not in Primary anymore

if female ordination is the answer, what was the question?


By Asriel


I recently read Catherine Worthington’s guest post at The Exponent, and felt like I should add my voice to the conversation about female ordination. As the Mormon feminist pro-ordination movement has gained momentum, I’ve found myself feeling neutral towards it, at best; mostly, I disagree. Granted, I definitely support everyone speaking up about it, whether I agree with them or not. I’ve even shared the link with friends and family members, encouraging them to give it some thought. My reasons for not supporting the recent movement for female ordination are similar to Worthington’s. I’ll give a disclaimer regarding my personal investment in the outcome of the pro-ordination movement: I’m not a woman. I’m also not committed to (or planning on) remaining Mormon for the rest of my life, so the outcome may never affect me very personally. I hope you’ll still take my ideas into consideration, but I can understand if you feel like my relationship with Mormonism disqualifies me from making the kind of commentary I’m about to engage in.

I consider myself a feminist. So, why don’t I support recent efforts toward female ordination in the LDS church? I’m going to borrow heavily from Worthington because she hit the nail on the head in some important ways. At the end of the day, ordination is not a right that anyone is entitled to. Equality under the law is a right; equality under church policy, practice, or doctrine is not. I personally believe that the LDS church does not treat men and women equally, but I’ll add two footnotes to that: One, my diagnosis is based on secular standards of equality. Two, I can’t confirm that the secular standards of equality that I grew up with and believe in are the same standards that God uses. The pro-ordination movement follows the argument that (a) the current church practice of ordaining only males is not egalitarian by secular standards, and that (b) the church should ordain women. The assumption there is that the church’s practices should be influenced by secular standards. I’m not saying that some of the church’s practices don’t correlate with secular principles, but I don’t have much evidence that they have an imperative to do so (in fact, the scripture that comes to mind seems to suggest the opposite). The All are Alike Unto God petition movement has adopted 2 Nephi 26:33 as a potential insight into God’s standards of equality (and I’m sure other scripture passages support their conclusion). Fundamentalist LDS polygamist groups have adopted statements by Mormon prophets and scripture passages as evidence that God’s people should practice the eternal principle of plural marriage. Are they both right? Are they both wrong? Is one right and the other wrong? With personal revelation, each individual might find out for herself or himself. But as for what practices the Mormon church establishment adopts/endorses/teaches? That depends on what the prophets and apostles receive, or believe to receive, or claim to receive, from God. These two non-hierarchical insurrections within Mormonism are examples of individuals or groups either believing that they know God’s ways/will better than the prophets and apostles do (or perhaps just before they do), or just wanting their well-thought, prayerfully-considered ideas to be adopted by the church establishment.

Pro-ordination statements that simply encourage the church establishment’s leaders to consider changing the status quo are hugely different from pro-ordination statements that call for the ordination of women outright or assert that female ordination is the only acceptable outcome. I don’t really have a problem with the former. Some personal experiences may help illustrate my feelings about the contrast between asking the establishment to prayerfully review the current practice and calling for the establishment to change. When I served a two-year LDS mission, I became very uncomfortable with the prevalence of confirmation bias in the church. Missionaries ask investigators to pray about the truthfulness of the message in order to seek knowledge from God. That part is pretty straightforward. However, because missionaries often already knew the truthfulness of the restoration of the gospel for themselves, sometimes they weren’t completely open to the variety of answers that people received. Some people prayed and got the answer that the church was not true, and others felt they received an answer that the church was good and perhaps even true, but there was no need for them to change from their own religion (and I’m sure there are other answers people have received). However, to someone who already knows that the Mormon church is God’s true church and that God wants everyone to join it, it doesn’t make sense that God would lead someone away from the Mormon church, and many missionaries treated investigators’ answers as invalid. As a result, missionaries often encouraged investigators to pray until they got a confirmation of the truthfulness of the restored gospel. To me, that was a completely different prospect than asking God for a confirmation if the restored gospel was true. I don’t think we should claim to know the answers to our (or anyone else’s) prayers before we have received that answer.

Personally, the concept of an omnipotent God has always been difficult for me to wrap my head around, but what bothered me more than the logical stumbling blocks were the ethical stumbling blocks. If God had the ability to end suffering, why would God choose not to do that? By any standard I was familiar with and held myself to, if I had the ability to alleviate someone’s suffering and I didn’t, then I would consider myself partly responsible for that suffering. In many courts of law, God would be considered an accessory or maybe even an accomplice to many crimes. It doesn’t make sense to me to believe in a criminal or malicious loving God. Eventually, I resolved that perhaps God has reasons I can’t understand, or maybe God is even bound by eternal principles that I don’t know. I totally agree that by any standard I’m familiar with, the church falls short on gender issues. But I can’t be sure that God wants the church to follow those standards, especially considering there are other secular standards God doesn’t seem to follow.

I can’t say whether all pro-ordination Mormon feminists are adopting one stance or the other, but I do feel as though the general movement performs a bit of a bait-and-switch in order to dodge criticism. I felt that something similar happened during the weeks leading up to Wear Pants to Church Day, as well. For instance, the way I understood the event (which, granted, could have been misguided), the purpose was for Mormons to attend in visible solidarity with other Mormons who recognized troubling gender issues in the LDS church. There were many critics, but what I found the most odd were some of the responses to those critics. Some critiques were of the statement of the event, either disagreeing with the statement or claiming that the nature of the statement made church an inappropriate place to make the statement. Those critics often received the response that there was no statement being made, but that people just wanted to wear pants to church. That answer did not sit well with me; I felt very strongly that the purpose of the solidarity was to make a statement acknowledging troubling gender issues in the Mormon church (although maybe the it’s-just-pants response only emerged because of some uninformed critiques regarding what types of clothing are and aren’t appropriate for women to wear). The parallel I see between this and the pro-ordination Mormon feminist efforts recently is that it seems that pro-ordination Mormon feminists have already determined what is right and acceptable for the Mormon church to do—ordain women—but are at times presenting their case and responding to critics as though they are doing nothing more than asking for the prophets and apostles to consider a change, and to take their questions to the Lord in prayer. Is this a big problem? I don’t know. I recognize that in critiquing a movement in which there is not perfect consensus, I may just be blending perspectives of individuals in a way that seems to highlight what I would consider a contradiction in the movement. I do think that pro-ordination feminists of all persuasions should be speaking up, but I also want to add my voice that I don’t support a pro-ordination movement that doesn’t acknowledge that God may have standards that are incompatible with the standards that seem just/right/ethical to us, and that at the end of the day, the prophet’s and apostle’s answer is the church establishment’s answer (not that I’m saying that individual members must agree with the church establishment), whether it makes sense to us or not.

9 Responses to “if female ordination is the answer, what was the question?”

  1. Kate Kelly

    First, let me say that equality is not only important for women or active Mormons. So, to me, it does not affect your argument if you’re a man and a soon-to-be-on-the-outside Mormon. Equality is something that has an effect on our entire community, and the ordination of women will have a positive effect on our society as a whole.

    I say that so that you know that my critique has nothing to do with the fact of your male jackmormon status, but has everything to do with your unwillingness to go beyond merely stating your status, and taking the step to truly acknowledge and analyze your own privilege/ coupled with an incorrect interpretation of our “argument.”

    The pro-ordination movement follows the argument that (a) the current church practice of ordaining only males is not egalitarian by *eternal standards* we have been taught by the church we love and by Heavenly Parents who love us, and that (b) the church should ordain women.

    You make no effort to back up or explain your claim (borrowed, I assume as you note, from Worthington’s piece) that male only PH is “not egalitarian by secular standards.” Nowhere on the OW website, nor in any of the posts written by OW leaders do we make this claim. We repeatedly emphasize that we are women of faith, and that our efforts to advocate for the ordination are based on what we experience, feel and know on a spiritual level as daughters of God.

    As a white, male, Mormon who has the luxury of having the Priesthood (and/or rejecting its exercise when/if it becomes tiresome or inconvenient for you to so &/or you move on) I think it is very easy to claim that OW does not “acknowledge that God may have standards that are incompatible with the standards that seem just/right/ethical to” OW– in regards to FEMALE ordination. But, would you feel so comfortable saying that in 1977 when prominent leaders of the church were making public statements that black members of the church would *never* get the priesthood … what would have been the appropriate response of a member deeply troubled by this policy and sincerely wanted to see it change with all their heart?

    -Ok, we accept that this priesthood ban will never change. We accept that the answer is that God just thinks black men are less than white men.

    -We request that you prayerfully consider this change (again)

    -We unequivocally reject racism and call on the brethren to reverse this policy

    I fear your privilege makes it all too easy for you to dismiss sexism as something altogether different and less abhorrent than racism. Or, maybe I’m wrong. Maybe you would answer the same callous way to black men who were denied the priesthood: Sorry black brothers, you have to be willing to accept that God thinks black men are less than white men like me, otherwise you are just stubborn and relying on secular rights that are not applicable here at church.

    • Asriel

      I presented the case of God’s seeming criminality in terms of secular standards, but I could also say that God is a criminal and unloving according to eternal standards that I feel that I have learned as a Mormon. I would answer callously that God’s ways are higher than secular standards and/or my or anyone’s interpretation of eternal standards. I could draw troubling conclusions from God’s lack of divine intervention when it seems like the only ethical thing to do would be to intervene; I could say that God is not loving, that God is indifferent, that God is malicious, etc.

      So, yes I have to admit that had Kimball’s answer been that black men not receive the priesthood, it only makes sense for me to stand by that as the church establishment’s official policy. Although, I think to conclude that because a group does not have the priesthood, God thinks they are less is just one way to interpret that, and could be as inaccurate as concluding that God is malicious just because we don’t understand the patterns of divine intervention and lack of divine intervention.

  2. gwendolynivie

    I think Kate’s response is the well reasoned argument that I wish I could make. But I can’t help but add a few things. I believe you are making an impossible request of the OW movement. The OW leaders have a specific “manifesto,” but the actual people who are part of the movement are all going to be there for their own reasons. To say that they each need to adhere strictly to the manifesto is impossible and also unfortunate. I want to hear the honest reasons why all of these women feel like they should push the church to think about this issue. They are each coming at this issue from a different set of experiences. Just because they don’t follow your believed “ideal” way to get there, does not mean they shouldn’t be allowed to have a voice in the movement.

    The other assumption you are making is that you think that the leaders of the church are currently receiving direct revelation from God that women should NOT be ordained, that God’s equality is not man’s equality, and these women need to get over it. But I do not think that is necessarily what is going on, especially if you understand historical Mormon doctrine and experience. Blacks and the priesthood is a great example of this, and the way the church has changed how it understands its own history on that topic points to a theology that absolutely understands itself through “secular pressure.” But there are dozens of these examples. Birth control, oral sex, polygamy (suspended b/c of secular pressure), Native Americans as literal descendants of Israelites, not to mention all of the changes in the temple ceremony to make the entire thing more palatable to our modern, secular selves. The church and its leaders have historically taken into account the changing society it exists within, so asking for an equality based on a feminism that originates outside of Mormonism is neither a new concept nor an foregone impossibility.

    An outsider would probably look at this whole movement and proclaim that it is in fact a new feminism, a Mormon feminism, that defines itself both through Mormon theology and feminist ideology combined. It isn’t some outside force demanding that Mormonism change because that is the way the world must be. It is Mormons demanding Mormonism change! And that makes all the difference.

  3. Anamorph

    I applaud those you who challenge what you hear even though i disagree. I am from the Eastern U.S. and I do believe in the curse of cain, am apathetic about polygamy and will always oppose same sex marriage. I do not think that makes me a racist a sexist or a hater of homosexuals.

    Just as you claim that you can put pressure from the inside me and my ultraconservative pals can as well. Too bad the church is true and the leaders from your local bishopric to the president of the church do not care about your opinions.

    • Anamorph

      about ‘our’ opinions sorry. Church leaders do not care about the opinions of the members they can never satisfy everyone.

  4. Thomas

    I’ve thought about this because I think it deserves serious thought. This is what I ended up with. Jesus didn’t ever preach to the gentiles. Peter later did. It’s not about racism, it’s about what the people are ready for. There’s a lot of history behind african-american ordination. The change wasn’t made because the members thought it should be, it was revelation, just like the change from polygamy and ending blood sacrifice. This church is true, and from my experience any disagreements about it’s doctrines come from lack of perspective. They all fall in line with what Jesus taught, even if we don’t understand them at first.


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