Thursday, December 29, 2011

Women and the Priesthood

Some time ago one of my students asked me for my views on why women in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints do not hold the priesthood. The Church has already addressed that issue at with a quote from the late President Gordon B. Hinckley, but his answer is largely circular, saying, in essence, that "women do not hold the priesthood because God has said that women should not hold the priesthood." While President Hinckley's explanation may be true, it hardly addresses my student's desire for understanding as to why God has directed Church leaders not to ordain women to the priesthood.

Of course, having acknowledged the potentially frustrating circularity of this response, I should note that, according to the groundbreaking research of Robert Putnam and David Campbell in American Grace, female members of the Church are more satisfied with their relationship to the priesthood than women in any other American denomination. Putnam and Campbell find that approximately 36% of Mormons think that women's influence in religion is "just right"; evangelicals are the next most satisfied group, and only 15% of them think that women's influence in religion is "just right" (chart, p. 245). More than any other religious group Mormons are satisfied with women's religious roles--and Mormon women are actually more satisfied than men: “Mormon women are overwhelmingly opposed to women as (lay) priests, but Mormon men have more mixed views: 90 percent of Mormon women as compared to 52 percent of Mormon men. In short, Mormons, especially Mormon women, appear to be the only substantial holdouts against the growing and substantial consensus across the religious spectrum in favor of women playing a fuller role in church leadership” (244). Nine out of ten LDS women oppose female ordination to the priesthood, largely because they feel as though they already have a perfectly proportioned role--one that is 'just right'--in church governance.

These statistics suggest that 90% of my female readership (and 48% of my male readership!) may not be interested in what I am about to write, so I dedicate this post to the tithe of Mormon women who might still be interested in what I have to say. But before I can address the question of why Mormon women do not hold the priesthood you--and I--need to come to a mutual understanding as to what we mean by "the priesthood." In one of my favorite General Conference talks of recent memory, President Boyd K. Packer reiterated the standard Mormon definition for the priesthood: "Priesthood is the authority and the power which God has granted to men on earth to act for Him." That definition is wonderful, but it tends to be interpreted very narrowly. There are a multitude of activities which you and I--indeed all of God's children!--have both the divinely-given power and authority to undertake, on God's behalf, that fall outside the traditional definition of priesthood ordinances. 

We all have (or are entitled to have) both the power and authority to: exercise our faith through fasting and prayer on behalf of others with physical, emotional, mental, or spiritual needs; bear testimony that Jesus is the Christ; and (when married) conceive and raise children. All of God's children have both the power and the authority to act on His behalf in these matters when they are living in obedience to his commandments. Members of the Church do not, however, commonly refer to these activities as priesthood service, reserving the term priesthood service for ordinances such as anointing the sick and baptizing or for administering most organizational divisions of the church. The priesthood certainly embraces such functions, but it also encompasses many more activities that are not traditionally acknowledged under the umbrella of priesthood power and authority.

Our narrow application of the word priesthood imposes artificial limitations on an expansive scriptural concept. The Doctrine and Covenants reveals that the full name for the priesthood is "The Holy Priesthood after the Order of the Son of God" (107:3), and the Book of Mormon helps us to understand the reason that the priesthood is known by that name. Alma explains that the priesthood is a "holy calling . . . prepared from the foundation of the world for such as would not harden their hearts, being in and through the atonement of the Only Begotten Son" (Alma 13:5). In other words, the priesthood constitutes a calling to live in remembrance of and, to the best of our limited capabilities, in imitation of the selfless service of our Savior, through the enabling power of his grace. There is nothing inherently masculine about living in remembrance and in imitation of the Savior, through the power of his grace; indeed, I have argued that mothers--who suffer physically in order to give life and then spend most of the rest of their lives giving selfless service so that their children might have life and have it more abundantly--most closely approximate Jesus Christ's salvific sacrifice. This priesthood calling, described by Alma, encompasses much more than the ordinances with which we traditionally identify the priesthood.

The point here is that I believe we are being somewhat disingenuous when we say that women are not allowed to hold the priesthood--that this is a moot question. To be sure, women are not ordained to priesthood offices, they do not officiate in its essential ordinances, and they do not hold keys of administration. I have no clear explanation as to why these limitations exist in mortality, but Elder Robert L. Backman reminds us that the eternal destiny of every righteous woman is "to become a queen and a priestess, and to inherit the fulness of the glory of God" ("Women and the Priesthood" in Priesthood [Deseret Book, 1981], p. 152). If it is the eternal destiny of women to become priestesses, I am fully persuaded that they have the opportunity to participate in priesthood callings such as those described by Alma during mortality, and that most faithful female members of the Church already do so--even if we do not normally designate their contributions as priesthood service. This is something that I believe most members of the Church intuitively understand--which is why most Mormons are satisfied with the ecclesiastical role of women.

In essence, we've been asking the wrong question. The question should not be, "Why don't women hold the priesthood?" but "Why don't we commonly recognize that the priesthood is greater than the sum total of its ordinances--that one need not be ordained a priest in order to act as a ministering angel?" (See Doctrine and Covenants 13).