Tuesday, November 10, 2015
Authority (Part 10: Priestesses)
Despite the absence of women in positions of authority in either the Book of Mormon or the Doctrine and Covenants, women do indeed have authority, as indicated earlier, in both the Church and the family. We just do not have a name for this authority. It is not “moral authority,” as was recently suggested.1 And it is not priesthood, because women, in spite of institutional attempts to put a positive spin on the matter, do not hold the priesthood. It is, however, an official form of organizational authority. We just do not know what to call it.
At the organization of the Relief Society, Joseph Smith seemed to be attempting to broaden his concept of priesthood authority so that it included women. Perhaps he would not have ordained women to the priesthood, but he was certainly seeking to establish a women’s organization after the pattern of the male priesthood. According to the minutes of the Nauvoo Relief Society, Joseph taught “that the Society should move according to the ancient Priesthood, hence there should be a select Society separate from all the evils of the world, choice, virtuous and holy—Said he was going to make of this Society a kingdom of priests as in Enoch’s day—as in Paul’s day—that it is the privilege of each member to live long.”2 Unfortunately, we do not know how Joseph would have set up this kingdom of female priests (or priestesses) over the long run, and his successors have retreated from the language he employed and even some of the practices he encouraged, which leaves us today with an authority dilemma that seems unsolvable.
One of the practices Joseph specifically approved was the female laying on of hands to heal the sick. “Respecting the female laying on hands, he further remark’d, there could be no devils in it if God gave his sanction by healing—that there could be no more sin in any female laying hands on the sick than in wetting the face with water—that it is no sin for any body to do it that has faith, or if the sick has faith to be heal’d by the administration.”3
Sometimes we use loaded terms without really understanding the implications of their meaning. One of these is priestess, which appears today primarily in the context of temple rituals. According to Cannon, Dahl, and Welch, “By 1843, the temple’s full import and design seem to have crystallized in the Prophet’s teachings. The doctrines of sealing and of becoming kings and queens, priests and priestesses were often discussed.”4 The expression “kings and queens, priests and priestesses” will be familiar to anyone who has received his or her endowment in the temple. The implication, however, seems to slip past us: namely, if we teach that women will someday be priestesses, we mean, by the very definition of the term, that they will also receive the priesthood. Just as you cannot be a priest without having priesthood, you also cannot be a priestess without having priesthood. Linguistically, the relationship is similar to parent and parenthood. If you are a parent, you also experience parenthood. Therefore, according to what is taught in the temple, at some point in the hereafter, women will not be banned from holding the priesthood. This implication of our temple terminology should give us pause.
President Joseph Fielding Smith, the tenth President of the Church, stated, “It is within the privilege of the sisters of this Church to receive exaltation in the kingdom of God and receive authority and power as queens and priestesses.”5 Taken literally, this means that in the celestial kingdom, women will have priesthood, or “priestesshood,” if we want to be precise. They will be priestesses. But what does this even mean? What does a priestess do that is different from what a priest does? To my knowledge, this office has never been defined, which is too often the case with words we use frequently and simply assume everyone understands. This assumption breaks down, however, when we start asking basic questions.
At a minimum, since these two sets of titles—king and queen, priest and priestess—are listed as pairs, we can probably assume that they are parallel in meaning. Kings and queens rule, priests and priestesses officiate in rituals, or ordinances, perhaps in a manner similar to what we see in the temple. So, do women have the priesthood in this life? In the temple, they seem to, although there is no ordination involved. Of course, we have no evidence that prophets such as Abinadi and Alma received authority through ordination, so ordaining may be only one way in which authority can be bestowed. In our modern context, ordination by the laying on of hands is the generally approved pattern, but perhaps we should ask if someone can have authority to officiate in a sacred ordinance without having been ordained to do so. It appears this is exactly what is happening in the temple. But for consistency’s sake, perhaps we ought to rethink this aberration.
Traditionally, a priest (or a priestess) is someone who stands between God and his children by officiating in sacred rituals. Women in the temple are thus functioning as de facto priestesses without what we (perhaps incorrectly?) consider a necessity—ordination. Should this oversight be corrected? Since ordination is considered necessary in the modern Church to exercise priesthood authority, should female temple workers be ordained? Temple workers are set apart for their callings, but only men receive a priesthood ordination in order to perform the duties of this priestly calling. A man who does not hold the priesthood cannot officiate in temple ordinances; in fact, he cannot even enter the temple. Women, by contrast, are not only permitted to enter the temple, but they can also officiate in priesthood ordinances without an ordination. So, the logical question is, if women will be priestesses in the hereafter and will receive, we must assume, an ordination to that office, why are they not permitted to receive this ordination here, since many of them are already acting as de facto priestesses? This question has not been answered satisfactorily. A related question has also never been answered: If women can officiate in temple ordinances through the priesthood keys held by the temple president, why could not an unordained but righteous man do the same?
1. See D. Todd Christofferson, “The Moral Force of Women,” Ensign 43, no. 11 (2013): 29–32.
2. Nauvoo Relief Society Minute Book, 21, March 30, 1842, http://josephsmithpapers.org/paperSummary/nauvoo-relief-society-minute-book?locale=eng&p=33.
3. Nauvoo Relief Society Minute Book, 35, April 28, 1842.
4. Donald Q. Cannon, Larry E. Dahl, and John W. Welch, “The Restoration of Major Doctrines through Joseph Smith: Priesthood, the Word of God, and the Temple,” Ensign 19, no. 2 (February 1989): 11.
5. Joseph Fielding Smith, “Relief Society—an Aid to the Priesthood,” Relief Society Magazine, January 1959, 5–6.