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Cover image: “Light Bearers” by Annie Henrie Nader
Some may wonder what priesthood authority, if any, women have in a church where only men are ordained to priesthood office and preside as priesthood leaders, but women in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have always had priesthood authority.
Although this authority has been a revealed part of the Church from the beginning, it has not always been clearly understood by many Church members. This article seeks to clarify this important doctrine by explaining three ways women have priesthood authority in the Church and one way that is unique to men.
Note: I am not the first to write on this important topic. Barbara Morgan Gardner (Helping Female Students Rise to their Spiritual Privileges, Religious Educator 18, p. 117-139) and Wendy Ulrich have examined many of the same prophetic sources and drawn similar and related conclusions. These articles have inspired me and I recommend them to the reader who desires to know more about the topic of women and the priesthood in the LDS church.
1. Women have priesthood authority in their Church callings
In a landmark talk on women and the priesthood, Elder Dallin H. Oaks taught: “We are not accustomed to speaking of women having the authority of the priesthood in their Church callings, but what other authority can it be? When a woman—young or old—is set apart … she is given priesthood authority to perform a priesthood function … Whoever functions in an office or calling received from one who holds priesthood keys exercises priesthood authority in performing her or his assigned duties” (Dallin H. Oaks, Ensign May 2014). As this powerful statement declares, women are given priesthood authority through the setting apart to their Church callings.
Although this was a novel idea for many members of the Church, it is grounded in the early revelations of the Doctrine and Covenants. For example, only three months after the Church was organized, the Lord told Emma Smith that “thou shalt be ordained under his [Joseph Smith’s] hand to expound scriptures, and exhort the church, according as it shall be given thee by my Spirit” (D&C 25:7).
In our day we use the term “ordain” exclusively for priesthood ordinations of men and would use the term “set apart” to describe the authority Emma is promised here (see footnote 7a). However, we should recognize the importance of this revelation in establishing the role and authority of women in the Church. Despite statements in the Bible that “women keep silence in the churches” (1 Cor. 14:34), this early revelation restores the rightful and authorized place of women in the Church to teach and preach scripture just like ordained elders (see D&C 20:42 for the same language describing the work of elders).
Furthermore, the Lord has revealed that “all other authorities or offices in the Church are appendages to this [Melchizedek] priesthood” (D&C 107:5). This means that the auxiliary organizations of Relief Society, Young Women, Young Men, Primary, and Sunday School, are all appendages that are attached to the priesthood. This means that they derive their authority from the priesthood to assist in the work of salvation.
Indeed, as Elder Dallin H. Oaks explained, “it is truly said that Relief Society is not just a class for women but something they belong to—a divinely established appendage to the priesthood” (Dallin H. Oaks, Ensign May 2014). This is in harmony with what the Prophet Joseph Smith taught when he first organized the Relief Society “in the order of the priesthood after the pattern of the Church” and commissioned them to not only “relieve the poor,” but to “save souls” (See Gospel Topic Essay: Joseph Smith’s Teachings about Priesthood, Temple, Women).
2. Women have priesthood authority and power through the Temple endowment
In another key talk on women and the priesthood, Elder M. Russell Ballard explained that “when men and women go to the temple, they are both endowed with the same power, which by definition is priesthood power. … Access to the power and blessings of the priesthood is available to all of God’s children” (Elder M. Russell Ballard, Ensign Sept. 2014). Although women are not ordained to priesthood office, they are endowed to priesthood power and authority in the temple.
This concept is consistent with the dedicatory prayer of the Kirtland Temple where the Prophet Joseph Smith prayed: “And we ask thee, Holy Father, that thy servants may go forth from this house armed with thy power, and that thy name may be upon them, and thy glory be round about them, and thine angels have charge over them” (D&C 109:22, emphasis added). The term “servants” is gender neutral and applies equally to both men and women.
In the temple, women and men are both endowed with spiritual power and authority as they “more completely and fully take upon [themselves] the name of Jesus Christ” (Elder David A. Bednar, Ensign May 2009). The full blessings of the temple endowment were first revealed in Nauvoo and were administered to both men and women.
It is through this endowment of priesthood power and authority that women are authorized to “perform and officiate in holy rites in the Church’s temples” (Gospel Topic Essay: Joseph Smith’s Teachings about Priesthood, Temple, Women). As Elder Ballard has explained, “All who enter the house of the Lord officiate in the ordinances of the priesthood” (Elder M. Russell Ballard, Ensign Sept. 2014, emphasis added). Although there was a time in early church history when some women exercised this priesthood authority outside of the temple to administer to the sick, it was later clarified that the authority of women to perform ordinances belonged more exclusively to the temple (Gospel Topic Essay: Joseph Smith’s Teachings about Priesthood, Temple, Women). Since that time, Church members have been encouraged to follow the New Testament precedent to “call for the elders” when they are sick (James 5:14).
3. Women have priesthood authority through temple marriage to preside with their husbands over their posterity for time and eternity
The Family: A Proclamation to the World states that “by divine design, fathers are to preside over their families in love and righteousness,” … “mothers are primarily responsible for the nurture of their children,” and in these complementary roles “fathers and mothers are obligated to help one another as equal partners” (“The Family: A Proclamation to the World,” Ensign, Nov. 1995). Although fathers are called to preside, their wives are called to be their equal partners. Inherent in this divine partnership is the idea that mothers preside with their husbands over their children.
Elder Dallin H. Oaks explained, “A most important difference in the functioning of priesthood authority in the family and in the Church results from the fact that the government of the family is patriarchal, whereas the government of the Church is hierarchical” (Ensign Oct. 2005). To illustrate his point, Elder Oaks shared from his own life experience: “When my father died, my mother presided over our family. She had no priesthood office, but as the surviving parent in her [temple] marriage she had become the governing officer in her family. At the same time, she was always totally respectful of the priesthood authority of our bishop and other Church leaders. She presided over her family, but they presided over the Church” (Elder Dallin H. Oaks, Ensign Oct. 2005).
This order of family government, where fathers and mothers preside over their children, is called the patriarchal order and is entered into through eternal marriage. President Ezra Taft Benson explained that, “the order of priesthood spoken of in the scriptures is sometimes referred to as the patriarchal order because it came down from father to son. But this order is otherwise described in modern revelation as an order of family government where a man and woman enter into a covenant with God—just as did Adam and Eve—to be sealed for eternity, to have posterity, and to do the will and work of God throughout their mortality. If a couple are true to their covenants, they are entitled to the blessing of the highest degree of the celestial kingdom” (President Ezra Taft Benson, Ensign Aug. 1985).
As President Benson explained, this patriarchal order of family government through eternal marriage is what allows us to enter the highest degree of the celestial kingdom. The Lord revealed to the prophet Joseph Smith that “in the celestial glory there are three heavens or degrees; And in order to obtain the highest, a man must enter into this [patriarchal] order of the priesthood [meaning the new and everlasting covenant of marriage]” (D&C 131:1-2). This order is what also allows us to preside over our families for time and all eternity. As the Lord explained to Adam [and implicitly to Eve] “I have set thee to be at the head; a multitude of nations shall come of thee, and thou art a prince over them forever” (D&C 107:55).
These blessings of presiding over our families for eternity in the highest degree of the celestial kingdom are the blessings of becoming like our Heavenly Father and Mother. As Elder Bruce R. McConkie explained, “If righteous men have power through the gospel and its crowning ordinance of celestial marriage to become kings and priests to rule in exaltation forever, it follows that the women by their side (without whom they cannot attain exaltation) will be queens and priestesses. (Rev. 1:6; 5:10.)
Exaltation grows out of the eternal union of a man and his wife. Of those whose marriage endures in eternity, the Lord says, ‘Then shall they be gods’ (D&C 132:20); that is, each of them, the man and the woman, will be a god. As such they will rule over their dominions forever” (Mormon Doctrine, 613; Note: the term “god” can apply to both exalted men and women in the scriptures. The term “goddess” is not used in Church doctrine).
Only men are conferred the priesthood and ordained to priesthood office.
Although women have priesthood authority through their callings and by virtue of temple ordinances, we typically would not say that women “hold the priesthood” because they are not conferred the priesthood or ordained to priesthood office. As the Gospel Topic Essay states, “neither Joseph Smith, nor any person acting on his behalf, nor any of his successors conferred the Aaronic or Melchizedek Priesthood on women or ordained women to priesthood office” (Gospel Topic Essay: Joseph Smith’s Teachings about Priesthood, Temple, Women). This is also true in our temple work for the dead, where we ordain men to be elders as part of their vicarious endowment but do not ordain women to priesthood office.
From the beginning, only men have been ordained to priesthood office. As the Lord revealed to the prophet Joseph Smith, “The order of this priesthood was confirmed to be handed down from father to son” on whom it “rightly belongs” (D&C 197:40, emphasis added). It is important to remember however, that “men are not ‘the priesthood.’ Men hold the priesthood, with a sacred duty to use it for the blessing of all of the children of God” (Elder Dallin H. Oaks, Ensign May 2014). Thus, regardless of who holds the priesthood, “access to the power and blessings of the priesthood is available to all of God’s children” (Elder M. Russell Ballard, Ensign Sept. 2014)
Why men are ordained to the priesthood and women are not has not been clearly revealed and it is wise for us to not speculate with ideas that might be confusing or condescending. Elder Dallin H. Oaks has explained, “If you read the scriptures with this question in mind, ‘Why did the Lord command this or why did he command that,’ you find that in less than one in a hundred commands was any reason given. It’s not the pattern of the Lord to give reasons. We [mortals] can put reasons to … commandments. When we do, we’re on our own” and our answers can turn “out to be spectacularly wrong. Let’s don’t make the mistake that’s been made in the past… [of] trying to put reasons to revelation” (Life’s Lessons Learned, 68–69).
Although the reason for why men are given priesthood authority has not been revealed, the Lord has revealed what men are supposed to do with this priesthood. As mentioned earlier, priesthood holders are to use their priesthood authority to administer the blessings of the gospel and its ordinances to all of God’s children (D&C 107:18-20). However, men have a particular responsibility to administer these blessings to their families as priesthood fathers.
Fathers are to use the priesthood to bless and administer ordinances to their family
One of the greatest revelations on priesthood given in our dispensation is found in Doctrine and Covenants 107. Although several verses were added to the revelation later (see section heading), when it was originally revealed it concluded with a climactic lesson about fatherhood. It revealed that Adam was the first priesthood father and he used his priesthood to administer ordinances and bless both his sons and his daughters to bring them all into the presence of God (D&C 107:53-54). He also ordained his own sons so that they could in turn bless their own posterity with that priesthood (D&C 107:41-53).
As a result, D&C 107 is not just a revelation on priesthood, but a revelation on fatherhood. It reveals that, in the beginning, priesthood was tied to fatherhood and that fathers were primarily to use their priesthood to bless and serve their families. In fact, Abraham referred to priesthood as the “right belonging to the fathers” and “the appointment of God unto the fathers” (Abr. 1:2,4). We see this principle in action today as faithful fathers use their conferred priesthood authority to bless their babies, baptize and confirm their children, and administer to their sick family members.
As Church historian Steven Harper has explained, “One immeasurable result of Doctrine and Covenants 107 is the way it gives meaning to men’s lives. Section 132 emphasizes the priesthood’s exalting power for women and men, but the particular power of section 107 gives ordinary, even inadequate men both duty and destiny that can motivate them to rise to far greater heights of service to God and family than they would if left to their natural inclinations. The revelation came at a time when American culture was beginning to erode fatherhood. Noting how the exalting priesthood principles of section 107 seemed to have a powerful influence on Joseph’s own father, historian Richard Bushman went so far as to say that ‘in restoring priesthood, Joseph restored fatherhood’” (Harper, Making Sense of the Doctrine and Covenants, p.397-399).
This connection between fatherhood and priesthood helps us interpret what the Family Proclamation means when it states that “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” (Ensign, Nov. 1995). Historically, some fathers have neglected these responsibilities or assumed that this commission gave them a right to be the boss and practice “unrighteous dominion” (D&C 121:39; see Oaks Ensign Oct. 2005). In reality, to preside as a priesthood leader means to serve (Matt. 23:11) and fathers are to fulfill their unique calling to preside, provide, and protect by using their priesthood to bless and serve their families (D&C 107:40-53).
This means that the greatest purpose for men holding the priesthood is not to serve as Bishops or Stake Presidents, but to serve as fathers. Fatherhood “is an eternal calling from which you are never released. Callings in the Church, as important as they are, by their very nature are only for a period of time” (President Ezra Taft Benson, Ensign Nov. 1987). Truly, as President Harold B. Lee repeatedly taught Church leaders, “The most important of the Lord’s work you will ever do will be within the walls of your own homes” (Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Harold B. Lee, 134).
Although we do not know all the reasons for why men and women have the different roles that they do in our Heavenly Fathers’ plan, we do know that these roles are intentionally not the same. Many in our modern culture assume that gender roles must be the same for them to be equal, but living prophets have consistently taught a different message. For example, Elder Dallin H. Oaks has taught that “In the eyes of God … women and men are equal, with different responsibilities” (Oaks, Ensign, May 2014).
This echoed the words of Elder M. Russell Ballard who has taught that “men and women are equal in God’s eyes and in the eyes of the Church, but equal does not mean the same. The responsibilities and divine gifts of men and women differ in their nature but not in their importance or influence. God does not regard either gender as better or more important than the other” (Ballard, Ensign, sept 2014).
The different gifts and roles of men and women are intended to complement each other. “The natures of male and female spirits complete and perfect each other, and therefore men and women are intended to progress together toward exaltation” (Elder David A. Bednar, Ensign Feb. 2006). It was never intended that man or woman be alone. As President Boyd K. Packer taught, “At first, Adam was alone. He held the priesthood, but alone, he could not fulfill the purposes of his creation. No other man would do. … Except Adam and Eve by nature be different from one another, they could not multiply and fill the earth. The complementing differences are the very key to the plan of happiness” (Packer, Ensign Nov. 1993).
As the story of Adam and Eve powerfully teaches, men and women are not created to be in competition with one another, striving to be independent of the other. On the contrary, Eve was created to be a “help meet” or worthy companion to Adam (Gen. 2:18, footnote b). In other words, she was created to be his “equal partner” (Family Proclamation). She was figuratively created from his rib to teach us that she belonged at his side, created by God as his complementary equal. And together, with their different but equal roles, they were to serve and bless each other and their children for time and for all eternity (Moses 5:1-5). This they both did, with the authorization and approval of God and his holy priesthood.