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.

Full Partners

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.




Suzette lives in the Washington DC area and works as a Professional Organizer. She enjoys blogging and serving on the Exponent II Board. Her Mormon roots run deep and she loves her big Mormon family which includes 20 nieces and nephews, 6 sisters, 5 brother in laws, 2 parents - and dozens of cousins. Her favorite things about church are the great Alexandria wards, temple worship, and all things Visiting Teaching.

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32 Responses

  1. Big L says:

    I appreciate the optimistic tone of this. I’m not always so hopeful, so this interpretation helps. The future looks bright from your perspective. Thanks for sharing.

    • Suzette says:

      Thanks Big L. I do there is a lot to be hopeful about. The discussion is really opening up!

    • Ziff says:

      Big L, you took the words right out of my mouth. I love that you’ve taken such optimistic pieces to emphasize from Elder Oaks’s talk, Suzette. Mostly listening to him made me mad.

      But I think you’re completely right about the discussion opening up. And the very fact that Elder Oaks felt that he had to devote a whole talk to the issue in General Conference is evidence that heads are being turned.

      • MargaretOH says:

        I am convinced that one of Suzette’s great gifts to give the world is optimism and hope. I’ve never seen anyone so able to see the good. Thanks for sharing the sunniness, Suzette. Your contributions to the discussion are so thoughtful.

      • Ziff says:

        Oh, definitely, Margaret. Sorry, Suzette. I didn’t mean to be complaining about you finding the positive in his talk. I appreciate your positive read. I have high hopes that in the future when the Church does end the female priesthood ban, the points you’ve focused on will be the points focused on in Church discourse as well.

  2. spunky says:

    This is beautiful, Suzette. I confess I liked Oaks’ talk, but felt confused after and was not sure why I felt hopeful as a result. I think the continual positioning of motherhood as divine (absent of fatherhood)– just distracts me every time it is mentioned, even when a side comment. It is, after all, a mortal, physical ability- hence why not all women *can* or *do* give birth or “mother,” anyone. Compared to all males who have the ability by virtue of gender to be ordained (though I wonder about intellectually impaired males– are they set apart with the higher priesthood as well?). But anyway.

    Your piece offers light in that confusion, and gives me great hope. I can’t wait to use it to call it on the male who next tries to use the priesthood line to shut me down. I know that is an unkind though, but having lived in oppression, the ability to quote a prophet in declaring I *have* priesthood and authority, and cannot systematically be shut down makes me feel …free. or at least free-er. I still seek ordination so I can serve without fear of being annexed from a calling or organization, or excommunicated for thinking differently. Freedom to serve is something still not afforded to women, but the doctrine you have address is at least…. freeing. I hope other women made note of this and use it as appropriate.

    Thank you so much for this benevolent and masterful piece.

  3. Melody says:

    Suzette, thank you for re-framing many parts of this address I found unsettling. Like you, I feel very hopeful about progress toward greater equality between women and men in the LDS church. Conversations about priesthood power, keys, and authority are important.

    If I’m being honest, which I am, this particular address roused a familiar “the man he doth protest too much” response inside me. I love, respect, and sustain Elder Oaks. And I hear him saying the same things I heard, understood, and accepted for many, many years. . . until one day as I drove home from church pondering a relief society lesson about priesthood.

    These were my thoughts: “We keep explaining and illustrating and justifying how and why it is okay that women don’t hold the priesthood. Why do we have to explain over and over again that it’s okay only men hold the priesthood? Why are we compelled to make a list of reasons and explanations for why it’s okay?” The answer for me that day was: “Because it’s not okay.” On some level – deep, deep down – we all know it. We just can’t bring ourselves to say it. (At least many of us can’t. Thanks OW and others for being willing.) Something is amiss. Something is out of balance. Something is not right here.

    How it will be made right is a mystery to me. But I’m enjoying watching the mystery unfold, via talks like Elder Oaks’ and responses like yours here at Exponent. Thanks again. This was a wonderful sabbath morning reflection.

    • Suzette says:

      Thanks Melody. I have felt that same way: something is not right here. It’s nice to say it …. and hear it … out loud. Time for a lot of talking.

  4. Dennis Rosenlof says:

    Hi Suzette, Thank you for the insight. I believe with you that the women of the church have something very special to offer. The priesthood is not a men’s club. The priesthood is a gift from God to all his children. Robin and I are equal partners with the priesthood. I believe that god has not yet reveled everything. From an old friend. I love you.

  5. Elaine says:

    These ideas expressed by Elder Oaks are no new- they are as old as the restored Church. Consider this article from the 1972 Ensign, an abbreviated biography of Lucy Mack Smith. She is portrayed prophesying, receiving revelation, performing miracles, including healing the sick, and as the spiritual strength of her family and friends.

    In my opinion, much of the misogyny most obvious in the Church is traceable to ideas and opinions which have filtered in from outside the Church, particularly from far right-wing political movement, and the Evangelical movement, especially the “women should wholly submit their will to their husbands” ideas.

    I believe much of this comes from local authorities seeking to exercise unrighteous dominion, and very little from the general authorities themselves. In fact, for the past decade at least, general authorities have been calling Bishops and Stake Presidents to repentance for their treatment of women in the Priesthood sessions.

    I would say more, but I do not wish to offend: I believe I am out of step with both the right-wing and left-wing of the “Mormon Culture”.

    • anna says:

      Don’t you think there is something wrong with bring “mad” or “unsettled” after listening to a talk by a General Authority? It’s not your job to make God align his will to yours, but it is your job to try to align your thoughts and actions with God’s word.

      • Ziff says:

        Not at all necessarily, Anna. After all, General Authorities don’t always speak God’s will, so it’s not necessarily bad to be unsettled on the occasions that they say false or hurtful things.

      • Holly says:

        there’s nothing at all wrong with being “mad” or “unsettled” after listening to a talk by a General Authority. Even if every single word they speak reflects the eternal will of God, there’s nothing that says we can’t experience a range of emotions upon hearing it, or need some time to deal with how certain commandments might change our lives. Joseph Smith claimed to be upset about being told he had to introduce polygamy to the church and practice it himself. Why shouldn’t we have the same right?

        What’s wrong is the idea that we’re only allowed certain emotions or responses. That denies our humanity and complexity, and it makes even obedient, faithful people afraid to express who they really are.

  6. Descent says:

    I appreciate the tone of this analysis as well. However, what do you make of the “divine decree” statement about men being priesthood holders?

    That statement has been very needling for folks as they question where this divine decree took place.

  7. Shelley says:

    I have waited with interest to see the response from OW to Elder Oaks talk. Personally, I feel that this response has carefully sidestepped one of the main points of his talk, which is fulfilling responsibilities instead of seeking for ‘rights’.
    I have read several of the profiles in order to carefully consider the perspective of the women who join this group; and from the variety of ‘reasons’ given to support women’s ordination the overarching theme that I see is one of seeking the priesthood for their own glory…to personally be the one to baptize children, bless children, or hold high leadership positions. This strikes me as prideful. That being said, everybody is entitled to their own feelings.
    The main problem I have with OW is your methods. It is hypocritical to claim to sustain the leaders of the church as prophets of God, and then ignore a direct request from them to not stage a publicity stunt during priesthood session. Even this response, as carefully worded as it is, is essentially saying that you are going to continue to ‘further the discussion’, even though I think the church has made it clear where they stand at the moment. How do you plan to do that? More protests? Dragging the name of the church, which is the name of Christ, through the mud of publicity stunts? Seeking out sympathy from news organizations who are only too happy to think that you speak for the silent majority of oppressed women in the LDS church, even though it is obvious that this group is a very, very small (and extreme) proportion of the female membership? The OW facebook page has already attracted those who would malign the name and character of our prophets. Does this please our Heavenly Father? There must be a better way to voice your opinion.
    Last week my daughter decided that she didn’t like her bedtime, and she spent the evening pleading for a later bedtime, despite my firm and consistent “No”. Finally, I told her I was done discussing it and she said “Mom, we wouldn’t have to discuss it if you would just change your mind”.
    I don’t know if women will ever be ordained, I don’t see it as necessary for my life. I am educated, my husband and I are full and equal marriage partners, I sit on ward council, where the bishop values my opinion, and I have the complete support of my bishopric in decisions I make as Primary president. My plea to you is to cease giving the media reasons to detract attention from the message of the gospel, which is to come unto Christ, repent, and be saved.

    • holly says:

      Last week my daughter decided that she didn’t like her bedtime, and she spent the evening pleading for a later bedtime, despite my firm and consistent “No”. Finally, I told her I was done discussing it and she said “Mom, we wouldn’t have to discuss it if you would just change your mind”.

      You should reconsider your position. Going to bed does not equal falling asleep. People have developed lifelong sleep problems as a result of being forced to adapt to a bedtime that doesn’t fit their natural rhythm. Your daughter might know that the bedtime your enforcing doesn’t work for her body. In any event, would it really hurt you to let your daughter try a new bedtime and see if it worked for her?

      Remember: Rules for rules’ sake are actually something Jesus consistently condemned.

      • Shelley says:

        I have not reflected on it long, but I can’t think of examples where Jesus taught that it was okay to be disobedient.
        John 14:23 If a man love me, he will keep my words: and my Father will love him, and we will come unto him, and make our abode with him.
        D&C 1:38 What I The Lord have spoken I have spoken, and I excuse not myself…whether by mine own voice or the voice of my servants, it is the same.

        The point of my story was to illustrate that when The Lord speaks, as He has done in delegating the keys of church administration to men, then it is disrespectful to continue to argue when the answer has been given. Whether you agree or not. Continuing to pursue the disagreement, yet claiming to support the revelatory nature of our prophets, is hypocrisy.

      • Ziff says:

        “when The Lord speaks, as He has done in delegating the keys of church administration to men, then it is disrespectful to continue to argue when the answer has been given. Whether you agree or not. Continuing to pursue the disagreement, yet claiming to support the revelatory nature of our prophets, is hypocrisy.”

        This only holds together, though, if you believe Church leaders are infallible. What if the Lord spoke and they only got it 50% right? Do you really believe they’re perfect?

      • Holly says:

        I have not reflected on it long, but I can’t think of examples where Jesus taught that it was okay to be disobedient.

        Then you don’t understand much about him.

        The story of the good Samaritan is about someone who violated religious laws about touching a dead or dying body. And by saying, “Take, eat of my body,” Jesus was being deliberately provocative–he was saying something gross that violated all sorts of religious requirements about diet and handling human bodies. It would have been absolutely shocking, an intentional and explicit disobedience of rules people understood as necessary to holiness.

        Or the story about the woman who had had an issue of blood from her body for 12 years. She would have been forbidden from touching any man in any way whatsoever. She was disobeying religious law by touching Jesus. And he didn’t care. He healed her. He rewarded her disobedience.

        You might want to read another OT verse: “This people draweth nigh unto me with their mouth, and honoureth me with their lips; but their heart is far from me.” Matthew 15:8

        Know who does that? People who use Jesus to try to bludgeon others into behaving in a way YOU approve of, when you haven’t taken the time to figure out that Jesus’s whole ministry was about upending the status quo.

        Talk about hypocrisy.

      • Shelley says:

        Holly, I think we both agree that Jesus can do what He wants. He expects us to be obedient to Him.

        Ziff, you implied that you don’t believe the leaders of this church are infallible, and that is probably the most honest statement I have heard yet from a member of this movement. I don’t agree with you in this instance, but I respect your right to believe they are wrong. My problem is that OW and many of the members who post a profile quite often begin their discourse by proclaiming that they sustain the leaders of the church. How is it sustaining our leaders when you ignore what they say? Both in matters of doctrine and requests for restraint? To be honest about this movement, it should clearly lay out that they do not sustain the prophets and believe they are wrong; that way nonmembers browsing this issue will know that this group is on the periphery and most LDS women do not agree. It’s deceptive to frame the topic in any other way.

      • spunky says:

        I think you are missing the point of most ordain women profiles if what you are reading into them is prideful. Using your logic, are the women who seek ordination supposed to disbelieve the general authorities when the GAs say they love us, even when we disagree with them? Should non-LDS people presume church members are protesting their lives because missionaries knock on their doors to invite them to learn and pray about a change?

        If a man looks forward to blessing or baptising his child, is he also selfish, or have you only reserved this trait for women? If a member woman is widowed or married to a nonmember, is she wicked for seeking the bond that can come in participating in these ordinances?

        Lastly, you clearly did not read my profile. My desire for ordination, and the majority of the women who I know seek ordination do so *because* we seek to serve and bless. I do confess, when I was living in a small brach and an inactive man was the only male who available (his wife called him because no other men turned up) was an unrepentant, heavy drinker who once pronounced he didn’t believe in God, I felt like it could have been better to have a woman bless the sacrament out of respect for Christ and the atonement. That feeling was judgemental, but it came from a place of love and devotion to God, NOT from self pride.

        I believe this is the same for this post and ordain women profiles. We listen and seek enlightenment because of devotion and our desire to serve. Your judgement is both unfounded and unkind. Walk a mile in my shoes before you dismiss and disregard my desire to serve as prideful, rather than a manifestation of my testimony and devotion to Christ.

      • Ziff says:

        Shelley, just to clarify, you’re saying that you *do* believe Church leaders are infallible? And that you think most Church members think so too?

      • Holly says:

        He expects us to be obedient to Him.

        Oh good grief.

        Jesus was killed because he encouraged people to reject the status quo. The person who did that is not going to come along and create another equally rigid status quo and expect people to support it.

        fyi: It’s official church doctrine that the leaders are most decidedly NOT infallible. How on earth can you possibly not know this?

  8. Suzette says:

    Hi Shelley – Thanks for you opinions and ideas. I appreciate your respectful tone. You seem to be a person who loves the Lord and the church; I respect that.

    Though we obviously disagree on the methods and approach of OW, I can see what you are saying. Some members of my immediate family share your views and we’ve had long discussions about … what it means to support and sustain … what are the questions and what is answers … and what is the difference between being authentic and being hypocritical.

    Priesthood and ordination raise a complex set of questions. They are not addressed quickly or easily. But I think it is discussions like this that start to pull apart the different pieces. This is why I appreciate your ideas so much … they shed light on things I may not have thought about. (You are always welcome to share here … in a respectful way.)

    Just as a note, I didn’t intend to “side step” any of the issues, but rather did address the parts that resonated most with me … and that I felt guided to write about.

    • Shelley says:

      I did not express my opinion expecting to change anybody’s mind. I believe what I believe, you believe what you believe, and all of us are only accountable to God for it. The differences between this group’s stand and my personal belief are so wide and so deep that it is delicate to express it without giving offense, especially in writing.

      I will still express my thoughts on OW’s methods, though, because they directly affect me and are hurtful. I know that members of this group have hard questions, I had the same hard questions, I took it to God and received answers that made me happy and testified of personal revelation. So go ahead and ask your questions. But. Using the methods of man to change the mind of God is both futile and damaging. I have anti-LDS friends who are loving this group. They love to watch you ‘stick it to the old men’. They love to watch your members reinforce the public misconception that women in the church are less than men. Which we are not, and I confess quotes from OW members that insinuate female weakness or inequality make me angry.

      Protests at priesthood session garner your group a lot of free press; but in the process you alienate members of the church and detract from the message of Christ. Is that really worth it? Is it any wonder that people question your loyalties when they see you openly flout the authority you claim to respect?

      Yes, I believe that when the prophets are speaking in harmony and as a quorum they are speaking for God and the message is infallible. God will not allow his prophets to lead the church astray. Perhaps women will be ordained someday, the point is (for me) it doesn’t really matter; because if you have faith that God knows what He is doing when He chooses His messengers then it hardly matters if it comes from the voice of a man or a woman. For now, and for reasons of His own, He chooses men to hold the keys of administration, and protests from the world are hardly likely to be the reason He chooses differently. Those protests just cloud the message and become a stumbling block to those who would seek the truth.

  9. Kristy says:

    Thank you so much for this, Suzette! I look forward to discussing this talk with my RS sisters.

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