(I didn't intend to highlight the two quotes below and I don't know how to unhighlight them since it doesn't show up that way on my draft. I do think they are important though.:-)
I have often heard the different roles of men and women in the Church defined as “Women have the babies and men hold the priesthood”. While motherhood is a noble calling, this definition seemed to me to be both narrow and exclusive. What about women who never marry, or marry and never have children? And is the role of women and the priesthood as separate as this definition suggests? If not, what then is the relationship between women and priesthood covenants and authority?
As I have studied the scriptures, talks by General Authorities and the book, “Daughters in My Kingdom, The History and Work of Relief Society” I have come to understand much better the role of women, the purpose of Relief Society, and the relationship between women and the priesthood. Consequently, my vision of my role and my sense of worth as a woman in the latter-days has been significantly expanded. Here are a few of the principles I have learned.
The Covenant of Eternal Marriage
A definition of “priesthood” is, “the power and authority given to man to act in God’s name for the salvation of His children” (Preach My Gospel, p. 83). Priesthood is the power by which all the work of salvation is both authorized and accomplished. When we participate in the work of salvation it is with priesthood authority.
When I went to the temple to be sealed to my eternal companion, I entered into the covenant of Eternal Marriage. This is a priesthood covenant. That covenant gave both my husband and me the authority and the responsibility to create an eternal family unit. We were given authority to live together as husband and wife, and the authority to become parents through the bringing of God’s spirit children into this world.
Through the keeping of that same covenant of Eternal Marriage we both also receive the power to teach our children in righteousness and to help them progress along the covenant path in order to receive all the covenants and ordinances of the Gospel necessary for their salvation and exaltation. Although our roles as parents may differ, we both receive our parental authority and power from the same priesthood covenant.
The teaching of our children and helping them along the covenant path to exaltation is the pattern of Godhood. It is what our Heavenly Parents do. As we participate in this work we are learning Godhood, which in its most simple form is parenthood. Entering into the priesthood covenant of Eternal Marriage gives us both the authority and the responsibility to participate with God in His great work, and the keeping of our priesthood covenants gives us the power to fulfill our responsibilities.
But is that all that is expected of women in this life? No, not at all.
The relationship between the Relief Society and the Priesthood.
Priesthood quorums are organized with a president and two counselors and receive their authority from authorized priesthood leaders who hold priesthood keys. Although their responsibilities are numerous and varied, their main purpose is to “build unity and brotherhood, and instruct members in doctrines, principles and duties.” (Handbook 2, Administering the Church, 7.1.2, pg 40) This includes assisting fathers in their responsibilities as fathers and helping all males, ages 12 and older, and all families progress on the covenant path to exaltation.
The Relief Society is also an official organization of the Church and is organized under the same pattern as priesthood quorums with a president and two counselors. And although unique from the priesthood, President Joseph F. Smith taught it is “divinely made, divinely authorized, divinely instituted, [and] divinely ordained of God to minister for the salvation of the souls of women and men.” (Daughters in My Kingdom, pg. 66)
Although only men are ordained to the priesthood, only men hold priesthood keys, and other than in the temple, only men officiate in priesthood ordinances, all women 18 years of age and older, both single and married, are members of the Relief Society and by virtue of their covenants and membership in this organization, are given priesthood authority and power to participate in the work of salvation.
In his April 2014 conference talk, Elder Dallin H. Oaks emphasized this point when he stated, “Since the scriptures state that ‘all other authorities [and] offices in the church are appendages to this [Melchizedek] priesthood’ (D&C 107:5) all that is done under the direction of those priesthood keys is done with priesthood authority.” (Emphasis added)
He went on to say, “Thus, it is truly said that the Relief Society is not just a class for women, but something they belong to—a divinely established appendage to the priesthood. “ (Emphasis added)
Therefore, the purpose of Relief Society is exactly the same as God’s purpose, our purpose as parents, the purpose of priesthood quorums and the purpose of the Church in general, “To bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man” (Moses 1:39).
As Relief Society Sisters, we have the opportunity and the responsibility to participate in three main ways.
First is to increase in faith and personal righteousness. Through the weekly teaching of doctrine, monthly visits as visiting teachers and mid-week activities, we are strengthened in our knowledge and understanding of the gospel. This leads to an increased desire to apply gospel principles and make and keep sacred covenants. Exaltation is becoming like our Heavenly Parents and living as they do. Relief Society helps prepare and qualify us for this crowning blessing.
Second is to help strengthen families and homes. As we come to understand better the doctrine of the gospel, and apply its principles in our own lives, we are better able to draw upon the power of our priesthood covenants to strengthen and bless our families. This may be as a wife and mother, or as a sister and daughter, grandmother, granddaughter or aunt.
In addition to our own personal families, women in the Relief Society have also been given the authority to preside over and direct the affairs of the women in the church, as well as to preside and direct the Primary and Young Women organizations. This is a large and weighty responsibility. As Relief Society sisters we have been trusted with the duty to teach and prepare all children to receive the priesthood covenant of baptism at age 8, to prepare young boys to be ordained to the priesthood at age 12 and to prepare young women to receive priesthood covenants in the temple as adults.
Sister Julie Beck taught, “Being part of a Relief Society or quorum is a designation for a way of life. We are to serve in the association of a Melchizedek Priesthood quorum or a Relief Society for a lifetime. From the quorum or Relief Society, we are called to serve in other Church assignments and organizations . . . No matter where we serve, we always retain our “citizenship” in and our responsibility to the quorum or Relief Society. (Sister Julie Beck, BYU Speeches, “Why We Are Organized into Quorums and Relief Societies”) (Emphasis added)
Therefore it is an error for women to say they do not belong to Relief Society because they are serving in Primary or Young Women. It is because they belong to Relief Society they have been given the opportunity, responsibility and the priesthood authority to direct the work in the primary and young women organizations. When they serve in these callings they are fulfilling their responsibilities as Relief Society sisters. Men may also serve in primary, but they do not serve in the presidency of the primary. This work falls under the direction and authority of Relief Society sisters who operate under priesthood keys.
The third purpose of the Relief Society is to seek out and provide relief for those who are in need. As sisters in Relief Society we not only have the responsibility to help others along the covenant path, but we have the opportunity to better keep our own covenants through service to others. When we are baptized we enter into a covenant to “mourn with those who mourn, and comfort those that stand in need of comfort” (Mosiah 18:9).
President Henry B. Eyring taught that through our covenant calling as Visiting Teachers we are to “know the hearts of individuals and their families” and help the bishop meet the needs and nurture individuals and families in the ward (Daughters in My Kingdom p. 110). This alone is a great task but our influence is not in any way limited to those sisters we visit teach, our own families or our callings in the ward. We are covenant bound to seek out and help all people who are in need, to the best of our ability and circumstance, no matter what ward, country or continent they may live.
When Joseph Smith “turned the key” in behalf of women, he opened the door for women to officially organize and better assist God in His work of salvation. All adult women have the opportunity to receive priesthood covenants and are given priesthood authority and power to participate in this great work. And, as we participate in and learn God’s work, we become like Him and qualify for Exaltation.
After understanding better these principles, I also understand better the comment made by Eliza R. Snow to the Relief Society sisters in her day. “If any of the daughters and mothers in Israel are feeling in the least [limited] in their present spheres, they will now find ample scope for every power and capability for doing good with which they are most liberally endowed (Daughters in My Kingdom p. 44).
Our responsibilities are great and our potential is limitless!
And that thought brings great . . . joy to my journey!