Monthly Archives: April 2013

Who was the first LDS leader to pair motherhood and priesthood? What else has changed about priesthood over the course of LDS history?

Welcome back, AMG readers, to my ongoing personal study session on the question of priesthood ordination.  Last week, I left you all with two questions. Here’s the first:

  1. 1.    Can anyone find evidence in A) canonized scripture B) canonized revelation C) the words of Jesus Christ or D) the words of Joseph Smith that indicates the value of gender roles in the plan of salvation? (And yes, we all know that temple marriage is required for exaltation–but marriage does not necessarily mean gender roles.)

Commenter Matelda22spy wrote:

Female prophets in the Bible:
Luke 2:36-38.
Acts 21:9
Exodus 15:20
Judges 4:4
2 Kings 22:14
Isaiah 8:3

Female deacons:
Romans 16:1

Female apostle?
Romans 16:7

“Apostle” has its own meaning in the LDS Church. Maybe we best not count on its biblical meaning being exactly the same? In the Bible it appears to have been more synonymous with “missionary” than “leader.”

For example, in Romans 16:7, a woman named Junia is called “prominent among the apostles.” Meaning she was a missionary, i.e. an apostle? Some editors have changed it to the masculine Junias, but the original text contains the feminine.

Maybe other women have been similarly edited out of the scriptures, and restraints upon them edited in. Joseph Smith himself expressed concern that the Bible had translation errors and corruption, did he not?

Yet if men truly do play every role and serve as every voice/writer in the Bible, I see that as a point against religion, not a point against women. I’m not about to take anyone’s or any Church’s word for it that God expects nothing from me except procreation.

James 1:5

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What is priesthood? What is the relationship of gender to priesthood?

It is daunting to look at the faith that you love and witness the accumulation of 183 years of non-systematic doctrinal accumulation.  By which I mean that one of the downsides of not having a professional clergy is that Mormonism does not recognize a systematic, coherent theology.  Yes, people.  In this, I envy Catholics and Jews and other faiths who make space for professional theologians and scholars of theology trained in the discipline.  I want a Mormon Jaroslav Pelikan.  I want Mormon Jesuits.  I really do.

What we have instead is an accretion of scriptures, historical events, personal experiences, and interpretive impulses–a chaotic body of data that is typically managed in order to tell the story the speaker wants it to tell.   Every faith tradition has a theological history rich in chaos, and Mormonism is no exception.  What we can see at best as we begin to piece together the history of thought on questions like “What is priesthood?” and “What is the relationship of gender to priesthood?” is the human outlines of our hunger for the truth and the way in which the terms of our search for the truth have evolved over time.  Mormons call this process continuing revelation.  The more we learn about change in Mormon history and doctrine and the more prepared we are to be candid, we must acknowledge that human dispositions and error play a vital role in shaping Mormon doctrinal history–especially on questions of power and its administration.

The problems come when we mistake human impulses and dispositions for Godly intentions and assume that what seems familiar and right to us is in fact essentially reflective of reality.

For example, we now hear a great deal of talk in connection with priesthood about gender complementarity–the idea that the spiritual work of mothering is the intended complement to priesthood offices. This idea is spoken as if it is gospel truth–self-evident.

But is there one scrap of evidence in A) canonized scripture B) canonized revelation C) the words of Jesus Christ or D) the words of Joseph Smith that supports the notion that motherhood is a spiritual office that is the complement of priesthood?

Because unless someone can find me this kind of evidence, candidly, I believe we have to set this whole notion aside as well-intentioned (and by some, deeply felt, but for others, deeply counter-experiential and nonsensical) folk doctrine.  I am mindful that Valerie Hudson and other well-regarded scholars have put forward various accounts imagining the spiritual value of motherhood.  But these have no foundation in doctrine and bear virtually no resemblance to the actual practices and values (aside from rhetorical) of the contemporary LDS Church. They are as fanciful and speculative as Orson Pratt’s 19th century ponderings that spirit children are conceived in a manner that mirrors earthly procreation.  Fact is, we simply do not have a body of doctrine that establishes the role of gender in the plan of salvation.  Pretty much everything we can say about Heavenly Mother–that she exists–is the product of post-1843 speculation confirmed only in retrospect by later prophets like Gordon B. Hinckley.  We do not have evidence for Heavenly Mother in canonized scripture, canonized revelation, the words of Jesus Christ, or the words of Joseph Smith.  Sad fact, but there it is.  What we do have is the projection of familiar 19th century European-American assumptions about motherhood and gender (which are not universally held) onto the nature of God and eternity.  We have speculation, not doctrine.  We also have the use of the idea of complementarity as a rationale for excluding women from authority over the institutional, financial, political, and socio-cultural life of our community.  Again, this is a strange permutation of the use of the term “complementarity,” as we note if we compare our experience in a Church where 19th century Euro-American gender norms rule to the way complementarity is understood and practiced in non-Euro-American societies.  An indigenous Mormon reader of the column wrote in with this note:

[Lakota anthropologist] Bea Medicine and others define gender complementarity not only as recognizing gender differences, but, and this is important, sharing power and decision making.  She observes, “The cultural mandates from symbolic and mythic structures did actually reflect duality and complementarity in economic and social roles” (Medicine 141).  

We do not have duality and complementarity in Mormonism, except in our imaginations.

We must know what something is not in order to be able to understand what is.

This problem extends not only to the folk doctrine that has accumulated over the years to legitimate late 20th century gendered power segregation within LDS institutional life but to the way priesthood has been redefined in this time period to conflate administrative, ecclesiastical, ritual, spiritual, familial, and social offices.  Another reader wrote this week with the same concern:

With all the commotion around priesthood ordination, I determined to start studying what priesthood really means and how it has been described since the restoration. I’m finding that definitions are very inconsistent! Sometimes it’s God’s authority in general, sometimes it’s his power broadly, sometimes it’s specific keys, etc. The church’s most recent “worldwide leadership training” on priesthood authority only confused me more, with quotes like “I use my priesthood keys to perceive and meet the needs of my quorum” (what? Isn’t that just the spirit? so bizarre). I’m finding that keys and authority are even ill-defined; what are keys, specifically? They’re talked about generally all the time, but what specific keys come with ordination to the Aaronic priesthood, and how are they supposed to be used? Anyway, I have determined to try and study it out more, because it’s hard to know where women fall in all this when it’s unclear what priesthood even means, how it relates to spiritual gifts, etc. 

Exactly.  What really counts as priesthood?  Is healing the sick a priesthood office? Is managing the Church’s stock portfolios a priesthood office? Is presiding over a Church-owned university a priesthood office? Is saying a benediction a priesthood office? (It was classified as such during my lifetime.) Is serving on the High Council a priesthood office?

We must know what something is not in order to know what it is.

Okay, readers, next week we’ll start in on some readings.  But for now, I leave you with a couple of questions:

1.  Can anyone find evidence in A) canonized scripture B) canonized revelation C) the words of Jesus Christ or D) the words of Joseph Smith that indicates the value of gender roles in the plan of salvation? (And yes, we all know that temple marriage is required for exaltation–but marriage does not necessarily mean gender roles.)

2.  How can we know what really counts as priesthood?  Which of the functions we group under the broad umbrella term “priesthood” now are really priesthood-limited responsibilities?

Send your thoughts to, or follow @askmormongirl on Twitter.


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Ask Mormon Girl: What is priesthood? And don’t Mormon women already have it?

Last week I had dinner with an old friend from graduate school who has since been ordained as an Episcopal priest.  I joke with him that he’s my personal chaplain—half-joking, really:  over the last eighteen years, I believe he’s seen enough of me and my family to know me pretty well, and I’ve seen enough of him and his family to value his moral seriousness and his wisdom.  We talked for a few minutes about Mormon feminism.  “You’ve made a new beachhead,” he observed.  “Now it’s time to deepen the work.”

My friend Jim put into words something I’ve certainly been feeling.  When I started this blog, all but a few women were still afraid to say “Mormon feminist” in public and those who did could face tremendous pushback.  That’s the legacy of the Mormon feminist firings and excommunications that started in 1993 and went on for almost a decade.  But just in the last twelve months there has been an incredible burst of energy and organizing:  Pants-to-Church, Let Women Pray, the gorgeous new “I’m a Mormon Feminist” website with real live profiles (add yours?), and most recently, Ordain Women.  (There are more, but I can’t even keep up with them.  Really.)

The LDS Church offered a response to the growing concern with ordination last week.  But for me, both Ordain Women and the Church’s response highlighted that there is tremendous inspecificity in our day-to-day use of the word “priesthood.”  It has become customary to use the idea of “priesthood” to simply name everything men do and women do not do in the contemporary LDS Church.   Which is wrong.  There is a far more complicated story—theologically, historically—to know and tell about priesthood in Mormonism.  It’s time to deepen the work and teach ourselves that story.

I am a scholar by training.  Study is very important to me.  Mormon culture can be anti-intellectual, and it has been customary to characterize scholars as people afflicted with or susceptible to pride.  Certainly some of us are, as are people in every profession.  But any scholar worth his or her Ph.D. understands that scholarship is in fact a practice that requires humility and discipline.  It takes humility to unlearn the collection of half-baked ideas and comforting slogans that stand in for truth; it takes discipline to search out and assess data, reflect carefully on the methods one uses to process the data, and to follow the data where it leads. Arrogance is asserting a claim that belies a much more complicated reality; humility for me is acknowledging how complicated reality is and trying to understand it.

That’s what I want to do with priesthood. I want to study.  I want to understand.

So people, I’m gonna get my study on.  I’m convening a study hall.  Right here at AMG.  What is priesthood?  And do Mormon women already hold it?  Let’s study on it.  I’ll bring data.  You bring data.  We reflect, think, discuss, and learn together.

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Filed under feminism, priesthood