Many who are not members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have questions about the roles of women in the church. Members of this church are sometimes referred to as Mormons and to an outsider, the roles of women seem a bit outdated. This is the result of a misunderstanding of how the church views gender. It is not an issue to most Mormon women.
Why don’t Mormon women hold the priesthood?
The priesthood is the authority to act in God’s name in certain instances. It is a service position and the person who holds the priesthood cannot use it to benefit himself in any way. For instance, one thing a priesthood holder can do is to, with another priesthood holder, place his hands on a person’s head and give him a healing blessing. This does not, of course, guarantee the person will be healed, but it does place the person directly in God’s hands and what happens will be according to His plan. While it is true and woman cannot do this, a man cannot do it for himself, either. He must find two men to give him a priesthood blessing if he needs it. Since there are often two priesthood holders in a home—a father and a son, for example—this means it is more complicated for a man to get a blessing than it is for a women. The man must find someone outside the home to perform the ordinance.
Priesthood is not about gender, even though only men can hold it. It is a specific responsibility that God chose for men. He chose other responsibilities, such as having children, that are reserved just for women—and few consider that discriminatory. It is merely an assignment of roles. Because priesthood is merely one of many ways God arranges for people to serve others, women are not losing any blessing a man might receive by not holding the priesthood. They have many ways to serve—more than they have time for, usually. The women’s auxiliary, the Relief Society, was organized entirely to provide service.
Can Mormon women hold leadership positions within the church?
Yes, Mormon women hold leadership positions ranging from the congregational level to the international level. At all levels, the Relief Society (the women’s auxiliary), the Young Women’s program (for teenage girls) and the Primary (for children) are all led by women. Although men may serve as teachers in the Primary, they may not hold any leadership position not related to Cub Scouting in that organization. Men may also teach in the literacy program, but only women can run the program. Some church callings (volunteer positions) are reserved for women and some for men. Others may be held by members of either gender.
All positions in the church, even to the level of the president of the Church, are volunteer positions. As such, positions reserved for priesthood holders do not deprive women of paid employment. Most Mormon women feel they have more than enough unpaid work to do without adding any more. In fact, Mormons who are worthy to hold a very high level calling seldom want one. They understand these positions are not about power—they are about service. The service required of a person in leadership generally requires many, many unpaid hours, which must be done in between paid employment, family responsibilities, and community service. A bishop, the equivalent of a pastor, gives at least 25 hours a week and usually far more, all unpaid. The international leaders, both men and women, largely serve full-time and they are not paid.
Being a Mormon leader does not mean the person has power. Each leader in the church answers to someone above him or her. He or she is expected to follow church guidelines and to pray about all important decisions. The president of the church, who is also a prophet, answers to Jesus Christ. He must never make a decision based on his personal preferences. When the decision matters, he takes it to God in prayer and it is God who guides him to his decision. When the prophet dies, he will be accountable to God for how he led the church. Leaders are not “promoted” in the church. A bishop may find himself as an assistant in the toddler nursery when his time as a bishop ends. People move in and out of leadership on a regular basis to give everyone a variety of opportunities for personal growth.
Both men and women may pray and preach before the congregation. As a lay church, any member may be asked to pray. In the worship service, the responsibility to say the opening or closing prayer can be given to any adult or teenager. The bishop does not give the weekly sermon. Instead, several members of the church—adults and teens—are invited to give brief sermons, lasting from ten minutes for teens up to twenty minutes for adults. Most people give these sermons, called talks, about once a year. Both men and women teach in the church as well.
Dallin H. Oaks, a Mormon apostle, was asked about this issue when he spoke to non-Mormons at Harvard University. He informed the audience that his wife was given a position at the international level long before he was.
As we study the Bible, we realize Jesus gave women important roles in his ministry, but He did not call them to be apostles, which is a priesthood role. God did not send a daughter to save the world. It is not because God thinks less of women; it is merely that each gender has its own role in his gospel, all equally important.
What does it mean when Mormons say the man is the head of the household?
Mormons leaders consistently teach that being the head of the household is a leadership position. It does not make the man the boss. His leadership must come through example only. Men and women work in equal partnership to manage their families. Even if a man is given the final say by his wife, he understands that does not mean he gets his way. It means he must pray and then make the best choice for his family, and often that means he decides to take the path his wife preferred. Often, the man will decide his wife is better informed on or more impacted by the decision and will defer to her. Sometimes he defers simply because he decides to do so. A man who always chose his path would be in violation of his priesthood. Being the head of the household never gives a man the right to abuse a woman or to control her. While God prefers that women have primary responsibility for the home and children and men be primarily responsible for earning the income, both adults are expected to assist the other. Men receive regular training in their priesthood classes in the importance of helping their wives with the responsibilities of home and family. Most Mormon men cook, clean, and change diapers happily. When visiting a Mormon congregation, you will find men in the foyer caring for fussy children or entertaining them in their classes so their wives can enjoy their lessons.
Do Mormon women mind being told their primary responsibility is to the home?
Mormon leaders of both genders teach the importance of the home. Mitt Romney’s wife Ann said her husband always told her that her job was more important than his. After all, a business or political career is only of value in this life. But Mormons believe families are meant to last forever, so Ann’s job has eternal significance. The mother has the privilege of shaping the family that will last forever, raising the next generation, and sharing her values and talents with her children. Mormon men and women both consider their children to be very important. To suggest that caring for them is unimportant or unchallenging is to suggest their children don’t matter—and in an eternal family, they matter a great deal.
Parenting done properly is not boring. Mothers teach, strategize, and carry out complex plans that will give their children the best opportunity to become successful adults. It is more than diapers. A good Mormon mother is balancing the spiritual and the temporal to create a complex and pleasing mortality for her family. She teaches everything from the alphabet to how to know Jesus Christ. She solves complicated problems faced by her family, manages the budget so it provides the most important things a family needs, and sets long-term goals for her children. No corporate executive has to work harder at planning and succeeding than a mother does.
Most adults understand the importance of parents. If they had a great mother, they are thankful for the joy that brought into their lives—the way this mother made them feel special. If they did not, they understand what they missed. Mormons consider that no secular job comes close to the one they do in their own home.
Terrie Lynn Bittner
The late Terrie Lynn Bittner—beloved wife, mother, grandmother, and friend—was the author of two homeschooling books and numerous articles, including several that appeared in Latter-day Saint magazines. She became a member of the Church at the age of 17 and began sharing her faith online in 1992.