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:
- “The priesthood is the eternal power and authority of God. Through the priesthood God created and governs the heavens and the earth” (lds.org).
- 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.”