Zelophehad’s Daughters

How to Disavow the Priesthood Ban

Posted by Mike C

For many years the Priesthood ban has been a matter of embarrassment and consternation to many Mormons. It makes us seem close-minded and exclusionary as a church, and seems to contradict many of our scriptures and core teachings–God not being a respecter of persons, all are alike unto God, etc. We struggle to explain it to our non-Mormon friends, and sometimes wish that it had just never happened. And to add insult to injury, we’ve had to endure many folk-theories justifying the ban, theories that are non-doctrinal and even offensive at times. So, it has finally come time to fully disavow the ban, once and for all.

Well, it turns out that a recent internet post inspired me to propose a forthright and direct disavowal that does not ignore the messy and painful history behind the ban. I realize my disavowal is imperfect, but here goes:

“In theology and practice, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints embraces the universal human family. Latter-day Saint scripture and teachings affirm that God loves all of His children and makes salvation available to all. God created both genders and esteems them equally. As the Book of Mormon puts it, “all are alike unto God.”

The structure and organization of the Church encourage gender integration. Church members of different genders regularly minister in one another’s homes and serve alongside one another as teachers, as youth leaders, as missionaries, and in myriad other assignments in their local congregations. Despite this modern reality, the Church does not ordain women to its priesthood.

The Church was established in 1830, during an era of when the society of the United States was patriarchal. At the time, many women lived in practical servitude, and sexism and prejudice were not just common but customary among Americans. Those realities, though less familiar today, influenced all aspects of people’s lives, including their religion. Many Christian churches of that era, for instance, were segregated along gender lines, and church leaders were all men. From the beginnings of the Church, both men and women could be baptized and received as members. Toward the end of his life, Church founder Joseph Smith openly stated that the Relief Society–the women’s organization–would become a kingdom of priests. There has never been a Churchwide policy of gender-segregated congregations.

During the first century of the restored Church’s existence, women were authorized to anoint and bless other women by the laying on of hands. In temples, women were authorized to perform the priesthood ordinances of washing and anointing.

By the turn of the century, President Joseph F. Smith publicly announced that women should no longer anoint and bless other women, though thereafter women continued to join the Church through baptism and receiving the gift of the Holy Ghost. Following the death of Joseph F. Smith, subsequent Church presidents restricted women from performing ordinances, except in the temple. Over time, Church leaders and members advanced many theories to explain the priesthood restriction. None of these explanations is accepted today as the official doctrine of the Church.

The Church in an American Sexist Culture
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was restored amidst a sexist culture in which men were afforded great privilege. Women could not vote nor own property, were not permitted to practice many professions, and did not have the same rights to divorce as did men. Women who had children out of wedlock were shunned and disparaged. They had fewer educational opportunities than men, and were viewed as the weaker sex.

The justifications for the priesthood restriction echoed the widespread ideas about female inferiority that had been used to argue for the legalization of female “servitude” throughout American history. According to one view, which had been promulgated by Mark E. Peterson and John Widstoe, women do not have the priesthood because they have motherhood. Other theories suggest that women do not need the priesthood because they are more spiritual than men, or that they are too busy to take on another responsibility.

Removing the Restriction
Given the long history of withholding the priesthood from women, Church leaders believe that a revelation from God is needed to alter the policy, and they are making ongoing efforts to understand what should be done. In the 1990s, President Hinckley did not feel impressed to lift the ban because women were not agitating for it.

As the Church grows worldwide, its overarching mission to “go ye therefore, and teach all nations” seems increasingly incompatible with the priesthood restriction. The Book of Mormon declared that the gospel message of salvation should go forth to “every nation, kindred, tongue, and people.” While there were no limits on whom the Lord invited to “partake of his goodness” through baptism, the priesthood restriction creates significant barriers, a point made increasingly evident as the Church spreads in international locations with egalitarian gender beliefs.

Church leaders are pondering promises made by Joseph Smith that women members would one day become a kingdom of priests. They are listening to the prayers of faithful women and men, such as those who support Ordain Women, who testify to the heartbreak that many women experience by being excluded from the full blessings and responsibilities of priesthood service.

A revelation lifting the priesthood ban will be a landmark revelation and a historic event. Those who are present when it occurs are likely to describe it in reverent terms. Not one of us who is present on that occasion will ever be quite the same after that. Nor will the Church be quite the same.

The Church Today
Today, the Church disavows the theories advanced in the past that being female is a sign of divine disfavor or curse, or that it reflects actions taken by Eve in the Garden of Eden; or that women are inferior in any way to men. Church leaders today unequivocally condemn all sexism, past and present, in any form.

The Church proclaims that redemption through Jesus Christ is available to the entire human family on the conditions God has prescribed. It affirms that God is “no respecter of persons” and emphatically declares that anyone who is righteous—regardless of gender—is favored of Him. The teachings of the Church in relation to God’s children are epitomized by a verse in the second book of Nephi: “[The Lord] denieth none that cometh unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female; . . . all are alike unto God…”

19 Responses to “How to Disavow the Priesthood Ban”

  1. 1.

    Is there a way to un-disavow them? Just wondering from someone who believes that it came from God and will remain that way no matter how PC the Church might be to the contrary. Now the theories about why? Doesn’t matter.

  2. 2.

    I’m confused, Jettboy: why would you want the church to un-disavow “the theories advanced in the past that being female is a sign of divine disfavor or curse, or that it reflects actions taken by Eve in the Garden of Eden; or that women are inferior in any way to men.”?

  3. 3.

    Moss,

    Jettboy is a fictional character played by Jettboy and based on the life and worldview of Jettboy. Most of the time he conflates character with caricature.

  4. 4.

    You can pretend I’m not real and a character or caricature all you want. Doesn’t mean I and those like me don’t exist. Keep your head in the sand.

  5. 5.

    Jettboy, just to clarify, are you saying that the Church’s recent disavowal of the racial priesthood ban was an inappropriate PC move, and that you believe the racial ban came from God, or are you saying that it would be inappropriately PC of the Church to take the position on women’s ordination that I am proposing here?

    I would like to better understand your belief because I have friends IRL who I think may share your belief, and I’d like to understand how to talk to them about it. It seems that they come down on the side of there being a deeper, perhaps unknown purpose to some of these policies that have changed, so that God knew that such policies were appropriate or necessary in the past, but that they are not now. I have been unable to make that approach work for me, but I’d like to be able to bridge the divide in discussions with these friends.

  6. 6.

    “the priesthood restriction creates significant barriers, a point made increasingly evident as the Church spreads in international locations with egalitarian gender beliefs.”
    I do not know if this is really so. There are certainly not thousands of waiting potential converts in areas where the gender segregation of priesthood restricts the church’s proselyting efforts.
    This does point out that one of Pres. Hinckley’s answers about women not agitating for inclusion in the priesthood is definitely a weak statement that sidesteps a major issue. I do not know if ordaining women has been seriously considered by the prophet or not. If so he may have received an answer like David O McKay on the priesthood ban.

  7. 7.

    “Jettboy, just to clarify, are you saying that the Church’s recent disavowal of the racial priesthood ban was an inappropriate PC move, and that you believe the racial ban came from God, or are you saying that it would be inappropriately PC of the Church to take the position on women’s ordination that I am proposing here?”

    Both actually. The ban on the Priesthood came from God. That is clear or God wouldn’t have waited more than 100 years plus a revelation. Not to mention, that Pres. David O. Mckay was told in revelation that he should drop the subject. Where there was precedent in the Bible and history for blacks receiving the Priesthood (even if in the millennium for this generation that came much sooner), none exist for women to get the Priesthood as defined in this blog post. Sure, there are interesting arguments, but nothing that can’t be just as easily (and for me rightly) dismissed. In the end, all these discussions of the Priesthood ban put out by the Church are completely PC because they have no practical outcome other than to soothe some modern liberal feelings. Over a century of statements from Prophets say otherwise.

  8. 8.

    OK, thanks for the clarification. So, it sounds to me like you disagree with some of the statements put out in the lds.org statement on race and the priesthood. Did I understand that correctly? In other words, you feel that some of those statements are inappropriate PR moves. I suppose, then, that you and I at least have in common that we disagree with some aspects of the lds.org statement.

    I guess my next question would be, how do you decide what to take in from the Church as truth, and what do you decide to discard? Do you have a hierarchy of prioritization (e.g., prophet in General Conference–always believe, 70′s in stake conference–usually believe, lds.org statements–sometimes believe, ZD blog posts–rarely believe :-), etc)? By what means to you make the determination?

    The thing I find challenging is how to handle statements by prophets and apostles that contradict one another, or scriptures that contradict one another. Recently in seminary I’ve been trying to help my students figure out what to do with scriptures in the BofM that portray God as merciful and accepting, and scriptures that portray him as striking down evil doers. This is especially confusing for students when such scriptures exist side-by-side in the same chapter in the BofM.

    I guess what I’m trying to say is that I find the process of sorting out truth, including truth in the Church, as a messier process than I thought it was as a teenager. I’m always interested to learn how others navigate the process. We probably all do it somewhat differently, and maybe that’s a healthy thing.

  9. 9.

    “I guess my next question would be, how do you decide what to take in from the Church as truth, and what do you decide to discard?”

    First, I am very careful NOT to discard anything. What they say I take very seriously under consideration. In fact, I would say I agree with the authorities of the LDS Church 95 percent of the time. Even when they contradict, my experience has taught me that contradiction is for those without an imagination (be a positive and not a negative evaluator. Give God’s servants the benefit of the doubt before any doubt). God has never given very many straight forward answers, because human language and understanding are not very good communicators of eternal truths. In other words, I go by the spiritual promptings I have and those I have had in the past. Prioritizing is for those who don’t have the Holy Ghost to guide them.

    There is, however, one part of the answer that I have already said; precedence. Like law, what has come before either with the Scriptures or past General Authorities must determine the worth of what comes now. That means that, like I said, something that has been said that is different than what was said for the last 100 years must have more behind it than its simple existence. Even the revelations of Joseph Smith came from questions he had about the Bible and not whole clothe like some critics claim. When some statements are said that both contradict long and historied teachings and respond to the political (particularly liberal) climate, those are not very high priority in acceptance. Again, it has to be backed by equally forceful scriptural and historical examples. Simply saying “they were wrong” doesn’t cut it. Why were they wrong, and show the reasons by the Scriptures and past Prophets and Apostles. Even then, the Holy Ghost guides, but I find even that follows the same structure of proof.

  10. 10.

    Thanks, I think I better understand where you’re coming from now. I think we have more in common that I would have first thought, since I also try to take seriously what the leaders say and probably agree with the authorities 95% of the time.

    Part of why we differ may just be because we weigh precedence somewhat differently. I used to feel more like you do about precedence, but during the past couple years, as I’ve seen some people close to me deeply hurt by teachings that had precedence, I’ve had to rework how I evaluate truths presented within the Church. I’ve felt healthier since then, and it’s allowed me to stay connected to this church that I love, so that’s why I’ve taken this new pathway of being cautious about assuming that precedence implies God’s will. But, I realize that everyone’s experience is different, and as a result we all may feel and interpret the influence of the Holy Ghost somewhat differently.

  11. 11.

    If one has no precedence, one has no foundation. Without a foundation then anything can go and you might as well be “spiritual, but not religious.” For a religion like Mormonism that believes in prophets, apostles, and the resultant authority of God, such a position is dangerous. That is why I find this Priesthood statement troubling. If people aren’t getting hurt by the Gospel then its not doing its job. We aren’t supposed to feel comfortable. We are to feel convicted. Its only when we give our wills to God that true peace comes. A person who feels healthy are the ones who need the physician the most. Sadly in today’s society they are the less likely to accept repentance and the healing Grace of Jesus, because they don’t need him.

  12. 12.

    “We aren’t supposed to feel comfortable. We are to feel convicted.”

    Agreed wholeheartedly, Jettboy, but in the context where one has done wrong. That does not in any way apply to our black brothers and sisters. That’s the whole point.

  13. 13.

    It applies equally to our black brothers and sisters as it does a white person, a brown person, a purple person if there was such a one. My point is that when you question something that has existed for over 100 years in the pronouncement of just about every Prophet and Apostle, then why should the present authorities be trusted over them? Why should the few now be considered right and all the long line of others be wrong? For me the answer isn’t revelation, but politics.

  14. 14.

    “It applies equally to our black brothers and sisters as it does a white person”

    Oh good grief, you know that’s not what I’m talking about. Of course black people can feel convicted when they have done wrong, if they lie, or anything else, just as we all would. But the fact of being black is not wrong. You said “We aren’t supposed to feel comfortable. We are to feel convicted.” as a defense of the ban. We shouldn’t worry that blacks were uncmfortable (to put it mildly!) about the ban, because church isn’t supposed to make us comfortable, you said. I’m pointing out that that makes no sense because it makes the fact of being black a sin that merits being made to feel convicted by church. That is wrong and vile, and goes against fundamental church teaching.

    It sounds like the only one howling that the church stop making him feel uncomfortable is you, Jettboy. Well, guess what, I agree that we aren’t supposed to feel comfortable.

  15. 15.

    “For me the answer isn’t revelation, but politics.”

    How do you feel about say, the family proclamation? How would you propose the faithful latter-day saint distinguish between revelation and politics in the 21st century?

  16. 16.

    So, I had some additional thoughts on the Church’s Race and the Priesthood article which I couldn’t fit in my post. They were inspired in part by these two posts that I believe made compelling critiques of the article:

    http://www.dovesandserpents.org/wp/2013/12/race-priesthood/

    http://youngmormonfeminists.org/2013/12/09/the-new-history-of-race-and-the-priesthood/

    I’m not sure I have much to add on the discussion of race, but I have been thinking about what such an article by the Church says on the issue of women and the priesthood (as I suppose my post makes clear).

    Though I agree there is much to critique about the lds.org article, I am encouraged by the Church’s stance for several reasons. First, they didn’t need to produce any document at all. Their willingness to discuss race seems like a step forward. Second, they did not frame the argument in such a way as to explicitly rule out female ordination. It would have been easy for them to gratuitously insert roadblocks to female ordination, but they didn’t. Third, they laid the groundwork for two arguments that I think will need to be made to enable female ordination–past Church policies/doctrines were partially the result of the cultural context, and Joseph Smith’s intent is important. I believe there is enough evidence, even if it’s just a fig leaf for the Church (how’s that for the perfect metaphor?) to one day make the case that JS intended for women to have at least some form of the priesthood. Fourth, there was an element of admitting errors, even if it was vague (racism was practiced, mistakes were made, change has happened) and, as the above posts argue, perhaps somewhat disingenuous (folk theories didn’t just spring up spontaneously from members–they were preached from the pulpit for decades by apostles). Such admissions have been rare in the past, and the more often they occur, the easier I think it will be to have positive Church reforms.

    That being said, I don’t think we’ve made it to the mountaintop, nor do I think things are changing quickly. This was a baby step, no question about it, but I think we are going to need a bunch of these baby steps before any big “revelations” come along to make the Church more equal for women and for LGBT. So I want to celebrate the baby steps. Unfortunately, for individuals who are in pain right now, it seems hard to imagine that change will come soon enough for them, and I think that is very sad.

  17. 17.

    BTW, my son told me I must surely be wrong about Joseph Smith’s intent for women to hold the priesthood. Instead, Joseph meant that he wanted the Relief Society to one day be a kingdom of 16-17 year-old boys. Don’t know where he gets his sense of humor.

  18. 18.

    Its difficult to assess what exactly Joseph intended by his comments of establishing a kingdom of Priests…especially from a set of broken, shorthand notes.
    Still, if we are going to wrench a single line out of context, perhaps it should be this one:
    “[he] commended [the Sisters] for their zeal, but said that sometimes their zeal was not according to knowledge.”

  19. 19.

    @Jettboy #11 – ” If people aren’t getting hurt by the Gospel then its not doing its job.”

    And that’s why I’m willing to support efforts like this, to encourage the equality that the Gospel teaches, even if it provokes upset with people who desire to perpetuate the inequities of the past. The church will eventually heave sexism onto the same rubbish heap as racism, and everyone now who insists it is God’s unchangeable degree will be given the fig leaf of “limited light and knowledge.” The rest of us will just be the agitators who were right.

    And FWIW, Jesus was a liberal who opposed his religious leaders on, among other things, the institutional mistreatment and devaluation of women. He dismissed religious strictures going back to Moses. “Let he who is without sin” is the expression of a radical liberal-egalitarian theology and a rejection of gendered purity taboos. Only Bill O’Reilly disagrees.

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