Oh, priesthood is priesthood, and authority is authority, and never the twain shall meet


September 19, 2012 by J. Madson

Posted at Feminist Mormon HousewivesOriginally 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.

“REPEAT of repeat: Over whom does it exercise power, then? Over the spirits and over the elements—never over one’s fellow men, whose free agency is absolute and inalienable.”[iii]

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:

“The blind receive their sight, and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have the gospel preached to them.”[x]

[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.

[iv] Noam Chomsky, Activism, Anarchism, and Power.

[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.

[vii] Matthew 23:34

[viii] Nibley, Priesthood in Sunstone, December 1990.

[ix] Mark 10:42-45

[x] Matthew 11:5

19 thoughts on “Oh, priesthood is priesthood, and authority is authority, and never the twain shall meet

  1. zo-ma-rah says:

    That was a great read! There is a lot to think about.

  2. Clean Cut says:

    I really like this. Thank you.

  3. Forest Simmons says:

    I served as a seventy in stake seventies quorums for seven uears before Pres. Benson announced that those quorums would be discontinued. Before that I had read in the D&C that, like an apostle, a seventy is supposed to be a special witness of Jesus Christ.

    One time while meditating on the subject I wondered (as a non-general authority seventy) just how special my witness was. At that point a clear impresion came to me: “as special as you make it.”

  4. Forest Simmons says:

    Endowed men and women are supposed to be priests and priestesses, and some of the endowed women are set apart to do certain ordinances in the temple that would be inappropriate for men to perform.

    Outside the temple could a woman serve in a bishopric or stake presidency? If the Lord wanted to increase their workload, he could ordain it so.

    But practically speaking, if one member of the bishopric is female, then the whole bishopric would have to be female for the same reason that missionary companships are not mixed in gender (except in the case of husband and wife companionships after retirement).

    If the whole bishopric is female, then the women are doing more than their share of the work in the ward, unless the RS and Primary presidencies are made up of men to compensate. Etc.

  5. Forest Simmons says:

    Several months after the passing of my first wife in 1987, I was worrying about the future of our kids, given the trouble that some of our teenagers were getting into in our inner city neighborhood.

    At that point I had a very brief vision of my wife in the spirit world in which she assured me that if only I had her perspective, I wouldn’t worry so much. The brief glimpse that I got seemed to be of her participating in some kind of local governing council in which men and women were equal participants. It seemed to me that they were planning for the future, fully confident that they could do their part to make sure that all of the Lord’s promises would be fulfilled in this part of the Lord’ vineyard.

  6. Ron Madson says:


    I once one of the last “seventies” that was ordained among the non General authorities. Wonderful thought that each of us can become as much of a special witness as we desire. Also, beautiful story as to your deceased wife. This resonates with me. thanks for sharing

  7. Clean Cut says:

    “But practically speaking, if one member of the bishopric is female, then the whole bishopric would have to be female for the same reason that missionary companships are not mixed in gender”

    I support female ordination and having women serving in bishoprics, but I really feel we need to move past this idea that “if one member of the bishopric is female, then the whole bishopric would have to be female”. I simply disagree. If we can work together in a mixed professional setting, the same can be true in a ward leadership setting. And it’s certainly not the same as missionary companionships–bishoprics don’t live together and spend each hour of each day together.

  8. Forest Simmons says:

    I don’t think the men or women of the church are ready for mixed gender bishoprics. In our stake it is a sin for a man and a woman to carpool together.

    Were it a possibility I would have enjoyed having female counselors when I was a bishop, but my wife would have strongly objected. When I was a counselor, I would have enjoyed having a female bishop, but my wife would have objected, and she is much more open minded about these things than most. She was a very radical feminist and strongly against the church because of the patriarchal hierarchy before she joined. Even when she got a testimony (that’s another interesting story) and joined, she had strong reservations about the patriarchal hierarchy, and wondered how long she would last in the church.

    Would I mind if my wife served in a mixed gender bishopric? No, and one of the main reasons is that then I would have a great excuse to turn down any heavy calling, and spend more time with my kids.

    In my opinion, the worst thing about all-male bishoprics is the too frequent situation where an unmarried pregnant woman ends up in an all-male “disciplinary council.”

    Men tend to think that war is necessary and moral, so that “immorality” only means violation of the law of chastity. Getting tough on sin means cracking down on illicit sex.

    Cheney, Condi, Bush, Obama, Albright, Kissinger, the Clintons, etc. and other advocates of mass murder and torture in suits and ties go free, while the sadder but wiser young woman faces the inquisition.

  9. Forest Simmons says:

    Apart from all of these considerations, it seems to me that the current policy is a natural way to keep the workload from getting unbalanced; most men would be only too happy to turn all of the responsibility over to the women.

    It reminds me of my FTM days in Argentina. Whenever the man of the house came to the door and saw missionaries, he would say (in Spanish) “Wait a minute and I’ll get my wife; religion is her department.”

  10. Justin says:

    I struggled understanding the LDS concept of “priesthood” — until I read this article from LDSA. Pretty much cleared it up as far as I was concerned.

  11. Jason Brown says:

    I am agreed with Josh. Though I would take the argument farther and argue that Priesthood is not something out there, to be received, possessed, honored, or exercised. Priesthood is a social pedigree of who can and cannot speak for and act in God’s name. It has and always will be used to manipulate, coerce and exclude.

    On a positive note, I do not discount those who have positive experiences with Priesthood power. I think it is also a name we give to the very real energy that love can generate between people in our relationships of service. In that sense it is as Josh says a free gift from God that humans have attempted to name and codify and thus killed in the process.

    Keep up the good work Josh, heart.

  12. J. Madson says:

    Jason, I dont entirely disagree with you. Many of the prophets in the OT came outside of the “priesthood” lines. They did not claim authority in the way that the leaders of their day did. They were dissidents whose authority wasnt always recognized, see John Baptist, Jesus, etc, because it did not fit the hierarchal mold.

    I also agree with your second paragraph.

  13. George says:

    Well said.

    Forrest: I think Clean Cut’s perspective deserves a little more attention. The great law of Karma plays with us when we create sin where none is present. Men + Women should serve together wherever they are called to serve. The problem, today, is we place some fairly arbitrary restrictions on what is/isn’t kosher. Just because a stake or ward has restrictions that are inane to the extreme doesn’t make them true in the least. And, the instruction process starts with each of us individually … using love, persuasion and long-suffering.

    J. : I loved the second quote about the power to command the spirits and elements. Fantastic description that was lost to me until I read that.

    • Forest Simmons says:

      My main point about practicality is that, as far as I can see, the only kind of valid reasons (if there are any)for excluding women from holding certain offices in the priesthood while in mortality would have to be practical ones, not fundamental ones.

      And it is not inconceiveable to me that there may well have been some very practical reasons in the days of Brother Joseph and Brother Brigham, if not at the present. If those practical reasons (whatever they might have been) are no longer valid today, I’m afraid that I cannot be the judge of that. But because of the built in inertia, I don’t think we’ll see a big change all at once in the near future.

      However, in the recent Worldwide Training that was broadcast to church leaders, several of the brethren emphasized that women are equal participants in Ward Councils and other church councils.

      Of course, Eliza R. Snow and Mary Fielding Smith were aware of that principle long ago, and didn’t let the general prejudices to the contrary slow them down.

      Btw, when ever anybody tells me that something is inconceivable to them, without having an air tight logical argument for its impossibility, I tend to chalk it up to lack of imagination.

  14. J. Madson says:

    George, the whole paper by Nibley is just great.

  15. Richard says:

    Here are my thoughts on women and the priesthood.

    If I hand you a set of keys, and you hold it in your hand– then only your hand HOLDS the keys, BUT your whole body HAS the keys.

    Likewise, any faithful woman HAS the priesthood– if she is in the body of a church which has been given the Priesthood.

    Men and woman have separate roles in life. Thus, they will have separate offices in the Priesthood. It will never be the role of a woman to be a bishop, or any of the aaronic and melchizedek priesthood offices given to men.

    But a woman still HAS the priesthood as a member of the body. She can perform priesthood healing in the name of the priesthood.

    As the kingdom roles forward we do not know what offices will be given women, but it no one can say it cannot happen. The temple ceremony talks of women becoming Queens and Priestesses.


  16. Clean Cut says:

    Richard, I hope one day you enjoy the irony of your conflicting statements. You say “As the kingdom roles forward we do not know what offices will be given women, but no one can say it cannot happen””. And yet that is precisely what you did above. (“It will never be the role of a woman to be a bishop”).

    Personally I think it’s folly to make any kind of statement or predictions about what will “never” happen, especially when one of the tenets of our faith is that we believe that God will yet reveal many great and important things pertaining to the kingdom of God. I, for one, think it would be a great thing for women to be able to serve in any capacity the Lord might want them in, including the office of bishop. Just because you can’t conceive of it now doesn’t mean it will never happen. All it would take is for 15 (male) apostles to feel prompted to make that decision. There’s no reason why it can’t happen. Plus, we can learn from Church history that there were some who never thought they’d see the 1978 priesthood revelation happen. They were wrong, fortunately. I also wonder if in the early years of the Church it would have seemed equally crazy/impossible to foresee extending priesthood to 12-year-olds. Anything is possible.

  17. AV says:

    I believe righteous women do hold the Priesthood, just as much as righteous men do. For I believe one gains Priesthood power by their righteousness, namely Charity. The more charity a person gains, the more Priesthood power they have. And as we know, unrighteousness or selfishness and control or abuse of others, can cause one to quickly lose that same power.

    Since Eve, women have always had the Priesthood power to lead, teach, bless, heal, receive revelation, perform Priesthood ordinances, etc. just as much as men. But most men and leaders have not wanted to accept women’s true equality in all things on this earth, not in the home, society or church. It has been rare to find a man or society who has recognized, accepted and honored women’s equal Priesthood power. In Christ’s day as in Joseph’s day most men and most leaders (and even many women) were not righteous and thus could not accept and honor women’s Priesthood.

    I believe Joseph and Christ would have taught the principle of women’s equality in all things, but they knew the men and even many women weren’t ready to accept it. Thus we have never seen such equality played out yet on this earth, except I believe for the City of Enoch, but we will see it in the Millennium.

    But still today most men and leaders and still many women reject the idea of women’s full equality in leadership and Priesthood in the Church. Though most men and women have become more accepting of women’s complete equality in the home and society, but not Church yet.

    ‘Authority’ is a different thing than Priesthood power. A man or woman may have Priesthood power, but not Priesthood authority to do certain things, like be the President of the Church or a Bishop or R.S. Pres. of a ward. But woman again have just as much divine right to any and all authority positions of leadership as men if they are worthy and called to it.

    In the home men and women have equal positions as leaders, both preside over the home and family, neither one over the other, they are Co-Presidents. It is a false teaching, accepted and passed down by many, that men are the ‘heads’ of the home, and women are counselors. Husbands and wives are both equal ‘heads’ of the home. In fact, women are the 1st heads or presiders of the home, for God gives the children exclusively to the mother to preside over for 1st 9 months, and if the father is not righteous or safe enough to be with or around and he does not honor his vows to love, provide for and serve the mother, then the mother would have to separate herself from him to a safe place where she can raise, lead and preside over that child in righteousness alone, with God’s help. Only if the man is righteous and worthy does God ask the woman to allow the man to preside with her over the children. The same holds true with men in the Church or society, women are only asked to accept leaders, who are righteous, to have any influence over her children.

    In the Millennium, I believe we will have Co-Presidents of the Church and Co-Bishops over wards, etc. Most likely that will be husband and wives called to such positions. As equal Bishops, a husband a wife may have their own counselors to help and assist them, but the husband and wife will work together to make decisions for the whole ward, stake, etc. For women generally understand women’s and other issues better than men and visa versa. So they need both perspectives to lead effectively.

    For women of a ward or church are entitled to a female leader who has as much authority and power as a male leader, when they need counsel or help to repent.

    Sadly the world or Church is not righteous enough for this, for the Church today, as it did in all other times it has been established upon the earth, has gone into apostasy (after the death of Joseph Smith) and most all men and leaders today do not have any Priesthood power or authority anyway, for they support and do evil today, while professing and pretending righteousness. Brigham Young did not believe in the equality of women in the home, church or society and his philosophies and falsehoods still effect and are accepted by most members today. The temple ceremony was something of his own making and not how I believe Joseph meant the temple to be used. Nor was polygamy ever an authorized practice. It has always been the vile whoredom that Joseph Smith constantly taught that it was. He warned the Saints in his day and us today that those who fall for polygamy, in any of it’s forms, would be damned. Yet BY and most leaders ignored Joseph’s teachings and warnings and they wanted whoredoms instead, trying to justify it all by saying that it was really Joseph who instigated it, but there is no proof of that, just vile accusations are only based on hearsay, while we have tons of proof of Joseph, Christ, and ancient prophets being against polygamy.

    Since most of the early saints refused to heed Joseph’s warnings and teachings, they lost their Prophet and were made to dwindle in unbelief, until the Millennium when Joseph and Christ would return and restore the true Church and authority to the earth. The few righteous in Joseph’s day held to the scriptures and teachings that Joseph gave them and just led their own families individually, doing the best they could alone, but they could still retain their Priesthood wherever they went, and receive continued revelation directly from God daily, as the righteous do today around the world.

    Brigham Young was a false or fallen prophet who led many of the early members astray after Joseph died. While most other members just dispersed off into different groups or by themselves. But Joseph had warned the Saints that false prophets would follow him and lead many people astray. For Joseph taught that most people think false prophets are true prophets, and easily fall for them for they preach most of the same things as true prophets do, with a few falsehoods slipped in, like polygamy, that sound good to the carnal mind. Women were threatened to go along with polygamy, being told they would be damned if they didn’t. They rejected Joseph Smith’s warnings that they would be damned if they do go along with it.

    BY and other early leaders did not believe in women’s equality and equal respect and thus the LDS Church today still does not think women have the Priesthood, nor does it allow them positions of equal authority and leadership as men.

    The true show of righteousness for a man is how he honors, respects and accepts women’s true equality in all things, including leadership in the home, society and even the Church. Righteous men also protect and provide for women so they can do the highest calling of all, Motherhood, which definitely requires Priesthood power and authority to perform. And women were given that authority in the Pre-Existence.

    Just like Heavenly Father and Heavenly Mother equally lead and preside over this earth and their children and equally make the decisions together for it, and just like Christ and his wife Mary, led and presided over the ancient Church and Apostles, so will husband’s and wife’s do so together over wards, stakes and the Church in the Millennium and as Co-Gods in the eternities to come.

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