Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The Priesthood and Women: Are men and women equal in the church? What role does the priesthood play in a strong marriage?

Q: "Does it say in 1 Timothy that women should not be pastors?"

A friend of mine sent me this question some time ago in the wake of some controversy among a group of conservative churches concerning the role of women in the ministry. At the time she was interested in hearing what the Bible had to say on the question of whether or not women can hold the priesthood, and she was interested to see if my interpretation of certain passages coincided with that of certain factions within the debate. Recently I revisted my answer and expanded it to address an issue which more directly relates to women as they approach the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (both from within and from without). Namely the relationship between women and the priesthood (both in the time of Christ and His apostles as well as in this day and age), and the question of whether or not the seeming "exclusivity" of the priesthood constitutes sexism or gender discrimination. This is an issue that this particular friend had before she joined the church, and I know that she is certainly not alone in these misgivings. As I sought to address this question, I found that gaining an understanding of the role and function of the priesthood in an eternal marriage is crucial to finding the answer to these questions.

A: When Paul says in 1 Tim 2:11-12 "Let the woman learn in silence with all subjection. But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence." He is trying to help the Christians remember to obey the rules of the synagogues of the Jews, where they often gathered to hear and read the scriptures and to preach the Gospel, which at the time was viewed as a mere offshoot of Judaism. If they had gone against this relatively small custom, they would never have had an opportunity to introduce the comparatively radical (to the Jews at least) customs of Christianity. As you may recall, women had a much more prominent role in Early Christianity than they did in the Judaism of the time. An example of this would be Mary, the mother of John Mark(the author of the gospel of Mark), who was a prominent Christian, and (apparently) held regular meetings in her home which became one of the first christian "House-churches". She often was host to the Apostles during the course of these meetings. (See Acts 12)

Much also has been made of Paul’s reference to Phoebe (or Phebe in the King James Version) as a “Deaconess” (or diakonos) in Romans 16:1. In the King James version, the word Diakonos is translated as “servant”, and I feel that in this instance this interpretation is an accurate one. It may be helpful to examine this passage in its context:

I commend unto you Phebe our sister, which is a servant of the church which is at Cenchrea: That ye receive her in the Lord, as becometh saints, and that ye assist her in whatsoever business she hath need of you: for she hath been a succourer of many, and of myself also.

Phebe sounds like she performed much the same role in the church at Cenchrea that Dorcas Tabitha did in the church at Joppa (in Judea) (see Acts 9:36-42), namely that both women seem to have been “full of good works”. Tabitha is described as an “almsgiver” (or one who helps the poor) and Phebe is called a “succourer of many”. It is my opinion that these women held callings within their respective branches of the church that were not unlike that of a Relief Society President today. While both women held positions of some prominence in the church, with which they were able to work much good, nevertheless there is no evidence that they held priesthood authority of any kind. Contrast Paul’s description of the role of Phebe (the so-called deaconess) in the church with Luke’s description (in Acts 6) of the calling and ordination of the seven men commonly referred to as the seven deacons. The Twelve Apostles elected to call these “seven men of honest report” so that they might appoint them over the ministration to the widows in the church. Here the term diakonos is associated with these men because at one point the Apostles stated (as a reason to call and ordain others to labor under their direction) “It is not reason that we should leave the word of God, and serve tables.” The word diakonos is defined in the New Testament Greek Lexicon as:

one who executes the commands of another, esp. of a master, a servant, attendant, minister

1. the servant of a king
2. a deacon, one who, by virtue of the office assigned to him by the church, cares for the poor and has charge of and distributes the money collected for their use
3. a waiter, one who serves food and drink

With this in mind, it becomes clear from the passage (Acts 6:2) cited above that the apostles were using this term in its original and general meaning, and in that meaning a deacon was a servant, or even a waiter. The term diakonos did not take on a selective Christian meaning (see the second definition) until people started reading the word in their Bibles in connection with these seven men. My point is this: that the “title” of deacon in the New Testament does not necessarily indicate priesthood authority. What does indicate priesthood authority is the clear and careful description by Luke of the prayerful selection and authoritative ordination of the seven deacons under the hands of the twelve apostles. Nowhere in the New Testament is anything even remotely resembling this recorded concerning Phebe, and so I think it is clear that Paul was employing the term diakonos in its general application when he referred to Phebe as “a servant of the Church” rather than in its selective meaning as an office within the priesthood.

The sum of the Bible's input on the question

Returning to the passage in 1 Timothy, I think it's clear from the context (the very next chapter) that men are to be Bishops(a synonym of sorts for Pastor), and he makes no mention of women serving as Bishops. My answer, therefore, is that yes, women did not hold the priesthood in the primitive church but that doesn't mean that you should get all in a tizzy, as sexism really had nothing to do with it. Sometimes we have to remind ourselves not to impose our cultural assumptions upon the people of the first years A.D., as their time and culture really are foreign to us in many ways. As it happens, Paul had a relatively enlightened attitude toward women compared to that of many of his contemporaries. Witness these telling passages in Paul’s letters:

Galatians 3:26-28
For ye are all the children of God by faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.

1 Corinthians 11:11-12
Nevertheless neither is the man without the woman, neither the woman without the man, in the Lord. For as the woman is of the man, even so is the man also by the woman; but all things of God.

Authority in the Gospel, as it relates to men and women

In the interest of full disclosure, I should point out that the last quote is part of a section of 1 Corinthians in which Paul states:

But I would have you know, that the head of every man is Christ; and the head of the woman is the man; and the head of Christ is God.

Many women that I know would bristle at the notion that any man be considered her “head”, but I want to point out that Paul is specifically referring to the relationship between husband and wife, and that in doing so he is trying to teach an important principle to the saints. David Gusik explained this well in his commentary on 1 Corinthians 11 when he wrote:

“In its full sense, [the term] "head" has the idea of headship and authority. It means to have the appropriate responsibility to lead, and the matching accountability...With this understanding, we see [that] Paul describes three “headship” relationships: Jesus is head of every man; man is the head of woman, and God (the Father) is head of Christ. Because Paul connects the three relationships, the principles of headship are the same among them.

It is essential to understand that being under authority does not equal inferiority. Jesus was totally under the authority of God the Father (John 5:19; 8:28), yet He is equally God (John 1:1; 8:58; 10:30). When God calls women in the church to recognize the headship of men, it is not because women are unequal or inferior, but because there is a God-ordained order of [priesthood] authority to be respected.” (Guzik, David. "Study Guide for 1 Corinthians 11." Enduring Word. Blue Letter Bible. 7 Jul 2006.)

The righteous exercise of the priesthood promotes equality between the sexes

This priesthood authority is never to be used to dominate, and is not given to a man to make him somehow “superior” to his wife. Elder Dallin H. Oaks explained the role and function of priesthood authority as it applies to the husband and wife dynamic.

“Priesthood authority functions in both the family and the Church. The priesthood is the power of God used to bless all of His children, male and female. Some of our abbreviated expressions, like “the women and the priesthood,” convey an erroneous idea. Men are not “the priesthood.” Priesthood meeting is a meeting of those who hold and exercise the priesthood. The blessings of the priesthood, such as baptism, receiving the Holy Ghost, the temple endowment, and eternal marriage, are available to men and women alike. The authority of the priesthood functions in the family and in the Church, according to the principles the Lord has established.

A most important difference in the functioning of priesthood authority in the family and in the Church results from the fact that the government of the family is patriarchal, whereas the government of the Church is hierarchical.  In this way the priesthood, and the relationship and partnership between men and women functions much differently in the family than it does in the Church.

The Proclamation to the World on the Family gives this beautiful explanation of the relationship between a husband and a wife: While they have separate responsibilities, “in these sacred responsibilities, fathers and mothers are obligated to help one another as equal partners” (“The Family: A Proclamation to the World,” Liahona, Oct. 2004, 49; Ensign, Nov. 1995, 102; emphasis added).

President Gordon B. Hinckley affirmed this principle and added:  “Under the plan of heaven, the husband and the wife walk side by side as companions, neither one ahead of the other, but a daughter of God and a son of God walking side by side."  (Fireside Address, Buenos Aires, Argentina, 12 Nov. 1996)

President Spencer W. Kimball said this: “When we speak of marriage as a partnership, let us speak of marriage as a full partnership. We do not want our LDS women to be silent partners or limited partners in that eternal assignment! Please be a contributing and full partner” (The Teachings of Spencer W. Kimball, ed. Edward L. Kimball [1982], 315).

President Kimball also declared, “We have heard of men who have said to their wives, ‘I hold the priesthood and you’ve got to do what I say.’ ” He decisively rejected that abuse of priesthood authority in a marriage, declaring that such a man “should not be honored in his priesthood” (The Teachings of Spencer W. Kimball, 316).

If men desire the Lord’s blessings in their family leadership, they must exercise their priesthood authority according to the Lord’s principles for its use.” (Dallin H. Oaks, “Priesthood Authority in the Family and the Church,” Liahona, Nov 2005, 24–27)

D&C 121:41, 36-37  No power or influence can or ought to be maintained by virtue of the priesthood, only by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned;...the rights of the priesthood are inseparably connected with the powers of heaven, and...the powers of heaven cannot be controlled nor handled only upon the principles of righteousness.  That they may be conferred upon us, it is true; but when we undertake to cover our sins, or to gratify our pride, our vain ambition, or to exercise control or dominion or compulsion upon the souls of the children of men, in any degree of unrighteousness, behold, the heavens withdraw themselves; the Spirit of the Lord is grieved; and when it is withdrawn, Amen to the priesthood or the authority of that man.

How does this apply to a single woman?

Elder Oaks recognized that not everyone is in a position to fully appreciate the truth of these principles when he said:

“The principles I have identified for the exercise of priesthood authority are more understandable and more comfortable for a married woman than for a single woman, especially a single woman who has never been married. She does not now experience priesthood authority in the partnership relationship of marriage. Her experiences with priesthood authority are in the hierarchical relationships of the Church, and some single women feel they have no voice in those relationships.” (Dallin H. Oaks, “Priesthood Authority in the Family and the Church,” Liahona, Nov 2005, 24–27)

Since most of my friends are single women, I feel that it is vitally important to address this issue. It should be emphasized that no man receives the priesthood in order to elevate himself to a position of dominion over another. This principle is perhaps most clearly demonstrated in the family setting, but it is just as true as it applies to unmarried people. The true power of the priesthood comes in using it selflessly to bless and serve God’s children. After all, the priesthood is the power of God given to men to “act in His name for the salvation of His Children” (True To The Faith, “Priesthood”, 124).

“It should be remembered that a man cannot use his priesthood to give priesthood blessings to himself. The priesthood can only be used to bless and serve others. Therefore, when a man uses his priesthood, his wife and children are actually the direct beneficiaries. The husband derives no direct benefit from holding the priesthood. He only receives indirect benefits from it by seeing his wife and children receive the Lord's blessings.” (W. John Walsh and Jenny Scoville Walsh, Why can’t women be ordained to the LDS priesthood?,

A single woman, whose main experience with the priesthood is in the hierarchical structure of Church organization, may justifiably feel that she is somehow been made subordinate to men in general, and the priesthood organization in particular, and that as a woman who does not hold the priesthood she "does not have a voice" in this relationship.  However, this could not be farther from the truth.  As Elder Oaks pointed out, a single woman may not have experienced the blessings of "priesthood authority in the partnership of marriage", but even within the hierarchical nature of the church organization a woman has equal access to the blessings and benefits of the priesthood.

In order to demonstrate the truth of this principle, it is necessary to illustrate and emphasize the fact that a man "derives no direct benefit from holding the priesthood."  Men and women (single and married alike) are both entitled to seek and receive blessings of comfort and counsel, as well as blessings for the healing of the sick and afflicted at the hands of ordained priesthood holders (even if James does say "him").

James 5:14-15  Is any sick among you?  let him call for the elders of the church; and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord: And the prayer of faith shall save the sick, and the Lord shall raise him up; and if he have committed sins, they shall be forgiven him.

The ordinances of baptism, and the sacrament, and so forth do not differ in any way depending upon whether the recipient is a man or a woman, married or unmarried.  In the role of recipient of (or rather, participant in) the saving ordinances of the Gospel, men and women are exact equals.

Beyond that, any benefit that a man may experience in the actual exercise of his priesthood in the performance of these ordinances and blessings is an "indirect benefit" that comes from seeing the lives of those he cares about blessed in the exercise of his priesthood.

To summarize, women did not hold priesthood callings in the church of Christ in antiquity, just as they do not in the church of Christ in this age. This did not prevent them from accomplishing great good in the name of the Lord in the time of the apostles, and just so there are countless valiant and faithful women in the church today who serve Him with their whole souls, and who will be blessed for doing so. Some of these women hold high callings in the church, such as those women who serve in the General Relief society, Young Women and Primary general presidencies.  High calling is not a prerequisite for salvation however, and all men and women who live the Gospel and valiantly honor gospel covenants can be exalted regardless to any callings they may or may not have held in life. Valiant and faithful women will receive equal blessings with those faithful and valiant priesthood holders who serve the Lord alongside them as equal partners. The blessings of the priesthood are available to all of God’s children, male and female, for our eternal benefit. We are each sons and daughters of God, and as such we are each equally divine in origin. With this in mind, we have an obligation to respect and value and love every one of our brothers and sisters here on earth equally as the offspring of deity that they truly are.

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