Women, Priesthood, and Power

There are several hot topics that come up on a regular basis in the Church.  One of those is women’s relationship with the priesthood in the Church.  Concerns over equality in policy making, involvement in the life of the Church, and quite a few other things factor into this issue.  Given that women comprise half (or more) of the membership of the Church, it is of huge importance to all members.

One notable voice speaking about women and the priesthood is Wendy Ulrich, who recently published a book on the subject entitled Live Up to Our Privileges: Women, Power and Priesthood (Deseret Book, 2019).  Ulrich is president of the Association of Mormon Counselors and Psychotherapists, a visiting professor at Brigham Young University, and an author of several books for Latter-day Saint audiences.  She recently shared some of her insights into the topic of women and the priesthood in a 10 questions interview with Kurt Manwaring.  What follows here is a summary of her remarks with some commentary, and I encourage you to read the full text of the interview here.

In the interview, Wendy Ulrich begins by discussing how there are several different perspectives among women in the Church about the priesthood. On one end of the spectrum, “some women in the Church assume priesthood is something men have that they aren’t especially interested in” for various reasons. On the other hand, “some women are convinced that women will never be full and equal partners in the Church unless they are ordained to the priesthood as men are.” In between are some who “take at face value comments from the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles about women having priesthood authority or priesthood power, but they are not sure what that looks like in a practical way.”  Her own perspective is that “the privilege of participating in the Lord’s work with authority and power is gender-neutral.”

Her comment on participating in the Lord’s work is based on how she understands what the priesthood is.  When asked “what is a definition of the priesthood that ‘clarifies what men have and women do not’?”, she responded:

To be honest, I’ve never really found such a definition. The common definition of a priest is someone authorized to perform the religious rites of a religion, and by that definition LDS women serving in the temple are priests.

Elder Dallin H. Oaks stated at general conference in 2014 that women who perform any priesthood task under the direction of one holding priesthood keys do so with priesthood authority.

Elder M. Russell Ballard has further stated that men and women are both endowed with priesthood power.

Early apostle Orson Hyde equated priesthood with governance, but women function in many governance and leadership roles in the Church just as men do, including over mixed-sex groups like Primary children and teachers.

Other apostles have equated priesthood with the power of God to create, resurrect, and redeem, which gives priesthood a much grander scope than mere earthly ritual or administration, but Doctrine and Covenants 138:38-39 and 55-56 strongly suggests that women were among those chosen as leaders in the premortal world, and Abraham 3:22-24 uses the similar language to describe those who assisted in the work of creation, implying that women were involved there as well.

I’ve concluded that we could probably define priesthood, paraphrasing the definition given by Joseph F. Smith, as the authority and power of God delegated to men and women to do God’s work in the earth for the salvation and exaltation of the human family.

Defining the priesthood in a way that fully grasps both the similarities and the differences between the roles of women and men in the Church is difficult.  The major difference that Ulrich brings up is that men hold specific offices in the priesthood (and thus serve in certain roles in the Church) while women do not hold those offices.  The emphasis in the interview, though, is that both men and women have access to the authority and power of God to work for the salvation and exaltation of humankind.

As an aside, while reading Wendy Ulrich’s remarks, I was reminded of an interesting Exponent II post from several months ago.  In the post, Trudy Rushforth discussed recent rhetoric about women having access to the priesthood in terms of two major viewpoints about Christian priesthood.  The first viewpoint, most prominently displayed by the Catholic Church, is that priests must be consecrated or ordained by someone who was himself ordained in a linage that can be traced back to the ancient apostles.  In this view, priests have the authority to perform things that regular people cannot.  The second viewpoint, modeled by many Protestant churches, is the “the priesthood of all believers,” where all Christians have full and equal access to God and therefore have full and equal ability to act and minister as priests. In general, Latter-day Saint priesthood has followed (in an expanded sense) the Catholic style of priesthood, with men tracing their priesthood line back to ancient apostles through Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery and being able to perform ordinances like baptism and confirmation, the sacrament, etc. only after ordination.  Rushforth argued, however, that recent remarks by general authorities about women’s relationship to the priesthood tend to follow the lines of a “priesthood of all believers” by teaching that women have the priesthood in their lives (in the ways Ulrich discusses in the quotation above).  Trudy cleverly labeled this women-focused approach to the priesthood “a priesthood of half the believers,” and noted that she felt it was problematic for the Church to try to have it both ways (men having a Catholic-style priesthood and women having a priesthood of all believers) because it muddies the water on how we define the priesthood.  Wendy Ulrich seems to have a more positive view of the situation than Trudy Rushforth, but Ulrich’s remarks in the interview do highlight how difficult it is to pin down a good definition of the priesthood in the Church today.  It’s definitely something that needs more attention, and I’m interested to read Wendy Ulrich’s book to see her perspective on the subject more fully.

In any case, teaching that women do have access to the priesthood in various ways is an empowering concept.  In the 10 questions interview, Wendy Ulrich stated that:

I hope we can talk together about how we all can grow in priesthood power to complete whatever the work is we have personally been authorized to do in building the kingdom of God.

For example, the work we do together in councils is the governance work of the priesthood. The work we do together in temples is a major part of the ritual or ordinance work of the priesthood. The work we do in feeding people and helping them feed themselves, in teaching the gospel, in creating community, in being confirmed with the gifts of the Holy Ghost, in sealing eternal families—all of this and more is the work of both men and women as we participate in God’s work of saving the human family.

As we listen to each other with compassion and curiosity and speak up with honesty and good will, neither dominating nor staying silent, we can come to the unity required in all Church councils.

Women and men can work together through the priesthood to build the kingdom of God on earth in powerful ways.

There’s a lot of great things in Wendy Ulrich’s interview, much more than I have covered in this post.  For more insights into the priesthood, such as women’s relationship to offices of the priesthood, how God’s nature relates to the topic, and differences between priesthood power and priesthood authority, read the full interview here.

16 comments for “Women, Priesthood, and Power

  1. I’ve mentioned this before that the church has been reorganizing since the restoration to share more place with the women. Even the rs is an example. But most recently the church has made the organizations at the ward level completely parallel. For example eliminating HP so that EQ parallels RS. VT & HT have been replaced MV. The YW now do MV similar to AP. Even deletion of scouting and using the same program for all youth is an example. I believe this is laying the foundation for ordaining women. I for one welcome it. It would certainly take a lot of the church work off the shoulders of the men. particularly when untrained men are put in the position of dealing with women’s problems. Perhaps rs pres could take confessions or women could be bishops Or provide counsel to woman dealing with issues. women could certainly understand their own issues. But, my belief that ordaining of women is not coming just for equality’s sake or women’s sake. After plotting the church’s growth it’s easy to see the church is in a period of decline. As such I think there will be a need for leadership that may come from the women. Finally, the church could use the additional talent/inspiration. As Brother Nelson indicating more changes are coming.

  2. I agree with all of this but it remains unanswered why all positions of leadership over men and women (excepting the primary President example but I think that’s a little weak) are reserved for men and why all of the “top” positions in the church are occupied by men. You can talk until you’re blue in the face about how women have access to priesthood power and exercise priesthood authority, and I’m glad to see more efforts to listen to women in councils, but the leadership and ultimate decision making question is still a major problem in my view and will continue to be a problem for younger people who are growing up in a culture that doesn’t tolerate sexism.

  3. “The emphasis in the interview, though, is that both men and women have access to the authority and power of God to work for the salvation and exaltation of humankind.”

    My struggle is defining what this means. Against male Catholic-type priesthood within the church, but even more against my Catholic, Evangelical, non-Christian, etc. friends. I’m not seeing a power, performing of miracles, working for salvation or any singular depth of Christianity within male or female Mormons that isn’t found (in often the exact same ways) in people outside of Mormonism. I’m not sure what LDS Priesthood is outside of the right to administer ordinances and the church bureaucracy.

  4. Reading her full talk she gives a very good explanation of why women should be equal in the priesthood, then remembers that could be a problem, and twists away.
    In the preamble to declaration 2, we have “all are alike unto God, black and white, male and female (note it has bond and free so was saying priveledged, and discriminated against are alike unto God. Could replace bond and free with straight and gay.
    So dec2 is to remove discrimination against african americans, next need bring the church up to Gods standard for women, and gays.
    The first conference talk by a black priesthood holder took 41 years. Obviously need to change the way the top level of leadership works perhaps like nephite translated at 72. Retire at 72?

  5. Reading her whole interviewgave me the impression her research concluded women shouldnhold the priesthood equally with men, but she realised that would not be appreciated so twisted a bit.

    The prelude to dec2 quotes “all are alike unto God, black and white, male and female, gay and straight.” No it doesn’t have gay and straight but it does say all are alike unto God the lists groups who are discriminated against by man made culture. When church comes in line with God it will not discriminate against women or gays either.

    Note it took 41 years for the first black man to speak in conference.

    Need a culture change for top leadership so we can get innline with God. Perhaps retirement age of 72 for 15?

    I do not have the restrictions Wendy Ulrich does. I do not work for the church, or aspire to leadership.

  6. I come at this question a little differently than most LDS women. Prior to my baptism 11 months ago, I was ordained in another denomination. The majority of Christian denominations still do not ordain women, but even those where women are ordained show incredible discrimination against women in leadership roles. Very little of this discrimination comes from the leaders above them (though some does), it mostly comes from people in the pews. I can not even begin to tell you the sexist, discriminatory and insulting things that have been said to me, or to other female friends who are also ordained simply because of our gender. It is a very VERY rough road to walk. If our LDS church decided to give women the priesthood, I don’t think things would be much different, honestly. I’ve come to the conclusion that it is better to not worry about the label (I was ordained, and gave it up after all) and live out my love for the Savior as its own statement. The label of being ordained actually makes things quite a bit more complicated – and quite a bit sadder and lonelier – for women. I think eventually it will happen, but I don’t think this generation, or the next 3 generations would be ready for it.

  7. Interesting take. Thanks for the recommendation. On the whole, women in LDS communities enjoy less freedom and power than women in secular communities in developed countries in Western Europe and the US and Canada. They have less freedom and power than women in liberal Protestant communities as well. Once we start getting to Catholic communities and more conservative Protestant communities, gender roles of course have their own distinct flavor in each community, but I would think that the degrees of freedom and power for women are comparable. Once we compare LDS communities (talking only of those in the US) with other parts of the world (developed east Asian countries, India, Africa, and the Middle East), women enjoy quite a bit more freedom and power, especially with many parts of the Middle East.

    I find the old-school cultural norms still alive in some corners of Mormondom that frown on working outside the home or starting to have children at a young age somewhat annoying. As for church duties and management, tradition prevails and won’t change too fast. Still, leaders have certainly progressed towards female empowerment and inclusion over the decades.

    So my general assessment of women in the LDS church is that while their place is a ways away from secular norms (not that the church leaders or members are necessarily desiring these anyway) in terms of overall empowerment, things aren’t that bad. I’m not losing too much sleep over women and the priesthood and their expanding role in the LDS church. And as Jennifer Roach pointed out, if the church gave the women the priesthood, things might not actually change that much. Gender norms aren’t necessarily set by the leaders themselves. They undoubtedly have influence on what these norms are, but the collective memories, habits, and rituals of the overall culture set these norms and while they are fluid, they don’t change overnight.

  8. Geoff-A, I don’t know how you came up with that “41 years for the first black man to speak in conference,” claim, but it’s wrong.

    If you’re talking about 41 years since the Church was organized, there wouldn’t have been any speakers who were black in the conferences of 1871. If you’re talking about time elapsed since the revelation of June 1978, you’re conveniently ignoring Helvécio Martins, who became a Seventy in 1990 and spoke at the October conference that same year.

  9. Christ says we are joint heirs with him and will be given all that the Father has. Are we saying Christ’s words only apply to men? The Father has priesthood power, authority, and offices of a sort, unless the offices are solely a mortal means of organization. The point is our Heavenly Father, and I would include, our Heavenly Mother, aren’t limited in their works to provide salvation and exaltation to the human family based on their gender. If women are to truly become like God and become priestesses, why should they be limited in the ordinances they perform or in their stewardships?

    As Geoff has rightly pointed out, the justification for ordaining black men was to rely on the scripture saying all are alike unto God. The church can’t have it both ways where we take this scripture seriously when dealing with men but then claim it doesn’t actually apply to women.

    How can we possibly claim that women have the same divine potential as men and can one day become beings of infinite knowledge, power, and love when we exclude them from key decision-making and sacred ordinances? It’s absurd. And if we really don’t believe Heavenly Mother is a goddess in the way that Heavenly Father is a god, then we should be clear on that and stop pretending that women are equal or have divine potential like men do.

    As to members reacting in sexist ways to female ordination, did discrimination stop God from revealing to Peter that the gentiles should receive the gospel? Are we not supposed to overcome the natural man and treat all with love and respect? Since when does God’s gospel base its principles on man’s weakness?

  10. Since women are unable to baptize, give the gift of the Holy Ghost, bless the sacrament, and preside over wards, stakes, missions, and the Church in general, they do not have priesthood authority. Be careful about listening to those who are using semantics to try to make a politically sensitive issue less offensive. Until women are ordained, they will not have priesthood authority. Sorry for throwing water on your little fire here, but let’s at least be honest about the real issue.

  11. Franklin/Roger,

    It seems all have agreed that priesthood is God’s power and authority. But priesthood is limited to baptizing, confirming, blessing the sacrament and presiding over ecclesiastical units? Tell me, are spiritual gifts manifestations of God’s power and authority? Were the instances in which Joseph Smith sent a handkerchief to sick people, in one instance carried by a young boy… did they involve priesthood in any way?

  12. Old Man,

    Good questions. And sorry for the “echo” comment. Got an error message the first time, so I posted again (inadvertently) under my real name; then both comments showed up. I contacted the blog administrator to have one deleted, but apparently no one’s home at Times and Seasons. Anyway, for a detailed discussion of this and other issues related to priesthood, see my two-article series on authority and priesthood in the LDS Church that appeared last year in Dialogue. Priesthood, like just about everything else, is an extremely complex topic that most members don’t really understand very well. And our current definition of the term took years to develop and is a completely modern concept. It did not exist in either the Bible or the Book of Mormon.

  13. Roger Terry,

    I deleted the first comment. I’m not the blog administrator (so wasn’t aware until your later comment), but I figured that since you mentioned it in your comment I should go ahead and take care of it.

    For those interested, the links to Roger Terry’s articles are https://dialoguejournal.com/wp-content/uploads/sbi/articles/Dialogue_V51N01_1.pdf and https://www.dialoguejournal.com/wp-content/uploads/sbi/articles/Dialogue_V51N02_2.pdf. I haven’t had the chance to read through them all the way, but I am interested in doing so to see what you have to say on the subject.

  14. I still submit that the priesthood as defined is male in essence. Manhood and womanhood. Can I benefit from womanhood? Yes! Do I have an interest in helping womanhood blossom? Yes! Can I claim to be given some authority in womanhood?

    That’s kind of nonsensical. Priest is male. Why? Because it’s a man standing in for God. His proxy. I think it’s nonsensical to think of the sons of Aaron officiating in the tabernacle and then call a daughter to do the same, while still calling her a son of Aaron. We can’t just extend the concept info all encompassing metaphor.

    Priestess would be female. We get a better understanding of that when we consider the Divine female — our Heavenly Mother. What’s a priestess ordained after her pattern do?

    Don’t we all believe that the time will come when all our sisters, mother’s, wives, and daughters will be called as priestesses?

    I’m just not sure why we take specific male functions and apply them to women. I realize it’s supposed to be better that we want arms to function like feet, but why is it better? Isn’t having clearly defined roles a potential advantage? Don’t we see that not only across nature but within our own bodies as well?

  15. There have been a couple of references to the “Catholic Priesthood”. The Catholic Church actually has two Priesthoods – The Ministerial Priesthood and the Common Priesthood. The former is the organization of the Pope, Bishops, Priests, and Deacons. The latter is what all baptized Catholics belong to. I have no idea how your average devout lay Catholic sees him or herself fitting in the Common Priesthood, but it is a thing.

    Paragraph 1547 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church states: The ministerial or hierarchical priesthood of bishops and priests, and the common priesthood of all the faithful participate, “each in its own proper way, in the one priesthood of Christ.” While being “ordered one to another,” they differ essentially. In what sense? While the common priesthood of the faithful is exercised by the unfolding of baptismal grace – a life of faith, hope, and charity, a life according to the Spirit – ,the ministerial priesthood is at the service of the common priesthood. It is directed at the unfolding of the baptismal grace of all Christians. the ministerial priesthood is a means by which Christ unceasingly builds up and leads his Church. For this reason it is transmitted by its own sacrament, the sacrament of Holy Orders.

  16. It appears to me that the essence of the ‘multiverse’ is love and cooperation. While the female population feel they need to be dictating policy to the way the Creator set up the church, this virtue signalling debate will only lead to people becoming blue in the face.

    If women would accept the fact that being a wife, mother, and mentor is of the highest order, and has far reaching effects on the entire planet, we would all be the better for it. It was Napoleon that was quoted as saying, “What the world needs now is good mothers. The hand that rocks the cradle, is the hand that rocks the nation.”

    Being a wife and mother, these days, has become a hiss and a byword of shame. The constant, “Yeah but”, and “How come”, and “Why” arguments, indicate to me that these apologists simply don’t have a clear testimony and vision of the Lord’s Atoning sacrifice, and the part we all ought to be endeavouring to contribute to life itself.

    IMO, any ‘mother’ who dumps her kid(s) in child care and ‘school’ for the sake of her own aggrandisement, is simply guilty of child abuse.

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