A friend contacted me after my recent blog on blacks and the priesthood to ask about the exclusion of women from the priesthood in the LDS Church. He asked why the Church still has not extended the priesthood to women, pointing out (quite rightly) that women are not a whit behind men in terms of spirituality or strength of character. Isn’t the LDS policy on this issue just hopelessly out of date?
My initial reaction to this is, if giving women the priesthood means that there is going to be someone else going to a leadership meeting rather than me, I’m all for it. But that’s probably not a real helpful analysis.
Discussing this particular issue sometimes is difficult because “exclusion from the priesthood” in the LDS Church doesn’t have the same implications as it does in other Christian churches. So sometimes Mormons might not fully “get” the concerns of non-Mormons, who in turn don’t understand why those concerns aren’t vividly apparent to their Mormon friends.
So, let’s start with understanding how the priesthood operates in the LDS Church. Unlike in other Christian churches, the “priesthood” in the Mormon faith does not equate with a presiding authority over a congregation. All Mormon males over the age of 12 who meet certain worthiness requirements (such as demonstrating faith in Jesus Christ, striving to obey His commandments, and living a chaste and moral life) are eligible to be ordained to the priesthood. There are several “offices” within the priesthood that provide a person the opportunity to perform certain functions within the Church, such as passing the Sacrament (essentially equivalent to communion), performing baptisms, serving as full-time missionaries, etc. Some of those functions are performed at home (such as giving “father’s blessings” to children or administering to those who are ill) that have no effect whatsoever upon the operation of the Church.
There is no paid ministry in the Church, and therefore holding the priesthood is not a career path, as it is in other Christian churches. Bishops and other presiding officials are “called” to their position by other priesthood authorities and typically perform their Church-related duties in addition to managing their own separate livelihoods.
The Church does not permit women to be ordained to the priesthood. However, that does not mean that women are denied access to any of the programs or opportunities offered by the Church. Women receive all of the same ordinances (like baptism) and have full access to LDS temples. (Curiously, there are some functions performed by women in the temples that look very much like priesthood functions).
Although they may not perform priesthood ordinances or hold presiding authority over congregations, women are not excluded from decision making in the Church and are by no means considered second-class citizens in the Church. They preside over the Relief Society, which is the adult women’s organization of the Church and which overlaps many of the responsibilities of the priesthood quorums. They also are responsible for administering the Church’s programs for children under 12 and young women between the ages of 12 and 18. They can be Sunday School teachers. They can serve as teachers in the Church Educational System (which, in some areas, is full-time employment) and in the Church’s university system.
How all of this actually works can best be explained by example. Several years ago, I served as a counselor to the bishop of our ward (the lay leader of the congregation). Our bishop obtained employment in another city and moved away. For a period of several months while a new bishop was being called, I was in the unenviable position of filling in for him. During those months, I was faced with a number of issues that were new to me, including significant challenges being faced by members of our ward. I was overwhelmed.
In dealing with those issues, I turned to the “Ward Council,” which is composed of all of the leadership of the ward, both priesthood and non-priesthood. The Ward Council regularly meets to address issues in the ward, provide counsel to the bishop, and accept assignments as necessary. My go-to person on the ward council was the Relief Society president, a remarkably capable woman with great spiritual insight. I found that she had a much better understanding of many of the issues faced by families in our congregation, and it was my privilege and duty to call upon her experience, understanding, and wisdom to assist me in making decisions. She interviewed families, assessed needs, and made recommendations about how to respond to those needs. Without her insight, I would have had no chance of serving the members of our ward with any degree of effectiveness.
That’s how the Church is supposed to work. In my experience, that generally is how it works. We aren’t perfect in this regard, but it is clear from LDS scripture that any priesthood holder who attempts to denigrate or dominate women is acting contrary to the Lord’s commandments and stands in jeopardy of losing his priesthood authority.
In my view, the issue of women and the priesthood in the LDS Church is not about excluding women from opportunities, but rather about defining roles and responsibilities for men and women. Certainly not everyone is going to agree with how those roles and responsibilities are defined in the Church, and some will see our position as anachronistic. We can live with that.
But as a husband who adores his wife and five daughters, I bristle when Mormons are labeled as a boy’s club. I wouldn’t spend 10 minutes in a Church that I thought relegated my wife or daughters to a secondary or subordinate status. The LDS Church has taught me to love, honor and respect women. You don’t have to have the priesthood in order to play a central role in the LDS Church, and I have great admiration for the women I have known who are spiritual giants and have been inspirations to me. Many have played important roles in the physical and spiritual welfare of my family, and I am very grateful for their amazing service.