Women and the Priesthood

I was asked to teach Relief Society this week because the regular teacher was out of town.   The topic?  The Keys and Authority of the Priesthood.  No pressure, right?

It’s no secret that the Priesthood has become quite the topic of debate within the last few years.  Since I write my lessons out in the same way I write Sacrament meeting talks, I thought I would post it here.  Feel free to read on or not :)  Please keep in mind that I am not a spokeswomen for The Church.  I am simply a women with a testimony of the Restored Gospel of Jesus Christ.


The Keys and Authority of the Priesthood

When I was a Relief Society teacher several years ago it was the dreaded, “Chastity Lesson” that made us all sweat bullets. But the priesthood has become a subject filled with so much debate and contention within the last few years that it makes me look at the chastity lesson with longing.

As with most things in life, contention often is born out of an innocent misunderstanding: Misunderstandings of both the motivations of the people involved and/or of the subject itself. In this case the subject being the nature, keys, and authority of the priesthood.

In his talk during April’s general conference, Elder Oaks says:

While addressing a women’s conference, Relief Society general president Linda K. Burton said, “We hope to instill within each of us a greater desire to better understand the priesthood.” That need applies to all of us, and I will pursue it by speaking of the keys and authority of the priesthood…. Priesthood power blesses all of us.

President Joseph F. Smith described the priesthood as “the power of God delegated to man by which man can act in the earth for the salvation of the human family.”

So, in the simplest terms, the Priesthood is God’s power on earth.

The understanding we seek begins with an understanding of the keys of the priesthood. “Priesthood keys are the authority God has given to priesthood [holders] to direct, control, and govern the use of His priesthood on earth. Every act or ordinance performed in the Church is done under the direct or indirect authorization of one holding the keys for that function.

In the controlling of the exercise of priesthood authority, the function of priesthood keys both enlarges and limits. It enlarges by making it possible for priesthood authority and blessings to be available for all of God’s children. It limits by directing who will be given the authority of the priesthood, who will hold its offices, and how its rights and powers will be conferred. For example, a person who holds the priesthood is not able to confer his office or authority on another unless authorized by one who holds the keys. Without that authorization, the ordination would be invalid.

I remember hearing a story about a wedding in which a member of the church was the best man. Towards the end of the ceremony the person performing the wedding turned to the man and asked, “What is it you Mormon’s say when you get married?” He looked at him and said, “Uh… ‘time and all eternity'”. Then the priest says, “that sounds good, I now pronounce you man and wife for time and all eternity.”  Clearly saying the words doesn’t make it so.  Proper authority is necessary.

But what about those who ARE priesthood holders and DO have that specific priesthood authority?

This explains why a priesthood holder—regardless of office—cannot ordain a member of his family or administer the sacrament in his own home without authorization from the one who holds the appropriate keys.

Matt’s family was visiting us over Christmas. His dad had recently had major surgery and during the weeks of the visit he spend most of his time in bed recovering. During the one of the Sunday’s he was with us we had no less than four worthy Elders under our roof. Yet they were not allowed to administer the sacrament to their father without permission from our local bishop, which we quickly received. These rules have nothing to do with worthiness or ability and everything to do with the organization and order in which the ordinance must be performed.

Doctrine and Covenants 132:8 says:

Behold, mine house is a house of order, saith the Lord God, and not a house of confusion.

It is for this same reason that men who have been released from their role as bishop are not allowed to perform marriages, nor are temple workers (male and female) able to perform ordinances in temples other than the one they were called to serve in without permission.

Ultimately, all keys of the priesthood are held by the Lord Jesus Christ, whose priesthood it is. He is the one who determines what keys are delegated to mortals and how those keys will be used. We are accustomed to thinking that all keys of the priesthood were conferred on Joseph Smith in the Kirtland Temple, but the scripture states that all that was conferred there were “the keys of this dispensation” (D&C 110:16). At general conference many years ago, President Spencer W. Kimball reminded us that there are other priesthood keys that have not been given to man on the earth, including the keys of creation and resurrection.

We come now to the subject of priesthood authority.

Elder Oaks says:

 I begin with the three principles just discussed: (1) priesthood is the power of God delegated to man to act for the salvation of the human family, (2) priesthood authority is governed by priesthood holders who hold priesthood keys, and (3) since the scriptures state that “all other authorities [and] offices in the church are appendages to this [Melchizedek] priesthood” (D&C 107:5), all that is done under the direction of those priesthood keys is done with priesthood authority.

How does this apply to women?

President [Joseph Fielding] Smith said again and again that women have been given authority. To the women he said, “You can speak with authority, because the Lord has placed authority upon you.” He also said that the Relief Society “[has] been given power and authority to do a great many things. The work which they do is done by divine authority.”

As Elder Oaks continues that thought by saying:

We are not accustomed to speaking of women having the authority of the priesthood in their Church callings, but what other authority can it be? When a woman—young or old—is set apart to preach the gospel as a full-time missionary, she is given priesthood authority to perform a priesthood function. The same is true when a woman is set apart to function as an officer or teacher in a Church organization under the direction of one who holds the keys of the priesthood. Whoever functions in an office or calling received from one who holds priesthood keys exercises priesthood authority in performing her or his assigned duties.

Any number of people who have served in callings in the church (large or small) can tell us how the Lord has guided them in their service.  The Lord guiding us in our callings IS Priesthood power and authority!  Today in class, one sister shared how the Priesthood Authority she had been given in her calling allowed her to feel individual love for each other people under her stewardship.  That’s not the kind of thing we can accomplish on our own.

The same is principle applies in our homes.  Elder Oaks touched on this issue in 2005 in his talk Priesthood Authority in the Family and In The Church.  He said:

My father died when I was seven. I was the oldest of three small children our widowed mother struggled to raise. When I was ordained a deacon, she said how pleased she was to have a priesthood holder in the home. But Mother continued to direct the family, including calling on which one of us would pray when we knelt together each morning. I was puzzled. I had been taught that the priesthood presided in the family. There must be something I didn’t know about how that principle worked…

This specific issue about priesthood authority in the home I have seen come up again and again in the months leading up to this last General Conference. I’ve read story after story about how single mothers are pushed aside as soon as their sons are ordained to the priesthood and they allow their sons to act as an authority in the home.  This kind of thing is, as Elder Oaks said, directly a result of a misunderstanding of the order of priesthood authority in the home.

He says:

 …while this authority presides in both the family and the Church, the priesthood functions in a different way in each of them… Some of our abbreviated expressions, like “the women and the priesthood,” convey an erroneous idea. Men are not “the priesthood.” … The authority of the priesthood functions in the family and in the Church, according to the principles the Lord has established.  When my father died, my mother presided over our family. She had no priesthood office, but as the surviving parent in her marriage she had become the governing officer in her family…

We as women and mothers have the right to revelation not just for ourselves but also for anyone under our stewardship including our children. Revelation for our family absolutely comes under the “priesthood authority” umbrella that we have been given by our Heavenly Father himself.  In 2005 Elder Oaks goes on to specify again the difference in Priesthood authority within the church and priesthood authority within the family.

One important difference between its function in the Church and in the family is the fact that all priesthood authority in the Church functions under the direction of the one who holds the appropriate priesthood keys. In contrast, the authority that presides in the family—whether father or single-parent mother—functions in family matters without the need to get authorization from anyone holding priesthood keys. This family authority includes directing the activities of the family, family meetings like family home evenings, family prayer, teaching the gospel, and counseling and disciplining family members. It also includes ordained fathers giving priesthood blessings

This is because the organization the Lord has made responsible for the performance and recording of priesthood ordinances is the Church, not the family.

Back to this April’s talk:

The Lord has directed that only men will be ordained to offices in the priesthood. But, as various Church leaders have emphasized, men are not “the priesthood”.

We’ve all heard the joke, “sure, I hold the priesthood, I hold the priesthood every night when he comes home from work.” And most of us get a good chuckle but in all honesty we do ourselves, and the church as a whole, a disservice when we allow ourselves to become casual in our speech, especially of these sacred things.

Men aren’t the priesthood. Men are ordained to priesthood offices and hold the keys to administering the sacred ordinances necessary for this earthly life. I know that can seem like a silly distinction, especially when we have been saying it these kinds of things for so long, but in this last Conference we were reminded again how important it is for us to refer to our church by it’s proper name.

Confusion and misunderstandings result when we don’t speak properly.  Another seemingly insignificant example is when I quote scriptures I try to remember and use the entire name of “Doctrine and Covenants” rather than the oft used abbreviation, because to the world at large “D&C” is commonly known as a medical procedure. You can imagine the kind of confusion this might have when speaking to a non-member or new convert (especially one in the medical field).

Referring to the men as “the priesthood” and using similar expressions create confusion and as the scriptures have told us, Behold, mine house is a house of order, saith the Lord God, and not a house of confusion.

Men hold the priesthood, with a sacred duty to use it for the blessing of all of the children of God.

The greatest power God has given to His sons cannot be exercised without the companionship of one of His daughters, because only to His daughters has God given the power “to be a creator of bodies … so that God’s design and the Great Plan might meet fruition.”

…This is the place of our wives and of our mothers in the Eternal Plan. They are not bearers of the Priesthood; they are not charged with carrying out the duties and functions of the Priesthood; nor are they laden with its responsibilities; they are builders and organizers under its power, and partakers of its blessings, possessing the complement of the Priesthood powers and possessing a function as divinely called, as eternally important in its place as the Priesthood itself.

In those inspired words, President Clark was speaking of the family. As stated in the family proclamation, the father presides in the family and he and the mother have separate responsibilities, but they are “obligated to help one another as equal partners.” Some years before the family proclamation, President Spencer W. Kimball gave this inspired explanation: “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.”

In the eyes of God, whether in the Church or in the family, women and men are equal, with different responsibilities.

Behold, mine house is a house of order, saith the Lord God, and not a house of confusion.

 Our Church doctrine places women equal to and yet different from men. God does not regard either gender as better or more important than the other. …

When men and women go to the temple, they are both endowed with the same power, which is priesthood power. … Access to the power and the blessings of the priesthood is available to all of God’s children.

In conclusion I would like to go back to something Elder Oaks said earlier. He said, “”there are other priesthood keys that have NOT been given to man on the earth.”

The talk that Elder Oaks referenced called Our Great Potential and it was given by President Kimball in May of 1977. It is an excellent talk and I highly recommend that you take the time to read it.

In it he says, “President Brigham Young, the second president of this dispensation, said: “It is supposed by this people that we have all the ordinances in our possession for life and salvation, and exaltation, and that we are administering in those ordinances. This is not the case.”  Can you realize even slightly how relatively little we know? As Paul said, “Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him.”

I remember teaching Spencer’s sunbeam class and week after week the lessons seemed like HUGE oversimplifications of Gospel principles. When I teach my kids at home it’s the same thing.  Spencer will ask me a question on economics and I have to explain it to him in oversimplified and hyperbolic terms in order for his six-year-old brain to understand.  As my kids grow they become more and more capable of understanding the grey along with the black and white.

WE are those children. Our mortal minds can only just barely glimpse into the eternities.

The priesthood is so much bigger than we think it is. In our limited understanding far too many of us choose to view an earthly, organizational method as a weapon or justification to divide us from other faithful Latter-Day Saints. I am guilty of this myself. I am judgmental and frustrated. But the truth is that just because I don’t struggle with this particular issue doesn’t mean I am any more faithful or obedient than those who do. I’m content with the fact that the Lord’s house is a house of order and this is how he has chosen to organize it, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have my own personal struggles within the Gospel. Nor does a questioning heart make us bad or unworthy.

The Golden plates were shown to Joseph Smith because he asked for guidance. The ordinances of baptism and eternal marriage, the ordination of the priesthood, and the construction of the temples were all revealed to Joseph Smith because he had a question in his heart and took it to the Lord. In the lifetime of many of the people reading this, ordination to priesthood offices had routinely been denied to many faithful men within church. Going to the Lord with an honest question and a pure heart is not a problem and we should never allow our easy acceptance of a gospel principle to divide us from those who have more difficulty.

I, for one, can willingly admit that I would really struggle if I were asked to do many of the things that the early Saints had to endure. Like sending husbands and fathers off for years at a time to preach the gospel, picking up and leaving most possessions behind to be eagerly stolen by unscrupulous neighbors, or leaving behind the temple that they had spent years building with their own hands to an unknown fate. Yet thousands of our ancestors did those things over and over again and have testified of the blessings that they took part in.

In her most recent books Sheri Dew said, “Life isn’t really about this life. It’s about what comes next.”

In our struggles in this life we should support each other and lift each other up, and prepare ourselves for what is coming next. We cannot allow our limited, mortal understanding to drive us apart nor can we allow our pride to drive us to un-Christ-like behavior and thoughts. The Lord’s house is a house of order and a house divided against it-self cannot stand.  As different as we all are we STILL need each other more than ever.  Let’s not allow the distractions of the world confuse our mission to bring others unto Christ.


4 Comments Add yours

  1. Angela says:

    Courtney, I absolutely loved this post and the way you so easily and logically laid out the doctrine. Bravo!


    1. Thanks Angela! It certainly is a hot topic these days :)


  2. Natalie says:

    I am giving a lesson in Relief Society about Dallin H. Oak’s talk from last conference, and I would love to use some of your thoughts from this post. You expressed your thoughts so beautifully, and I was wondering if you could email me this post so I can reread it and use some of your examples. Thank you!


    1. Absolutely! Good luck on your lesson and let me know how it is received. The feedback I got was very good (and I live in a very liberal area). I honestly have no idea if anyone in my ward sympathizes with the current controversy, but I was told the lesson was “very diplomatic”.


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