Elder Oaks’ Remarks at the April 2014 Priesthood Session

As has been pointed out already by many, the bloggernacle is atwitter with comments regarding this talk. And, in my personal life, I’ve had a number of my wonderful family and friends ask me if I’ve read it/listened to it, tell me about how wonderful of a talk it is, and ask me, “don’t you feel great now that all your questions about women and the Priesthood have been authoritatively answered by an Apostle of the Lord?” Now, make no mistake. I love general conference, and I love hearing from the leaders of my church, but this talk actually didn’t answer a whole lot of my questions. I’ve tried explaining that to a few people, but I thought I’d put my thoughts down here. Of course, I don’t pretend to bring anything particularly novel to this discussion. These are just my own ideas and views, many of which have already been voiced elsewhere. But perhaps the next time someone brings this talk up, I’ll just be able to refer them here if they want to know what I thought of it.

Elder Oaks states early in the talk, “Priesthood keys are the authority God has given to priesthood holders to direct, control, and govern the use of his priesthood on the earth.” I understand this to mean that connected to holding the priesthood is the mandate to “direct, control and govern,” not everything, but specifically, “the use of His priesthood.” At this point (fairly early on in the talk), I remember thinking, “What exactly falls under the definition of the use of the priesthood? Perhaps Elder Oaks will elaborate.”

Later in the talk, Elder Oaks once again indicates that there is a distinction between priesthood use and ‘other stuff,’ when he states, “The divine nature of the limitations put upon the exercise of priesthood keys explains an essential contrast between decisions on matters of church administration, and decisions affecting the priesthood.” This statement seems to perhaps indicate that at least part of the ‘other stuff’ (ie. the stuff that is distinct from priesthood use) is church administration. I find this particular distinction interesting, to say the least, given that authority with respect to church administration, if it truly is distinct from priesthood use, seems to have been inordinately tied to holding the priesthood. After all, as things stand, at any level of church administration considered, only priesthood holders are able to make autonomous administrative decisions. If we look to the highest earthly level, “The First Presidency, and the Council of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve, who preside over the church, are empowered to make many decisions affecting church policy and procedures. Matters such as the location of church buildings, and the ages for missionary service.” Is it just coincidental that all those who can make those sorts of decisions (for example, the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve) are all priesthood holders? It almost sounds like he’s saying, “OK, so these administrative decisions are actually not a function of the priesthood, it’s just that only priesthood holders can make them.” So is priesthood use actually distinct from making administration decisions? Or is the ability to make administrative decisions actually tied to priesthood? This was one of the questions on which Elder Oaks did not appear to me to provide the clarity my family and friends seem to think that it should have.

Elder Oaks also goes on to say that while our priesthood leaders are able to make those sorts of administrative decisions, “they are not free to alter the divine decreed pattern that only men will hold offices in the priesthood.” With respect to this point, I also have a few questions that were not answered by this talk.

First, where is the evidence of this pattern having been divinely decreed? I’m honestly not trying to be oppositional, or even saying that I don’t believe Elder Oaks. I’m just asking – to where should I refer if I want to find the divine decree indicating this was to be the pattern? Consider for instance, the matter of race and the priesthood, in which we similarly are unable (to my knowledge) to find the divine decree on the subject. Instead, it was more a matter that “given the long history of withholding the priesthood from men of black African descent, Church leaders believed that a revelation from God was needed to alter the policy.” I know some would say that the fact that there is a long history of something in the church equals divine decree, but in that case, it would seem more honest and straightforward to state that, “they are not free to alter the longstanding policies that have been established by previous church leaders (possibly as a result of divine decree) that any priesthood office is exclusively for men.”

Second, Elder Oaks tells us that by divine decree, only men are to hold priesthood offices, but also that “with the exception of the sacred work that sisters do in the temple under the keys held by the temple president, which I will describe hereafter, only one who holds a priesthood office can officiate in a priesthood ordinance.” Aside from the priesthood offices only being open to men, is the ability of participating or having a role in officiating in priesthood ordinances being restricted to men (with the exception of the temple) also by divine decree? If so, why has policy (with respect to what extent women were allowed to participate in various priesthood ordinances outside the temple) changed so much during the history of the church? Apparently there are many examples of women acting in some sort of role in the priesthood outside the temple, and with the blessing of the church of their times; and changing the policies around these practices has apparently been under the purview of making policy and administrative changes, and has not required new revelation. I want to re-iterate that this isn’t about me saying Elder Oaks is wrong – it’s about me wanting clarification on these questions, which I didn’t receive from the talk, as so many people feel I should have.

Third, even if it is by divine decree that offices of the priesthood are only open to men, why did Elder Oaks only choose to address the present? What I have heard from many of those out there on the internet (and in person) is they think that Elder Oaks’ talk was intended to be a response to Ordain Women. Except – Ordain Women wasn’t asking for a clarification of the status quo (and as I’ve indicated, even on that front this talk falls short for me personally. This isn’t a criticism of Elder Oaks – perhaps it wasn’t a talk that was intended to answer my questions. Maybe it was a talk for someone else). Ordain Women was asking for revelation to be sought that would tell us what lies in the future for Mormon women. A summary of the status quo does not necessarily address the future. This fact is clearly highlighted by the following statement from N. Eldon Tanner in 1967 on the topic of the ordination of black men: “The Church has no intention of changing its doctrine on the Negro. Throughout the history of the original Christian church, the Negro never held the priesthood. There’s really nothing we can do to change this. It’s a law of God.” If this same sentiment applies here – that there’s nothing the brethren can do in regards to what Ordain Women is asking, that doesn’t truly present a conflict; since OW is asking for revelation to be sought, it should be clear that they are in fact not asking the brethren to take it upon themselves to decide the answer to this question. So in regards to the suggestion by my family and friends that Elder Oaks’ talk should clear up any idea that Mormon women may in the future be ordained? No, it doesn’t.

And while we’re on the topic of what Ordain Women is asking for, let’s consider the other half of the tagline on their website. They’re not just seeking ordination to the priesthood, they’re seeking equality. Elder Oaks does address this a bit. He states that the roles in which women are permitted to serve in the institution and structure of the church are “appendages” to the priesthood, and he uses the word appendage multiple times. So let’s consider the meaning of that word. An appendage is, “an adjunct to something larger or more important.” So from Elder Oaks’ talk, I took away the message that the roles that women fill in the institution and structure of the church are less important than the roles filled in the institution and structure of the church by priesthood holders (at least, this would be true in the case of roles for which holding the priesthood is a requirement). Now don’t jump all over me saying, “that’s not true! women are just as important! Elder Oaks would never say something like that!” With respect to the roles in the structure and institution of the church available to women, that is exactly what Elder Oaks said. And it’s true. The church, as it stands, could not continue to operate without men. It could continue to operate without women. 

I should clarify that I’m not saying that Elder Oaks said “men are more important than women,” just that within the institution of the church, the roles men fill are more important than the roles women fill. Elder Oaks actually specifically states that “In the eyes of God, whether in the church or in the family, women and men are equal…” and quotes J Reuben Clark saying, “The greatest power God has given to His sons cannot be exercised without the companionship of one of his daughters, because only to his daughters has God given the power to be a creator of bodies so that God’s design and the great plan might meet fruition.” While I find the woman’s role as a creator of bodies to be extremely problematic in lots of ways (some women can’t have, or don’t want children, and even if a woman does, that role is the parallel of fatherhood, not priesthood), I do find the hint of something in there that resonates with me. I have the potential to create, and I think that’s powerful. I believe that potential, if we extrapolate to the power to create beyond this life, gives me an eternal role that is equal to men.

Overall, the takeaway message from Oaks’ talk regarding the (in)equality of men and women seems to be: men and women, as individual children of God themselves, are currently, and will always be equal in the eyes of God; men and women have equally important roles in the eternal plan for humankind; men fill roles in the institution and structure of the church that are more important than the roles women fill in the institution and structure of the church. Am I cool with this state of affairs? No, not really. But I suppose I appreciate the candor in his assessment of the status quo. As discussed previously, that’s what this talk is – a description of the current situation.

Another element of Elder Oaks’ talk that I have heard directed towards Ordain Women supporters is the statement that they, “should forget about their rights and concentrate on their responsibilities.” I totally agree with the statement that “Whoever exercises priesthood authority should forget about their rights and concentrate on their responsibilities.” Our Savior and our ultimate Exemplar descended below all things in order to serve others, and to fulfill His responsibility in the plan of salvation. This statement in Elder Oaks’ talk did not offend me, but was in fact a beautiful confirmation of a truth I hold dear. I only address it here due to the fact that it has since been used in a fashion that suggests that any supporter of Ordain Women must be neglecting his or her responsibilities in order to engage in the self-serving activity of Ordain Women actions.

With respect to the implied allegation (not by Elder Oaks, but by others) that people supporting Ordain Women must not be fulfilling their obligations, I find it ridiculous to suggest that any of the people casting this aspersion truly have any idea how even one supporter, much less the whole body of Ordain Women supporters are doing with regards to the discharge of their obligations. Unless the standard is, “do you ever do anything during General Conference weekend other than give birth to babies, make nourishing meals for your family and scour Pinterest for activities to engage your young children in the conference sessions? If so, you are not living up to your obligations as a nurturing mother in Zion.” And of course, that standard would be laughable.

With respect to the implied allegation (again, not by Elder Oaks, but by others) that people supporting Ordain Women are self-serving demanders caught up in claiming their own rights, that idea is simply not supported by the Ordain Women supporters I know, nor by the many Ordain Women profiles I have read on their website. What I have heard is lots of women saying they want is to extend blessings to others. That they are more moved by a desire for other women to enjoy the blessings of exercising the priesthood,  than by such a desire for themselves. Or that they have been in situations where being able to exercise the priesthood would have enabled them to bless another. That they don’t want their daughters to learn that their role in the institutional structure of the church is less important because they are female. That they want the church to be a more inclusive place for everyone. And of course, let’s not ignore the fact that a number of Ordain Women supporters are male priesthood holders, and hence have nothing to personally gain by seeking the ordination of women.

The final thing that Elder Oaks failed to clarify for me was a question I’ve long had about the language in the Proclamation on the Family. He mentions the language in question when he states that “the father presides in the family.” To preside is to “hold the position of authority; act as chairperson or president” or “to possess or exercise authority or control.” He mentions this, and then follows it up with another statement about equality, and quotes President Kimball’s statement that, “When we speak of marriage as a partnership, let us speak of marriage as a full partnership. We do not want our LDS women to be silent partners, or limited partners in that eternal assignment. Please be a contributing and full partner.” What both speakers fail to sufficiently elucidate to me is how to reconcile one person holding the position of authority and control, with equality between partners. I’ll extend the benefit of the doubt in this case, that this is perhaps a principle that could be clarified in a way that makes sense. I once had a Bishop who gave a talk in church on a related topic, and while I don’t remember it with enough clarity to quote it, I remember at the time being satisfied with his treatment of the subject. Elder Oaks’ talk did not similarly satisfy me. So as not to be misinterpreted, I’ll clarify that I don’t mean he didn’t satisfy me by giving me the answer I want – I mean that I don’t think he clearly gave an answer. That is, he did not explain the way in which two apparently contradictory terms (“preside” and “equal partners”) can be reconciled.

These are just a few of the thoughts I had on Elder Oaks’ talk. I want to re-iterate once more, that this post is not about telling people how Elder Oaks is wrong. It is about pointing out that his talk does not in fact answer the questions I had and continue to have. And since this post ended up being quite long, I just may have to refer the next well-meaning person that refers me to Elder Oaks’ talk here.

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