All Are Alike: Priesthood Restrictions and the Doctrine of Equality

When BYU professor Randy Bott used “folk doctrine” to justify why black LDS men were not ordained to the priesthood before 1978, his statements were swiftly condemned. The Church’s official response included the following:

The Church unequivocally condemns racism, including any and all past racism by individuals both inside and outside the Church . . .

The origins of priesthood availability are not entirely clear. Some explanations with respect to this matter were made in the absence of direct revelation . . . [and] do not represent Church doctrine.

In other words, the only acceptable theological explanation we can offer is, “We don’t have all the answers; however, we do know racism is wrong.”

The church’s statement has implications for the rhetoric members use to explain why women are currently restricted from priesthood ordination.

This is not a post arguing that women should be ordained to the priesthood here and now. This is a post about language, about how our ubiquitous justifications perpetuate pseudo-doctrines, damage the body of the church, and ultimately undermine our life-changing doctrine about God and the eternal nature of our souls.    

Growing up in Utah, I heard every one of Bott’s “folk doctrines” regarding the race restriction. I suppose we are wired to explain the inexplicable, to construct reasons that we can live with comfortably.

Along those lines, here are the types of explanations I have heard in church, in private, and over the pulpit about why women are not ordained to the priesthood:

  • Women are innately more spiritual and therefore don’t need the priesthood. Men need it to counteract their baser natures. A woman’s role is to be a righteous influence for the men in their life and help them reach the celestial kingdom.
  • Women don’t need the priesthood because they have access through their husbands.
  • If both men and women had the priesthood, it would create confusion in the home because it wouldn’t be clear who presides.
  • There can be no such thing as a “Daughter of Perdition” as the restriction protects women from “falling off the top rung.”
  • Women are too busy nurturing families to participate in the extra duties that come with priesthood administration.
  • Women give biological ordinances to their offspring like birth and breastfeeding, while men offer institutional ordinances such as baptism and blessing the sacrament.
  • Women derive spiritual satisfaction from quiet service while men flourish with opportunities for advancement.
  • The duties of the priesthood pose too much responsibility for women’s sensitive nature.
  • It’s a holdover from the “Curse of Eve.”
  • Just like Heavenly Mother is protected by Heavenly Father from having her name desecrated, the priesthood restriction shelters the divinity of womanhood.
  • Men have the priesthood; women have motherhood.

Each explanation – from praising to protective to prejudicial – assumes there is something inherent in womanhood, something in our spiritual DNA, that makes us either not ready or not in need of priesthood ordination. Many of these arguments expand a justification for the priesthood restriction to a larger statement about gender, and implicitly argue that it would be unwise or detrimental to offer women the keys to formally exercise the power of God on earth.

I also hear this from many of my LDS sisters: “I wouldn’t want the priesthood. I certainly don’t need any more responsibility/callings/meetings to attend! The current structure works for me and my family.”

There is certainly nothing wrong with this sentiment (even if equating priesthood power with extra meetings/callings is a reductive, contemporary concern). Right now, the male-only restriction feels fine to some women and unsettling to others. But our desires and preferences are not doctrinal justification for or against priesthood ordination for women. Jesus wanted the cup to pass from him. Lehi and Sariah didn’t want their children to rebel. Moses wanted to enter the Promised Land. We don’t always get what we want, and, more to the point, we believe there is a spiritual opportunity in “opposition.”

The real problem with the plethora of pseudo-doctrine is that it undermines—usually at the expense of women—our mysterious, soul-changing doctrine.

Consider these two fundamental principles:

  1. “The priesthood is the eternal power and authority of God. Through the priesthood God created and governs the heavens and the earth” (lds.org).
  2. God is both male and female, Heavenly Father and Heavenly Mother.  . Women possess the seeds of divinity to grow to become queens, priestesses, and goddesses.

If we accept both as doctrine, we must logically conclude that a male-only priesthood is a temporary restriction, limited (at this point) to mortality. Otherwise, we are saying that our Heavenly Mother is unable to exercise the “eternal power and authority of God.”

Here on earth, the policy may change next year or never. But if we accept that all of us are on the path toward godhood, we must reject any folk doctrine that fails to recognize that, eternally, God is both mother and father. Thus women have not only unlimited spiritual potential, but will have unfettered access (in time) to the creative and governing power of our Heavenly Parents.

“For none of these iniquities come of the Lord; for he doeth that which is good among the children of men . . . and he inviteth them all to come unto him and partake of his goodness; and he denieth none that come unto him, black and white, male and female . . . all are alike unto God” (2 Nephi 26:33).

When we are tempted to hypothesize why women do not currently hold the priesthood, the only acceptable theological explanation we can offer is, “We don’t have all the answers; however, we do know sexism is wrong.”

 

Deborah

Deborah is K-12 educator who nurtures a healthy interest in reading, writing, running, ethics, mystics, and interfaith dialogue.

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62 Responses

  1. Becca says:

    Wow, D. What a fabulous way to start my day. You’ve articulated this so well. The sexist folk doctrines that are taught in the church can be so painful. A change in at least the rhetoric would be soothing balm to many wounded souls.

  2. Libby says:

    This is wonderful. Words DO matter, and it’s important to remember that self-justifying folk doctrine is just that, whether it comes from the second row of your ward’s RS or from the pulpit at a semi-annual conference.

  3. Mark Brown says:

    Excellent.

    “We don’t know” sounds so inadequate when we apply it to the racial ban, especially in light of what we *do* know. But I would actually welcome that as an explanation of our policy toward women, rather than all these ridiculous excuses. I guess that’s a measure of the distance we have yet to go.

  4. Lydia says:

    “Women derive spiritual satisfaction from quiet service while men flourish with opportunities for advancement. ”

    That must make me a man… I’ve always needed formal recognition.

    And I love this post (Long-time creeper coming out of the woodwork here 🙂

  5. Jared T. says:

    With all the focus on one aspect of priesthood restriction, this is a timely and important reminder. Thank you, Deborah.

  6. Angela H. says:

    Great post, Deborah. Thank you.

  7. Sunshine says:

    Thank you so much for this post. I feel so strongly about this issue and was just talking with my husband last night about how long it might be before there is more gender equality in the church. I have to hope that it will happen, even if it does take decades or even a century. There are enough of us who feel strongly about it that I hope it can only be a matter of time.

  8. MormonDeadhead says:

    Thank you so much for this Deborah!

  9. Alliegator says:

    I could do without all the folk doctrine! Thank you for this wonderful post.

  10. Maureen says:

    Thank you for so eloquently articulating those fundamental principles and their logical application, which I have held to for so long yet had trouble expressing.

  11. Kevin Barney says:

    This old post of mine might be tangentially relevant to the OP:

    http://www.feministmormonhousewives.org/?p=2265

  12. Bobman says:

    Very nicely put. I hope we can do away with these and other folk doctrines that so injure and mislead many.

  13. Judy Dushku says:

    Wonderful Deborah! This is strong and pure and clear enough that I am thinking it should be in our ward newsletter. It is both radical and orthodox. You have it just right here. With gratitude! Judy

  14. Ziff says:

    Great post, Deborah! It’s interesting to see how many reasons for not ordaining women match up with reasons for not ordaining black men, and also with reasons for not allowing women access to secular rights too (like voting).

  15. Aimee says:

    This should be required reading for every member of the Church! Amen and amen, Deborah.

  16. Ryan says:

    Deborah:

    Very interesting argument and I don’t know that I’ve ever heard it before. To make sure I understand it, it is:

    1. The priesthood is the authority of God.
    2. “God” is heavenly Father and Mother.
    3. Therefore, heavenly Mother must hold the priesthood.

    Am I understanding that correctly?

    My initial thought was are you equivocating on the word “God” as it is used in your first quote from lds.org? For example, the priesthood is the authority of God as in the Father, not God as in both heavenly Mother and Father? For example, I looked up that first quote you used from lds.org regarding the priesthood and I think the full quote makes it clear that the word “God” is used in that paragraph to reference God the Father only:

    >>The priesthood is the eternal power and authority of God. Through the priesthood God created and governs the heavens and the earth. Through this power He redeems and exalts His children, bringing to pass “the immortality and eternal life of man” (Moses 1:39). God gives priesthood authority to worthy male members of the Church so they can act in His name for the salvation of His children.<<

    Only He, His, etc., clearly suggests that the word "God" means only God the Father. But the idea is very interesting. Please let me know if I'm misstating your argument.

    • Deborah says:

      Ryan: The default pronoun for God in scripture (modern and ancient) is ALWAYS “He.” But while we might need further light and knowledge, we have a clear, beautiful doctrine of Heavenly Parents that offers us a pattern beyond the typical platitudes. Rather than engage is a threadjack, I’ll leave you this statement from Elder Uchtdorf that refers to God as the union of our parents:

      “We are created in the image of our heavenly parents; we are God’s spirit children. Therefore, we have a vast capacity for love—it is part of our spiritual heritage. ” (October 2009)

      • Ryan says:

        Thanks for the quote. I’d agree that it appears Pres. Uchtdorf may be referring to “God” as heavenly parents, but it’s not clear. However, regardless I think the lds.org quote very clearly refers to God the Father only. I don’t see how that’s a threadjack since the argument formed an integral part of your original post. However, I would suspect there aren’t a whole lot of sources supporting the idea that a heavenly Mother holds the priesthood individually. If there are, I’d be interested to read them.

        My guess is the only answer to these questions, no matter how unsatisfying, is we just don’t know.

    • Annie says:

      Gen 5:26
      “And God said, Let us make man in our image..”
      Gen 5:27
      “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.”

      I see alot of room here for the belief that God is both Heavenly Father and Heavenly Mother

      If the words “he and his” only refer to hes and hims what do we sisters assume from nearly every other scripture reference that uses a masculine pronoun? That we are left out completely. If the words “he” and “his” clearly suggest a man only as you say, it would have to apply across the board, and we would believe that only a natural “man” could be an enemy to God, for example.

  17. fMh says:

    Perfect! Absolutely totally perfect!

  18. Is the idea “it hasn’t happened yet because the Church is not ready” also a folk doctrine, or is it a viable explaination?

    • Deborah says:

      It’s speculation. Maybe true, maybe not. But it’s not doctrine.

      • Anon says:

        Great post, I do have a question just from this comment thread-

        In my mind, “folk doctrine” is just another name for speculation. Is there a distinction that I’m missing?

  19. Mike H. says:

    The idea of not giving the Priesthood to those of Black African race, or, to women, for that matter, to prevent them from falling, are contrary to D&C 84:42

    42 And wo unto all those who come not unto this priesthood which ye have received, which I now confirm upon you who are present this day, by mine own voice out of the heavens; and even I have given the heavenly hosts and mine angels charge concerning you.

    Of course, I’ve seen some white males who were really bad about honoring their Priesthood, as well.

    Yes, I would like still to see the actual text of the 1978 revelation. There were some members who believe Pres. Kimball had bowed to outside pressure to make that change.

    Thus women have not only unlimited spiritual potential, but will have unfettered access (in time) to the creative and governing power of our Heavenly Parents.

    That depends on who you ask. BYU Religion Prof Rodney Turner was teaching that women would never becomes Goddesses in the Celestial Kingdom. Yet, I didn’t hear of him getting beat up for saying that one.

    • Deborah says:

      “That depends on who you ask.” (And thus the need for a post like this . . . )

      • I made a point of avoiding religion professors who were like that. I tried to stick to the highly “academic” ones–and it was great. Although some people thought I was weird for doing so.

    • Jessica says:

      I think what Rodney Turner said was horrible. He should have been called out for it, but I think it was a sign of how far society had fallen from the true nature of what God intended. And the fact that he was allowed to say and even traveled and spread his lies is just sickening.

  20. rah says:

    Rodney Turner is poster child number one for the creator of “folk doctrines” in regards to women in the Church. He has all the elements – pseudo-authority as a religious professor, an active imagination, strong unexamined beliefs rooted deeply within his social context, a facility with proof texting scripture.

  21. Love the post. Amen. It reminded me of when my brother-in-law asked me what concerns I had with the church. I gave him a very condensed version of my issues, and he replied, “Oh, those are just mostly cultural.” I said, “Yes, that’s probably true, but those “culture” issues are taught as doctrines in the Church.”

    • Miri says:

      Drives me crazy when people say that, Taylor. (1) They are almost never not using it as an excuse to dismiss concerns. (2) Part of the problem is precisely that culture is often almost inextricable from doctrine in this church. If it gets you called in to talk to your bishop, then it doesn’t matter that it’s technically “culture”—it’s a problem that needs to be talked about.

  22. Just yesterday I got the teacher in Relief Society a bit ruffled as I disputed the “women are naturally more charitable” claim. I think we also need to realize that we’re giving men the short side of the stick. And, when I try to be charitable, it’s because I’m trying to be Christlike–like a man. The old ladies in the room were the ones most adamant about our “greater natural spirituality,” while the younger ones were silent. So maybe the next generation will be more willing to talk about these things?

    • amelia says:

      You know, it isn’t surprising that the older women hold more tightly to the old justifications. The easy explanation for that is generational–a matter of tradition and convention that they’re simply accustomed to and have accepted as reality. But this reminds me of a comment a friend once made about how she felt when the church changed its counsel on birth control–like suddenly the sacrifice she made was no longer a valuable one. Somehow the church moving from being anti-contraception to saying it was between a couple and God left her feeling like the sacrifice she had made to do as she had been taught was necessary for righteous womanhood didn’t mean what she had always been told it inherently meant.

      I think that many of these justifications, certainly those that have to do with the superior spiritual nature of women, compensate for the price women have to pay to conform to the very limiting prescription extended to women by the church. To have such justifications revealed as merely temporal excuses for inequity feels like an attack on the value of the contribution these women have made all their lives. It’s understandable that they bristle when so many of them have paid a very high price in conforming to the church’s prescribed gender role. Suddenly that cost seems for naught. I don’t think it’s really the case, but it’s understandable why it feels that way.

      • I will definitely keep your words in mind next time I see the older generation defend something I disagree with. Thank you for being so insightful and forgiving.

      • amelia says:

        I say it as much for my own sake as anyone else’s, Michelle. I usually feel the same way you do when confronted by this. When I stop and think about how older women in the church might feel when they’ve made such big sacrifices only to see the church then change position (not that it’s done a whole hell of a lot of that) in a way that seems to invalidate those sacrifices–well, it just underscores to me all over again what an enormous price the church exacts in the name of fear and control (which is what I think its gender policies and teachings boil down to).

      • Jessica says:

        I think that this issue is the largest in my mind for moving forward. I think it comes from the danger of telling members that it is God’s will. And not leaving room for the possibility that it is history and our limited understanding.

        I think that we have lost the message of seek your own revelation and that the church is here to help you do that. But that has dangers too.

        I had an experience like this once for 2 years with a presidency member whom I was a councilor too. Then through revelation I realized she was just like me and that she had given up so much to stay in the church in the 70’s. After that I think God let me know her heart and I made a lot more progress in working as a team.

  23. Lorie says:

    Thanks for the thoughtful post, Deborah. Like many, I am pleased to see the Church publicly distance itself from the racist explanations that for so many years attended the denial of priesthood to black males. By drawing a parallel between these recently repudiated explanations and those given to deny priesthood to women, you have deftly laid bare the underlying sexism of such statements. Many of us no longer entertain, let alone tolerate, such explanations. While I appreciate their honesty, others of us find little solace in the words: “The only acceptable theological explanation we can offer is, “We don’t have all the answers; however, we do know sexism is wrong.” Remember, the statement from which this was derived was issued long after black males had been ordained. The danger in such words is that they allow good people to assume that God, for whatever reason, somehow validated the past denial of priesthood to black males and presently condones the exclusion of women from ordination.

    • Deborah says:

      Thanks for chiming it, Lorie. I used the phrase “theological explanation” purposefully in the second paragraph to summarize the church’s response (“We don’t fully know, but we repudiate racism.”) For a “historical explanation,” I’d direct readers to this seminal work from Lester Bush: http://bycommonconsent.com/2012/02/28/the-real-genesis-of-a-churchs-stand-on-race/

      • Lorie says:

        Yes, I understand, Deborah. My last statement is in response to people like Dan Peterson, who, yes, condemned Bott’s statements but still affirmed that the responsibility for the original racist/sexist policies is God’s. In a blog post on the topic at Sic et Non, Peterson wrote: “So the proper answer, when asked to explain such discrimination — and it is ‘discrimination,’ in the sense that it distinguishes between individuals and groups — is and should be, simply, ‘I know not, save the Lord commanded me'” (Moses 5:6). As my husband says, “I think God’s better than that.”

  24. Zachariah says:

    This is a great post. I am wondering if what I have always told myself about women and the priesthood could fall under these “folk doctrines.” It seems clear to me that women are active officiates in the priesthood in the temple, thus I feel that endowed women have been endowed with priesthood power once they get their endowments. I was always taught that the whole endowment is focused upon the attainment of priesthood power, so I feel like women already have priesthood. Is the concern about attaining office then? I wish those who spouted these folk doctrines read section 84 more closely and saw that the priesthood isn’t about giving blessings but is about entering the presence of God.

    • Deborah says:

      I’ve heard that theory as well, though never over the pulpit. I think there are beautiful glimpses of possibility in the temple, but I would doubt the membership at large connects the dots quite the way you put it here. Anything that edifies, that allows women to serve as equals before God, is worth celebrating — and the temple does provide some of those opportunities.

  25. Rachel says:

    Amen, sister. Amen.

    I particularly like your tie ins to Heavenly Mother, and your acknowledgement that God is both Father and Mother. Once upon a time I was paid by BYU to research Her, and once upon a time I was met with similar folk doctrine, particularly, “That she is too sacred to talk about.” I learned in my research that that idea was first propagated by a seminary teacher. Not a prophet. Not an apostle. Not another authority. Yet, somehow it took on high “truth.” Which I guess is why I am so thankful to you, for spreading good truth. True truth.

  26. jordan says:

    In THE END your statement may be true doctrine but Ryan is correct… “the only answer to these questions, no matter how unsatisfying, is we just don’t know.” You are using “logic” to put words into the mouths of prophets and creating more folk doctrine. To say that someday women will have “unfettered access” to the priesthood is at this time folk doctrine because God has not yet revealed it to his children through the prophet. “Follow the prophet, follow the prophet, he knows the way!”

  27. Deborah says:

    One more beautiful quote from a prophet:

    President Joseph Fielding Smith, the tenth President of the Church, said: “It is within the privilege of the sisters of this Church to receive exaltation in the kingdom of God and receive authority and power as queens and priestesses.”

  28. EmilyCC says:

    Deborah – This is Nate on Emily’s Computer. Brilliant statement. One I will be sharing with others.

  29. Vanessa says:

    Beautiful post. Thank you for your insight

  30. Jessawhy says:

    This is a great post, Deborah.

    Thanks for making it very clear that we should stop explaining the reasons why women don’t have the priesthood.

    We just don’t. That’s all there is to it.

    Awesome.

  31. mayalynn says:

    Good summation, Deborah, of all the rationalizations I’ve heard in 50 years of church membership. What God allegedly thinks about women is colored by thousands of years of prejudice and projection, re-purposed as inspiration. If only a dozen or so men can receive inspiration for the church, which of those men is open to an answer he might not expect to hear? Which man is even asking the questions?

  32. clank says:

    Fantastic and amen. And thanks for the quotes in the comments. I love them.

  33. Deborah, this is so good. I don’t know if you read Randy Bott’s blog, but he talks just as patronizingly about women as about Blacks. After he explains that the priesthood makes one eligible to be a son of Perdition, the woman in his presence backs out of the door deeply convinced that God has blessed her by restricting her.
    The blog has been removed, but many of us have it.
    You are doing such good things.

  34. Amber says:

    Deborah, thank you for this thought provoking post.

    (I haven’t read the other comments so hopefully I don’t repeat what’s already been said.)

    I think that women in the church say they are comfortable with what they have primarily because we’ve been pressured by society to accept any good that comes our way. If things changed and women were granted the priesthood, women would recognize what we had been missing and also see that the feminist push for less sexism in the church wasn’t (isn’t) a power play, it’s seeking for equality based on our limited view of the eternities (i.e. is heaven really like earth? so women will be “at home” while the men go about building worlds?).

    An interesting historical tidbit, the arguments against women having the priesthood have existed for hundreds of years. In the 16th and 17th centuries, when catholicism was outlawed in England, women would shelter the priests and hold secret masses. The priests would often acclaim, with great surprise, the spiritual maturity of females, especially considering their sex (women were widely believed to be more tenuous, less faithful, and definitely less, well, everything than men).

    I think you explained it well:

    Here on earth, the policy may change next year or never. But if we accept that all of us are on the path toward godhood, we must reject any folk doctrine that fails to recognize that, eternally, God is both mother and father. Thus women have not only unlimited spiritual potential, but will have unfettered access (in time) to the creative and governing power of our Heavenly Parents.

    • Deborah says:

      Thanks, Amber, for your thoughts — and thanks to everyone who chimed in. It felt good to finally put words to thoughts and feelings of the last decade, and I really appreciate that y’all took the time to respond.

  35. Merkat says:

    Thank you! I was recently in a discussion with some good ol’ boys after seeing Joanna Brooks speak, and they asked me “why would you ever want the priesthood?” like it is some huge burden. So painful and I am pretty young and they were very patronizing to me. I looked them in the eyes and said, “Um, because it is the power of God? Who wouldn’t want that? We want to be like God, right?” They looked for any way to belittle me and take away my legitimacy, and finally asked if I had children. No, I replied. Well then, they said, everything will change when you do and you’ll understand. Aughhhh! They then kept trying to convince me that women were inherently more spiritual and ruled the home- gag me. And that that was pure doctrine (they gave me all their previous high callings and current high callings as regional reps). I told them to put it on the record that I highly disagreed with them. I need to write this all out- it has been eating at me for a week and I’m going to explode! (Likely at church, the straw that breaks the camel’s back).

  36. Sean Y says:

    “Women are too busy nurturing families to participate in the extra duties that come with priesthood administration.”

    This one is my favorite, it both removes men from nurturing responsibilities as well as denies all the efforts made by the relief society. If EQ operated like RS, there wouldn’t be an inactive among us.

  37. Bethany says:

    This post is perfect!

    This past weekend I was at my in-laws talking with my mother-in-law who is seems to think that I’m just going through my rebellious teenage stage late in life. She kept bringing up points and saying “It’s ok, that’s a policy, not a doctrine” with a smile. I wanted to scream. How is it OK that our policies are hurtful to people as long as they are not “official doctrines”?

    Oh, and my favorite excuse from my sister-in-law… “I’m glad I don’t have the priesthood. I don’t want to be responsible for the salvation of the human race, I have my family to worry about.”

    Obviously there is some misunderstanding about the purpose of relief society and our responsibility to each other….

    • Sean Y says:

      Bethany,

      I certainly don’t see any problem with the Lord one day saying that women will now receive the priesthood, but I don’t find a policy disallowing them such to be hurtful as you put it. Discriminatory, yes, Sexist, probably, but hurtful is only based on perspective. What is hurtful is when people look at that discrimination and cast on it a sense of inferiority or as this post points out, lame reasons to justify the discrimination. It would be great if we had actual answers, but I’m not sure we ever will, or maybe we’re not prepared to accept them. Giving women the priesthood would certainly aide in removing much of the lame reasons, but just like blacks I’m sure they would still persist to some extent.

      I do recognize that I am coming from a position that does not have first hand emotion tied to this issue as you do and that my opinion may not be worth that much, but I think all of us walk on a thin line between trying to find answers where none exist and doubting the faith that is within us. I do think that this issue for women can be one that moves them across that line and to me it would be a tragedy, maybe an understandable tragedy as it certainly was for blacks. Reading the stories of blacks that were not hurt by the ban and remain faithful, is inspiring to me, just as most women in this church are an inspiration to me (I do have pretty good ones though, mother, wife, sisters).

  38. Rebecca Foulk says:

    Think about the temple ordinances. Women surely already exercise the priesthood right here on earth, daily in temples across the world. We simply don’t chat about it. 🙂

  39. Kimberly says:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=siJned0vmTk&feature=share
    Pam Hogeweide speaks of this as injustice in the church, in her book Unladylike. Such an interesting perspective. Thank you for sharing this.

    • Thank you for sharing that video, Kimberly. I don’t usually think about how inequality manifests in settings outside of my experience. I like how Pam Hogeweide put it, “the Holy Spirit is gusting up winds of change”. Very interesting and very telling.

  40. I agreed with Kimberly. Thank You!

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