What is the Priesthood? Thoughts to Consider on the Issue of Ordaining Mormon Women from a Male Mormon Feminist

Today, for the first time, I watched my 12 year-old son Joshua share the symbols of Christ’s atonement with our religious congregation, our Ward “family.”  I felt deeply touched as I witnessed my little boy enjoy this important rite of passage within Mormonism.  And being myself a Mormon Male feminist, I couldn’t help but reflect upon recent efforts to encourage LDS leaders to fast and pray over the issue of extending priesthood ordination to women.

I’ll admit that I am sensitive to such concerns.  I am deeply troubled by the way that women have been made to feel like second-class citizens in our society (and even in our Church).  My intention with this brief post, however, is not to argue either for or against such issues.  I would simply like to share that as I have pondered the question myself, I have come to the conclusion that all of us (male and female) could greatly benefit by reshaping our view of what priesthood truly is.

Let’s begin by first considering what Priesthood is not.  Priesthood is not an ordination to self-aggrandizement.  Nor is priesthood office an opportunity to cater to a person’s ego to become the alpha male in his community (though sometimes, and I’ll admit far too often, offices do seem to provide this need for some men).

Case in point, years ago, while visiting some extended family members, I was asked at Church if I had become a High Priest.

“No,” I replied.  “I am an Elder.”  “Wow,” came the surprised reaction, “but you know so much about the scriptures, I thought for sure you would have been made a High Priest by now!!”

“No,” I said, “no matter where we’ve lived, from California, to Massachusetts, to Utah, I’ve always been called to teach the 16 and 17 year-old Sunday School class, and it’s honestly what I want to do.  I love teaching teenagers, and I absolutely detest meetings and administration.”

“Well, that’s good,” my friend replied, “it seems most return missionaries, including my sons, are all racing to see which one of them will be made a Bishop first. That this opportunity needs to happen in a man’s life in order to feel justified and successful.  I thought that everyone wanted to have the opportunity to be a leader.”

“Hmm,” I said, “Not me.” “I suspect I’ll teach Sunday School the rest of my life” (and ten years later, this statement has so far proven true; still teaching 16 and 17 year old Sunday School, despite three different moves).

Throughout my life, I’ve certainly been around wonderful Bishops and Stake Presidents.  In fact, some of the best men I’ve known have had these opportunities for priesthood leadership.  But I’ve also known men (and their wives) who have seen such callings as a way to advance to a higher social status in their religious community.  And if this is what Priesthood is, then by all means, women should have every right to this same opportunity for leadership.  But I do not believe that this is what the Priesthood is.  If properly understood, Priesthood is not an opportunity to proclaim your views (including your politics) from the pulpit as the “word of God” (though we’ve unfortunately seen this happen recently).  Nor is Priesthood a call to have the eyes of the religious community focused upon you as a divinely appointed leader; as one who has finally made it and therefore deserves respect.

Priesthood is a call to be a servant to all.  In my mind, the story that best illustrates this point is the story of Christ at the Last Supper washing the feet of his disciples.

In ancient Jewish society, disciples were expected to serve their Rabbi.  In the Gospel of Matthew, the author seems to depict Jesus accepting this traditional notion with the statement, “a student is not above his teacher, nor a servant above his master” (Matthew 10:24).  The Gospels depict Jesus’ disciples accepting this role of service, going to town to buy food (John 4:8), and making arrangements for Jesus, their teacher, to celebrate Passover according to his specifications (Luke 22:8).  In return, Jesus, their “Rabbi,” shared with them his advanced knowledge.  It was the standard teacher/student relationship of the day.

Authors Ann Spangler and Lois Tverberg explore this concept in their touching book Sitting at the Feet of Rabbi Jesus.  The authors explain:

“Disciples were expected to take turns preparing the common meal and serving the needs of the group.  It was said, ‘All acts a slave performs for his master, a disciple performs for his rabbi, except untying the sandal.’  To untie someone’s sandal was considered demeaning, the task of a slave” (pg. 60).

This insight into ancient Jewish tradition adds great meaning to Jesus’ act at the Last Supper, when he, as their teacher, got down on the floor and humbled himself below the status of a slave by washing his disciples’ feet.   Through this gesture, Jesus taught his disciples what it truly means to be a leader in his kingdom:  “If I then, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet; ye also ought to wash one another’s feet.” (John 13:14).

And this is Priesthood.  It is a call to wash the feet of every man, woman, and child in your community.  This is what Jesus means by leadership.  It is not a call to a position that elevates a person to a higher social status in his or her community.  Really, if properly understood, Priesthood is just the opposite.  A Bishop, for example, is called to wash the feet of every person in his congregation.  He is to be the servant of all.

A friend of mine once shared with me a story about his Bishop who was always the last one to stop cleaning the Ward chapel after a party or activity.  On one occasion, while sweeping the gym floor, he overheard a young boy crying over the fact that he had lost a small toy.  When my friend walked out to the parking lot, he noticed the Bishop climbing out of the large garbage dumpster with the toy in his hand.  “Found it,” he smiled.  And with this small gesture, the Bishop demonstrated to my friend that when it came to Priesthood this man truly got it.

From this vantage point, it makes sense to me that men are and should be given the opportunity in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to hold the Priesthood. With this assignment, they are called to be leaders in spiritual matters within the home and the community.  But this does not mean that men have the right to lay down the law so to speak, or to be held in anyway in a status above the women in their lives.  If properly understood, Priesthood means just the opposite.  In the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, men have been given an assignment to lead out in spiritual matters by being servants to all.  I believe if we approach Priesthood from this perspective, it dramatically changes the nature of our current debate.

Despite my own feminist leanings, I’ll admit that my concern is that if Priesthood was “equalized” in the LDS Church that in terms of spirituality and service, that many men would feel comfortable in simply turning everything over to their wives.  We already live in a world of Warcraft in which men in an ever-increasing number are refusing to accept the responsibility of fatherhood, etc.

When my son returned and sat next to me on the pew, I put my arm around him and told him how proud I was to watch him serve.  “Were you nervous,” I asked.  “Yes,” he replied.  “I was nervous that I might forget someone.”

That is Priesthood.

Comments

What is the Priesthood? Thoughts to Consider on the Issue of Ordaining Mormon Women from a Male Mormon Feminist — 43 Comments

  1. This would be more persuasive if priesthood were only involved in ordinances, and not in administrative responsibility. Increased social status is not the only effect of leadership callings in the church–they bring with them real and powerful opportunities to serve a greater number of people, to consecrate more and different talents, to innovate in one’s application of the gospel to organizational issues, etc. Excluding women from those opportunities is at least as problematic as excluding them from administering ordinances.

    I have more faith in Mormon men than you do :) But the fact that some few might abdicate their responsibilities if they could hardly seems like a potential sin for which women ought to be pre-emptively punished!

  2. “Increased social status is not the only effect of leadership callings in the church–they bring with them real and powerful opportunities to serve a greater number of people, to consecrate more and different talents, to innovate in one’s application of the gospel to organizational issues, etc. Excluding women from those opportunities is at least as problematic as excluding them from administering ordinances.”

    I don’t disagree with this view, Kristine. I’m in total favor of finding ways to more actively include women in real leadership roles. However, speaking personally, as one who has never had this opportunity myself, I don’t believe that I’m missing out on developing my spiritual talents.

    And, love and miss you too. No doubt!

  3. One branch president I served with (a surrealist painter and former hippie) gave a fifth Sunday lesson where he shared an experience from the Prague zoo. He saw a large lion with a magnificient mane stretched out, yawning. Next to him was a lioness growling at him, as if to say get up and do something already!
    His point was that all too often we are content with letting our wives be the movers getting things done, but that exercising our priesthood should transform us to where we seek to do as much as lies within our power as often as we can.
    I don’t hold that women are more spiritual and men less so, merely by accident of gender. If anything, such a perspective exacerbates the problem, making it easy to justify laziness and indifference by saying, oh, well, I can never be as spiritual as my wife, so why bother.

  4. My wife and I had a conversation last week about how although she isn’t advocating for women to be ordained, more should be done to address inequality, and a start can be made as simply as having the Relief Society presidency be seated on the stand, just like the Bishop’s counselors. Considering that the RS president tends to do as much if not more than the bishop in many cases, she has a point.

  5. Equality will be achieved the day Church buildings come equipped with a father’s lounge and a changing table in the Men’s room.

  6. Love the article, Dave. It was inspiring. And it was great reading it together with my wife.

  7. David,

    While I appreciate – and even agree with – much of what you have so eloquently expressed, I am a bit confused by your initial premise. You wrote that you were reflecting on “recent efforts to encourage LDS leaders to fast and pray over the issue of extending priesthood ordination to women.” This is in fact the first time I have heard the “Mormon feminist” objective described in this way. The most prominent voice of the “movement” (if I may use the term), Ordain Women, states bluntly on their website: “We call for the ordination of women….” They do not qualify it by calling upon the leaders of the Church to “fast and pray” over the matter, as you have suggested. Are there other voices out there you are quoting, who are being drowned out, or is this just your particular take on the issue?

    Thank you for providing us some new insights and perspectives to this debate.

  8. I’ll admit that my concern is that if Priesthood was “equalized” in the LDS Church that in terms of spirituality and service, that many men would feel comfortable in simply turning everything over to their wives. We already live in a world of Warcraft in which men in an ever-increasing number are refusing to accept the responsibility of fatherhood, etc.

    What evidence is there that male-only priesthood is actually assisting with this problem? I hear many Mormons express this concern, yet I know of no trends in denominations that ordain women that would support it. There is no correlation between ordination of women and decreased male activity or participation. Are Mormon men just more indolent than the men of other Christian denominations?

    I also know of some incredibly immature Mormon men who haven’t participated in church callings or ordinances in years, don’t give blessings to their wives and children, and aren’t doing what they need to be doing to provide for their families. It seems to me that all that male-only priesthood has done is crippled families like this, where the wife could be an amazingly capable spiritual leader.

  9. I do think that women and men should have equality in the Mormon church (I signed a petition to that affect at Ms. Jack’s urging a while back despite the fact that, like her, I am not Mormon myself).But I don’t think you should assume that the men won’t do their jobs if there is equality or that we should take a harsher view of men who fall behind than of women who do. The situation in society is often more complicated than people think. For example, I don’t think that men should abandon their responsibilities of fatherhood, but it should be remembered that women have the option of abortion whereas men don’t meaning that there are more men who are fathers before they are ready than there are women who are mothers before they are ready. I recently saw a poll from Pew that said that women make more decisions time wise and financially than men do in the average household. The article treated it jokingly, but I was thinking how harshly people would have reacted if it were men who were making more activity decisions and financial decisions.

    Currently there are fewer religious men than women. I believe that is due to the fact that church is a very social activity and men tend to be less social so that if they loose faith it is easier for them to walk away from the community.

  10. Also, it is possible to play video games and do well in school at the same time. They aren’t mutually exclusive.

  11. I think it’s simply a reality that it’s harder to keep men engaged in religious community than women.

    The response of some of the feminist leaning of “suck it up – you male babies” is at best unhelpful, and at worst pig-head-in-the-sand behavior.

  12. “I love teaching teenagers, and I absolutely detest meetings and administration.”

    A man cut out of the same cloth as me. :)

    Good thoughts, although I tend to be unpersuaded by the notion that men “need” the priesthood as a lure to get them to step up to the plate. I think emphasis on fatherhood and religious participation can be divorced from priesthood just fine.

  13. I don’t know if this has anything to do with anything. My wife is already a goddess. It would be unfair if she had the priesthood also, as I have yet to attain godhood.

    Glenn

  14. My wife is not a already goddess any more than I am already a god.

    I admire her deeply, but that would be a rather unreasonable thing to think about her.

  15. “I think emphasis on fatherhood and religious participation can be divorced from priesthood just fine.”

    Uhhhh… No. Read the D&C lately?

    ” My wife is not a already goddess any more than I am already a god.”

    But her standing is better than yours. Go to the temple, sit in the Celestial room with your wife and have a discussion comparing the ordinances for men with the ordinances for women.

  16. No – her standing is NOT any better than mine. Except purely through her own merits.

    She does not have a better standing than I do purely by virtue of being a female. I have sat through the temple ordinances multiple times. And I completely disagree with your interpretation.

  17. Glenn Thigpin did not mean that his wife was literally a Goddess currently. You’ll hear men call their wives goddesses but you’ll never hear wives call their husbands gods because A. women were historically oppressed so a wife calling her husband a God would make people think too much of past patriarchy and B. because men flatter their wives so that she will be in the mood for sex. Wives don’t have to flatter her husband for sex much at all because he is almost always willing. As this flattery from men has become common, men get praised by society if they praise their wives, even if she isn’t around to hear the praise.

    THAT is an honest assessment of why Glenn Thigpen said what he said. It had nothing to do with Mormonism really.

  18. My deference to my wife has nothing to do with sexuality but rather with the admiration I have for her level of spirituality. Maybe other men would characterize women that they admire for their spiritualty, good works, etc. as angels. So, maybe what I said has a bit to do with Mormonism.

    Glenn

  19. Hibernia, you don’t have to couch it in crass terms of sexual transaction. Maybe there’s some of that going on in a Freudian sense, but honestly, I can’t be bothered.

    No, I think it’s just part of Mormon culture to praise wives to the high heavens. You see general authorities do it, and it happens all the time in a typical Mormon Sacrament Meeting as well.

    I have no objection to this cultural practice. But I do object to it when it tries to establish speculative theology as fact, or to preach false doctrine, or pseudo-doctrine.

    There is not a jot in the scriptures that indicates some sort of native spiritual superiority of one sex over the other. Nor is there anything in the temple ceremony, nor in officially accepted LDS doctrine or teachings.

  20. Seth, sexuality isn’t crass. It may be Mormon culture to praise wives to the high heavens, but so do other men and there is a biological reason for that. Glenn obviously wasn’t being literal. No one, Mormon or otherwise, thinks that Glenn’s wife is literally a Goddess right now. Normally when a man says “my wife is a goddess” or “my wife is a princess” they mean that they are flattering their wives. And while couples often flatter each other out of love, men flatter women more than women flatter men because men want women to like them well enough to have sex with them. This isn’t a big secret. There is absolutely nothing Freudian about that (I think Freud was a crackpot)

    And I have no idea whether the compliment from Glenn toward his wife was due to sexuality (like I said in the last comment, men get praised by society for praising their wives even if she isn’t around to hear it), love, or because she is objectively better at being spiritual than him (however one would define that ability). But my comment was just listing the most likely case. Obviously Glenn is going to say it is option 3, as he did in his later comment, but people aren’t always objective when analyzing people they love. My goal isn’t to insult Glenn or even to find the real reason behind his comment but rather just to note an overall social fact. My comment was just a “best guess” observation given the information I had.

  21. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this. I truly appreciated reading your post. I, too, have thought a great deal about this and posted something on my religion blog.

  22. Seth R.:

    I think that Old Man has a point. Think about the wording in the initiatory. The sisters are declared clean. the men are not. The wording of those ordinances is actually quite profound.

  23. Seth R:
    Old man has a point. There are important differences in the Initiatory you may not know about.

  24. I have often wondered about the ironic findings that women have always outnumbered men in American religious traditions. Even without having ecclesiastical authority, women, more than men, have participated in churches. This fact is often cited as a rationale for denying women ecclesiastical authority. But we’re getting to a place now where enough women who are committed and highly involved in their church communities are no longer satisfied with reassurances that they’re “really more spiritual than the men in their lives,” and “men need the priesthood to remain involved.” So women should be denied the same responsibilities as men, and should have to defer all final decisions to male leadership because they’re more spiritual than men? Come again?

    I am not an activist; I prefer analysis and history. But I think it is too simple to say that women are inherently more “spiritual” than men. I’m wary of such gender essentialism, and I’m wary of assumptions about what “spirituality” is. But maybe there is something to the *religious* construction of gender (the common statement that women are more spiritual than men is an example of this; it means that “femininity” = “spirituality” and “masculinity” = ?, “non-spirituality”? What is that? rationality? pragmatism? cold and calculated reason?). It becomes even more problematic when we factor in the changing cultural constructions of gender (e.g., it’s not a simple binary of male or female, nor does gender determine personality, intellectual ability, or talent).

    Finke and Stark’s, as well as Wuthnow’s, sociological research on religion confirms that “conservative” Christian denominations tend to be more resilient than less traditional denominations. That is, churches that do not ordain women tend to attract more members–especially married couples with children–than churches that do ordain women. But it doesn’t necessarily follow that the reason people leave mainline and progressive denominations is because these churches are ordaining women. There are too many other possible reasons.

    There is the life cycle hypothesis–that parents–women and men–who have children tend to become more religious (but we also have to consider that accepted patterns of religiosity tend to include these perceptions of the gendered division of labor within the family, church, and community, so people conform to them outwardly or at least give lip service to these conventions even if they might privately harbor some disagreements with them; joining a conservative religion is seen as being part and parcel to living the religious life, whereas joining a mainstream or progressive denomination is often not seen this way). There is also Campbell’s hypothesis, which I agree more with, that politics is driving younger people away from religion, period, and that the life cycle will not necessarily tend to bring them back into religions–they prefer to remain unaffiliated. So we are seeing conservative churches, because of their endorsement of political positions, only appealing to and attracting politically conservative people and alienating politically progressive people. It’s likely that these people would have, in the past, become involved in denominations at some point, but are now staying away from all denominations, even mainline and progressive ones; instead, they are turning to political means and institutions to work for the betterment of society. I worry about churches and political parties reinforcing this kind of a split in the populace.

    As far as the question of ordaining women–I think it would be best to try not to strategize about what would be best for church growth, and rather focus on scriptural, historical, and revelatory answers.

  25. elizajm: There is the theory I mentioned above that women are more social and thus more likely to be connected to church communities. There is also the theory that because women in general often feel emotions stronger than men they might feel stronger spiritual feelings as well and be more connected to religion because of that.

    I think people are more likely to stick with the conservative churches because they think that it more closely sticks with the original revelation (even if that revelation includes moral teachings like slavery which are rejected today). This doesn’t mean the revelation is true, just that people find it more attractive if it is based on a claim that it was from God rather than human morality. While the population as a whole is moving away from religion, the evangelical percentage seems to stay pretty stable from what I’ve seen. What happens when there is little to no middle ground and most people are non-religous or evangelical? That remains to be seen.

  26. It could just be that biologically, women have evolved to value protective communities more. Whereas men didn’t have that sort of evolutionary need in their background.

  27. I suppose that could be true. That is somewhat related to the first theory I mentioned.

  28. That’s interesting, but it doesn’t really isolate for evolutionary patterns to any extent.

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  30. I did some original research on this, and I found that women switched into conservative churches because they instructed and supported the women in their efforts to turn the home and family into a more unified, loving, and spiritual environment; women also found social support in conservative churches. I think there might be something to be said for mothers feeling a responsibility to facilitate the religiosity of their husbands and children, out of a quest for a religious community. At root, women’s participation suggests that they are primarily concerned about the quality of family relationships.

  31. “Think about the wording in the initiatory. The sisters are declared clean. the men are not. The wording of those ordinances is actually quite profound.”

    I just checked ldsendowment.org and I see no mention anywhere in the initiatory that anyone is pronounced clean, be they male or female. Perhaps that site has the wording wrong? It only says “that you may become clean” for both men and women.

  32. The ward I just moved into has changing tables in the men’s room, so I guess the previous ward building was an anomaly.

  33. The nature of the relationship between the Father, the Son, and the priesthood after the order of the Son of God would have to be redefined in order to ordain sisters to the Melchizedek priesthood.

    Is there a 50/50 chance that the Firstborn would be a daughter of God?

  34. LDS Anarchist

    I can’t go into details. But yes your premonition is correct, the wording is wrong at the ldsendowment.org website.