and I have wondered whether the Laurel President also uses Priesthood Keys to receive inspiration about her class or whether she works through some other power. We are taught that the Priesthood is the power through which God the Father does everything, and we know that men exercise that power to serve in God’s church, but many questions remain about women’s use of that power.

3-Scriptures: The LDS cannon of scriptures is largely written by and about men. Thus, men can be fairly confident that most scriptures are addressed to them. However, given the ambiguous language (when does “men” refer to both men and women?) and the promises that may or may not apply exclusively to Priesthood holders, women must determine for themselves how the scriptures apply to them. I won’t cover this issue in detail here, because it has been discussed throughly elsewhere. However, I will say that this can lead to a lot of doctrinal ambiguity for women as they must figure out for themselves whether certain scriptures apply to them or not.

Overall, I contend that the nature of God, the nature of Priesthood, and the promises and doctrines as presented in the scriptures are core elements of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. However, the doctrines surrounding each of these issues are much more vague when they are applied to women than when they are applied to men. If the gospel of Jesus Christ is about seeking and finding answers about ourselves and our relationship with God, why do so many questions about women remain unanswered? Here is where I turn the discussion over to you: Do you think that essential doctrines are more vague when they are applied to women than when they are applied to men?, Why do you think this is?, and Do you think there is anything that can be done to change this?

15 Responses to “Are gospel doctrines more vague when they are applied to women?”

  1. 1.

    Overall, I contend

    It’s just so nice to read “Overall, I contend” instead of “We know from scripture” on a Mormon blog. It’s such a pleasure to read a post about Mormon doctrine that acknowledges that we’re all the in business of constructing arguments, not repeating truth we never need question, and that our arguments have to make sense in terms of the world we actually live in.

  2. 2.

    Thanks for pulling these together and making this connection, Beatrice. I think you have a great point that it’s a general pattern. In a lot of cases in the Church, we discuss men as the standard person, and then perhaps throw in at the end that whatever it is also applies to women, without making at all clear how that might work.

    Slight tangent: You could probably make the same argument about single people (“Oh, this all applies to you, except you’ll get married in the eternities.”) and couples suffering from infertility (“You’ll have kids in the next life.”) It might even be extending to gay people (“You’ll be straight in the next life.”) although this “solution” probably isn’t any comfort. In that case, it might be better to be vaguer! :)

    Anyway, great post!

  3. 3.

    Great points. The Mormon feminist community, in my experience, talks a lot about patriarchy—the power differential between men and women in the church—and less about androcentrism—the marginalization of women in our theology and sacred texts. Men are everywhere presented not just as the most powerful figures but as the most central figures, the figures with whom we are asked to identify. It’s not just that men are privileged socially in the church; the male is also privileged ideologically. I’d love to see more discussion about what justifies this practice.

  4. 4.

    I’d never thought about it, Kiskilili, but on an entirely practical level androcentrism seems much easier to combat. We have an entire apologetics of patriarchy, but given our commitment to eternal gender, our thoroughgoing androcentrism is nonsensical. And a lot of people who don’t feel comfortable taking on patriarchy are happy to take down androcentrism.

  5. 5.

    I would also love to see more discussion surrounding this issue, Kiskilili. The sad thing is that most people don’t even notice the omissions. I remember an institute lesson in which the teacher explained that you had to hold the Priesthood before you could see God (don’t remember what scripture he was using to back this up). I kept waiting for him to clarify that men had to hold the Priesthood to see God, but that it was different for women. However, he offered no clarification or further information. He made this statement to a mixed gender group, but it didn’t even seem to occur to him that half the group might be left wondering how that statement applied to them.

  6. 6.

    I had a similar experience at a youth fireside in which the speaker described the experience of an African-American friend who had joined the church pre-1978. The speaker used this man’s faith and suffering in exclusion to chastise all of us for taking the priesthood for granted: you don’t know what you have, he told us. I puzzled over that statement for years, trying to figure out if he realized that half of us actually didn’t have the priesthood he accused us all of taking for granted. It seemed to me, then and now, that our not having the priesthood as girls simply didn’t count in the same way that his friend’s not having the priesthood as an African-American man did, because in Mormon rhetoric women and priesthood are constructed in opposition to one another.

    But women certainly have to do a lot more mental gymnastics just to sit through a routine church meeting than men do. Are we addressed and included, or aren’t we? One never knows.

  7. 7.

    given our commitment to eternal gender, our thoroughgoing androcentrism is nonsensical.

    True, but the frustrating thing is that church leaders tend to defend the patriarchy in unself-consciously androcentric terms (“women have value because men need them to get into heaven”). The power differential seems to have penetrated the consciousness of at least some church leaders; in contrast, they show next-to-no awareness of the androcentrism. (This is true of individual members as well; how often have you heard men explain that since they’ve never been bishop they have no more privilege in the ward than a woman, so the system is fair?)

    Also, our most sacred texts are suffused through and through with androcentric assumptions. I’m not sure there’s a simple surgery that can excise or supplement them without completely eviscerating the patient, as it were.

    The entire gospel is for and about men. There’s an implicit statement in every formulation of it that women only matter to the degree they can advance men’s goals and status.

    Beatrice–ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhh! The unflinching lack of awareness is astounding.

  8. 8.

    Is patriarchy more noticeable than androcentrism, do you think? Perhaps patriarchy goes much more explicitly against broader cultural norms (it’s now anathema in our surrounding cultures for men and women to be unequal, but those surrounding cultures are still pretty thoroughly androcentric).

  9. 9.

    I think you might be right about that ZD Eve. I attend a book club with a good mix of people (including quite a few liberals). I commented that one of the books we read was very focused on the male gaze because many of the passages seemed to make the underlying assumption that the reader was male. Most of them were unfamiliar with the concept of the male gaze and hadn’t noticed that those passages were androcentric.

  10. 10.

    To answer your question about female temple ordinance workers, I was set apart twice as a female ordinance worker, and I was not given the priesthood either time, even though I clearly used it in my duties in the temple. (Nor was any authority ever “taken away” from me when my service as a temple worker ended.) I am of the opinion that women receive the priesthood as part of the temple endowment. But yes, it’s kind of ridiculous that I have to speculate about it.

    Thanks for a great post!

  11. 11.

    I really enjoyed the post, Beatrice!

    Regarding androcentrism, this has become very apparent as I teach Book of Mormon in seminary this year. Not only are women nearly non-existent in the BofM, the seminary manual is amazingly androcentric. I counted up more than 150 quotes that had the smiling face of a male church leader to the side of them. There were 0 quotes from women. If I were an alien from another planet come down to teach LDS seminary this year, I think I could be excused in thinking that humans were males only.

  12. 12.

    “It’s not just that men are privileged socially in the church; the male is also privileged ideologically. I’d love to see more discussion about what justifies this practice.”

    I woud love to see more discussion about the justification of this practice as well. I would imagine that a lot of people would say that the androcentrism is just cultural. For example, culture could explain why the scriptures are mostly written by and about men. However, if that is the case then why don’t our current religious practices reflect current culture more? Why are the vast majority of current conference talks by men and most lesson manuals about men’s lives and words? Isn’t there something we could do to decrease the androcentrism in the current church?

  13. 13.

    While I don’t have anything of great worth to add, I want to say thanks for this excellent framework for thinking about these issues.

    How desperately we need to think and act on this, as individuals and as a people.

  14. 14.

    Thank you for a thoughtful and reflective piece. I’ve always thought of the androcentrism within the church as reflecting the broader society we live in, or at least the society we used to live in. If that’s the case, we’re changing far too slowly. Do you think that’s the root cause, or there’s something else going on?

  15. 15.

    Good question, Laura. I would imagine that the broader culture has a lot to do with it. At least, I think it is hard to notice the androcentrism until someone points it out, because that is what we are generally used to in our culture. I think several other likely causes are based on the way that the LDS church is structured. For example, if all the people who can receive official revelation about church policies and doctrines for the whole church are men, then the male perspective is going to be emphasized. Also men in positions of authority (both local and global) can choose to listen to an incorporate the perspectives of women, or not, with little repercussions. However, women in leadership positions do not have the same privilege within the current structure.

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