Thursday, August 9, 2012

The Myth of Equality in the Church

I read a great article today from the 2012 FAIR Conference this past weekend (I did not attend, and this was the only article I read). This particular presentation was given by Neylan McBaine, the founder of The Mormon Women Project. I first came across the presentation on a forum I participate in where the presentation was linked to with the following quote:

I don’t think gender tensions in Mormonism are due to inequality in the religion, but due to invisibility of that equality. The equality is embedded, inherent in Mormon theology, history, texts, structures. Gender equality is built into the blueprints of Mormonism, but obscured in the elaborations.

This was actually a quote from Maxine Hanks, a member of the September Six who was excommunicated in the 80s and re-baptized just last year. Ironically, the main argument of the presentation by Neylan McBaine actually supports the idea that there is not gender equality in the Church structure, or even in the doctrine. She says,

[I]n the outside world, when you say men and women have equal leadership opportunities, you mean — at least ideally — that men and women have the same cleared path to advance to the same positions of influence and authority…

Is there gender discrimination in the Church? If discrimination means separation according to gender, yes. If it means delineation of opportunities based solely on gender, yes. Many argue that different opportunities based on gender is unfair, adverse, and/or abusive by definition. The Church does not satisfy secular gender-related egalitarian ideals, period; and our institutional behavior fits that definition of gender discrimination in several inescapable ways. We shrink away from accurately representing how we work, thinking it condemns us as a church. And in the eyes of the world it might. But the Church does not, and should not, operate according to secular concepts of power, status, etc.; and if we attempt to justify ourselves in this paradigm we will not only fail, but betray our own ideals.

McBaine’s argument here seems to be that there is inherently not gender equality in the Church – not in the way the world would like to define it, anyway – and that the Church should not try to pretend it fits into the world’s definition of “equality”. I tend to agree. A few months ago I shared with you a lot of my thoughts about gender and equality, and how the whole argument seems to be a little messed up and misdirected. I couldn’t quite put my finger on what I felt – I had only just recently started thinking seriously about gender roles and equality – and the doctrine we are taught about it. When I read McBaine’s presentation it finally made sense – there is not gender equality in the Church, the way the world defines it, and there shouldn’t be.

In society, the world calls that “separate but equal” – and so far it seems that the Church has tried to go along with that – which gets us into problems, because the last time “separate but equal” was used it ended up before the Supreme Court and eventually in the Senate, where judges and lawmakers in the United States ruled that separate is inherently not equal. Which is true. Separate is not equal. We shouldn’t pretend it is.

Equality Where it Matters

There are fundamental doctrines of equality in the gospel of Jesus Christ. All are invited to come unto Christ, and he denies none.

he inviteth them all to come unto him and partake of his goodness; and he denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female; and he remembereth the heathen; and all are alike unto God, both Jew and Gentile. (2 Nephi 26:33)

We are all spirit children of our Heavenly Father, and as such have infinite worth.

we are the offspring of God (Acts 17:29)

Remember the worth of souls is great in the sight of God; (D&C 18:10)

The atonement of the Savior was for all men.

For behold, I, God, have suffered these things for all, that they might not suffer if they would repent; (D&C 19:16)

Men and women are to work together as equal partners

In these sacred responsibilities, [men and women] are obligated to help one another as equal partners. (The Family: A Proclamation to the World)

It’s clear to see that there are definitely facets of equality in the gospel of Jesus Christ – and in my opinion, they occur where the equality needs to be. Women are not more valuable than men, neither are men more valuable than women. This doctrine is clearly illustrated in the highest ordinance possible in the gospel of Jesus Christ – the sealing ordinance. This ordinance can only be obtained by a man and a woman together. No woman can obtain exaltation alone, and no man can obtain it alone. We are “all alike unto God”.

Embracing ‘Inequality’

But what about the inequality? It certainly exists. Men are ordained to offices in the priesthood, and preside over the Church, and women preside over organizations in the Church, but will never preside over the Church itself. One interesting note to make (that doesn’t make it less unequal, but is important to understand that the equality of gender importance extends to these types of inequality) is that a man who is not married will never be ordained to the highest priesthood offices. Any man who serves in an authority position in the Church is married to a woman.

McBaine discussed a Washington Post article in which Michael Otterson, the Public Affairs director for the Church, had a hard time getting across what equality really looks like in the Church (which is to say, equality in the Church really looks like inequality). She said,

The prompt suggests women do not hold leadership positions, therefore women are inferior. I suggest we argue it is true that Mormon women do not hold an equal number of global leadership positions as men, but that is not because they are of lesser value. It is because we believe we are working in an eternal paradigm in which roles and responsibilities are divided up cooperatively rather than hierarchically. Mormonism is a lay church so the members are the ministers, and this is a completely different organizational structure than traditional Christian priesthood or ministry, which is defined as an exclusive or trained clergy…

The prompt’s logic doesn’t adequately leave room for our organization’s cooperative structure of service, where no one person is paid for his or her ministry or deemed of greater value than another and where each brings unique resources to his or her responsibilities…

[I]n a cooperative structure where people are rotating positions every few years and no one is materialistically rewarded over another person, that hierarchy is a flimsy currency on which to base one’s value.

Nowhere does the Lord intimate that various callings and responsibilities are intended to give one person power over another. In fact, the words “lead” and “leader” appear nowhere in this section, and similarly, the word “leader” appears no where in the Book of Mormon. Even that book’s most admirable leaders, like Captain Moroni, are described as “servant[s]” and “righteous follower[s] of Christ.” This emphasis on organizational stability, on the specific roles and responsibilities of various parties to act as facilitators within the larger community, is, we believe, of divine origin and eternal value.

Lastly, the world calculates in terms of top-down power; God’s calculations are exactly opposite. In the divine kingdom the servant holds the highest status, and in the Church every position is a service position. Given the obvious parallels between the Church’s administrative channels and a business organization, it’s easy to mistakenly assess the Church as a ladder-climbing corporation with God in a corner office at the top; but in this line of thinking we only reveal our shoddy human understanding of power.

I loved this break down of what power and authority really mean in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I think that McBaine explained it better than I have ever heard it put – and she was very concise. I feel that her explanation of what she calls a “cooperative paradigm” perfectly illustrates what our prophets and leaders have stressed for centuries – that men and women work as equal partners, that the sisters “provoke the brethren to good works in looking to the wants of the poor” (Joseph Smith in Minutes of Relief Society Meetings), and that presiding officers should ask for and seek out the council of sisters in the ward (here).

What Women Really Do in the Church

In a post I wrote about women the priesthood, I mentioned a BYU Devotional by Sister Julie B. Beck in which she discussed how Relief Societies are basically priesthood quorums for women. The devotional is very good, and I encourage an in depth study of her words to help you understand what it means to be a woman in the Church, and what the Relief Society is really about.

McBaine mentioned this in her presentation. She said,

An appendage is “a thing that is added or attached to something larger or more important.” Are not the offices of elder or bishop or teacher or deacon appendages to the priesthood, and not the priesthood itself? Are these so different from the female organizations, which we routinely call “auxiliaries”?

According to Sister Beck, our Relief Societies, or “auxiliaries” are indeed not very different from the “appendages” that are priesthood quorums. And as women, we need to understand that – and when we do understand that position of the Relief Society we will be able to fully unleash the power that President Kimball promised was available to us when he said, “There is a power in this organization that has not yet been fully exercised… nor will it until both the sisters and [the brethren] catch the vision of Relief Society.”

Embracing the Inequality

McBaine concluded her presentation with suggestions ward leaders could implement (which are in keeping with current policies of the Church) to help women catch that vision. Some of my favorites were having Young Women assigned as companions to Visiting Teachers, as Young Men are assigned as home teaching companions. Or at least encourage adult women to bring Young Women along with them on visiting teaching assignments. Having more visibility of women in ward and stake leadership positions. My personal favorite – addressing Presidents of organizations as such “President Johns” rather than “Sister Johns” for the Relief Society, Young Women, and Primary presidents (and I would add the Quorum presidents in the ward priesthood organization).

And for heaven’s sake, let’s teach our children the real doctrine about the priesthood and prophets. I was shocked at how McBaine seemed surprised to hear that her great-great-grandmother was referred to in her patriarchal blessing as a “prophetess and revelator”.

Can you imagine using such language of empowerment to describe the female leaders in your wards? If we grew accustomed to hearing our women leaders speak as authorities, as prophetesses and revelators, and referred to them that way ourselves, perhaps there would be fewer among us who feel the need for a soda or bathroom break when the female speaker comes on the screen during General Conference.

Why, yes I can, Sister McBaine. I have thought of my mother (and myself, and my aunts and my cousins, and the Relief Society and Young Women’s presidencies) as prophetesses since I knew what a prophet really was. It’s probably the reason why I don’t have a problem with men being ordained to priesthood offices. I’m sure it has something to do with the reason why I have always enjoyed hearing the General Young Women’s, Primary, and Relief Society presidencies speak. And I know it’s the reason why I am so confident that there is nothing in this gospel that I can’t have and a man can. The only things I can’t get on my own are things that a man can’t get on his own either.

Have you ever tried to “explain away” the inequality in the Church? How do you feel about embracing it? Do you believe that, in the ways of the world, there truly is an inherent inequality between men and women in the gospel of Jesus Christ? Is it really inequality in God’s plan? Do we need to abolish all differences between men and women in order to truly be “equal”?


  1. I really enjoyed this. There is a real need for us to reject the way the world works and look to Christ for the way His church organisation works. There is too much co-opting of feminist ideologies that in fact degrade both men and women by insisting that we have no differences and our paths to fulfillment should be 100% the same in order for us to be truly happy.

  2. Loved this post. I need to read it again, but I think you're truly on to something!

  3. The only quibble I have with your post is that I dont think that it is understood that women are prophetesses. The only time I have heard that is in reference to a couple women in the scriptures. Never have I heard women referred to as prophetesses in church, relief society, or in reading the Ensign. Just because you have heard it or thought doesn't mean that it is taught or known generally. And yes, I attended seminary very faithfully, listened carefully, and actually studied. I also taught seminary.

    1. I agree that it isn't widely understood that women can be and are prophetesses. It's my hope that those who do understand will help share that knowledge with others.

      Here are a few references from that might help. And these are just references that I found which specifically refer to "prophetesses" beyond the OT/NT usage. I could do a much more indepth study of the "spirit of prophecy" which would yield much greater results, and I think I might just do that for a future post. You've inspired me :)

      We simply don't use the term "prophetess" very often, but that doesn't mean it isn't accurate. I think it's similar to the lack of reference to Heavenly Mother. There are things we don't talk about - but not because we aren't supposed to talk about them... simply because we don't. And I believe that should change.

      from an article about Elder Bruce R. McConkie "One of the daughters once asked her dad what a prophetess is. His reply: “A prophetess is a woman like your mother.”"

      An excellent "I have a question" article from the 1980 Ensign - this one is especially enlightening.

      A 1973 General Conference address in which Eliza R. Snow is referred to as a prophetess.

      It is my personal opinion - from what I have studied, and especially from the new Daughters in My Kingdom book - that the women referred to as prophetesses in the New Testament (and Old Testament) were quite likely the equivalent of "Relief Society presidents" in their day - they had authority to preach the gospel, and they had an abundance of personal spirituality and testimony.

  4. This post gave me so much to think about. I am still "chewing" on this. It's a topic I have given a lot of thought to and keep expanding my personal understanding of. I like how you alternated sharing your insights and your use of quotes from what Sister Neylan McBaine talked about.

    In some ways, I see the church as having equality well-in-hand, and in other ways I see that we do have a long way to go toward women and men learning to really value each other in doing the work of the Kingdom and each personally feeling empowered by God to truly work in unison. I think living in a fallen world might have something to do with that struggle for balance, though.

    Great food for thought.


  5. There is one thing you can't ever have that a man can. Neither you nor your female representative can have a vote in the decision making process in the Church.

    1. There are a lot more things that I can't ever have that a man can ;) but there are also things that a man can never have that a woman can. Hence, the myth of equality - we want men and women to be identical in roles, responsibilities, biology. We wish there was absolutely no difference. But that isn't what God means by us all being "equal" - it's a different kind of equality. And, honestly, I think a better one. Everyone the same = boring.


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