In response to the marvelous webpage the Church recently posted called “Motherhood,” one mother wrote about how disappointed she was at the statement that Motherhood is “the highest, holiest service assumed by humankind.” She explained that motherhood is a mere biological function, and that her highest calling is to become like Christ, not to simply give birth. I am afraid that many modern mothers see their roles as mothers in this way. And at the risk of embarrassing mothers with attention, or discouraging them with a seemingly impossible comparison, I want to suggest that while it is true that a mother’s highest calling is to become like Christ, it is through acting in her role as a mother that this highest calling is actualized.
A few years ago, I had the opportunity to meet Dr. Valerie Hudson and hear her talk about her ideas regarding the status of women in the Church.[i] While Dr. Hudson was a professor of political science at Brigham Young University, she was listed as one of the “100 Top Global Thinkers of 2009? by Foreign Policy Magazine for her work in showing that the status of women in a society is linked to the fate of their nations with regard to their domestic stability, prosperity and national security. Her political ideas are interesting to me and have important significance for world affairs. However, her ideas as they relate to the gospel are even more interesting and have eternal significance.
Of course, when talking about women and the priesthood, there are many things we don’t know or understand, and it is easy to hurt people’s feelings, especially on Mother’s Day. In that regard, I would like to make it clear that Dr. Hudson’s ideas, and the things I have to add, are only one way of looking at things. They do not answer every question, but I hope it will help shed some light on some issues.
Like so many things in the gospel, the foundation for these ideas goes back to the beginning. As spirit children of our Father and Mother in heaven, we desired to become like them. But we could only do so if we received bodies and the opportunity a mortal life would give us to grow, and to be tested to see if we were worthy to exercise the same power that is exercised by God.
I can imagine that we must have watched as Adam and Eve went to Earth and were placed in a garden, located eastward in Eden.[ii] They were first told to “Be fruitful, and multiply, and [to fill][iii] the Earth.”[iv] This would allow the rest of us to enter mortality, and give us the chance to gain bodies, gain experience, and be tested.
However, in their initial state of innocence and immortality, they were unable to have children.[v] So among all the other trees in the garden, there were two that were more important than the others. There was the Tree of Life, which had fruit that would allow Adam and Eve to live forever, and there was the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, which would make them mortal, but able to have children.[vi] The fruit of this tree was the only one that would allow Adam and Eve to have the experiences they needed to be able to grow and progress toward becoming as Heavenly Father and Heavenly Mother.[vii]
As Eve, the mother of all living, decided to partake of the fruit and then offer it to Adam, we must have rejoiced as she was also giving all of us the opportunity to pass through the veil that divided us from mortality in order to come to this Earth. Throughout history, Eve has stood as a symbol to the world of the folly of women, and the way in which women have only brought evil into the world. However, through the restoration of the gospel through Joseph Smith, we have learned that Eve is to be respected, admired and revered for her wisdom and willingness to leave paradise so she may help all of us to receive bodies, to be tested, and gain the experience we need in order to become as our Heavenly Father and Mother.
Of course, once we passed through the veil and came to this Earth, it is our hope that we may pass back through the veil and live forever in the presence of God. Before doing so, we must be able to partake of the fruit of the other tree, the Tree of Life. The problem for us now, is that as we experience mortality, and gain the experience we need to become like God, we invariably sin and become unworthy to live with God. After Adam and Eve became mortal, God barred the way to the Tree of Life in order to help protect us from living forever in our sins and being forever shut out from the presence of God.[viii] So before partaking of the fruit of the Tree of Life, and passing through the veil back into the presence of God, we must become cleansed of our sins through the atonement of Christ. In order to do this, we must have faith, repent, and be baptized by water and by the Holy Ghost.
The ordinances of baptism and confirmation, which enable us to become clean, are administered by those who hold the priesthood. So, Eve stood at the veil by the Tree of Knowledge to help us to pass through the veil to enter into mortality, and Adam, who holds the priesthood, stands at the veil by the Tree of Life, to help us pass back through the veil to enter into eternal life. We could not experience eternal life, and live as God lives, without the roles played by both Adam and Eve. Both roles are essential. One is not more important than the other. Just as Adam hearkened unto Eve in partaking of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, Eve should hearken unto Adam as they make their way toward the Tree of Life.
Every mother is like Eve in that she stands at the veil and helps spirit children of our Heavenly Father enter into mortality. Fathers who hold the priesthood usher us back toward the veil and give us access to the Fruit of the Tree of Life through administration of the priesthood ordinances.
Of course, all of the ordinances of salvation are performed in our temple buildings. Paul teaches that our bodies are temples since temples are where the Spirit of God dwells, and the Spirit of God should dwell also in us.[ix] Beyond this, in the ordinances of the priesthood there seem to be additional ways in which a woman’s body is analogous to a temple, where these ordinances take place.
In the Book of Moses, we read that being born again through baptism by water and by the Holy Ghost is analogous to our first birth. In Moses 6:59, we read that “inasmuch as ye were born into the world by water, and blood, and the spirit, .
. . even so ye must be born again into the kingdom of heaven, of water, and of the Spirit, and be cleansed by blood, even the blood of mine Only Begotten; that ye might be sanctified from all sin, and enjoy the words of eternal life in this world, and eternal life in the world to come, even immortal glory.”
In the temple, we also receive protective clothing. Similarly, a spirit is clothed with a body when it enters the temple of a mother’s body.[x] In the temple, the way to the celestial room is covered by a veil. Similarly, women in the temple wear veils. That which is most holy in the temple, is covered by a veil.
I think it is significant, when we think about all of the ordinances that are necessary to our exaltation, that while we all need to be baptized and confirmed, washed, anointed, endowed and sealed, only men need to enter into the oath and covenant of the priesthood. We know that the covenants we make are intended to help us to grow and to become perfected. So with respect to attaining perfection, it seems that women already have something that is lacking in men. As Elder Matthew Cowley taught, “men have to have something given to them [in mortality] to make them saviors of men, but not mothers, not women. [They] are born with an inherent right, an inherent authority, to be the saviors of human souls … and the regenerative force in the lives of God’s children.”
We are further told by Paul that while women need men to be exalted, men also cannot be exalted without women. Paul wrote: “Nevertheless neither is the man without the woman, neither the woman without the man, in the Lord.” Thus, we are exalted together.[xi]
As we consider the roles of men and women, we may tend to think that men’s roles are more important. Once we pass through the veil and receive the gift of physical life that is given to us by our mothers, the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge, as we make our way around the circle of life back toward the veil, to receive the gift of spiritual life, the fruit from the Tree of Life, we may become focused on the role that men play in this regard and mistakenly think that it is more important. Our backs are turned toward the Tree of Knowledge as we face the Tree of Life.
The terminology and customs we use in this fallen world sometimes also lend themselves to this improper ordering. The fact that men and women have different roles to play does not mean men and women are unequal. People can be different and still be equal.
Unfortunately, throughout the history of the world, Satan seems to have been at work confusing the roles of men and women and at times, leading the world to believe men are more important than women and more recently, teaching that men’s and women’s roles are the same or even that men are irrelevant. The messages we receive are confusing. We receive guidance from the scriptures, but even the scriptures can be difficult to understand. We read in the scriptures that Eve was told by God that “Thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee.”[xii] Modern-day revelation can help in this regard. Commenting on this scripture, President Spencer W. Kimball said: “I have a question about the word rule. It gives the wrong impression. I would prefer to use the word preside because that’s what he does. A righteous husband presides over his wife and family”[xiii]
In the Proclamation to the World on the Family, we read: “By divine design, fathers are to preside over their families in love and righteousness and are responsible to provide the necessities of life and protection for their families. Mothers are primarily responsible for the nurture of their children. In these sacred responsibilities, fathers and mothers are obligated to help one another as equal partners.” So, what does it mean to say that men and women are equal, but that men preside?
Whatever else “preside” means, it cannot mean that the man is superior to the woman since in the same paragraph we read that fathers and mothers are equal partners. Therefore, presiding is simply a role fathers play that is equal to the role played by mothers. It is perhaps helpful in this regard to note that Elder Dallin Oaks stated that when his father died, it was not the young deacon Dallin Oaks who presided in the home, but his mother presided over his family.[xiv]
Elder Oaks clarified the responsibility to preside by quoting President Spencer W. Kimball when he said: “When we speak of marriage as a partnership, let us speak of marriage as a full partnership. We do not want our LDS women to be silent partners or limited partners in that eternal assignment! Please be a contributing and full partner”[xv] President Kimball also declared, “We have heard of men who have said to their wives, I hold the priesthood and you’ve got to do what I say.'” He said that such a man “should not be honored in his priesthood”[xvi] So it is highly significant that the Proclamation on the Family states that men are to preside “in love and righteousness.”
Paul was perhaps elaborating on this concept when he wrote: “For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the church…. Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it”[xvii] This is a different kind of leadership than the world is familiar with that would require the one who is at the head to give his life for the others.
The fact that men and women are intended to be seen as equals is suggested at, and in places explicit, though often misunderstood, in the creation story. Elder Russell Nelson noted that: “From the rib of Adam, Eve was formed (see Gen. 2:22; Moses 3:22; Abr. 5:16).” He continued: “I presume another bone could have been used, but the rib, coming as it does from the side, seems to denote partnership. The rib signifies neither dominion nor subservience, but a lateral relationship as partners, to work and to live, side by side.”[xviii]
A more direct example is that God said that since it is not good that man should be alone, he would make “an help meet for him.”[xix] This sounds to modern ears a lot like a servant. However, the word here for “help meet” is “ezer k’enegdo.” Diana Webb in her book Forgotten Women of God clarifies this word by explaining, “The noun ezer occurs 21 times in the Hebrew Bible. In eight of these instances the word means “savior”…. Elsewhere in the Bible, the root ezer means “strength…. the word is most frequently used to describe how God is an ezer to man.
The other part of the term “help meet” which is commonly translated as “meet for” or “fit for” is the word “k’enegdo”. This word could possibly be most correctly translated as “exactly corresponding to,” like when you look at yourself in a mirror.[xxii]
With these ideas in mind, author Beverly Campbell in her book, Eve and Choice Made in Eden suggested that a better translation of this verse might be: “It is not good that man should be alone. I will make him a companion of strength and power who has a saving power and is equal with him.”[xxiii]
So in what way are women saviors to mankind? Blogger Heather Farrell explained it in this way: “Women are saviors’ to men by the fact that they give them life and nurture them towards the light of Christ. By conceiving, creating and bearing mortal bodies women make it possible for God’s children to start on their mortal journey and have the opportunity to become perfected.”
“Without women there would be no gateway into this world and no opportunity for progress or exaltation. In addition, by being willing to sacrifice (their very lives if necessary) to bring children into this world women demonstrate the true meaning of charity. [Note that it also shows obedience and a willingness to consecrate.] From the very first breath a child takes he or she has been the recipient of charity and unconditional love. This is a powerful gift that a mother gives her child and it will be her love which will first remind the child of God and points him or her towards Christ. Each woman, regardless of her ability to give birth, is a savior to mankind when she loves men and nurtures a child closer to Christ.”[xxiv]
As a man and a father, I stand in awe of women who are willing to give birth. Three of my own children were delivered by C-section, two of which were in emergency situations after 24 hours of hard labor. I have a sister who has experienced exceptionally difficult pregnancies and likens pregnancy, with no hint of exaggeration, to walking through the valley of the shadow of death. And yet, women continue to have children. Christ said that there is no greater love laying down your life for others.[xxv] Mothers show this willingness every time they give birth, and continue to exhibit this Christ-like attribute in the way that they sacrifice of themselves for their children throughout the rest of their lives.
Of course, in light of the miraculous power of motherhood, and the endless opportunities for service, where would men be in the grand scheme of things without the opportunity to exercise the priesthood? Of course, the priesthood is not the power to order others around or compel others to obey one’s will, but it is an opportunity to bless the lives of others through service. We learn in the Doctrine and Covenants that the priesthood only operates “upon the principles of righteousness.” Men may be ordained to the priesthood, “but when we undertake to cover our sins, or to gratify our pride, our vain ambition, or to exercise control or dominion or compulsion upon the souls of the children of men, in any degree of unrighteousness, behold, the heavens withdraw themselves; the Spirit of the Lord is grieved; and when it is withdrawn, Amen to the priesthood or the authority of that man.”[xxvi]
We further read that “No power or influence can or ought to be maintained by virtue of the priesthood, only by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned; By kindness, and pure knowledge, which shall greatly enlarge the soul without hypocrisy, and without guile.” [xxvii] Isn’t it interesting that these are the same ways in which power and influence is maintained by a mother: by persuasion, long-suffering, gentleness, meekness and by love unfeigned. And isn’t it interesting that Christ Himself, in speaking of his desire to save the Jews of Jerusalem, compares himself not to a proud rooster, but to a protective mother hen.[xxviii]
Now as we talk about motherhood, some women will unfortunately feel excluded. In this regard, I love the words of Sheri Dew, the former General Relief Society President who, of course, has never borne children. She said: “While we tend to equate motherhood solely with maternity, in the Lord’s language, the word mother has layers of meaning. Of all the words they could have chosen to define her role and her essence, both God the Father and Adam called Eve “the mother of all living”-and they did so before she ever bore a child.”
“Like Eve, … motherhood began before [women] were born. Just as worthy men were foreordained to hold the priesthood in mortality, righteous women were endowed premortally with the privilege of motherhood. Motherhood is more than bearing children, though it is certainly that. It is the essence of who … women [are]. It defines [their] very identity, [their] divine stature and nature, and the unique traits our Father gave [women]…. Motherhood is not what was left over after our Father blessed His sons with priesthood ordination. It was the most ennobling endowment He could give His daughters, a sacred trust that gave women an unparalleled role in helping His children keep their second estate. As President J. Reuben Clark Jr. declared, motherhood is “as divinely called, as eternally important in its place as the Priesthood itself.”[xxix]
Note various ways in which the word “mother” is used, not just as a noun referring to a person who has given birth. It is often used as a verb meaning: to care for, nurture, protect, teach, befriend, guide, sometimes indulge, oftentimes to discipline, but always to love.
Note too that one of the central purposes of this life is to gain experience for the life to come. Not all men will be fathers or hold the priesthood in this life. Not all women will get married or have children in this life. It is interesting to find in the scriptures that every woman who is called “barren” eventually bears children of her own. This may be a lesson to us that whether in this life or the next, if we are true and faithful to the light we receive in this life, the experience we gain here will prepare us to receive every blessing God has in store for us in eternity. In Isaiah we read: “Sing O barren, thou that didst not bear; break forth into singing, and cry aloud, thou that didst not travail with child: for more are the children of the desolate than the children of the married wife, saith the Lord… For a small moment have I forsaken thee; but with great mercies will I gather thee.”[xxx]
So the experience and calling of motherhood is available to all women. If we are not careful, it is possible to see it as a mere biological function. However, even as a biological function, motherhood is divine and has salvific powers.
As women clothe the spirit children of heavenly parents with bodies, mothers share in the creative process of God. They provide opportunities for these children to make further progress toward exaltation.
If women were not willing to give birth, the work of God in bringing to pass the eternal life of mankind would be utterly frustrated. And after acting as co-creators with God, once children are here, it is through acting in the role of motherhood that women develop and display the most divine of attributes. Through their sacrifice and service, they show Christ-like love. They show a willingness to make further progress toward becoming like Christ themselves. And when any of us show a willingness to give our lives for others, whether it is through the process of childbirth or the process of dedicating our lives to nurturing, protecting, teaching, and loving others, it is the highest, holiest service.
[ii] Gen. 2:8.
[iii] The word “replenish” is rendered from the Hebrew word “fill.” (See footnote to Gen. 1:28.)
[iv] Gen. 1:28.
[v] 2 Ne. 2:23.
[vi] 2 Ne. 2:23.
[vii] Moses 5:11.
[viii] Alma 42:2-5.
[ix] 1 Cor. 6:19.
[x] Note that the tabernacle in the wilderness was covered in skins.
[xi] 1 Cor. 11:11
[xii] Gen. 3:16.
[xiii] “The Blessings and Responsibilities of Womanhood,” Ensign, Mar. 1976, 72.
[xv] The Teachings of Spencer W. Kimball, ed. Edward L. Kimball , 315.
[xvi] The Teachings of Spencer W. Kimball, 316.
[xvii] Eph. 5:23 & 25.
[xviii] Russell M. Nelson, “Lessons from Eve,” Ensign, Nov 1987, 86.
[xix] Gen. 2:18.
[xxi] “For example the word “ebenezer” in 1 Samuel 7:12 is used to describe the power of God’s deliverance. “Eben” means rock and “ezer” means “help” or “salvation“. Ebenezer therefore means “rock of help” or “rock of salvation”. The root “ezer” is the same word that God used to describe to Adam who Eve was. She was not intended to be just his helper or his companion, rather she was intended to be his savior, his deliverer.” http://womeninthescriptures.blogspot.com/2010/11/real-meaning-of-term-help-meet.html
[xxii] The other part of the term “help meet” which is commonly translated as “meet for” or “fit for” is the word “k’enegdo”. It is hard to know exactly what the word k’enegdo means because it only appears once in the entire Bible. Yet Diana Webb explained that, “Neged, a related word which means “against”, was one of the first words I learned in Hebrew. I thought it was very strange that God would create a companion for Adam that was “against” him! Later, I learned that kenegdo could also mean “in front of” or “opposite.” This still didn’t help much. Finally I heard it explained as being “exactly corresponding to,” like when you look at yourself in a mirror.” http://womeninthescriptures.blogspot.com/2010/11/real-meaning-of-term-help-meet.html
[xxiii] P. 25.
[xxv] John 15:13.
[xxvi] D&C 121:36-37.
[xxvii] D&C 121:41-42.
[xxviii] Matt. 23:37.
[xxix] Are We Not All Mothers, Ensign. Nov. 2001
[xxx] Isa. 54:1, 7.