Baby Steps to Zion

Last month brought a string of Priesthood-related lessons in Relief Society.  Perhaps you noticed!

During one particular lesson, the conversation on “honoring the priesthood” wandered into comments about honoring the men in our lives and working behind the scenes to help them — “the priesthood” — become more spiritual.  “Priesthood” and “men” were used interchangeably, and I began to feel a little angsty about it.

So I typed a few words into my iPad and located one of my favorite General Conference quotes.  In October 2005, Elder Dallin Oaks delivered an address called “Priesthood Authority in the Family and the Church” that contains this gem, which I shared:

The priesthood is the power of God used to bless all of His children, male and female. Some of our abbreviated expressions, like “the women and the priesthood,” convey an erroneous idea. Men are not “the priesthood.” Priesthood meeting is a meeting of those who hold and exercise the priesthood. The blessings of the priesthood, such as baptism, receiving the Holy Ghost, the temple endowment, and eternal marriage, are available to men and women alike.

“Men are not the priesthood,” and using those words synonymously is misleading and damaging, for men and women (and young women and young men). Such conflation, when believed and acted upon, is the root of many priesthood abuses.  Language matters. (I didn’t say all that quite so bluntly — I know what it’s like to be the teacher in front of the room!)

In any case, the wife of the bishop approached me after class and asked me to send her the quote.  She had noticed that such language was often used in the ward — simple things like saying “We invite the priesthood to go sit with their families” after the sacrament. She wanted to share the quote with her husband.

Fast forward one month.  I was away last weekend at the Exponent Retreat (heaven).  Today, this same wonderful woman approached me and said, “I wish you could have been here last week.  My husband dismissed the ‘deacons’ not the ‘priesthood.'” Turns out he had been thinking about this issue as well and the Oaks talk gave him the push he needed.  She also noted that this is something he was going to bring this up at the stake level.

I was surprised by how much this delighted me.  Because though it may seem like a minuscule moment, I believe language matters. It’s why I talked about the natural man and woman during my Sunday School lesson today.  And why, in bringing up the Christ-father imagery in Isaiah, I also brought up the Christ-mother imagery in 3 Nephi. And why I was so delighted to hear President Monson quote Mother Teresa last night in the General Relief Society meeting. Language includes and excludes. Language makes room for people to find their place in our approaching-Zion communities or tells them, subtly, that they don’t belong.

Some of our abbreviated expressions, like “the women and the priesthood,” convey an erroneous idea. Men are not “the priesthood.”

Thanks to this woman and her husband, our ward is a little closer to Zion than it was.

What baby-steps have you seen in your ward or stake?


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

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19 Responses

  1. E says:

    Good work, Sister!

  2. Craig says:

    I don’t believe it a step towards equality or fair treatment to try to divorce the synonymous relationship maleness and priesthood have in the church (assuming that’s your ultimate intent). Rather, I think it only solidifies male dominance by making the priesthood into a more nebulous concept not directly associated with the patriarchy, therefore making legitimate concerns about the misogynistic nature of the priesthood seem less valid. Simply saying “men are not the priesthood” doesn’t magically make it so. When only men can have the priesthood, when only men occupy priesthood positions, and only men can utilise the priesthood, men effectively become the priesthood. Playing word games doesn’t change the fact that all males in the church inherently have more authority and perceived godly power than any woman can ever have.

    • Caroline says:

      “all males in the church inherently have more authority and perceived godly power than any woman can ever have”

      I agree with you there. However, being careful to distinguish between men who hold priesthood and priesthood itself is meaningful to me. When I think of all those YW and women that are getting told to “honor the priesthood” or some such variation, it seems to me like it would be a very healthy thing for these women to think to themselves, ” ok, I’ll honor the power of God. But I’m not going to necessarily honor this man in front of me just because he holds it.”

      • Craig says:

        As I don’t believe in gods or anyone having his/her/its/their power, all I see is men lording over women, pretending at authority. I know that many Mormons perceive a difference between the priesthood and men, but I just don’t think there actually is a real difference.

        My point is that I think Mormons need to admit that men are effectively currently the priesthood, so that the issue can be actually addressed. Just saying that *poof* men aren’t the priesthood might make some feel better, but it doesn’t actually cause any real changes in most of the men in the priesthood, and so the problems inherently associated with a male-only priesthood, and male-only authority will persist.

  3. Deborah says:

    That’s true. But there is no magic bullet between here and there. Here’s the thing, for me: There are meta-concerns that I discuss and wrestle with and blog about . . . and then there are small daily-living-in-a-ward-with-other-people-for-whom-changing-language-may-open-up-space-for-further-conversation . . . because-I-have-to-start-somewhere.

    I occupy both worlds. I have chosen this. And I’ll effect babysteps where I can . . .

  4. Caroline says:

    “Language includes and excludes. Language makes room for people to find their place in our approaching-Zion communities or tells them, subtly, that they don’t belong.”

    I feel exactly the same. Lavina Fielding Anderson’s essay, “The Grammar of Inequity” hammered home this point for me. I feel excluded when I sing about “helping every brother that I see” or “the brotherhood of man.” So I change the words to “human” or sometimes “sisters.” It might raise the eyebrows of those around me, but it makes me feel like I’m not excluding myself and the women around me.

    Way to go, Deborah! I’m going to print out that quote and keep it with me for the next time we get an honoring the priesthood lesson (no doubt next month) and the language veers off course.

  5. Kim says:

    I agree, language is so very important. I’m so very grateful for the words of Elder Oaks and this blog post – it really does make a difference to understand the true meaning of the priesthood and give it the proper context in our lives. As latter-day saints, it is vital for us to reverence God and not merely man. A man may hold the priesthood and do a wonderful job at it, but ultimately that power comes from God and not himself. It is humbling – and rightly so.

  6. EmilyCC says:

    I think Craig makes an excellent point that for now, PH=men and by owning up to that fact, people may see the inherent problems with this idea, making them more interested in change. However, I fear that most members are so entrenched in the idea that PH=men that they won’t see this as a gendered argument and just assume it’s the status quo.

    So, someone told me when I was in the ward clerk’s office yesterday, “I thought only the priesthood was allowed in here.” He knows my leanings and was trying to playfully provoke me (at least, I’m choosing to believe it was playful). But, I’d love a witty comeback for when people do use PH instead of men.

  7. Alisa says:

    Love this post, your courage, and the small change!

  8. Corktree says:

    I agree that language makes all the difference – and so does choosing to use our language skills when we can! Way to go for actually saying something (and what a great use of an iPad) 😉

    In the past when I’ve thought about the use of equating Priesthood with Motherhood, it made sense that people would see it that way as far as our use of English goes. hood=hood, no? Even though in other languages this symmetry doesn’t exist and the connection is an American member construct I imagine. So I began to try to understand what priesthood really is – but it’s hard! It’s so hard to imagine what it is on its own without our limited language and filters giving it form. I try to imagine it from a sci-fi angle. The power of God – what does that really mean? But then I only get more frustrated that something so independently amazing and cosmic as I imagine it to be is kept from us. I know that I have access to it equally, but it seems easier to accept it as something *meant* for men, when “priesthood” has become such a male word to us. Not sure if that eases my mind on women ever attaining it, but it gives me a more objective understanding I think.

  9. It sounds like Oaks is trying to get away from the original definition of priesthood. From the 19th century onward it was always PH=men. When a men received priesthood, he became priesthood. The priesthood was always considered the body of men that held it and wielded it. ByCommonConsent or MormonMatters or one of those blogs once did a decent write-up on this historical fact.

    Ah, here it is. I found it: Correlation: An Uncorrelated History (Part 6 — Church and Priesthood)

  10. Elder Chantdown says:

    Baby steps are so exciting and encouraging…when babies take them. But what I would love to see is women acting like women and men acting as men. Men are by nature of their male birth right (man-hood) to learn the ways of a priest. Women are by nature of their female birth right (woman-hood) to learn the ways of a priestess.

    When a boy comes into this world he is endowed with a symbolic scepter which is covered by a hood. When he truly passes from boy-hood to man-hood it will be because he has learned what the male power is for. And as he goes to work in the calling that only a man can do he takes upon himself yet another hood…Fatherhood.
    When a girl comes into this world she is endowed with a symbolic orb which is covered by a hood. When she truly passes from girl-hood to womb-man-hood it will be because she has learned what the female power is for. And as she goes to work in the calling that only a womb-man can do she takes upon himself yet another hood…Motherhood.

    Yes it is true that men are to officiate in many things within the church and the family. And sadly “almost all men” abuse the authority of their priesthood thus loosing power and authority in the eyes of God (the only eyes that see clearly) This will continue until either they see the light and repent on their own, possibly with some help from that rare man who does not fall into the “almost all” category discussed in the D&C. But why wait around for that when The Lord himself (not known for pessimism but rather truthfulness) has made it clear that it is rare. Well then it seems to me that there is another option and that would be for women to start behaving like priestesses and boldly utilize their God given powers within their stewardships. What is the worse that could happen either you end up eliminating misogynistic oppression through the wicked and hard hearted men cutting themselves off from their victims (divorce) or through many men repenting of their abuse upon having their erroneous and non scriptural view of priest-hood challenged.

    Like I said baby steps are really cute when were talking about babies. But it is not so cute when we are talking about grown men and women. Of course patience is a definite must. Forget Sheri Dew and apply Paul to all God’s Children…“When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a woman, I put away childish things.” Zion is such a wonderful place. Maybe we ought to pick up the pace a little, “lengthen our stride” as President Hinckley admonished. The baby steps would be a better analogy for our journey to the ultimate of all endowments, mantles, hoods…that of GODHOOD. God bless all my brothers and sisters with bold action and firm faith in the priesthood.

    • Jenne says:

      Elder, thanks for the encouragement especially the comment about lengthening our stride. Are you familiar with WAVE? I think it could be said that is what is being done there.

      At the same time, you make it sound so easy. Its a classic case of easier said than done and when said with such boundless optimism and simplicity sounds an awful lot like being talked down to. No one likes hearing “Well, if you just _______” without also being given some suggestions for how. I’m not trying to criticize your comment so what I should do instead is ask a question. How would women start behaving like priestesses and boldly utilize their God given powers within their stewardships? What would that look like?

      And what do you think women have to fear from trying and doing those things? What stumbling blocks exist?

    • Justin says:

      Elder C — I enjoyed your comments.


      How would women start behaving like priestesses and boldly utilize their God given powers within their stewardships? What would that look like?
      The keys of the church [or of the family] have been placed into the hands of women. This is to compliment the keys of the priesthood being placed into the hands of men. Nothing that is done by the priesthood keys is valid in the sight of God without being approved by the common consent of those holding the other set of keys.

      As a woman lives out her life in an atmosphere of continual subjection to authority — first to her parents, then to teachers, then to government and work authorities, then to a husband, etc. — she becomes accustomed to forever having to obey someone else. If such stewards were always Christ-like, then her nature is happy — but when stewards rule with unrighteous dominion [i.e. ignoring her consent], she becomes miserable. Nevertheless, due to societal factors, a female isn’t often able to free herself from bondage to one or another authority figure.

      However, her entrance into the Lord’s church thru baptism is designed by the Lord to be an entrance into freedom. No longer is she a second-class citizen [standing under a man] but is on equal ground with men, having equal voting rights as them — and having [together with her sisters] the combined capacity to pull-down all abuse and abusers by vote. No longer need she obey by virtue of someone’s title [of father, husband, police officer, teacher, elder, president, etc.], but is free to discard one’s title altogether and obey only the Christ-like ones and vote down the devilish.

      And what do you think women have to fear from trying and doing those things? What stumbling blocks exist?
      The tremendous power of the keys of the church [if wielded by the sisters as a voting block] to end ecclesiastical tyranny by almost all priesthood holders — presents an insurmountable obstacle to would-be priesthood tyrants. There simply is no way around it. If the sisters awake to the existence of the keys of the church and exercise their voting power, then leadership positions lose all their awesome titular authority and clout.

      The strategy [or stumbling block], then is for leaders to talk only about the keys of the priesthood and to never mention the keys of the church. The act of raising a hand for [not against] is now widely called “sustaining” — while raising one’s hand against is called “not sustaining” — and it is continuously taught that it is our duty to sustain our leaders [presumably by raising our hands for them]. This means that a woman who raises a hand in opposition is not “sustaining her leader,” therefore, she must be sinning.

  11. Elder Chantdown says:


    Oh I definitely don’t want to come across as talking down to anyone (unless it is false authority that needs to be pulled down from imagined heights) especially not my sisters in the faith. I do realize that I can be so idealistic that it sounds like I am trying to be condescending but nothing could be further from the truth. For the vast majority of LDS (brothers and sisters alike) I am hoping to lift their expectations, especially of OURSELVES.

    I realize the stumbling blocks and hell, straight up road blocks that have been and will be placed before us as we stand up for our individual rights within the church and the world. But we stood up for those rights before choosing to work together as a family rather than be lumped together in one conglomerate under Lucifer’s control. Among those rights is the right to rule and reign as Kings and Queens. But how?

    Well as LDS Anarchist points out our good Brother Oaks with all his legal training has pointed out clear as day the loophole in this seemingly impervious blanket of oppression. Families. You would never let some other institution step in and tell you how to mother your children, interact with your husband etc. (well unfortunately we do let this happen on MANY levels) But it is wrong and I’m not going to tell you exactly how to go about it. The spirit will direct you as long as you take your divinely issued calling seriously, even more seriously than your church calling and certainly more precious than any position held within your particular neighborhood of Babylon. I mean the scriptures are full of suggestions and I think that there are many women and men also who God will speak through to inspire your minds with ideas.

    I am not one bit naive as to the horrible abuse of authority that goes on in the church. (That is one major reason for me not providing many suggestions or personal experiences online) The spirit can and will direct each of us if we seek it. But yes my attitude should be interpreted as spurring and passionate. To borrow from another conference talk (Sorry i don’t remember which one but I think it was during Priesthood Session of this last October) I am beating us with a stick in an effort to arouse our faculties and even get our blood boiling a bit because as a body of saints we are in the advanced stages of hypothermia. And its only gonna get colder out here.

    If we can’t gird up our loins and live the way we feel and find that God wants us to (men and women together as equals with joint stewardship and fierce commitment to God, eachother and our children) If we can’t stand against some bullying bishop, or toothless stake president, or meddling relief society president or wimpy whining high councilman then we are poor stewards and have made our choice to serve MAN. The begining part IS easier than it seems. Follow the spirit as it speaks to your heart. You don’t have to consult with “leaders” since husbands and wives are the only leaders God recognizes in the home. Consult with God and with your spouses if married. And then have the courage to live according to those family councils over the councils of people who are unaffiliated with your covenant. As we do this we will become strong making the middle part easier also. Which is linking up in covenant communities. And if we do all this it will make the last part glorious. Living in Zion. Where all things are made new and God wipes away all our tears. I know, I know. There I go again with the optimism but hey, its not me its the scriptures! ; )

  12. Elder Chantdown says:

    Oh I checked out the WAVE website and was immediately drawn to the Calls to Action tab. I realized there that I had heard of and seen some of this group’s work while I was living in Utah. But I still say that institutions of any type other than God ordained families or tribes will be of little real effect in achieving equality. If we think about it, women and men should not desire equality with chauvinistic types. That would mean we have let ourselves down to the same level of spiritual corruption as they and can not help anyone. I really like and feel that WAVE and other groups could be put to great use or emulated in as much as they provide a means of communication and coordination on a mass scale. That will be so important as it always has been, especially among women. Not because they are incapable of standing strong as individuals. But because as individual inteligences, their spirits tend toward self sacrifice to demonstrate in a thousand individual ways the vitality of unity. They will strive for inclusion and brother and sisterhood at almost any cost to their own pride. This is a powerful weapon of the heart and should never be viewed as a weakness. But so many women just as much and in some sad cases more than the males in the church have become creatures of the left-brain, mind, yang, male energy at a near total loss of right-brain, heart, yin, feminine energy.

    When I see this among LDS women it hurts my heart and I am reminded of the experience recorded by Frederick Douglass. Upon arriving as a small child in Baltimore he says:
    And here I saw what I had never seen before; it was
    a white face beaming with the most kindly emotions; it was the
    face of my new mistress, Sophia Auld. I wish I could describe
    the rapture that flashed through my soul as I beheld it. It was a
    new and strange sight to me, brightening up my pathway with
    the light of happiness. –My new mistress proved to be all she appeared when I first met her at the door,—a woman of the kindest heart and finest
    feelings. She had never had a slave under her control previously
    to myself, and prior to her marriage she had been dependent
    upon her own industry for a living. She was by trade a weaver;
    and by constant application to her business, she had been in a
    good degree preserved from the blighting and dehumanizing
    effects of slavery. I was utterly astonished at her goodness. I
    scarcely knew how to behave towards her.

    These words could be used by not only any child but any man of God in describing the overwhelming admiration that pours over the heart when beholding the grace of a woman of God in action. Being the recipient of feminine love and power is totally overpowering and humbling plus invigorating at the same time.

    Sophia began teaching Frederick to read and write. But as sure as this kindly woman had been a beacon of light and love to this poor soul, her poor soul was darkened, and completely hardened when her good deeds were discovered by her husband. He confronted her and made her stop what had flowed naturally through and from her. The result was this, please read carefully, applying this as it speaks to the situation among us as LDS:

    My mistress, who had kindly commenced to instruct me, had, in compliance with the advice and direction of her husband (council of her priesthood leaders), not only ceased to instruct, but had set her face against my being instructed by any one else. It is due, however, to my mistress to say of her, that she did not adopt this course of treatment immediately. She at first lacked the depravity indispensable to shutting me up in mental darkness. It was at least necessary for her to have some training (church leadership capacitation meetings) in the exercise of irresponsible power, to make her EQUAL to the task of treating me as though I were a brute (second class citizen in the kingdom). My mistress was, as I have said, a kind and tender-hearted woman; and in the SIMPLICITY of her soul she commenced, when
    I first went to live with her, to treat me as she supposed one human being ought to treat another. In entering upon the duties of a slaveholder, (insert any leadership position) she did not seem to perceive that I sustained to her the relation of a mere chattel, and that for her to treat me as a human being was not only wrong, but dangerously so. Slavery proved as injurious to her as it did to me. When I went there, she was a pious, warm, and tender-hearted woman. There was no sorrow or suffering for which she had not a tear. She had bread for the hungry, clothes for the naked, and comfort for
    every mourner that came within her reach. (note she did not have arts and crafts and self help books etc. but actual tools of RELIEF in a SOCIETY that cried out for it.) Slavery (abuse of authority and worship of false authority within governmental systems of both church and state) soon proved its ability to divest her of these HEAVENLY QUALITIES. (see PROGRAMMES don’t instill VALUES in YOUNG WOMEN, our Heavenly Parents did that) Under its influence, the tender heart became stone, and the lamblike
    disposition gave way to one of tiger-like fierceness. The first step in her downward course was in her ceasing to instruct me (going by the book, manual, bishop’s whims instead of the spirit) She now commenced to practise her husband’s precepts. She finally became even more violent in her opposition than her husband himself. She was not satisfied with simply doing as well as he had commanded; she seemed anxious to do “BETTER.”

    Nowhere is the nasty effects of spiritual oppression seen more painfully as in the violation and manipulation of the the natural virtue of womanhood. In order to conform to a broken system a woman must violate her own nature. If she would break free and bring many with her as that Motherly instinct usually does, she will have to nurture that divine nature in more than a few non-approved (by man) ways.

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