A sentiment is gaining traction among traditional Mormons that goes something like this: “Women enjoy the blessings and authority of the priesthood through men in the way men enjoy parenthood through women.” Most recently, I read it in this form: “Someone once told me that my husband gets to experience parenthood through me, even though I take the head role in parenting and all the revelations and blessing that come with it. And when I married him in the temple I access the priesthood through him.” This new framing of the old idea, foundational in Mormon culture, that men and women have different divinely ordained roles is new to me so I tried to locate some kind of official originating source, but had no success. Because of the rate at which I’m seeing it on social media, it strikes me there must be some recent catalyst for its popularity. Where this idea comes from matters less to me than that it goes away.
Recent media coverage surrounding Ordain Women has left many Mormons feeling compelled to defend the religion we love and ourselves for loving it. So we cling to the iron rod; we hold fast and true to the philosophy that grounds us. For many LDS, that is the popular understanding that motherhood and priesthood are separate divine gifts of equal value.
I have some questions about that paradigm that most LDS don’t share. Regardless, the sentiment that men have access to parental blessings through women takes the paradigm to a level that should concern us all. Because the idea is suddenly circling, I wondered if it could be an aberration of Elder Dallin Oaks’ April 2014 Priesthood Session talk. A close reading of “The Keys and Authority of the Priesthood” seems to bear this up. Walk with me through a few passages.
In Section IV, Elder Oaks speaks specifically of three doctrinal points regarding priesthood authority and then asks, “How does this apply to women?” In answer, he quotes Joseph Fielding Smith who taught that, although women do not have the priesthood, they have “divine authority.” Elder Oaks follows with:
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.
To paraphrase: In the fulfillment of their church callings, women use–or essentially borrow–the priesthood authority of ordained men who preside over them.
Elder Oaks then said in Section V:
The greatest power God has given to His sons cannot be exercised without the companionship of one of His daughters, because only to His daughters has God given the power “to be a creator of bodies … so that God’s design and the Great Plan might meet fruition.” Those are the words of President J. Reuben Clark.
Here Oaks teaches that the greatest power God gives his sons is not the priesthood, but the power to procreate. I’ll assume Elder Oaks isn’t suggesting sexual intercourse is the greatest power, or gift, God has bestows on His mortal sons. Rather, parenthood is that greatest power, or the gift given. While he points out that men cannot become fathers without women, he does not suggest that women have authority over men in the act of procreation.
Now, lets look at the two ideas together: 1) Women partake of priesthood authority through the men who preside over them, and 2) Men partake of fatherhood, the greatest power God gives men, through women. Although Elder Oaks does not link these ideas as a quid pro quo, it seems some have, and they wind up with a version of “Women partake of priesthood authority through men in the same way men partake of parenthood through women.”
But hold on a moment. Consider Elder Oaks’ next paragraph:
[J. Reuben Clark] continued: “This is the place of our wives and of our mothers in the Eternal Plan. They 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.”
According to both Oaks and Clark, women do not have the responsibilities of the priesthood because they don’t bear it, but do enjoy its blessings as “builders and organizers under its power,” a power, of course, held by their male counterparts. If Elder Oaks intended the idea that women use priesthood authority through men to be an equivalent to the idea that men experience, or exercise, parenthood through women, we should be able to swap out “priesthood” and “parenthood,” as well as genders, in the his follow-up paragraph and have the new statements be as true as the original. If we do this, we wind up with:
[J. Reuben Clark] continued: “This is the place of our
wives husbands and of our mothers fathers in the Eternal Plan. They are not bearers of the Priesthood Parenthood; they are not charged with carrying out the duties and functions of the Priesthood parenthood; 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 motherhood and possessing a function as divinely called, as eternally important in its place as the Priesthood motherhood itself.”
Slowing it down, in this new paragraph, the following statements would have to be true: 1) Men do not carry (or bear) parenthood. (Remember, men bear/carry the priesthood while women bear/produce children, so the equivalent idea must reflect this difference.) 2) Men are not laden with the responsibilities, or duties, of parenthood, but 3) Men enjoy the blessings of parenthood because they are a complement to mothers, who, we must infer, have the responsibilities the paragraph suggests fathers don’t have. 4) Fatherhood “in its place” is as important as motherhood.
The only statement in that list that doesn’t fly in the face of The Family: A Proclamation to the World is the fourth, and yet that qualifying phrase “in its place” should give us pause and indicate, again, that we cannot justly conflate the idea that women use priesthood authority under men with the way men exercise parental authority. Fathers are not subjugated to mothers. The proclamation reads:
HUSBAND AND WIFE have a solemn responsibility to love and care for each other and for their children. “Children are an heritage of the Lord” (Psalm 127:3). Parents have a sacred duty to rear their children in love and righteousness, to provide for their physical and spiritual needs, and to teach them to love and serve one another, observe the commandments of God, and be law-abiding citizens wherever they live. Husbands and wives—mothers and fathers—will be held accountable before God for the discharge of these obligations.
Does this sound as if fathers have parental authority because it is granted by mothers? Or that mothers preside over fathers in matters pertaining to children? No. It sounds like men and women are “full partners,” which is the term Elder Oaks borrows from President Spencer W. Kimball later in in this very same priesthood session address.
I doubt a man as intelligent and spiritually in-tune as Elder Oaks would contradict himself in his own talk or defy a statement from the First Presidency. Obviously, something is off in our understanding if we find in his words support for the assertion that women enjoy the priesthood through men in the way men enjoy parenthood through women. But even if this sentiment didn’t spring from a misreading of Elder Oaks’ talk, his words surely repute the idea that the way women access priesthood authority is parallel to the way men access parenthood. If the two are parallel, a mother’s authority subjugates the father. She presides.
The idea of fatherhood as an appendage to motherhood degrades and marginalizes men and fathers. It doesn’t raise the bar for women, it lowers the bar for men. If put into practice, this concept would lead to greater gender inequality, particularly at home, the place Mormons value most. I repeat: Elder Oaks did not create this paradigm. It may be an understandable misinterpretation, but it remains the philosophy of man mingled with scripture. Our culture does not need any more of that than it already has.
Furthermore, if you are an observer of the wider world, you know that, in spite of the persistent media attention to the so-called “war on women,” an ideological war is often waged against fathers. Fathers lose rights quicker and easier than ever before. It seems, legally and morally, fathers are too-often not recognized as a parent until a child is born, but of course, the mother is the mother from conception. The broader society is already easing toward a world in which men are marginalized as parents. Latter-day Saints must remain vigilant in our battle against all things that would reduce the role, influence, and, indeed, authority of fathers. The suggestion that fathers have parental authority through mothers is surely not something faithful Latter-day Saints should be arguing in order to demonstrate we value and respect women.
For God commanded, saying, Honor thy father and mother. (Matthew 15:4)
9 thoughts on “Fatherhood as an Appendage to Motherhood: A New Mormon Distortion”
Well put. Unfortunately there is a history in the LDS tradition of some of us trying to explain doctrines in ways that are not accurate, or perhaps even productive. There always have been questions that aren’t answered, particularly in the “why” realm. Rather than simply accepting that we don’t know the answer, and having the humility (on the individual level) to acknowledge that the answer to that question is one that hasn’t been revealed, we often try to fill in the gaps ourselves. We often fail when we do this.
Interesting! I had never heard that comparison between the priesthood and parenthood, but I think you hit the nail on the head Lisa! Thanks!
1. Lisa, you used someone else paraphrasing someone else as the framework that you are arguing against. I think it would have been more genuine a rebuttal had you used the words of an actual proponent of the view.
2. Second, when you say “the old idea, foundational in Mormon culture, that men and women have different divinely ordained roles…,” perhaps you gloss over the fact that these are, more importantly, scriptural and doctrinal ideas. Biologically, sexuality means that men and women are different, with different roles. Scripture, rather than subverting this, confirms it, all the while subverting notions that either sex is allowed to abuse the powers they possess.
3. In the paragraph where you exchange “parenthood” for “priesthood,” one small adjustment will create consistency, by using “motherhood” instead of “parenthood”: ““This is the place of our husbands and of our fathers in the Eternal Plan. They are not bearers of the Motherhood; they are not charged with carrying out the duties and functions of Motherhood; 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 motherhood and possessing a function as divinely called, as eternally important in its place as motherhood itself.””
4. Perhaps it is not easy to see a point-to-point comparison between priesthood and motherhood, but the comparison does give the due gravity and esteem to both. But, in terms of parenthood, fathers are indeed dependent on mothers to be parents in a way that mothers are not dependent on fathers to be parents. (And women are dependent on men in the exercise of the priesthood in ways that men are not dependent on women in the exercise of the priesthood.)
5. “The suggestion that fathers have parental authority through mothers is surely not something faithful Latter-day Saints should be arguing in order to demonstrate we value and respect women.” In the wider world, this does actually hold true. At birth, human beings are guaranteed to be in proximity to their mother. Laws and social customs attempt to correct this potential exclusivity. And, through marriage, the gospel does also attempt correction, by bringing man and woman together as husband and wife, so that, by being husband, man will also be father. So while some might see these gender-connected differences, reinforced by the Church, as pathways to abuse, it’s also worth noting that they are pathways against abuse. By casting our distincitve powers as divinely-appointed, we become accountable to the Divine, and, through the Divine, to each other.
The “framing” you began with was a speculative way to restate what we’ve been taught through revelation, but it does seem to be very close to those teachings. So far, we know that maleness and femaleness is part of God’s plan, implicit with distinctive and divine roles, and lest we forget, shared divine roles!
Thanks for commenting. Its always nice to engage with thoughtful people. Below I give brief responses to your five points and then to your final paragraph.
1) I admitted I couldn’t find an originating source, so I provided evidence of the idea’s usage. Best I could do and sufficient for this discussion because I speak of the idea popping up in social media.
2) I’m not sure why you have an issue with the dependent clause I use (regarding the idea that men and women have different divinely ordained roles). Perhaps you are assuming I think there are no differences between men and women, fathers and mothers? (I do need to write that post, don’t I?) If I don’t “gloss over” some things, I’d end up writing a novel, not a blog post. How boring would that be! 🙂
3) I realized using “motherhood” in that paragraph would sound better to many ears. I opted not to use motherhood, except at the end, because of the prophetic teaching that mother and father are “full partners” in their marriage and as parents. So I see the coupling of what mothers and fathers do for their children to be one unit — parenthood. Its fine that you prefer the other. Change it to “motherhood” if you want. Then you still get the idea that fathers “are builders and organizers under Motherhood’s power.” That’s the offending line, the offending idea. That’s the distortion. Whether you use parenthood or motherhood, the distortion remains.
4) I grant you that, once we move past the equal necessity of egg and sperm, fathers are dependent on a mother’s womb to produce a child, and I’ll give you the historical necessity of breastfeeding even though, in our world, this doesn’t apply. But after that, I think I disagree that “fathers are … dependent on mothers to be parents in a way mothers are not dependent on fathers to be parents.” I’m not sure what you mean. Here’s what I mean: Once the child exists, a parent is born, regardless of that parents’ gender, and the child becomes the spiritual, moral, ethical, and temporal responsibility of parents in “full partnership.” How cultural norms break down parental duties may lead to a balance or an imbalance of responsibility, but those balances or imbalances do not recuse either mother or father from a co-dependent relationship for and on behalf of the child. Perhaps I don’t understand your point. Let me add a reminder: in this post, I’m not asserting that men and women, as fathers and mothers, are the same, or that there should be no differentiation in role. That’s between the couple, their child, and God to work out. Rather, my over-arching point is that this new paradigm is a distortion because it suggests fathers are subjugated to mothers, which is not LDS doctrine even if the idea of divinely appointed role differentiation is.
5) Good points here, but again, I suspect you are a shade off in understanding mine. In the sentence you extract, I assert we shouldn’t attempt to elevate one gender by reducing another, not that either father or mother are more or less important/powerful/dependent/independent than the other, either biologically or socially. I speak only of the LDS culture and only of the rise of this particular sentiment which, again, reduces a father’s authority by subjugating it to a mother’s through the assertion that fathers are dependent on mothers in the way women are dependent on male priesthood. Since a woman must be granted priesthood authority by a male priesthood holder, the paradigm suggests a man must be granted parental authority by the mother of his children. This I reject. Rejecting this is not the same as rejecting the idea that women get priesthood authority through male priesthood holders.
And yes, this “framing” is close to what the Brethren teach, which is why it is dangerous. Not because what the Brethren teach is dangerous, but because distortions of them can send us off-track.
Phew. Made it through that response without my head exploding. I love a smart woman. Which means you, Rebecca. 🙂
Ah, Rebecca! I just reread the paragraph you refer to in point 2. It read: “This framing of the old idea, foundational in Mormon culture, that men and women have different divinely ordained roles is new to me …” I can see how that is confusing. It sounds like I’m saying that the idea that men and women have different roles is new to me. So I edited the line. It now reads: “This NEW framing of the old idea, foundational in Mormon culture, that men and women have different divinely ordained roles is new to me ,,.” Hopefully, the addition of the word “new” will make it more clear that the framing that is new to me is the idea that fathers access parenthood through mothers in the SAME WAY women access the priesthood. I hate using the word “new” twice in a sentence, but I think I’ll be lazy and not bend my brain on a synonym for the second “new.” Sorry if this was confusing. Hoping that makes it more clear for other readers…
I think the source is Valerie Hudson Cassler’s concept of “the two trees,” which you can read about in more than one place online such as
I read a slightly different version that she wrote, posted by someone on Facebook in the last few weeks, but I can’t find that one now.
I just finished reading the first link. Its a lovely essay. Below I will cut and paste the most relevant part of her essay. While Hudson certainly discusses the idea of divine roles, I don’t think she goes anywhere near suggesting men get their parental authority from women. She writes:
>The LDS believe that Adam and his sons will give the gift of the fruit of the Second Tree to the children of God, those who are worthy to receive it, just as Eve and her daughters give the fruit of the First Tree to all who are worthy to partake of it. The fruit of the Second Tree is the ordinances of salvation and exaltation administered by the sons of God. Just as the doorway through the veil into this life is administered and guarded over by the women, the daughters of God, so the doorway through the veil that brings us home is administered and guarded over by the sons of God. And those that have accepted the gift of the Second Tree 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.
>Just as Adam was asked to hearken to Eve and received the fruit of the First Tree, Eve is asked by God to hearken to Adam in accepting the fruit of the Second Tree. We would be remiss if we did not see that there were two hearkenings, two gifts given, two gifts received, two stewardships.
>That means that priesthood, in the LDS understanding, is not some extra given to men and denied women. Priesthood is a man’s apprenticeship to become a heavenly father, and it is clear from LDS doctrine that women have their own apprenticeship to become like their heavenly mother. The ordinances—and they are ordinances—of body and of agency—pregnancy, childbirth, lactation—the spiritual ordinances of the First Tree are not less powerful or spiritual than the ordinances of the Second Tree.[v] Women have their own godly power.<
I wish we could get over trying to contort logic to make things fall like they are fair. We’re so uncomfortable with simply saying “I don’t know” that we miss the chance to learn. The minimum requirement for Motherhood involves both male and female (amongst other things); the minimum requirement for Priesthood is male without and male with. It’s not the same and we should stop trying to rationalize that it is.
The questions them can become what can we pray for to make this better in the future, and what can we do with the structure we have right now to make this better.
“The Church is like a great caravan—organized, prepared, following an appointed course, with its captains of tens and captains of hundreds all in place.
What does it matter if a few barking dogs snap at the heels of the weary travellers? Or that predators claim those few who fall by the way? The caravan moves on.
Is there a ravine to cross, a miry mud hole to pull through, a steep grade to climb? So be it. The oxen are strong and the teamsters wise. The caravan moves on.
Are there storms that rage along the way, floods that wash away the bridges, deserts to cross, and rivers to ford? Such is life in this fallen sphere. The caravan moves on.
Ahead is the celestial city, the eternal Zion of our God, where all who maintain their position in the caravan shall find food and drink and rest. Thank God that the caravan moves on! [Bruce R. McConkie, “The Caravan Moves On,” Ensign, Nov. 1984, p. 85]