My Sacrament talk today.
The Divine Nature and Role of Women
During my decades as a member of the Church, I have regularly heard complaints from voices both outside and inside the Church to the effect that the Church is essentially a male-oriented, sexist organization in which women are second class citizens. Perhaps it is the result of the internet, but such voices seem louder and more frequent as time passes. At the same time, I have heard and witnessed things within the Church that have the unfortunate effect of giving weight to those complaints. On this day when we honor our mothers, I would like to talk more generally about honoring the divine nature and role of women in the Church.
Some years ago, during Priesthood opening exercises in this ward, a new elder to the ward stood to address the brethren. He and his companion had been transferred in that week to replace two sisters who previously had served in the ward. He announced that now that there were elders in the ward, real missionary work could begin. There was a smattering of laughter, but not from my pew.
Now, I was quite fond of the sisters who had been serving previous to this elder. At the same time, my daughter Francesca was serving as a full time missionary in Rome. In addition, my own experience in the mission field was that the sister missionaries regularly outperformed the elders in terms of hard work, dedication, and obedience. So following Church that day, I approached this elder to share with him some of my views. It was a spirited discussion, and there may or may not have been some pushing involved. I did not know at the time that he was an ex-Marine who could kill me with a paperclip. I would have considered that information useful.
I share that story so that you will understand that this is an issue that I take very seriously. I am married to a faithful woman, we have raised five daughters in the Church, and we’ve virtually adopted more than a few more on top of that, and I assure you that none of them are second class citizens in the kingdom of God. I am proud of their faith. I am amazed at their courage. I am humbled by their faithfulness. Each of them is a better person than I am, and the notion that I am more important in God’s eyes than them because of my gender is absurd and offensive to me.
We speak in the Church of the Three Pillars of Eternity, in reference to the three most important events in the world’s history: The Creation, the Fall, and the Atonement. It is important, I think, to note the central role that women played in each of those events.
With respect to the Creation, within the very first verses of the scriptures, the divine nature and potential of women is spelled out. We are told in the 27th verse of the first chapter of Genesis that “God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.” This establishes, without question, that women, like men, are created in the image of God and share in His divinity.
The divine nature of women always has been a fundamental doctrine of this Church. At the risk of wading in the deeper end of the doctrinal pool, Elder Erastus Snow taught that “There can be no God except He is composed of the man and woman united, and there is not in all the eternities that exist, nor ever will be, a God in any other way…There never was a God, and there never will be in all [the] eternities, except they are made of these two component parts: a man and a woman, the male and the female.” This remarkable quote suggests, consistent with Genesis, that our Father in Heaven could not hold the position he holds but for the companionship of a faithful woman. Standing alone, He could not be God. The implications of such a notion are far-reaching, but for our purposes today, we will leave it at this: Women and men both are divine, but neither is fully divine without the other.
President Gordon B Hinckley, while serving as a counselor in the First Presidency, pointed out that the very order of creation itself suggests that women are not only made in the image of God, but are in fact the culminating achievement of the Creation. He said:
“In the sequence of events as set forth in the scripture, God first created the earth, and the earth was without form, and void. He then separated the light from the darkness, and the waters from the land. Then came the creation of vegetation of all kinds…Then followed the creation of animal life in the sea and upon the land.
Having looked over all of this, He declared it to be good. He then created man in His own likeness and image. Then as His final creation, the crowning of His glorious work, He created woman. I like to regard Eve as His masterpiece after all that had gone before, the final work before He rested from His labors.
I do not regard her as being in second place to Adam. She was placed at his side as an helpmeet. They were together in the Garden, they were expelled together, and they labored together in the world into which they were driven.”
With respect to the second pillar of eternity, the Fall, Eve played the central role. Although other Christian denominations denigrate the Mother of All Living for partaking of the forbidden fruit, in the restored gospel we understand her to have made a conscious decision for the good of posterity and the perpetuation of the Plan of Salvation.
Elder Russell M. Nelson said this of Eve: “We and all mankind are forever blessed because of Eve’s great courage and wisdom. By partaking of the fruit first, she did what needed to be done. Adam was wise enough to do likewise.”
Finally, as to the Atonement, we remember that Christ was prepared for his sacrifice and death by being anointed at the hands of a faithful woman, while the men in the room not only failed to understand the sacred act but expressed their ignorance by denigrating her service. Days later, was it an accident that the resurrected Christ would first appear to righteous women, before even appearing to his own apostles? And we would do well to note that while many of those apostles were hesitant to believe in the resurrection, and one openly doubted, there is a complete absence in the scriptures of any evidence of equivocation from the sisters in these scenes.
Given this doctrinal snapshot of the role of women in the key events of the eternities, I would like to address a few things to the men and women who are here today.
First, to my fellow brethren. President Uchtdorf has said, “I pray that we as priesthood holders—as husbands, fathers, sons, brothers, and friends of these choice women—may see them as the Lord sees them, as daughters of God with limitless potential to influence the world for good.”
If the Church is criticized for being degrading to women, too often it may be because of things that have been said by men who believe that Priesthood ordination confers upon them an elevated status in the Church. Too often in our services, councils and families, this ugly and doctrinally infirm belief creeps its way in to our thinking. Brethren, need we be reminded that in order to serve in Church leadership, we require ordination to the Priesthood, but the women do not. For men to attend the temple, we must be ordained to the Priesthood. Women do not. To perform ordinances in the temple, we must hold the priesthood. Women do not. We must be ordained to the Priesthood to serve as full-time missionaries. Women do not. We cannot sit on ward councils without the Priesthood. Women can. Certainly the case could be made that if either gender is inherently spiritually infirm, it is us, not them, because we require an additional endowment of authority to serve in capacities where women do not.
In addition, Priesthood holders need to have a more perfect understanding of the call to “preside,” which is not a license for despotism in the Church or in the home. When we begin to exercise unrighteous dominion (and I would suggest that “dominion,” by its very nature is unrighteous) we are told that there is an immediate cessation of our priesthood authority. “Amen” to the authority of such a man, is the way Lord expresses this in the Doctrine and Covenants. The light of our priesthood is immediately extinguished in the very moment we seek to use it to illuminate our own egos at the expense of the daughters of God.
What then are we to make of such scriptural moments as Adam being commanded to “rule” over Eve and his posterity? President Hinckley helps us with this. He said:
“I regrettably recognize that some men have used this through centuries of time as justification for abusing and demeaning women. But I am confident also that in so doing they have demeaned themselves and offended the Father of us all, who, I am confident, loves His daughters just as He loves His sons.
I sat with President David O. McKay on one occasion when he talked about that statement in Genesis. His eyes flashed with anger as he spoke of despotic husbands and stated that they would have to make an accounting of their evil actions when they stand to be judged by the Lord. He indicated that the very essence of the spirit of the gospel demands that any governance in the home must be done only in righteousness.
My own interpretation of that sentence is that the husband shall have a governing responsibility to provide for, to protect, to strengthen and shield the wife. Any man who belittles or abuses or terrorizes, or who rules in unrighteousness, will deserve and, I believe, receive the reprimand of a just God who is the Eternal Father of both His sons and daughters.”
That is strong language, and justifiably so. In my view, if any man in the Church expresses a sexist sentiment or says anything to marginalize, minimize or mock the role of women, such a statement is contrary to the restored gospel of Jesus Christ and should be given no weight or consideration. Sisters, Brother Ghio says that you properly may call the person who says such a thing an infidel and a Philistine and, if you are so inclined, you may tell him to put a sock in it.
Sisters, a word with you. At the risk of mansplaining, please never let anyone make you feel that your position in the gospel of Jesus Christ is compromised by your gender. It is not. There is no blessing that will be denied you because of your sex. President Dieter F. Uctdorf has stated:
“The lives of women in the Church are a powerful witness that spiritual gifts, promises, and blessings of the Lord are given to all those who qualify, “that all may be benefited.” The doctrines of the restored gospel create a wonderful and “unique feminine identity that encourages women to develop their abilities” as true and literal daughters of God.
Because their potential for good is so great and their gifts so diverse, women may find themselves in roles that vary with their circumstances in life. Some women, in fact, must fill many roles simultaneously. For this reason, Latter-day Saint women are encouraged to acquire an education and training that will qualify them both for homemaking and raising a righteous family and for earning a living outside the home if the occasion requires.”
Sisters, the Lord has not limited you, so please do not limit yourselves.
Along these lines, and consistent with President Uchtdorf’s message, I have something to say to the young women here today. You have opportunities and obligations to do as much as you can to enrich your lives and maximize your talents. Part of that is obtaining an education. If you are told to go to college so that you can have the opportunity to meet the right man and get married, you are being given poor counsel. You should further your education for the purposes of education itself, to make yourself a more complete person, to expand your intellect, deepen your understanding, maximize your talents, and prepare yourself to serve more ably both in and outside your home. In other words, you should get a degree for exactly the same reasons that men do. If you are fortunate enough to find an eternal companion in the process, so much the better. But it is a tangential blessing, not the goal
I am blessed to teach institute each week. When I cannot be there, I usually reach out not to a fellow Priesthood holder, but to Sister Cannon from Grand Prairie First Ward to teach for me. Why do I do that? Because Sister Cannon is one of the most well-read people I know, and I suspect that she has forgotten more about the gospel than I will ever learn. I know that when she teaches, the students will be blessed to hear sound doctrine. The Lord can do amazing things through educated, skilled sisters who lean on no one else for their spiritual strength. There are countless such women in the Church, and we have an embarrassing abundance of such women in this ward. To mention any is to neglect far more, but look to such women who are doing so much both inside and outside their homes to bless the lives of God’s children, and follow their lead.
Sisters, you are essential to our salvation. As put succinctly by President Heber J. Grant, “Without the devotion and absolute testimony of the living God in the hearts of our mothers, this Church would die.”
I am blessed to have had my spiritual life nurtured by honorable and faithful women. I have a mother who taught me to pray. A wife who taught me compassion and how to serve. Countless women who have instructed me in the gospel and have demonstrated to me what it means to live a celestial life in a telestial world. For their service and example, I am thankful. And to their central role in carrying out the divine work that is the Plan of Salvation, I testify.