The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was founded upon one young person’s sincere questions about faith. Articulating personal questions for the benefit of personal spiritual development is absolutely encouraged. However, while gathering signatures, petitioning and protesting may be historical patterns for obtaining civil rights from oppressive and restrictive governments, such behavior has no bearing in an egalitarian community in which all have the same rights, privileges and blessings regardless of gender or the differing adminstrations of those privileges. In fact, the effect of such behavior in a spiritual setting is divisive and subversive, causing contention and calling attention to false doctrine.
Publicly teaching false doctrine is neither effective in creating positive change nor helpful in demonstrating a capacity to live authentically and with integrity according to true principles. While presented as being punished for having ideas or questions, the real issue confronted is preaching personal opinion based on misunderstanding of doctrine as if it should be true doctrine. This happened way back in Alma 1, with all the mess Nehor caused.
Nehor was a good guy, really, and most everyone liked him. He was eloquent, smart and clever, and really had a good desire to preach. The problem? He was preaching contrary to church doctrine. His complaint was about leadership, and he really stirred up some contention. His was a false priesthood that evangelized by confronting instead of inviting, and his message led to dissension instead of peace. That’s how Alma knew it was not of God, even though Nehor “pled for himself with much boldness” (verse 11). Yet the damage had been done, and priestcraft began to spread through the land “for there were many who loved the vain things of the world, and they went forth preaching false doctrines; and this they did for the sake of riches and honor” (verse 16).
These followers that kept Nehor-ism going were very careful to follow the law and present themselves well. They were very “good” people, but spread false doctrine and contention. This created enough of a separation that those not of the church began to persecute the believers (verse 19), “and afflict them with all manner of words” (verse 20), mocking them for how they lived by covenant-keeping (verse 21). Contention always destroys, “and it was a cause of much affliction to the church” (verse 23) because “many hearts were hardened” (verse 24), which led to people leaving the church. It became very hard to endure, very hard not to get sucked into contention, and very hard not to give up in the face of mocking and persecution.
“Now this was a great trial to those that did stand fast in the faith; nevertheless, they were steadfast and immovable in keeping the commandments of God, and they bore with patience the persecution which was heaped upon them” (verse 25). But the church members worked hard at it, and “they all returned again diligently unto their labors; and the priest, not esteeming himself above his hearers, for the preacher was no better than the hearer, neither was the teacher any better than the learning; and thus they were all equal, and they did all labor, every man according to his strength” (verse 26). That’s becoming a people of the covenant, a people of Holiness, where all are equal.
As a minor correction to a March 2014 New York Times article, Mormons do not believe the priesthood is just the power of God, or that such power is available only to men. Those are half-truths. Also, the priesthood is not something a person can have for themselves, use for themselves, or something tangible a person can hold. It is only for ministering to others, and women are called to minister as well as men.
In its fullness, the Priesthood is both “the power and authority of God”, and that same Priesthood is available to all covenant-keeping people. Elder Ballard said that, “Men and women have different but equally valued roles… the priesthood power (is) shared by husband and wife.” It is the power “by which the heavens and the earth were created, but it is also the power the Savior used in His mortal ministry to perform miracles, to bless and heal the sick, to bring the dead to life, and, as our Father’s Only Begotten Son, to endure the unbearable pain of Gethsemane and Calvary—thus fulfilling the laws of justice with mercy and providing an infinite Atonement and overcoming physical death through the Resurrection.” It is an error to state that a woman has no priesthood power, or no access to it, as it comes to all of us by personal righteousness developed by the Holy Spirit and is only possible for any of us because of the atonement of Jesus Christ.
Elder Ballard also said that “the power of the priesthood is a sacred and essential gift of God. ][But] it is different from priesthood authority, which is the authorization to act in God’s name.” The question about ordaining women is a question about the authority of the priesthood, not a question of power. In itself, it is a fair question, but the answers easily come by understanding what the priesthood is and what purpose it serves. A true understanding brings confidence in who we are as women, as well as deep peace about our role in serving others with great priesthood power appropriately and effectively administered.
Chapter 2 of the book, Daughters of My Kingdom, tells how the priesthood power was restored to women through proper priesthood authority. “Joseph Smith held all the keys of priesthood authority on the earth. Therefore, when he organized the Relief Society to function under his overall direction, he unlocked opportunities for the women of the Church to play vital roles in the work of the Lord’s kingdom. They now served under the authority of the priesthood and were promised blessings beyond those they had already received. These blessings would come to them according to their faithfulness and diligence. Knowledge and intelligence would flow to them as they received a fulness of priesthood blessings in the temple. They would receive ordinances and make sacred covenants that would help them prepare themselves and their families for eternal life.” Chapter 8 also clarifies that the priesthood is both “the eternal power and authority of God by which He blesses, redeems, and exalts His children, bringing to pass “the immortality and eternal life of man.” With this, “the Lord has given unto us garments of the holy priesthood” (President Joseph F. Smith, Improvement Era, August 1906, 813). These priestly garments – like the clothing of priests in other religions – remind all of us, men and women, of the covenants we have made and the priesthood power we receive through covenant keeping.
Ordination is the transfer of that power to a specific priesthood office. Each office has specific duties with specific responsibilities. Those duties may be temporal or spiritual. Elder Dallin H. Oaks of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles taught: “While we sometimes refer to priesthood holders as ‘the priesthood,’ we must never forget that the priesthood is not owned by or embodied in those who hold it. It is held in a sacred trust to be used for the benefit of men, women, and children alike.” Elder Oaks then quoted Elder John A. Widtsoe, who also served as a member of the Quorum of the Twelve: “Men have no greater claim than women upon the blessings that issue from the Priesthood…”
Chapter 8 of Daughters of my Kingdom quotes the 2001 conference talk by Sheri L. Dew saying, “Sisters, some will try to persuade you that because you are not ordained to the priesthood, you have been shortchanged. They are simply wrong, and they do not understand the gospel of Jesus Christ. The blessings of the priesthood are available to every righteous man and woman. We may all receive the Holy Ghost, obtain personal revelation, and be endowed in the temple, from which we emerge ‘armed’ with power. The power of the priesthood heals, protects, and inoculates all of the righteous against the powers of darkness. Most significantly, the fulness of the priesthood contained in the highest ordinances of the house of the Lord can be received only by a man and woman together.” Further, it quotes President Joseph Smith as stating “It is within the privilege of the sisters of this Church to receive exaltation in the kingdom of God and receive authority and power as queens and priestesses.”
Real Intent blogger Heather used healing as an example of priesthood power being administered differently by men and women. A man may lay hands on the sick and give a blessing, while a woman will also pray and minister with her hands directly, with hugs, kisses, meals, healing touch, writing notes, meeting needs, and caring for the one who is sick. She quotes Eliza R. Snow’s record of what Joseph Smith said: “Respecting females administering for the healing of the sick… there could be no evil in it, if God gave His sanction by healing; that there could be no more sin in any female laying hands on and praying for the sick, than in wetting the face with water; it is no sin for anybody to administer that has faith, or if the sick have faith to be healed by their administrations (History of the Church, volume 4, pg. 604).” She continues, pointing out that it “is important to note that Joseph Smith clarified that women had the gift to heal and administer because of their faith and not because of their priesthood authority. Joseph reiterated what Jesus taught in Mark 16:17 that “these signs shall follow them that believe; In my name… they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover.” The spiritual gift of healing or ministering has no less power, she writes, than a priesthood blessing, because it is done by the same power, in the name of the same Christ. “The gift is the same, it is only the method of administration that is different.” It is how we, as women, by the power of the priesthood, do participate in miracles of God.
We do, as one unit in marriage with our spouse, have the ability and capacity to bless our children and those around us. Through the assignments we are called to by our Bishop, or small promptings given us by the Spirit, we can minister to those around us. In Spring 2014 General Conference, Elder Oaks said:
“Priesthood keys direct women as well as men, and priesthood ordinances and priesthood authority pertain to women as well as men… A person may have authority given to him, or a sister to her, to do certain things in the Church that are binding and absolutely necessary for our salvation, such as the work that our sisters do in the House of the Lord. They have authority given unto them to do some great and wonderful things, sacred unto the Lord, and binding just as thoroughly as are the blessings that are given by the men who hold the Priesthood… President Smith said again and again that women have been given authority. To the women he said, “You can speak with authority, because the Lord has placed authority upon you.” He also said that the Relief Society “[has] been given power and authority to do a great many things. The work which they do is done by divine authority.” And, of course, the Church work done by women or men, whether in the temple or in the wards or branches, is done under the direction of those who hold priesthood keys. Thus, speaking of the Relief Society, President Smith explained, “[The Lord] has given to them this great organization where they have authority to serve under the directions of the bishops of the wards … , looking after the interest of our people both spiritually and temporally. Thus, it is truly said that Relief Society is not just a class for women but something they belong to—a divinely established appendage to the priesthood… 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 or teacher 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 in performing her or his assigned duties.”
The priesthood is about ministering and blessing, and women already do that.The question, then, is not really about why women can’t have the priesthood, as if it were an object to posses. In fact, we have seen that pattern before, when someone tries wants to have for themselves the “power” of others, as if it were something that could be owned, like a crown that could be held in your hands. The twist comes in (falsely) perceiving the priesthood as something that endows one with externally validated superiority, which really is about kingship rather than priesthood. Who in the scriptures was one who wanted to be king? Amalekiah.
Amalekiah’s story starts in Alma 46, and his context begins in a society that was not living and behaving like the people of holiness should be living and behaving – which is one more reason we cannot blame one apostate for community issues. Alma has just prophesied that contention is coming because they are not behaving like covenent keepers, and that it would destroy them. Helaman sees it begin to happen immediately, when he distributes the priesthood amongst the people as the church is established in the land – but the priesthood holders do not do the work to develop the power, and misuse their authority. They will not listen to the words of the prophet or the counsel of the apostles, and so are in opposition against those who do (verse 1).
These people are so proud that they are determined to take for themselves what is God’s to give out, and they want to do it for their own sake rather than the sake of the people. They want to establish their own dominion, rather than lead the people righteously, and the leader of the false-priesthood rebels was Amalickiah. His group tries to win over the people through flattery (verse 5), which means even the believers were filling themselves full of pride instead of repentance, or flattery would not have been an effective tactic. His words are cunning, instead of wise like Alma’s. His teachings were flattering, to make the people feel good, instead of truth-telling to make the people do right. Instead of building up the church, he worked to destroy it “and to destroy the foundation of liberty which God had granted unto them” (verse 10).
The warrior prophet Moroni calls the people to repentance, and Amalickiah runs away when he sees that his flattered people have begun to re-think what was going on and which side they were choosing (verse 29). Where did he run? To other groups of people who also were hating on the believers, hoping to gain strength as minorities combined in efforts to regain popularity again. Years pass while Amalickiah prepares for war (Alma 47:1), and is even made the leader of the rebels (verse 3). This was exactly what Amalickiah wanted, to be set up as a leader and then steal even more power for himself for he was “a very subtle man to do evil” and had a “plan in his heart to dethrone the king of the Lamanites” (verse 4) by gaining the favor of the people (verse 5).
The people were protected only by their temple covenants (“gathered up on a mountain for safety”, verse 7), but Amalickiah continued to pursue the people’s favor by fighting in grey areas (verse 9) and demanding dialogue (verse 10). Leaders were harmed when trying to meet them halfway in compromise (verse 13). Worse, the slippery Amalickiah continues with his flattery and deal-making, trying to change the rules and distract the people from covenant keeping. The people later see they are being used, and feel betrayed, and so they repent and return to the church (verse 29).
To live outside those boundaries of covenant keeping, to refuse correction, and to reject living prophets and the Savior they serve, that is apostasy. Apostasy is a falling away from truth, and a teaching of false doctrine to others. An article for NPR, stated that Kate Kelley was recently excommunicated “for advocating in favor of female priests”, which is a half truth, as the issue (as published by Kelley herself) was about apostasy, or teaching false doctrine.
The church defines apostasy as “when individuals or groups of people turn away from the principles of the gospel”. During apostasy, people do not respond to “divine direction from living prophets” or “lead people to the true knowledge of God the Father and Jesus Christ”. It states that “we must each guard against personal apostasy by keeping covenants, obeying the commandments, following Church leaders, partaking of the sacrament, and constantly strengthening our testimonies through daily scripture study, prayer, and service.” In their June 2014 statement regarding apostasy, the First Presidency stated clarified, “Simply asking questions has never constituted apostasy. Apostasy is repeatedly acting in clear, open, and deliberate public opposition to the Church or its faithful leaders, or persisting, after receiving counsel, in teaching false doctrine.”
Another recent article, this one for New York Times, referred to apostasy charges as a “sudden move”, as if disciplinary council was called out of the blue with no warning, and it was described as unexpected and as final. However, disciplinary councils are provided long into the process, after much dialogue with bishops and other leaders, as a vehicle for repentance and correction and healing. It is not unexpected, and only final for those who choose to reject the help offered them. It is intended as an opportunity for a fresh start, a new beginning, an invitation to heal.
Buzzfeed recently reported that this was the end of “the Mormon moment” because our moment did not start with the kind of anger and sadness that has ended it. Anger and sadness never stopped Mormons before! We have endured much worse, and by priesthood power will continue to endure. We mourn the loss of strong women in our community, and grieve the lack of understanding of who they truly are as daughters of God, even queens and priestesses. We pray for their return, and will rejoice in the peace and unity we can still feel once again.
When we truly understand that this is the Lord’s church, and how much we are loved, we know it is to Him we respond as we live within the bounds He has set. Just as we cannot have a happy marriage without doing the work that goes into it, we cannot have the blessings of a righteous life without actually living a righteous life. We cannot want the externals without doing the work of the internals, and is a heavy thing to lose who one is in exchange for demanding what one already has – even if it is adminstered in different but complimentary ways than the men.
Once, when my husband was working in the temple in New York, the matron came to him and told him a story that she said was important for all couples getting sealed together for time and all eternity. She said that in ancient times, men were the hunters and women were the gatherers. The men and women traveled in the same direction as a couple while they journeyed, and that this was their life together. However, men were focused on the hunt and traveled straight from one point to the next by tracking a single set of footprints, while women had to gather medicine and herbs and food along the way, a little over here and a little over there. So while they were traveling together in the same direction, and having the same job of getting their families to where they were going while providing for them along the way, they had different roles and duties in how they accomplished this.
This means that our becoming has both a “doing” aspect to it, and a “being” aspect. The priesthood is very clearly structured to teach us to care for other people. The men must learn to be both kings and priests, and we women must learn to be both queens and priestesses. When my husband and I were being sealed in the temple, we were told that most men are kings and most women are priestesses. The problem, he said, was when men are bad kings and not priests, or women are evil queens but not priestesses. Our work, he said, was for my husband to learn to be both a king and a priest, and for me to become both a queen and a priestess. We both, individually and together, must learn to govern ourselves according to the covenants we have made, and to consecrate our lives to His service.
The power of the priesthood is structured in such a way as to be accessible to someone who thinks they are a good king (or queen), but is actually all about being a priest (or priestess). It is ministering to others, rescuing them, and lifting them up. It takes practice, and requires a constant worthiness, and demands an ever improving preparedness and fulfilling of what is asked. It begins small, and then is added upon, a little more and a little more. Regardless of how much authority one has been given, there is no power without the righteousness that comes through obedience and covenant-keeping. The power cannot be wielded without the Holy Ghost, and that righteousness is prerequisite to having him as companion.
In the transcript of the recent interview of the Relief Society Presidency, the women shared their thoughts about the priesthood. Sister Wixom stated that she sees access to the priesthood in three ways: “I see the priesthood blessing me through the covenants that I’ve made personally. It happens for all of us in baptism and in the temple. And then I see it with my husband as we really complete each other and stand together as parents and counsel together. We couldn’t do it alone; we need each other. And then I see it in my service in the Church.” Sister Dalton stated that “the power of the priesthood — there’s a distinction between the authority of the priesthood and the power of the priesthood. And I think sometimes people don’t understand that. …the authority can be conferred upon a man, but the power can only be exercised in purity.” Sister Burton confirmed this, stating that “the same way we receive the power of it is the way they receive the power of it.”
It is enough to know that it is Jesus Christ who holds all the keys to His church, and that the keys of this dispensation have been restored and are held by living prophets. If I understand that it is His church, then I also understand that it will be through His keys that I will receive my assignments, roles, promptings, instruction, correction, and direction. If I choose Heavenly Father’s plan, then I choose to respond to that instruction, correction, and direction so that I might fulfill my assignments, roles, and promptings as one tiny effort at accomplishing His work.
These are the things that make up our Mormon identities: knowing that Jesus Christ has restored the priesthood through living prophets, and living according to those teachings by obeying commandments and keeping covenants. This is our Mormon identity: to sustain our leaders, to attend the temple, to wear our priestly garments, and to heed counsel received through personal study, prayer, and priesthood leaders. This is our Mormon identity: to follow the prophet, who, just as in the time of Moses, is led by the Lord through this wilderness of mortality. This is our Mormon identity: to return to our Heavenly Parents, together, as a family.