In What Sense Do Women Hold Priesthood?: Possibilities and Distinctions

Heart of God by Gary Rowell

When the stake president interviewed me for my first temple recommend a few months before my marriage, he asked me a number of questions. The one I remember the most is this:

“In the temple, women will be administering sacred ordinances to you. Do you believe that women hold the priesthood?”

My response was a surprised “No,” along with the speculation that these officiating women were probably using the priesthood of their husbands or the temple president or something.

He seemed quite satisfied with my response.

That was over 10 years ago. And I don’t know how I would respond to that question now. As I’ve thought more and more about issues regarding Mormon women and the priesthood, I find arguments that women do have priesthood – at least of some sort – more and more persuasive.

Here’s a brief glimpse of a few things that have made me think twice about this: 1) Endowed women wear the garments of the holy priesthood.  2) Endowed Mormon women a century ago  would often say that they hold the priesthood in conjunction with their husbands. 3) D&C 121 talks about the priesthood being inseparably connected to the powers of heaven. It’s pretty obvious to me that any time a woman does something righteous, she’s forging a connection with the powers of heaven. And how can we even envision a church in which over half its membership doesn’t have a connection to the powers of heaven? 

Some Mormons I know draw a distinction between priesthood power and priesthood authority. They say that both men and women in the church have priesthood power – that access to the powers of heaven – but that only men have priesthood authority – the power to administrate in the Church and officiate in certain ordinances. They think of both women and men having priesthood, but just that women have not been given the offices of it, at least for the time being.

Other speculations I’ve heard involve the idea that women have a priesthood of life, and men have a priesthood of administration. Certainly this idea is connected to the idea that wives should ultimately decide when and how many children they will bear. That it is their province, their stewardship, their responsibility to seek out answers related to childbearing. This idea might appeal to women who embrace the idea of essential gender differences.

Other women I know claim both priesthood power and authority. They are not able to officiate in any church capacity, but they do bless their friends and families in the name of the priesthood. 

Personally, to be frank, I’m not sure about how I even feel about the concept of priesthood in the first place. I’m wary of ideas that promote hierarchy or human mediators between God and people.  A part of me is attracted to the Protestant idea of the ‘priesthood of all believers’, a doctrine that downplays hierarchy within the church body. Perhaps that’s why, out of the ideas I laid out, I am most attracted to the idea that all righteous people have access to priesthood power. I’d like to think that priesthood isn’t so exclusive, that it’s something close to me, something within my grasp, a connection to the divine that can directly inspire me for good. I feel alienated when I hear lessons in Relief Society that characterize priesthood as something totally apart from me, a power that men have and that my role is just to support them as they use it.    

However, the question that remains for me is what Mormon women using priesthood power looks like. Is it women blessing and praying for others in faith? Is it women accessing revelation from the divine? I imagine it’s that, and possibly a whole lot more.

  • Do you think that women have priesthood in some sense? Why or why not?
  • Does the distinctions between priesthood power and authority, or priesthood of life and of administration resonate with you?
  • What does women using priesthood power actually look like, in yout mind?

Caroline

Caroline is a PhD student in Women's Studies in Religion and mother of three.

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18 Responses

  1. Emily U says:

    Q1: Yes
    Q2: Yes
    Q3: This questions made me ponder what the definition of what priesthood is. The most general answer I know is that it’s the power of God on earth. That’s hard to define as well, though. I think it means receiving inspiration, revelation, and miracles that would not be possible by human action alone. So women can absolutely be involved in all of those things. I think women using priesthood power would involve revelation for herself personally and for things she has stewardship over. I think women’s work in temples is a foreshadowing of priesthood authority to come.

    By the way, I think your stake president’s question was odd. What do you think he was trying to get at?

  2. DavidH says:

    D&C 20:45-46 lists as the duties of a priest to “preach, teach, expound, exhort, and baptize, and administer the sacrament [a]nd visit the house of each member and exhort them to pray vocally and in secret and attend to all family duties.” By preaching, teaching, expounding, exhorting, and visiting the homes of members to exhort them to pray and attend to family duties, women appear to be authorized and to be acting in many, perhaps most, of the duties of that priesthood.

  3. CatherineWO says:

    Thank you for this post, Caroline. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. When my children were young, my husband was essentially an absentee father. Between heavy work and church responsibilities, he just was hardly ever home when the children were awake. So I learned to take care of problems by myself, including calling upon the power of heaven to heal and care for my children. I have some very treasured memories of experiences between me and my children that unquestionably (at least in my mind and heart) were the result of some “other” power. Was this me using the priesthood? I don’t know. That’s a question I continue to ask.
    When my husband was available, he did give our children priesthood blessings, but the results were no more miraculous than my own heavenly beseachings, which has lead me to ask if “official” priesthood ordination is really necessary. Or, have I had this power as a result of priesthood administrations I’ve received in the temple? I don’t have answers, just lots of questions.
    As for priesthood authority, I don’t believe that our Heavenly Parents really want only half of their children (the male half) to have all the authority. This is a subject that gets me riled, so I’ll stop there.

  4. Caroline says:

    Emily, I thought the stake president’s question was odd as well. I thought he might have pulled that one out of his hat because I was a female graduate student. Maybe he figured that women pursuing graduate studies would be more likely to question the separate roles of men and women that the Church promotes. If so, it turns out he was right. 🙂

    DavidH, thanks for pointing to that scripture. It does indeed seem like women do a lot of ‘priestly’ duties, with the exception of officiating in those ordinances. I would sure love it if leaders took that scripture to heart a bit more and figured out more places within the church structure for women to participate in. Seems to me like there’s a lot more that women can do – ward mission leader, sunday school president, clerking, etc. – that don’t involve officiating in those ordinances.

    CatherineWO,
    Thank you for sharing your experiences with this. I love that you felt that other power as you blessed and prayed for your family.

    And I totally agree with this statement:
    “As for priesthood authority, I don’t believe that our Heavenly Parents really want only half of their children (the male half) to have all the authority.”

  5. People keep missing that the Priesthood is a call to serve and keep trying to convert it into a right to be respected or in control.

    It is a reminder to wash the feet of others, not sit at the head of the table. Which is why the rest of the section in D&C 121.

  6. Emily U says:

    Stephen M (Ethesis) – then what to do with the fact that priesthood holders DO sit at the head of the table? Get over it? Get to like it? Ignore it? Say it doesn’t matter?

  7. mb says:

    I noticed that Boyd Packer noted the difference between priesthood authority and priesthood power in his conference talk when he said, “distributing the authority of the priesthood has raced, I think, ahead of distributing the power of the priesthood”.

    I see a difference between them.

    Do I “have priesthood”? I have not been ordained to an office in the priesthood, so if “having priesthood” means holding an office in it, the answer is no. Neither am I ever authorized to baptize another person. So if “having priesthood” means being given the job of baptizing, then I don’t have the priesthood.

    Am I involved in blessing others with the power of the priesthood? Certainly. Temple workers are one outward example of this. Consider the definitions of priesthood that Emily and David cite. Every time I am involved in outpourings of the Spirit, revelations, divine intercession, stewardship inspiration, ministering, inspired preaching or teaching or calling upon the power of God to heal, the power of God is manifest in me and I am intrinsically involved in receiving and disseminating priesthood power.

    I see priesthood authority as a practical (and less than perfect and subject to change) organizational application of divine principles that is in place for logistical reasons on earth right now. It currently involves a gender distinction. It has been changed and morphed and been re-adapted to accommodate a wide variety of circumstances over the millennia and I suspect that will continue. On the other hand I see priesthood power as unchanging. Its applications and uses have changed over the centuries, but its nature (Doc. & Cov. 121) remains the same and its ability to be exercised by each of God’s children may be limited by a number of things, but it is not limited by their gender.

  8. mb says:

    The question of “do women have the priesthood” suffers from the same problem that the question “are Mormons Christian” does. Like the word “Christian” in the Christian world, “priesthood” in LDS conversation has multiple meanings and a myriad of nuances and different people define it differently in their own minds as they speak about it, usually bringing some of their own baggage into the conversation. But not all people who use the term are even aware of its multiple meanings in common usage. And we understandably don’t take the trouble to exquisitely define it every time we use the word or find out what the other person’s definition of it is, which leads to conflicting understandings and frequent miscommunication and frustration when we discuss it with each other. Or even what “having it” means.

  9. nat kelly says:

    Caroline, I tend to agree with you when you about “the priesthood of all believers.” I know one of the biggest LDS talking points is that you have to have proper authority for something (like baptism) to matter. But….. why?

    Doesn’t God look on the heart? Would S/He really deny someone’s petition because they hadn’t been properly ordained? I wonder this same thing about “saving” ordinances as well.

    What if we mess up and miss someone’s marriage for proxy work? Will they just not ever be sealed? The answer to that is usually that God knows everything and will make sure it all gets taken care of. But then why do we do it at all? If God will just take care of it, do our actions really mean anything? What if we seal the wrong people together? Are our actions still binding?

    Either we have real power, and with it, can seriously mess things up for eternity, or what we do is purely symbolic and everything ultimately rests in God’s hands.

    Neither of those possibilities makes me really eager to jump on board with our current understanding of the Priesthood.

  10. nat kelly says:

    Btw, I love the new layout, but I have a really hard time reading the text here in the comment box as I write it…… maybe make the colors a little more strongly contrasted. 🙂

  11. mb says:

    Nat wrote:
    “What if we mess up and miss someone’s marriage for proxy work? Will they just not ever be sealed? The answer to that is usually that God knows everything and will make sure it all gets taken care of. But then why do we do it at all? If God will just take care of it, do our actions really mean anything? What if we seal the wrong people together? Are our actions still binding?
    Either we have real power, and with it, can seriously mess things up for eternity, or what we do is purely symbolic and everything ultimately rests in God’s hands.”

    Your “either or” is too limited in scope. We have real power when we are working in tandem with God. If what we are doing is not in according with his will we have no power beyond our puny human one.

    To be given priesthood is not to be given the power to do something on our own or to become an ultimate authority, it is an opportunity to work hand in hand with God.

    Being human, sometimes we do and sometimes we don’t. He has the power to make good the times we do and repair the times we don’t.

    But if God could take care of it all by himself, why bother sharing such tasks with mortals? Because, by working with him we LEARN. And that learning is essential to our comprehending love and divinity. That is much more than symbolism.

  12. corktree says:

    I tend to agree with mb. That we don’t have a very good definition or understanding of what the priesthood is in many conversations – and it makes things difficult. I used to really latch on to the idea that it was okay for one group of individuals to be in the position of serving humanity simply because they held the offices of the priesthood, and it wasn’t necessary for ALL of us to have it (I’ve seen it described as the Ewok analogy?) but I am questioning that analysis more lately.

    I DO believe that ordained women hold the priesthood and can exercise it, and not just because they are married to a priesthood holder – and it continues to bother me that historically in the early church, women blessing and administering didn’t seem out of place, but these days you have to be careful who you talk to about similar experiences or even just that we long to have such experiences in connecting with God that way. I, for one, would love to know that feeling, but i don’t feel in the right place in my life to expect it. Which makes me question the difference in how men view exercising their priesthood versus how women would view it if they really believed they had it. Do they (men) feel more at ease with it because it was expressly given to them, and they are able to use it even when they don’t feel perfectly in tune? (I know that ideally anyone USING the priesthood should be worthy and faithful, but I don’t think it pans out that way in every use) For some reason, I feel an extra burden to prove myself worthy to use it if needed, but that doesn’t seem quite right. Maybe I just haven’t been in a position to NEED to use it, and if I ever were, my feelings would be different, but I’m not sure.

    In any case, my understanding of the authority of the priesthood and the role it plays is evolving. That’s the part I wish we understood better – the authorization. I get that the priesthood itself is the power of God and we can all theoretically have access to it – but I wonder why we don’t teach that on a more practical level? (ok, I know why…)

  13. Caroline says:

    Stephen, I agree with EmilyU. ‘Preside’ literally means to sit at the front of (pre – in front of and sedeo – to sit). Priesthood should certainly mean service, but it also means power and control. In my mind, there’s no way of getting around that.

    mb,
    ” see priesthood authority as a practical (and less than perfect and subject to change) organizational application of divine principles that is in place for logistical reasons on earth right now.”

    I like that. And I do agree that this is indeed subject to change. Also, good point about the definitional problems. I for one find it obnoxious to hear “priesthood” used synonymously with ‘men.’ “We’d like to thank the priesthood for picking up the chairs.” Ugh. I don’t like it when the same word for the power of God also referss to men.

    Nat Kelly, I’m sympathetic to your ideas regarding temple work and authority. I also feel no urgency to do temple work since I figure that God will need to make up the difference for 99.99% of the world’s population anyway. Like mb, I assume that a lot of that stuff is really about us Mormons learning from the process. Which makes me sad all over again that women in the LDS faith don’t have the same opportunity as men to learn from the experience of practicing priesthood authority.

    corktree,
    “it continues to bother me that historically in the early church, women blessing and administering didn’t seem out of place, but these days you have to be careful”

    Me too. I do think that one easy step forward the church could take to help women experience priesthood power is to remove the stigma from women blessing, healing, and annointing. We have biblical evidence that it’s perfectly fine for women to do this, and we have examples in our Church history that it’s ok for women to do this. There’s no doctrinal reason the Church couldn’t encourage women to experience this. I suppose the reason for the status quo is simply that current leaders are more comfortable with strict gender boundaries and distinctions on these matters.

  14. Kelly Ann says:

    Thank you Caroline for this post. it has given me a lot to think about.

  15. Olive says:

    * Do you think that women have priesthood in some sense? Why or why not?

    Yes! All endowed women receive the power of the priesthood.

    * Does the distinctions between priesthood power and authority, or priesthood of life and of administration resonate with you?

    Not really…I am more likely to just accept that women do not use the priesthood officially in most areas. That idea just sounds like the “men have the priesthood, women make babies” thing.

    * What does women using priesthood power actually look like, in yout mind?

    Women use the priesthood in the temple to bless and officiate. And I will always remember the day my dad told me that I could call upon the priesthood at any time if I was scared or in trouble. I think women can bless those around them with the laying on of hands, especially their children.

  16. s. groves says:

    Mormon Women Have Had the Priesthood Since 1843 D. Michael Quinn

    [365] For 150 years Mormon women have performed sacred ordinances in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Every person who has received the LDS temple endowment knows that women perform for other women the “initiatory ordinances” of washing and anointing.1 Fewer know that LDS women also performed ordinances of healing from the 1840s until the 1940s.2 Yet every Mormon knows that men who perform temple ordinances and healing ordinances must have the Melchizedek priesthood. Women are no exception.3

    [Edited by admin for length. Please feel free to link to content, or quote relevant portions. However this is not the place to reproduce an entire book chapter in full. ]

  17. Emily says:

    “The priesthood is the power of God delegated to men to act for the blessing and salvation of all mankind. While we sometiems refer to priesthood holders as ‘the priesthood’, we must never forget that the priesthood is not owned by or embodied in those who hold it. It is held in a sacred trust to be used for the benefit of men, women, and children alike. Elder John A. Widstoe said, ‘Men have no greater claim than women upon the blessings that issue from the Priesthood and accompany its possession’. (Priesthood and Church Government, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book., 1939, p. 83).

  1. April 28, 2010

    […] Exponent seems to produce the most comment-worthy articles on Mormon feminist topics. Today’s article on women and the priesthood provides an overview of various viewpoints on whether or not women have it or not, and the article […]

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