Priesthood, i.e., Men

When I express concerns about opportunities in the church that are limited to men, or organizational structures designed to ensure that males wield decision-making authority, or church policies that favor men, the catch-all response to these concerns is that it is not about gender, it is about the priesthood.  However, in the Mormon faith, priesthood is all about gender.  Nearly every male over 12 years old is a priesthood holder and all women are banned from holding priesthood office outside the temple.  Often, when we say “priesthood,” what we mean is “men.”

Just recently, I expressed concerns about why women are only allowed to supervise other women in the mission field while males supervise mixed-gender groups.  A well-meaning person responded, “It’s not that women shouldn’t supervise men, it’s that women shouldn’t supervise priesthood holders.”  But in the context of Mormon missionary service, priesthood holders are synonymous with men. “It’s not that women shouldn’t supervise men, it’s that women shouldn’t supervise priesthood holders men.”   See what I mean?

An Exponent reader reported that her mother was denied a job with the church, with this justification: “That position traditionally goes to priesthood holders men.” Employment discrimination, anyone?

restroom priesthood signLet’s try this experiment with a few other refrains, wherein “priesthood” may be used as a euphemism for “men.”

“Wouldn’t it be preferable to have a priesthood holder man fill this calling?”  Ouch. With the change, this sounds mighty sexist.

“This is an important occasion, so a priesthood holder man should be the keynote speaker.” Ouch again.

“Please sign up if you would be willing to be the priesthood male chaperone at the upcoming Relief Society activity.” Even without changing the priesthood word, it is offensive to say that adult women need chaperones to keep them in line. But add that adult women need male chaperones to keep them in line and it is even worse.

“The priesthood men’s camp-out is this weekend.” Hey, that one actually makes more sense with the change.  What does camping have to do with priesthood?

(Spoken by a female teacher.) “That’s a difficult doctrinal question. I think I will turn that one over to the priesthood a man.” So, the question is too hard for you to answer because you are a woman?

“The Relief Society is a great woman’s organization, under the direction of the priesthood men.” The change reveals a sad truth.

“Will the priesthood men please remain after the meeting to put away the chairs?” Darn it. I was kind of excited to see the chairs move by means of the same power that created the universe.

April Young-Bennett
April Young-Bennett
April Young-Bennett is the author of the Ask a Suffragist book series and host of the Religious Feminism Podcast. Learn more about April at


    • Thank you for your imput. I’m not a Mormon bu twas recently told I coul;dn’t put up a notice in church without three months notice and the permission of the elders i.e. men. I was treated like a naughty school girl and in public, I am 64 an d haven’t asked a man’s permission for anything important since I was about 16. Yours in Christ , Maggie

  1. April, I always get excited when I see you’ve posted something new. Your writing is clever, witty, and always brings up important points that we find easy to overlook in Mormon culture. I just wish everyone in the church was reading this. Thank you!

  2. Great point and illustrations, April. I think you’re right on that this issue is one we carefully hide from ourselves by removing it just the one step and saying “priesthood.”

  3. There are so many contexts in which saying men makes more sense (as you pointed out with the camping). Like how every week they thank the priesthood for the reverent manner in which they blessed and passed the sacrament. Is the Power of God ever rambunctious? I would have guessed it would be inherently reverent and holy. And I agree. I wish that when we said priesthood it actually meant the power of God that created all things was being used. That would inspire awe and reverence, if the chairs righted themselves, or if the pansies for Mother’s day were directed to bestow themselves on each woman.

    I was at girl’s camp this week and we were introduced to the priesthood holders who would be benevolently watching over us. From what I could see, they spent the time sitting on the porch out of the rain reading a book. I was annoyed. Their mere presence is necessary? Why not help a little? Give them a specific assignment, like meal prep! Grumble, grumble.

    • Like how every week they thank the priesthood for the reverent manner in which they blessed and passed the sacrament. Is the Power of God ever rambunctious?

      No, this makes perfect sense in my mind. This usage of “priesthood” is referring to a collection of persons who are “priests” (or, generally, of any office in the priesthood.) Unlike the other examples I am seeing, the priesthood holders are being thanked for performing a priesthood ordinance, which by definition only priesthood holders can do. It would not be as correct to say “We thank the young men for administering the sacrament reverently”, because they did not administer the sacrament as men, they did it as priesthood holders. (Yes, of course as of right now, “priesthood holders” always implies “men” too, but the former is more specific.)

      • Then in this instance one could say “priests” if they are all priests; but “Priesthood” =/= a select group of “Priests” or officers. The Priesthood, or whole organization, did not do the passing of the sacrament, rather select officers or holders of Priesthood authority did the passing. Brothers/brethren/officers of the Priesthood can reverently perform a duty, but unless a large portion of the whole organization was involved, it’s a bit odd to attribute this action to the entire organization. It’s like a local mayor saying, we would like to thank the U.S. Government for the efficient way in which they processed the recent EPA required paperwork in Billings, Montana (if only local officials were involved)–it would probably be more appropriate to thank the local officials of the U.S. Government rather than the whole organization.

      • Also, the Priesthood is an ‘it’, not a ‘they’. If there were an appropriate situation, one could thank God’s Government for they way ‘it’ did something, not ‘they’.

  4. This was the one salient point where Sheri Dew actually won me over a bit, in her essay in the book with the Nauvoo RS minutes: when we interchange “priesthood” when we really mean “men,” we minimize the gravity of what the priesthood actually is–the power of God on earth. She doesn’t go quite as far as you have here (which I LOVE, by the way), but I was a little encouraged by her essay nonetheless.

      • Sure! It’s on pages 52-53 of “The Beginning of Better Days.” Dew’s essay is titled “What Joseph Smith Taught Women–And Why It Matters.”

        The quote I love the most is this: “Statements such as “We would like to thank the priesthood for setting up the chairs” or “I’m so grateful to have the priesthood in my home” are not accurate and do not do the priesthood justice. Priesthood is not synonymous with men. Priesthood HOLDERS are men. “The priesthood” refers to keys, authority, and power–God’s power.”

        Elder Nelson’s talk from April 2013 conference flirts with the same idea, but I had to perform some intricate mental gymnastics in certain places to get there.

  5. This is excellent, April. Thank you!

    It is very disappointing when we take off the blinders and see what we really mean when we talk about Priesthood. I would love for Priesthood to actually mean “priesthood”– and authority that men and women share equally. In a huge way, this devalues marriage- if ungendered “priesthood” is the head of the home (somewhat similar to some things taught in the temple), I can feel free to assert my own authority within my home. But when we look at the true cultrual application of the term, then even in my own home, a 12 year old stranger who happens to be a Deacon has authority over me.

    It is so depressing when we really see how little women are valued in the church.

    Thank you for the plainspeak in addressing this issue.

  6. Read this and had a few chuckles amid a few sad moments. Love that illustration. My parting thought is that we need some revelation about this more badly than ever.

  7. “Why would our Heavenly Parents establish and use such a priesthood?” Because we aren’t ready for the full application of the full power of the priesthood, where men and women share equally, as they will in the temple and the eternities. I see this application as a preparatory application, much like the law of Moses. I am one, among many, who is asking for more light and truth on the matter.

    April, thanks for focusing your examining light on this strange and inappropriate use of language.

  8. It’s also a pet peeve of mine to hear Priesthood used in place of men. Often in the place of “priesthood” we really should be saying “men” or “young men”, or in the case of a Priesthood function “brethren (or members or brothers) of the Priesthood”.

    After more than a decade of consideration, I have had many thoughts on how our language and understanding of the Priesthood could be better organized to communicate and possibly operate more effectively. Here a few definitions that I think could be helpful if they were adopted in our current structure:

    Priesthood – Government of heaven, or God’s government

    Melchizedek Order of the Priesthood – collection of offices holding keys governing the spiritual blessings of the church.

    Aaronic Order of the Priesthood – collection of offices holding keys governing the preparatory and temporal blessings of the church.

    Priesthood office – a position/station within Priesthood government that is delegated some portion of Priesthood keys or authority to perform particular functions

    Priesthood authority – authority in God’s government by virtue of office and the delegated keys currently granted to that office

    Priesthood power – the power of God that is granted in degrees to mortals as they righteously abide by the ordinances of the Priesthood and the associated covenants

    I think it would be nice if we stopped using the terms “Melchizedek Priesthood” and “Aaronic Priesthood” altogether at least for a few years since these terms have been used to mean so many things as to render almost no specific meaning, after which the terms could be re-instituted as substitutions only for the longer forms: “Melchizedek Order of the Priesthood” and “Aaronic Order of the Priesthood”.

  9. I thought we (the Church) were asked not to use “the priesthood” when we mean to say “men”. Was this not in a Conference talk recently? Am I hallucinating?

  10. Great post, April. The Priesthood, i.e., Men connection is one of the significant reasons some women reject the idea of female ordination. Priesthood has become so associated with maleness that for many Mormon women, asking them if they want to be ordained is like asking them if they want to be men. In order for our religious community to reflect the expansiveness and equality that are foundational to the best of Mormonism, priesthood must be re-envisioned as a power beyond gender and available to all.

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