When Jesus Christ organized His church on Earth, He chose only men to be His apostles. However, this was not because the women were unimportant or because He was discriminating towards them. Apostleship is a priesthood function, and only men hold the priesthood. However, apostleship is just one way to serve God and there are many others. As we study the New Testament, we see that Jesus Christ held women in high esteem and made them essential parts of His gospel. It was to a women that he first revealed His true identity as the Savior and it was women to whom He first appeared as a resurrected being. He taught Mary and Martha that women were to be gospel scholars as well as homemakers and that both roles were equally important. He counted several women among His close friends and spoke to them as people who mattered and as people who could live lives of faith, knowledge, and service.
Mormons in modern times follow the teachings of Jesus Christ. Mormon is a nickname sometimes applied to members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Men hold the priesthood, but the priesthood is merely one method of serving God. Mormons have a lay church and so the priesthood does not come with a paycheck and is not similar to the professional priesthood operated by most other churches. Priesthood duties are carried out in “free” time after holders have completed their days at work or school. Priesthood holders cannot use their priesthood to bless themselves. If a priesthood holder becomes ill and wishes to receive a healing blessing, for instance, he must find two other priesthood holders to give it to him. He can’t use it to heal himself.
Priesthood is not about power. Priesthood holders always answer to those above them and those at the top answer to God. They do not have the power to make doctrine—only God can do that. They merely carry out His commandments and instructions. A congregational bishop (similar to a pastor) cannot choose the doctrine to be taught or honored. He can only practice inspired leadership to carry out the mission of the church, which is decided at the top as prophets commune with God.
What do women do in the church? Unlike many other conservative churches, Mormon women are permitted to pray and to preach. Because Mormonism has a lay church, the bishop does not give the weekly sermon. Ordinary church members are invited to do this, instead. Most members in good standing speak about once a year. Children speak, beginning at age three, in their children’s Primary auxiliary. From age twelve on, they speak in the regular worship service. These sermons, called talks, are about two and a half minutes for children, about five minutes for teenagers, and ten to twenty minutes for adults, depending on how many speakers there are that day. Most meetings include one teenager and two adult speakers. The opening and closing prayers are also given by members, with a leader inviting someone to give the prayers before the meeting begins. Both men and women may be invited to give those prayers.
Another responsibility of ministers in other religions is to minister to those who are sick, sad, or lonely. Early in the church’s history, the women of the church came to Joseph Smith, the first modern prophet, and suggested they organize a women’s organization similar to those emerging all over the country, with a formal constitution. Joseph suggested that the Lord had something better for them in mind. He wanted them to organize after the pattern set by the priesthood, with full authority from God to carry out the work of the Lord, to preach the gospel, and to minister to those in need. This organization is today called the Relief Society and all adult women are automatically included in it.
Their special responsibility is to serve those in need. While the priesthood quorums do a great deal of service, the women are particularly noted for their work in this field. Their auxiliary is led by a three-woman presidency (a president and two counselors) and a secretary. There are also women called to fill a variety of other positions in the organization, including teaching, organizing compassionate service, running a literacy program, and overseeing the unique and award-winning Visiting Teaching program.
Most women in the church are visiting teachers. They work with a companion and visit several women each month. They are asked to get to know the women they visit and to serve them in any way they can. Good friendships often develop from this program. Women who are new to an area have someone they can feel comfortable calling on when they need help but haven’t made friends yet. Elderly women are checked on often—women with special needs receive more frequent visits and telephone calls, with some elderly women who live alone being checked on daily.
Women in the church also serve in other organizations from the congregational to the international level. For the women at the international level, the work is full-time, but like the men who serve full-time, it is unpaid because the Bible warns against profiting financially from church service. If there is financial need, they can receive a modest stipend that is not paid for by tithing money.
There are women leading, speaking, praying, and serving throughout the church. As in the days of Jesus Christ, Mormon women are considered responsible for learning the gospel at the highest levels and serving God in any way He asks them to serve.
The video below features Julie Beck, a former international president of the Relief Society, talking about the role of Relief Society.
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.