LDS Church goes into defensive mode with women and the priesthood

The following was originally printed in the July/August2014 edition of Mormonism Researched. To request a free subscription, please visit here

A concerted effort by a woman’s group made up of Latter-day Saints has been attempting to get the LDS Church to change its doctrine that limits priesthood ordination to worthy males, forcing the leadership to deal head-on with this politically-charged issue. Not since the Equal Rights Amendment days from the late 1970s has this teaching received such attention, as the feminist group’s efforts appear to be steamrolling.

The belief in an all-male priesthood goes back to the 1820s and Joseph Smith. According to the church manual True to the Faith,

“Male members of the Church may begin their priesthood service when they reach the age of 12. They begin by holding the Aaronic Priesthood, and they later may qualify to have the Melchizedek Priesthood conferred on them. At different stages in their lives and as they prepare themselves to receive different responsibilities, they hold different offices in the priesthood, such as deacon, teacher, or priest in the Aaronic Priesthood and elder or high priest in the Melchizedek Priesthood” (p. 124).

The church manual Gospel Principles explains the purpose of the priesthood:

“We must have priesthood authority to act in the name of God when performing the sacred ordinances of the gospel, such as baptism, confirmation, administration of the sacrament, and temple marriage. If a man does not have the priesthood, even though he may be sincere, the Lord will not recognize ordinances he performs” (p. 67).

A woman’s authority in the LDS Church comes through marrying a worthy Mormon man. Another church manual reports,

“A woman can receive the blessings of the Melchizedek Priesthood by receiving the ordinances of the gospel and by being married to a righteous priesthood holder. The blessings that come into a home when a man magnifies his priesthood affect his wife as much as they affect him. Perhaps the most important way a woman participates in the blessings of the priesthood is by receiving her endowment and being married in the temple” (Duties and Blessings of the Priesthood: Basic Manual for Priesthood Holders, Part B, pp. 31, 33).

  On October 5, 2013, two hundred LDS women affiliated with a group called Ordain Women (subtitled “Mormon Women Seeking Equality and Ordination to the Priesthood”) attempted to procure stand-by tickets to the priesthood session of general conference, which only worthy men are allowed to attend. The local media covered the event, as LDS spokespersons were filmed telling the women that they were ineligible to attend. In addition, a number from the group—many were from out of state—were interviewed by the press, with disappointment and anger clearly shown on their faces. Reporters seemed sympathetic to their plight, and the made-for-news event proved to be an embarrassment to the LDS Church.

The next day, Apostle Neil L. Andersen spoke on “Power in the Priesthood.” At the beginning of his talk, he said,

“We sometimes overly associate the power of the priesthood with men in the Church. The priesthood is the power and authority of God given for the salvation and blessing of all—men, women, and children. A man may open the drapes so the warm sunlight comes into the room, but the man does not own the sun or the light or the warmth it brings. The blessings of the priesthood are infinitely greater than the one who is asked to administer the gift.” (Ensign, November 2013, p. 92)

At the October 1967 general conference, President Ezra Taft Benson had stated,

“The arm of flesh may not approve nor understand why God has not bestowed the priesthood on women or the seed of Cain [blacks], but God’s ways are not man’s ways.” Although black males are now allowed to hold the priesthood, women are not given this ability. As Andersen explained, “Some may sincerely ask the question, ‘If the power and blessings of the priesthood are available to all, why are the ordinances of the priesthood administered by men?’ When an angel asked Nephi, ‘Knowest thou the condescension of God?’ Nephi answered honestly, ‘I know that he loveth his children; nevertheless, I do not know the meaning of all things.’ . . . We know that gender is an essential characteristic of both our moral and eternal identity and purpose. Sacred responsibilities are given to each gender.” (Ibid)

Echoing Benson’s words, Andersen added on page 93, “While there are many things we do know about the priesthood, seeing through the lens of mortality does not always give a complete understanding of the workings of God. But His gentle reminder,

‘My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,’ reassures us that with time and eternal perspective we will see things ‘as they really are’ and more completely understand His perfect love.”

On April 5, 2014, the media were banned from Temple Square, keeping them away from the 510 women who were again requesting the stand-by tickets for the priesthood session. This was an obvious ploy to keep the church from getting embarrassed again on its own turf. Still, Ordain Women founder Kate Kelly was encouraged, stating,

“Our rapidly growing numbers indicate that this is a conversation many Mormons want and need to have.”

At that general conference, the issue of women and the priesthood was dealt with at the opening priesthood session by Apostle Dallin H. Oaks (“The Keys and Authority of the Priesthood”). After introductory remarks and explaining that “I am pleased that these proceedings are broadcast and published for all members of the Church,” Oaks claimed that women were equal with men “with different responsibilities” and that those with active church callings had “priesthood authority” conferred upon them.  He said,

“We 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 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 to performing her or his assigned duties.” (Ensign, May 2014, p. 51)

Although he refers to this as “priesthood authority,” doesn’t it sound more like women merely have “priesthood permission”? Oaks added what appears to be a warning,: “Whoever exercises priesthood authority should forget about their rights and concentrate on their responsibilities.” (Ibid)

In the June 2014 Ensign, Relief Society General President Linda K. Burton spoke in detail about the “priesthood authority” (“Priesthood Power: Available to All”), stating

“There is a difference, however, between priesthood authority and priesthood power. Priesthood authority is conferred by ordination, but priesthood power is available to all.” (p. 39)

The way to keep the power, she explained, is through “personal righteousness,” which is achieved through being worthy, attending the temple, and studying the scriptures.

In the article’s final section titled “First Obey, Then Understand,” Burton stated,

“I conclude with an experience that has helped me to deal with unanswered questions.” She then related a story of how a church officer she knew had dealt with “a very difficult and contentious question” that he was asked at a meeting.  His response was to walk up to the pulpit and repeat a generic LDS testimony about his beliefs in God, Jesus, Joseph Smith, and the Book of Mormon. Then he stated, “No, I do not know the answer to your question, but these things I know. The rest I take on faith.” (Ibid., 41)

Just as Benson and Andersen did before her, Burton suggested that the ban on women holding the priesthood should be accepted by faith. The message seems loud and clear: shape up or ship out. In other words, quit complaining about something that is church policy.

Still, the controversy over this topic doesn’t appear to be going away anytime soon. On May 19, 2014, female LDS Church leaders held a 90-minute video conference on May 19, 2014 with the leaders of a group called “Mormon Women Stand,” which supports the church’s stand on all-male priesthood. Ordain Women representatives say they are frustrated because they have submitted five formal requests for talks with the LDS leadership but, according to Kelly, “no one has ever responded.”

Saying “I just wish they would agree to meet with a group of people who have different ideas,” Kelly stated that while her group “may not agree on everything, those discussions are even more vital than with those who toe the line.”(Salt Lake Tribune, “Mormon Women’s Group Meets with LDS Church PR officials,” May 22, 2014, p. B7)

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