The issue of women and the priesthood in the LDS Church is something that I have written about before, but as the issue gets increased attention as a result of continued protests by a small minority of LDS (and former LDS) women, additional questions continue to be asked. Unfortunately, many of those questions are based upon misconceptions about how the priesthood operates in the Church, which only serves to confuse the discussion.
Such misconceptions are reflected in the common argument that the Church faced the same issues regarding the ordination of blacks to the priesthood and eventually changed its practices, so it should be able to do the same thing now for women. However, about the only similarity between the two issues is the word “priesthood,” and even that term is used in unique ways in the LDS Church. So unique that non-Mormons can’t be blamed for not understanding our practices well enough to level meaningful criticism.
First, the term “priesthood” is used to mean several things in the Church. A quick (and oversimplified) priesthood primer for you:
In the Mormon church, “priesthood” is considered the authority to act in the name of Christ. The priesthood is divided into a “higher” priesthood and a “lower” priesthood.” The higher, or Melchizedek, priesthood, is essentially charged with the administration of the Church ( and thus is held by the general authorities, stake presidents, and local authorities of the Church). We have a lay ministry, meaning that no one is on an ecclesiastical career path among the Mormons. (As a personal note, no one should want to be. I’ve had leadership positions in the Church, and for the most part they are barely more fun than a root canal).
The lower, or Aaronic priesthood, generally is held by young men, and their primary duties revolve around the administration of the sacrament (or Communion, or whatever you are accustomed to calling it).
So, I was amused by an article I read recently by someone who claimed to be LDS and was up in arms about women not being ordained as “priests.” Had the writer been a member of the Church or was even vaguely familiar with our organization, he would know that he was demanding the wrong thing. A “priest” in the LDS Church blesses the sacrament and can baptize, but isn’t in charge of anything. There are any number of women in the Church who have considerably more responsibility and authority than priests.
Two other uses of the word “priesthood” are priesthood keys and priesthood blessings. Priesthood “keys” are the authority to preside or give direction in the Church, and they are held by some Melchizedek priesthood holders, but not all. For example, a bishop holds the “keys” to preside over a local congregation. He holds those keys until he is released and a new bishop is called. (This term isn’t unique to Mormons. Check out old paintings and statues of St. Peter: He is often depicted holding keys. Those aren’t to the men’s room in the Vatican. They are a representation of the authority to preside over the Church). You can’t just decide you want to be in charge of a local ward.
Priesthood “blessings” are certain privileges that are available to all members of the Church (even women and Democrats) but are derived from the priesthood authority. Being baptized is a priesthood blessing, as is receiving the gift of the Holy Ghost, partaking of the sacrament, and participating in sacred covenants and ordinances in our temples.
So when you talk about receiving the “priesthood,” you have to be careful to define what you are talking about. And that is where folks get into trouble comparing the Church’s past practice with respect to blacks and the priesthood and the question of ordaining women. The two situations are similar only in a very narrow sense.
With respect to ordination to the priesthood, women cannot be ordained now, and blacks could not be ordained prior to the 1978 revelation on priesthood. But prior to the 1978 revelation, blacks also were denied certain priesthood blessings other than ordination; specifically, they could not receive the ordinances and covenants of the temple.
That is notably different from the current situation with women, who are in no way barred from any of the blessings of the priesthood. Interestingly, while men must be ordained to the Melchizedek priesthood in order to receive their temple ordinances, there is no such requirement for women. Women do not have to be married to receive any temple ordinance (except marriage, although technically they have to be single before that, right?). Further, women actually officiate in several temple ordinances, without any priesthood ordination (men have to be ordained).
Thus, women have far greater access to priesthood blessings now than blacks did prior to the revelation on priesthood. The two situations are only superficially comparable.
Indeed, women in the LDS Church are able to do many things that would require ordination in other churches. Women pray, speak and teach doctrine from our pulpits; preside over the programs for our women, young women and children; act as full-time proselytizing missionaries, and serve as instructors in our Church Educational System. Women speak in General Conference, and their teachings are published right alongside the teachings of the men.
While women are not formally ordained to the priesthood and therefore do not hold priesthood callings, that is where the difference ends. Certainly reasonable people can disagree about ordination of women, but it is important that we define our terms so that people don’t misunderstand what women can and cannot do in the Church.
I am personally very grateful for the 1978 revelation that extended priesthood blessings to blacks. I have known many members of the Church who are much better than me that just happen to be black, and I am happy that they are not denied any blessings because of the color of their skin.
With respect to women, as a father of five daughters, I am thankful that none of them is denied any blessings of the priesthood because of their gender, despite the fact that they cannot be ordained to the priesthood.
From what I have seen and been taught in the temple, my belief is that someday women will be ordained to the priesthood as well, and I have no problem with that. But I believe that when that day comes, it will come as the result of the Lord directing His people, not from the members vetoing His current directives. Whether you are ordained or not, every member of the Church should understand that we believe in revelation, and that doctrine is established by the Lord through His chosen servants and not by popular opinion.