As the equality spotlight becomes ever stronger and more practices are subjected to scrutiny, religion is not spared examination and critique simply because it is religion. The question naturally arises as to why only men in certain religions hold the Priesthood, a power and authority associated with church governance and operation.
For many people today, this is an important question. While there is not a lot of specific doctrine on this question, there are a few things largely missing from the usual discussion, things that may change the way we approach the issues we see. This article shares some of those things, in hopes they can help add to the discussion in a meaningful way.
In the search to understand equality, we often miss what we do have
Understanding equality requires us to look at what we have, instead of what we don’t have. Answers are usually not found in what doesn’t exist, and answers to equality questions related to God do not come from looking at what we don’t have. In other words, we likely won't ever find the answer to equality and the Priesthood by looking at what women don't have. This idea is mentioned here at the beginning to highlight this principal, as it touches on each of the items considered below.
As an example of how answers don’t exist in what we don’t have, consider a small boy who has always wanted to play football. However, he never had, and will never have, a body big enough to play football. High school and college football were never an option for a kid like him, due, in large part, to his body shape and size. Many kids like him feel it’s very unfair to be left out of something they value so much, simply because they didn’t get the right body.
If this boy focused his questions to God on trying to understand how things were equal or fair for him between the college football players he watched as a kid and himself, he would be left with a void, as there would be no good answer to him. When focusing on what he didn’t have, he could never understand God or His treatment of him.
The things of God are complex enough that they will never be understood simply by looking at what isn’t there. What is there has to be taken into the equation as well, as it is only in understanding what is and isn’t a part of us that we can see the complete picture. Therefore, in our search to understand equality and God, we have to consider what the Priesthood gives, and what the absence of the Priesthood gives as well.
Our current view of the Priesthood is skewed
Often, in the equality spotlight, the Priesthood is viewed as something that is available to all worthy men, but not to worthy women. However, this has only been the case for a very limited time in the earth’s existence, and still is not entirely true due to large portions of the earth's population who have no real ability to join God's church.
Consider this same question of equality and the Priesthood related to why some didn’t get the Priesthood during the time of Moses. Then, males in most of the 12 tribes weren’t allowed to act as Priests, with that authority being limited, generally, to the Levites who served as Priests. For those worthy males, why were they excluded from the Priesthood?
Consider this same question with the Jews and the Gentiles. For a very long time, the Gentiles were banned from receiving the Priesthood. Even after the Gentiles were finally allowed to participate in the Gospel, the LDS Church believes that the Priesthood was taken from the earth with the deaths of the apostles, and that an apostasy occurred.
This apostasy lasted for well over a thousand years, where the Priesthood wasn’t even available to any person looking for it. What makes our current situation equal in any way to the situation of those who lived during this time, or to those born in countries without full access to it?
In other words, the Priesthood has been restricted in access for most of the earth’s history and to most of the earth’s population. Our current view of the Priesthood in America tends to ignore these facts, and just focuses on the fact that there is still a group of people in America (women) who don’t have the Priesthood. While it is a very important question, the reality of the lack of Priesthood access for the majority of most of the men in the earth’s history has to be taken into account as well in seeking answers to this question.
Motherhood vs Priesthood
Attempts to explain the lack of access for women to the Priesthood often revolve around how women can be mothers. This explanation, as many women know, doesn’t fully explain things, and the Priesthood and Motherhood are apples and oranges in many ways. While there is more to this question than simply saying things are equal for men and women because women can be mothers, there is also a piece missed by women who are very adamant against any use of this comparison.
Some women become very vocal that there is no equality or similarity between Motherhood and the Priesthood because they suffer extensively in pregnancy, labor, and nursing, while men bless the babies and baptize the kids when they are of baptismal age.
While it doesn’t fully answer the equality and Priesthood question to simply say “well, women can be mothers,” it is also apples and oranges to refute this statement by comparing childbirth to blessing a child because it takes the hardest part of being a mother (the low point) and compares it to a baby's blessing (the high point) of the Priesthood.
However, the reality is that women aren’t pregnant or nursing their entire life, and men aren’t blessing babies and baptizing kids each day. Motherhood has highs, and Priesthood has lows. Priesthood obligations extend to disciplinary counsels, excommunicating individuals, and dealing with extremely unpleasant and difficult situations. Obligations also include more mundane tasks such as countless meetings, trainings, reminders of duties, calls to shovel church walks on Christmas day, etc. Motherhood extends to forging bonds and relationships that don’t exist anywhere else on earth, and that cannot be achieved by men. Mothers simply always have a place and relationship that dads do not.
So, are the highs and lows of the Priesthood and Motherhood comparable? No, they aren’t. They’re different, but they do provide some insight into exploring what each has been given by God. However, for an honest discussion, we should never compare the low of an orange situation to the high of an apple situation. Those are false comparisons, and lead to nowhere but frustration and misunderstanding.
Women and the Priesthood ties into a deeper question
The question of women and the Priesthood drives to the heart of a much deeper question – a question surrounding our creation itself. What makes a man a man, or a woman a woman? Society currently is caught trying to understand this critical question. Regardless of what is learned about gender though, the physical bodies of males and females highlight a difficult question – why were each created as they were?
The most obvious physical difference for males and females is their reproductive organs. While both sexes have a sexual drive, the male’s is easily aroused, satisfied, and over. The female’s, however, brings with it heavy burdens if she becomes pregnant. Some studies have shown that if an unmarried woman becomes pregnant, the rate of depression is largely the same whether she aborts the baby, carries the child to term and adopts it out, or tries to raise the child on her own. In other words, she is suddenly saddled with a lifetime of consequences, whereas the father may have simply left as quickly as he came, possibly never even knowing he created a child. Add to this the natural strength of men to overpower and force a woman, and the balance seems radically tipped from an equal footing between sexes in the physical world.
Please don’t take this to say that women don’t have the Priesthood because they can have children. This is not what’s being said. Rather, it’s important to understand that God, as our Creator, created us in significantly different ways, with significantly different consequences, burdens, and experiences. These differences show that equality, for God, is not the same as it is for us. We are all created in very different situations and ways, with very different opportunities before us. Those in America have much more opportunity, usually, than someone in a war-torn country in Africa. Why is that equal or fair?
God promises that all of these things will be worked out though. This life is an extremely short blip in existence, one where we came to experience things we've never experienced before, and may never experience again. We're here to learn something, and God gives us each a unique path to tread to learn the things we need to.
Because of this, the women and the Priesthood question is really a deeper question of women and their Creator. In other words, to have an answer to the Priesthood question, we will have to also find an answer to the Creator question, or to why there is such a stark difference in the sexes stemming from creation itself.
There is no religion, no philosophy, and no place that has a good answer for why men and women are created differently, especially as it relates to the burdens associated with reproduction. In other words, there is nowhere yet to turn to find all of the detailed answers about the physical disparity in creation or the physical disparity in power, experience, and burdens placed upon each sex.
There is, of course, an answer, and we fully believe that God has a good answer. We don’t have that answer yet, but believe that we can get it as we work together in faith to find it. In other words, don’t walk away from the church over a question that is deep as life itself, a question yet unanswered, as there is nowhere to go for that answer but to God and His prophets. A main source of hope to understand the question is to work to receive the answers and information, line upon line, precept upon precept as God always does. Staying the course with the Prophet of God is the surest way to finding answers to such a deep issue.
Our path to answers has to begin by recognizing what God has given us
The small boy’s answer to the question of why he didn’t get to have a football body are found in focusing on what God did give him. God gave him other talents, skills, and abilities, because He had something else in mind for him other than football. While the boy may not have had what he valued for a long-time, he was given other things, and as he learns to value what he has, the things he doesn’t have, such as a football body, become less important.
So, what do women have? If they don’t have the Priesthood, then, by definition and as discussed further below, they have something extremely powerful, something that most people simply never see or appreciate as they are too focused on what they don’t have.
There are two ways (at least) that God’s power is manifest on the earth. The focus of that power tends to be the Priesthood. However, we are also taught, quite consistently, of the transcendent power of true love. Hold on for a moment for a more detailed explanation of this power.
There was a fascinating General Conference talk given on this power of true love. Elder John H. Groberg, in the October 2004 General Conference, related the following story of his time as missionary:
This talk is a fascinating one. “Never underestimate the power of true love, for it knows no barriers.” The power of a person’s love pulled him from the depths of the ocean and gave him the ability to continue swimming. The power reached across time and space. This is a power that changes hearts, lives, and people. It is truly the power of God.
What is true love though? Love, in its simplest form, is a voluntary recognition of the inherent worth, beauty, and value of an individual. Love involves placing someone’s interests before our own.
While love can be expressed in many forms, there is one thing common to all forms – the entirely voluntary aspect of it. If a robot were programmed to give nice hugs, compliments, and say “I love you”, we would not feel true love from that robot as love can only extend from something that has exercised the agency to truly appreciate and value our worth.
True love can only come from a being who is not obligated to feel as they do, to think as they do, or to act as they do. True love is powerful because it forms connections that do not exist otherwise to other individuals. True love brings meaning, purpose, and completeness to life. However, any form of force or compulsion to say nice things, to do things, or to think things, takes away the power inherent in love, as it turns us into beings acting like a robot.
Agency is essential to feel and convey love. Love has to be both voluntarily given and voluntarily accepted. When it is, the power knows no barriers.
This power of true love is likely truncated or inhibited by the Priesthood though. Priesthood is nearly always synonymous with duty, and duty inherently implies a motivation for doing something slightly below that of the entirely voluntary aspect of true love. While we commend people for acting pursuant to duty, the feelings associated with those who act out of no sense of duty, simply love, are much greater.
We came to earth to develop the ability to be like God, which means we’re working to develop the ability to truly love. The Priesthood duties, obligations, and responsibilities make this hard to accomplish though. Think of hometeaching. Many people don’t like having an “assigned” friend that stops by once a month. Imagine though the power of having a true friend stop by once a month, out of no obligation, duty, chance to report numbers, or the like, just to see how you’re doing. While the monthly visit from a hometeacher and friend could be the exact same in form, they would feel radically different, even from a hometeacher that really cared, simply because the hometeacher is obligated to be there.
Priesthood is essential to form a foundation for our existence on this earth. We’re in a fallen state and the basic needs of us all must be met. We need an ability to know where to turn for authoritative doctrine. We need a common judge to talk to at times. We need someone to assign responsibilities to others so that we at least keep people alive spiritually.
However, from a historical view of the world, it appears that the Priesthood is only necessary in limited quantities to accomplish God’s overall purpose. What is really necessary to accomplish His “work and glory” is for us to learn to exercise the power of true love, the power that comes from an entirely voluntary recognition of the worth and value of those around us.
In other words, it may be possible that if we all had the Priesthood, we may all lose access to an important form of God's power on the earth - true love from others in this life.
Because women don’t have the Priesthood, they have an amazing opportunity before them – the opportunity to be agents of a power of God that transcends time and space and knows no barriers, of a power that does more for the world than anything else.
Women, by virtue of having no duty to act, think, or feel certain ways, possess great power because their actions, thoughts, and feelings are entirely voluntary. Men and women are supposed to be equal partners, and it’s often hard, for example, for a wife to feel equal when her husband is a Bishop. God doesn’t call just a Bishop though, He calls a partnership. Yes, the man is currently given assignments, responsibilities, and duties, while the woman receives no such assignments, responsibilities, and duties. This lack of a specific ‘calling’ though endows the wife of a Bishop with exceptional power.
The visit from the wife of a Bishop to a member of the congregation can mean far more than a visit from a Bishop. Bishops are obligated to visit, wives aren’t. Everyone in the church knows this. So, while it may be important for the Bishop to visit at times, the power that a Bishop’s wife carries means so much more in a visit to a home because there was no duty associated with it. The visit simply came because she truly cared. In other words, the marriage partnership consists of one who has duties to make sure basic needs are met, while the other one carries the power to convey true love to others. Both are necessary, and both should work together as equal partners.
Our fallen world obligates us to have duties. However, our fallen world doesn’t mean that we’ve lost access to true love. God has always kept the large majority of the world entirely free from stated duties, as He is inviting us to learn to love, and to act as beings of love. The Celestial Kingdom will be filled with those who are agents of love, not agents of duty.
So, while there are some ‘highs’ associated with the Priesthood, there is exceptional opportunity in not having the Priesthood, opportunity to carry a power that gets negated or lessened by duty. This isn’t to say that Priesthood holder can’t also love someone truly, but it makes it so much harder for us to feel it when love and duty are tied together.
The opportunity to act and be an agent for God is missed by most people when discussing women and the Priesthood. When we focus on the power that can flow from voluntarily loving someone, from visiting when we have no obligation to do so, from taking a meal when no call came in, from doing something without any form of worldly recognition attached to it, we begin to see the power women are endowed with. We begin to see how individuals are to feel true love, and how hearts in the world are to be changed.
Yes, true love isn’t flashed around the world. It isn’t celebrated by millions, it isn’t seen on TV. It takes setting aside the vain things of the world to act without needing others to see it. It takes understanding that God's way isn't a path of high recognition or self-gratification. True love is mostly invisible and doesn’t feed our pride. It takes really caring about someone to feel the joy that comes from the opportunity given by God to love them. It takes getting outside of our stresses, doubts, questions, and worries to simply take a moment to truly care about another.
However, when we do, our joy transcends all depths, meaning comes to life, and we find ourselves embracing the opportunity that is ours to be agents of God’s power that transcends all known facts – an opportunity that exists to women because they do not currently hold the Priesthood.
Maybe women don’t hold the Priesthood because the power of God is manifest in different ways. Maybe women don’t hold the Priesthood because of the opportunity it gives them to partner with God in a free-will offering necessary to bring true love to the earth. Maybe women don’t have the Priesthood because the world won’t be saved by Priesthood alone, but by a partnership with true love, expressed at the individual level the world over.
God has an answer for why things are as they are. Exercising faith is important, yet we still need to remember and follow Him and His path, a path forged in love, not duty, a path freely taken, freely assumed, and a life freely given. If we want to change this world, we need to learn to be like Him, to act without compulsion or duty, to act simply because we love and recognize the worth of those around us. To act simply because of how important the individuals are around us.
Not having the Priesthood gives women a tremendous opportunity – an opportunity to exercise their agency to act and change the world through love. While God needs agents who respond to duty, He needs those who respond to and carry love far more. Of course, there are probably many reasons why, but perhaps love is one reason why the Priesthood has always been limited in access to the large majority of the earth’s population.
In other words, maybe, just maybe, God restricts the Priesthood because He loves us, and wants to help us learn to love in the same way He does - entirely voluntarily.