Women, Priesthood Authority, and the Holy Ghost

stake-relief-society-training-480x270-AV100921cah0056In his April 2014 General Conference talk entitled “The Keys and Authority of the Priesthood,” Elder Dallin H. Oaks asked one question that has caused me many sleepless nights. He said, “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?” He then answered himself, supposing LDS women must receive a portion of priesthood authority through the men presiding over them. Mormon feminists who hope for female ordination were pleased, if not appeased, by his words, while many traditional Mormons were appeased, if not pleased, by them. I, however, was deeply troubled by his idea and have spent months seeking peace through prayer and pondering. But I can’t find it. The truth is, the prompting I keep receiving is very different from his answer. As a committed, practicing Latter-day Saint, this is an uncomfortable position.

For the record, this is the answer Elder Oaks offers his own question:

“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.”

While many Mormon feminists were happy an apostle linked women to the exercise 1940s sister missionariesof priesthood, I didn’t hear progress toward equality in his words. During my darker moments of reflection, I have felt like a dog under the table being handed a scrap from a dinner plate. During better moments, I feel like a guest at his supper table. But I don’t want to feel like a guest any more than a dog. Guests don’t have equal footing, they don’t belong, they cannot attend unless invited and must leave at the host’s bidding. They receive only what they are given. The idea that I have authority in my calling only because the man presiding over me grants me access to his authority isn’t satisfying. I was happier before, when I didn’t need priesthood authority.

This is where I enter the danger zone. It’s a perilous thing to suggest something an apostle says at General Conference may not be the complete truth. The current LDS climate favors the notion that what is spoken at General Conference is a truth that rises to the level of scripture. This concept isn’t supported historically and, to my mind, abdicates the spiritual responsibility of the audience, so I reject it. But that does not mean I reject Elder Oaks or his apostolic authority, nor does it mean this discussion is intended to circumvent him. I believe Elder Oaks posed his question because he, like so many of us, is striving to better understand the will of God regarding women and priesthood. The alternate answer I’m about to offer is not one I consider final, but merely one I am considering and feel compelled to share.

So let’s get down to it. Elder Oaks asked what other authority (beside priesthood authority) women could be accessing in the performance of their callings.woman prays general conference I begin by asking a different question. When a nineteen year old male missionary (or a bishop, or an Elders Quorum leader, or a male primary teacher) prepares to minister in his calling, does he petition Heaven for an increase in his priesthood power? Have you ever heard an opening prayer that called for priesthood authority to rain down on our leaders, teachers, or speakers? I haven’t. When we call upon Heaven for assistance in the exercise of our callings, none of us—male or female—call for an increase in priesthood authority. Rather, we plead for the gift of the Holy Ghost to match our actions and words with God’s will. Why? Because we innately understand that priesthood authority is not the engine of service, nor the prompt for a witness of Christ. The Holy Ghost is.

When a nineteen year old female missionary (or any other woman with a calling) seeks divine authority, she doesn’t expect sanctification to come through the presiding priesthood holder. Instead, she turns to God and asks for the blessing of inspiration through the Holy Ghost. This is no small point. When a person of either gender is moved upon by the Holy Ghost, their words are as the words of God. This, then, is the authority of Heaven.

For months I have had Elder Oaks’ question rolling through my soul. His answer that women somehow borrow priesthood authority is woefully insufficient, not only because it is a re-invention of doctrine, but because it increases, rather than decreases, a woman’s dependence on man for authority. But the idea that the gift of the Holy Ghost grants that authority to woman seems not only logical and canonical, it feels lovely to me. After all, the gift of the Holy Ghost is individually received and exercised; it is a gift that is dependent on one’s own desire, faith, and need, and independent of someone else’s authority. It is the one great equalizing force given to us all through the Restoration.

When my mind considers this, I’m left wondering why we emphasize priesthood authority the way we do. I think of D&C 121:39, which reads, “We have learned by sad experience that it is the nature and disposition of almost all men, as soon as they get a little authority, as they suppose, they will immediately begin to exercise unrighteous dominion.”

Certainly, we hope the majority of practicing priesthood holders are righteous men and that most of their individual decisions, made within the realm of their callings, are righteous decisions. But those righteous decisions are made incumbent through the inspiration of the Holy Ghost, not the presence of priesthood. I can’t ignore that priesthood authority comes with a canonized warning label.

Right now, within our own religious culture, women are standing up against ecclesiastical abuses in increasing numbers and with increasing courage, and are often shamed for it. When I see this happen, I must give serious consideration to the possibility that our emphasis on priesthood authority as the compelling force in the exercise of church callings may be leading us to the “sad experience” that individuals with even a little authority “begin to exercise unrighteous dominion.” However, if we shift our emphasis away from priesthood authority as the mechanism by which the church must be governed and moved toward an emphasis on the Holy Ghost as that mechanism, we just might tap into the mother lode of revelatory power and throw open the windows of Heaven in ways we can’t imagine.

The priesthood was restored to the earth so that ordinances like baptisms, confirmations, sealings, and the sacrament could be performed with divine authority. That is what the world lacked. The world did not lack for men who ruled over women. I don’t understand how the ability to baptize or seal in the temple makes a man a better leader any more than I understand how the ability to conceive a child makes a woman more spiritual. What I do understand clearly is that, in the exercise of our callings, all of us, regardless of gender, need the influence of the Holy Ghost to align our actions with the desires of our Heavenly Parents.

sister-missionaries-atlanta-georgia_1151627“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?”

Elder Oaks, I do not have the priesthood, but I have the gift of the Holy Ghost, the very same gift of the Holy Ghost that you have. And that gift has authorized my voice over and over in the exercise of my service to God and man. I have felt the Holy Spirit fill my mind, heart, and soul with ideas and inspiration that I know came from a divine source. Your priesthood may have drawn down this magnificent gift from Heaven, but I do not feel your priesthood as the source that guides me, that authorizes me, in the performance of my callings.

The priesthood does not offer what the Holy Ghost offers. The priesthood authorizes a power to perform ordinances that will bind earth and Heaven, but it does not inspire, teach, or bear witness to the human soul. I understand that the church was organized under priesthood authority, but it was also organized under men. Until recently, we used the terms “priesthood” and “LDS men” interchangeably, so I wonder if our original construct was based, to a significant degree, on the 19th century societal norm of male rule. The realities are, men are capable of governing righteously without priesthood, and priesthood is no guarantee of righteous governing; in fact, it comes with a warning. Any authority a priesthood holder claims in the exercise of his calling is moot without the sanctification of the Holy Spirit, and that sanctification relies on his heart, not his office.

Presently, the priesthood is granted only to men, and it seems likely this will continue. But the gift of the Holy Ghost, with its attendant blessings, belongs to God’s children regardless of gender, and may be our best hope for achieving true gender balance within the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I long for a church that emphasizes the equalizing authority that is bestowed when any of us speak or act according to the gift and power of the Holy Ghost.  It may well be by and with this authority that women fulfill their callings–that we speak, act, and yes, govern—according to the will of God. 

Do ye not remember that I said unto you that after ye had received the Holy Ghost ye could speak with the tongue of angels? And now, how could ye speak with the tongue of angels save it were by the Holy Ghost? (2 Ne. 32:2)



8 thoughts on “Women, Priesthood Authority, and the Holy Ghost

  1. Well-reasoned, with a tone that moves the conversation forward. My own experiences suggest to me that just as men hold no exclusive claim, by virtue of priesthood ordination, to the power conventionally ascribed to that priesthood, so too Mormons hold no exclusive claim, by virtue of the ordinance of confirmation, to the power conventionally attributed to the Holy Ghost. In both cases, we Mormons have tended to make this power proprietary and exclusive. More and more, I’m recognizing manifestations of this power–the fruits of the Spirit–everywhere, without respect to the ecclesiastical copyrights and patents we’ve insisted on enforcing. I’m not unaware of the implications in this thinking for our claims to exclusive authority and our uniquely efficacious ordinances, but I can’t help wondering if your well-argued point about the Priesthood authority being powered by something more universal could just as reasonably be applied to the universal workings of the Holy Spirit.


    1. Great comment, lonyoung1973. A couple things. First, I’m not arguing priesthood authority is powered by “something more universal,” by which I think you mean the Holy Ghost. I am suggesting that “authority”–that often nebulous concept Mormon leadership lays claim to–may/can/does come through the gift of the Holy Ghost. I’m not touching whatever mystical process drops the “rope” from Heaven to man, be that rope priesthood power/authority or the gift of the Holy Ghost. So the final sentence of the reply is confusing to me. It doesn’t seem to really fit the argument I present.

      However, your point that Mormon theology has a gluttonous appetite for exclusive claims to both priesthood and the Holy Ghost seems valid. Because I am a woman, I have no experience bearing the LDS priesthood, or any priesthood for that matter. I do, however, have many experiences with the Holy Ghost–both before my conversion to Mormonism and certainly after. So you’ll never catch me arguing for Mormon exclusivity to the manifestations and guidance of the Holy Spirit. Such things are available to all. We like to say they are available to us when our hearts are pure, or aligned with God’s will, but I understand that many revelations and spiritual experiences are given to those who may not self-identify as someone interested in God at all.

      Still, as I constructed this written argument, I felt the need to accept, even limit, the parameters of the influence of the Holy Ghost to those accepted as Mormon doctrine. In other words, Mormonism teaches that the Holy Ghost (some will say the light of Christ) is available to all God’s children, but that, through confirmation by “proper priesthood authority,” Latter-day Saints receive the constant companionship of the Holy Ghost. I think many LDS take that to mean easy-access, or easier access, to divine inspiration than non-LDS may have. That, however, is a discussion for another day, but I agree it is a privileged way of thinking about a spiritual gift and that it relies on some assumptions that may not hold up. Regardless, if Mormons accept that women and men have equal access to the Holy Ghost, and accept that the Holy Ghost sanctions our actions (male and female) within our callings, then it seems reasonable to think that the “authority” our leadership loves to claim may come as rightly through the gift of the Holy Ghost as through priesthood lineage.


    1. Define Holy Ghost? I wish I could! I think mortals have been trying to fully grasp the concept of the gift of the Holy Ghost through all time. For my purposes here, I am thinking of the Holy Ghost as the relaying source for divine inspiration. I pray for the Holy Spirit to guide my thoughts and deeds, to humble me, and open my mind to new insights. When I sense these things happening in my life, I attribute them to the Holy Ghost. But that is a thumbnail view, and, I’m certain, very limited.


  2. Lily

    I agree 100% with your article. I have also pondered, but have not come to any conclusion, as to the significance of “being clothed in the robes of the holy priesthood.” To me, that means something, I’m just not sure what.


  3. Jennifer Poff Koski

    Thank you, Lisa. It’s a lot to think about. (& I’ve spent a fair amount of time thinking on these things). There are a few things we (LDS) often lump together as if they are one and the same thing [and I think they are not, but I have not parsed out for myself how to define or differentiate them exactly – but here’s my best effort so far (A,B,C below) -as always, it’s up for/open to revision as I continue to learn.]. I’m putting them here because I would love any and all insight from others (especially Lisa – I love your writings and how you think deeply about these things), if you have clarifications to offer.

    A. The light of Christ given to every person born into the world (this may or may not be the same light -that same ubiquitous/omnipresent light/life/power that “fills the immensity of space and gives life and light and order to all things.” (D&C somewhere) We are in it. It is with us – It is IN us and can give each of us promptings about right and wrong in our own lives, according to scripture (sorry, I’m being lazy about citing scriptures, it’s there somewhere), and seems to be the same power by which the Universe actually exists and runs and is organized and continues to function

    B. The Holy Ghost/Holy Spirit – that spirit of the Lord which testifies of truth & prompts us – also seemingly ubiquitous & available to every man, woman & child on the earth, but usually spoken of as coming to us from without – an external influence we can receive in/at irregular intervals according to our needs, seemingly with or without our requesting or seeking
    [Side note – neither A nor B need priesthood authority, at least as far as I understand them, they seem to be a universal condition of mortality – independent of any religious institution. But C (below) does require priesthood authority.. It is the only one of these three things that is bestowed by it. But I may be in error, the way I’m framing this whole thing..]

    C. The Gift of the Holy Ghost – that extra helping/dose of the Holy Ghost – which gift, as I understand it, is not any automatic happening upon confirmation as members of the church – we must actively pursue and “receive” it – it takes much receptivity (active verb) on our part – is not any kind of “voila!” gift that magically appears in our lives without effort, at least as I understand it, but does allow for continuation and growth of the spirit in our lives and is the vehicle – the gift (I think?) by which additional ‘spiritual gifts’ are acquired if we seek them.

    I read a talk by Dallin Oaks once where he mentions that we as members of the church really have TWO lines to God. One is a direct line to the Holy Spirit, as your article points out. (I’d also add, we have a direct line to Heavenly Father in the form of prayer – I think this is also a misunderstood doctrine, I heard Elder Scott say that it is a big confusion in the church – in a semi-private setting he mentioned that we pray not to Jesus but to the Father ([THE supreme head of ALL! -but many people treat the Father and the Son as if they are one and the same person (despite all their talk about being One, there are apparently some big differences between them, or maybe I’m hairsplitting, I’m not sure.] He (Elder Scott) really emphasized that, pointing out a difference between our elder brother, the Savior, and the highest of the highest God in all the eternities – the ONE true all-seeing eye. And don’t quote me and my clumsy attempt at interpreting what Elder Scott said – I may be terribly misrepresenting his words, going from memory.

    But Dallin Oaks spoke in a talk once that we have our own direct line to the Spirit – but then he mentioned a second line that we must go through the Church (proper lines of Priesthood authority), by which we are subordinated to the hierarchy of the church and their calling as prophets, seers, and revelators, and holders of keys for governing the church. I’m still not crystal clear as to which line I ought to give credence to when/if they are in conflict with each other. (I’ve heard some say “One’s own conscience, of course! And others say, “The Church! Of course!”) At a minimum, at least I know I don’t have the authority to receive revelation for the entire church, or for anyone outside my stewardship – (I mean, whenever this is brought up I think it is a direct attempt to quash all rogue members who want to claim they’ve received revelation for the entire Church). But, like you mention, we as members take it too far and want to just sit back and take orders. That’s lazy – it’s no way to build a real or lasting testimony, and, it’s dangerous, as you so aptly point out – dangerous for both leaders and followers alike.

    Would love to hear feedback & push back to what I’m trying to figure out. Thanks for this Blog post Lisa.


    1. Thank you, Jennifer, for the summary. I think you’ve done a great job of defining each (light of Christ, Holy Spirit, gift of the Holy Ghost). I’d only add that Mormons tend to think of the Holy Ghost as a constant companion to those who have been confirmed, or received the gift of the Holy Ghost. There’s more Mormon privilege in that way of thinking, but I think that’s less “we have more than you” than an acknowledgement that the Holy Ghost will, as you say, be more involved in a person’s life if that person remains aware of the potential for His inspiration, guidance, and comfort. I’m pretty sure there are many devout people of all religious stripes who feel the guiding influence of the Holy Ghost, whether or not they have received the gift through an LDS priesthood holder.

      At the end of your last fully-fleshed paragraph, you discuss a second line of access to Heaven through the priesthood authority and mention that sometimes you feel a conflict between your personal revelation (through the Holy Ghost) and the official governance of the church via priesthood authority. Which should we give more credence to? Good question.

      Here’s my rough draft take on it: Chances are, if your personal revelation and the official revelation are in disharmony, neither one is precisely in line with God. Let’s be realistic. You (me, all of us as individuals) are flawed people with limited perspective. We see through a glass darkly. We understand the world, the universe, and the divine only through our limited experience. So it makes sense to me that we aren’t going to perfectly comprehend spiritual (some might prefer the term intuitive) things. And as inconvenient as it is, the fifteen who lead our church are in the same boat. Whether we lead or follow, we see through that glass darkly. We are all striving to understand better, and perhaps the lion’s share of our humility is manifest in our ability to be charitable to those who feel inspired differently than we do. Can we accept that God is mighty enough to work with us as individuals, with our individual psyches, or can He only communicate one truth in one way to all mankind? Mormons tend to be black and white. I believe God works broader than that and with us each individually.

      Even when God deals with the Church through those with priesthood authority, he is dealing with individuals who have the same kinds of limitations to their understanding the rest of us have in ours. I loved when Elder Nelson reiterated at October conference that we will know something is revelation to the church when all fifteen at the top agree. We tend to think all of them agree, but Elder Nelson assured us they don’t. I think they just keep their mouths shut about their disagreements. Until they do agree, what an individual apostle says is not revelation to the whole church. Including Elder Oaks’ reasoning about women using priesthood authority in their callings. (Notice he shores up his reasoning by quoting Joseph Fielding Smith, when he was an apostle, not the president of the church. So we have one apostle quoting another apostle, neither of whom have the authority to give definitive re-direction to doctrine.)

      All this to say most of the time, what we think is official revelation for the church is not. It’s the insight of great (individual) men with great (individual) callings, made after great (individual) reflection and prayer. The portion of truth they relate may not make sense to someone else because of their experiences and perspective. This is why we have to trust God and not man. The one thing in this post that I feel very confident about is that everyone us has the same right to answers and inspiration through the gift of the Holy Ghost as any church leader, regardless of the calling.

      I hope some of this was at least relevant. And I hope tomorrow I don’t look back at what I spit out and wish I had said it better. But I wanted to get something down in response to you fairly quickly. Forgive typos or other problems.

      This is an older post, but its ideas may have some relevance. Not precisely. It sort of my mission statement. https://outsidethebookofmormonbelt.com/2014/04/05/the-parable-of-convict-lake/#more-271


  4. Lisa:

    Well said. Although I will pick just one nit with you. 😉 Women DO have priesthood power. What they don’t have, for whatever reason, is priesthood office. I would change your sentence “Presently, the priesthood is granted only to men, and it seems likely this will continue” to this “Presently, [] priesthood is granted only to men, and it seems likely this will continue.”

    Interestingly, I am in favor of LDS women having priesthood office, but my wife is not.

    In all, I applaud your article. This statement of yours captures the essence of it “we innately understand that priesthood authority is not the engine of service, nor the prompt for a witness of Christ. The Holy Ghost is.”

    And in the comment section, your statement is very valuable: “I’m pretty sure there are many devout people of all religious stripes who feel the guiding influence of the Holy Ghost, whether or not they have received the gift through an LDS priesthood holder.”

    I agree.


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