This post is true to its title. It is written by a holder of the priesthood, “the power of God delegated to man to act for the salvation of the human family”, as Elder Oaks put it in last conference. It is also written as a reflection of my mental roaming without any defined purpose or direction as I read, listened to, and interviewed others about women and the priesthood over the past two weeks in preparation for a talk I gave in church. During my roaming I have made some inferences along the way. The Church’s way forward is clearer in my mind, but I am not so confident as to say that I know the plan.
What is the Cause of This?
I was asked to speak on my favorite conference talk in church a couple weeks back as we are new to our ward. The talk that stood out to me more than any other and that was The Keys and Authority of the Priesthood by Elder Oaks. I initially thought “women and the priesthood is much too sensitive a topic to cover in Sacrament Meeting.” After a couple of days I could not let go of the desire to speak on women and the priesthood. This talk, above all others, was a current response to a current question. A modern-day Q&A with those we sustain as prophets, seers, and revelators. I also realized that I personally dislike the unspoken oppression to not speak about difficult topics in church. I dislike the keep-it-to-yourself culture that we bring to our chapels. If it is a problem for someone, most likely it is a problem for many someones. Let’s talk about it! There is no healing or understanding if we stay silent. In the end “truth will prevail” right? Do we really believe that?
Ordain Women from my Humble (privileged-white-male) Vantage Point
The Ordain Women’s Priesthood Demonstration WAS a Protest
There is a strong desire for supporters to distance the Ordain Women (OW) event at the Priesthood session of General Conference from the word “protest”. It is an awkward situation when the OW supporter appears forced to say something like “it was not a protest” then go on to explain what took place as if it did not meet the definition of a protest. What occurred appears to be absolutely a protest, however, I don’t mean that in a negative way. I simply mean that the word represents what happened, “an event at which people gather together to show strong disapproval about something” (http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/protest). I think I see the goal of distancing themselves from the word as an attempt to distance themselves from the average connotation of what a protester is at General Conference. Your standard protester at conference is someone that is usually very against the whole concept of the Church. Regardless, I think it is silly semantics. OW organized a demonstration (a form of protest).
Why Ordain Women is Healthy for the Church
I personally think the OW’s organization is healthy for the church. Here are a few reasons:
- It brings to the forefront an issue that is causing pain and disaffection of some of its members.
- It allows the institution of the church to assess and take steps towards the inclusion of women.
- It shows that members are not bound by ward organization, but will form common-interest groups through social networking and other tools provided by the internet. This is very important in my mind. 10-20 years ago when a person had feedback for the institution as a whole, they were bound to ward or stake leaders. There was no efficient channel for discussing issues at the highest levels, or with those that can make institutional changes. If you had an issue you would just counsel with your local leader and typically it would end there. You would not have the opportunity to meet and socialize with those that are of the same mind. Your concern, if not resolved effectively, would remain with you. Although there may have been hundreds or thousands of members with your same issue, you would have been none the wiser. Today, you can blog about it, tweet about it, post about it, or discuss it over the internet. People will reject or accept your message and you can gain a following or join a group with which you can relate. Once that group is formed you have more power behind your words due to sheer numbers. OW is an example of this. Years ago these women probably would not have reached beyond their Bishops or Stake Presidents. Now they are being subtly referenced to during general conference. The church has no official means by which large groups of members separated by geography can voice their opinion in a united fashion. This, I hope, is the big take away. How do we provide a platform for large portions of our members that are not all in the same geographical location? I hope the church moves in a direction to accommodate.
Why Ordain Women is Painful for the Church
The actions of OW have caused some pain, which is inevitable.
- The media as a whole has been very supportive to their cause and I believe demeaning to the Church. In general the media outlets see the Church as blatantly chauvinistic and archaic and usually call it as such. OW, due to the amount of coverage they are getting, seems like the voice of women in the church to outsiders. This is offensive to those more conservative women in the church. They feel that their beliefs and opinions are lost and that they, simply because they are women, are being counted as supporters of OW.
- When the cause of OW is explained to conservative women, they are often offended because it appears that they are being told that they are naive because they can’t even see that they are being repressed. This was the most offensive thing to my wife. She became very defensive as I explained the cause of OW and asked her questions such as “Do you believe that a woman could perform the calling of Bishop, just as well as a man?” The implication is that if she says yes, than obviously she is in support of OW. If she says no she believes men are innately better, or at least more capable to lead.
- The discussion has been a bed of vitriol. Destructive things have been said, by emotionally charged members that are not constructive or helpful. Too bad. I don’t think our political situation is any help. Everyone is quick to take a side and dig in their heals, which simply creates a polarizing situation where progress is extremely difficult.
The Current State of the Female-Ordination Issue
Not a Small Fringe Group
Female ordination is not just an idea that is held by some small minority group. According to the findings of a Pew research study, more than 10% of Mormons believe that “women should be ordained to the priesthood of their church.” To me this represents a much larger group than expected, based on the rumblings heard in the hallways of the Church. A common misconception is that only those members that “like” the Ordain Women Facebook Group or go to the demonstrations are the supporters of female ordination. Ordain Women is a single entity/group that has its own beliefs, actions, and goals, thus Ordain Women does not equal all supporters of female ordination. Some supporters of female ordination don’t support the actions of Ordain Women (OW) and are, as a result, not members of the OW movement.
One-in-ten Mormons (11%) believe that women should be ordained to the priesthood of their church, whereas 87% think the priesthood should be open only to males. Large majorities of both men and women express this view, but Mormon women are somewhat more likely than Mormon men to say the priesthood should be open only to males (90% vs. 84%). – http://www.pewforum.org/2012/01/12/mormons-in-america-family-life/
Not Speaking the Same Language
One of the core issues in the dialogue is that when we say “equal” as a member of the Church we don’t mean the same thing as when speaking as an egalitarian-thinking American. I believe that most members use the term “equal” to mean equal in value. The quote that follows is part of a talk given by Neylan McBaine, the founder of The Mormon Women Project. She is a phenomenal speaker, writer, and thinker. Of all the voices that I have heard on the matter her voice is one of reason, honesty, and respect. She is forthright in saying the church absolutely discriminates and we, as members, should not deny this.
Is there gender discrimination in the Church? If discrimination means separation according to gender, yes. If it means delineation of opportunities based solely on gender, yes. Many argue that different opportunities based on gender is unfair, adverse, and/or abusive by definition. The Church does not satisfy secular gender-related egalitarian ideals, period; and our institutional behavior fits that definition of gender discrimination in several inescapable ways. We shrink away from accurately representing how we work, thinking it condemns us as a church. And in the eyes of the world it might. But the Church does not, and should not, operate according to secular concepts of power, status, etc.; and if we attempt to justify ourselves in this paradigm we will not only fail, but betray our own ideals. …Thus, when we talk about our ministerial structure to the outside world, we are starting from very different foundational understandings of what ecclesiastical ministry means. -Neylan McBaine, http://www.fairmormon.org/perspectives/fair-conferences/2012-fair-conference/2012-to-do-the-business-of-the-church-a-cooperative-paradigm
The 3 Schools of Thought Relating to the Priesthood
With regards to female ordination we often paint the picture black or white. Either you are for it or against it. Not surprisingly there is a third direction that has been overshadowed by the shouting and entrenchment of those on polar-opposite sides of the discussion. I see the discussion a lot like the politics of today, where there is a silent majority who does not get a lot of press or attention. Regardless, I believe each school of thought has a certain type of logic or rationale. None of the schools of thought are completely irrational. I think we have a duty as members to understand one another.
- (Christian) Egalitarianism
- Main Concept – This view does not just apply to gender, but to religion, skin color and any other differences between individuals. It does not imply that all have equal skills, abilities, interests, or physiological or genetic traits. Christian egalitarianism holds that all people are equal before God and in Christ; have equal responsibility to use their gifts and obey their calling to the glory of God; and are called to roles and ministries without regard to class, gender, or race.
- Application – The female-ordination question is one of capability. Women are capable. Why limit God to a pool of 50% of his children when calling someone to a position?
- Supporters – Without being polarizing, LDS Liberals.
- Main Concept – …men and women have different but complementary roles and responsibilities in marriage, family life, religious leadership, and elsewhere… One of its precepts is that while women may assist in the decision making process, the ultimate authority for the decision is the purview of the male in marriage, courtship, and in the polity of churches subscribing to this view.
- Application – The Lord is at the helm of this church and they are happy and willing to support God’s kingdom on earth. Men and women have the same intrinsic value, but play different roles. This is the way things are, from the pre-mortal existence and throughout eternity.
- Supporters – Without being polarizing, LDS Conservatives.
- Resources – It is hard to do this school of thought justice in the small section below. If you are interested in learning more please read A Companion Meet for Male Priesthood by Fiona Givens and To Do the Business of the Church: A Cooperative Paradigm for Examining Gendered Participation Within Church Organizational Structure by Neylan McBaine.
- Main Concept – Working in an eternal paradigm in which roles and responsibilities are divided up cooperatively rather than hierarchically. “And again, the offices of teacher and deacon are necessary appendages belonging to the lesser priesthood.” (84: 29-30; see also 107: 5) Pay attention to that word “appendages.” An appendage is “a thing that is added or attached to something larger or more important.” Are not the offices of elder or bishop or teacher or deacon appendages to the priesthood, and not the priesthood itself? Are these so different from the female organizations, which we routinely call “auxiliaries”?
- Application – The idea here is that while men and women’s organizations are different, they should cooperate equally in the work of God. Due to a patriarchal society and tradition, women have been hampered in claiming their proper role in the church. The women’s organizations of the church should relate to the men’s organizations much as an ideal wife and husband would. I believe in the past the relationship has been more master-servant than it should have been. So when you read or listen to someone that is of the cooperative school of thought, they are supportive of liberating women to truly act with the authority they have been given to make changes that will result in greater roles and liberties of women in the church (see recent progress below). The cooperative vision rejects the divide between men and women that complementarians propose, but also rejects saying the roles of men and women are the exact same as proposed by egalitarians. The role of the Relief Society and the Priesthood are unique, but there is a service and responsibility overlap.
- Supporters – Without being polarizing, LDS Moderates (I personally believe the majority).
Recent Church Progress with Female Inclusion
- Missionary Age lowered (tripled the amount of sisters)
- Sister training leader
- Women praying during General Conference
- Priesthood session broadcast to all members
- General Women’s meetings twice a year
- Church handbook of instruction opening the PEC meeting to Relief Society President
A Direct and “Revelatory” Statement by Elder Oaks
I must say that above all I am grateful for Elder Oaks address. It takes profound courage to take on a subject that is so sensitive and polarizing. One of the main roles of the leadership in this church is to provide direction amidst confusion. While Elder Oaks did not answer all of the questions, he did add clarity. I personally feel for the Brethren, for when they speak someone will rejoice while another will mourn. I believe the following paragraph is the crux of his talk with regards to female ordination. The implications are direct, but run counter to our general conception of revelation. I call this statement “revelatory”, because I think it shows how the Brethren make decisions in the vast majority of situations, not in the sense that this statement is a revelation itself.
The divine nature of the limitations put upon the exercise of priesthood keys explains an essential contrast between decisions on matters of Church administration and decisions affecting the priesthood. The First Presidency and the Council of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve, who preside over the Church, are empowered to make many decisions affecting Church policies and procedures—matters such as the location of Church buildings and the ages for missionary service. But even though these presiding authorities hold and exercise all of the keys delegated to men in this dispensation, they are not free to alter the divinely decreed pattern that only men will hold offices in the priesthood.
If you take a quick glance at this statement one may take it simply as “while God reveals minor administrative changes in His church, He will not change His mind on only men holding priesthood offices.” If you do a closer reading, this statement seems to reach much further than that. Perhaps I am reading too close…I will let you decide.
The Relationship between God and the Council of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve
It appears to me that Elder Oaks is making a clear delineation of what the Brethren do and what God does. He refers to “Church administration” and “policies and procedures” as the work of the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve. The way he uses the phrase “empowered to make many decisions” makes me believe that God, if not absent from the process, is subtle in his influence. Elder Oaks seems to be saying we work by means of study, council, and prayer, not by means of direct revelation from God on all matters. God has given the Brethren the responsibility of making administrative-only decisions for the church.
God or Man Limited?
“…they [the Brethren] are not free to alter the divinely decreed pattern that only men will hold offices in the priesthood.” This is a heavy statement. Just combine this statement with the phrase from D&C 1:38 “whether by mine own voice or by the voice of my servants, it is the same.” and you get all sorts of conflict/paradox. Questions:
- Is he saying that the Brethren can’t do something against God’s will (if a pattern is God’s will)? This makes sense if he is trying to say that even if we think it is a good idea God can say No.
- Is he saying that the “divinely decreed pattern” is beyond even God’s power to change? This is a harder interpretation that would put a limitation on God rather than on men. The implication is that men holding offices in the priesthood is a design co-eternal with God and therefore unchangeable. A follow-up question to this is what meets the criteria for “divinely decreed pattern”? Blacks holding the priesthood must not have been. The office of a Seventy must not have been. Did Phoebe, a woman referred to in the New Testament, hold a priesthood office?
- Or, is Elder Oaks omitting the unseen exception “unless God reveals it”? The phrase would then become “they are not free to alter the divinely decreed pattern that only men will hold offices in the priesthood, unless God reveals/commands/wills it.” This is one interpretation we must be careful with because words are added. Elder Oaks did not say it. But did he mean it? I don’t know.
Wait…the Missionary Age was Not a Revelation?
This may seem like a huge tangent, but I think that the missionary age decision shows a lot of the “how” of church policy. It is no wonder that in a church that proclaims modern prophets and apostles we are eager to correlate any change in church policy or procedure as the direct will of God manifest through his chosen servants. We often reflect on the Restoration as past tense, Elder Uchtdorf had to remind us that we are still in the Restoration this past conference. The way Elder Oaks referred to the “ages of missionary service” policy change sure makes it appear more mundane than divine. I decided to compare other quotes to see if I was on to something and in the end it appears that way. If you look at the quick write-ups and blurbs on the missionary change you will see highlights such as that seen below from the news conference. This does give the impression that the age change can be directly attributed to God. “God is” doing the “hastening.”
“It [lowering of the missionary age] means that God is hastening His work. And He needs more and more willing and worthy missionaries to spread the light and the truth and the hope and the salvation of the gospel of Jesus Christ to an often dark and fearful world.” —Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles
Another comment you will hear people refer to is again from Elder Holland, “…one miracle at a time.” Many members infer from this that this policy change is an absolute miracle. If you listen or read it in context you will note that he is essentially saying “hold your horses” or “easy”. He was asked the hard question (equality is a tough subject) of why they are not changing the term of service for women to match the two years that men serve. I think clarity is found when listening to the whole press conference and General Conference remarks of President Monson. “Why make this change now?” Elder Holland was asked at one point. His response was telling, “The literal truth is that this work is hastening. We are having requests from around the world for new missions…” This statement seems to put the cause as simply supply and demand. Maybe God did not directly reveal the need to change the age, but just caused the need which in turn caused the Brethren to have to make a change. Definitely a round-about and unorthodox way of looking at how the leadership of the Church makes policy changes…almost boring. If you look at the General Conference remarks of President Monson, it correlates more with what Elder Oaks and Elder Holland seem to be implying, that this is a policy change made thoughtfully and prayerfully, not a direct revelation. He never once refers to the change as originating with God. I guess one could argue that he does not have to. I would argue that it would sure be nice if he did. But maybe that is the point. Revelation or inspiration, in general, comes as a confirmation after you have given it a go, or after you have been searching for answers. You just sort of feel, well that is right.
Elder Ballard for the Conclusion
The last few weeks have allowed me to make some judgements on a few aspects of the female-ordination discussion.
- The Ordain Women group has been healthy overall for the Church, but not without some pain.
- Female ordination is supported by more than seems apparent.
- The options are more varied than just giving women the priesthood or not. A balanced, cooperative approach appears most compelling to me.
- Elder Oaks has given members some direction and some valuable teachings on the priesthood, although his verbiage can be interpreted in more than one way.
- The Brethren appear to work more as responsible stewards than as a Divine speakerphone.
To conclude my meanderings here are a couple quotes by Elder Ballard at Education Week in 2013.
“Why are men ordained to the priesthood offices and not women?” he asked, later explaining, “When all is said and done, the Lord has not revealed why He has organized His Church as He has.” It is when thinking about the things not fully understood that individuals have to rely on faith, Elder Ballard said. – https://www.lds.org/church/news/elder-ballard-speaks-about-the-role-of-women-at-education-week
We just don’t know.