In 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 of 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. 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.
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)