I wrote this for a talk I gave yesterday on the equality of women and men in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I know that this is a difficult and sensitive subject for a lot of people, so I thought I would post it here, in the hope that it would help someone find peace.
I also wanted to post this for the benefit of some friends of mine, not in the Church, who have wondered how I can reconcile gender equality with my religious beliefs. I hope, again, that this provides something of an explanation.
Note please that, while I have tried to use quotes from scriptures and from the General Authorities and general officers of the Church, the commentary is entirely my own - and represents only my own opinion on the matter.
Brett Peterson, written for a Sacrament meeting talk on 13 April 2014, in the Grandview 15th Ward.
I have been asked by the Bishopric to speak about something from Conference that stood out to me personally. At the start of Conference, I was embroiled in a number of online debates about the value of women in Christ's restored Church. As such, Elder Dallin H. Oaks' talk, “The Keys and the Authority of the Priesthood” stood out to me. Many good friends of mine who are members of the Church struggle with this subject; several have become inactive over it. In my talk today, I would like to show how Elder Oaks' talk answers some questions I have seen dear friends struggle with; it is my hope that, if any of you have similar struggles, questions, or doubts, that these remarks will help you find peace and faith, and I pray that the Holy Ghost will be our mutual aid in doing so.
In Elder Oaks' talk, one phrase in particular stood out to me: “Men and women are equal before God, in his Church and in the family, with different responsibilities.” The American experience makes the idea that different can be equal at times hard to believe; I come from a state with many past and present struggles with this very issue, so I understand how some balk at the idea of equality being different than sameness.
Let us talk about the Plan of Salvation. In the Grand Council before the world was, all of the sons and daughters of God gathered together to hear the Father's plan for our progression and eternal happiness. Quoting from Preach My Gospel: “God’s whole purpose—His work and His glory—is to enable each of us to enjoy all His blessings. He has provided a perfect plan to accomplish His purpose. We understood and accepted this plan before we came to the earth” (, 48).
Elder L. Tom Perry explained further that:
“There are two purposes for life in mortality. The first is that we might gain experiences that we could not obtain in any other way. The second is to obtain tabernacles of flesh and bones. Both of these purposes are vital to the existence of man. We are now being tried and tested to see if we will do all the things the Lord has commanded us to do. These commandments are the principles and ordinances of the gospel, and they constitute the gospel of Jesus Christ. Every principle and ordinance has a bearing upon the whole purpose of our testing, which is to prepare us to return to our Heavenly Father and become more like Him.” (“The Plan of Salvation,” General Conference October 2006.)
For the purposes of this talk, I would like to subdivide the three purposes Elder Perry talked about into three: 1.) receive a body, and 2.) receive the ordinances necessary for our exaltation, and 3.) become like Christ. The first two are necessary for the third – we cannot become like Christ without a body, and without receiving baptism, the gift of the Holy Ghost, the Sacrament, and the other ordinances the Lord has instituted for our exaltation. A mortal body and those ordinances, however, are not sufficient to gain eternal life; we must, on top of receiving these qualifying conditions, then choose in our individual lives to follow the Savior at all times, in all things, and in all places. In the context of the Plan of Salvation, “fairness” - or, to use the language of Paul in the Book of Acts, the promise that “God is no respecter of persons” (Acts 10:34) – requires that every spirit child of God who chooses to do so will have a chance 1.) to receive a body, 2.) to receive ordinances necessary for exaltation, 3.) and to become like Christ.
President J. Reuben Clark Jr. described how women and men each have a part to play in helping the daughters and sons of God become like Him:
“[Women] are not bearers of the Priesthood; they are not charged with carrying out the duties and functions of the Priesthood; nor are they laden with its responsibilities; they are builders and organizers under its power, and partakers of its blessings, possessing the complement of the Priesthood powers and possessing a function as divinely called, as eternally important in its place as the Priesthood itself.” (J. Reuben Clark Jr., “Our Wives and Our Mothers in the Eternal Plan,” Relief Society Magazine, Dec. 1946, 801.)
Valerie Hudson, a renowned LDS political scientist, in her essay “The Two Trees,” noted:
“It is through women that souls journey to mortality and gain their agency, and in general it is through the nurturing of women, their nurturing love of their children, that the light of Christ is awakened within each soul. … Women escort every soul through the veil to mortal life and full agency. …Just as the veil into this life is guarded by the women, the daughters of God, so the veil that brings us home... is administered and guarded over by the sons of God. And those that have accepted the gift … from the hands of the sons of God will pass through that veil and back to that celestial place where they can be with their Parents once more. …
(FAIR, 2010 Conference. http://www.fairmormon.org/perspectives/fair-conferences/2010-fair-conference/2010-the-two-trees)
I love this description by Sis. Hudson, as it illustrates a beautiful balance between women and men in the Plan of Salvation. Women allow the spirit children of God to gain a body. Men allow the spirit children of God to receive the necessary ordinances. The third element, and most important element, becoming like Christ, is accomplished by an individual on a very individual mortal path of personalized blessings, abilities, temptations, and challenges. The Church and family, beyond the providing the blessings of mortal tabernacles and the ordinances necessary for exaltation, are resources to assist and encourage the individual in their use of agency to become like Christ.
Women and men, then, each have unique responsibilities in the Plan of Salvation. Some friends of mine, both female and male, have protested that men bearing the Priesthood gives them an unfair advantage in being tried, tested, and proved in all things, or, in other words, in becoming like Christ. These friends of mine have suggested that men have access to power and blessings that women do not, and therefore, in essence, that God and His Church are unjust.
To address this question, let us examine what the priesthood is, and what it is not. As Elder Oaks described in this General Conference,
“President Joseph F. Smith described the priesthood as “the power of God delegated to man by which man can act in the earth for the salvation of the human family.” (Joseph F. Smith, Gospel Doctrine, 5th ed. (1939), 139.) Other leaders have taught us that the priesthood “is the consummate power on this earth. It is the power by which the earth was created.”(Boyd K. Packer, “Priesthood Power in the Home,” Worldwide leadership training meeting, Feb. 2012; lds.org/broadcasts. See also: James E. Faust, “Power of the Priesthood,” Ensign, May 1997, 41–43.) The scriptures teach that “this same Priesthood, which was in the beginning, shall be in the end of the world also” (Moses 6:7). Thus, the priesthood is the power by which we will be resurrected and proceed to eternal life.”
Elder Oaks also stated, unequivocally, that “Men are not 'the priesthood.' Men hold the priesthood, with a sacred duty to use it for the blessing of all of the children of God.” In beautifully clear language, Elder Oaks described further that both men and women exercise priesthood authority in the Lord's Church.
“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.”
Thus, both men and women have precisely the same access to Priesthood power, and authority, in their experience in mortality. Everyone, female and male, has access to the power of God for the salvation of humankind in their callings, in their divinely instituted stewardships, and in their families. Church history in this and other dispensations is replete with examples of women exercising the authority of the priesthood, and its power, in their lives. From the pioneer era we have a well-known story about a woman who prayed that her oxen would be healed, and they were. In the New Testament, we have the story of Anna, the prophetess who served at the temple, recognized the Savior, and prophesied of his life and mission. In the Old Testament, we have the example of Rebecca, who prayed and received revelation concerning the future.
Brothers and sisters, what can these things be except the receipt and exercise of spiritual gifts and Priesthood power by women? Let me be clear: I am not suggesting that any of these sisters had been ordained to an office in the Priesthood. I am stating that these sisters were not ordained to offices in the Priesthood, and yet received all the power and blessings that any prophet, Priesthood holder, or man could aspire to. Men, in any role or calling in the Church - including that of prophet, seer, and revelator - do not have access to any power or blessing to which women do not have equal access.
Returning to Elder Oaks earlier statement that bearing the Priesthood is “a sacred duty to use [the Priesthood] for the blessing of all the children of God,” allows us to also examine what the Priesthood is not. The Lord, speaking to Joseph Smith in the 121st section of the Doctrine and Covenants, stated very directly: “No power or influence can or ought to be maintained by virtue of the priesthood” (D&C 121:41.)
“Behold, there are many called, but few are chosen. And why are they not chosen? Because their hearts are set so much upon the things of this world, and aspire to the honors of men, that they do not learn this one lesson— That the rights of the priesthood are inseparably connected with the powers of heaven, and that the powers of heaven cannot be controlled nor handled only upon the principles of righteousness. That they may be conferred upon us, it is true; but when we undertake to cover our sins, or to gratify our pride, our vain ambition, or to exercise control or dominion or compulsion upon the souls of the children of men, in any degree of unrighteousness, behold, the heavens withdraw themselves; the Spirit of the Lord is grieved; and when it is withdrawn, Amen to the priesthood or the authority of that man. Behold, ere he is aware, he is left unto himself, to kick against the pricks, to persecute the saints, and to fight against God.” (D&C 121: 34-38)
Thus, Priesthood power cannot be used for personal benefit; any attempts to do so result in an offense to the Spirit that causes it to withdraw, taking with it any godly power we might have had. Men cannot give themselves blessings, and women or men cannot use the power of God- available to them equally – for personal or selfish ends.
Some friends of mine have protested that through service incurred in bearing the Priesthood, men receive transformative spiritual blessings that women cannot receive. This question requires an examination of Priesthood service. What does it mean to be a bishop, a stake president, a home teacher, a missionary, or a father? A common element to all these callings is the requirement of self-sacrifice: sacrifices of time, often of means, and certainly of emotional energy. These so-called “male” callings are a requirement to put others needs above one's own. They also are requirements to seek and be worthy of revelation through the Spirit, and to act as the Savior directs.
Men certainly do NOT have a monopoly on these requirements. I do not think anyone can doubt that women are asked to, and do, sacrifice time, emotional energy, and often means for the good of others in the Church and family. Women put others needs above their own. Women seek and are worthy of revelation through the Spirit, and act as the Spirit directs. As such, women have precisely the same access to the refining fire of Priesthood service that men do; there is no spiritual blessing to which men have exclusive privilege.
Friends of mine both in and outside of the Church have often objected that, even given the preceding thoughts, men are still “in control” in Church callings, and that they still “outrank” women in their responsibilities. I have already cited the scripture stating that Priesthood power is unavailable if women or men attempt to exercise it in any degree of unrighteousness. However, here too needs another statement: The Church is not a career path. Drawing again on Elder Oaks' talk,
“At this conference we have seen the release of some faithful brothers, and we have sustained the callings of others. In this rotation—so familiar in the Church—we do not “step down” when we are released, and we do not “step up” when we are called. There is no “up or down” in the service of the Lord. There is only “forward or backward,” and that difference depends on how we accept and act upon our releases and our callings.
I once heard another member of the Church describe it this way: “We do not receive promotions in the Church. When we fulfill our callings faithfully, we are given an increase of trust – and the difference is very important! When you fulfill a calling faithfully, it does not mean that you then get 'higher' callings – it means instead that you are given callings that need to be done, because the Lord trusts you to accomplish them.” (LTUE Keynote Address, 2014.)
Thus, in the Church, the prophet and the primary teacher are both equal in the eyes of God. (Full disclosure: I am currently a Primary teacher.) More directly, so too are women and men. This leads us back to our original question: how can women and men be equal in the Church when women do not hold offices in the Priesthood and where the Family Proclamation describes them as having different roles? Paul addressed this topic directly. In 1 Corinthians 12:12-18, 25-27, he states:
For as the body is one, and hath many members, and all the members of that one body, being many, are one body: so also is Christ. For by one Spirit are we all baptized into one body, whether we be Jews or Gentiles, whether we be bond or free; and have been all made to drink into one Spirit. For the body is not one member, but many. If the foot shall say, Because I am not the hand, I am not of the body; is it therefore not of the body? And if the ear shall say, Because I am not the eye, I am not of the body; is it therefore not of the body? If the whole body were an eye, where were the hearing? If the whole were hearing, where were the smelling? But now hath God set the members every one of them in the body, as it hath pleased him.
To return to Valerie Hudson's remarks, “Now, don’t use the fallen world’s sense of the term “equal”—”equal” does not mean identical. Let’s face it, there are no two men who are identical, and yet they stand as equals before each other and before the Lord. Can we imagine an understanding of equality that means that a man and woman can be equals before the Lord and before each other? That is the vision of equality that the Restored Gospel teaches me.”
In that same vein, a doctor treats each patient differently, dependent on their specific circumstances. A doctor does not treat a child with a cold and an adult with pancreatic cancer using exactly the same procedures. Similarly, a parent takes into account each child's essential characteristics in order to plan specific, but different activities and teaching opportunities for each. We accept essential differences between women and men in how we plan and build public restrooms; surely God, with His infinite wisdom, can take into account essential differences between women and men in His planning and direction for His Church.
One other question, that I have often seen posed by both those inside and out of the Church, is: all men are able to receive the Priesthood in this life. However, not all women are able to marry or raise a family in this life. How is that fair? What do women who do not marry or have children “get” in the Gospel?
To answer that question, let us return to the Plan of Salvation, and the three-fold purpose of life: to receive a body, to receive necessary ordinances, and to become like Christ. All of us here have received the blessing of receiving a body. All of us here either have, or may, receive the sacred ordinances administered by brethren who bear the Priesthood. What women, and men, “get” in the Gospel and the Church is wonderful assistance in becoming like Christ. To become like Christ requires a personal, life-long journey of faith, repentance, and soulful service. No one is denied this opportunity. All are able, equally, to fulfill the Plan of Salvation by “work[ing] out their own salvation with fear and trembling” (Phillipians 2:12) through the Atoning blood of Christ, with full access to a mortal body and to the ordinances of salvation.
Thus, women are not second class citizens in the eyes of God or in His Church. Neither are they second-class citizens in the family. Returning to Elder Oaks talk,
“As stated in the family proclamation, the father presides in the family and he and the mother have separate responsibilities, but they are “obligated to help one another as equal partners.”(“The Family: A Proclamation to the World,” Ensign or Liahona, Nov. 2010, 129.) Some years before the family proclamation, President Spencer W. Kimball gave this inspired explanation: “When we speak of marriage as a partnership, let us speak of marriage as a full partnership. We do not want our LDS women to be silent partners or limited partners in that eternal assignment! Please be a contributing and full partner.” (Spencer W. Kimball, “Privileges and Responsibilities of Sisters,” Ensign, Nov. 1978, 106.)
It is true that women and men each have unique responsibilities in the Church and Family, as outlined in “Family: A Proclamation to the World.” I would like to make clear, however, that responsibilities are not exclusive privileges. The Proclamation to the World states that, “Mothers are primarily responsible for the nurture of their children.” I am grateful that my father also nurtured us as children. We were doubly blessed to receive spiritual nurturing by both parents. Similarly, although the Proclamation also states that, “By divine design, fathers are to preside over their families in love and righteousness and are responsible to provide the necessities of life and protection for their families,” women are also encouraged to receive an education, to be able to protect and provide for themselves, and to take part in their families in “love and righteousness.”
Jumping forty years back in time to a talk Elder Oaks gave in 1974, he stated, “A young woman’s education should prepare her for more than the responsibilities of motherhood. It should prepare her for the entire period of her life. … Many of our young women will need to earn a living for themselves.” He continued:
“There are other reasons why it is important for our young women to receive a proper education. Education is more than vocational. Education should improve our minds, strengthen our bodies, heighten our cultural awareness, and increase our spirituality. … One of the most important purposes of a university education is to prepare men and women to be responsible and intelligent leaders and participants in the lives of their families, in their Church, and in their communities. That kind of education is needed by young men and young women alike. In short, we make no distinction between young men and young women in our conviction about the importance of an education and in our commitment to providing that education.” (President Dallin H. Oaks, Brigham Young University Devotional Assembly, February 12, 1974)
One practical evidence of this idea can be found in the Perpetual Education Fund, which disburses monies to both women and men seeking to receive training and improve their economic situation. Women and men are both beloved by the Lord. As such the specific roles of men and women are not designed to bar the other from making righteous contributions to the family, the Church, or the community. Wonderfully, a women or a man can both be a good parent AND serve in the Church, AND serve in the community to bless the lives of others.
Even that word, “preside,” in the Family: Proclamation is not intended to create a hierarchy. Elder Bruce C. Hafen, formerly of the Seventy, described:
“Genesis 3:16 states that Adam is to ‘rule over’ Eve, but this doesn’t make Adam a dictator. … Over in ‘rule over’ uses the Hebrew bet, which means ruling ‘with,’ not ruling ‘over.’ … The concept of interdependent, equal partners is well-grounded in the doctrine of the restored gospel. Eve was Adam’s ‘help meet’ (Genesis 2:18). The original Hebrew for meet means that Eve was adequate for, or equal to, Adam. She wasn’t his servant or his subordinate.” (Bruce C. and Marie K. Hafen, “Crossing Thresholds and Becoming Equal Partners,” Ensign, Aug. 2007, 27.)
In another Ensign article, authored by Valerie Hudson and Prof. Richard B. Miller of BYU, we find a cluster of additional quotes and insights on this equality in marriage:
Moreover, contrary to scripture and the teachings of latter-day prophets, some men and women have interpreted presiding to mean that after equal counsel, equal consent is not necessary because the presider (or husband) has the right of final say. But President Boyd K. Packer, President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, explained: “In the Church there is a distinct line of authority. We serve where called by those who preside over us. In the home it is a partnership with husband and wife equally yoked together, sharing in decisions, always working together.”(Boyd K. Packer, “The Relief Society,” Ensign, May 1998, 73.)
In considering the equal partnership, Elder L. Tom Perry of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles eloquently said: “There is not a president or a vice president in a family. The couple works together eternally for the good of the family. … They are on equal footing. They plan and organize the affairs of the family jointly and unanimously as they move forward.” (L. Tom Perry, “Fatherhood, an Eternal Calling,” Ensign, May 2004, 71.) Both husband and wife have a sacred obligation to refrain from thoughts and actions that might undermine that equal partnership.
From these prophetic pronouncements, “presiding” in the home cannot righteously mean “ruling.” Paul gave some additional counsel in Ephesians 5:25: “Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it.” Christ sacrificed His will and His life for the benefit of those He loved. My role as husband is to love as Christ loved; the calling to “preside in love and righteousness” then requires me to sacrifice my will and at least my daily life for the benefit of my family. My wife already does the same.
The Family: Proclamation is not a document to elevate one gender above another. It is a document that explains the divine responsibilities of each gender, all while stressing the eternal truth that, in the Family (as in the Church), fathers and mothers, [women and men,] are obligated to help one another as equal partners. (The Family: A Proclamation to the World.)
Brothers and Sisters, I testify to you that our Heavenly Father loves women and men equally, with an intensity and magnificence that humbles and amazes me. I testify that women and men are valuable in the family and in the Church. I hope that, if any of you were struggling concerning this subject, that my talk has brought some degree of peace and insight. I hope that each of you feel and believe that you matter to God, because you do.
In the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.