Challenging Authority, Redefining Leadership

In this recent podcast with Caroline Kline and Gina Colvin, Caroline mentioned that feminist theology begins with challenging authority.  For the past several months I’ve been working on a series of blog posts about leadership and authority, so Caroline’s words rang true to me.  In almost every conversation I have about female equality in the church and feminist theology, it always comes to a screeching halt when the authority of the prophet is evoked.  It ends with a line like, “I have faith in the prophet.  If he changes things then I’ll support it.”  What can you say in response to that?  There are no words to challenge authority believed to come from God, and without a challenge of patriarchal authority, feminist theology cannot blossom.  I want to begin this series of posts with my own experience developing an ability to challenge authority.

I went through about a two year long intensive battle, trying to maintain a reverence for men whom I saw as leaders with authority to speak for God, while simultaneously trying to wrap my head around things that weren’t adding up for me.  I had grown up singing “Follow the Prophet” in primary.  I was very well conditioned to believe that when the prophet spoke, my only job was to follow.  It was comforting to have this external authority.  All I had to do was follow and I would be led in the right direction.  In seminary I was given an analogy of a maze.  How great was it to know that there was someone sitting above the maze I was walking through?  He could see the whole thing and tell me which way to go.  It was so simple

Until I started hitting dead ends in the maze.  I was still following directions from above, but I was not getting anywhere.  I kept thinking maybe it was me.  I was trying my hardest, but maybe I wasn’t following the prophet perfectly.  In the Fall of 2012 I had what I refer to as my week of perfection.  After years of trying to do everything the prophets had ever said to do, not waiting to get married or have children, staying out of debt, fulfilling my female role of wife and mother to stay home and raise my children no matter how poor that made us, paying tithing, devoting my whole self and life to family and church….etc. etc.  At the end of this particular week I had successfully been the perfect homemaker.  Yes, one perfect week of homemaking in my life.  We held family home evening, family scripture study and prayer, again the list goes on and on…  I remember this week only because I had been perfect in doing everything the prophet commanded, and…I was exhausted and unsatisfied…dead end.

This was the same time as the election between Mitt Romney and Barrack Obama.  I was struggling to understand how so many of the church leaders I revered espoused political views that felt limiting and one sided to me.  A whole slew of issues were coming at me.  Why did men who spoke for a perfectly loving God teach a theology that was androcentric and limiting to women? Dead end.  Why had men I revered from the past as well as the present taught doctrines that placed some humans (ie. black people, Native Americans, LGBT members) below other humans? Dead end.  I came to a point where I had to make a choice.  Either these things truly came from God, and God didn’t care about my happiness or the happiness of a vast majority of the world’s population, or the leaders of the church did not have authority from God to speak these things.  Because I wasn’t willing to consider the latter, I continued for months to beat my head against a wall of unanswerable questions.  The questions were unanswerable because I wasn’t willing to open the door and go where the answers were.  I wasn’t willing to question authority.  It was a grotesque battle between an enormous power trying to explode out of me, and my well-conditioned desire to keep it contained.

Then one day in February, I finally allowed myself to contemplate the possibility that these men had no more authority to speak for God than I do.  It was a quick little thought that I held onto for a few seconds before trying to shove it back in, but it was too late.  The explosion came.  I was flooded with a light of consciousness and the answers to all of my questions seemed so obvious to me.  I was finally able to put my questions and doubts into place like pieces of a puzzle.  I had always been intrigued with the idea of pure intelligence flowing through a person.  Now I felt that idea to be an accurate description of what I was experiencing.  I felt a closeness to the divine feminine that I had never experienced before.  My understanding of feminist theology was finally able to blossom.  My mind came alive with a beautiful understanding of the world and my place in the world as a woman.  As the power of my own internal authority took over, my need for an external authority waned, along with my need to force the words of prophets into my expanded understanding of God and life.  I realized that the power trying to explode from me was not an evil force, but a natural internal authority to digest information and determine truth for myself.  I was discovering my own DNA of divinity that every human being has.

Over the years since this experience, I have learned many different languages to describe what was happening to me.  From LDS scriptures, books on philosophy, principles of yoga and other eastern philosophies, feminist theory, and other schools of thought I have found a connecting thread that points to a different definition of authority and leadership than the one that our church and our world currently embrace.  In this post I have used my language to describe my own experience.  In my subsequent posts I will use some of the other languages and thoughts I have found through my studies to present this new definition of leadership and authority.

In my own familiar Mormon language, this Doctrine and Covenants scripture caught my attention over a year ago.  D&C 1:19-20 reads:

“The weak things of the world shall come forth and break down the mighty and strong ones, that man should not counsel his fellow man, neither trust in the arm of flesh—

But that every man might speak in the name of God, the Lord, even the Savior of the world.”

This passage jumped out at me because of its resemblance to my new understanding of authority.  Yet it doesn’t at all resemble the church that I have come to know, a church that was founded by the very man who wrote these words down.  It appears that Joseph Smith envisioned a world where authority was internal, not external.  He saw leadership as something that arose from the “weak things,” the marginalized, subjugated people of the earth, to overthrow the “mighty and strong ones,” the established and entrenched leadership.

I had read this scripture many times before, but the thing that really grabbed me this time reading it was the idea that “every man might speak in the name of God.”  My mind went back to that fleeting thought that caused a grand explosion for me: “Maybe the prophet has no more authority to speak for God than I do.”  How many times have I been told that I am “missing the mark,” “steadying the ark,” “thinking you know better the prophet,” because I have claimed this authority, because I have rejected those things that the prophets have said that don’t align with my conscience?  Yet the very church that produced these criticisms of my internal authority was founded on the principle of individual divine authority that will evolve to overthrow the establishment of external authority.  The foundation of the church is built on the ability of every single person to speak in the name of God.  I believe the evolutionary progress of humankind requires each of us to develop that internal authority and to reject external authority.

I will continue with these thoughts in my blog posts over the next few months.  What do you think?  What has been your experience challenging authority?  Does this D&C scripture align with your experience and your understanding of authority and leadership?

Jenny graduated from BYU with a bachelor degree in humanities. she teaches yoga classes and spends her time hanging out with her four kids, reading, writing, and running.


  1. Jenny, your metaphor of a maze and all the dead ends within it really resonates with me. Also this: “without a challenge of patriarchal authority, feminist theology cannot blossom.” You write beautifully about the transfiguration of your understanding of authority and I can’t wait to read your next posts on this theme.

    I’m reading a biography of Martin Luther right now, and your thoughts on whether the prophet has the ultimate authority remind me of his conclusions about the Pope, whom he ultimately had to break with. Basically he thought there was authority before there was a bishop of Rome (so it need not all be vested in him), scripture is authoritative, and the consensus on scripture among the body of Christians is a form of authority. He seemed pretty confident in his own interpretations of scripture and I believe we all have the capacity to receive that light for ourselves. An interesting question to me is, what role does the structure of a Church have in this? The structure is always calcified and corrupted to some extent. Is it necessary though, as the base against which personal authority can push off, in order to rise?

  2. I agree with Emily. I really like how you use the maze metaphor. It so often feels like GAs are not even leading us to new dead ends, but to the same old dead ends over and over and *over*.

    I haven’t had the dramatic shift you describe in my thinking, but I’ve ended up in largely the same place, moving perhaps more gradually. Definitely I share the experience that once I considered the possibility that Church leaders could be wrong, and that they could be wrong just as often as I could be wrong, I couldn’t go back to thinking they were always right. Seeing their errors just explained too much. It made so much more sense of the world than trying to fit all their errors into their having always been somehow “right” ever did.

    This reminds me of something Edward Kimball said in his Mormon Stories interview. He said at one point that he believed everything that he could from the Church. (I could have his wording a little wrong; it’s been a while since I listened to it.) His point was that he believed what he could, but what he couldn’t believe, he didn’t worry about. I really like that approach. I believe what I can. I follow what I can. But I’m not going to stress if Church leaders clearly get things wrong. They’re just wrong and I’ll still do what I feel is right and not worry that I’m going against them.

    (Here’s the Edward Kimball podcast episodes:

  3. That scripture is simply amazing. In a time when so many of the cultural offerings of the Church feel hurtful, this is refreshingly prophetic.

    And, I’m a little jealous of your one week…I don’t think I’ve had more than 2 days 😉 So, I’m glad to know that even if I did make it a whole week, it wouldn’t be any more enlightening.

  4. This is an excellent post, Jenny! I’ve just been reading some Masculinity-theory theological articles that discuss the arguments that sustain patriarchy, and how it is damaging to men and women on spiritual and institutional levels. I agree with you that challenging traditional patriarchal authority is the only way to resolve feminist issues. I think the problem is resolving what the church might look like wihout patriarchy, and because patriarchy has been the rule of religion for so long, current leadership can’t fathom what a religion without patriarchy will look like.

  5. this part, “I finally allowed myself to contemplate the possibility that these men had no more authority to speak for God than I do.”
    I believe that God can, and does, bless me with wonderful moments of pure inspiration, and when I follow, amazing things almost always come about. So I totally buy into the idea that God can inspire me as well as anyone else. But I also know that not everything I do and say IS inspired of God. Sometimes I’m just being stupid, or judgmental, or thoughtless, or prejudiced. Those aren’t necessarily brought on by promptings from God, but they don’t negate the times when I do other different and beautiful things which ARE inspired by God. It’s only fair if the same system works for the prophets: many of the things they do and say are inspired, but probably not all, and when they screw up big time, it doesn’t cancel out any other previous or future awesomeness. But awesomeness alone does not cancel out big screw ups. What is it Joseph Smith said, “a prophet is only a prophet when he is acting as such”?
    So….is the road to apostasy and heresy paved with questioning who’s being a prophet, and when? Does that create an imbalance in the system, where words and actions can run unchecked on their side?
    Looking forward to how you flesh this out for us!

  6. Thank you for this extremely thoughtful post, Jenny, and for sharing that extremely powerful (D&C) scripture. I look forward to reading the rest of your series. xo

  7. I’m late to this article, just referred to it from fMh, but I have have not had a good response to people as to why I struggle with authority. I had not thought of that scripture like that before. And I love the following quote.

    “As the power of my own internal authority took over, my need for an external authority waned, along with my need to force the words of prophets into my expanded understanding of God and life. I realized that the power trying to explode from me was not an evil force, but a natural internal authority to digest information and determine truth for myself. I was discovering my own DNA of divinity that every human being has.:

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