As a Mormon and a feminist, over the years there have been more than a few culturally-driven doctrinal explanations that have caused me to raise an eyebrow (or mutter frustratedly under my breathe to my husband... or come home ranting and raving... but let's stick to the more socially appropriate eyebrow lift ;). There are a lot of explanations given in Mormon circles that have been passed down through the eons of Sunday School, and some are more doctrinally sound than others. Here are just two of the many that have stood out to me over the years:
First, the "roles" of men and women in the church. I prefer thinking of them as stewardships--elaborated on here-- but in mainstream discussion the conversation tends to go something like this:
"Now what is the most important role of women in God's Plan?"
"And what is the most important role of men in God's Plan?"
??? I've always been utterly perpelexed by this conclusion, but it seems a pretty common explanation. Here's my question-- isn't the ultimate point of God's plan that both men and women become like God-- Eternal Parents? In other words, isn't the most important role and experience for both women and men alike that of parenthood? If not, why do we call God "Heavenly Father" as opposed to "Great Priesthood Holder of all the Universe"? I think the distinction that we call him Father is a very important one. Fatherhood is the crowning experience for men, and priesthood responsibilities are currently an appendage to that, aiding men in the process of becoming like our Father in Heaven. More on that later.
Most members, when asked the question of why women don't have the priesthood in our Church, respond with something along the lines of:
"Men have priesthood and women have motherhood. Both are equally important to God."
This response has always caused a lot of confusion, because once we establish that fatherhood/motherhood are actually the most important responsibility for both men and women, why then would we equate motherhood with priesthood? Shouldn't we instead be equating motherhood with fatherhood? It seems a natural comparison since the two literally require each other, they are meant to last forever together, and they are the ultimate eternal objective of every striving latter-day-saint. That being the case, the question of why women don't have priesthood becomes even more pressing, since fatherhood is actually the equivalent of motherhood. Therefore priesthood must be some kind of extra-- a special treatment/responsibility that only men are able to have. Indeed this sentiment was confirmed to me recently when I taught Sunday School to a group of 8-year-olds about Priesthood, and when asked about what was required to receive the priesthood, the students let me know "being a boy" was required, and that boys can receive the priesthood at age 12. Then one of the female students piped in "And we get nothing!" The rest of the girls nodded and looked around defeated, concurring with each other. I remember feeling the same way, and those sentiments only grew each time that someone told me motherhood was my equivalent to priesthood. "Thanks" I thought... but having babies really doesn't seem as appealing or important as providing the saving ordinances of the gospel, healing the sick, and sealing families together forever. Indeed, the fact that our lessons so frequently emphasize that the restoration of the priesthood is the element that makes our Church true and real only solidified in my mind the fact that priesthood was more important than having babies. It's hard to constantly hear lessons about how the restoration of the priesthood is what makes everything possible today-- essentially offering salvation to everyone-- and then have it followed up with something apologetic like "having children is really, really important though, and you're an important part of God's plan." Hmmm... okay sure.
So I was recently pondering on this conundrum, and because of inspiration garnered through prayer, fasting, and study, I have learned for myself the importance of providing life for God's children. The task of creating mortal bodies for the whole host of heaven is an incredible stewardship. In fact I am persuaded that, like our reverence for priesthood ordinances in mortal life, that we reverenced the ordinance of birth during our pre-mortal life (and we would do well to do so today).
But I was still a bit perplexed by the "motherhood is the equivalent of priesthood" logic, because I truly felt that fatherhood is the equivalent of motherhood, and shouldn't be constantly viewed in the gospel paradigm as some kind of appendage to the priesthood. As I continued to study this conundrum, I was able to carefully consider the stewardships of motherhood and fatherhood, which I've outlined as follows:
In order to recognize these parallel responsibilities, it was critical for me to begin seeing physical birth in a different light. Like many girls, I thought of birth as a painful necessity, something awful that I'd have to go through because of some unknown (and insane) reason. I even remember writing in my journal, under my list of questions I wanted to ask God someday when I met him again (classic right?), the following question: "Why do we have to have periods and go through birth? Was there seriously no other way that you could conceive of?!?!?" (no pun intended ;). As I matured I realized that I don't have to wait till I see God again to ask questions, even if they're hard questions. He has told us "Ask and ye shall receive, knock and it shall be opened unto you"-- and I have developed a faith that we can expect answers. So I began asking him these questions, and feel that he is trying to help me receive answers. There are so many layers to the answers, but one element I have felt is right is this: birth is an ordinance, an important gift that is the stewardship of God's daughters. This was confirmed to me by the fact that a woman who is sealed in the Temple, and who is living worthily, can give birth to her children in the covenant. By virtue of her covenant, her children are born within the covenant too. Accordingly, when children are born outside the covenant a priesthood ordinance has to occur to replace it-- children are sealed to their parents in the Temple, as though they were born in the covenant. In other words, not being born in the covenant requires a Priesthood ordinance to replace it. It's that important.
It is also important because it puts a special responsibility on covenant women to honor their covenants as a blessing to their children. One of the reasons I was reluctant to acknowledge birth as an important responsibility for women was because I figured almost every woman can give birth, so what's special about it? Unlike worthiness-based ordination to the priesthood, women can and frequently do give birth in undesirable circumstances into immoral and even abusive families and traditions. How could my ability to give birth be a special responsibility when practically any woman in the course of history could do the same? Thus you can see how special it was to me when I realized that worthiness and covenant-keeping create an important aspect of the birth process where children can be born in the covenant. Worthiness does matter.
I'd like to make an important point, for those women who adopt or who remain childless in this life. I have spent some time thinking about how adoption plays into all this this-- I have friends and family that have adopted, and I myself hope to adopt in the future. I think something important to remember is that this is not a competition-- if our children are sealed to us through a priesthood ordinance, that doesn't mean we've missed an important opportunity. That we failed and now our husbands have to pick up on the slack. On the contrary, our worthiness is important in that ordinance too, and it does not matter how are children are sealed to us. I think the only thing that matters is that when we do give birth, we should endeavor to do so in a manner that honors the experience as a sacred stewardship and type of the atonement.
Furthermore, to those who are unable to give birth in this life--whether due to infertility, the absence of a companion, same-sex attraction, or whatever-- this is only a temporary experience. Like the untold millions of men who were unable to hold the priesthood in this life-- whether because they lacked the gospel in their life or because they were excluded based on tribe, race, ethnicity, etc-- not everyone fulfills every aspect of stewardship in this life. It doesn't seem fair... and I'm sure it's not. In complete candor it is disheartening to me and the only insight I have for now is that truly, life is not fair nor was it meant to be nor will it ever be. Stewardship opportunities are just one aspect of a multifaceted life experience, an experience that constantly requires us to know that mortality is unfair. Fortunately, the ultimate outcome of mortality will be fair; as a result of the atonement, everyone is given the reward of resurrection (a reward that we didn't earn at all, so our reward is more than fair). Add to that our own righteous works and the fulfillment of whatever stewardships we are given in this life, and our reward can be compounded exponentially as we become joint-heirs with Christ and become like God. So while I sometimes get upset and bogged down by the injustice of our current circumstances, my heart is lifted up by the incredibly just--indeed merciful and amazing--rewards of this life. We can take comfort that where we face injustice in our lives now, our rewards will be just and our experiences full. Furthermore, I believe we still have progress to make as a church, so where current stewardships might be unfair to some now, I believe we could see changes in the future that reflect more eternal equality and partnership. The thoughts I shared above only speak to our current delineation of stewardships, which I believe could change or grow based on future revelation.
I'd also like to highlight that while men do currently hold the priesthood and give the gift of "spiritual birth," as I've identified it, I also believe that there are many important, complementary ways that women could be involved in the administration of the church. Indeed, if male priesthood authority represents a stewardship to administer the ordinances of the gospel (which isn't clear, it's just a notion I've proposed in this article), then it seems logical that women could be involved in a great many administrative capacities of the church. Even further, perhaps women could become more collaborative partners in the process of spiritual birth? (certainly, men are collaborators in physical birth) Currently, women are intimately involved in the administration of ordinances in the temple. So it's not clear, even if men are responsible for administering ordinances, why women couldn't be more involved in that process. Perhaps they could be. The beauty of a parallel-stewardship paradigm is that it reflects the need that men and women have for each other. It serves as a symbolic representation that "neither is the man without the woman, in the Lord." In my view, this need should not facilitate strict gender roles that divide us, in fact, my purpose in this article is specifically not to justify strict gender roles that separate men and women, and I hope readers don't use it in that way. Rather, I see this symbolic "need" between the genders as a way to facilitate equal partnership and collaboration (see this great article about stewardships). It should bring us closer together--facilitate our "one"-ness--rather than divide us as two totally separated halves of a whole. Instead, it should make us whole. The creation of life and birth, for example, are beautiful symbols of this collaboration, and it seems that we can still do better in reflecting that collaborative process in our administration of "spiritual re-birth", if you will. What that collaboration will look like eternally, I'm simply can't say, however I offered some possibilities for our current framework below (the second bulleted list).
On the note of making progress towards equality and partnership, I'd like to pose some additional questions.
- How do we change the paradigm from "Motherhood is the equivalent of priesthood" to "Motherhood and Fatherhood are complements"?
- How do we increase discussion of these topics in meaningful ways, and change rote (and flawed) explanations to meaningful, doctrinally-based answers?
- How do we stop dismissing the concerns of young women and their lack of priesthood opportunities and start changing our paradigm to include the whole picture of responsibilities and important contributions to God's plan?
- How do we even learn what those responsibilities and important contributions are, with limited resources about women?
- How do we fully incorporate women into the Church experience?
- When church functions and meetings are not priesthood/ordinance-specific, we should invite and include women. And why not include women? Our leaders have repeatedly acknowledged the ways that we benefit from the voices and contributions of women on councils. I can think of no doctrinal reason that women should not be involved.
- **UPDATE: the recent expansion of leadership roles for sister missionaries seems to reflect this principle, serving as just one example of practical ways we can accomplish this.
- Improve doctrinal teachings regarding Fatherhood and Motherhood. Rather than allowing culturally rote phrases like "motherhood is the equivalent of priesthood" to continue recycling through the discussions of the Church, we would benefit hugely from more clear and specific teachings on these topics. We can take initiative in our own circumstances to learn and provide more doctrinally consistent answers, and also acknowledge when we don't have answers (instead of giving platitudes as if they're truth).
- We could hear more from women at General Conference, include the Relief Society Broadcast as an official part of General Conference, and have women offer prayers in General Conference. I don't know what is keeping us from having women offer prayers at General Conference, but I can find no doctrinal reason to support it
- **UPDATE: women did indeed pray in the most recent session of Conference!