Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Is the Church Sexist? Are Men and Women Equal in the Church?

My friend K.M. sent me this thought-provoking question.

Q:  How come there aren't women in higher callings of the church?  I suppose I'm somewhat already convinced that the church is sexist. Based both on what I've observed and experiences I've had.

A:  The article that I have included, and which follows this brief preface, is the revised and somewhat shorter version of one that I wrote in 2010 to address a more general question about sexism in the church.  But as far as higher callings go: the young women and relief society and primary general presidencies are some of the highest callings in the church, and all of them are filled by women.

One other thing that is not in the attached article that I feel that I should point out is the person who asked me the question that prompted the article was a woman who was an elder in the Presbyterian church when I met her.  Obviously she was somewhat disconcerted to find that she could not be an elder in our church.  She asked many questions on the subject, but it was only through attending our church that she came to see that women do many things in our church that nobody but the ordained pastor, or special people whom he (or the congregation) appoints, do in many other churches (Those special people may include people like the youth pastor, or deacons (which is a position which is typically accorded greater prestige in other churches), or the church elders, etc, depending on the church).

Women teach church classes, both in relief society as well as to mixed groups such as sunday school, youth classes, and primary.

Women address the congregation: in prepared sermons and also in witnessing (what we call bearing our testimony) and prayers given over the pulpit.

Women hold all manner of callings, from ward librarian to Stake geneaology specialist (or whatever they call it), and everything in between.  Some of these callings involve leadership on the ward or stake level with the youth, with the women's organization of the church, the children's primary, etc.

Women who are leaders are a major component of ward councils (which meet at least monthly to make decisions and assignments that effect the good and the progress of the ward), and in this capacity they are to act and serve as one among equals.

Women are entitled to all of the blessings of temple worship and covenants, and in the temple they usually participate in ordinances alongside with, or at least parallel to, men.

In the final analysis, this friend of mine found that she could do more things as a simple member of our church than she was allowed to do as an elder in her old church. In the following video, Sheri Dew, who is president and CEO of the Church-owned Deseret Book Company, and a former counselor in the general Relief Society Presidency (that means for the whole church), explains quite eloquently the contrast between LDS women and women of other faiths when it comes to opportunities to serve and to lead in the church.

By comparison, many Christian churches are much less progressive in their treatment of women, especially those that conform to groups such as the Southern Baptist Convention (for example), which "ordained that women must be "subservient" to their husbands and prohibited from serving as deacons, pastors or chaplains in the military service."  (Jimmy Carter, "Losing my religion for equality", National Times, July 15, 2009).  In fact it was after hearing about controversy over this question that my friend asked me the question that initially prompted me to write the attached article for my blog.

A woman who follows my facebook page (Studying The Scriptures) posted this insightful comment in response to this article (the one you are reading), and I felt that it applied so well to the subject that I needed to go back and incorporate what she said into my article (I do so with her permission).  After all, when discussing gender equality in the church, it would probably be wise to consult an actual Latter-day Saint woman on the issue.

"There is no calling greater than Mother, in my personal beliefs.   Not even the Prophet can carry and bear children.  And for those women who are unable to have children in this life; the innate characteristics of nurturing, compassion, organization and unconditional love are as powerful an influence as any calling. The General Presidencies of the Relief Society, Young Women and Primary are influential, carry great responsibility and spiritual power. I do not believe there is any sexism in the organization of the Church, but I do believe there are men AND women within the Church that are selfish and do not have any idea what "Christ-like" is all about."  (Michelle Lenz)

Someday I plan to write an entry on my blog about the divide between the doctrine of the Church of Jesus Christ (in any age) and what I call "mormon culture" which usually bears little resemblance to actual church doctrine.  I do not deny that some mormons persist in a culture of sexism, but you will find that those that do so are acting contrary to the teachings and practices of the Church.  I think that if you will examine the evidence that I have provided below you will see that if someone is actually living according to the Gospel, and according to the teachings of prophets both ancient and modern, then they will know and understand that to place women in a 'subservient' role is to come out in bitter opposition to the truth and the will of God.

Here is where the edited and slightly shorter revised version of my blog article begins.  HERE is a link to my original article.

I revisited 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.

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 performance of these ordinances and blessings is an "indirect benefit" that comes from seeing the lives of those he cares about blessed by the exercise of his priesthood.


To summarize, women did not hold the priesthood, or priesthood callings (such as that of Bishop, elder, priest, or deacon) 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.

(For your edification, here is an infographic detailing the structure of the lay leadership of the church)

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