Male Privilege and Priesthood Bias

One time, I had a close friend tell me that he was planning on moving to a large plot of land in Missouri with his in-laws. He liked and believed in his in-laws, whom he saw as living closely to gospel principles (embracing freedom by refusing to pay taxes to the federal government, for example). They were going to divide up the land in a manner similar to the United Order and have a three-person council to run everything: a president and two counselors. I’d like to believe that my snarky remarks that the place was going to go polygamist within six months or my constantly calling this place “the compound” convinced my friend to back out, but there was probably only one question I asked about the plan that gave him pause. Why was it, as he had explained to me, that the president of the presiding council had to be a man?

My friend suggested that it was because men bear the priesthood. I asked if this endeavor represented something the church was doing. He replied that it was something this family was doing on their own, but they were trying to run it according to gospel principles. This meant that only men could preside. I asked what would happen if the person who was best at running the compound was a woman. He replied that there was no reason she couldn’t be a counselor, but that the presidency shouldn’t reside with a non-priesthood holder. So a woman, even if she was the best at running the farm, could never make a final decision?, I asked. The best decisions would be confirmed by the priesthood, he affirmed. We didn’t resolve the issue at the time, but I learned shortly thereafter that my friend had decided that he wouldn’t participate directly in the project. And, honestly, the project never really came to fruition. Not even the family wanted to live under the rule of their patriarchal priesthood bearers.

Why bring this up? Because this is a mistake that I’ve seen acted out again and again amongst us Mormons. While we state that we believe that “No power or influence can or ought to be maintained by virtue of the priesthood,” we frequently give more weight to the potential of priesthood insight than we should. We value a priesthood blessing more than a mother’s heartfelt prayer. We talk about how great it is to have the priesthood in the house when the son of a single mother turns twelve. I remember once, in another setting, my wife’s visiting teachers asked me if I wanted to choose who would give the closing prayer for their visit. I hadn’t participated in the visit and everyone there was the same age. It was a shockingly weird moment.

Whatever power or authority you are granted as a bearer of the priesthood in an ecclesiastical setting, that setting does not extend outside of whatever church calling you have been given. It does not extend to any position you hold outside of that context. Not to you as a father, a banker, an investor, a doctor, a salesman, or in any other setting. The priesthood is not a superpower; it is the right to act in the name of God in the manner authorized by him. Just deciding that, since someone has the priesthood, they are a better candidate for some position is like saying that just because someone receives revelation, they should be everyone’s banker. God doesn’t particularly care about your financial portfolio; we all know he’d rather you stopped caring about your 401k and gave it to the poor anyway.

For worldly attainments, which just about everything outside the church is (and possibly a couple things within it), Christ counselled that we learn the ways of mammon. That’s not necessarily knowledge you want in an ecclesiastical leader, but you definitely need it in an accountant. And, so far as I can tell, the status of one’s genitalia is irrelevant as well. If someone is insisting that priesthood makes them extra qualified for some position (leadership or otherwise), then perhaps they are aware that they are missing all other qualifications.


  1. First of all, weird story. Second, this is such an important point. Thanks for a great post!

  2. I’ve been wondering lately why I, as a single adult, am seemingly unable to hold a stake SA meeting without a “presiding” priesthood holder (namely a stake presidency counsellor or a high counsellor, despite holding the priesthood myself). I wasn’t aware that the priesthood held the magical power to run a meeting and was needed to decide on what activities the SA should run.

    I believe that the priesthood is a real thing, but I am sick of the beaucrocracy that accompanies it. It’s possible that a group of mature single adults actually can’t be trusted to hold a meeting un-chaperoned by a married, middle-aged man but I’ve yet to find a gospel teaching that explains this.

  3. I recently sat through a temple sealing where the sealer repeatedly, happily reminded the attendees that as we are obedient, we will all be blessed with “all that the Father hath!” …Holding my tongue required effort, but I didn’t think this was an ideal setting for arguing/ explaining how very steeped his simple statement was in male privilege/priesthood bias. I am, according to the Gospel/ temple/ scriptures, not destined for “all that the Father hath.” As a woman, it has been pointed out to me very clearly that I actually *don’t have* the priesthood, but I *do* have access to it… let me put this into suburban Mormon terms: you don’t have a family cabin, but you do have access to it!…So, which sounds more like what the Father hath?… The cabin?…or access to it?

  4. Your post points out a big problem with the female priesthood ban: It teaches Mormons that the most godly way of doing something, anything, regardless of how religious or secular it is, is to exclude women. It impacts the way Mormons think of women well beyond the (already huge) limitations set on women by church policy.

    By the way, I don’t believe that church policy lets only men preside over meetings because they have the priesthood; I believe these rules stem from a secular tradition in 1840s upstate New York that we unfortunately adopted and hauled all the way to Utah with us. When it got weird to bar women from presiding over meetings because secular society had stopped doing that, priesthood became our explanation for keeping the sexist tradition alive.

  5. Searching, I understand where you are coming from. Personally, though, I would think it more accurate to say that women are not destined for all the father hath according to *some* parts of the scriptures and temple ceremony, but that women *are* clearly destined for all the father hath, according to other parts. The scriptures and revelation are not of one voice on that point, hence the confusion, but I personally choose to trust in the promises that all who come unto Christ will inherit all that he has, and my approach as to those parts that seem to contradict that promises is that either they are wrong and will change our we don’t understand them and our understanding of them will change. But that’s just me. I don’t pretend to have the answers.

  6. In the last few years I’ve taken on a number of leadership roles through work and the community. As a woman, it was difficult at first to function within mixed gender groups as it was so hard-wired into me to defer to the male presider. I got over that though and now I have a hard time with church groups as they seem so weird. I like in the community that when one speaks one’s words are evaluated on skills, knowledge, background equal to every other person’s in the room without gender/priesthood bias. At church (even in just say SS) when a bishop/stake leader/(sometimes)priesthood holder voices an opinion, he is correct and the conversation ends. (and boy do they shut down when I’m teaching and I say something along the lines of “that’s an interesting opinion and I can see you feel deeply about it, does anyone have any other ways to look at this topic?”)

    While women are always at the bottom of the preside pyramid, this goes hand-in-hand with leadership worship. Men lesser in the priesthood also must always defer as well regardless of whether they are better situated to understand a problem.

    And then the truly funny thing is that by becoming outspoken and confident about my often out-of-the-box viewpoint of the church, I’ve pretty much barred myself from participating in leadership councils/roles outside of Christmas party committees. While at the exact same time, I’m more and more being recruited in the community for large-scale projects. I’ve decided this is a good thing and I focus my volunteer work, community activism, and (obviously) profession away from LDS borders. It’s a loss for the church though, and I imagine if it is true of me, it’s just as true for other women. The church loses some very valuable skills.

    I also have my daughters involved in a community program where they work on a level playing field with boys so that they learn how to function in leadership capacities without either the separation of the sexes or the auto-deferral to men found within the church.

  7. Adam Ellsworth says:

    John C.,
    I have always understood that scripture in D&C 121 differently. You understand it as “No power or influence can or ought to be maintained by virtue of the priesthood [Stop] Only by persuasion, long-suffering, gentleness and meekness, etc.” I understand it to be a kind of archaic (at the time, scriptural) way of saying, The only way we should exercise power or influence with the priesthood is by persuasion, long-suffering, gentleness and meekness, etc.

    I found the rest of your post interesting as well, and would add that even inside the church, there are roles and callings that I think are un-necessarily limited to those who hold an office in the Priesthood.

    I don’t believe that the term “all that the Father hath” refers specifically to the Priesthood, if the Priesthood is defined as the authority to act in the name of God. I understand the term to refer to our eternal life (thy dominion shall be an everlasting dominion…), and not our earthly life, and in our eternal life, I don’t see how the Priesthood would still make sense. Assuming we accept as doctrine that we have the potential to live as God lives, we will in the eternities not be acting under his authority, but under our own. Priesthood seems to me to be a construct that is useful up until humanity achieves Eternal Life, but doesn’t make sense thereafter (when we will not need God’s authority to act, since we will be in a state like Him), at least as it is presently defined. That’s the long way of saying, I do believe everyone is promised all that the Father hath, in terms of power, glory, and authority, and you are not merely promised “access” to all that the Father hath. Even in the short term, you are not kept from God’s authority to act in whatever your sphere of influence may be. I took from Elder Oaks’s talk on the topic that a Relief Society president, for example, exercises the priesthood (authority to act in the name of God) in her calling, although she does not hold an office in the Priesthood organization of the church. Having said all that, and it is a lot, I am fully aware and am not trying to minimize that you are kept from significant leadership positions in the church and from holding offices in the Priesthood. But from our perspective of becoming, in the eternities, like our Father in Heaven, I think the sealer was right.

  8. “Not even the family wanted to live under the rule of their patriarchal priesthood bearers.”

    Much more likely they dreaded the thought of living in backwoods Missouri. ;)

  9. Adam –
    I like your perspective, but how does Heavenly Mother fit into it? If we won’t need His authority (male or female) in a celestial world because we each have our own, then where is Her authority now and why don’t we need it in the same vital way we need His?

  10. ReT,
    we’re straying far from scripture and church doctrine, but I personally believe they are the same authority. It is the authority to act in the name of God (Father and Mother). Perhaps our Heavenly Parents have separate and independent authority, but I think they are one in spirit in a very eternal way that means exercising one’s authority righteously means exercising the other’s. Totally non-doctrinal and non-revealed, but it rings true to me.

  11. On top of all this, the notion that priesthood is something you can “hold” is a uniquely modern LDS concept developed in the 1830s. It does not appear in either the Bible or the Book or Mormon. Priesthood, in those books and in the larger Christian world today, is one of two things: (1) it is the state of being a priest, just as parenthood is the state of being a parent, and (2) it is a collective body of priests, just as a neighborhood is a collective body of neighbors. These are representative of how the suffix “-hood” operates in language. LDS priesthood is a linguistic anomaly. There was no such thing in the ancient world as a thing called “priesthood” that a person could hold or receive or bestow. Such a notion is a modern invention. Perhaps we need to rethink the idea from the ground floor up.

  12. I have organized a number of men’s groups not part of any Church function but involving all Mormon men. One of our two or three guiding principles for discussion is that nobody gets a trump by reason of Church calling. It’s been interesting to see how real the effect is, in a group of only men but including present and former stake presidents and bishops (and other callings) where there is a cultural expectation of authority.
    I agree with the OP (almost to the word, except that the last sentence is a little snarky for my taste, although I did chuckle). Apart from the weird and interesting story about a Missouri commune, it seems to me pretty standard teaching, that runs counter to cultural Mormonism. And for that reason, saying it again–however right and true–will not change anything. I do believe that irrespective of doctrine or teachings, the only way to address the cultural accession of power and authority to male priesthood holders is to ordain women.

  13. I agree it’s all speculation (not trying to pin you down). I think I run into a big wall of ‘why can’t women have the priesthood now’ though if HF and HM share an equal priesthood between themselves. And that turns into the rabbit hole of ‘What is wrong with us mortal women?’ What did we do? Was it Eve? Are we less? Is our lack of Priesthood now just a big misunderstanding?

    I’m not asking you (or anyone else) to have answers to any of that. I’m also iffy on E.Oaks explanations on women already employing the priesthood as a good lot of things that he calls women using it are gifts of the spirit equally employed by non-Christians.

  14. wreddyornot says:

    “God doesn’t particularly care about your financial portfolio; we all know *he*’d rather you stopped caring about your 401k and gave it to the poor anyway.” [Emphasis mine.]

    To begin addressing male privilege and priesthood bias, it seems to me we men should be very, very careful to quit referring to “God” as only “he”. Your link even says “…But God said unto him…” not “…But the Father said unto him…” or some such. Also, we need to entertain all sincere questioning, no matter the questioner or context, inside or outside the church. There should, of course, be an agreed to decorum.

    I pretty much agree “that irrespective of doctrine or teachings, the only way to address the cultural accession of power and authority to male priesthood holders is to ordain women.”

  15. Fair enough, wreddy. I’ve clearly got plenty of blind spots myself. Thank you for noting that one.

  16. Wally, you’ve done a good job at articulating the same concerns I’ve had with the uniquely Mormon concept of priesthood. Just last month I really goofed up my efforts to explain to my ward’s missionaries why I view the priesthood as just a temporal bit player in our eternal existence. If you’re right about Mormonism’s inaccurate definition of the concept of the priesthood as something to possess, it explains why John has reason to lament that we “value a priesthood blessing more than a mother’s heartfelt prayer.”

    I agree with your call to see reevaluation of the priesthood from the “ground floor up,” but getting the entire Church to properly validate notions that women have equal ability to call down heaven by removing the thing-that-one-possess from its official definition of priesthood may just be too big a task. Church leadership and majority membership has never been incapable of *adjusting* doctrinal definitions, but it may be incapable of *redefining* them.

  17. I’ll finish my thought. If I were to see an ideal redefinition of the priesthood within the Church, it would be to maintain the idea that members (not holders) of the priesthood offer more inspired spiritual guidance (while rooting out dogmas that equate temporal success to increased spiritual leadership qualities) while conceding that one’s ability to join the priesthood is not limited by gender. If women could just be ordained, the redefinition of the member vs. holder concept would perhaps be easier to pull off.

  18. “Assuming we accept as doctrine that we have the potential to live as God lives, we will in the eternities not be acting under his authority, but under our own.”

    But will women have their own “authority” or will they be acting under their husband’s? What does “unto your husband” mean?

  19. Moss,

    In what context are you asking what “unto your husband” means? Is there a context where it is stated or implied that as eternal beings women will submit to men as your question seems to me to imply?

    And as to your first question, again, no one knows, but my own common sense, of which I have a very high opinion, tells me eternal glorified beings don’t act on others’ authority.

  20. The word preceding ‘unto’ is ‘priestess’ if my memory of the temple ceremony is correct. So much of our understanding of roles in the eternities comes down to the temple.

  21. If this conversation isn’t about women and priesthood ordination, then I don’t know what exactly the “privilege” in the title “male privilege” is referring to. My understanding of the Priesthood, i.e. the definition I’ve been taught my whole life is the power and authority to act in God’s name. Elder Oaks explanation of “when women have a calling you use priesthood authority” sounds exactly like my “access to the family cabin” analogy (3rd comment on the stream.) It’s a promise of conditional priesthood access, conditional on holding a calling. When a man is ordained he’s been given God’s power, and the potential to use the authority as needed, sans calling (but also with a calling when applicable). Which is why as a disciple of Christ, I follow Christ and take on his name, but when the rubber meets the road, it’s the men folk that *really* represent Christ (Bishop, temple, etc.)

    The temple covenants that link a women to her husband, but then a man to God, doesn’t offer much encouragement in me believing that we all, *both* genders will eventually get all the Father Hath. To quote a favorite Disney movie “Sky High”, it’s clear to me that as a women, I’ve been assigned to be the “Sidekick.”

    Our gender roles as outlined in the temple also do not point toward a destiny of me obtaining all that the Father hath: different roles, different covenants, different results. I’m receiving the message that I’m eternally married to someone who will eventually obtain all that the Father hath (and I’m part of that gift to him.) If I’m wrong, the temple ceremonies need to change to reflect something different. If I’m right, we need to be a whole lot more transparent about our gender divide, and abandon the “equal partners” rhetoric.

    If the discussion isn’t about female ordination, than the conversation should really raise answers to the question: How can Priesthood holders, especially those with influential leadership positions, be nicer and more sensitive to those who will have eternal “sidekick” status?

    And one last question: What is a man unable to do *because* he holds the priesthood? Because as a woman, I know what I’m unable to do because I don’t.

  22. So many points to disagree with:

    1) This post sounds like a total rejection of the patriarchal priesthood that structures kinship relations. As such, I find it entirely at odds with quite a bit of JS’s Nauvoo teachings.

    2) It then goes on to minimize priesthood power even further by suggesting that a priesthood blessing with consecrated oil is largely expendable, it being no more than a prayer from less invested strangers.

    3) It also attempts to reduce priesthood authority to expertise and other such secular qualifications that might be found on a resume. This, however, is an very modern ideology that simply cannot be found in scripture.

  23. Hi Adam E,

    The context of “unto your husband” is in the temple ceremony. The man’s promises are “unto the Most High” and the woman’s promises are “unto your husband”. So my question is, will a woman have authority that is her own or will it be borrowed authority fromher husband?

  24. Jeff – Your #2 is one of those things that is slightly off topic, but that I’ve wanted to ask for a while. It’s going to come off as snarky and I generally don’t mean it to be. I can’t see though how a priesthood blessing with consecrated oil is more powerful than a prayer from a woman (or a non-priesthood man or even non-mormon). My question then is how is it more powerful? What is different about a consecrated blessing with oil as compared to a prayer?

  25. ReT:

    Like Adam’s sacrifice, I know not, save that it is commanded. If I were to offer a secular guess, it would be that one of the two approaches is far more individualistic and privatized than the other. Bringing church leaders just is to bring in an entire social structure and its resources.

    Kathleen Flake’s recent paper “Ordering Antinomy” presents a very different picture than that defended in the OP. More or less, she argues that JS saw priesthood as being a means of mediating, structuring and empowering people through various lines of particularistic and ascriptive bonds of rights and duties within a universal hierarchy of prophets. ,

    Very roughly, church members were supposed to be integrated within overlapping hierarchies of church office, various councils and kinship lines. Within these lines, women were given the power that priesthood authority offers, but not the authority to preside. The whole point of this priesthood empowerment was that priesthood power is more potent (in some sense or another) than a mere heartfelt prayer. I’m guessing that this is the difference between commanding evil spirits to depart vs asking God to defend us from evil spirits.

  26. Thank you Jeff, for highlighting how important and valuable the priesthood ordinances/ consecrated blessings are… Which further magnifies my point/question, what about the women?

  27. Jeff –

    Thank you for your response. It is thoughtful, and I’ll have to look up Ordering Antinomy (as the name itself is intriguing on its own). It would seem from your (recognizably brief) explanation of her arguments that we’ve failed in our usage of the priesthood. I have read a bit about JS’s organizing around family lines as part of raising Zion. It seems like we left his version behind when the saints went west and then slowly moved away from even a focus on ‘lines’ beyond priesthood ordinations (ie. my hubby has a paper listing who gave who the priesthood all the way back to JS) as the church grew worldwide. (Although perhaps Flake argues otherwise.)

    I don’t know that any of that answers the fundamental question of what is different though. I love the word ‘commanding.’ I think that is exactly the picture I got growing up in the church. The Priesthood commanded the elements. The Priesthood commanded an illness to depart. (All very much related to Jesus in the N.T.) But that’s not how we use the priesthood today either. I don’t know that the Priesthood actually does much commanding any more either way (although I could be wrong about that). I’m even less certain that if/when a priesthood holder commands an illness to depart, rain to come, etc. that it makes any big difference (as compared to prayer). ‘Command’ has an immediacy to it that requires an answer. I do believe deeply in the power of prayer and miracles (to be clear).

  28. After several years of working together, I’ve developed a fantastic professional relationship based on mutual respect with a male LDS colleague of mine. He’s very TBM, served on bishoprics, etc. With the background we have together, were we in SS, or in a ward council meeting in the same ward I know he would evaluate my comments, opinions, etc. in a non-biased way (like ReT discusses above), something I cannot say about many of my male LDS acquaintances. Which has me thinking.

    How much easier is it for us to fall back into this deference to priesthood insight when we are acquaintances vs. when we have deeper relationships? And how much is this compounded by the social reluctance of LDS men and women, when not married to each other, to even get to know each other beyond minimal small talk at church functions? My experience meeting male members in our new ward goes like this: Pleasantries and handshake to my husband, some discussion about his work. A slight nod to me without even asking my name, and then moving on. I’m not saying having deep relationships is the goal. Just that in my experience when they occur the bias lessens. Which I think just emphasizes its existence.

    We met our new bishopric this week. They turned to my husband with a “Brother, this is your house. Who would you like to give the prayer before we go.” I was literally cut off by their body language. I imagine they considered it a sign of respect to my husband, since he’s the priesthood holder. But it’s also a sign of disrespect to me, highlighting my lack of holding the priesthood and the social/cultural benefits that come from that.

  29. Hi Jeff,

    I have questions.

    1) This post sounds like a total rejection of the patriarchal priesthood that structures kinship relations. As such, I find it entirely at odds with quite a bit of JS’s Nauvoo teachings.
    I’m not sure what you mean by this. Could you be a bit more explicit?

    2) It then goes on to minimize priesthood power even further by suggesting that a priesthood blessing with consecrated oil is largely expendable, it being no more than a prayer from less invested strangers.
    This is not what I was doing. I was saying that I thought that a mother’s prayer (or any sincere prayer) probably does as much to sway the Lord regarding someone’s health as a priesthood blessing (which is, of itself, a sincere prayer, accompanied by a priesthood ordinance). For that matter, the gift of healing is not exclusively associated with anything that we’d recognize in our modern sense of priesthood in scripture. People are healed at a word, via handkerchief, by a touch in a crowd. Are these healings less true because they didn’t come to pass via a modern priesthood ordinance?

    3) It also attempts to reduce priesthood authority to expertise and other such secular qualifications that might be found on a resume. This, however, is an very modern ideology that simply cannot be found in scripture.
    I’d like you to pinpoint the spot when I attempted this, because it wasn’t my intent and I don’t think it is in the opening post. This feels like a misreading to me.

    As ever, Your obedient servant,
    John C.

  30. On a side note, the difference between a priesthood ordinance and a sincere prayer is, I think, that sincere prayer is mostly (but not always) a private communion between an individual and God. An ordinance is a public ritual (relatively) in which someone, authorized in the name of the Lord, is capable of sealing blessings and making promises in the name of the Lord when so moved by the Spirit. But both can be effective, in scripture and history, in bringing about the gifts of faith.

  31. Hi John – From what you said, the goal of a blessing and a prayer are ‘bringing about the gifts of faith.’ Which then would not necessarily mean that the same gift of faith that was being sought was actually received. A blessing may be for healing, the healing doesn’t happen, but the person is comforted in their trials. That makes sense and avoids the problem of ‘commanding’ things that don’t then actually occur.

    I like the of public ritual vs. private communication aspect. I suppose the public ritual draws on the faith of many, which is a positive on a number of levels. I’m still left with why women must be left out of public rituals, but then I’m iffy about humans being capable of “making promises in the name of the Lord” because it goes back to individuals (or groups) commanding things that then don’t occur. I’ll conceded that the process may not be a simple as I want to make it though.

  32. ReT,
    Don’t tell anyone, but I have an Ordain Women profile. I agree that there is a lot about the exclusion of women from priesthood ordinances that makes no sense.

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