On Saturday morning, LDS Church President Thomas S. Monson announced a change in the age requirements for young Mormon missionaries that may change the size and composition of the global LDS missionary force. Men can now serve at age 18 (instead of 19), and women can serve at age 19 (instead of 21). This change will likely increase the number of missionaries serving – young men will have less opportunity to “go astray” between high school and a mission, and young women will have an increased opportunity to serve before marrying.
This change in policy may also promote equality between Mormon men and women. Men and women will serve together as peers (though female missionaries are excluded from the majority of mission leadership positions) and will return home at around the same age. If more LDS women have the opportunity to devote their lives to gospel study and proselytizing on a mission, men and women may increasingly see each other as spiritual equals. Additionally, if more women choose to serve missions at age 19, the age discrepancy between married couples may decrease.
Such a substantive change in LDS Church policy is relatively rare, but these changes are often preceded by questions about existing practice. For example, Mormon historians tell us that the end of the ban on blacks holding the priesthood came after church leaders asked God whether the ban could be lifted. This move toward racial equality was welcomed by members and groups who had long petitioned church leaders for a change.
LDS Church members are encouraged to ask questions and seek personal answers as they gain a testimony of the gospel of Jesus Christ, but members are also reminded in Mormon scripture that “What I the Lord have spoken, I have spoken.” Church members who question or critique church policies encounter criticism from other members and, though less frequently now, church discipline. But asking questions is important; God has also said, “Ask and you shall receive; knock and it shall be opened unto you.”
Allowing more similar missionary service opportunities for men and women is a wonderful step toward increased gender equality in the LDS Church. As a young Mormon woman, I am grateful for the women who demonstrated a desire to be more included in missionary service. I am grateful that our church leaders asked the question and listened for the answer that led to this change. But there are more questions that need to be asked. A group of women organizing themselves under the heading “All Are Alike Unto God” recently reminded us that there are many, many areas within the church where policies could be changed allowing women to be more present in decision-making and service. I, too, believe in a God who loves all of his children equally and wants them to have the same opportunities to lead, serve, and learn. I echo their suggestions, including the one to allow female missionaries to serve in leadership positions over other missionaries (male and female). I hope that church leaders will continue to ask how women can be brought in to have a more visible and substantive role in the church.
Catherine Jeppsen, an adjunct sociology instructor, lives in Provo, Utah, with her family.