The Temple: Symbolic vs. Literal in Theory and in Practice
Like many who are troubled with the disparity in the covenants and roles of men and women in the temple, I have often been told by well-meaning individuals that I shouldn’t let the sexism in the temple bother me because the endowment is meant to be symbolic, not literal. I have heard many people’s interpretations of the symbolism in the endowment, particularly in the hearken covenant (where men covenant to obey God, but women covenant to hearken to the counsel of their husbands as their husbands hearken to God), and I have found beauty and some comfort in these narratives. One such interpretation posits that Adam represents Christ, who is subject to God, and Eve represents mankind or the church, which is subject to Christ. Another interpretation suggests Adam represents the spirit and Eve represents the carnal body, and the spirit should learn to govern the body, not be governed by physical appetites.
Setting aside the problematic aspects of always assigning male to the dominant symbol and female to the subservient one, I can see value in these and other interpretations, and I know many who find them meaningful. More often than not, however, it seems most people take the temple, or at least the covenants made in the temple, at face value.
I recently had a troubling conversation with a friend. I asked her about a potential move she and her husband were considering and how she felt about it. She listed several very valid reasons why she didn’t want to move to this new place, but her husband was insistent. She had often deferred to her husband’s strong opinions throughout their decades of marriage, even when she held strong opinions of her own, but the thought of deferring to him in this instance caused her great turmoil. She said she went to the temple to seek guidance, and throughout the ceremony, she was struck by the admonition that she was to hearken to her husband. She felt going along with his desires was what God expected of her, regardless of the toll it would take on her happiness.
Some people, in hearing this anecdote, might say, “Well, maybe God really was telling her to listen to her husband.” Others might say, “This is an isolated incident; no woman I know actually takes that covenant seriously.”
My point, though, is this: while we give much lip-service to looking at the endowment symbolically and most people believe it’s symbolic in theory, the results seem to be somewhat different in practice. The church itself gives a lot of conflicting rhetoric about the relationship dynamic between husbands and wives. In the Family Proclamation, for example, it states that “by divine design, fathers are to preside over their families,” but two sentences later it says “fathers and mothers are obligated to help one another as equal partners.” The paradox of patriarchy is that a man by definition cannot both preside over his wife and also be an equal partner with her.
The dissonance of disparity in the temple reaches tentacles into even the most egalitarian marriages; it plants a seed of doubt, a niggling insecurity that when they are in conflict, the wife’s desires might not be as important as the husband’s. That maybe it really is her job to always be the one to hearken. That maybe this really is what God wants from His daughters.
If the church truly believes in marriages of equal partners, then it needs to divorce itself from concern about who presides and patriarchal hierarchies. And if we truly believe the temple is symbolic, then we need to ensure that shows up in our practice.
ElleK listens to NPR in the car, sings in the shower, and crusades from her couch. Women’s issues in the church are not a pebble in her shoe; they are a boulder on her chest.