Shouldn’t it be obvious? How Mormon Women Hold and Exercise the Priesthood Today

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS, Mormons) bans women from  ordination to the priesthood, while virtually all male members over 12 years of age are ordained.  Although this ban clearly restricts women from performing most church ordinances and disqualifies women from most high-level callings (ministry positions), some suggest that Mormon woman actually do hold and exercise the priesthood without ordination.

Temple Endowment

Some of the wording of the temple endowment ceremony seems to bestow priesthood upon all who receive the endowment, including women, but very little has been said by church leaders clarifying whether or not this is the case, possibly due to taboos against discussing temple ceremonies. Elder M. Russell Ballard recently said,

When men and women go to the temple, they are both endowed with the same power, which by definition is priesthood power. (Ballard, 2013)

But Ballard’s statement seems to contradict a statement made by fellow apostle Boyd K. Packer 20 years earlier:

Some members of the Church are now teaching that priesthood is some kind of a free-floating authority which can be assumed by anyone who has had the endowment…The priesthood is conferred through ordination, not simply through making a covenant or receiving a blessing. (Packer, 1993)

Temple Marriage

If priesthood is only conferred through ordination, women clearly do not have the priesthood. Ordination of women is banned by the LDS church. However, even Packer has suggested another way that women obtain the priesthood without ordination:

No man receives the fulness of the priesthood without a woman at his side. For no man, the Prophet said, can obtain the fulness of the priesthood outside the temple of the Lord.  And she is there beside him in that sacred place. She shares in all that he receives. (Packer, 1998)

A recent statement by Ballard may support this suggestion:

Just as a woman cannot conceive a child without a man, so a man cannot fully exercise the power of the priesthood to establish an eternal family without a woman. . . . In the eternal perspective, both the procreative power and the priesthood power are shared by husband and wife. (Ballard, 2013)

By linking priesthood power to procreative power, Ballard’s statement raises more questions. Is he actually talking about husbands and wives sharing the priesthood itself? How do they share it? Or is he just reminding us that men hold the priesthood and women bear children and between the two of them, the couple enjoys both? How does this apply to couples that do not bear children? What about single women and women married to non-priesthood holders?  They are clearly excluded from receiving the priesthood through spouses—barriers not experienced by men, who may be ordained to the priesthood regardless of marital status.

Elder Dallin H. Oaks has pointed out that while women are partners with their husbands within their own families, they do not share their husbands’ priesthood callings.  (Oaks, 2005)  Exactly what bit of the priesthood are wives sharing?

Obviousness as a Litmus Test

Both the theory that women receive the priesthood through the endowment and the theory that women receive the priesthood through their husbands fail a litmus test suggested by Packer:

Do not miss that one simple, obvious absolute: The priesthood ever and always is conferred by ordination by one who holds proper authority, and it is known to the Church that he has it.  (Packer, 1993)

This “one…obvious absolute” is actually two. First, the priesthood is conferred by ordination. Women are not ordained in the LDS church today. Second, when someone has priesthood authority, the Church knows that he has it. Teachings about women holding the priesthood through the endowment or through partnership with their husbands are sparse, controversial and absent from church curricula. If women do hold the priesthood in these ways, why isn’t it known to the Church?

Priesthood Authority

This is obvious: Mormon women are not allowed to be ordained to priesthood offices nor permitted to hold priesthood keys. (Packer, 1993)  (Burton, 2013) (Ballard, 2013) These are the two primary ways by which priesthood authority is distributed. (Packer, 1993) (D&C sections 20 and 124)

But keys and ordination are not the only ways to obtain priesthood authority. Priesthood authority may be delegated.

Those who have priesthood keys—whether that be a deacon who has keys for his quorum or a bishop who has keys for his ward or a stake president who has keys for his stake or the president of the Church who holds all priesthood keys—literally make it possible for all who serve or labor faithfully under their direction to exercise priesthood authority and have access to priesthood power.  (Ballard, 2013)

oaks-priesthood-authority-church-womenWe are not accustomed to speaking of women having the authority of the priesthood in their Church callings, 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 when a woman is set apart to function as an officer or teacher in a Church organization under the direction of one who holds the keys of the priesthood. Whoever functions in an office or calling received from one who holds priesthood keys exercises priesthood authority in performing her or his assigned duties. (Oaks, 2014)

These statements suggest that women exercise the priesthood; the authority to do so is delegated to them by male priesthood holders with keys.  But what priesthood power are they wielding? Can priesthood itself be borrowed?

ballard-men-and-women-officiate-priesthood-in-the-templeA female temple ordinance worker may be using the priesthood power conferred upon her through the endowment.  Although church members sometimes use folk doctrines to explain away female temple work as something other than priesthood, Elders Oaks and Ballard have both confirmed that women exercise the priesthood in the temple.  (Oaks, 2014) (Ballard, 2013)

However, the endowment cannot explain how other women, many of whom have not been through the endowment ceremony, exercise the priesthood in the context of their church callings.  How is priesthood conferred to these women?

Priesthood Power

In spite of Oaks’ assurance that a woman “exercises priesthood authority in performing  her…assigned duties,” female church auxiliary leaders do not seem to see themselves in this way. General Relief Society president Linda K. Burton and former general Young Women president Elaine S. Dalton emphasized that women have priesthood power, not priesthood authority. (Burton, Dalton, & Wixom, 2013) Sheri Dew, former second counselor in the general Relief Society presidency, was blunt about putting women in their unauthoritative place:

Young men, you will preside at home and in the Church…For the Church cannot achieve the full measure of its creation unless both faithful men who bear the priesthood and righteous women who rejoice in serving under the direction of the priesthood work together. (Dew, 2001)

Priesthood power is the power to be “sealed up unto eternal life.”  (D&C 131:5) Such power cannot be brushed aside as insignificant. Yet, speaking of women having priesthood power without authority could be another way of saying that although women may receive the blessings of salvation, they may not exercise the priesthood in any tangible way during this life.

Carole M. Stephens, first counselor in the general Relief Society presidency, taught that both men and women may “receive the power and blessings of the priesthood” but saw only men as eligible to “exercise the priesthood.” (Stephens, 2013)

andersen-drapes-sun-priesthood-women-manElder Neil L. Andersen suggested that women without male priesthood holders in the home could still have priesthood power in their homes, but illustrated his point with a metaphor that evokes images of women waiting powerlessly in the dark because only “a man may open the drapes.”  (Andersen, 2013) More literally, Stephens described visiting three families without male priesthood holders, accompanied by a male priesthood holder who was able to bless them that day, but we are left to wonder how their priesthood needs will be met when visitors are not present. (Stephens, 2013)

If a man exercises the authority of the priesthood, “it is known to the Church that he has it.” (Packer, 1993) If women also exercise priesthood authority, shouldn’t it be more obvious?

Being Auxiliary

The kind of priesthood authority that women may receive, that comes without priesthood office or keys, seems suspiciously similar to lack of authority. Women do not make decisions; they make “recommendations” and “suggestions.” (Ballard, 2013)  (Beck, 2010)  (Scott, 2005) General auxiliary officers do not preside over their local counterparts. Instead, they have “occasional contact” with them and “assist” them. (Scott, 2005)

Female leaders in the LDS Church are very similar to expert consultants at secular organizations.  They work long hours.  Their “input is significant and welcomed.” (Ballard, 2013) They offer “insight” and “unique wisdom” that is valued by the organization. (Dew, 2001) Organizational leaders should  “listen” to their consultants; their input can be vital to organizational success. (Dew, 2001)  (Ballard, 2013) Yet, consultants cannot make final decisions for the organization and do not have potential for promotion within its ranks.  They are not part of the organization; they are outsiders.  One might say that a consultant is auxiliary to the organization she works for.

Delegation of Responsibility

Considering that an oft-spoken complaint of female detractors of women’s ordination is, “I don’t want the responsibility,” it is ironic that limited authority does not prevent LDS women from having significant responsibility.  For example, consider a baptism.  Women may proselytize, teach the potential convert the principles of the gospel, plan the baptismal program, prepare and give the talks and musical numbers, and take care of logistical concerns such as food and baptismal clothing: a long list of important and time-consuming responsibilities.  Women are excluded from actually performing or technically witnessing the baptism (a three-minute procedure), interviewing the baptismal candidate (one hour), or presiding over the baptism (which takes no extra time because she is already present at the baptism anyway).

Many of the responsibilities assigned to priesthood holders in the scriptures are regularly delegated to Mormon women, such as teaching, proselytizing, caring for the poor, and presiding over groups of women and children.  (D&C 20:57-59;  84:112; 107:10; 133:8) (Oaks, 2014) (Andersen, 2013) (Beck, 2012) (Beck, 2010) Women are currently banned from other scriptural priesthood responsibilities, such as performing ordinances in public, judging member worthiness and presiding over mixed gender adult or adolescent groups. (D&C 20:38-45; 107:71-72; 133:8)

Some responsibilities are  assigned to priesthood holders by scripture but not actually fulfilled by the assigned priesthood holders because in today’s church, these priesthood holders are adolescent boys.  Teachers in the Aaronic priesthood, most of whom are 14 and 15 years-old, have the following scriptural assignment:

The teacher’s duty is to watch over the church always, and be with and strengthen them; And see that there is no iniquity in the church, neither hardness with each other, neither lying, backbiting, nor evil speaking; And see that the church meet together often, and also see that all the members do their duty. And he is to take the lead of meetings in the absence of the elder or priest. (D&C 20:53-56)

Since teenagers cannot reasonably be expected to “see that there is no iniquity in the church” or “see that all the members do their duty,” these boys have been assigned the distantly related activity of visiting two or three families once a month and reading a paragraph aloud to them from a church magazine.  They are also assigned to prepare and pass the sacrament, although these activities are not listed as priesthood responsibilities in the scriptures.

Women and girls are banned from preparing and passing the sacrament, among several other duties that have no scriptural basis for being limited to priesthood holders, such as serving as clerks, auditors and Sunday School presidents.

Tradition and Revelation

Apparently, the scriptures only loosely govern delegation of priesthood responsibilities between men, women and male children. Packer offered this explanation:

There are some things about the priesthood that every elder should know…Some of these principles are found in the scriptures, others in the handbooks. Some of them are not found in either. They are found in the Church. You might call them traditions, but they are more than that. They are revelations which came when the Brethren of the past assembled themselves, agreed upon His word, and offered their prayers of faith. (Packer, 1993)

The women’s priesthood ordination ban itself is not scriptural. Andersen answered the question, “Why are the ordinances of the priesthood administered by men?” with the response, “I do not know the meaning of all things.” (Andersen, 2013) Other apostles have implied that the ban came from God, without describing or referencing any revelation to that effect. Oaks called the ban “divinely appointed.” (Oaks, 2014) Ballard said, “The Lord has not revealed why He has organized His Church as He has.” (Ballard, 2013)

Until women’s roles in the priesthood are more obvious, perhaps there is need for more revelation.  If women may be delegated priesthood authority, why are they not entrusted to make decisions or preside over mixed gender groups?  If women may exercise the priesthood to perform ordinances in the temple, why may they not do so in public?  If women may hold the priesthood without ordination, shouldn’t they be taught how to receive and use it?  And most importantly, could women be ordained to the priesthood, instead of remaining auxiliary to it?

The oath and covenant of the priesthood states:

And also all they who receive this priesthood receive me, saith the Lord;… And he that receiveth me receiveth my Father; And he that receiveth my Father receiveth my Father’s kingdom; therefore all that my Father hath shall be given unto him. (D&C 84:35-38)

And women are left to wonder, does this apply to me?

It should be more obvious.


Andersen, N. L. (2013). Power in the Priesthood.

Ballard, M. R. (2013). Let Us Think Straight.

Ballard, M. R. (2013). This is my work and my glory.

Beck, J. B. (2010). Using Relief Society Meetings to Teach and Inspire.

Beck, J. B. (2012). Why we are organized into quorums and Relief Societies.

Burton, L. K. (2013). Priesthood: A Sacred Trust to be Used for the Benefit of Men, Women and Children.

Burton, L. K., Dalton, E. S., & Wixom, R. M. (2013). Top Mormon Women Leaders Provide Their Insights into Church Leadership.

Dew, S. L. (2001). It is not good for man or woman to be alone.

Jack, E. L. (1996). Partakers of the Glories.

Oaks, D. H. (2005). Priesthood Authority in the Family and the Church.

Oaks, D. H. (2014). The Keys and Authority of the Priesthood.

Oaks, D. H. (1992). The Relief Society and the Church.

Packer, B. K. (1998). The Relief Society.

Packer, B. K. (1993). The Temple, the Priesthood.

Packer, B. K. (1993). What every Elder should know–and every Sister as well: A primer on principles of priesthood government.

Scott, R. G. (2005). The Role of the Auxiliaries.

Stephens, C. M. (2013). Do we know what we have?


Excerpts from the cited references are posted here:

April Young Bennett

April Young Bennett is the author of the Ask a Suffragist book series and host of the Religious Feminism Podcast. Learn more about April at

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20 Responses

  1. Melody says:

    Well done, as always, April. Thank you for this.

  2. christer1979 says:

    Thank you for articulating what felt so contradictory and convenient in my gut when I listened to Elder Oaks recent conference address about the priesthood. It felt like a pat on the head (“See? You’re included and important!”) that denied the structural reality of how priesthood works. I’m not a part of Ordain Women, but I would appreciate it if leaders didn’t try to tell me I have something when clearly, in every meaningful sense, I don’t.

  3. Catherine Agnes says:

    Thanks for writing these posts. The statements our leaders have made leave more questions than answers.

    It seems women can exercise the power and authority of the priesthood, but can’t hold priesthood keys. In the average ward, 4 people hold priesthood keys–Bishop, Elder’s Quorum President, Teachers Quorum President, and Deacons’ Quorum President. The latter two are generally boys in their early teens.

    Many, many other callings and functions are reserved for only men to carry out, but it’s not clear why. With the exception of the 4 males holding priesthood keys, what explains the gender divide in priesthood function in the church?

    Males are ordained while females are not, and ordination qualifies males to be receive priesthood keys if they are called to the specific callings that confer keys, but since priesthood keys are only held by a handful of males in a congregation at any time, what do the remaining males have that females do not?

    It seems to me that with the exception of the handful of male holding priesthood keys, men and women in the church are all working with the same priesthood power and authority. If this is true, all callings and functions not requiring the person performing that duty to hold priesthood keys should be open to women.

    • April says:

      That is an interesting theory. I think priesthood “office” is the one thing most men have but women don’t (if theories about women receiving priesthood without ordination are correct, but that appears to be unresolved doctrine). However, the Brethren seem to have a lot of flexibility to choose to delegate (or not) the responsibilities associated with offices to women, as long as they receive spiritual confirmation of these decisions.

    • Megan says:

      That’s a good point and one that I’ve recently had some experience with. I’m a ward missionary and my father is the ward mission leader. About 9 months ago he and my mother left for a month to visit my brother and their first grandchild. While they were away someone had to take care of all of the mission activity in the ward. While discussing the need, I dropped the suggestion that if there were no priesthood keys inherently involved in being the ward mission leader then I could fill in for him while he was gone. He ran with the idea and told the Bishop I was in charge of the program for the month.

      I really enjoyed working in that way, and even oversaw two giant baptisms, both on the same day, and got to conduct a baptism service from the pulpit in the chapel. It was a really neat experience. However, a week after my father returned they called a new male move-in as the assistant ward mission leader, a position that had never before existed during my time in the ward. Not only did it feel like a giant slap in the face, even though I knew it wasn’t intended that way, but it was a clear message to little ol’ female me, a woman may be able to serve with men but she can never be in a position to tell them what to do.

      Frankly, it still kind of hurts. And leads me to believe that even though logically a woman should be able to hold any calling that doesn’t require the active utilization of priesthood keys, the actual practice is much more restrictive. A woman can teach, a woman can serve, but a woman cannot be in a position of authority over a man. And sometimes that restriction just breaks my heart.

  4. Caroline says:

    Masterful discussion, April. I really love your ending questions, “If women may be delegated priesthood authority, why are they not entrusted to make decisions or preside over mixed gender groups? If women may exercise the priesthood to perform ordinances in the temple, why may they not do so in public? If women may hold the priesthood without ordination, shouldn’t they be taught how to receive and use it?”

    These are gaping holes in current discussions of priesthood by our church leaders.

  5. Bryan H. says:

    But Ballard’s statement seems to contradict a statement made by fellow apostle Boyd K. Packer 20 years earlier

    “Seems” is a good word to use there, since the text you have taken out with ellipses provides the context for Elder Packer’s 1993 remarks as referring to performing priesthood ordinances, or the authority that we usually associate with priesthood offices. Whereas Elder Oaks’ and Elder Ballard’s remarks are about a more general definition of priesthood “the authority to act in the name of God.”

    Also, the “question” at the end there regarding female exaltation is one that I only hear from certain corners of Mormon feminism. It would seem the answer is obvious to everyone else.

    I think that there are probably enough examples of institutional inequality in the church without having to invent more out of whole cloth for polemical purposes.

    • April says:

      Thank you for sharing your opinion, Bryan, I have reread the talk, taking your theory into consideration, and after doing so, I maintain my original opinion.

      I think you misunderstood my final question. I asked, “Does [the oath and covenant of the priesthood] apply to me?

  6. Ziff says:

    Great post, April. I love your thoroughness. I realize this is a bit snarky, but I think you’ve probably thought harder in trying to reconcile these talks than the speakers did in preparing them, at least about the issue of women and the priesthood. What they’ve said generally strikes me as just throwing semi-random ideas out to try to placate women without having to make any actual change.

    Also, I love love LOVE that you’ve referred to the ban on women holding the priesthood as a ban. Maybe calling a spade a spade will make clearer what women are being denied.

  7. Renverseur says:

    Actually, there are instances of women presiding over mixed gender groups, such as a Primary president with male Primary workers or a stake public affairs director with men serving on the public affairs committee. I recognize, of course, that these are exceptions to the norm, but the fact that they exist argues that the ban on women’s ordination is not obligatorily a prohibition against women presiding over mixed gender groups.

    When a man receives the priesthood, the official formula is in two steps – the priesthood is conferred upon him and then he is ordained to some particular office (teacher, elder, etc.) Would it be consistent with this formula, and the other hints of female connection to priesthood such as the temple, to ask if priesthood can exist apart from office? Clearly office is a fluid thing. Offices described in the Bible and Book of Mormon are not set forth in the detail found in the D&C and, as the post pointed out, the function of offices has shifted even in the modern Church. Could we speak of endowed women having priesthood, but not priesthood office?

    If we moved in that direction, I could see some arguing that that was a sop, rhetoric without real power. However, I would suggest that in fact ideas move practice. If we started talking of endowed women having priesthood, even without offices or keys, this could put us on an evolutionary path to ever greater responsibilities for women in the Church.

    A foundation for such an approach already exists in Joseph Smith’s statements to the Nauvoo Relief Society, the temple endowment and even this new rhetorical tack of saying that women fulfilling callings are using priesthood power, rhetoric which I believe is new to the Church.

    Finally, you might be interested in a new short study of this subject, Latter-day Saint Women and the Priesthood of God,

  8. Suzette says:

    Thank you April. I know it’s a lot of work to pull these kind of thoughts together. You do it so well. Priesthood is confusing and it’s unclear how it really operates, so thanks for these insights …. into the clarity and the non-clarity.

    I think one of the greatest things about all the Priesthood discussion about women is that it’s forcing us to really examine Priesthood – what it is and how it works. This post is helpful in starting to pull apart some of the things that work and some of the things that are still not working.

    Nicely done,

  9. Kristy says:

    Thank you, April! There is so much good meat in here for thought and discussion.

  10. Jessawhy says:

    Excellent post! I’d love to share it with a few family and friends. Your research give your points a lot of weight. I wish I didn’t feel so frustrated when I think about these issues. Great work!

  11. Rebecca says:

    While reading this, it seemed obvious to me that the questions asked were contained in the quotes used in the article, or are repeatedly taught in Church.

    The answers ARE there, and they ARE obvious.

  12. Andrew says:

    What you write is fine in the context of a “ban”.

    However, what if there is no ban? What if in the Plan of Salvation women were never to have had the priesthood conferred upon them, and be ordained to specific priesthood offices?

    When you write from the base that women should hold the priesthood of course it looks bad. But if the plan of our Eternal Parents is different from your desire, what then?

  1. May 18, 2014

    […] My analysis of this research is available here:… […]

  2. May 21, 2014

    […] Shouldn’t it be obvious? How Mormon Women Hold and Exercise the Priesthood Today […]

  3. February 16, 2017

    […] Shouldn’t it be obvious? How Mormon Women Hold and Exercise the Priesthood Today May 18, 2014 […]

  4. January 7, 2019

    […] assignments that were written at a time when priesthood holders were generally adults and instead given ordained boys more age-appropriate responsibilities. Since children and teenagers cannot reasonably be expected to “see that there is no iniquity in […]

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