I approach the subject of gender inequality with some trepidation. I know a lot of people have profound feelings on the subject of equality and rights. I hope that I don’t offend, as my goal is only to share how I see the Lord’s teachings as given in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. I recognize that I might offend or injure sensitive feelings. So I’ll be the first to admit that I probably have it wrong! [even 2 weeks after writing this, I feel that I’m off base on at least a few things.]
Within Mormonism there has been a lot of talk for many decades about gender inequality. The LDS church does not allow women to be ordained to offices within the priesthood, so church leadership positions for women are few. Reasonably, many individuals and organizations have come to see this as patriarchal, sexist, and a prime example of inequality.
I felt like addressing this issue after somebody asked a question on the LDS reddit forum. The question was something along these lines:
“How can a husband and wife be equal if the husband is presiding?”
It’s a very interesting question. Responses varied and ranged all over the ideology spectrum, which is probably healthy. I learned a little, and a couple of comments really stood out. First was the person who asked for a definition of equality and presiding, and why one would consider them contradictory or mutually exclusive.
So far as I know, the person who asked the initial question never directly answered this request, and I’m not qualified to. See, in my belief structure, and in the Mormon religion, presiding and equality are not mutually exclusive. In fact, there is no divinely appointed role which creates spiritual inequality. I’ll get back to that.
The second comment that stood out was an illustration of something my wife pointed out. Here it is:
2+2 = 3+1
Here we have two equations which equal each other. However they are not identical. Yet they are exactly equal. In one sense they are exactly the same. In another sense they have nothing in common.
The Church teaches that all human beings are equal before God, and that men and women are equal partners in marriage. Here is a quote from the official church publication The Ensign from April 2013:
Latter-day Saint theology teaches that gender difference does not superimpose a hierarchy between men and women: one gender does not have greater eternal possibilities than the other.2 As Elder Earl C. Tingey, formerly of the Presidency of the Seventy, has said: “You must not misunderstand what the Lord meant when Adam was told he was to have a helpmeet. A helpmeet is a companion suited to or equal to [the other]. [They] walk side by side … not one before or behind the other. A helpmeet results in an absolute equal partnership between a husband and a wife. Eve was to be equal to Adam as a husband and wife are to be equal to each other.”3
Add to that the following: An official church document, “The Family: A Proclamation to the World” teaches that gender is “an essential characteristic of individual premortal, mortal, and eternal identity and purpose.” This is one way that we recognize that there are always differences between men and women, but we do not teach that those differences affect salvation. Nor do gender differences make one gender more valuable than the other, it is simply an eternal truth that they are different. In matters of gender, we will never be identical, though in terms of salvation, we will always have equal opportunity. If there are differences between the genders, they are eternally complimentary, not contradictory. Just as 2+2 is both totally different and exactly the same as 3+1.
While this is all fine and dandy when talking about the ideals of eternity, it can be downright frustrating in the real world. Why, if we’re so equal, aren’t we allowed to do the same things? Like hold the priesthood.
To which a person might respond by asking a version of the question asked above: “why is holding the priesthood necessary for equality?” I know, it seems like a question with an obvious answer, but it needs to be asked. Bear with me here.
To examine this from another direction, consider this: Can equality be measured without assigning value?
In other words, can we identify gender inequality unless we first identify what aspects of gender are more or less valuable than others?
No, we can’t. Differing “values” are implicit in judgements of equality. So by saying that differing gender roles means inequality, we are also saying certain roles have greater or lesser value. For example, you might say that holding the priesthood is a value of 1, and not holding it is a 0. Thus, inequality, right? To bring it back to our equation, a person might say “Why does that equation get a three? Shouldn’t we all have threes?”
By focusing on just one aspect of the vast, eternal equation, life can seem very unfair indeed. It doesn’t take long for the individual differences to seem so much more important and urgent than the total equation. After all, eternity is so far away, and priesthood leaders are here and now. Imagine a person staring at our equation and saying “I’ve always wanted a two but my church tells me I’m supposed to work on one and three. But I want a two. Other churches have twos. Twos have been free for anybody in the corporate world for years. Why is the church lagging so far behind? Maybe it’s not really divinely inspired. Maybe the hoarding of twos to a single equation is just cultural and not divine.” A simple step back would reveal to this person that the way things are now is the only way to keep the equations equal, even when they’re not the same – perhaps even because they’re not the same.
2+2 = 3+1
What the church teaches is that equality is not measured by the roles you fill, or the position you hold, but rather by who you are and your desire for good, and your divine potential as a child of God. This can be hard to accept in a secular world – a world based only on earthly achievement and success – yet it is the truth. Our eternal potential is not based on the title of our callings or the money in our pockets or any other secular evaluation. Christ sees more than the society we are born into and the gender that is just one aspect of our character. He takes all the pieces into consideration and adds in the things we need to make us eternal, equal partners with our spouses, and co-heirs with him. That is the message of the atonement, after all. Christ’s grace plus our imperfection equals eternal life. The commandments, the callings, the roles he assigns us, they complete us – and give us our best chance to achieve our eternal goals.
God’s perspective is much more expansive than ours. We must have the courage to accept that our view is shaped by our cultures and circumstances, and have the faith to trust in God’s promises to us, and in his ability to inspire our church leaders to provide the guidance to give us the best way forward into eternity. We need to trust than when he asks us to fulfill certain roles, even if those roles are divided by gender, that it is to give us eternal equality, not diminish it – to enhance our lives, not to restrict us. Just because we can not now understand with our natural eyes how it helps doesn’t mean it doesn’t help.
I don’t know why God chose fathers to preside in the family. I believe there is insight to be gained by faithful study of that question. However, even if I never find out the reason why, I will choose to obey because I trust him. It may turn out years from now that we’ve been living some sort of “equality law of Moses” and missing out on the higher law. But until that law is revealed I will follow what God has given us with all my heart.
Our Father in Heaven wants us to be happy. He has promised us all he has. He has sent us here with the equal opportunity to learn, grow, and become more like Jesus Christ. If we focus endlessly on what others have and what we do not we lose sight of the big picture. It can be heart wrenching, and can feel like a betrayal. However we can trust that Christ knows our struggles, knows our pains, and knows how badly his own teachings challenge us. But he also promises to be with us, to bear those burdens even as we try to lift them.
This church is God’s church. It is not the organization of men. If and when the day comes that God changes the standards of operation in the church I will joyfully embrace it. Until then I will serve as best I can, trusting in his divine calculus. When he tells us that this is the best way for us, I will choose to believe him.