Feminism and Activism in the Mormon Church

(Read transcript)

Q: I like what she has to say. What do you think?


What a broad question! I debated which direction to take this, considering there was a lot to tackle in that 13 minute video, but I saw two over-arching themes that I assumed you may have been interested in:

  1. Activism and reform within the LDS Church
  2. The role of women in the LDS Church

If that’s not what you’re interested in, sorry, that’s what I’m talking about! Next time don’t give me so much leeway 😉

(While this post is already too long to address every point in her dialogue, it’s worth noting that Ms. Shields did misrepresent some things about the Church, whether accidentally or intentionally. If you want to discuss it, comment below).

Activism and Reform in the LDS Church

Regardless of religion, all believers will at some point question certain dogmatic beliefs within their Church. It’s inevitable, isn’t it? The fact that somethings can’t be explained logically and must be accepted on faith naturally makes way for doubt.

In the LDS Church, is it possible for a person to change things they don’t agree with?

A Church Run by God, Not by Men

It’s worth explaining this fundamental tenet of the LDS faith, because it will help people understand how it’s possible to be accepting of doctrine that doesn’t seem logical (or even acceptable) to secular society (which was one of Ms. Shields’ many issues).

Mormons believe that Christ’s Church, which historically was directed and led by prophets and apostles (think Moses, Abraham, Isaiah, Paul, etc.), was restored through Joseph Smith in 1830, and that from that time on the Lord has again elected to organize and lead His Church through prophets and apostles (for an explanation on the history of the Mormon Church/Joseph Smith/the restoration of the Gospel, click here).

So what does that mean exactly?

It means there is a prophet (and apostles) on the earth today (click here to see who they are).

It also means that the prophet has been chosen by God, to speak for God. Amos 3:7 says:

“Surely the Lord God will do nothing, but he revealeth his secret unto his servants the prophets.”

That doesn’t mean the prophet makes decisions singularly. Russel M. Nelson of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles explains:

“The Church today has been organized by the Lord Himself. He has put in place a remarkable system of governance that provides redundancy and backup. Counterbalances and safeguards abound so that no one can ever lead the Church astray…All leaders in the Lord’s Church are called by proper authority. No prophet or any other leader in this Church, for that matter, has ever called himself or herself. No prophet has ever been elected. The Lord made that clear when He said, ‘Ye have not chosen me, but I have chosen you, and ordained you…’ The calling of 15 men to the holy apostleship provides great protection for us as members of the Church. Why? Because decisions of these leaders must be unanimous.”

With the belief that the leaders of the LDS Church are called by and operate on behalf of God himself, following and sustaining the counsel of prophets, apostles, and other Church leaders isn’t a matter of minutiae in the LDS Church…

It’s core doctrine.

Doctrine and Covenants 1:38 says:

“What I the Lord have spoken, I have spoken, and I excuse not myself; and though the heavens and the earth pass away, my word shall not pass away, but shall all be fulfilled, whether by mine own voice or by the voice of my servants, it is the same

Eventually, all Mormons must decide where they stand:

You either believe the prophet is the Lord’s mouthpiece, or you don’t.

There is no middle ground.

If you don’t, then everything spoken by the prophet (and effectually, the Church) is up for debate and subject to questioning.

If you do, you put your faith in God and you trust that the Lord is leading and guiding His prophet and His Church, even if you may not agree with or understand why things are the way they are.

Isaiah 55:8-9 says:

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.”

Is There a Place for Reform in the LDS Church?

There’s a place for questioning. There’s a place for asking for change. There’s a place for expressing thoughts and opinions. There’s a place for seeking additional answers.

We are not expected to be blind followers of our faith; when changes come, we are encouraged to study them out for ourselves, to determine in our own minds and hearts if we believe them to be true.

LDS Church Spokeswoman Jessica Moody has stated:

“Our whole Church was founded on the basis of sincere questions asked by a 14 year old boy. Having questions and seeking answers is normal. Within those earnest questions may lie the seeds of faith.”

There’s not, however, a place for subverting the Church’s guidelines, policies, standards or doctrines by attempting to replace them with one’s own agenda. Jessica Moody went onto say:

“What causes concern for Church leaders is when personal motivations drive those conversations beyond discussion, and a person or group begins recruiting others to insist on changes in Church doctrines or structure. When it goes so far as creating organized groups, staging public events to further a cause or creating literature for members to share in their local congregations, the Church has to protect the integrity of its doctrine as well as other members from being misled.”

I have to agree, otherwise what’s the point of a Church? All people who belong to a Church should believe it’s run by God, don’t you think? If doctrine can be changed on a whim or whenever someone asks for it, does it reflect the will of man, or of God?

In my opinion, when a person continues to attempt to change Church doctrine, even after being told directly that such doctrine will not be changed, they either no longer believe that God’s authority is in that Church, or they believe their way is better than God’s; that they are right and He is wrong.

And if that’s the case, they have every right to leave, to join another church, or to start their own church.

The LDS Church very much believes in agency, or the ability to choose one’s own path. Our 11th Article of Faith states:

“We claim the privilege of worshiping Almighty God according to the dictates of our own conscience, and allow all men the same privilege, let them worship how, where, or what they may.”

Women in the LDS Church

Chelsea Shields is a self-proclaimed feminist Mormon, and by all means, she’s entitled to those beliefs, but giving someone a microphone and a platform to share their personal feelings does not mean they speak for everyone that is a part of that same organization.

Because I must say, her opinions do not reflect my views or experience, or the views or experience of many other Mormon women. In actuality, some of the things she’s done in the name of advocacy just don’t make sense.

I specifically remember when she and a group of other Mormon women made a huge spectacle of wearing pants to Church…No one I knew really understood it, because there’s no rule stating women can’t wear pants to Church…We are encouraged to wear “Sunday Best” while in our chapels–whether that’s a skirt or a Hilary-paint suit or a potato sack if that’s all you’ve got.

I also remember when her and a group of other Mormon women attempted to attend the male-only Priesthood session of General Conference, but I didn’t understand that either, because I’d attended the similar women’s-only meeting the week prior…Yes, there is a women’s-only session of General Conference as well, and neither are secret; both are broadcast publicly.

Mormon Women Aren’t Ignorant

Perhaps the view I take most issue with is Ms. Shields’ insistence that the majority of Mormon women are plodding along as second-class citizens in ignorance; that we are being mistreated and are blindly unaware of it.

First, because it implies that we are second-class citizens and that we are being mistreated (which I patently disagree with), but also because it insinuates that Mormon women are ignorant and don’t have the capacity to think for themselves, and I can tell you that’s false.

I graduated from one of the country’s top undergraduate universities in the top 25% of my class. I have an M.S. in International Administration.

I’m not the brightest crayon in the box, but I’m not a flaming ignoramus.

Additionally, the student body of my undergraduate institution was a mere 10% female.

Trust me, I know what it’s like to be a minority and  to compete in male-dominated organizations.

(The sister missionaries who shared the gospel of Jesus Christ with me, and my daddy-o)
(The sister missionaries who shared the gospel of Jesus Christ with me, and my daddy-o)

I also joined the LDS Church as an adult (having previously been completely irreligious), and didn’t grow up feeling pressured to conform to Church views I didn’t agree with.

I’m stubborn. I have opinions. I’m not a doormat.

All that being said, it’s been eight years since I joined the LDS Church and I’m still here. Perhaps the reason so many Mormon women continue to remain Mormon, despite the growth of numerous feminist organizations within the LDS Church, is that we do feel valued and we do feel respected within the current Church structure.

Women and the Priesthood

The priesthood is the power and authority of God. God gives this power to people on earth to act in His name and to bless others. In the LDS Church, only men who are living righteously and keeping the commandments can be ordained with Priesthood authority. This means women can’t hold priesthood offices, which would include leadership positions in priesthood quorums, bishoprics, stake presidencies, apostleships, or prophet.

Russel M. Ballard of the Twelve Apostles stated:

“Why are men—and not women—ordained to priesthood offices? President Gordon B. Hinckley explained that ‘it was the Lord,’ not man, ‘who designated that men in His Church should hold the priesthood’ and who endowed women with ‘capabilities to round out this great and marvelous organization, which is the Church and kingdom of God.’

The Lord has not revealed why He has organized His Church as He has.

This matter, like many others, comes down to our faith. Do we believe that this is the Lord’s Church? Do we believe that He has organized it according to His purposes and wisdom? Do we believe that His wisdom far exceeds ours? Do we believe that He has organized His Church in a manner that would be the greatest possible blessing to all of His children, both His sons and His daughters?”

This doesn’t mean that I as a woman am not capable of or intelligent enough to execute the responsibilities of priesthood offices…

It only means that men and women have different responsibilities. This is evident to me as a mom of small kids, one of whom I’m still nursing. While my husband can’t carry our children or use his body to nourish them (there have been plenty of times I wished he could…), that doesn’t make his role as a father any less valuable to our family. He’s equally as important to them as I am, but certainly different.

“A woman’s sphere of influence is a unique sphere, one that cannot be duplicated by men. Because of that influence, women have an important responsibility in strengthening the kingdom of God on the earth.” -Elder Russel M. Ballard

The LDS Church has a women’s only organization that runs parallel to priesthood quorums called The Relief Society. It is the oldest and largest women’s organization in the world, and all Mormon women become a part of it at 18 years old; its purpose is to build faith, strengthen families and serve people in need.

Truth be told, it has never bothered me that I don’t hold the priesthood, I suppose because all people (men, women, kids, Mormons and non-Mormons) are equally blessed by priesthood power. The priesthood is used to bless the sacrament (a.k.a Communion), to baptize, to confer the Holy Ghost, to heal, give comfort, and a number of other things.

A priesthood holder cannot bless himself with priesthood power, it is only used to bless and serve others.

Roles of Men and Women

The LDS Church definitely has very traditional views on the roles of men and women, which are equal, but different:

“By divine design, fathers are to watch over and teach their families in love and righteousness. They are to provide the necessities of life and protection for their families. Mothers are primarily responsible for the nurture of their children. In these sacred responsibilities, fathers and mothers should help one another as equal partners.” (The Family: A Proclamation to the World“)

As a former working-woman who made the decision to become a stay-home mom, I’m very aware of how difficult that choice is; from feeling as though you’ve lost a bit of your identity to adjusting to a smaller family income.

12273719_10100143760859133_6195486530936706702_o (1)
(My lambies in a rare moment of sharing…)

I didn’t feel pressured by my Church to do so. There are no hard and fast rules about how a family should operate, but we are encouraged to prayerfully decide how our activities and choices will affect our family and children, because that’s what’s most important.

In my case, I believed that staying home would be the choice that was best for my family and my kids, and the one that I would never regret decades later. Sadly, society now deems this as the undesirable or second-class choice. On the contrary, I feel there’s nothing more important than raising and nurturing my children while they are small, and I feel privileged that we are in a financial position that affords me that opportunity. While I know my husband would make a great stay-home dad, it’s a role I wanted and felt uniquely suited for.

In our marriage we are equals, and as parents we are a team.

This doesn’t mean that there aren’t other family configurations that work; on the contrary, I know plenty of LDS moms who choose to work, and others who must work, whether part-time or full-time; I know a few who are doctors and military-members. I know Mormon mothers who are highly educated, who run marathons, do Ironmans, play in symphonies, and volunteer in other organizations. I know many Mormon women who are unmarried, divorced, or who don’t have or want children. Despite what many think, Mormon families are not cookie-cutter and are as varied as all other families.

Women and Leadership

I’m a competitive person by nature, I always have been, whether in sports, school or career.

The one place I’ve never felt competitive is in Church.

Church isn’t a place for self-aggrandizement, it’s a place where people’s only goals should be the uplifting of others, and bringing people to Christ.

Period.

The LDS Church is a lay ministry, meaning all congregations (called wards) function using only unpaid volunteer service from its members; this includes every position, from Bishops to nursery teachers. There is no campaigning or requesting–assignments are extended, and you either accept or decline. These decisions aren’t made based on education level or income or social status; instead, Church leaders fill positions through prayerful inspiration.

Additionally, there isn’t anything like a “corporate ladder” in the Church. A person could be called as a Bishop and be tasked with managing a 200+ member congregation, and then later be called to teach nursery classes to two year olds. We are asked to serve in whatever capacity is needed to meet the needs of the Church and the community.

That being said, it’s untrue that women can’t or don’t lead in the LDS Church.

I served in the Presidency in the Young Women’s organization in our congregation for several years. We taught lessons on Sundays, planned Mutual (a.k.a Youth Group) activities each Wednesday, spent months organizing multi-day Girls’ Camp trips each summer, organized service projects, and yes…managed our own budget.

There are many leadership opportunities for women in the Church. Women young and old serve missions, just like the men do. The Relief Society is run by women and has its own presidency, including a president, counselors, and secretaries. Women also serve in Young Women’s presidencies, Primary presidencies, and other regional and General (a.k.a for the entire church) leadership positions.

Here, LDS women who serve in various General presidencies address concerns about the role (or lack thereof) of women in the LDS Church, if you are interested in their perspective:

Clearly, there are women who feel this isn’t enough. Who feel that if they can’t be a Bishop or an Apostle or a Prophet, they aren’t valued. I hear your voice, and I can understand why you feel that way.

What I hope they realize is that you don’t need a certain calling or position or title to affect change or do good within the Church. Most men will never be given the opportunity to be a bishop or quorum or auxiliary president; there are simply too many other less “sexy” positions that need to be filled. But the Church can’t function without those roles, and you don’t need a certain calling to reach out and serve others.

Chelsea Shields seems to genuinely care about women and people in general, inside and outside of the LDS Church. I think her and other feminist Mormons have been a voice for women who feel neglected or underappreciated within the Church, and that’s a good thing. Church leaders have responded by placing greater emphasis on expressing the importance and value of women. That being said, doctrinally, nothing has changed as it relates to women holding the Priesthood, and Church leaders have explicitly stated that they won’t.

It will be interesting to see if Ms. Shields continues to remain a non-practicing member of the Mormon Church, or if she’ll choose a different path that better suits her.

Time will tell.

4 thoughts on “Feminism and Activism in the Mormon Church

  1. I love this post as I relate to everything you have stated. As I prepare for an upcoming church talk, one of the things you address has been on my mind and I will be referring back to this post. Thank you for sticking to doctrine and separating it from cultural traditions.

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  2. This gave me a much more favorable view of the Mormon church. I had always thought women HAD to wear skirts and HAD to do this or that; come to find out that’s not the truth. Thanks Kel 🙂

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    1. SO glad to hear that, and I think a lot of people think the same thing! The LDS Church does have A LOT of standards on various things, but more often than not we’re told to pray about things and then decide for ourselves what choices to make. I think there’s also a misconception that if a person isn’t following every standard exactly they get “in trouble” or “punished” or aren’t welcome, which isn’t true. There are very few behaviors that would ever warrant church “discipline” (which I talked about quite a bit in this post https://askwordygertie.com/2015/11/12/part-1-understanding-mormon-churchs-new-same-sex-marriage-policies/), and aside from those few things the degree to which a person wants to live in accordance with other church standards is mostly private and personal. There are plenty of Mormons that smoke, drink, and have other addictions. That don’t go to church, etc. etc. The church is a place for imperfect people and is there to support and uplift people no matter what stage they’re in. I’m rambling now so I’ll stop, lol, but thanks for reading and commenting sweet friend!

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