“How do you utilize the priesthood?”

I have been working on Mormon conceptions of authority, power, priesthood, and related ideas for a while. In fact I am currently wrapping up a paper on new ways to look at authority throughout church history. It was consequently with interest that I read comments by the church’s highest female ecclesiastical officers on similar topics.

On April 5, 2013 the Church Newsroom published a transcript of a conversation entitled “Top Mormon Women Leaders Provide Their Insights into Church Leadership.” In this conversation Ruth Todd, a member of the Church’s public affairs teams posed questions to RS General President Linda Burton, YW General President Elaine Dalton, and General Primary President Rosemary Wixom. I’d like to review sections that treat priesthood and draw some tentative conclusions.

The moderator begins the discussion on priesthood by simply asking “How do you access the priesthood in your lives?” Sister Wixom responded that she accesses the priesthood through the covenants she made at baptism and in the temple, in her relationship with her husband, and in church service. Sister Dalton and Burton discussed how the authority of the priesthood and the power of the priesthood are different things. And that as women, they access the power of the priesthood the same way that ordained men access it, i.e., through righteousness. Dalton stated that “as a mother of five sons I have been so blessed by the power of the priesthood,” too which Sister Burton immediately responded, “[a]nd I have five daughters and have been equally blessed by the power of their righteousness by cleaving to covenants.”

First I’ve argued a bit that the collapse of priesthood authority and godly power is incoherent, not that church leaders care what I think. So personally I like that they are making that distinction. But I’d like to offer a good-faith restatement of the conclusions from these comments with the assumption that they are actually answers to the question and not spin:

Both unordained women and ordained men access the priesthood by participating in salvific ordinances and subsequently exercising faith to receive the power of God.

Here I think it is clear that these women are sidestepping the topic of authority. They do not address how women can access authority, perhaps because they believe they cannot (in later comments they state their belief that most Mormon women in fact do not want authority).

The moderator then asked, “How do you utilize the priesthood as you are leading and guiding your individual organization?” Sister Wixom related a story of being asked a question by an apostle who indicated that she, not he, would receive the revelation to answer it. She then stated that her “calling came from our prophet, and he was allowing me to carry that mantle, and I would be the one — with the help of my counselors and the board and, above all, inspiration from our Heavenly Father — to come to the conclusion to the answer of that question.” Sister Burton and Wixom then related an account of how they traveled to the Pacific Area of the Church and after a tour having the Area Presidency ask them for their impressions.

Again my restatement:

Women can utilize the priesthood by receiving a stewardship from priesthood officers.

My comments above about these women believing that they cannot access authority, seems to fall apart. It is clear that in these statements, these leaders believe that they receive and wield a particular authority. I’d imagine that if you were to ask them if this authority was a priesthood, they would quickly answer negatively. However it is quite telling that they spoke of this authority when asked how they “utilize priesthood.”

This is really interesting stuff, and with Elder Ballard’s recent push towards cosmological understandings of priesthood, this discussion of the nuts and bolts application of priesthood in the day-to-day church provides a fascinating counterpoint. That the Newsroom thought to ask these female Church leaders at all how they utilize the priesthood is remarkable.


  1. Great insight and very nicely stated. Thank you!

  2. Can you please link to Elder Ballard’s remarks you mention at the end of this? Thanks!

  3. J. Stapley says:

    See, e.g., Elder Ballard’s GC sermon.

  4. I was unhappy with this interview when I first read it — it seemed to be the usual uncomfortable “women don’t have priesthood except they do except they don’t except they do” spin. But your teasing out the differences in what they may have meant by “priesthood” at different moments, and your clear restatements that don’t attempt to twist their intent, are incredibly helpful. Suddenly it feels like response rather than spin. Thanks.

  5. Thank you for this post J. I also sense that our community is in a process of working out what exactly priesthood means. For me, perhaps the biggest tension comes in defining what it means to “access” the priesthood. One obvious meaning is to receive the ordinances and blessings that come through others’ use of their priesthood authority and power. In that sense, all members have equal access. We can all be baptized, take the sacrament, be blessed, etc. But another meaning is to exercise priesthood authority and power to bless others. In that sense, all members do not have equal access. Only men can baptize, administer the sacrament, perform priesthood blessings, etc. Only men can experience the growth towards Christ that comes through performing his ordinances by his authority.

    I appreciate these Sisters’ attempt to describe their leadership roles as a quasi priesthood function. But I find that logic misplaced. Yes, all leaders, regardless of gender, have authority to receive revelation within their sphere. But revelation does not require any priesthood authority. Joseph received significant revelation prior to receiving any priesthood. And we expect new converts to receive personal revelation before they are even baptized.

    The crux of the issue still remains this: why are women excluded from exercising certain priesthood functions that men are not only allowed, but highly encouraged, to perform? As much as we want to say “women have the same access as men” we cannot get around the tension that arises from our placing a high value on certain functions in the church for which women are currently excluded. The following are two examples that flesh out that tension:

    1) Suppose you are on a ward council. Someone says that Sister Jones is sick and could use a blessing. The missionary elders have a conflict and cannot go. The bishop proposes that the missionary sisters go to Sister Jones and offer a prayer for her. He claims that a sister’s faithful prayer has the same function as a priesthood blessing. Is that really the case? If so, why do elders need priesthood at all? They can pray with faith regardless. If not, what exactly does a priesthood blessing provide that a sisters’ prayer cannot?

    2) Another ward council. Bishop asks for discussion about a recent convert – Brother Jones. Apparently Brother Jones does not want to receive the priesthood. He claims he doesn’t need it because he and his family can receive the blessings of the priesthood without his ordination. Other men will bless and pass the sacrament to him. His hometeacher can give blessings if his kids get sick. Brother Jones says it would be “nice” to do these things himself, but he’s really busy and doesn’t want to risk being called to a priesthood leadership position. What counsel should be given to Brother Jones? What is he missing out on by not personally accepting priesthood authority and responsibility? And whatever *that* is, don’t we need to admit that women are denied *that* until they also are allowed to be ordained?

  6. Thanks, J. This is an important topic, and the way our top leadership is addressing it has changed significantly in my lifetime.

    I find it fascinating that the leadership now is drawing such a clear distinction between administrative (“oversight”) authority, limited currently to men, and covenant authority (“power”), unlimited by age and biological sex. I also find it fascinating that the General Conference talk by Elder Ballard, to which you linked in your first comment, never once says that men have Priesthood power and women don’t. Reading it with preconceived ideas about what he must be saying can lead to that conclusion, but, in fact, reading very carefully, he teaches that all people who have made sacred covenants and are true to them have access to real Priesthood power on their own – through the use of Priesthood keys at the top-most level.

  7. “He claims that a sister’s faithful prayer has the same function as a priesthood blessing. Is that really the case?”

    In practical terms, yes, it is.

    “Brother Jones says it would be “nice” to do these things himself, but he’s really busy and doesn’t want to risk being called to a priesthood leadership position. What counsel should be given to Brother Jones?”

    To continue to learn about the Priesthood until he feels comfortable wanting it. Nobody should be rushed into something like that when they aren’t ready for make the commitments asscociated with it. (just like baptism) Simple answer; not so simple to accept.

  8. So LDS women access the priesthood via their proximity to it? It’s an interesting faithful viewpoint, not particularly new though. However, since God’s power is available to everyone the priesthood is simply a formal invitation to step up and use it (or attempt to) within the LDS community, in other words it is authority not power.

    The church consolidates organizational power under men by conflating God’s power and authority with church leadership. Lately there have been admirable apparent attempts to partially deconflate power and authority but the leadership hierarchy remains firmly tied to both. Many women’s issues are more strongly tied to the organizational hierarchy than the authority to exercise God’s power because they are unrepresented at the top and given they weren’t invited to pray in GC for 182 years obviously poorly represented by proxy on at least some issues.

  9. “So LDS women access the priesthood via their proximity to it?”

    No, and that is not what was said in the interview or in Elder Ballard’s talk.

  10. What do you mean Ray? The OP talks about; through the covenants… through her relationship with her husband…through church service…through righteousness…by participating in salvific ordinances…by receiving a stewardship from priesthood officers This sure seems like proximity to me, can a woman access the priesthood through righteousness alone without having proximity to it?

  11. Howard, you’ve reduced all of what was said into the narrow box of proximity, and there is a lot in the actual things listed that goes way beyond proximity. The proximity argument might be true of statements from my and your formative years, but it’s not what is being said in the examples J has given.

  12. Yes, well I was addressing the essence of it. It seems women access the priesthood in a variety of ways via. their proximity to it.

  13. I don’t believe that a “faithful prayer” by anyone is the same as a priesthood blessing. However, I have experienced a blessing being given to someone through me when I was teaching them, albeit it informally, and I felt the difference. It was done by the power of God, and by the priesthood authority because of the calling I then had, though not by the laying on of hands or by virtue of any named priesthood to which I was ordained. I believe that were it not for the authority of the man who set me apart for that calling, it would not have worked the same way.

    Ordination to the priesthood is a calling, not only a covenant. Men have all been called to be ordained to the priesthood. If they reject that calling, they are subject to the consequences of that rejection. That is the difference. If women were called to the priesthood, they also would be subject to the consequences of rejection. Since they are not currently called to it, they are not accountable for it.

  14. This is well done J. Thanks. I had not read the newsroom piece but it seems more significant than I would have guessed perhaps.

  15. J. Stapley says:

    Yeah, I still think it is sort of odd WVS, but as I said, interesting.

  16. Howard, I believe temple endowed women have the priesthood in a very real, powerful way, even though they currently are not “authorized” to perform ordinances outside the temple. I see that as one very simple way in which covenant power and administrative authority differ.

    Some of the things in the interview and in Elder Ballard’s talk hint at that view, even if it isn’t stated openly and directly – and that goes WAY beyond “proximity”.

  17. I like that belief Ray, but if that is what’s being discussed (as you point out) it’s pretty veiled, it would be nice to have that belief clarified by a prophet, it would be a great gift to many women since as Ardis points out there’s a lot of don’t, do, don’t, do spin projected by the church on the question of female priesthood. It seems there’s a lot of sizzle being sold by these Top Mormon Women “Leaders” but really where’s the meat?

  18. I really dislike having my name and words dragged into apostate arguments. For the record, I disavow Howard’s ugly twist to my remarks, and any further abuse he makes of my words.

  19. Did I misquote you Ardis or is this just an opportunity to be rude?

  20. J. Stapley says:

    Howard, chill.

  21. Sure J.

  22. Wonderful insights, J.

  23. MAY I ASK what happened to “What’s up with… Mormon Dudes and the Internet”?

    ANY open, honest, discussion of LDS men and pornography is a good thing, and this one was rather amazing (too amazing?). Loved it!

    The point was made that many addictions develop and metastasize in secret.

    Can we turn the lights back on please?

  24. To be fair to Howard, the specific point he attributed to Ardis seemed to be an accurate succinct summary of what was said, and although his overall sentiment seemed different I doubt he was trying to intentionally create an ugly twist to the words. Ardis, most people on the bloggernacle love you; I really enjoy your work too, but I think sometimes if your going to reprove with sharpness you might consider showing an increased love afterwards. I have seen many of your chastisements now in several places, and people for whatever reason seem to rally behind this and cheer you on, but to me it looks like making unnecessary enemies rather than leading the misguided into the fold. I don’t know you personally, but as far as I have witnessed you have very impressive and inspirational viewpoints, and it’s a shame when you use these to tear apart and scatter those who don’t see the same light just yet.

  25. I agree with Paul- that was a great honest post and a much needed conversation.

  26. Moss and Paul, sorry – I think it’s an important topic but the time wasn’t right for that post.

  27. Thanks for your take on this, J. I would not have given this piece a second thought (or even a first thought, to be honest) if not for your insight.

  28. Steve, when might it be back?

  29. Dot, I dunno.

  30. SteveF: Not your stewardship, dude.

  31. I’m unaware of needing a particular stewardship to try and make a helpful suggestion, or to try and stick up for those who may be less popular (that may be getting hurt intentionally or unintentionally). I’m definitely not commanding you, and thought you might even value an outside perspective. You can take it or leave it for what its worth.

  32. easy guys.

  33. Haha, I reread my comment and see how it can be read in an argumentative or aggressive voice, but I wrote it with a calm sincere voice in mind, I hope it can be read that way.

  34. J. what do you make of this, do you see it as more an attempt to clarify or appease?

  35. Perfect, Steve E., thank you

  36. J. Stapley says:

    Regarding the responses of these leaders, I don’t think any current Church leaders are used to having their comments analyzed, but as this was produced by the newsroom, perhaps there was awareness of the possibility. It seems to me to be an expression of belief, though I think it shows a lot of tension in the issues at play. Definitely something to watch out for moving forward. This may (or may not be) an important data point.

  37. I liked the video but I felt the introduction was a little awkward as it seemed to go a bit out of the way to point out that “Sister Dalton” is “a President” where no such explanation would have been necessary had she been a man because she would have simply been addressed as “President Dalton”. This suggested to me that the video may have been an attempt to subtly appease those desiring change while not rocking the boat with the rest.

  38. J., I think some of the tension felt in the video is the result of the context. Remember that these sisters knew that within days a woman would be giving a prayer in GC for the first time. And remember that the OrdainWomen website had been released just a few weeks previous. The media was abuzz with women’s issues. IMO, those factors suggest that this inteview was somewhat forced. They did not have as much time to prepare as might normally be the case. The result is that we see leaders dealing with tension in the video and responding from their heart. It’s very telling and very personal.

    Also, you asked if this will be an important data point. I think so for at least one reason. At the 9:30 mark in the video, the sisters acknowledge that *some* women in the church desire priesthood ordination. To my knowledge, this is the first such acknowledgment by female church leaders. Previously the message was, and largely still remains, that “women do not want the priesthood.” But at least here they acknowledge the sisters who do. If changes happen in the future, this may be a data point to look back to.

  39. Meldrum the Less says:

    I think the distinction between administrative and a covenant authority may make sense in a theoretical or idealistic sense. I think this distinction will soon get lost in the trenches of daily and weekly decisions made in the ward house; settling conflicts about specific activities and budgets and allocation of other resources. I am trying to image a primary president citing covenant authority going against a bishopric member who retains administrative authority. I don’t see it as a very practical or useful distinction.

    Back in the day, women’s suffrage was widely debated. Aside from the morally-right-thing-to-do argument, was the suspicion that women might not vote like their husbands, brothers, sons, and fathers. Allowing women to vote might benefit one candidate or political party over another. Of course, the party not benefitting would be opposed to women’s suffrage. If women had Priesthood authority in administrative responsibilities, would they take the LDS church in a different direction from where the men would have taken it? (I think, of course they would). And would this be better? ( Generally, I would think, yes),

    My father in his late 80’s claims that this already happened. He knew many of the church leaders of a previous generation personally. He claims that the correlation minimalists had healthy relationships with their wives and kept them happy (or in line). He claims that many of the correlation enthusiasts were hen-pecked husbands whose wives “ruled the roost” and pushed them around (and up the ladder) in matters of church administration. He equates the excesses of the correlation movement with this “petticoat government.” He opposes the women helping lead the church “since they already do and look at the mess they have made of it.” (Just sharing the perspective of one with deep experience, who is not digitally connected but none-the-less opinionated.)

    Whether you think my father is delusional or demented is not the point. The point is this: What direction will the women take us if they are given equal voice in all matters? Should such “political considerations” be an important part of the discussion?

    Recently I read the results of a survey that indicated over 40% of the men in the LDS church would be comfortable if women were ordained; but at the same time only about 10% of the women in the LDS church would be comfortable with it. I can’t recall the important parameters of the survey. (citation needed- can’t find it). Is it possible that on average men and women in the LDS church see this issue differently and perhaps in paradoxical ways?

  40. questioning says:

    According to D&C 121 I think we may have seen some amening to the priesthood certain men here. Why pretend that you can give what you don’t have?

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