Many years ago, when I was barely out of my teens, I found myself alone in a county courthouse, pleading with God in anguished prayer. After a period of inactivity during which I had been briefly married and had a baby, I had started going back to church. I had been accepted at BYU and had rediscovered my love for the Lord and his gospel–but then everything had fallen apart.
After I moved away (with his permission) to start school, my violent ex-husband suddenly decided to fight for full custody of our baby daughter. Unlike me, he had the backing of his mother’s money and an entire team of attorneys. I knew my ex could not provide a safe home, but for various legal reasons there was no hope that I could retain primary custody of my baby. Even if I “won”, all I could hope for was shared custody with an unstable man.
On this particular day, the lawyers had all gone in to chambers for a hearing to kick off what was anticipated to be a three-day final custody trial. I was alone, and feeling unbearably helpless. I knew my daughter would not be safe with shared custody, but there was no way to convince the court. My daughter’s life was in the hands of a stranger who did not know or love her and could not be made aware of my ex-husband’s danger. I yearned for the power of the priesthood, which had blessed me so many times in my life, but in hopeless agony I knew I, as a woman, had no such power.
I prayed to the Lord with all the energy of my heart, in grief and despair, begging him to help me.
And in response I felt one of the clearest spiritual impressions I have ever received. The spirit told me, “You are her mother; you have power. What do you want us to do?”
I suddenly felt a strength and a power in my heart, a warm eruption of confidence as though I could command angels. I felt, as if it had been a physical thing, a column of spiritual power from my heart to the heavens. I had no words for what was happening, but I was acquainted with the Spirit, and recognized him, and trusted him. I knew exactly what I wanted. I called upon the powers of heaven and commanded that my daughter would remain in my sole custody.
Five minutes later, my lawyer appeared in the hallway, all smiles. “I can’t believe it,” he said, and went on to tell me that the judge had suddenly and unexpectedly decided the state of Utah rightly had jurisdiction over my daughter, and had canceled the trial. I would retain sole custody unless and until my ex filed for custody in Utah. I knew he wouldn’t bother, and he never did. The conflict was over, and my daughter remained in my sole custody, just as I had wanted.
This miracle left a powerful impression on me. I knew, firsthand from the spirit, that I had a great power as a woman and a mother, and that it was the power of God.
This is the memory that came to mind when President Russell M. Nelson told the women of the church, “Your personal, spiritual endeavor will bring you joy as you gain, understand, and use the power with which you have been endowed…What could possibly be more exciting than to labor with the Spirit to understand priesthood power — God’s power?” I had the feeling he was hoping to prevent other women from feeling, as I did that day, that I was helpless because I was not a holder of the priesthood. I felt he was encouraging us to learn and prepare for the occasions when we need to call upon the power of God on our own.
In the years since my miracle in the courthouse, I have spent a lot of time thinking about that power I accessed as a mother, and how it relates to the administrative priesthood as we usually think of it. In this dispensation, men alone hold priesthood keys, and men alone are given “the right to direct the work of the priesthood” in the organization of the church. But I have come to believe that the priesthood, as an eternal family matter, functions very differently than the administrative authority we tend to think of as “the priesthood”.
The priesthood of families in scripture
Sections 84 and 107 in the Doctrine and Covenants are generally considered the main “priesthood” sections of modern scripture. Most of the text in these revelations has to do with very specific instructions about how the priesthood of the restored church should be organized. But both sections also include extensive discussions of the lineage of the priesthood from the time of Adam and Eve down to Moses (10 verses in 84 and 13 verses in 107). These asides emphasize a family-oriented priesthood that was transferred from father to son, right in the middle of instructions for setting up a priesthood hierarchy that is explicitly not handed from father to son.
I would suggest that these parentheticals are included in the revelations precisely to emphasize that the current priesthood structure is not the only possible way to do it.
God did not start the earth project with bishops and stake presidents. He gave the priesthood authority to Adam and it was passed down genealogically from father to son. (D&C 107:41). President Ezra Taft Benson clarified the nature of that first priesthood organization in an essay on the temple. He said that the patriarchal order of Adam was “an order of family government where a man and woman enter into a covenant with God—just as did Adam and Eve—to be sealed for eternity, to have posterity, and to do the will and work of God throughout their mortality.” That is, he suggests that the true form of priesthood organization does not consist of individual men serving in callings, but of husbands and wives leading covenant families.
It’s also worth noting that section 107 describes these various hierarchical offices of presidents and presidencies as being “of necessity” (verse 21). This phrase “of necessity” implies that the priesthood of individual presidents with counselors is not the ideal organization, but rather the one that is needed for this dispensation.
Finally, we should notice that Doctrine and Covenants 133:2 specifically describes the temple sealing as the “order of the priesthood” that distinguishes the Celestial Kingdom from the lower kingdoms of heaven. Now, as far as the church organization of callings and offices is concerned, the temple sealing does nothing. There is no particular calling a person has to have before they can get sealed, marriage doesn’t move men into a different priesthood office or make them “eligible” for higher callings, and nobody has to be released from a calling when they get married, or anything like that. And yet, the “order of the priesthood” we have to enter for Celestial glory isn’t “being a General Authority” or even “held priesthood keys at some point”—but the order of temple marriage sealing.
The priesthood of families in the temple
As President Nelson pointed out in the last conference, women in the temple endowment are “authorized to perform and officiate in priesthood ordinances.” When I went to the temple for the first time and participated in the endowment ceremony, I was astonished. I couldn’t figure out why I had been told all my life that women “don’t have the priesthood” when the temple clearly and unequivocally shows that they do. Obviously, they don’t have it in the same way righteous men “hold” it in their priesthood offices, but it is misleading when we say that means we have none at all.
Many other things we do in the temple, like certain of the prayers, also have no direct equivalent outside its walls. That does not mean we shouldn’t learn from them! They are meant to point us toward an eternal, celestial realm.
But the endowment ceremony is explicit about what it prepares women to do in that eternal realm, and the prophet has confirmed it. The temple prepares women to officiate as priestesses in the Melchizedek order. And in the meantime, President Nelson has been clear that the endowment ceremony entitles women to “draw liberally on the Savior’s power to help your family” and “speak and teach with power and authority from God” even outside the temple.
The priesthood of families in modern revelation
In the Church, we have leaders and presidents forming a hierarchy, of necessity. But the family is not a hierarchy. Husbands and wives are equal partners. As President Gordon B. Hinckley said, “In the marriage companionship there is neither inferiority nor superiority…They walk side by side as a son and daughter of God on an eternal journey.”
President Howard W. Hunter said “A man who holds the priesthood accepts his wife as a partner in the leadership of the home and family with full knowledge of and full participation in all decisions relating thereto. … The Lord intended that the wife be a helpmeet for man (meet means equal)—that is, a companion equal and necessary in full partnership”.
In contrast, throughout the organizations of the church, presidencies consist of a single president assisted by councilors—a clear and intentional hierarchy, not an equality of partners. There is no place in the church where important decisions are made by two equal partners. That organization is only found in the family, and in the initial priesthood family of Adam and Eve.
President Oaks also pointed out a distinction between the priesthood structure of the church and of the family: “The principle that priesthood authority can be exercised only under the direction of the one who holds the keys for that function is fundamental in the Church but does not apply to the exercise of priesthood authority in the family.” (emphasis added)
Within the family, a husband and wife do not need to be set apart as parents, or get any special permissions, in order to counsel together and receive inspired direction for their family, or for the father to pronounce priesthood blessings. The priesthood that governs eternal families is separate, and different, from the administrative order of the priesthood in the church.
Moreover, other prophets have clarified that there can be priesthood in the home of a righteous woman even if no priesthood-holder is there. Neil L. Andersen described a woman whose husband forbade her to attend church: “Sister Parrella read the scriptures with her sons and daughters, taught them the gospel, and prayed with them. Their humble home was filled with the rich blessings of priesthood power.” She did not have authority from a calling or an office, and yet she filled her home with the priesthood.
President Russell M. Nelson in this last conference spoke emphatically along the same lines: “If you are endowed, but not currently married to a man who bears the priesthood and someone says to you, ‘I’m sorry you don’t have the priesthood in your home’, please understand that statement is incorrect.” A woman’s own obedience to her temple covenants brings the priesthood power into her home, independent of the presence of a male priesthood-holder.
These statements can be puzzling in the context of a church where women do not officiate in any ordinances or hold any priesthood offices. Some women see this as a problem. I see it as yet another indication that the priesthood power and authority of God work one way in the temporal structure of the church, and another way in the eternal order of the family.
When I called upon the powers of heaven to save my daughter in that bleak courthouse all those years ago, I did so by divine right as her mother. I am in no position to proclaim with certainty that it was priesthood power I used. But when Elder Oaks remarked, about whether or not women have priesthood authority in their callings, “What other authority can it be?” my heart resonated. Of my own experience I can merely ask, “What other power can it have been?”
My heart rang again in this last conference as President Nelson spoke to the women of the church about their power, both as guardians of morality and as endowed with priesthood power in the temple. Our world grows ever more confusing, ever more dangerous, and in response, our leaders have reduced the importance of the administrative church and magnified parents and families. I think it no accident that it is in our homes and families that we as women have the greatest access to the priesthood powers granted us in the temple.
promised, “Sisters, dear sisters, you have the right to draw liberally on the
Savior’s power to help your family.” I hope that we will take up President
Nelson’s challenge and learn more about this power and how we can wield it. It
is time to worry less about our place in the church’s administrative hierarchy,
and worry more about how we can harness the power we are given as women to bless
our families and the struggling world.
 For example, although bishops and stake presidents are almost always married, marriage is actually not a requirement for those callings.