During my mission in Europe, we brought an investigator to church and, after the meeting, he told us he wasn’t happy with the way our Church did things. He was disappointed that a woman had given a talk during sacrament meeting. He opened the Bible and flipped to the verses in 1 Cor. 14:34-35 (two of my least favorite verses in the Bible) where it says that women should be silent in church. My companion replied, “that’s not what that means.” If someone asked me this question today, I would say, “This was a cultural thing from the past, so it doesn’t apply to us now.” Those verses should be ignored completely.
Unfortunately, the Bible has several verses throughout it that devalue women. Because of this, Elizabeth Cady Stanton published a Woman’s Bible, which reinterpreted problematic verses like these.
Last month, I was disappointed by a paragraph in the Come, Follow Me manual. It says “The Joseph Smith translation replaces the word speak…with the word rule. This clarification suggests that Paul could have been referring to women who were trying to usurp authority in Church meetings” (139).
Ouch! When I see something like this (which tries to limit women) it feels like a punch in the gut. What is so bad about women ruling at church? First, let’s look at the definition of “rule.” It means “to control or direct; exercise dominating power, authority, or influence over; govern” (Dictionary.com).
This brings us to the question, is religious power and authority something that belongs to men? All throughout history, directing a church has usually been the man’s domain. Why? Are men more spiritual than women? Church leaders make it sound as if women are more spiritual and moral than men. They’ve also said in recent years that women have priesthood power and authority and that they need to learn how to use it (Here’s a recent example.). So if women have power and authority, and are more moral than men, then why aren’t women allowed to rule in the church?
And there are some women who do rule. We have Relief Society presidents who direct the Relief Societies in the wards. We have women at the stake level, and we have a few women at the general level. So why did the writers of the manual say that women shouldn’t rule in the church? I have no answer to this question. Telling women that God doesn’t want them to rule is assigning them a lesser role. The Family Proclamation says that husbands and wives are “equal partners” but it also contradicts that by saying that men preside.
The Church is so different from other organizations. In non-religious organizations, women do rule. Some countries are led by women. We have women in government, female CEOs, and so on. Even India (where patriarchy is way worse than in the U.S.) has had a female prime minister before. There has been great progress with women’s leadership in non-religious organizations, but some religions are so slow to make progress in gender equality. So the question remains: why is religious leadership often reserved for men?
The Church gives mixed messages to women. When I have two contradictory messages in front of me, I choose the one that makes the most sense. I choose “equal partners” over “the man presides.” But a lot of people seem to gravitate towards the belief that men preside, and they skip over (or even ignore) the equal partners part. Why do they do this? Perhaps they want to play it safe. They’re not sure which is right and so they think the lesser one is right.
Women can and should rule at Church. A woman’s place is in leadership. There is nothing wrong with women ruling. We need women who are leaders and who we (both women and men) look to as role models. Imagine if a woman conducting a sacrament meeting became a regular occurrence. Imagine if there was a female equivalent to seventies and general authorities. If women can rule in the world’s organizations, then they can rule anywhere. Why should they be absent from Church governance?
Women and men are equals and should have equal decision-making power. While some may point to gender roles and insist that men and women are equal, are the roles really equal when the decision-making is always granted to the men? The truth remains that decision-making is the rightful place of both genders. Why? Because the Church is composed of people of both genders (it’s half and half) and so it makes sense that each side should be equally represented.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton said:
“Inasmuch, then, as woman shares equally the joys and sorrows of time and eternity, is it not the height of presumption in man to propose to represent her at the ballot box and the throne of grace, to do her voting in the state, her praying in the church, and to assume the position of high priest at the family altar?”
“Conceding, then, that the responsibilities of life rest equally on man and woman, that their destiny is the same, they need the same preparation for time and eternity,” (The Solitude of Self).
I wish members would start seeing leadership in the Church as the rightful place of women, not as a place only reserved for men. The table of leadership and decision-making power is for women and men alike. This is not negotiable.