Strangers in Paradox
by Margaret & Paul Toscano
Women, Ordination, and Hierarchy
The assertion that women should hold priesthood, be ordained to priesthood and church offices, and participate fully with men in the Mormon hierarchy is objectionable to many Mormons. In this chapter we explore the most common objections. We do not expect that our responses will be satisfactory or convincing to those who are deeply committed to the status quo on these issues. Nevertheless we hope our arguments may serve at least as a starting point for further discussions by those uncomfortable with the official posture.
This objection, the one most frequently raised to our view on women and the priesthood, assumes that we Mormons can rest assured that even though members may err from time to time, the church and its leaders are always right and do not need input from the membership. But is this true? Is the church fool proof and fail safe? The Book of Mormon repeatedly warns that we should not think that “all is well in Zion” (2 Ne. 28:21). We are told that the Nephite church went astray because of false traditions and pride. The people of Lehi’s Jerusalem were wrong to think that they were unerring and invulnerable. In spite of these messages, Mormons feel confident that the church could not err on a doctrine as far reaching as women’s relationship to priesthood. If we were wrong on this, God would appear to the living prophet, as he did to Alma the Younger and Paul, and set the church straight.
Though this is a comforting view, the scriptures taken as a whole demonstrate that such intervention is the exception rather than the rule, even for prophets. Our own experiences and life’s struggles tell us that revelations are not easy to get. And once obtained they are not easy to [p.210] understand or put into practice. In one text we are explicitly told that revelation comes through questioning (D&C 9:7). Even divine answers apparently must be preceded by questions. Most of Joseph Smith’s revelations came in answer to questions. The Aaronic priesthood was restored, we are told, because Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery had a question about baptism. The whole restoration movement, it is said, began with the question: “Which church is right?” And Jesus said, “Seek and ye shall find; knock and it shall be opened unto you.” Questioning is fundamental to revelation. But questions arise only when we face problems. We cannot see problems in the church if we believe that everything we are told by the institution comes straight from God.
The Book of Mormon tells us that this life is a probationary state— a time when we learn by trial and error, by the things that we suffer. If we know anything about how God works, it is that God does not routinely intervene to prevent mistakes, pain, or even sin. We are often left to live with the consequences of our actions and omissions. We spend most of our lives chastening ourselves with our own misperceptions of reality. God does not force upon us any particular world view. In Moses’ time, for example, God wished Israel to be a kingdom of priests and priestesses and for everyone to come up into the mountain and talk with him face to face. But, we are told, the people wanted a religion similar to the one they had known in Egypt (Ex. 32). God did not force them to accept a greater revelation, and Israel was given a lesser law (JST Ex. 34:1-2; JST Deut. 10:1-2) Peter, the chief apostle, was told in a revelation not to call unclean what the Lord had made clean and to send the gospel message to the Gentiles. And yet for nearly fifteen years, he and the other apostles refused to do this. God did not force them to obey but called on Paul, an outsider, to perform this work anyway. Paul’s effort was so inspired and revolutionary that the leaders of the church at Jerusalem had to reassess their position and change their minds.
Clearly we live in an imperfect world, where our culture can blind us to the will of God. Our traditions do not usually seem wrong to us. But if adhered to rigidly, traditions can obstruct change and growth. The church has always struggled in its imperfections. This was true of the primitive church as it wrestled with its prejudice against the Gentiles. It was true in Joseph Smith’s day, when there was constant rivalry and resistance to new ideas. Is it possible that we are in a similar situation today with respect to women and the priesthood?
[p.211] Consider the 1978 revelation extending priesthood to black males. Mormons often assume that it was God’s will that the priesthood be withheld from blacks until 1978. But we think this denial may well have been contrary to the will of God, the consequence of our prejudices, our unwillingness to extend full equality to a disenfranchised group. The historical evidence shows that the doctrinal basis for refusing blacks the priesthood was at very best vague. The policy seems to have grown up during the early Utah period. In 1836 Joseph Smith allowed a black to be ordained to the Melchizedek priesthood. Would God have opened the way for other blacks to have received the priesthood earlier if we as a people had been willing to receive them and to ask for the change? Was the ban lifted in 1978 because we had a prophet who, for the first time, wanted a change, in part to resolve the problem of mixed ancestry? Have women been denied the priesthood all these years for the same reason the Gentiles were denied the gospel? For the same reason perhaps that blacks were denied priesthood? Because of tradition?
In his 1989 “Tribute to Women,” Elder Boyd K. Packer said: “From the beginning the priesthood has been conferred only upon men. It is always described in the scriptures as coming through the lineage of the fathers” (Packer, 73). Elder Packer is correct in part. In the scriptures priesthood is set out in patriarchal terms and is rarely connected to women. But it is only fair to point out that the scriptures rarely connect the gospel to women either. Faith, repentance, baptism, the gift of the Holy Ghost, and the whole process of spiritual rebirth and maturation are referred to scripturally in predominantly male-oriented language. Yet in spite of this we know the gospel was meant to apply to women. The church has always understood this. And women have learned to read the scriptures and identify with them in spite of their dominant male orientation.
The scriptures contain nothing claiming priesthood is inherently and unalterably linked with maleness. Clearly the qualifications for priesthood set forth in Alma 13 (exceeding faith, repentance, and a desire to choose righteousness) apply equally to men and women. We could easily imagine a feminine application for priesthood verses just as we have done with gospel verses. We should consider that the priesthood, like the gospel, was made available to anyone having faith in Jesus Christ [p.212] and accepting the ordinances. The writer of Hebrews emphasizes this when stating that the Melchizedek priesthood is “without father, without mother, without descent, having neither beginning of days nor end of life” (Heb. 7:3). Though one implication of this passage is that priesthood can be transmitted through a lineage of mothers, the more important point is that the Melchizedek priesthood is not restricted to any particular sex or lineage. It is not the priesthood of an elite group. The point of Hebrews is that because Christ our Great High Priest sacrificed his life for us, we can now all enter “boldly” (Heb. 4:16) as priests or priestesses of God into the holy of holies.
The Messiah opened the way to salvation and priesthood for all who accept the salvific work of Jesus Christ. This means that the Patriarchal, the Aaronic, and the Levitical priesthoods—as well as all other intercessory priesthoods—have been superceded by the fullness of priesthood, which is offered to both men and women without concern about lineage and without restriction. Each person can receive the full power of God and stand as his or her own priest or priestess: “For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, saith the Lord; I will put my laws into their mind, and write them in their hearts: and I will be to them a god and they shall be to me a people: And they shall not teach every man his neighbour and every man his brother saying, Know the Lord: for all shall know me, from the least to the greatest” (Heb. 8:10-11; Jer. 31:31-34; D&C 1:20).
Of course this is true. And traditions concerning church governance tend to reinforce the prevailing attitude that women should be barred from ordination. This is nowhere more evident than in solemn assemblies and in general conferences of the church, where voting takes place according to priesthood quorums, starting with the First Presidency and then proceeding to the Quorum of the Twelve, the First Quorum of Seventy, and down through all the quorums of the priesthood, ending with the deacons. After all the males have voted, the women and children are asked to vote simultaneously. The message is loud and clear: an adult woman stands slightly below a twelve-year-old boy in the hierarchy. Though this procedure has little practical significance, it is psychologically damaging.
Of more practical consequence is the fact that the great majority of decisions affecting wards, stakes, and regions of the church are made [p.213] in priesthood councils, where women have no “vote” or say at all. It is not surprising then that many Mormon women feel disenfranchised from the church. Without their holding priesthood, their voices will not fully be heard, their gifts will not fully be magnified, and they cannot enjoy full fellowship in the “kingdom of God.” The fact that a condition prevails or a tradition is long-standing is no guarantee that it is God-approved. The purpose of revelation is to correct tradition when it is false. Objections based on tradition in a church that accepts the doctrine of continuing revelation are hardly objections at all.
This objection comes from two opposing quarters: feminists and traditional Mormons. Traditional Mormons argue that women who want the priesthood are simply trying to get control. But is this the reason why men want priesthood? The institutional answer is no. God wishes men to hold priesthood not to rule but to serve. If this is true for men, why should it not also be true for women? Might God wish women to hold priesthood authority and exercise it within ecclesiastical and priestly hierarchies to enhance their service to God?
Some feminists, on the other hand, argue that women seeking priesthood are male-identified and are dishonoring their sex by opting for a corrupt male power structure. But how can women dishonor their sex by seeking spiritual blessings? And why should a woman’s desire for priesthood necessarily signify a lust for power that corrupts? Why can’t a woman’s desire for priesthood be compared to her desire for the Holy Ghost? We have already discussed how these are closely connected. Why can’t Mormon feminists and traditionalists acknowledge that many women desire priesthood not because they wish to seize unrighteous power or equalize the inequities of the past but because they wish to bless, inspire, comfort, and administer to others—their daughters, sons, husbands, and friends. Why cannot a woman’s desire for priesthood be compared to a desire for a good marriage?
Church teachings to the contrary, a good marriage is not possible when one spouse commands and the other sustains. Peace and harmony between husband and wife and between men and women in the church are based upon mutuality of love and equality of dignity and esteem. The gifts, inspiration, and talents of each must be appreciated and given scope to develop, and room must be allowed for role reversals and balanced interdependence.
Being a church member is like being in a marriage, but at present [p.214] the marriage is not a very good one. Mormon women are not full partners with Mormon men. They do not participate in the most significant church councils and their influence is not adequately felt.
An integration of masculine and feminine is taking place in society at large. Women are being encouraged to assume leadership roles in the marketplace and in professions, while increasingly men are assuming responsibilities in the home. Arguably these changes have not all been beneficial. Women have sometimes been forced to become competitive and aggressive; children have been neglected; and some men have been left bewildered. People fear that by opening the priesthood and its offices and callings to women, similar disorientation will result in the church.
This is an important concern, and it suggests rightly that change creates new problems even as old problems are resolved. But we believe that most of these complications can be turned in the long run to the benefit of the church. Consider, for example, that many children are already neglected—by fathers overwhelmed by burdensome church positions and full-time jobs. Children need the influence of both parents. If women and men shared priesthood offices and callings, perhaps they could also more equally share the responsibility of the home and the welfare of their children.
One possible way to balance the duties of home and church is to allow each presiding office of the church to be a dual office, to be held by both husband and wife acting in concert. The office of bishop or stake president could be filled by a married couple. Thus we would have co-bishops, co-presidents, co-apostles, co-prophets, co-seers, and co-revelators with equal votes. This is not to say that singles should be excluded from these offices, but when a married person is selected to fill a church leadership position, his or her spouse if ready and willing should be called to the office too.
Allowing church offices to be filled by married couples could lessen the strain on the families of church leaders. Rather than the man always being at church and the woman always being at home, they could share or alternate their responsibilities. This may have positive effects on the congregation as well. Women might feel more comfortable discussing some personal problems with a woman, and men with a man. Also a leader would not be required to keep confidences from his or her spouse. Both could be involved in the ministry together. They could [p.215] counsel together, plan together, pray over their flock together. Where appropriate their children could be included in discussions and plans so that all of this joint service would have the ancillary benefit of encouraging the joint spiritual development, not only of the wife and husband but of their entire family.
As for the concern that priesthood callings would take women away from their duties in the home, remember few offices held by priesthood bearers are more time-consuming than that of Relief Society president or Primary president. Women are already dedicating large amounts of time to the church. Holding priesthood office would not greatly increase this commitment, although it would give greater prestige, authority, and scope to their work.
Of course there have been abuses. Some members have been disillusioned and others do not feel valued. This is true not only for women but for men outside the leadership circle. Exclusivity arises when priesthood is viewed as an institutional privilege rather than as a spiritual gift. But because priesthood as hierarchy has had destructive effects on the development of both the individual and the community does not mean that all hierarchy is bad. If we accept Jesus as our Lord and King, we automatically acknowledge a certain type of hierarchy. Eliminating priesthood would probably not eliminate leadership. It would only further desacralize the church. Moreover, the idea of gradations and degrees is apparent in our individual gifts and levels of knowledge and competence. The principle that we are equal in value and dignity is fundamental, but the church needs both a democratized priesthood and a hierarchical structure to maintain order.
It is very well to say that women are just as spiritual as men. But unless their spirituality is given scope, it has no impact on the church. As we have said, the priesthood is made up of inner spiritual power and outward authority: “the rights of the priesthood are inseparably connected with the powers of heaven” (D&C 121: 36). Certainly women can receive and use the powers of heaven as they preach, teach, comfort and serve others. But they are prohibited from administering ordinances, presiding in the church, making policy decisions, managing [p.216] resources and money, directing spiritual affairs, and making important doctrinal decisions and contributions. In other words the church tends to separate what should be “inseparably connected.” Though we can dichotomize the rights and powers of priesthood intellectually, in reality priesthood is one. We cannot have the fullness of priesthood without both its inner and outer and its female and male aspects. Men cannot simply exercise authority without spirituality. And women cannot be expected to be spiritual without authority.
Western thought has tended to denigrate matter, body, and form— to see these as inferior to spirit. Traditionally the male principle has been connected with spirit or essence, while the female principle has been associated with body or form. Thus to be female is to be relegated to a lower order of things. If we deny the importance of outer forms, we will perpetuate a system esteeming maleness over female-ness. In reaction to previous centuries, our own century has tended to value form over content, but this has not corrected the problem. It has only continued the swinging of the pendulum from one polar opposite to the other. What we most need now is reconciliation, appreciation of diversity, acceptance of opposites. In the church today we are impoverished spiritually in part because we have failed to embrace all these manifestations of God’s creation.
The failure to accept both inner and outer aspects of priesthood, however, has had positive as well as negative effects. On the positive side is the fact that because spiritual gifts are not seen as the exclusive domain of priesthood, women are able to render spiritual service. Praying in meetings, teaching doctrine, and speaking (occasionally) in general conference are now seen as activities permitted to women. On the negative side, however, such outward priesthood functions as giving blessings and casting out devils are still considered the sole property of priesthood holders, in spite of Joseph Smith’s teaching that anyone with the Holy Ghost could do these things.
Another negative effect of splitting the “rights of the priesthood” from “the powers of heaven” is the growing tendency in the church to see priesthood as solely the authority to preside and manage and to equate ordination with spiritual competence. As leaders put less emphasis on religious feeling, imagination, knowledge of doctrine, compassion, and aptitude for the inner dimension of the religious life, the members follow suit, putting less significance on the spirit and more emphasis on control.
We do not mean to say that church governance is unimportant. [p.217] Our personal inclination is not toward temporalities, but we understand there must be a balance between the temporal and spiritual. The physical management of a temple, for example, will very much affect its spiritual operations. If the temple is disorderly or in bad repair, it can negatively affect the spiritual experience of those who attend. But if the temple is overly efficient and statistics-driven, this will discourage meditation, prayer, and spiritual renewal. In time this will ironically have a negative impact on statistics. Too much emphasis on forms at the expense of substance will ultimately deaden the forms.
For this same reason equal emphasis must be placed on both the inner-spiritual-private and outer-temporal-public dimensions of priesthood, an idea reflected in the scriptural teaching that to receive a fullness of joy, the body and spirit must be united (D&C 93:33). When the inner and outer priesthoods come together, the power and blessings flowing from it are increased. For these reasons we feel it is a mistake to relegate the priesthood of women to the inner aspects only. In order for women’s priesthood to flower, it needs to be named and acknowledged.
The notion of women holding priesthood is threatening to some because it forces us to re-examine some of our most cherished ideas about gender and sexuality—concepts which support self-identity. Feminists have been divided about whether essential differences between the sexes exist. Some stress the common humanity of men and women; others the unique nature of each sex. As always we find ourselves taking a middle view. We try to balance the two positions because we accept that men and women are both genuinely similar and genuinely different. Jungian psychologists tell us that each of us has both a male and female component to our nature. This makes the entire gender issue extremely complex. In trying to define precisely what is male and what is female, we are likely to create rigid gender roles forcing us to deny parts of our being. Though gender roles may be necessary, it is also vital to exchange roles. Priesthood can actually facilitate this process. Moses, for example, was told that he should be a nursemaid to the children of Israel; and Jesus acted as our mother in giving birth to a new spiritual creation. Women also can play the part of father by planting the seed of spiritual life through preaching the gospel. Such reversals are healthy, because they help us to avoid alienation and to encourage mutual understanding.
Actually men do have babies all the time. Men have fatherhood and women have motherhood. Motherhood is not the equivalent of priesthood any more than fatherhood is. Just as fathers need priesthood, so do mothers. Priesthood in males is equivalent to priesthood in females. Both are necessary to bring about spiritual rebirth and maturation. Through the priesthood men are able to serve as spiritual fathers. And through the priesthood women are able to serve as spiritual mothers. It is a mistake to confine women to a temporal role in the private sphere, while reserving the spiritual role in the public sphere to men. This is especially damaging to children. If they are to grow up spiritually healthy, they must accept the male and female in themselves and see how those principles are actualized in the real world and in the church. Though men and women share a vast majority of human characteristics in common, we believe, there is still something essentially different between them. Because of this difference the priesthood may be manifest differently through males than it is through females. Thus without the contribution of female priesthood holders on every level, the church cannot be complete and whole. Both male and female manifestations of the priesthood are essential. One cannot replace the other. The male and the female in their priestly functions must act together to bring about spiritual fullness and completion.
In the Egyptian myth of Isis and Osiris, the god Osiris is tricked by a brother god and killed. His body is cut to pieces and strewn over the whole landscape. There appears to be no hope for him until the goddess Isis, his sister-wife, goes into mourning and wanders through the earth gathering his body piece by piece. Because of her vigilance, devotion, and love, he is brought together again and raised from the dead. This can be a metaphor for Mormonism. The future of the church rests not solely with the male priesthood holders but with the female priesthood holders as well. Like Isis, Mormon women must mourn and then wander and find all the forgotten portions of our history and the lost promises and hopes and expectations and bring them back together again. By the power of the love of God, we must seek to revitalize what is dead. This task is not easy, since women are not connected directly to the church’s power structure. This is a great frustration. Though women can gather together and speak and feel and know, they cannot [p.219] directly bring about change, and many are left wondering what we can do.
Even if we agree that women should have the priesthood, why should we waste our time worrying about it, since there is nothing we can do?
On the contrary there is something we can do. We can first of all change the way we see ourselves. If women and men see themselves as members of Christ’s body, endowed with priesthood (even though the priesthood of women is not generally acknowledged and even though their priesthood is not given scope in the ecclesiastical institution), this will change how we view ourselves and how we act. Even unendowed women and men, when they see what God has promised by way of the Holy Ghost, experience a change in themselves.
Second, we can act together and independently as men and women. We can teach, share ideas, draw upon each other’s gifts of knowledge and discernment. Women can approach God as priestesses and act as instruments of God rather than seeing themselves as appendages to the church or their husbands.
Third, we can have courage to face opposition and adversity without rancor. We can refuse to give up or give in. This may seem a small thing. But it is crucial. People in and out of the church long believed that blacks would not get the priesthood, but God opened the way for them. We must not despair, although we get discouraged. We must continue to hope and pray for guidance and look at what has been promised us and when and by whom. We can reach out with our hearts and see in our minds a church with a truly lay priesthood, with privileges and blessings available to all. We can envision a community of Saints, where both women and men hold priesthood office and have equal voice in governing the church. We can see a parliament of prophets and prophetesses, where member-representatives of local congregations meet with general authorities to work out the policies and practices of a church governed by spiritual gifts and characterized by community and consent.
Moses said, “Would that all God’s people were prophets.” This is our hope: Would that we as Mormons held and magnified the fullness of the priesthood. Would that we were a kingdom of priests and priestesses and of prophets and prophetesses, a kingdom where equality of dignity and value was the rule, where we esteemed our sisters and brothers as the very image of God, where we accepted the divine union of female and male as our true priesthood.
[p.220] Without a proper apportionment of the spiritual contributions of both male and female, of both inner and outer aspects of priesthood, there can be no birth, no rebirth, no inner life, no continuing contact with God, no significant revelation, no balanced manifestation of spiritual gifts, no mature counsel, no reliable effort to bring good out of chaos, no attempt to hold all things in common. In short there can be no City and Kingdom of God, here or hereafter. It is into the seamless cup of balanced and spiritually regenerated union that God, male and female, have promised to pour the fullness of the priesthood, which is the power of an endless life. [p.221]