Standing as Witnesses

October 8, 2013 | 30 comments
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Ronan’s post this morning reminded me of something I had written but hadn’t gotten around to posting:

Every week, our young women join together and announce their intention to stand as witnesses of God. I doubt many of them realize that, in the scriptures, women frequently have an important role as witnesses:

–there is no canonized account of a raising from the dead without women present.

–women had an important role in witnessing Jesus’ death (See Mark 15:40–note especially the word “looking.”) and burial.

–women were the first witnesses to the resurrection.

It is easy to imagine an LDS Church where men continued to be the only ones authorized to perform priesthood ordinances, but women were always required to be present to witness those ordinances. Today, one need be a priest or a MP holder in order to witness a baptism (see here), but there is no scriptural warrant for this; in fact, B. H. Roberts said that “We know of nothing in the written word that positively asserts that it is necessary to have witnesses to ordinary baptisms of the living” (cite). What is interesting about the women-as-witnesses proposal is that it is theologically easy–no major doctrinal upheaval needed, no priesthood ordination needed, and traditionalists can assert that the practice is grounded in both scripture and the complementary-but-not-identical nature of men and women. I suspect that not every woman unhappy with current church practice would find this an adequate solution, but many would, I think, find this formal role in priesthood ordinances to be a balm.

30 Responses to Standing as Witnesses

  1. patti on October 8, 2013 at 8:58 am

    You make an excellent case. While do not agree with the OW movement, this is a change I could easily support.

  2. Niklas on October 8, 2013 at 8:59 am

    So, is your suggestion really ‘only women as witnesses’? I think that even ‘men or women as witnesses’ would be a balm for many.

    btw, witnesses for baptism need to be priests or MP holders, a teacher won’t do.

  3. Julie M. Smith on October 8, 2013 at 9:01 am

    Niklas, I fixed that. Thanks for pointing it out.

  4. Ben S on October 8, 2013 at 9:14 am

    That’s an interesting scriptural observation, given that (IIRC) the Torah didn’t allow women as legal witnesses.

  5. Kristine on October 8, 2013 at 9:50 am

    Ben S–I think that’s why it’s a big deal that women were the first witnesses of the resurrection (and probably the reason that the accounts differ in their treatment of such a scandalous turn of events).

  6. Sarah Familia on October 8, 2013 at 10:12 am

    This is a lovely idea, Julie, and a worthy addition to the corpus of “thought experiments” dedicated to working out possible ways to solve the problems of gender inequality in the Church. I support the OW movement not so much because I want the Priesthood but because I think it is so important for us to talk about these issues and come up with creative ways to ameliorate them.

  7. Russell Arben Fox on October 8, 2013 at 10:17 am

    Ditto what Sarah just said. The more possible alternatives we can start actually thinking about, the better. Kudos, Julie (and OW too).

  8. Last Lemming on October 8, 2013 at 10:18 am

    I agree that this should be an easy change. If it were up to me, every temple sealing would be officially witnessed by one woman and one man. Every other ordinance of exaltation uses women in an official capacity, so I think sealing should as well. Julie provides a sound rationale for that participation coming in the form of witnessing.

  9. Old Man on October 8, 2013 at 10:19 am

    Hi Julie,

    It is interesting to note that the first mortal witnesses to the resurrection were women. And I have frequently thought about the complementary nature of the genders and their roles. It seems that women do have a designated and powerfully edifying spiritual role in anything that has to do with life, which we often neglect to note in modern times. Traditionally women were usually the first witnesses of the ordinance of birth, either as the actual mother of the child or as a midwife. Until recent times, men were excluded from the event. And I have often puzzled over the almost universal response of children in sharing both their tragedies and triumphs of their lives with women close to them (mothers, grandmothers, aunts and teachers). My own son has shared items from his own life with the wonderful widow that we hometeach together that he had not shared previous to the lesson with me. Even an old goat like myself can barely contain myself long enough to drive home and share positive or even negative news with my wife and companion. Women make life and share in it. And I am talking about more than childbirth. It is as if her knowing the bad events calms my inner turmoil in a manner that is only akin to prayer. Good women center and nurture the souls of God’s mortal children in ways I can’t quite put into words. Even fatherhood is best described as the power of motherhood that a woman shares with her husband.

    Men, through their priesthood duties formally perform/witness those things necessary for covenant-making. They bind families together, preserving life and leading to eternal life. We are the ones upon whom the majority of the responsibility for missionary work rests. We lead God’s children, in those simple ways, to God.

    So I am not surprised to read scriptural accounts of women welcoming the dead back to mortality, or the sacred account of the women being the first mortal witnesses of the resurrection of the Lord. I was not surpirised that faithful LDS women blessed, nurtured and even exercised a healing power until 80 years or so ago. It just makes sense and seems so fundamental to what I perceive the sacred stewardship of women to be.

    I know that my analogy does not work for many. And I really wish I had the words to fully express my feelings about women. And I really wish that we as a people could find ways of quietly celebrating that sacred role.

    Nice post…

  10. Amira on October 8, 2013 at 10:49 am

    There is so much room for change within the current structure of the church. This is just one of many things we could do (things that don’t need to overhaul the entire system) that would help resolve my many concerns about women’s interaction with the church.

    Or I should just also ditto Sarah.

  11. Grant on October 8, 2013 at 10:52 am

    And would you go so far as to have a woman (the Relief Society President?) sitting on the stand during Sacrament Meetings to verify the accuracy of the sacrament prayers?

    A nice thing about the OP is that it provides for women having something akin to a supervisory role, while still maintaining gendered differences. For example, a few years ago I was presiding at a baptismal service in which a new member was baptizing his wife. Immediately after the ordinance, before the curtains were closed, a sister in my ward came to me and said, “I think that he did things backwards,” that is, he had raised his left hand to the square and had his wife hold on to his right arm as she went under the water. (The official witnesses had been concentrating on the proper words being said, not the right/left orientation of the ordinance.) I thought about it for a second, realized that she was right, and asked him to perform the baptism again. I didn’t feel like my priesthood authority was compromised in any way by having a non-priesthood holder point out the mistake. We all wanted to make sure the baptism was done right.

  12. Amy T on October 8, 2013 at 10:59 am

    The Church-produced movie How Rare a Possession came out when I was a teenager. It tells the stories of Parley P. Pratt and Vincenzo di Francesca and their connections to the Book of Mormon. Vincenzo di Francesca spent years trying to get baptized and kept getting interrupted by circumstances like international wars. Finally in 1951 the president of the Swiss-Austrian Mission Samuel E. Bringhurst and his wife were able to travel to Sicily and President Bringhurst baptized di Francesca.

    I still remember my puzzled reaction to the movie, as it showed Sister Bringhurst standing as the only witness to the baptism. It did not fit in with any of the simple systems I’d been taught about priesthood responsibility for witnessing ordinances.

    So would you say, Old Man, that the baptism violated the eternal order of heaven because the sole witness was Lenora Bringhurst? Was the baptism invalid? If so, why is it recorded in FamilySearch Family Tree as an official ordinance?

    (Note that I do not support OW. I am puzzling, though, over the public reaction to the movement. I don’t think things are as simple as we’d like them to be, and I suspect that people tend to “know” a lot of minutiae about the order of heaven that may or may not be actually true.)

  13. Nate W. on October 8, 2013 at 2:01 pm

    Old Man @ 9:

    I know that my analogy does not work for many. And I really wish I had the words to fully express my feelings about women. And I really wish that we as a people could find ways of quietly celebrating that sacred role.

    That’s an interesting choice of words…

  14. Dave K on October 8, 2013 at 3:35 pm

    This is a lovely thought. Thank you Julie. I agree that female witnesses would be a simple policy to implement and that there is no scriptural prohibition on women serving as witnesses. In fact, just the opposite, as you point out.

    I would add for support to this policy change the fact that women already serve as witnesses in the endownment. So why can’t they also be witnesses for a baptism (or at least part of a “witness couple” if they need to be attached to a man)? I would also cite this fact as a reason to not exclude men as witnesses. As shown by the endownment, there is no need to exclude one in order to include the other.

    Despite my agreement with the overall idea, there could be some complications that should be considered. Whenever a line is moved, there is a need to explain why it is not moved farther. I would expect the church to explain the doctrine behind witnesses and why things are as they are (or as they are changed to be). If the church just makes the change without giving a reason, all kinds of folklore would inevitably be invented by members. After all, nature isn’t the only thing that hates a vaccuum.

    So on with the questions. In this case, if women are allowed to be witnesses for baptisms in chapels, are they also allowed to be witnesses for proxy baptisms in the temple? How about witnesses for temple sealings? And if that is allowed, can they also serve as recorders for proxy baptisms? Where do we draw the new line and why?

    Also, what exactly is the doctrine behind witnesses? Are they just there to “see”? Witnesses’ names are not recorded for any ordinance I know, so what really is the point? A witness who never testifies is not really a witness (at least in the eyes of the law). Perhaps we just assume that they will be called to testify sometime in the next life? But if that’s the case, why are we so careful to record when an ordinance is performed, but not to record who performed and witnessed it?

    Also, to what degree are witnesses responsible to ensure that an ordiance is performed properly. The bishop is responsible to make sure a sacrament prayer is said correctly. Baptism witnesses are there to make sure the person is completely immersed. I’ve heard conflicting counsel as to whether baptism witnesses are also responsible to make sure the wording is correct. For other ordiances, however, witnesses do not perform a check for accuracy – e.g., sealing witnesses and endownment witness couples. To the degree that women will serve as a check for the accuracy of priesthood ordinances, do they need priesthood authority to do that? Obviously women can read/memorize words as well as men, but would we feel the same if a non-member checked the accuracy of the sacrament prayers? Is no authority needed to be a witness? If so, what authority and why?

    Also, why do we have witnesses for some ordiances but not all? Should we create a new witness requirement (or at least allowance) for confirmations, baby blessings, priesthood ordinations, etc.? If the purpose of this policy change is to better include women, why not expand the idea of witnesses beyond the current bounds? And again, what is the doctrine for the current bounds?

    Finally, would this policy change really be enough or would it just lead to more questions? Will women find real value in serving as witnesses for their child’s baptism? Or will that just reinforce the reality that they still can’t perform the ordinance itself?

  15. Julie M. Smith on October 8, 2013 at 3:41 pm

    Dave K, those are all excellent questions!

  16. Dave K on October 8, 2013 at 3:45 pm

    Hard to imagine, but I had one more thought beyond my long comment above. As a practical matter, it would really help things if women could serve as witnesses for proxy baptisms. Currently, when wards have youth temple trips, they are required to provide seven Elders and one sister. Inevitably, this leads to many of the same men being called on time and time again. And it leads to sisters being left out that may really benefit from the experience; for example, if they have daughters on the trip.

    Perhaps this is not a big deal in Utah, but where I live it is. Our temple is 2.5 hours away and youth trips take up the majority of a Saturday. It’s a sacrifice (though worth it), but often the sacrifice is made by members of the bishopric or other men who already give so much of their time. And it’s not just the men who sacrifice. Mothers left at home for the whole Saturday could benefit from their husbands being home. Allowing female witnesses would mean more married couples could serve together on youth temple trips. More family time would result – both for those on the trip and those staying at home.

  17. Steve Martin on October 8, 2013 at 4:24 pm

    “In Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female.”

    It’s His Word that counts and He doesn’t care what the genitalia is of the person out of who’s mouth it comes.

  18. Steve on October 8, 2013 at 4:47 pm

    Ah yes, Steve Martin, but apparently the LDS leadership does seem to think that God/Christ cares about the genitalia of the person uttering the sacrament prayer words over the sacrament table or the baptismal ceremony words in the baptismal font. Now, as for the initiatory ceremony in the temple or the spousal blessing as part of the second anointing, gender apparently doesn’t matter.

  19. Steve Martin on October 8, 2013 at 5:27 pm

    Well…they are wrong if they believe it does matter. God’s Word creates faith in those who hear it (really hear it).

    And it is the power of God unto righteousness, for all those who have faith.

  20. Old Man on October 8, 2013 at 8:33 pm

    Nate W. (13):

    Not really. I don’t believe sacred roles and responsibilities need to be turned into a media event.

  21. Doug Hudson on October 9, 2013 at 7:16 am

    Understandably, “separate but equal” has a bad reputation in the United States, but I think in this case it feels right to have two different but complementary systems.

    Both because of the importance of women in Jesus’ ministry, and the idea of eternal gender, I have long felt that there was an imbalance in LDS theology–that a puzzle piece was missing.

    Giving women the same priesthood as men might address the practical imbalance, but theologically, this suggestion of complementary roles seems to fit better.

    I had been thinking in terms of a female priesthood (priestesshood?), but the idea of “witnesses” is even better, as it can be fit into the scriptures much more easily. And it ties it directly to Jesus, suggesting that by giving women this role, he was correcting a flaw in the existing priesthood structure.

  22. Beth on October 9, 2013 at 12:43 pm

    Dave K #14: There is at least one instance in which witnesses are recorded in the US. Two witnesses’ names are required on marriage certificates for temple weddings.
    One of my daughters married outside the temple. I signed the certificate.
    Another daughter married in the temple. I could not sign that certificate.

  23. Dave K on October 9, 2013 at 1:23 pm

    Yes Beth. But my understanding is that those signatures are required by civil law for the civil marriage. There is nothing in the church’s doctrines and policies that currently calls for signatures or any other indication of a witnesses’ identity.

  24. Rachel Whipple on October 9, 2013 at 4:02 pm

    I love this idea, Julie. Thank you for sharing it. I find that my own thoughts about priesthood, authority, custom and gender roles in our church are too turbulent to pin down. It helps to to read calm, reasonable proposals and thought experiments like yours and Rosalynde’s.

  25. Grant on October 10, 2013 at 5:49 am

    Melchizedek priesthood ordination certificates are signed by both the stake president and a stake representative who was there to witness the ordination.

  26. Rosalynde Welch on October 10, 2013 at 11:15 am

    Fascinating idea, Julie!

  27. Darlene on October 11, 2013 at 7:05 pm

    Very interesting points here, but I can cite two instances of the dead arising when no women were specifically recorded as being present: the account in Acts 20:9-12 where Paul brought Eutychus to life, and in 2 Kings 13:20-21 where a man was raised from the dead when his body touched Elisha’s bones. Perhaps women were present in those accounts but it just wasn’t recorded as such.

    However, I do think it is interesting to note that all the accounts of the dead arising before Christ’s death were TEMPORARY risings as those people returned to the grave after a time. Jesus Christ was the first to be resurrected unto Eternal Life which was a PERMANENT resurrection, and women indeed were the first witnesses to this, the greatest of all miracles.

    Perhaps there is a hidden distinction in the priesthood that we’ve just not been able to see.

  28. Ziff on October 11, 2013 at 9:59 pm

    I really like this, Julie.

  29. Julie M. Smith on October 11, 2013 at 10:13 pm

    Darlene, there is debate as to whether Eutychus was actually dead, which is why I was comfortable omitting that account, as I don’t think he was.

    You may have a point on 2 Kings 13:20-21, but the mythic feel to that one makes me OK having it as an exception.

    (I also omit 3 Nephi 19:4 since that isn’t the _account_ of the raising of the dead, but more of a note that it had happened.)

    You are right that other accounts before Jesus have a different nature. I also think it interesting that while it isn’t a raising from the dead per se, the one time when women really are main characters in a Book of Mormon narrative is in a story where people are falling as if dead and Abish and Lamoni’s wife are witnessing what has happened.

  30. Lisa B. on October 13, 2013 at 10:12 pm

    And Abish and Queen Lamoni raise them.

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