FairMormon has a service where questions can be submitted and they are answered by volunteers. If you have a question, you can submit it at http://www.fairmormon.org/contact. We will occasionally publish answers here for questions that are commonly asked, or are on topics that are receiving a lot of attention. (The names used in the answer have been changed.)


We were recently asked to address “Male Privilege” in the church to help a teenage girl looking for answers to questions such as:  How should we respond when we feel men and women are unequal at church? What should we do if we have a nagging feeling that perhaps our culture doesn’t live up to our doctrine? What do we do when we perceive sexism or implicit biases at church?


Dear Lucia,

 I sympathize with your pain as you struggle with heavy questions. A few years ago, in high school, I had some unresolved questions about the church, and I wrote in my journal that it felt like “spiders crawling on the shadow of my testimony.” You are not alone in your concerns about gender equality in the church–one study claimed that nearly 60% of American LDS millennials said they agreed that “it bothers me that women don’t have the priesthood.” [1]

 Grievances regarding women in the church fall into two broad categories: structural concerns (why can’t women have a priesthood office?) and cultural concerns (why don’t the opinion of women seem as valued in council meetings?). When I read your list of qualms, I hear that beneath the questions you have about church structure, you are struggling to feel equal, valued, and loved within the church. I hear that you have been hurt, perhaps by an unkind comment, that has made you feel “less than” you should because of your gender.  

 Just so we start on the same page: God is the original feminist. In fact, the concept of “God” is a Heavenly Father and Mother who are obsessed with helping you and me grow. [2] To help us on our journey, they have given us the gift of our bodies which are beautiful and literally in the image of our Heavenly Mother. We can work at the temple officiating priesthood ordinances and are ordained into the highest order of the priesthood by being sealed. Our happiness ultimately comes from eternal connections to other people as a daughter, sister, mother, and friend. [3][4]

 The problem isn’t the gospel, the problem is the people. God never makes anyone feel unequal or unvalued, people do. The onus is not on the church to change its structure, the onus is on us–members of the church of both sexes–to change our behavior. When it comes to the gospel, perception is not reality. We find what we want to see (in psychology, this is called motivated perception). We all look for evidence to confirm our beliefs about society and about the church when we sit on the pews on Sunday. We can find sexism. We can find charity. We can find equality. We can find inequality. We can find racism. We can find whatever we look for. Do we attend church with a metaphorical microscope, so intent on finding the inequalities that we miss the healing? Or do we attend church with the lens of charity, looking for ways to contribute and uplift everyone, regardless of origin or circumstance?

 The question of how to deal with the disparity between expectations–that the form and function of Christ’s church matches what we imagine the doctrine should look like–and reality is not unique to the modern-day church. When Christ came to earth, rumor had it that he would be a great military leader and liberate the Jews from the Roman rule. With the wounds of Caesar’s feats stinging in Jewish minds every time they saw a Roman soldier or paid taxes, no wonder people did not recognize Christ as The Savior when he was the antithesis of Roman power–all this carpenter seemed to have done was create chaos, preach peace, and die disgracefully. To the average onlooker, not much seemed to change before or after his death: the Jews were just as captive, the taxes just as high, the inequality just as rampant. 

The few who recognized Christ understood The Messiah was sent to heal people, not fix society. Christ’s fiercest followers–such as Mary Magdalene and Simon Peter–personally experienced this healing. [5] Christ’s priority was healing the individual and to do so, worked within culture; he used parables, paid taxes, and celebrated weddings.  Likewise, since Christ’s priority is changing me and you, he patiently works within the constraints of our often-sexist society. God exposes us to truths too grand to fit within our cultural understanding–God is composed of a Heavenly Father and Mother, we can become like God–and then gives us basic principles that will help us absorb the cultural applications of these doctrines someday. 

Just as it was 2000 years ago, Christ’s disciples are flawed people who operate in a flawed culture. It is our response to these people who are still striving to be whole that teaches us how to become like God. Callings in the church, regardless of chorister or prophet, are tailored opportunities to highlight shortcomings. Being active in the church requires constantly working with people with different political views, socioeconomic statuses and cultural backgrounds. As we are asked to do difficult things together (like wake up early for seminary or live with a mission companion), vulnerabilities and weaknesses–like implicit biases–that you can hide during a 9-5 job suddenly become apparent. When Stake President and stake dance coordinator alike are cleaning up sticky lollipop stains off the cultural hall floor at 1 AM together, character is tested. That’s the whole point–church gives us a place to practice the Atonement and turn our weaknesses into strengths by communing. This is an equal opportunity church: we are all equally in need of the atonement. We can all completely be healed and made whole. 

Healing comes with forgiving and repenting. The first step in healing from sexism in the church is recognizing wrong, which comes from absorbing different perspectives of an event, or engaging in dialogue. Dialogue occurs when all parties suspend suppositions and suspicions of each other (the scriptures call this softening our hearts) and listen–for evidence that another argument exists, evidence that our reality is not someone else’s reality. [6] True dialogue is an expression of humility and happens as those who hurt and those who are hurting come to God and say, “here is my weakness or concern, what can you do to bind us together as children of God and heal us?” Dialogue does not negate the hurt you have experienced or lessen the validity and importance of commandments; it simply invites us to change and allows us to start forgiving and repenting.

Attacks or responses that pit people against each other, use emotional manipulation, or force the audience to make a binary choice all shut down dialogue.  These fallacies have many faces. I often see people dangerously (and often unconsciously) pit men against women, straight members against gay members, liberals against conservatives, married members against single adults. Whose opinion matters more? Yes, we are all children of God, but who is better? This might look like as innocent as a list of ways one sex is better than another. Emotional manipulation may look like a heart-wrenching story that concludes that a doctrine is incorrect, and therefore anyone who believes in that doctrine is a villain who caused that person’s suffering. Because my experience as a woman in this church was negative, therefore the idea that men and women have different roles in the church is invalid. Looking at the church through a black-and-white lens may make it seem that, just because a part of the church may not be wholly restored yet or a part does not agree with that person’s assertion of what the church should be, the church’s teachings are equally invalid. Because I do not think men and women in this church are equal, it must not be the “true” church and thus the covenants I made are also invalid.

Perhaps the most dangerous aspect of these are arguments that imply members of the church are incapable of change. My bishop is sexist. This is antithetical to the entire purpose of the Gospel; this is the opposite of charity. That bishop may have said something that might have displayed an implicit bias, but that bishop is first and foremost a child of God who is just as in need of the Atonement and can access it just as much as me or you. His salvation is between him and God. In the end, when we pit people against people, we are only pitting ourselves against God.

One of my neighbors, Musu, joined the church after immigrating from Sierra Leone to the United States. [7] When COVID began and church buildings shut down earlier this year, Musu was working 12-hour shifts at an understaffed, COVID-ridden nursing facility. Having lost both her parents and living alone in a new country, she felt lonely. Musu knew that taking the sacrament would help her. She was upset when she realized that her job in a COVID facility–which prevented her from making contact with others–meant that she wouldn’t be able to take the sacrament. One lonely, stressful, and sacrament-less Sunday night in June, she told God all she wanted was the sacrament and cried herself to sleep. That night, she had a beautiful dream that Christ visited to tell her that she belonged to God and would be okay. Ecstatic, she woke up the next morning, ran into my driveway and shouted, “Wake up! Jesus loves you!”

God offered Musu healing instead of answers. When we experience that healing, other concerns seem to melt into insignificance. Musu had complete power to access the Atonement, and that is the point of the Gospel. We should not be of the world, and therefore we should not seek healing the way the world does. In fact, the world never does seem to heal–no one seems to agree how to deeply heal the wounds caused by colonialism or COVID. The world criticizes and shames, but rarely changes. Christ changes us, but never criticizes or shames. Let us work with our Heavenly Parents who are intensely and solely concerned with our salvation; apply the gospel as our path to change; and learn with and from the church which is a messy, evolving and beautiful tangle of opportunities to practice charity.



[1] For a discussion on the accuracy of the study, see https://www.fairmormon.org/blog/2019/12/31/conclusions-in-search-of-evidence

[2] https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/manual/gospel-topics-essays/mother-in-heaven?lang=eng

[3] https://www.fairmormon.org/conference/august-2014/womans-church

[4] https://www.fairmormon.org/testimonies/scholars/valerie-hudson-cassler

[5] A fantastic book about Christ as THe Healer is Fiona and Terryl Givens’ The Christ Who Heals: How God Restored the Truth that Saves Us

[6] http://squaretwo.org/Sq2ArticleJohnstonOrthodox.html

[7] Name changed. Story used with permission.

Sarah Quan is a FairMormon volunteer passionate about helping people learn more about the Gospel. Sarah served in the Singapore Mission (Malay speaking) from 2015-16 and currently serves as a Young Womens’ advisor. She currently works for the Department of State and also helps run an educational non-profit.

The post FairMormon Questions: How should we respond when we feel men and women are unequal at church? appeared first on FairMormon.

Continue reading at the original source →