There is a lot that could be said about Michael Otterson’s recent open letter. I think it does a lot to heal the immense pain and anger that many people—especially those who do not support Ordain Women–have felt in recent weeks as a result of how Church PR has (mis)handled Ordain Women. So thank you, Brother Otterson. There are a few places where I think it falls short of the mark, however; this post pushes back at just one statement:
(First, my standard disclaimer: I do not support Ordain Women. You can listen to me natter on at length about that here.)
Brother Otterson writes, “I suppose we do not know all the reasons why Christ did not ordain women as apostles, either in the New Testament or the Book of Mormon, or when the Church was restored in modern times. We only know that he did not, that his leaders today regard this as a doctrinal issue that cannot be compromised.”
This approach is not, in my opinion, a good way for Mormons to argue against ordaining women for the following reasons:
- It assumes that the practice during Jesus’ mortal ministry and what was done in the early days of the Restoration are the sole determinants of modern LDS practice. But that is not true in a church that believes in continuing revelation. We could point to all sorts of issues where the practice of the modern church differs from that of Jesus’ mortal ministry or Joseph Smith’s time.
- Joseph Smith taught that women were organized as “kingdoms of priests” during Paul’s day. I suppose that could have been an innovation in Paul’s day, but it just as easily could have originated in Jesus’ day. So it seems excessively speculative for Mormons to argue that “Christ did not ordain women,” given this teaching from Joseph Smith, especially since he announced an intention to create the same organization in his day.
- Speaking specifically of women’s issues, the modern LDS church does all sorts of things that we have no evidence for from Jesus’ day, such as sending out female missionaries or authorizing women to teach in church, lead organizations, participate in the endowment, and pray publicly. If our sole standard is what we have evidence for Jesus doing, then we shouldn’t be permitting women to do any of these things.
- Jesus did not ordain anyone who wasn’t an adult, but we ordain twelve-year-old boys. Jesus didn’t ordain anyone who was well-educated, but we do. Jesus didn’t ordain anyone of Asian ancestry, but we do. Jesus almost certainly didn’t ordain anyone with decent teeth, good hygiene, who was over 5-5, or who didn’t keep kosher, but we do. I’m being a little flippant here, but it is not clear to me why we would feel free to depart from his precedent on these factors, but not on gender. (The determination of which factors do or do not limit ordination is obviously the realm of modern revelation and not to be found anywhere within the text itself.)
- It is not clear whether Jesus’ (apparent) lack of female ordinations represent an eternal principle or cultural expediency or temporary policy. Given (1) Joseph Smith’s statements about kingdoms of female priests, (2) Elder Oaks’ recent statement about women officiating in priesthood ordinances in the temple and using priesthood power and authority outside of the temple, (3) that women in biblical times were prophetesses (and perhaps apostles and deacons, but that is debatable), and (4) the revealed expansion of priesthood ordination to men of African descent, I think it is excessively speculative to conclude that Jesus’ non-ordination represents an eternal principle.
- The statement “a doctrinal issue that cannot be compromised” is ambiguous and, therefore, problematic. I think what he meant to say is that Church leaders do not feel free to change the current policy based on their own beliefs or the desires of others. (This is a perfectly reasonable statement.) But his words could also be interpreted to mean that the ban on ordaining woman cannot ever change, which is not correct per President Hinckley (see below).
So I don’t think arguing against women’s ordination based on Jesus’ mortal ministry, or his New World ministry, or the first days of the Restoration, is the best argument. In fact, in addressing these issues, church leaders have taken a very different—and, to my mind, a far more satisfying—approach. Elder Oaks has taught that “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.” In other words, it would take a revelation in order to give priesthood keys/offices to women. (Elder Oaks also, I think, did important work on expanding the view of most church members to consider the idea that women do hold and exercise priesthood power and authority. His teachings have already resulted in an enormous shift in how the relationship of women to the priesthood is taught.) Similarly, President Hinckley was asked, “Is it possible that the rules [on female ordination] could change in the future as the rules are on Blacks?” He responded, “He could change them yes. If He were to change them that’s the only way it would happen.” In other words, Jesus’ practice or the practice in Joseph Smith’s day isn’t the point; the point is that a change to current practice is entirely possible—despite what did or did not happen in Jesus’ time–and would only happen based on revelation.