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.

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22 Responses

  1. spunky says:

    Brilliant post, ElleK. I have dreams of making the roles in the temple optional– so women could “play” Adam sometimes, and men could “play” Eve. I have had a taste of this in overcrowded sessions where I sat on the men’s side (but still did the female stuff), and participated in female-heavy-prayer circles that could not otherwise be circles unless the women stepped in for absent me.

    This overall edit to the routine, to me, would really knock out the literal interpretations that are so painfully used to dis-empower and manipulate women to follow –husbands– in your example, when perhaps the husband has done no praying about the wisdom of his actions, yet the women pray fervently to adapt to changes that they know will cause harm.

    Many thanks!

    • ElleK says:

      Thanks, spunky! I actually noticed a couple years ago that I always “play Adam” subconsciously, even after Eve shows up. This was pretty sobering for me because it forced me to confront how Eve is completely passive in the depiction; the story completely revolves around Adam. Other than her one moment of choice, Eve is absent in body for the creation sequences and in voice after she leaves the garden.

      What I wouldn’t give for a gender-swapped version of the temple video! I think it would be so eye-opening to so many people.

  2. AmeliaChristensen says:

    Very well said. This confusing and contradicting rhetoric is fairly invasive in all areas of the church, imo. I also feel like some temple theories are designed to placate women.

    • ElleK says:

      Temple apologetics are certainly empowering for some women, but they really don’t work for me.

    • Elizabeth says:

      Amelia, I’m coming to this post late, but I’m 100% with you. When I first learned about the covenants in the temple (I was only 19 at the time, am now 22 and have since gone through) I was flabbergasted. How could anyone rationalize these things? Unfortunately, what I’ve been given by most close female friends/leaders (and male friends/leaders, etc.), including my own mother, have been apologetic explanations. And although I know some women (and men!) are comforted by them, to me they seem like yet another sign of the patriarchy’s incredible invasiveness. I am relieved to hear that I am not alone in this!

  3. pijohnso says:

    I appreciate that over 45 years of marriage my husband has usually thought my ideas were good ones. He tends to like the status quo and I tend to want to move forward. We balance each other out. He’s more faithful and literal and I’m more of a doubter and arguer, so we always have some tensions, but I try to support him even when I think he’s a little crazy and he supports me when he thinks I am a little crazy. So this is not so much about our temple marriage/the temple and more about lived relationships. Practical me, I think that’s the most important!

  4. Kari says:

    Amen. This is really hard for me.

  5. radiantuxx says:

    Once I came to know that my thoughts, feelings, and perspective are not more or less important than a man’s, I began to wonder where the female perspective is in the endowment. I couldn’t find it. Since Adam is the main human character, I’ve begun to see the endowment I attend as the male endowment. Just like the men and women have different intiatories, I believe that there is a female endowment that is yet to be rediscovered/revealed. When the RS returns to its rightful place as a parallel order within the structure of the Church, female leaders will have the power and influence to bring forth the female endowment or amend the current endowment to include the female point-of-view. Right now, this sort of revelation is only coming through males, therefore their view/perspective of women is always going to be “in relation to the man”. A man in the Church, no matter the office he holds, cannot take the eyeballs out of a female, pop them into his own head, and then begin to experience the world from a female point of view. This is why the female voice is not widely represented within the LDS Church experience.

    • ElleK says:

      I wrote an essay in the Spring issue of last year’s Exponent magazine that touches on those exact themes: that the endowment is Adam’s origin story, not Eve’s, and that if the temple is Heavenly Father’s house where men learn their eternal pre-mortal identity and post-mortal potential, then where is Heavenly Mother’s house where women can learn theirs? I completely agree that it is impossible for the current patriarchal hierarchy of the church to see the absence of women and all the problems and blindspots that have resulted.

    • Rexicorn says:

      My experience of the endowment, from the beginning, was an overwhelming feeling of absence. I came to see it as the culmination of an entire body of doctrine from which women are simply missing. We’ve been missing from the beginning, and this gospel won’t be complete until we’re restored.

    • Elizabeth says:

      I really like this idea! I also wonder, though, why men and women always have to be separate? I want to be seen as a PERSON, and I feel like my sex is only one part of my identity… I guess I wouldn’t say being a woman is the dominant factor in my person. I wish the Church wasn’t so concerned with separating men and women, with focusing on their differences rather than on their similarities.

  6. B says:

    This is what really bothers me about the temple. Say what you will about symbolism: a lot of people take the ceremony literally, and there are real consequences for individuals and families. And while the dual gender roles in the temple may be arbitrary and symbolic, they directly inform and reinforce the leadership structure and cultural expectations in the church. I think that “symbolism” is a word that often gets thrown around lazily to avoid cognitive dissonance. I enjoy symbols and personally found fairly little symbolism in the temple.

    I once confided in a bishop about certain concerns with the temple. I quoted part of the ceremony (a part aimed at women) and he looked incredulous and told me that was not part of the script. Later, presumably after attending a session, he conceded that I had been right, but assured me that this part was merely symbolic. He couldn’t say what it was symbolic of, simply that he knew it was because it didn’t line up with “how God works” in his view. He was a nice guy, so I didn’t press the issue. But it was jarring to realize that my church leaders could have such unstudied experiences of the temple. It was also annoying that my bishop could be so confident that he fully understood something he had never noticed until a week before (and initially refused to believe existed).

    • ElleK says:

      I feel like I was a little disingenuous in my post, to be honest, because I don’t believe the covenants are meant to be symbolic. I think assertions to the contrary are the result of apologetics and mental gymnastics, but I also respect that those answers work for some people.

      It’s really eye opening when you have an experience like the one with your bishop: most of the time, people haven’t noticed the disparity, and once they have, they’ll excuse it.

      • Elizabeth says:

        Sorry I keep commenting this late in the game, but ElleK, you are speaking to my soul! Thank you.

  7. Aimee says:

    Nothing put my young marriage more at risk than the gender inequities in temple language. I had no idea how unbalanced the sealing language was until I was kneeling across the altar from my husband on our wedding day. While I married the most egalitarian of men, the fact that the ritual beginning of our eternal relationship began with my subservience to him in his kingdom made me feel trapped and betrayed. While he has never once leveraged that language against me (he abhors it himself) I felt that language creep up on me every time we disagreed in those early years. The dynamic the temple inequities introduced into our relationship terrified me and made our first year of marriage hellish. I still feel so robbed by the sweetness we should have had. It breaks my heart to think how many other perfectly suited couples might also be haunted by this, let alone marriages in which patriarchy is wielded like a weapon.

    Thanks for this post. It’s really important.

    • Moss says:

      You have described my experience, too.

    • ElleK says:

      Thank you for sharing, Aimee, and I’m so sorry for your experience. Like you, I have a wonderful husband and an egalitarian marriage, but I always had this deep, unspoken fear that I was somehow secondary in importance. He never held any of the temple language over me, never even brought it up, but I always felt insecure, like God saw me differently because I’m a woman. I still have a hard time articulating my exact feelings or the effect this had on me, but it dug a chasm between me and God, and even, to an extent, me and my husband.

      • Aimee says:

        “It dug a chasm between me and God, and even, to an extent, me and my husband.” That was exactly my experience. When the holiest rituals of our faith act as a wedge between God and our most beloved, they’re not working right.

        Even though we’d long worked through the troubling temple language, several years ago, my husband and decided we needed to ritually make equitable vows to each other. It was very healing for both of us.

    • Rexicorn says:

      My husband and I did a second set of vows at our ring ceremony afterward, and I’ve always been glad we did. In my mind, that was our real wedding. The only way I’ve been able to cope with that betrayed feeling from the temple is to mentally/emotionally distance myself from the religious ritual and instead ground our relationship in that secular ceremony. Which is the opposite of what I’m told I should do to strengthen my marriage, ironically.

      • Aimee says:

        We did that on our wedding day too. It definitely helped personalize our commitment to each other, but I was still haunted by things like my husband knowing my new name but not vice versa, etc. The temple reinforces an idea that in the next world it’s up to our husbands to claim us, but we wives have no claim on them. For me, our ring ceremony simply wasn’t enough to overcome the hurt of that message.

  8. amphvivian says:

    When my husband stopped hearkening unto the Lord, I felt liberated that I did not have to hearken unto him anymore – I could hearken directly to the Lord myself! ( I always ‘knew’ that, but the rhetoric was a barrier )

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