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The Family: A Proclamation to the World instructs that “by divine design, fathers are to preside over their families in love and righteousness” and that “fathers and mothers are obligated to help one another as equal partners.” Some see this instruction as contradictory, so how can we reconcile this seeming discrepancy?
As a student at BYU studying marriage and family, I noticed that when the role of fathers was brought up it was difficult for some to discuss. They struggled reconciling the two statements in The Family: A Proclamation to the World. How can fathers both preside and serve as an equal partner? As a result, some just ignored one teaching in preference for the other. But this never satisfied me. I didn’t believe these two doctrines were contradictory and I wanted to understand how they fit together.
The Creation of Equal Partners
To understand these two doctrines, we need to go back to the beginning when God first taught these principles to Adam and Eve. After God created Adam in his own image, he noted that “it is not good that the man should be alone” and decided to create a “help meet for him” (Gen. 2:18; see also Moses 3:18). The footnote explains that a “help meet” is a “helper suited to, worthy of, or corresponding to him” (footnote 18b). In other words, a “help meet” is an “equal partner.” The equal partner that was created for Adam was his wife, the woman we know as Eve.
President Boyd K. Packer explained, “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. Neither alone nor with other men could Adam progress. Nor could Eve with another woman. It was so then. It is so today. Eve, an help meet, was created. Marriage was instituted” (Packer, Ensign Nov. 1993).
The scriptural account of Eve’s creation teaches that she was taken “from one of [Adam’s] ribs” (Gen. 2:21; Mos. 3:21). “The story of the rib, of course, is figurative” taught President Spencer W. Kimball (Ensign March 1976). The purpose of this symbolic story is again to emphasize Eve’s role as Adam’s equal partner. She was not taken from his head to rule over him, or from his foot to be ruled by him, but figuratively, Eve was taken from Adam’s side because she belongs at his side. From the beginning, man and woman, husband and wife, were created to serve side by side as equal partners.
The Roles of Mother and Father
Before the Fall of Adam and Eve, they could not have children and therefore could not progress to become like their Heavenly Parents (2 Nephi 2:23). After their fall, the Lord explained their potential to have children and their new roles as parents. Eve was told that her role as mother would center on bearing and rearing children, even though that would come at personal sacrifice and sorrow (Gen. 3:16; Moses 4:22). Reaffirming this responsibility, the Proclamation states that “mothers are primarily responsible for the nurture of their children” (The Family: A Proclamation to the World).
Adam was told that his role as father would center in providing for his family “by the sweat of [his] face” (Gen. 3:19; Moses 4:25) and that he was called “to rule over” them (Gen. 3:16; Moses 4:22). Because the term “rule” can be easily misunderstood to justify “unrighteous dominion” (D&C 121:37-39), the chapter heading of Genesis 3 rephrases this instruction as “Adam presides.” President Spencer W. Kimball further explained, “the word rule … gives the wrong impression. I would prefer to use the word preside because that’s what he does. A righteous husband [and father] presides” (Kimball, Ensign March 1976). Echoing this original instruction to father Adam, the Proclamation 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.”
Serving as Equal Partners
As mentioned earlier, the instruction for a husband and wife to serve as equal partners and for a father to preside in the home are sometimes seen as contradictory and some wonder how to interpret this differing instruction. Perhaps the simplest way to interpret the Lord’s instruction is to find out what it meant to those who originally received it. By observing Adam and Eve after they left the Garden of Eden, we can see how they obeyed these teachings and can learn much about how we might apply these principles today.
Adam and Eve powerfully demonstrated what it means to serve as equal partners. In Moses 5 we read that “Adam began to till the earth … And Eve, also, his wife, did labor with him” (v1). Soon, “they began to multiply and to replenish the earth” (v2). Together, “Adam and Eve … called upon the name of the Lord, and they heard the voice of the Lord … speaking unto them” (v4). Not only did they receive revelation together, but they even spoke by inspiration and gave scripture together! (see v11-12). Then, “they made all these things known unto their sons and their daughters” (v12).
Summarizing all of this, Handbook 2: Administering the Church states that “Being one in marriage requires a full partnership. For example, Adam and Eve worked together, prayed and worshipped together, sacrificed together, taught their children the gospel together, and mourned over wayward children together (see Moses 5:1, 4, 12, 27). They were united with each other and with God.” (Handbook 2 1.3.1). This is what it means to serve as equal partners.
Nurturing and Presiding in the Family
In addition to their service together, Adam and Eve each fulfilled their individual roles in the family. For example, we learn that Eve “conceived and bare” children and that she nurtured them (Moses 5:16). Her efforts to nurture were not limited to their physical development, but the scriptures emphasize her concern over their spiritual growth (see also President Henry B. Eyring, Ensign Nov. 2018). When her son Cain was born, she announced, “I have gotten a man from the Lord” and she expressed hope that she could raise him so that “he may not reject [God’s] words” (Moses 5:16). Tragically, Cain did not listen to his faithful parents, bringing the very sorrow in mothering that God had predicted (Moses 4:22).
But what did it mean for Adam to preside? How did he fulfill his specific role in the family? To preside means to “be in a position of authority in a meeting or gathering” or, in this case, a family. What gave Adam authority in the family was that he held the priesthood, meaning he was conferred the priesthood and ordained to priesthood office by God “in the creation” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 157). Although women are given priesthood authority in their Church callings and endowed to priesthood power in the temple, only men are called by God to hold the priesthood by holding priesthood office (see President Dallin H. Oaks, Ensign May 2014). Apparently, one reason why men like Adam are given the priesthood is so that they can bring that authority into their home and use it to govern their family with their wife.
In Doctrine and Covenants 107 we learn that when priesthood was first “instituted in the days of Adam” (v41), it was originally patriarchal, meaning that it was relating to fathers. This patriarchal “order of [the Melchizedek] priesthood was confirmed to be handed down from father to son” unto who it “rightly belongs” (v40). In other words, priesthood belonged to fathers—Abraham even referred to priesthood as “the right belonging to the fathers” (Abr. 1:2). This priesthood gave these righteous fathers, or patriarchs, the right to preside, with their wives sealed at their sides, in a system of family government called the patriarchal order.
Expounding this concept, President Ezra Taft Benson taught: “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 [marriage] 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. These covenants today can only be entered into by going to the House of the Lord. … They are received in no other place on this earth! … Go to the temple—our Father’s house—to receive the blessings of your fathers that you may be entitled to the highest blessings of the priesthood” (President Ezra Taft Benson, Aug. 1985 Ensign).
As President Benson makes clear, celestial marriage creates a family system of government that organized and governed the Lord’s people in the days of Adam (for more information on this structure of Church government see endnote to this article)[i]. Furthermore, he explained that this family government, or patriarchal order, will again govern the Lord’s people in the highest degree of the celestial kingdom of God. This is what the Lord meant in D&C 107 when he said to Adam (and implicitly to Eve) “I have set thee to be at the head [of the human family] … and thou art a prince over them forever” (v55). Adam and Eve, like all faithful fathers and mothers sealed in celestial marriage, were to lead their family in time and through all eternity.
In this family government, wives do not serve as their husband’s “first counselor” in a lower position of hierarchy. Instead, she serves as his equal partner. President Dallin H. Oaks explained this concept when he taught the following about partnership: “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. The concept of partnership functions differently in the family than in the Church” (Oaks, Ensign Nov. 2005).
As a result, fathers and mothers today are to govern their families as Adam and Eve did anciently. They are to lead together, make decisions together, receive revelation together, and serve their families together. Presiding in this case simply means that the father holds the priesthood in their joint leadership and equal partnership. Holding the priesthood does not make him more of a leader, but it does mean that it is through the authority that he holds that they can both lead and govern their family together.
Presiding as Administering Ordinances
But for a father to fully preside, he must do more than govern his family jointly with his wife. He must use his priesthood to make his own unique contribution to the family. Just as a righteous mother primarily nurtures children, so a righteous father provides a form of priesthood nurturing by administering ordinances, just like Adam did. “Three years previous to the death of Adam, he called … the residue of his posterity who were righteous, into the valley of Adam-ondi-Ahman, and there bestowed upon them his last blessing. And the Lord appeared unto them” (v53). For Adam, presiding with the priesthood meant using his priesthood to bless his family and bring them into the presence of God through saving ordinances.
President Ezra Taft Benson explained this verse when he taught: “How did Adam bring his descendants into the presence of the Lord? The answer: Adam and his descendants entered into the priesthood order of God. Today we would say they went to the House of the Lord and received their blessings … Adam followed this order and brought his posterity into the presence of God” (Benson, Aug. 1985 Ensign).
The implications of this are profound. It means that men are given priesthood primarily so that they can serve as righteous fathers who can bless their families and administer saving ordinances to them. In a perfect world, the person who would baptize and confirm you would be your father. The one who would bless you as a baby or when you are sick or needed comfort would be your father. This is what it means for a father to preside. It means he is given priesthood authority in the home so that he can exercise it to serve and bless and ultimately save his family.
Church historian Steven Harper explained the impact of this divine doctrine on fatherhood when he taught: “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’” (Steven Harper, Making Sense of the Doctrine and Covenants, p.397-398).
Doctrine and Covenants 107 did not originally include verses 60-100, these were added later (see section heading). This means that after the original revelation explained the role of presiding high priests, Bishops, Seventy, and Apostles, it culminated by teaching about priesthood fathers. In this inspired sequence the Lord was sending the message that the ultimate purpose for men holding the priesthood is not to serve as Bishops, stake presidents, or even General Authorities. The ultimate purpose is to serve as priesthood fathers and to use their priesthood to bless, serve, and save their families—just as our Heavenly Father does! In a world that often views fathers as unnecessary or obsolete, priesthood gives them a unique role and something irreplaceable to contribute. It gives them a divine and eternal purpose in the family.
Although there is still much to learn about the divine yet distinct roles of men and women in God’s plan, these principles illustrated by Adam and Eve help us to understand how the original father and mother served as equal partners and how they governed their family together. It meant that they worked together, prayed together, received revelation together, and led their family together as they journeyed back to God, side by side.
And yet, Adam and Eve also illustrate the separate and unique roles they each filled in their family. Eve, as a mother, was primarily focused on the nurture of their children. And when it came time for baptism or confirmation, for blessing the sick or afflicted, for priesthood ordination or temple sealings, Adam alone was qualified to do this. He held the priesthood and was called to exercise it to serve and save his family. That is central to what it means to preside, and why priesthood is “the right belonging to the fathers” (Abr. 1:2).
[i] Instead of being organized into wards and stakes like we are today, in the patriarchal order the Lord’s people are literally just one big family, organized into a multi-generational family chain (see D&C 128:18). We learn in D&C 107 that the priesthood leaders in each generation of this original family chain were Adam, “Seth, Enos, Cainan, Mahalaleel, Jared, Enoch, and Methuselah, who were all high priests (D&C 107:53),” meaning presiding high priests in this family priesthood line of authority. All fathers had authority to preside in their own immediate families, but these specific fathers had a birthright to lead their generation of fathers because they were the line of firstborn sons, or at least the oldest righteous son in every generation. (To compare it to modern-day, these fathers were like the bishops and stake presidents etc. with Adam serving as the president of the Church).