Reflections on Elder Oaks’ Remarks in the Priesthood Session of General Conference
Suzette Smith serves on the Ordain Women Executive Board and as a spokesperson for OW. Her profile can be read here.
Elder Dallin H. Oaks’ remarks during this year’s April general conference seem a good indication that LDS members and leaders are talking about priesthood in a more expansive way and seriously considering what it is and how it functions in the lives of men and women. I see this as an encouraging trend, and I am grateful to Elder Oaks, whom I sustain as a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, for his willingness to open a dialogue about what we mean, in particular, when we speak about priesthood authority, keys and power.
In his introductory remarks, Elder Oaks quotes from a women’s conference talk given last year by President Linda K. Burton of the General Relief Society Presidency: “We hope to instill within each of us a greater desire to better understand the priesthood.” I have this same desire. Many of my prayers and conversations, like those of my friends who support Ordain Women, are focused on gaining a deeper understanding of the priesthood. With this in mind, here are a few reflections I have after listening to Elder Oaks’ remarks.
The priesthood, Elder Oaks asserts, is “the power of God” delegated to us so we “can act in the earth for the salvation of the human family.” While Elder Oaks explains that priesthood keys held by ordained Church leaders govern the use of priesthood authority throughout the Church, including in local wards and branches, he also says that priesthood authority is appropriately exercised by both men and women in their church callings. “We are not accustomed to speaking of women having the authority of the priesthood in their Church callings,” Elder Oaks explains, “but what other authority can it be? When a woman—young or old—is set apart to preach the gospel as a full-time missionary, she is given priesthood authority to perform a priesthood function. The same is true,” Elder Oaks further asserts, “when a woman is set apart to function as an officer or teacher in a Church organization” or as a temple worker. “Women have authority given unto them to do … great … things, sacred unto the Lord, and binding,” Elder Oaks continues. “Whoever functions in an office or calling received from one who holds priesthood keys exercises priesthood authority in performing her or his assigned duties.”
I am very encouraged by Elder Oaks’ insight. I hope it will open further dialogue about how women see themselves exercising priesthood authority in their callings. For example, a woman could cite priesthood authority in her ability to receive revelation pertaining to her specific calling. I hope Elder Oaks’ insight will also expand the conversation about which callings could be extended to women, such as serving as ward clerks or in Sunday School presidencies.
Elder Oaks reminds us that “all the keys of the priesthood are held by the Lord Jesus Christ, whose priesthood it is.” Yet we do not yet have all priesthood keys. There “are other priesthood keys that have not been given to man on the earth,” he says. I believe, as the Ninth Article of Faith suggests, that God “will yet reveal many great and important things pertaining to the Kingdom of God.” Accordingly, I continue to ask what might be revealed about priesthood keys and how they might pertain to women specifically.
Elder Oaks asserts that within the Church and the home, men and women should be equal and full partners. I look forward to further discussion of how such a partnership and its attendant responsibilities can be mirrored specifically within the governance of the Church. As an example, church leaders might call equal numbers of men and women to church councils to better reflect varying perspectives and make use of all gifts and talents.
I believe, as Elder Oaks states, that motherhood is an important and sacred calling. “God has given [to His daughters] the power to be a creator of bodies … so that God’s design and the Great Plan might meet fruition.” I understand that motherhood is a partnership with God, and it may give women unique access to divine power. Yet, there are many ways by which women access divine power in their lives and in the Church. I am interested in an expanded discussion about our access to divine power within the Church.
Elder Oaks makes it clear that “men are not the priesthood.” For those of us who support women’s ordination, this uncoupling of priesthood from maleness is fundamental, and so I’m grateful to see Elder Oaks acknowledge this. Whether or not our talents and gifts fit neatly into gendered categories, each of us can bring unique insights and perspectives to church callings and administration, which for me, encourages more inclusiveness in church governance. As many have argued, full partnership and equality are not about sameness; they are about removing barriers to access and opportunity for service and spiritual growth. Christ is the exemplar for both men and women, so, it seems, that developing divine attributes is the goal of both genders. I look forward to conversations about how priesthood blessings and acting with priesthood authority can help men and women achieve their goal of becoming more like Christ.
Elder Oaks states that they, as presiding authorities in the Church, “are not free to alter the divinely-decreed pattern that only men will hold offices in the priesthood.” I appreciate this acknowledgement that priesthood is God’s power and understand that only God can make changes to its administration. I believe this affirms the LDS belief in continually seeking further light and knowledge from God, and I trust our leaders do so daily. I am grateful that Elder Oaks’ remarks confirm that they, like I and other Ordain Women supporters, are seeking a deeper understanding of the power and authority of the priesthood and how women can exercise that power and authority in the Church.
Author’s Note: Special thanks to Lorie Winder for her editorial support. Some of my phrasing and ideas came from discussions with her.