How Much Priesthood is Enough Priesthood?

I’ve pretty much always been the kind of feminist who thought women should have the priesthood; I remember telling people this when I was in high school, and while they often laughed it off uncomfortably as teenage rabble-rousing, I was perfectly serious. This hasn’t changed, but, in watching the Church’s response to Ordain Women and some of the baby steps they’ve made towards (and away from) equality, lately I’ve been thinking more about what wanting women to have the priesthood really means to me.

There are lots of parts to that question, both emotional and analytical, but specifically, I’ve been thinking about this: what is the minimum I’d be satisfied with? Do women need to have the exact same priesthood as men, or the exact same responsibilities with that priesthood, in order to reach what I’d consider structural equality? (As a necessary aside, I’m assuming in this post that we’re addressing structural equality only, and that tackling people’s attitudes and worldviews would still be a separate task not fully addressed by those changes, which seems to be the case with race.)

The priesthood as the “power of God” in Mormonism plays multiple roles; this is overly simplified, but here’s what I see as the primary explicit functions:

1. Informal blessings, i.e. healing blessings, father’s blessings, even baby blessings and dedications of houses, chapels, and temples

2. Formal ordinances, i.e. baptisms, sacrament

3. Church governance, i.e. bishops, stake presidents, and the ability (apparently) to preside over most mixed-sex organizations

That’s not a comprehensive list of the functions of priesthood in Mormonism—one obvious function missing here is the priesthood’s role in socializing Mormon men into acceptable modes of masculinity, as well as providing a fraternal organization for sustained interaction; Julie M. Smith did this a lot more justice in her “Strands of Priesthood” post—but in this post I’m focusing primarily on the stated uses of the priesthood in Mormonism rather than the many unstated uses.

When I separate them out like this, I’d like to see some changes in each category, but it’s actually that third that I’m most concerned about; I don’t really think women can ever reach a point where they are seen as full equals unless they have at least the potential for full and equal say in governance. Our current governance system, even with baby steps like changing the Priesthood committee to include a woman (or “Family” representative, apparently), still operates more on a model of women being consultants rather than decision-makers: as in the business world, being a consultant can mean having great influence, or it can mean being utterly ignored, and that depends a lot more on the whims of the actual decision maker(s) than the value of your recommendations. Either way, and no matter whether you’re treated with kindness and respect, you’re on the outside of the organization, not the inside.

So, if my sticking point is governance, do women need the priesthood? I think, ultimately, that I could satisfied with a world in which men and women have distinct responsibilities, and in which there is something called “the priesthood” that women don’t hold. (“The priesthood” is in quotes here not out of disrespect, but just to mark that the priesthood in the world I’m laying out would be different—and reduced in scope—from today’s conception of the priesthood.) The changes could look like this:

Governance:

I’d love to see administrative roles (like most of the calling of a bishop or stake president) be separated from priesthood entirely; we could thus make women eligible for callings anywhere in church governance, including presiding over men, without actually holding the priesthood or being able to perform ordinances. I’m no Biblical scholar—which I may now reveal with this analysis—but this also seems to have some historical precedent in the separation of Levitical priestly duties from broader prophetic or leadership roles for Israel; Deborah could serve as a judge in Israel without being able to perform priestly rites, and even Moses functioned in a more administrative leadership role than Aaron’s focus on formal and ritualized ordinances. This would require a lot of rethinking of the concept of priesthood keys for callings, of course, but we’re already taking baby steps diagonally around that rethinking, what with Elder Oaks talking about sister missionaries exercising priesthood authority in their stewardship. If we confronted it head-on and acknowledged the power of God as given to anyone with a calling via the proper authority—that authority given by the chain of church governance—those without the ritualized priesthood would still be able to function with inspiration in administration.

Blessings:

Continuing along the lines of the New Testament’s “priesthood of all believers,” we have historical precedent for women giving healing blessings, so it would require little or no change in doctrine to formally acknowledge that a just God should listen to the prayers of righteous women as much as the priesthood blessings of righteous men. With that, we could expand blessings to include women without giving them “the priesthood” per se; children could receive blessings from both parents, an acknowledgement of their shared responsibility, and the sick could be comforted and healed by the priesthood of all believers, or by anyone with the inclination, righteousness, or spiritual gift.

Ordinances:

With church governance and ad-hoc blessings open to women, I’d be happy leaving formal ordinances in the hands of men only (and women in the temple). This, in fact, is the only way ideas like those in “The Two Trees” make any sense to me at all; in that argument, women have a responsibility to usher souls from pre-mortality to mortality (motherhood) and men have a responsibility to usher them from mortality to post-mortality, but then, in our current formulation of priesthood, men get all the bonus responsibilities of the other strands of priesthood (and all of church governance is a fairly large bonus responsibility). With a restriction in the scope of the formal, male-only priesthood, performing ordinances maintains some gender complementarity, provides a unique role for men both in their families and in the community, and acts as a more fair (though still not perfect) analogy to motherhood.

Much of this probably reflects my personal bias because I don’t feel a strong calling to performing ordinances and I do feel a strong calling to organizational leadership, but overall this would still be a system that makes more sense to me: we could maintain our claim to gender-specific roles and responsibilities, while still allowing men and women to fully and equally share the burdens and joys of comforting souls, healing the sick, administrating Zion, and declaring the word of God. I’m not saying this is my ideal; I think the concept of the priesthood is powerful, and a unique and important claim to Mormon authority, and untangling some of these strands would reduce its power, so I’d rather see today’s priesthood extended to women or some new priestesshood revealed.

What do you think? Do you want the priesthood (or want to share it, if you’re a man)? Considering all the functions of priesthood, how much is enough for you?

17 thoughts on “How Much Priesthood is Enough Priesthood?

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    I agree. Formal ordinances are the only place you “need” a male-only priesthood and I am fine with that. I have thought that for a long time.

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    Do I want the priesthood? No. I don’t. I also don’t want to be a doctor, or Navy SEAL, or US President. I want women who want the priesthood to be able to have it. I think women ought to be able to serve in all three capacities.
    That said, I’m also a fan of professional clergy and even limiting what can be done by the laity vs by the presiding authority. #1 ought to be done by all believers, but I’m fine with ordinances being limited to the bishop instead of all “worthy” dads.

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    Like you, I’ve always kind of figured it would be a matter of time before women were given the priesthood. Furthermore, I’ve always found it strange that people find that idea strange. I’m not exaggerating when I say that I can’t understand why anyone would oppose it. (Feel free to help me out, all, but really, I can’t understand it.)

    I think you make an interesting point in the governance section, which highlights a basic problem in Mormonism generally: never in all the scriptures has the priesthood and prophecy been so closely tied together since the flood. It makes it impossible for anyone to call the institution out, which, by the way, was exactly what prophets were up to throughout the Israelite period and in the post-golden-age Nephite period, let alone the original Christian church. Questions of female ordination aside, this is a very big obstacle to the spirit and plays into our tendency to deify church leaders; questions of female ordination at center stage, this set-up makes it ridiculously difficult to point out the obvious, i.e. male-only priesthood is a cultural artifact in conflict with Christ’s message and mission and should be abolished.

    Ultimately, though, I feel like any priesthood reserved for men alone will only serve to reinforce cultural biases against women — which, again, run counter to the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the building up of Zion — and I just don’t see a “women’s priesthood” (or a men’s priesthood!) as a viable option if we are to truly treat each other as fellow citizens in Christ. All the same, I’ll take half loaves if that’s all I can get — but I’ll only stay quiet about the other half for as long as it takes to chew and swallow the first.

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    HokieKate, I really like your point that it’s important that women have the option, even if you don’t personally want it. Coming at it from the other side, as a man, I’d like the option to not have the priesthood.

    Petra, it obviously doesn’t affect me in the same way, but I totally agree with you that the governance issue is where it’s at for where I’d most like to see changes. As long as women are excluded from church governance, we’ll continue to have endless issues with well-meaning (or not so well-meaning) men ignoring or condescending to women in everything from their policy decisions to their Conference talks.

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    Male High Priest here. I strongly support female ordination. I don’t see a “women’s priesthood” as viable. I’m not a big fan of the “The Two Trees.”

    In my view, the core of these discussions is whether we view men (w/o priesthood) as equal to women. This may be counter-intuitive, considering the women are currently excluded from priesthood office, but our reasoning for the exclusion is based on the premise that men need something *more* to become as the Savior, and for whatever reason women do not need that something more. Why?

    One possibility is that the plan of salvation presents different roles for men and women. “The Two Trees” follows this line of thinking. I’m not convinced. While Adam and Eve both are involved in the fall, only Christ (who is male) is involved in the redemption. There is no female Christ. In the end, salvation is based on how similar our attributes are to His. Those attributes include love, patience, kindness etc. (see D/C 121). They do not include race, height, sex, or other demographic characteristics. Those characteristics may still exist in the eternities, but they don’t pertain to our salvation.

    Another possibility is that the plan of salvation presents different relationships between Christ on one hand, and men and women on the other. Our current temple liturgy is the prime example of this. Men become priests and heirs to Christ. Women become priestesses and heirs to their husband. I – Dave K – am to be ordered like Christ. My wife is to ordered after me. Thus Christ’s church will not ordain her to a priesthood; I will ordain her to my order of the priesthood.

    Not surprisingly, I’m dubious of this teaching as well. I think women should have their own direct links to Christ and not need to go through their husband-as-intermediary. Women’s direct links to Christ are better for them, and also for their spouses. As spouses become one with Christ (and only as they do so), they will become one with each other. This is the “triangle example” used in temple prep classes. It’s beautiful. But it’s not the current temple liturgy.

    Since it’s mostly sisters posting on this thread, let me ask you this: Suppose the church made priesthood office voluntary for men. Ordination would no longer needed for their salvation; it’s only needed if men want to baptize, serve as bishops, etc. (same for women). Would you approve of that change? Or would you worry that men would be lesser if not obligated to take on the order of Christ? If the latter, then maybe priesthood needs to be mandatory for women too. After all, if we really believe the men are better (i.e., more like Christ) for being priesthood holders, it follows that women would be too. Christ is the savior for all men and women. We should all be performing as many of His actions as possible in order to become like Him.

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    Dave and Ziff, I very much think the formal priesthood ought to be optional for men, to be pursued by those that feel so called. I think it is cheapened by being “hey, you’re 12, you’re getting the priesthood”.

    My husband is active and involved in the church. He has blessed the sacrament once in the past two years that I can think of, and that is the only instance of him “using” the priesthood that I can think of in that time period. Since I believe prayers of faith to be as powerful as blessings, I don’t think the laity need the priesthood.

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    Great point, HokieKate, about it being cheapened by just attaching it to being male and aging.

    I know it’s beyond the scope of Petra’s post, but I wonder how social norms would change if it were made optional for both women and men. Especially at first, would women who wanted to be ordained be shamed for being uppity enough to want to actually get the power of God? Like other women might say they thought they were too good for the rest of them. Like of course it might be *offered*, but everyone knows that the higher law is for women to stay pure and priesthood-free. And the first men who turned the option down, they might be viewed as gigantic slackers. Like sure it’s an option, but it’s an option in the sense that active Mormons give their kids the “option” of being baptized at eight. Everyone really frowns on it if you exercise the option to not do it.

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    Because of the many gifts of the spirit (inspiration, revelation, ability to teach and lead, wisdom–to name a few) available to all, I have difficulty understanding the strong priesthood/governance connection in the church. What in Mormon history mandates that connection? I agree with Petra that there is historical support for greater female governance. I would be fully supportive of women without the priesthood serving in bishoprics, stake presidencies, and as general authorities, using their personal spiritual gifts and divine guidance in their responsibilities. A change in governance would bring strength to the church in a variety of ways and would allow members to consider the question of female ordination with more understanding and vision.

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    I keep coming back to the reality that our Savior was and is the head of his church and he is male. He also was the president of his apostles who also were all men. His kingdom, as He states is not of this world. This gives us the true glimpse that this order of priesthood is not limited nor originated to or from this earth. I regularlly exercise my priesthood in my home and the church. Its not what many tend to think it is. Its generally a very physically exhausting task that goes largely unoticed by mortals and pays no social rewards of class in society. Its about washing others feet and preparing others, through much physical labor, to return back to God. The physical exertion is heavy upon a righteous priesthood holder. Christ himself bled from every pore under the exertion of his priesthood calling in redeeming mankind.

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    Rob, thanks for your testimony. I agree that the priesthood shouldn’t be about social privilege, and that it’s mostly about real work!

    But the Church being populated by humans, it often turns out that administration brings privileges. A good example from the New Testament is the way in which the Greek Jewish converts had to force the leadership to pay attention to their needs in Jerusalem in Acts 6.

    There is considerable evidence that in the early Christian church there were women who held positions that we would describe as “priesthood” today. Would evidence of prior female priesthood or administrative work in Christ’s church that change your thinking any?

    I also wonder about the first argument you mentioned, that Christ and the apostles were all men. Weren’t Christ and all his apostles also Jews? And if so, why should non-Jews get to have the priesthood at all? Why shouldn’t we chalk up the male priesthood to cultural predilections in ancient Roman Judea and 19th- and 20th-century America?

    It might be that my points aren’t persuasive, or that this is a conversation that you don’t think needs to be had. That’s fine — this is the internet, and we don’t know each other, although I hope you feel the love I have for you and your work as a brother in Christ! But as for me, given that most of the arguments against female ordination were used against the ordination of people of African descent, I just don’t see what the support for exclusion could reasonably lie.

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    Yes, priesthood service is a difficult task and a heavy burden, that often goes unappreciated by the world, and sometimes by the specific people who receive such service.

    And yet, the benefits of growth and blessings that come from doing the hard work, the personal development gained from serving with ordained priestly power, is more valuable than gold. What a treasure it would be, to be proficient in the use God’s power tools to bring more of His presence into this blighted world; to help those around you. My question: can women use the power tools?

    For a long time I thought that it wasn’t needful for women to be ordained, that there were more urgent problems that needed addressing. I held this opinion long past the first two OW actions at general conference. That changed when I learned in detail about the way women in the first hundred years (!) of the church routinely were authorized to exercise priesthood service in healing blessings. I found out that it originated with Joseph Smith at the organization of the Relief Society. Though we have no record that he formally ordained those women by the same method as men were, he referred to those women using the words “ordain” and “quorum;” of all people he understood the correct meaning of those words, and he trained them in the protocols of giving healing blessings with hands on heads, consecrated oil, and focused prayer. After his death, they honed these skills in the crucible of Winter Quarters, and developed the protocols so that it was widespread among endowed women, and particularly midwives and healers. Brigham Young enthusiastically supported authorizing women in this practice against pushback from other men in the church, and it was a common thing for RS sisters; part of the duties Visiting Teachers were trained in by other women in authority. There was a ritual blessing similar to washing and anointing that women gave to mothers as they began labor and delivery of a baby, intended to heal and protect her at this vulnerable time. It makes my heart skip to imagine the power of such a thing, and I am not the first to ask: Why do we not have this still? Why do we not even *know* about such things in the church?

    After I learned about this practice and how it was eradicated over a long period of time, and has been almost completely erased from our current knowledge of our history, I became understandably disillusioned with the wisdom of the people (all men) in charge. I don’t presume to know what should be done about women and priesthood power, but I know, and know very well, how I might have benefitted from being authorized and trained in giving my own priesthood healing blessings to those under my stewardship, and I feel a terrible loss from these missed opportunities, mourning the experiences that might have been.

    I have little confidence that the men with the power to change things will hear my voice and take it seriously; but I see a clear precedent set by Joseph Smith that women have rights and responsibilities with regard to priesthood service, and facing this instead of denying it would be a good place to start making use of the vast untapped resource of women’s priesthood service.

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    MDearest- where can I read about “There was a ritual blessing similar to washing and anointing that women gave to mothers as they began labor and delivery of a baby, intended to heal and protect her at this vulnerable time.”

    Thanks!

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    Thanks for sharing the link, debo. My source is a presentation by Fara Sneddon of the history she has researched. She graciously shared the notes but I had no link at the ready. I remember her description of the laboring mothers’ blessing that it was a verbatim prayer given the same way each time a mother received it, and it had to be memorized. The women in charge believed it to be holy, similar to temple ordinances, and did not write it down but taught it orally to protect its sacredness.

    My great-grandmother learned midwifery in 1908 at the school run by the Relief Society. I’m sure she was aware of this practice and may have performed it for her patients, but by then there was much less support for it from the (male) priesthood leadership than they had from Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, and it was done more rarely and quietly.

    By the time my mother was born, it had been denounced from the pulpit in general conference, so I doubt that my great grandmother gave it to my grandma when she attended that birth. I feel regret that I didn’t know to ask my grandma about it when she was alive. My mother has no memory of womens’ blessings. I’ve asked.

    There are other sources that write about this history, I’ve seen them, but I don’t have links at my fingertips, and no time today for research.

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    I’ve had a persistent feeling of leaving something undone with this, so when I had time I went in search of the real research and I found some solid information about women’s confinement blessings in the book, “Mormon Feminism” (Ed by Brooks, Steenblik, and Wheelwright) with the essay on page 88 by Linda King Newell, “A Gift Given, a Gift Taken…” which was first published in 1981. The essay has many (39) interesting footnotes as well.

    I know there are more sources, just haven’t found them yet.

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