From the Archives: Models of Women and the Priesthood

A favorite topic of speculation (and angst) among many Mormons and Mormon-watchers is whether or not women will get the priesthood. It is an interesting topic, but I think that most of the discussions of it are pretty uninteresting. The reason for this, I think, is that they are in the thrall of a single, rather simple model of what it means to “get� the priesthood.

The simple model is based on the experience of women getting the priesthood in the Episcopalian or RLDS (now Community of Christ) church, or of blacks getting the priesthood in 1978. The imagined event gets conceptualized as a single dramatic moment in which previously all male institutions (presumably the Melchizedek and Aaronic Priesthoods) become degendered and open to both men and women. Those who worry about such things stand poised for the big announcement in general conference and as often as not are perpetually disappointed when it never comes.

I wonder, however, if there might be another way of thinking about this. One very expansive definition of priesthood sees it as simply the power of God delegated to humanity. Under this definition, the Melchizedek Priesthood is but one of the priesthoods that God has delegated. However, other sorts of divine power can also be thought of as priesthoods. For example, motherhood could be defined as a sort of priesthood. Indeed, I think that Jeffrey R. Holland more or less explicitly argued that sex was a form of priesthood in his sermon “Of Souls, Symbols, and Sacraments,� where he refers to sexual intercourse as a “rare and special moment with God himself and all the powers by which he gives life in this wide universe of ours.�

The Doctrine and Covenants also suggests that charity is a kind of priesthood (divine power):

Let thy bowels also be full of charity toward all men, and to the household of faith . . . then shall thy confidence was strong in the presence of God; and the doctrine of the priesthood shall distill upon thy soul as the dews from heaven. The Holy Ghost shall be thy constant companion, and thy scepter an unchanging scepter of righteousness and truth; and thy dominion shall be an everlasting dominion, and without compulsory means it shall flow unto thee forever and ever. (D&C 121:45-46)
It doesn’t seem to me that there is any reason that one needs to think of the scepter and dominion promised in these verses solely in terms of the Melchizedek Priesthood or even in necessarily gendered terms.

Now none of these sorts of moves are likely to make a critic of the current priesthood structure happy. First, the examples of alternative forms of priesthood are likely to raise more hackles than they calm. Motherhood, sex, and charity are all charged issues in the construction-of-gender debates. Furthermore, most of the criticisms of the Church are largely about institutional power. The idea is that there are levers, gears, knobs, and buttons of control within the institution and female hands are never on them. This is a problem either because as good children of philosophical liberalism, we believe in free and equal citizens and that power should be open to all. Alternatively, some darker theological message is imputed to the distribution of administrative control. Control is good, it is denied to women but given to men, therefore women are not as good as men. This message is bad and can only be eliminated, so the argument goes, through institutional change.

Now there is force to these criticisms, but what is interesting to me is that they don’t think very deeply about what priesthood is. The Melchizedek Priesthood is simply seen as undifferentiated power and the possibility that it could be justly distributed in ways that violate norms of liberal equality is simply out of the question. However, it is not clear to me that we want to think of the Melchizedek Priesthood in this way. Rather, it seems more productive to think of it as being a single example of larger category. It is that category that I think we should focus on.

Why does it seem more productive to me? Because, I think it is a good thing that part of the time men and women meet in different meetings. I think that there is a kind of solidarity, a brotherhood and sisterhood, available in such gatherings that is powerful and important. Now, any kind words for gender solidarity will no doubt open me up to charges of repressed sexual insecurity, support for implicit gendered hierarchies and the rest. Perhaps some real erudite soul will quote Foucault at me. Fine. Have fun with the ad hominems.

However, it seems to me that “the problem� is not simply about institutional control. Indeed, the discussion I would like to see is ultimately non-responsive to that issue. Rather, I am interested in finding a theology that acknowledges that gatherings of women in the Church are not forums for jello recipes and doilies. They are meetings of Saints infused with the power of God. They are full of priesthood. It seems to me that simply ordaining the Relief Society as elders would miss that point, and implicitly deny the power that is there. Thus, the theology I am talking about is more than simply a change in the gender make-up of the org chart. It requires a whole mythology that acknowledges, celebrates, and extends the power of God exercised by women.


17 comments for “From the Archives: Models of Women and the Priesthood

  1. October 27, 2006 at 2:46 pm

    The RS Visiting Teaching messages this year would seem to support your point, Nate. Every one of them has focused on how the RS strengthens real, practical power in the lives of individual women, and how the sisterhood of the RS multiplies that power by the strength of what might as well be called a quorum. These messages have stressed the roles a woman has in actively forwarding the work of God, and how the RS can help her do that. It’s either a subtle change over recent years (earlier messages tended to lecture women on being good individuals rather than assuming responsibility for the kingdom) — or else *I’ve* subtly changed. Either way, I like it.

  2. October 27, 2006 at 3:43 pm

    It seems to me that in many ways you are equating charisma with priesthood, Nate. I don’t think this holds up very well. As much as the regular meetings of general Relief Society and Young Ladies associations were filled with the laying on of hands, blessing and tongue speaking, which fits into your priesthood of the charismatic, it wasn’t priesthood in the way any prophet has considered it.

    Granted, Joseph seems to me to have been much more concerned about charisma than institutional priesthood in many accounts. Personally, I would rather receive a blessing from someone with the gift of healing than someone without it but that held an office in the hierarchy of the Church. But things like ordination, keys and institutional authority matter.

    Though it was ephemeral and wasn’t reformed like the other quorums of the Church, I think Joseph’s Anointed Quorum presents the most interesting laboratory to explore the possibilities of women and the priesthood.

  3. e. jones
    October 27, 2006 at 5:38 pm

    Thanks for the interesting post. I agree that there are more ways to speculate about women receiving the priesthood than them the most commonly imagined scenario of women receiving the priesthood in the same way that blacks did in 1978. I thought your ideas were fascinating. Other powers of God could be better defined and more highly regarded, even given a name like “aaronic” or “melchizedek,” perhaps as the need for an “authoritative” or administrative priesthood is eventually decreased. Another scenario I’ve thought of – husbands and wives receiving the same priesthood ordination and using it together. Or yet another scenario — God or female heavenly messengers appearing to a woman and bestowing on her a priesthood authority, which she then bestows on other women.

  4. Jenny
    October 27, 2006 at 7:36 pm

    Given my somewhat feminist leanings, I always thought the relationship between women and the priesthood would bother me … but it doesn’t. My thoughts echo yours Nate, in that while women are not explicitly given the AP or MP, there is nothing that implies that they are the only priesthoods (depending on how you read D&C 107:5). And I find it interesting that the patriarchal order is specificaly an order of the MP, but that it does not function like an office in the priesthood (you aren’t ordained to it). It seems that lack of ordination opens up some interpretive space as to what constitutes and contextualizes participation in the PO (and possibly the MP).

    And I agree with your reading of D&C 121:45–46. I’ve always read it as discussing what kind of behavior qualifies us (men and women) to gain confidence, the HG, scepter, dominion, and, of course, the ability to absorb the doctrine of the priesthood. (The implication being that the doctrine of the priesthood is something too large and/or complicated to be digested in one, finite [or mortal?] experience and that therefore I probably should be more concerned with trying to learn about said doctrine than worrying about its current structural implementation … although abuses of power within the structure should certainly be addressed.)

  5. Mark Butler
    October 27, 2006 at 7:51 pm


    I think you are on target. The patriarchal, (or family) authority is an order of the priesthood that every righteous man, woman, and child on earth participates in in some way or another. Marriage is ordained of God whether it be done by the sealing authority of the Melchizedek priesthood or in some other way. Of course if it be done in some other way, the covenant is for this life only.

    That means that fathers, mothers, daughters, and sons are hold corresponding offices in that order of the priesthood, where gifts may be manifest according to righteousness and responsibility, whether the holders be confirmed members of the body of Christ or not.

    Now whatever the formal status of the Relief Society be at this present time, I have a hard time distinguishing it from (horror of horrors) a female order of the priesthood roughly corresponding to half of the body of Christ, the endowed sisters in particular.

    And similar perhaps to J. Stapley’s view, it seems to me that the Anointed Quorum and even the celestial room are a type of the general assembly, the quorum of the exalted, or the divine concert, and that all such persons having received a fulness of something corresponding to the Melchizedek priesthood, are essentially equals, having been morally perfected, sanctified, and glorified as joint heirs with Christ. Otherwise it would be as if Christ lost one of his arms.

    How can taking upon the name of Christ, men and women both, in baptism be anything but a prophetic token of that equality if one is faithful in all things? We can be quite certain that no one will maintain membership in that quorum or general assembly unless he or she be married (and to someone of the opposite gender). That means Jesus will have to get married, if per chance he is not already (I rather doubt it).

    And by all this I certainly do not sustain the idea that there is some conspiracy here. Priesthood is a general term for a system of social relations – in a manner of speaking all social organizations are a form of priesthood (though certainly not the Priesthood), for better or worse. Witchcraft or black magic is the devil’s earthly form of priesthood, for example, and was once a capital offense. Rebellion is as witchcraft, and stubbornness as iniquity and idolatry. Hardly a more literal analogy could be found.

    Of course there are an endless other number of corruptions of priesthood, with varying degrees of divine appropration and respect, or the most stringent disfavor. Organized crime, exploitation, corrupt syndicates, business corporations and labor unions (for better or for worse), academia, various forms of religion, government and so on.

  6. Mark Butler
    October 27, 2006 at 7:52 pm

    I guess those are not all “corruptions”, but many rather simply orders after the manner of men, rather than God.

  7. MLU
    October 27, 2006 at 8:17 pm

    I like the distinction Nibly made between “offices” and “gifts” (by way of saying he had deep desire for the gifts and no interest at all in the offices). I’ve sometimes made a similar distinction between the power of the priesthood and the offices of the priesthood.

    At present, many of the offices are reserved to males–to some males. But I know of a certainty that people without those offices can call upon the powers of heaven in miraculous ways. I know of no limits in that direction. The rest is to me small stuff which will be sorted out satisfactorily as things unfold.

  8. Mark Butler
    October 28, 2006 at 1:15 am


    We are given to understand from the scriptures that offices come with the gifts necessary for their proper administration, if the holder is righteous. The mantle is greater than the intellect, right?

    cf. D&C 46:27

  9. Toby
    October 28, 2006 at 9:48 am

    I enjoyed your comments, but would like to add for consideration: Weren’t women who had been through the temple considered to have the priesthood in the 1800s? Didn’t women in the latter 1800s administer to the sick and afflicted (other women)? Does a hermaphrodite child who is surgically made into a female give up the right to have the priesthood?

  10. Mark Butler
    October 28, 2006 at 11:40 am


    Not quite. Women were authorized to anoint the sick and exercise the gift of healing, if they had it, but despite the preliminary anointing they received in the temple, they were not ordained to the offices of elder, seventy, or high priest.

    They were and are set apart to ministry and callings within the Primary and Relief Society and so on, which ministry is a divinely authorized appendage of the Holy Priesthood after the order of the Son of God, as are all assignments, callings, offices, and authorities in the Church and body of Christ.

    Strictly speaking no one has the right to have the Priesthood. So also Christ glorified not himself to be made an high priest; but he that said unto him, Thou art my Son, to day have I begotten thee.

    When thou art bidden of any man to a wedding, sit not down in the highest room; lest a more honourable man than thou be bidden of him; And he that bade thee and him come and say to thee, Give this man place; and thou begin with shame to take the lowest room.

    But when thou art bidden, go and sit down in the lowest room; that when he that bade thee cometh, he may say unto thee, Friend, go up higher: then shalt thou have worship in the presence of them that sit at meat with thee.

    For whosoever exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted.
    (Luke 14:8-11)

    cf. Heb 5:5

  11. October 28, 2006 at 3:09 pm

    Actually Mark, it is not so simple. There definitely are those who have the right to the priesthood. We had the office of Patriarch to the Church and there are those descendants of Aaron that will one day be bishops without councellors.

    As to the popular conception of women having the priesthood in the 19th century, I would see here. I would also say that women were authorized to anoint the sick and lay on hands, by virtue of their being members, regardless if they had the gift of healing (much as men are now authorized to anoint and bless regardless of nascent spiritual gifts).

  12. Kiskilili
    October 28, 2006 at 10:34 pm

    I’ve very often wondered what exactly priesthood power is. Does God listen to the prayers of priesthood holders more intently than others? If we claim belief in a priesthood of all, if not believers exactly, then do-gooders, what makes our ordinances special or authorized?

    I agree that if we accept the typical definitions of priesthood that are offered in church (“power of God on earth,” etc.), it makes sense to broaden our conception of priesthood significantly. A RS sister exercises the priesthood when she takes a meal to a sick sister. A Protestant minister exercises the priesthood when he helps a parishioner in crisis. And a Muslim woman exercises the priesthood by caring for orphans.

    All these examples illustrate, however, is that our definitions do not actually fit our current use of the term (any of these examples would likely raise eyebrows in church). It’s hard for me to avoid concluding that priesthood as the term is currently used entails ecclesial privilege, and discussion of it should acknowledge that.

    I’m not quite sure what you’re getting at in your final paragraph. You write, “I am interested in finding a theology that acknowledges that gatherings of women in the Church are not forums for jello recipes and doilies. They are meetings of Saints infused with the power of God. They are full of priesthood. It seems to me that simply ordaining the Relief Society as elders would miss that point, and implicitly deny the power that is there.”

    Nice thoughts. But, I wonder, does formally ordaining men to the priesthood deny the power of God (such as charity) available to them without that ordination? Should we perhaps develop a mythology acknowledging the power of God available to people of other faiths, that their gatherings are far more than empty exchanges of information or meaningless ritual but are infused with the very power of God? Would ordaining males who convert from other faiths deny the power they already have, and have had?

    It seems to me we can either claim the priesthood is something formal, specific, and special, or we can turn Protestant.

    P.S. I’m not eagerly awaiting female ordination. I’m pretty sure women won’t “get” the priesthood. I’m also pretty sure they don’t already have it.

  13. October 29, 2006 at 12:30 am

    Kisillliilllisisilllissilli: It seems to me that we have a least two concepts of priesthood. On one hand, we have a broad notion of God’s power, which in some cases can be exercised by humanity. On the other hand, we have specific priesthoods, eg Melch. & Aaronic. It seems to me that the first concept allows for an extremely broad reading of the term — e.g. the Muslim woman working with orphans. The second priesthood is in part about ecclesial power — a point that I thought I was at pains not to deny — but it is only in part about ecclesial power. It is also about a set of myths that recount the specific bestowal of a gift from God to many at a particular point in time. In this sense it is formal, specific, and special. My point is that to reduce this simply to ecclesial authority, however, would wrench it loose from its mythological roots. It would transform priesthood into a mere liberal (in the philosophical sense) right. (I tried to flesh this out in the comments on the original thread. You can see them if you are interested)

    Needless to say, I am mightly offended at your suggestion that my thoughts are “nice” or Protestant ;->.

  14. Mark Butler
    October 29, 2006 at 2:44 am

    J. Stapley,

    I said strictly speaking, i.e. all power in the priesthood is contingent upon righteousness, as true authority also. So while it is true that many have a natural right to the priesthood, even each in his own due time, when that time is come is for the LORD to decide, and he will make that power manifest by his Spirit, even before the authority is formally organized on earth.

    There have been many individuals among all nations who were glorified with incredible spiritual gifts where there was no formal dispensation of the priesthood at all. The manifestation of those gifts is not by right, but by righteousness.

  15. JWL
    October 29, 2006 at 10:25 pm

    Priesthood in the LDS Church has a variety of functions. Two that can be quite distinct are sacramental and presidential. A male LDS priesthood holder can theoretically go throughout his life exercising the sacramental authority (baptizing, blessing the Sacrament, anointing and blessing the sick, etc.) and never be called on to exercise the authority to preside. In the temple women currently effectively fulfill sacramental priesthood roles. I could see an expansion of sacramental priesthood to women outside the temple arising from the temple ordinances (i.e. endowed women being authorized to lay hands on the sick, perhaps even participate in administering the Sacrament) but still not being called to preside. Could the priesthood authority be so divided between the priesthood of sacramental service and the authority of presiding? Obviously such a partial extension of priesthood would not satisfy feminist critics, but I suspect that it could be very empowering to already faithful women, and especially young women.

  16. Mark Butler
    October 30, 2006 at 9:22 am

    We speak of prophet, priest, king right? Everyone who speaks according to the truth is blessed with the gift of prophecy to one degree or another, and more especially those with an abiding testimony, for the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy. Thus the first thing anyone who aspires to power in the priesthood should do is seek after the spirit of prophecy, even by study, and also by faith.

    And it really ought to be apparent that both son and daughter are natural (i.e. by birth) offices in the family order of the priesthood. As also husband and wife. As also father and mother.

    And the two visible ordinances of a wedding are where someone representing the Son blesses their union, and the sealing where someone representing the Father seals (i.e. ordains it).

    Though the knowledge of this blessing and this sealing may come early, according to the spirit of prophecy, a couple is not visibly ordained until the time has come. But not only the knowledge, but also the gifts of such an high and holy office may be manifest earlier or later than the formal ordinance, according to the Holy Spirit of promise which is shed forth on all who are just and true, even as many Lamanites received the Holy Ghost, even baptism by fire, before baptism by water.

  17. October 31, 2006 at 11:24 pm

    I concur with this post. I’ve always thought (and I could be wrong…I’ve only been a member for two years and just turned 18) about the interesting wording and and apparent addendum in D&C 131:2.Eternal Marriage, I’ve always believed, could be construed as an order of priesthood—one that authorizes procreation, parenthood, and related godlike attributes.

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