As an active LDS woman of a mature age, I’ve participated in many lessons on the LDS concept of priesthood, even taught them. Several weeks ago, I participated in two lessons about priesthood, the first having been taught by my wonderful Relief Society president and the second by a male Sunday School teacher who I consider a friend. The lessons were excellent and the content similar. Yet, each was also vastly different from lessons taught ten, twenty, even forty years ago. In the past, priesthood lessons presented to women centered on ways women can support men in their priesthood calling. These days, the focus (at least regarding women) is the apostolic message taught by Dallin H. Oaks at Priesthood Session of the April 2014 General Conference which reasons that the power and authority women use in the exercise of our callings is priesthood derived through the priesthood key holder who presides over us. In both of the recent lessons, the teachers emphasized an identical question: “Sisters,” they asked, “do you understand that you have priesthood power and authority in the exercise of your callings?”
“Whoever functions in an office or calling received from one who holds priesthood keys exercises priesthood authority in performing her or his assigned duties.” Dallin H. Oaks, April 2014 Priesthood Session, General Conference. Emphasis added
LDS women swiftly embraced then-Elder Oaks’ new and improved view of women and priesthood. Most LDS women rejoiced because it empowered women and broadened our view of ourselves. But when my male Sunday School teacher asked the women in the room if we understood, it struck me with force that the question was being posed to the wrong gender. Women get it. But do men? I raised my hand and asked the men if they understand and, if so, how has that new knowledge changed their approach and attitude toward the women. I’ve been thinking about how attitudes and approaches have changed ever since. Frankly, I see no change.
I’m plugged into social media circles in which women speak openly about their church experiences. I still encounter the same comments from women about priesthood leaders who step on and over the sisters as we perform their church duties, who don’t let us run our own organizations, who ignore and dismiss our ideas, and/or who take action pertinent to Relief Society, Young Women, or Primary organizations without so much as informing the female presidents. I still hear about men showing up at activities for females so the priesthood is present. Why?
Gentlemen, if you believe the Relief Society and Young Women president have the same priesthood power and authority you have as they perform their callings, then you must recognize that you aren’t needed at all female activities. You must see them as inspired leaders and let them do their jobs. Collaborate, yes. Interfere, no.
I know there are gems among our local priesthood keyholding men and that they honor the autonomy of the women they call, men who see our wisdom, gifts, and abilities as blessings to be enjoyed rather than errors in the making. But when Dallin Oaks made the revolutionary claim that the obvious authority and power women harness in the performance of our callings is specifically priesthood power, every local leader with priesthood keys should have become one of these gems.
In spite of what President Oaks taught in 2014, LDS women still experience church as people without power and authority. It stings to sit in a church class and be asked by a man if we sisters understand we have the same priesthood power and authority as they do. I’m left wondering if LDS men grasp the degree to which the Church experience would change for all members if we practiced the tenet that was taught in that Priesthood Session.
The reality is, if a new teaching changes nothing, then there is nothing new about it. Admittedly, then-Elder Oaks followed his revolutionary ideas with several paragraphs that reminded priesthood holders that women are equals without being equal. We are the wombs of God and are, therefore, barred from holding priesthood offices (Aaronic priesthood deacons, teachers, priests, Melchizedek priesthood elders or high priests). Fine. I see the drawn line.
But callings are not offices in the priesthood. Motherhood does not stop women from being called to positions in the church that take immense amounts of time. If the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints acted upon the stated belief that women use priesthood power and authority, the following callings, currently limited to Melchizedek priesthood holders per the General Handbook, would be opened to women:
- Counselor in the Stake Presidency
- Stake Executive Secretary
- Assistant Stake Secretary
- Stake Clerk
- Assistant Stake Clerk
- High councilor
- Counselor in the Bishopric or Branch Presidency
- Ward or Branch Executive Secretary
- Assistant Ward or Branch Executive Secretary
- Ward or Branch Clerk
- Assistant Ward or Branch Clerk
- Ward Mission Leader
- Sunday School President
- Counselor in the Sunday School Presidency
But they aren’t open to women. Women can’t be called to these positions even though the current First Counselor in the First Presidency has taught that a woman serving in a calling has the same power and authority as any Melchizedek priesthood holder. I’m left to conclude that the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve don’t believe what they’ve asked us to believe. Patriarchy is as patriarchy does.
Lest anyone forget, the evening Dallin Oaks delivered his unusual talk about priesthood to the men of the Church, Kate Kelly and others involved with the Ordain Women movement were at Temple Square, petitioning for and being refused entry into the Priesthood Session. Two months later, Kelly would be excommunicated. Elder Oaks may have addressed the men of the Church that evening, but he targeted women. He handed rhetoric with the appearance of power to disempowered women, clearly expecting his rhetoric to end discussion of women and priesthood ordination by making female ordination unnecessary. The logical follow-up has been sorely missing. Sometimes patriarchy puts a little lipstick on its pig and we don’t notice.
For the record, I’ve never accepted the argument that women need priesthood to serve in church callings currently reserved for men. Nor have I put my eggs in the basket labeled “Also Has Priesthood Authority,” though I’m willing to both believe and act on that belief. To my mind, the gift of the Holy Spirit is the great equalizer. It is by and through the guidance of the Holy Spirit that men and women serve in our callings in meaningful ways. While I do expect female ordination will rightfully happen in the Church someday, I don’t think bestowing priesthood on women at this moment would change a thing. After all, Dallin Oaks did the next best thing by creating a doctrine that lets women essentially borrow priesthood as we serve, but it has changed absolutely nothing except the rhetoric in lessons on priesthood.
Patriarchy holds onto its power until it cannot. And women will push against suppressive and oppressive systems of patriarchal power until they give. Keep pushing, sisters, in whatever ways you feel you can, no matter how small. We deserve more respect than we get. When the rhetoric is hollow, our voices should echo from within.
Unlike priesthood keys and priesthood ordinations, the blessings of the priesthood are available to women and to men on the same terms. The gift of the Holy Ghost and the blessings of the temple are familiar illustrations of this truth. Dallin H. Oaks, Priesthood Session April 2014