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The following is the first in a three-part series from Wendy’s book, Live Up to Our Privileges. Get your copy HERE.

A few years ago, I was asked to give a talk about women, priesthood power, and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.[1]  I am a psychologist by profession, not a historian, doctrinal expert, or Church officer, so I was frankly hesitant. Yet I wanted to communicate my conviction to those who may struggle with this issue that “there remaineth an effectual struggle to be made” (Mosiah 7:18). Figuring out a few more pieces of the puzzle of what it might mean for women to have priesthood power was important to me personally as well. How can I as a woman exercise priesthood power and live up to my privileges in that regard? How can men?

I have struggled to find a definition of priesthood that clarifies what men have that women do not. Is priesthood what authorizes performing ordinances? Yes, but women are authorized to perform and officiate in the highest order of priesthood ordinances: temple ordinances. Maybe priesthood is necessary to lead. Yes, but women clearly lead with authority and power in Relief Society, in Young Women, and in the home. Well then, maybe priesthood is necessary to govern mixed-sex groups. But women not only direct the mixed-sex children in the Primary organization, but they direct the mixed-sex adults who teach those children. Does priesthood have to do with the duties associated with priesthood offices, then? Yes, but covenant women operate in various ways in virtually all of the capacities that the names and descriptions of priesthood offices imply.

I have finally given up trying to define priesthood in a way that unilaterally distinguishes what men have that women do not, although there is pretty clearly something crucial given to men as part of these priesthood offices and keys that is different from what is given to women. So, while only certain men hold keys, the purpose of those keys is to ensure that both men and women can operate with priesthood authority and power in the work of the Lord. In the end, then, I wonder if it would be more helpful for most purposes to simply define priesthood as the power and authority given in different ways to men and women in God’s Church to administer the affairs of His kingdom, teach His doctrine, perform priesthood ordinances of salvation and exaltation, and build Zion as they “act in the earth for the salvation of the human family.”[2]

Access to Priesthood Authority

In Children and Youth of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints: An Introductory Guide for Parents and Leaders, we read, “Young Women class presidencies function with priesthood authority received from being set apart by a member of the bishopric. . . Both quorum and class presidencies lead in gathering Israel on both sides of the veil and in caring for those in need.” This statement reinforces and clarifies that both men and women, young and old, can operate in their callings and assignments with priesthood authority.

Priesthood authority and priesthood power are different, however, and a person can apparently have one without the other. I think of conversations I’ve had with women over the years in which one of us has complained, “I work pretty hard to have the Spirit, to understand the doctrine, and to magnify the callings I’m given. It doesn’t feel like this man I have to work with (or under) is pulling his weight. Why does he have the decision-making authority when he doesn’t work as hard as I do to have the Spirit?” Indeed, I have listened to or read priesthood sessions of general conference enough to note that men also remind each other that they can’t afford to rest on the laurels of having priesthood authority; they need to also work to attain the spiritual power to go with it. Authority without spiritual power is a problem.

From President Boyd K. Packer: “We have done very well at distributing the authority of the priesthood. We have priesthood authority planted nearly everywhere. We have quorums of elders and high priests worldwide. But distributing the authority of the priesthood has raced, I think, ahead of distributing the power of the priesthood. The priesthood does not have the strength that it should have and will not have until the power of the priesthood is firmly fixed in the families as it should be.”[3]

Women, in contrast, are often publicly lauded for excelling in righteousness and spiritual gifts, implying to some that they have innate spiritual power so they don’t need priesthood authority. That can feel to some like a placating attempt to justify excluding women from the tables of decision-making and influence. It could seem to imply that the young women’s class presidencies somehow have less decision-making responsibility or duty to others than the young men do in their priesthood quorums. Spiritual power without authority would also be a problem.

More recent statements by apostles and prophets seem to clarify that women and men can both have both authority and power in the priesthood, and that we all need both in order to fulfill our responsibilities and privileges in the kingdom of God.

Jesus Christ delegates priesthood authority to both men and women in His Church by:

  • the laying on of hands when either a man or woman is set apart to a calling or a man is ordained
  • verbal or informal assignment, such as being assigned and authorized to give a talk or minister to a family or individual
  • written authorization through a document (like a temple recommend or a certificate of one’s role as a missionary);
  • being endowed in the temple, as alluded to by President M. Russell Ballard: “Like faithful sisters in the past, you need to learn how to use the priesthood authority with which you have been endowed to obtain every eternal blessing that will be yours.”[4]

Tutoring in Spiritual Power

The influence and gifts of the Holy Ghost tutor us in the faith, humility, compassion, and vision that turn priesthood authority into priesthood power. Of course, getting priesthood power is not about paying my dues and fulfilling my part of a bargain that obligates God to give me a miracle. I don’t get to see an angel, heal my sister, convert an investigator, or speak like Moroni each time I open my mouth just because I want to, or have good intentions, or pay my tithing, or even because I live a life of faith and sacrifice. While personal righteousness and practice with the gifts of the Spirit can help us qualify for spiritual power, we cannot simply earn our way to enough spiritual muscle to do whatever we want, independent of God. His is the power, and we will do no more than borrow it in this life, on His terms and according to His will, wisdom, and timing.

What are some of the aspects of growing in spiritual power that we do have some control over?

Obedience. The process of growing in spiritual power is described by Joseph Smith in the Lectures on Faith: “All those who keep his commandments shall grow up from grace to grace, and become heirs of the heavenly kingdom, and joint heirs with Jesus Christ; possessing the same mind, being transformed into the same image or likeness, even the express image of him who fills all in all: being filled with the fulness of his glory, and become one in him, even as the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are one.”[5]

Ordinances. Along with fasting, prayer, and sacrifice, ordinances help us grow in spiritual power: “Therefore, in the ordinances [of the Melchizedek priesthood], the power of godliness is manifest” (D&C 84:20). Perhaps the ordinances of the temple help women in particular to grow in priesthood power; the temple is, after all, “the house of the daughters of Zion” (D&C 124:11). In the temple we can “grow up in [God],” we are “organized according to [God’s] laws,” we can “receive a fulness of the Holy Ghost,” and we are “prepared to obtain every needful thing” our Father has to offer to help us fulfill our missions and accomplish His work of saving the human family.

Symbolic instruction.Temple ordinances teach us symbolically about who Christ is and who we are and can become. John A. Widtsoe, an Apostle from 1921 to 1952, taught, “We live in a world of symbols. No man or woman can come out of the temple endowed as he should be, unless he has seen, beyond the symbol, the mighty realities for which the symbols stand.”[6] When I first read this statement as a teen I assumed it meant I should study the meaning of various scriptural symbols like numbers or colors or articles of clothing in order to understand the temple better. But I’ve since concluded that the “mighty realities” the Lord intends for us to have “seen” are much more than equations like the number ten equals perfection, or the color green equals life, or headdresses equal authority. These “mighty realities” are literal spiritual experiences, changes of heart and mind, and deepening relationships with God and His Son.

Some of the mighty realities that symbols help us grasp:

  • Being born again by choice and covenant into the family of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost (Moses 6:59).
  • Adding to our personal identity the name of the Son of God (3 Nephi 27:5).
  • Acquiring true spiritual protection impenetrable by the world (Ephesians 6:11–16).
  • Obtaining a level of faith that only comes through sacrifice (Lectures on Faith, 6:5).
  • Receiving a fullness of the Holy Ghost, preparing us to obtain every needful thing (D&C 109:15).
  • Learning the language and work of angels (2 Nephi 31:13–14).
  • Experiencing the presence of God (Matthew 5:8).
  • Being organized into eternal families (Genesis 2:24).
  • Being endowed with a portion of one of God’s most identifying powers: the power to engender spiritual life and spiritual power in others (see D&C 132:19–20).

These symbols and ordinances draw heavily on the lives of women. In fact, if we want to understand the mighty spiritual realities underlying gospel ordinances, being a woman may help.

Personal Experience. When I was pregnant with our first child, my husband Dave gave me a beautiful priesthood blessing. In it, he unexpectedly promised me that during this pregnancy I would gain special insight into the Atonement of Jesus Christ. Excited, I began studying scriptures about the Atonement in search of this insight. Nothing particular jumped out. I prayed fervently for help in knowing how to secure this blessing. Nada. I read a book about the Atonement. Interesting, but nothing new. Pregnancy rolled on. I didn’t get any special insight into Christ’s Atonement. I just got increasingly tired and uncomfortable.

And then I went into labor. I began to suffer. Despite the intellectual understanding I had from books about what labor and delivery would involve and how to relax and breathe my way through it, this was a whole new ballgame. I felt completely unprepared. I wondered how I would survive this process that took over my body. I bled. I cried out. I prayed. I longed for someone to help me, or at least to stay with me while I endured. I remember falling to my knees and crawling on the floor with the pain of transition. During delivery I broke out in a rash of little red dots across my face and torso from the pressure of pushing. A necessary sacrifice, one more painful than I had previously imagined, secured new life for someone I had not even met in this life. And I loved that person in ways I had never experienced before.

Oh. That kind of insight into the Atonement of Christ.

If we want to learn about baptism, our “new birth,” we may get only as far as imagining a warm bath unless we think about what birth really is like for a woman in labor. Is there anything the Atonement of Christ is more “like” than labor, a woman’s labor, bringing new life to an unborn child? (See Isaiah 53:11, Matthew 26:37–42 and Doctrine and Covenants 19:18–19.)

Of course, men suffer too, deeply, and sometimes out of great personal sacrifice as they go to work or to war to feed or protect others. Those sacrifices should also be gratefully contemplated when we think of the Atonement. But if we want to learn what King Benjamin meant when he said we are both begotten and born of Christ, then the experience of women giving birth seems pretty important to consider since fathers beget and mothers give birth. King Benjamin says: “And now, because of the covenant which ye have made ye shall be called the children of Christ, his sons, and his daughters; for behold, this day he hath spiritually begotten you; for ye say that your hearts are changed through faith on his name; therefore, ye are born of him and have become his sons and his daughters” (Mosiah 5:7; emphasis added).

Baptism is like a birth, accomplished through the personal sacrifice and labor of a mother, and Christ is like that mother.

I don’t fully understand why men and women are given slightly different ways to participate in God’s work in the earth for the salvation of the human family. But I am deeply grateful for the assurance that obedience, ordinances, symbols, and personal experience can help us all to not only be born again, but to “grow up” in God.

[1] Wendy Ulrich (2016), “What I hope we will teach our daughters (and sons) about the priesthood,” Fair Mormon Conference,…/hope-will-teach-daughters-sons-priesthood.

[3] “The Power of the Priesthood,” Ensign, May 2010. I’m curious as to what President Packer means by fixing the power of the priesthood “in the families” as opposed to in the quorums or individual men. Unfortunately, he is no longer here to ask, but it sounds like he envisioned priesthood power as belonging and developing in a particular way in the family with all its constituents.

[4]  M. Russell Ballard, “Women of Dedication, Faith, Determination, and Action,” BYU Women’s Conference address, May 1, 2015.

[5] Lectures on Faith, 5:2.

[6] Power from on high: Fourth year junior genealogical classes (Salt Lake City: Genealogical Society of Utah, 1937).