Priesthood Power in the Church

Posted on August 15, 2012

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Two young men are camped out in my family room, staying with us during a week-long visit from my prairie homeland while they attend education week at BYU. Tonight one of them asked if he could ask me a question. I was delighted and encouraged him to do so.

“In my family, my father asks someone to give prayers, and if he is gone, my mother does. I couldn’t help noticing …”

“That my boys choose someone to give prayers?”

“Exactly.”

And so ensued a discussion about priesthood power. My sons choose people to give prayers in our home, morning and evening and at meals. If my 18-year-old is not home, the 17-year-old chooses, and if they are both gone, the 12-year-old does. I suppose you might guess that I, as a single mother, have meekly yielded the floor to my teenage boys because somehow they possess a power that I do not as a woman in the Church.

You would be wrong.

I looked at this sweet young man, and told him that our home is managed by priesthood power, even in the absence of a father. In very firm tones, I told him, “I preside in my home. I have delegated the stewardship over prayers to my sons because I want them to have an opportunity to experience a responsibility that is theirs and that impacts the whole  family. They are not only responsible to choose who prays, but to see to it that our prayers are given in the proper spirit, that people are present, that family prayers are administered in an environment that promotes unity. Very few opportunities to administer a stewardship are offered to young people, and I think the teenage years are an excellent time to begin.”

How is our home managed by priesthood power? Because I engage that power as the presiding authority in my home.

I have been blessed to make sacred covenants with God that endow me with blessings that are conditioned on my keeping my side of those covenants. By virtue of making and keeping those covenants, not administering them, I engage priesthood power. I would grow no more powerful if someone gave me the opportunity to administer those covenants to someone else, which is the essence of ordination in the Church today.

I’ve discussed before that the gifts of the spirit are unfortunately conflated with the ordination to priesthood in the minds of church members today, and I’ve talked about the consistent invitations Church leaders from Joseph Smith to our own day, male and female, are extending to disciples of both gender.

Priesthood power is not about men. It is very crucial for us to understand this before we proceed as disciples of Christ. We must know exactly what power it is that enlivens us and makes possible our service and work and success. Priesthood is the power by which Jesus Christ manages the creation that is presided over by His and our Father. It is the power of the atonement. It is the power of all covenants that spring from the atonement. It is everything. A careful reading of the teachings of Joseph Smith in Lectures on Faith clarifies that every power exercised by a human being on earth, even to moving mountains, is available to anyone who appropriately exercises the covenant priesthood power of faith. It has nothing to do with being an administrator.

The administration of Their church is by priesthood power as well. The keys for the administration of that church lie in the hands of men who have been ordained to exercise authority in blessing all the peoples of the earth with the opportunity to engage that priesthood power in covenants. That is the end of a male-only priesthood authority. To open doors. After those doors open and people have taken on covenants, they are on a personal journey of faith that opens to them the full opportunities of priesthood power. (See D&C 121 for clarification in how that power is developed or lost.)

While reading section 107 in the Doctrine and Covenants, searching for greater understanding of priesthood administration, I had an epiphany this past week. After extensively discussing the way He wanted the priesthood orders set up to administer the ordinances available in the Church, God makes statements about the equality of authority within the Church and how to maintain that balance.

36 The standing high councils, at the stakes of Zion, form a quorum equal in authority in the affairs of the church, in all their decisions, to the quorum of the presidency, or to the traveling high council (emphasis mine).

The high councils in STAKES are equal in authority to the QUORUM OF THE TWELVE. Let that sink in.

In previous verses, He has clearly outlined that the stewardship of the apostles is to minister to the world …

23 The twelve traveling councilors are called to be the Twelve Apostles, or special witnesses of the name of Christ in all the world—thus differing from other officers in the church in the duties of their calling (emphasis mine).

The Seventy are called to assist in this ministry as the growth of the Church requires, and the First Presidency are called as the three Presiding High Priests, with each of these three groups forming quorums equal to one another.

The duties of these three administrative quorums are different from the duties of all other officers in the Church.

Effectively, the church exists primarily as a stake.

All of the business of salvation is done within the confines of a stake. Although other administrative units (missions, temple districts, etc) exist, the work of a continuing path of priesthood power (faith) occurs within a stake where there are enough members to organize one. Repeatedly, whenever Joseph Smith talked about Zion, he talked about stakes as the gathering places (and the message of the restoration was much more about Zion than it was about Joseph).

In modern corporate terms, we think of administrative structures with a hierarchical structure, headed by a CEO and an executive team. However God set up a structure that differs by function, with his presiding officers serving as hubs for stakes rather than executives.

In a 2010 interview, Elder Bednar confirms this view of the differing role of an apostle and the problem with conflating the apostleship with a secular corporation (he’s made this clear in the first two minutes):

If we break up the structure of the church to fit the D&C 107 model instead of a corporate model, then, we have the first presidency coordinating the stakes, the apostles ministering to the world, and the seventy assisting the apostles. The real structure of the church is in the stake.

Interestingly enough, in stakes, men and women serve almost equally in positions of influence and responsibility. As I shared recently with a prominent local reporter, the question of women and the priesthood is not about focusing on gender issues; it’s about understanding our cooperative opportunity to do the work that occurs in stakes. This makes the issue of women’s involvement in the three quorums that operate to balance stakes, moot, because it is not about leadership; it’s about coordination and differing function, and the stakes are equal in authority to those three quorums.

I think the chief gender issue for the church is the chief human issue for the church: how do we interpret the mind and will of God in our relationships with one another? Because we have a tendency to speak with a secular language to these human issues, we use words like “equality” and bandy them about as if we were in a secular setting. As Neylan McBaine has recently articulated in a thesis designed to inform the LDS conversation with the secular world, a secular vocabulary doesn’t necessarily fit with our religious paradigm. Since the religious paradigm supersedes the secular for us, there is no reason to react defensively and try to wrest the more important and eternal structure.

We have a lay church. We learn through practice. We do not have creeds; we have callings. We bump against each other, cycling through leadership and followership, knocking off our rough edges with one another by serving together. Everyone has been marginalized by someone at some point. Everyone has marginalized someone else. Thank heavens for repentance and forgiveness. Joseph Smith noted in section 121 of the Doctrine and Covenants that it is human nature to have trouble with power. He also makes some crucial distinctions between institutional and personal power. Personal power is the only real power, and it only comes through principles of faith and action. You cannot bequeath power. It isn’t in ordination alone, and women aren’t shut out from any real power.

For this reason, I’m not concerned one way or another with priesthood ordination for women, although I would never pretend to speak for women worldwide, or for God, for that matter. The real power of any individual in the church is a personal power that evolves from keeping covenants. We are a covenant people. Both men and women derive power from the priesthood in those covenants. One’s influence derives from one’s credibility, not one’s position. Spiritual gifts, which have been a hallmark of this church from its very inception, are given equally to men and women. That’s the more crucial equality, the eternal equality that supersedes any secular definition of equality.

The Church has worked very hard to help our people understand their privileges. Leadership trainings for a decade have focused on councils and the importance of all members speaking up there as advocates for their neighbors, both men and women. The business of the church, the real business of saving souls, is done on a local level. At that local level men and women work together, ideally, in partnerships that engage the gifts of all the members. Administrative tasks are shared between men and women. Beyond the level of a stake, or group of local congregations, administrative oversight is focused on coordinating the work of stakes and wards (congregations) with one another. When there are problems between men and women, they usually occur locally where people are working through their own parochial short-sightedness and doctrinal misunderstandings. Church leadership consistently teach correct principles and let the people govern themselves.

Many people, misapplying a secular corporate concept to the ecclesiastical order of our church, look at the worldwide coordination of the First Presidency, Council of the Twelve, and Area Authorities as the pinnacle of some kind of religious career, and seeing no women there assume that women are not considered equals or capable of that level of leadership. Elder Bednar clarifies that the church is not a corporation; the work of apostles is not the work of executives. They are traveling ministers to the world. Administrative work largely occurs in local areas where decisions are made locally for the benefit of people whose church lives require differing administration to match local needs. In local leadership, women serve in almost as many leadership positions as do men, and have responsibility over all children to age 12, and all women above age 12 (much more than half of church membership). In a well-run stake, women who are stepping up to the plate are having every bit of influence in the personal lives of members of that stake as men are. That’s the kind of pastoral care a church is intended to provide for its people, and it’s happening, though there is room for us to get better at that.

Improving the status, respect, and visibility of women in the church is not the church’s problem. It is our opportunity as women, insofar as that is necessary for our greater service. I think Jesus made a profound statement about the kind of status, respect, and visibility he cared most that his apostles have when he washed their feet like a lowly servant just prior to his crucifixion (as opposed to pandering to their quarrels about who was the preeminent apostle). Secular status, respect, and visibility isn’t his concern and never has been. Serving his people is his concern, and nobody is standing in any woman’s way of that, a point he went to great lengths to explain to Mary and Martha. As LDS women step forward and embrace gifts of the spirit, acknowledge the value of what they are already doing, and ask more of themselves, the secular world will take notice of their articulateness, skills, and worth. It won’t be because a policy or a program changed to bestow that power on them.

Understanding the priesthood administrative structure and the balance of authority between stakes and the presiding quorums is one of the keys to understanding gender issues in the church today.

And by the way, I provide equal opportunities for my daughters to exercise stewardships as well, no different than the church does. There is so much more to a journey of priesthood power than choosing who says prayers.

Cross-posted at Wheat & Tares.

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