Could you explain how priesthood leadership should operate in the family?

“Could you explain how priesthood leadership should operate in the family?” Ensign, Apr. 1988, 51–53

I’m confused about the principle of priesthood leadership in the home. Could you explain how priesthood leadership should operate in the family?

Dennis L. Lythgoe, bishop and author of two books on marriage and leadership. Church leaders have continually encouraged people to regard marriage as an equal partnership. President Spencer W. Kimball said:

“When we speak of marriage as a partnership, let us speak of marriage as a full partnership. We do not want our LDS women to be silent partners or limited partners in that eternal assignment! Please be a contributing and full partner.” (Ensign, Nov. 1978, p. 106.)

Barbara Smith, former general president of the Relief Society, draws an interesting parallel between some marriages and some small companies in which one partner owns the controlling stock and thus acts as the chief decision maker. In some cases, the unhappy result has been dissolution of the company.

Sister Smith points out that “too many marriages use this model and do not utilize the strengths of either the husband or the wife. These marriages often end in unhappiness, a disaster for the entire family that was started with happiness and hope.

“I suppose what I would like to see is my son and daughter-in-law as equal partners in their marriage relationship. Both would bring their assets and liabilities, their teachings, testimonies, educational and professional background, their healthy vibrant spirits, good bodies and minds, their evaluative understanding to help them recognize truth so they would ‘reason together’ and make the most of what each has to offer.

“In that way they can learn to function as equal partners, both helping to make decisions with a clear, healthy vision of what each thinks and why, so they can come to a consensus of opinion cooperatively together. … They would then be prepared to fulfill their individual roles and function well together in their joint roles. When he speaks he will know that she will support him and that he can confidently speak for both of them. She will also feel free to express an opinion or make a commitment for both of them because she would know his feelings about their plans; they will be able to work together as one.” (The Love That Never Faileth, Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1984, p. 109.)

I believe strongly in a marriage of equals, where husband and wife make decisions together, with neither partner dictating to the other.

Yet the family needs someone to preside, and the Lord has designated the father to fulfill that role. As the presiding officer, he may preside at family home evenings or family councils, call on family members to offer prayers or blessings or to present lessons. And if he holds the priesthood, the father may bless his wife and other family members. He may baptize and confirm his children and perform other priesthood ordinances on their behalf.

Having one person designated as the presiding officer suggests order—not superiority. All important deliberations and decisions within the family should involve the husband and the wife equally, both interacting with gentleness and love unfeigned. In cases of disagreement, a couple is wise to wait until they can agree, rather than one pushing ahead with his or her own decision. Even the most pressing problems should be treated carefully, allowing enough time for tempers to cool and prayers to be offered.

Elder Dean L. Larsen of the Presidency of the First Quorum of the Seventy wrote about a young couple who were planning a temple marriage. Prior to the wedding the young woman came to Elder Larsen, distraught and tearful. She said that her fiance had outlined what he expected of her, and she found it disturbing. According to his demands, she must understand that he would be the unquestioned authority in their home and that his word would be law.

Elder Larsen wrote, “This young man, who had won the hand and heart of his sweetheart through a loving and gentle courtship, now was constrained to impose a strict dominion upon her. In so doing he was appealing to his misunderstanding of the patriarchal order.” (Ensign, Sept. 1982, p. 8.)

In some cases, such an adverse interpretation of marriage leads to verbal and physical abuse. President David O. McKay said, “I cannot imagine a man’s being cruel to a woman. I cannot imagine her so conducting herself as to merit such treatment. Perhaps there are women in the world who exasperate their husbands, but no man is justified in resorting to physical force or in exploding his feelings in profanity. There are men, undoubtedly, in the world who are thus beastly, but no man who holds the priesthood of God should so debase himself.” (Gospel Ideals, Salt Lake City: The Improvement Era, 1953, p. 476.)

Doctrine and Covenants 121:36–37 [D&C 121:36–37] explicitly warns against such behavior:

“The rights of the priesthood are inseparably connected with the powers of heaven, and … the powers of heaven cannot be controlled nor handled only upon the principles of righteousness.

“That they may be conferred upon us, it is true; but when we undertake to cover our sins, or to gratify our pride, our vain ambition, or to exercise control or dominion or compulsion upon the souls of the children of men, in any degree of unrighteousness, behold, the heavens withdraw themselves; the Spirit of the Lord is grieved; and when it is withdrawn, Amen to the priesthood or the authority of that man.”

The Lord notes that the temptation to exercise unrighteous dominion is prevalent (D&C 121:39) but that “no power or influence can or ought to be maintained by virtue of the priesthood, only by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned;

“By kindness, and pure knowledge, which shall greatly enlarge the soul without hypocrisy, and without guile” (D&C 121:41–42).

Rather than worrying about whose word is “law,” every man who approaches marriage should remember the words of Elder Gordon B. Hinckley, who counseled men:

“If you are guilty of demeaning behavior toward your wife, if you are prone to dictate and exercise authority over her, if you are selfish and brutal in your actions in the home, then stop it! Repent!” (Cornerstones of a Happy Home, Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1984, p. 2.)

A man and a woman should each have an equal opportunity to resolve disagreements. It is not right for the man to think that, since he is “the head of the home,” his opinion is the right one. “The head of the home” can be wrong; yet many men endeavor to get what they want by pulling rank. In some cases, the woman is the one who insists that her view should always prevail, and the man, out of deference to her, complies. Insistence on the decision-making right is undesirable for either the man or the woman. The couple should discuss their differences, candidly consider the pros and cons, then make a decision both can live with.

In this connection, a friend of mine prefers the phrase “unity with the priesthood” instead of the more familiar phrase “supporting the priesthood.” She said: “When we think in terms of supporting the priesthood, we conjure up in our minds the image of the priesthood being up there, and we women being down here supporting it. ‘Unity with the priesthood’ conjures up a more equitable image in my mind. I value the priesthood highly. And I think that women and men together need to support each other and to move in a unified way toward the same exalted goals.” (Cynthia Lynch, This People, Nov. 1985, p. 59.)

If this kind of equality in marriage makes so much sense, how do we explain the well-known scripture from the Apostle Paul?

“Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord.

“For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the church: and he is the saviour of the body. …

“Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it.” (Eph. 5:22–23, 25.)

As the head of the Church, Jesus was the humble servant of all. He served others constantly, loving them and sacrificing for them. In fact, he suffered all things and gave his life for them. If a husband is a loving servant to his wife, then her “submission” to him is very different from what we imagine in a situation of authoritarian control. A wife would only submit to the kind of righteous leadership exemplified through complete service and sacrifice.

In fact, this is not submission at all, as we understand the term today, but instead an intimate, trusting relationship that has as its base love, reason, discussion, and respect. Such, I believe, is the relationship the Lord has in mind for all husbands and wives.

Photography by Eldon Linschoten