Question and Answer


Questions of general interest answered for guidance, not as official statements of Church policy.

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.

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.

In some cases, 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. 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 says that women and men together need to support each other and to move in a unified way toward the same exalted goals.

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.