Thursday, July 2, 2015

What Does "Preside" Really Mean?


"...fathers and mothers are obligated to help one another as equal partners." 
- The Family: A Proclamation to the World


       Who presides in a family? Every Mormon familiar with the Family Proclamation knows that “By divine design, fathers are to preside over their families in love and righteousness and are responsible to provide the necessities of life and protection for their families.”1 But preside is a difficult word. It’s a word that denotes authority, as in president. It means standing at the head of an organization in a position of leadership. But if fathers are supposed to preside over their families, does that mean they have authority over their wives? But all of God’s children are equal! But if Mom and Dad are equal, how can the Proclamation say that Dad is the one who's supposed to preside? 


       Many would probably like to get rid of this word because it implies some kind of patriarchal superiority. Some believe that when a father presides that makes him the head of the household, the supreme leader of the family (when these roles are meant to be shared with the wife/mother). But those who get up in arms about the supposed oppression meted out by a presiding father do not properly understand the meaning of the term, and alas, many of us Mormons may not fully understand it, either. Maybe we all need to remember the sage wisdom of Inigo Montoya, who said, "You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means."

       If you look up the word preside in Webster's dictionary (sounds like the beginning of a sacrament talk, doesn't it?), the first definition you see is "to exercise guidance, direction, or control." With the word 'control' at the end of that line, it's easy for Mormons to squirm and for critics to say "See? I told you the Church was sexist!" But relax. Read it closely. Is there anything wrong with a father exercising guidance? What about direction? That's what parents do. Also note that it says OR control, not AND control. Presiding does not necessitate the exercise of absolute control, and there is nothing wrong with a father exercising some control over his children, so long as he does so alongside his wife, a possibility which is not precluded here. The Latin root of preside carries another important definition: to guard. Fathers are to guard their families from the evils of the world. Presiding also has a third, uniquely Mormon definition. Whenever there is a meeting in the Church, a priesthood holder is present to conduct and make sure things run smoothly. Likewise, fathers preside over spiritual meetings in the home.The father is the priesthood leader of his family.2  

       Unfortunately, once you add priesthood to the mix, misinterpretations start to emerge. Some look at the Priesthood system of the Church and infer that because the husband presides in the home, that makes him the president of the family. But the Church and family are not governed the same way. President Boyd K. Packer has said, "In the Church there is a distinct line of authority. We serve where called by those who preside over us. In the home it is a partnership with husband and wife equally yoked together, sharing in decisions, always working together."So fathers and mothers are co-leaders in the home, which is further proven by the fact that women can preside, too. According to the Church's Gospel Principles manual, "If there is no father in the home, the mother presides over the family."So presiding is not a uniquely masculine role, but a parental one, falling to fathers first, and mothers second. If there is a president over the family, it is clearly not the father or the mother. It is Christ, who delegates presiding authority to the parents who preside in His absence.

       Because husbands perform priesthood duties in the home, some think this gives him superior decision-making power in the family. Too many of us Mormons fall prey to the lie that says while husbands and wives are equal, the husband has the final say in family decisions because he holds the priesthood. Not true. Elder L. Tom Perry has said, "Since the beginning, God has instructed mankind that marriage should unite husband and wife together in unity. Therefore, there is not a president or a vice president in a family."5 President Hinckley likewise said, "In this Church the man neither walks ahead of his wife nor behind his wife but at her side. They are co-equals in this life in a great enterprise."6

       Some may also try to use the story of Adam and Eve to justify the unrighteous dominion of a husband over his wife. But this is also an untenable position. Elder Bruce C. Hafen pointed out, "Genesis 3:16 states that Adam is to ‘rule over’ Eve, but this doesn’t make Adam a dictator. …Over in ‘rule over’ uses the Hebrew bet, which means ruling ‘with,’ not ruling ‘over.’ "7 Also, the term "helpmeet" is translated from the Hebrew term ezer kenegdo, which means a helper corresponding to, or suited to.8 Eve was not created as Adam's lowly assistant. She was his helpmeet, his corresponding part. She was a "helper" not because she was subservient to him, but because Adam couldn't make it without her help.

       "Wait a second, Provo Mormon Dude! There were statements throughout Church history saying the man has authority over the woman. So how can you say they're equal?" Well, rhetorical heckler, the Church's position has evolved, I'll give you that. But unrighteous dominion has been a sin from the beginning. Even as Paul told wives to be subject to their husbands (Ephesians 5:22-23), he also told husbands to love their wives "even as Christ also loved the church" (Ephesians 5:25). Joseph Smith said it was a man's duty "not to rule over his wife as a tyrant, neither as one who is fearful or jealous that his wife will get out of her place, and prevent him from exercising his authority."9 Brigham Young said, "I have counseled every woman of this Church to let her husband be her file leader... But I never counseled a woman to follow her husband to hell! ...I am sanguine and most emphatic on that subject....If a man is determined to expose the lives of his friends, let that man go to the devil and to destruction alone."10      

       There need be no controversy around the word preside, as long as we properly understand it. It does not put a man at a higher station than a woman, nor does it give him more power. It does not justify unrighteous dominion and it does not give the man the final say. Husbands and wives each have different roles but they are equal. As Elder James E. Faust said, "Every father is to his family a patriarch and every mother a matriarch as coequals in their distinctive parental roles."11 Whether answering our critics or leading in our own homes, we should remember that families are designed by God, and as such they allow for everyone to experience happiness. Presiding means that father is there and taking an active role in the family. It means children are cared for. It means wives can rely on their husbands. It means both man and woman respect each other, maintaining equal, loyal, and prayerful authority over their family.


Notes:
1. "The Family: A Proclamation to the World." LDS.org. September 23, 1995. Accessed July 3, 2015.
2. "Organization and Purpose of the Family." In Family Guidebook. Salt Lake City, Utah: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2006.
3.  Packer, Boyd K. "The Relief Society." Ensign, May 1998.
4. "Family Responsibilities." In Gospel Principles, 212-217. Provo, Utah: Deseret Book, 2009.
5. Perry, L. Tom. "Fatherhood, an Eternal Calling." Ensign. May 2004.
6. Hinckley, Gordon B. "This Thing Was Not Done in a Corner." Ensign, November 1996.
7. Hudson, Valerie M., and Richard B. Miller. "Equal Partnership in Marriage." Ensign, April 2013.
8. Seely, David Rolph. "I Have a Question." Ensign, January 1994.
9. Smith, Joseph. "Chapter 42: Family: The Sweetest Union for Time and for Eternity." In Teachings of Presidents of the Church. Salt Lake City, Utah: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, 2007.
10. Widtsoe, John Andreas. Priesthood and Church Government; a Handbook and Study Course for the Quorums of the Melchizedek Priesthood of the Church of Jesus Christ of L.D.S.,. Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book, 1939. 90.
11. Faust, James E. "The Prophetic Voice." Ensign, May 1996.

2 comments:

  1. A fascinating topic of discussion. One thought... If men and women are equal in authority in the home, then it stands to reason that both should be called to "preside" as "partners" or "co-presiders" Yet this is not the case. Men are asked to preside. Women are not. What is the point of it all? It sounds as if presiding has been relegated only to carrying out FHE and Family prayer. It seems hollow and meaningless, like giving someone a fancy title, but no authority to go with it. Just my thoughts...

    ReplyDelete
  2. A fascinating topic of discussion. One thought... If men and women are equal in authority in the home, then it stands to reason that both should be called to "preside" as "partners" or "co-presiders" Yet this is not the case. Men are asked to preside. Women are not. What is the point of it all? It sounds as if presiding has been relegated only to carrying out FHE and Family prayer. It seems hollow and meaningless, like giving someone a fancy title, but no authority to go with it. Just my thoughts...

    ReplyDelete