September 19, 2012 by J. Madson
Posted at Feminist Mormon Housewives. Originally posted Jan 28, 2011
My daughter turns 18 months old this week. To me, she is the living embodiment of perfection. Lately I wonder/worry how the church’s teachings about women and their place in our theology will affect her. In particular, I have been thinking about the priesthood ban on women. It seems to me, that the restriction of women is different than the prior ban placed on blacks. The ban on blacks not only denied access to the priesthood but temple ordinances and arguably exaltation itself, whereas women have access to ordinances, the temple, and salvation, albeit mediated through patriarchy.
My impression is that when we complain of priesthood restrictions on women, it is generally hierarchal authority that we have in mind.[i] LDS scriptures, however, suggest that priesthood is, or at least should be, separate from hierarchal authority and that attempts to join the two are folly.
This does not mean that power or authority cannot be associated with priesthood but D&C 121 suggests that power and authority stem from righteousness and not priesthood itself. This section states that:
“No power or influence can or ought to be maintained by virtue of the priesthood.”
“and that the powers of heaven cannot be controlled nor handled only upon the principles of righteousness.”
In my view, many of the “powers of heaven” we associate with priesthood are already available to every man, woman, and child based upon faith and righteousness. Gifts like prophecy, revelation, discernment, knowledge, wisdom, and even miracles, including healing, seem available independent of the church or priesthood.
“Who can deny such a power to another? No man. Who can bestow it on another? No man. We like to think that the Church is divided into those who have it and those who don’t have it; but it is the purest folly to assume that we can tell who has it and who does not… The result is, that if there is anyone who really holds the priesthood, no one is in a position to say who it is—only by the power to command the spirits and the elements is such a gift apparent.”[ii]
This of course begs the question, what is priesthood and while I am not entirely sure, I would be willing to entertain any number of possibilities including it being strictly tied to ordinances and sealing to an even more radical and democratic definition of priesthood which would argue that priesthood is an arrangement between individuals and the eternal worlds open to everyone and anyone. In other words, anyone could lay claim to the priesthood and exercise power over spirit and elements by virtue of their faith and righteousness. Regardless of how we define priesthood, I agree with Nibley and D&C 121 that whatever priesthood is, it has no social power or authority but only influence over spirits and elements. And it is this social power or authority that concerns me most.
Authority and Priesthood
Anarchist thought, stripped of its many cultural preconceptions, can be defined as skepticism toward authority in the absence of justification. As Noam Chomsky explains
“The core of the anarchist tradition, as I understand it, is that power is always illegitimate, unless it proves itself to be legitimate. So the burden of proof is always on those who claim that some authoritarian hierarchic relation is legitimate. If they can’t prove it, then it should be dismantled.”[iv]
In any relationship where one claims authority over another, anarchism requires that there be some justification for the claim. I see this as a fundamental problem in a church where priesthood has become synonymous with authority and power. Even gifts of the spirit, such as healing, have been subsumed under the “authority” of priesthood. In the most recent general conference, Elder Oaks even went as far to suggest that any personal inspiration or revelation must by mediated by priesthood authority and that when at odds with priesthood leaders, it is from the devil.[v]
This apparent use of priesthood in demanding obedience is a problem independent of whether women have the priesthood. I can certainly see how removing the ban on women would improve their lot in the hierarchy of the church but even if women were given the priesthood there would still exist a system demanding obedience through the “authority” of priesthood. I am less concerned with the race or gender of the individual who exerts hierarchal authority over me but that such a system exists at all. As post-randian, Arthur Silber, explains:
“The essence of obedience is the demand without more: a reason may be provided, but a reason is unnecessary… Obedience is the opposite of voluntary, uncoerced agreement: the understanding and agreement of the person in the inferior position are not required, and are often not sought at all. The person in the inferior position may profoundly disagree with the reason(s) offered for the demand, if any. When the person in the inferior position obeys, he does so because of his certain knowledge that if he does not, he will be punished in some form: psychologically, legally, socially, or in some other way. Thus, the primary (although not the sole) motivation that ensures obedience is negative in nature: it is not the promise of a reward (even though certain rewards may be offered), but the assurance that he will not suffer consequences that are painful in varying degrees, i.e., that he will not be punished.”[vi]
This is the very thing that I suggest anarchism rejects and that D&C 121 demands we reject. We may submit to someone’s authority but it has to be based upon some justification. A reason must be provided and it must be something convincing and coherent. There is a precedent of equating authority with priesthood and when we equate the two we do not only reject priesthood, but run the risk of either obeying those exercising unrighteous dominion or rejecting actual messengers from God when they come among us.
For example, we could follow a leader who claims priesthood authority in forming a militia to execute settlers from Arkansas. On the other hand, we could be among those whom claim to follow the “prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous” but when those who do not fit our model of priesthood come among us, “we will kill and crucify; others you will flog in your synagogues and pursue from town to town.”[vii]
Within the scriptures, we find many examples of individuals who did not have what those in power deemed proper authority. Frequently, they were outsiders, lacking the proper pedigree, the proper credentials, and even worse challenging the orthodoxy of their day. Jeremiah, from a family of outcast priests, came from the margins of his society. Amos was a lowly shepherd. John the Baptist came from the wilderness. Samuel and Joseph Smith were just children. Lehi was a dissident who fled the orthodox religion, and of course the ultimate illegal alien, Samuel the Lamanite. These outsiders came from outside the hierarchal authority or institution.
This suggests that there is a real danger in equating priesthood with authority. By confusing the two we may fail to recognize when priesthood is manifest. It may very well be that God tries to reach us through an outsider again. It may very well be someone who does not fit our predetermined notions of what “priesthood” is since we have grown accustom to equating it with hierarchal authority. It may be someone of a marginalized race, social status, or even a different gender.
As D&C 121 states, authority should not be maintained by virtue of the priesthood. In fact, when we use priesthood to exercise control over another soul, the text states, “amen to that priesthood.” This is not to say that authority in itself is evil but that authority must have some justification beyond a claim of authority. Furthermore, it is the responsibility of those who exercise authority to show that it’s legitimate and not the responsibility of anyone else to show it’s illegitimate. I am not suggesting that current church leadership exercises authority in an evil manner but that authoritative claims, even within the church, must provide justification and that such justification cannot be priesthood. Because as soon as we use priesthood for any kind of status, power, rule, or authority, it automatically cancels out.[viii] The true test of authority is whether it provides legitimate justification given through persuasion, long-suffering, gentleness, meekness, and love unfeigned without compulsion.
The Kingdom of God is unlike the world where authority figures “exercise lordship over them; and their great ones exercise authority upon them.” In the Kingdom of God, the “great among you, shall be your minister: And whosoever of you will be the chiefest, shall be servant of all.”[ix] If we want to know whether one has authority we should voluntarily follow, it is wise to remember Jesus’ answer to that very question:
[i] This is not say that many would like to have priesthood in order to participate in what they see as spiritual opportunities and blessings such as passing and blessing the sacrament, baptismal ordinances, etc. and this seems a legitimate reason to desire priesthood. I also think its a worthy goal to reduce patriarchy and create more equality in the church. Im just suggesting that maybe priesthood shouldn’t be the means to such an end.
[ii] Nibley, Priesthood in Sunstone, December 1990.
[iii] Nibley, Priesthood in Sunstone, December 1990.
[v] Elder Dallin H. Oaks, “we cannot communicate reliably through the direct, personal line if we are disobedient to or out of harmony with the priesthood line… [I]t is common for persons who are violating God’s commandments or disobedient to the counsel of their priesthood leaders to declare that God has revealed to them that they are excused from obeying some commandment or from following some counsel. Such persons may be receiving revelation or inspiration, but it is not from the source they suppose. The devil is the father of lies, and he is ever anxious to frustrate the work of God by his clever imitations.”
[vi] Arthur Silber, Honor of Being Human.
[viii] Nibley, Priesthood in Sunstone, December 1990.