An American college textbook on marriage and family relations was recently published containing an interesting section on “The Peculiarities of American Marriage.” Discussing the power structure, the author wrote: “One of the greatest peculiarities of American marriage, as compared to almost all other societies, is the relative dominance of the American wife.” 1
Other investigators found that in one area of America, only one marriage in five was male-dominant, one was female-dominant, and the remaining three were democratic, with decision making, dominance, and deference either mutually or alternately shared. 2 If the results and statistics of this particular study are representative of American marriages, it would mean that (1) for every male-dominant marriage in the United States, there is a female-dominant marriage, and (2) the female has equal or superior power in many contemporary American marriages. While the statistics may be questioned, the trend seems evident.
The recent transition in the United States from a patriarchal to a democratic or even a matriarchal type of family organization has had its consequences.
In 1968, Dr. Edward J. Rydman, executive director of the American Association of Marriage and Family Counselors, noted:
“… there has been a profound shift from the authoritarian family in which the husband-father had the major control over his wife and children. Most of the family power, decision-making responsibility, and authority rested upon him, as did the responsibility for supporting the family economically. The shift from the authoritarian to a more equalitarian family has profoundly affected the position of the head of the family as women have entered the economic marketplace in ever-increasing numbers and especially as even larger numbers of mothers take their place in offices, assembly lines, and other occupations and professions. As women assume more important roles outside the home, so stresses, strains, and problems within the family relationships proliferate.” 3
The recent trend in family government is also a departure from biblical teachings. The apostle Paul admonished, “Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands. …” (Eph. 5:22; see also Col. 3:18.) He also taught that “the husband is the head of the wife. …” (Eph. 5:23.) In addition, the Lord instructed Eve in the Garden of Eden that “thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee.” (Gen. 3:16.)
It is true that in some Latter-day Saint homes the wife or mother must assume a major portion of the responsibility in governing family affairs. Such would be the case, for example, if the father were absent because of death or divorce or if he were incapacitated through illness or injury. But what about Latter-day Saint homes where both father and mother are present? What should be the relationship between a Latter-day Saint husband and wife, particularly if the husband holds the priesthood?
In 1902, shortly after becoming sixth president of the Church, President Joseph F. Smith stated:
“There is no higher authority in matters relating to the family organization, and especially when that organization is presided over by one holding the higher Priesthood, than that of the father. The authority is time honored, and among the people of God in all dispensations it has been highly respected and often emphasized by the teachings of the prophets who were inspired of God. The patriarchal order is of divine origin and will continue throughout time and eternity. There is, then, a particular reason why men, women and children should understand this order and this authority in the households of the people of God, and seek to make it what God intended it to be, a qualification and preparation for the highest exaltation of his children. In the home the presiding authority is always vested in the father, and in all home affairs and family matters there is no other authority paramount.” 4
Do such teachings have relevance for contemporary Latter-day Saint marriages and families? Questions immediately arise as to how the patriarchal order operates in a Latter-day Saint home. Both the validity and the practical application of the principle need careful evaluation.
In what manner does a Latter-day Saint husband act as “head” over his wife? Must a woman “obey” her husband at all times in all things? Does a wife have anything to do with the decision-making policies in her marriage and family? Is a patriarch similar to a dictator who rules with absolute control and often in a domineering way?
Let us begin by saying that a Latter-day Saint husband or father presides over his wife and family in much the same way a bishop, stake president, or elders quorum president presides over the specific group to which he is called. Each acts with counselors and seldom makes decisions without carefully consulting those whom he calls to assist him.
A counselor may be chosen to officiate in the absence of the appointed leader, or, even in the presence of the leader, the counselor may conduct by appointment while the former presides. In a similar manner, according to President Smith, “in the home the presiding authority is always vested in the father.” He then explained why:
“… This patriarchal order has its divine spirit and purpose, and those who disregard it under one pretext or another are out of harmony with the spirit of God’s laws as they are ordained for recognition in the home. It is not merely a question of who is perhaps the best qualified. Neither is it wholly a question of who is living the most worthy life. It is a question largely of law and order, and its importance is seen often from the fact that the authority remains and is respected long after a man is really unworthy to exercise it.” 5
Imagine, for example, the confusion that would result if two bishops were appointed over your particular ward and the first one got up in sacrament meeting and announced that the following Sunday the sacrament meeting would be held one hour earlier. While he was making his announcement, suppose the second bishop stood up and expressed his desire that the sacrament meeting be held at the original time. With two people presiding, would democratic principles work? Suppose you had two stake presidents, two elders quorum presidents, two Sunday School presidents, two Primary and Relief Society presidents presiding over each of the priesthood quorums, groups, and auxiliaries. How would the Church function? Would “law and order” prevail? Similarly, should two people preside over each other in a marriage, particularly when one holds the priesthood and has been divinely designated to preside?
We can better understand the similarity of presiding over a home and a ward by examining some of Paul’s teachings. He taught that for a man to be ordained a bishop, he must be married and be “one that ruleth well his own house, having his children in subjection with all gravity” (1 Tim. 3:4), and “having faithful children not accused of riot or unruly” (Titus 1:6).
By proving himself capable of presiding over his primary responsibility—his wife and family—a man is ready to assume a second stewardship in the priesthood. Paul reasoned: “for if a man know not how to rule his own house, how shall he take care of the church of God?” (1 Tim. 3:5.)
Paul stated there was a “great mystery” associated with the patriarchal order. (See Eph. 5:32.) The mystery may not be so much in the manner in which a wife submits herself to her husband as, in fact, the way a husband will preside over and interact with his wife and family. President Smith observed:
“This authority carries with it a responsibility and a grave one, as well as its rights and privileges, and men cannot be too exemplary in their lives, nor fit themselves too carefully to live in harmony with this important and God-ordained rule of conduct in the family organization.” 6
The apostle Paul urged: “Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it; … So ought men to love their wives as their own bodies. He that loveth his wife loveth himself. For no man ever yet hated his own flesh; but nourisheth and cherisheth it, even as the Lord the church: … let every one of you in particular so love his wife even as himself; and the wife see that she reverence her husband.” (Eph. 5:25, 28–29, 33.)
Modern revelation declares how one holding the priesthood will officiate and gives needed insights into how a man will preside as a priesthood holder, particularly over his wife and family:
“… 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.
“… 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.
“We have learned by sad experience that it is the nature and disposition of almost all men, as soon as they get a little authority, as they suppose, they will immediately begin to exercise unrighteous dominion.
“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—
“Reproving betimes with sharpness, when moved upon by the Holy Ghost; and then showing forth afterwards an increase of love toward him whom thou hast reproved, lest he esteem thee to be his enemy;
“… let virtue garnish thy thoughts unceasingly; then shall thy confidence wax strong in the presence of God; and the doctrine of the priesthood shall distil upon thy soul as the dews from heaven.
“The Holy Ghost shall be thy constant companion, and thy scepter [authority in the home] an unchanging scepter of righteousness and truth; and thy dominion shall be an everlasting dominion, and without compulsory means it shall flow unto thee forever and ever.” (D&C 121:36–37, 39, 41–43, 45–46.)
By strengthening the patriarchal order in Latter-day Saint homes, not only will the husband-wife relationship be enhanced, but the parent-child relationship will improve as well. When a wife challenges the right of her husband to officiate in the home, is it not a logical consequence that the children will challenge that right also? Furthermore, is it possible that a child will then not only challenge the right of the father, but also that of either parent to make decisions affecting his life? Again, Dr. Rydman has stated:
“Little scientific evidence is in at this time, but there is concern expressed in some quarters that the growing rebellion of youth is a logical extension of the shift toward equalitarianism. In a new way and in ever increasing numbers, the youth today are demanding a voice in education, marriage, sexual expression, and other significant areas of life. As woman challenges the authority of man, so youth challenges the authority of the family and all other related social institutions.” 7
Latter-day Saint parents may be facing a critical era. We have been commanded to teach our children the gospel principles, to have faith in Christ, to repent, and to be baptized and receive the Holy Ghost. In essence, “… they shall also teach their children to pray, and to walk uprightly before the Lord.” (D&C 68:28.) Failure to do these things has its consequences.
Paul also taught that “in the last days perilous times shall come. For men [children] shall be … disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy.” (2 Tim. 3:1–2.) If Latter-day Saint families are going to survive the last days of “disobedience,” we need to carefully examine those principles on which our families are governed and maintained.
The Lord commanded ancient Israel to “honour thy father and thy mother” (Ex. 20:12), a principle not only to be verbally communicated to children, but to also be demonstrated first by the mother honoring father as head of the household, and father, in turn, honoring mother as his counselor.
When a husband and wife demonstrate honor and respect for each other, their children are subsequently taught to honor their parents. The commandment to honor father and mother, according to President Smith, is binding upon every member of the Church today, for the law is eternal.
Parents and teachers also have an important responsibility to Latter-day Saints preparing for marriage. Paul urged that they “teach the young women to be sober, to love their husbands, to love their children, to be discreet, … obedient to their own husbands” (Titus 2:4–5), and he also stated, “I will therefore that the younger women marry, bear children, guide the house, give none occasion to the adversary to speak reproachfully” (1 Tim. 5:14).
He likewise exhorted young men “to be sober minded. In all things shewing thyself a pattern of good works: in doctrine shewing uncorruptness, gravity, sincerity, sound speech, that cannot be condemned. …” (Titus 2:6–8.)
By understanding the patriarchal order of marriage, a young Latter-day Saint man will be selective in choosing a wife who understands the manner in which he is to preside during their marriage. Conversely, a young Latter-day Saint woman will be more selective in choosing a husband who will preside without “unrighteous dominion.” For a Latter-day Saint marriage or family to function in any other way than the patriarchal order would be, as previously stated, “out of harmony with the spirit of God’s laws as they are ordained for recognition in the home.”
If the patriarchal order of marriage is practiced as outlined by Church leaders and the scriptures, there is little question that Latter-day Saint husbands and wives will experience happier, more stable and satisfactory marriages. Furthermore, important guidelines for raising children can be employed in such a relationship. President Smith admonished:
“Wives and children should be taught to feel that the patriarchal order in the kingdom of God has been established for a wise and beneficent purpose, and should sustain the head of the household and encourage him in the discharge of his duties, and do all in their power to aid him in the exercise of the rights and privileges which God has bestowed upon the head of the home. …
“The necessity, then, of organizing the patriarchal order and authority of the home rests upon principle as well as upon the person who holds that authority, and among the Latter-day Saints family discipline, founded upon the law of the patriarchs, should be carefully cultivated, and fathers will then be able to remove many of the difficulties that now weaken their position in the home.” 8
Dr. Barlow, an assistant professor of marriage and family at Southern Illinois University, is also a clinical member of the American Association of Marriage and Family Counselors. He is a member of the Carbondale (Illinois) Branch of the Northern States Mission.
Lloyd Saxton, The Individual, Marriage and The Family (Wadsworth Publishing Company, 1968), p. 258.
Robert O. Blood and Donald O. Wolfe, Husbands and Wives: The Dynamics of Married Living (New York: Free Press, 1960), pp. 45–46.
Edward J. Rydman, in the foreword of Handbook of Marriage Counseling, Ben N. Ard, Jr., and Constance Ard, ed. (Science and Behavior Books, Inc., 1969), p. vii.
Joseph F. Smith, Gospel Doctrine (Deseret Book Company, 1968). pp. 286–87.
Ibid., p. 287.
Ibid., pp. 287–88.
Rydman, op. cit.
Smith, op. cit. pp. 287–88.