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.