Cory Crawford is assistant professor of Biblical Studies in the Department of Classics and World Religions at Ohio University. He completed his AM and PhD in Hebrew Bible in the department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations at Harvard University, and just finished a Volkswagen/Mellon Foundation Fellowship at the University of Tübingen in Germany. His BA was in Linguistics at BYU. His recent article, “The Struggle for Female Authority in Biblical and Mormon Tradition”, is in the Summer 2015 issue of Dialogue.
I am very grateful to BCC for inviting me to reflect on and highlight some of the ideas that surfaced for me when looking at the Bible and women’s authority in an LDS framework.
In deciding to write the article, I hoped to tackle the question in the spirit of the Gospel Topics essays, which are attempts to flesh out among other things the historical context for important contemporary questions, but which have yet to address the problem of female ordination or the deep history of gender relations in the Bible and LDS scripture. Before I began digging into the Biblical text and the substantial world of feminist biblical scholarship, I was rather pessimistic about whether the Bible could contribute much to a discussion of the particularities of LDS priesthood and ordination, since it doesn’t say much about ordination at all, and it doesn’t view priesthood in the same way Mormonism does. The process of looking closely at the biblical evidence and the careful work of modern commentators, not just with regard to specific biblical women but also to the way biblical authors understood and shaped notions and narratives of priesthood, turned me into an optimist. It convinced me that Latter-day Saints have many theological tools at their disposal to explore the possibility of female ordination within a “native” framework in harmony with both early LDS theology and with present concerns.
Priesthood at Risk
In an essay now published in the Mormon Feminism anthology, Kynthia Taylor clearly mapped out the problem with official discourse on priesthood and gender, which she immortalized by the term Chicken Patriarchy. She describes it as the Church’s adherence to two fundamentally contradictory positions: 1) priesthood is essential and the ultimate power in the universe; 2) priesthood isn’t really that important because it amounts to little more than choosing who gets to pray, and so it doesn’t matter so much that women don’t have it and men do. LDS rhetoric hops between these two poles (depending on the audience) in a way that only dilutes the force of priesthood and confuses both its (male) wielders and (female) observers. We tell our new deacons that they can call down angels from heaven, and our beehives that angels aren’t that big a deal anyway.
The driving force behind this polarization is a strong dual commitment to a) an exclusively male priesthood and at the same time b) the notion that men are not hierarchically more important than women. These two are insoluble, and the attempts to smash them together only replicate the theological quandaries. The untenable Hafen/Hudson treatment of Gen 3:16, which I discuss at greater length in the article, is a case in point. Similarly, the recent rhetorical emphasis Church leadership places on receptivity rather than agency in priesthood (see footnotes in my article) results from “Chicken Patriarchy.” What’s important about the priesthood, according to this line of argument, is not who actually turns the keys, but that the doors and windows to blessings get opened (note passive voice). This presents another insoluble dilemma: if it’s not important who turns the keys, then why not women? And if it is, why not say so, and provide evidence and justification?
In my view, this dual discourse risks diluting the power and relevance of priesthood in an LDS context.
Adding to the crisis is a second factor that also became very clear when comparing the struggle for female ordination in non-LDS communities: We have a much bigger problem with priesthood and gender than other Christian denominations. This is because priesthood intrudes into every single relationship, permeates every family in the here and hereafter in a very direct way. We can’t, as did Carol Meyers for ancient Israel, dismiss priesthood because it was basically exclusive of all females and the vast majority of males. Priesthood is so entwined with eternal gender in LDS theology that getting it right is cosmically crucial. When it comes to priesthood and gender, the stakes are much, much higher in the Mormon context.
The fact that we have an expanded notion of priesthood thus creates unique problems (in that every single family is affected by the hierarchy) but also unique solutions. Other theologies understand priesthood as a role more than a power wielded by people holding office. The LDS concept of priesthood as a force wielded not just by priests, but by prophets, apostles, deacons, judges allows the biblical record to testify to female priesthood in ways that might not be as direct in other traditions. It also forces us to reconsider the universal power described in Proverbs as (Lady) Wisdom as exactly equivalent to priesthood in the LDS tradition. In this light, not only do women clearly hold the Priesthood in LDS terms (Junia, Deborah, Phoebe, Hannah, Zipporah, Huldah, etc.), the power itself is gendered in Proverbs as female.
The Hebrew and Greek biblical record is a testament to the repeated extension and denial of (what Latter-day Saints call) priesthood power to women, and the best way to understand this cycle is under the rubric of apostasy. It is most clearly seen in the book of Judges, where women begin the story as among the most powerful figures in Israelite society, ever (especially the prophet Deborah and the priest(?) Jael). They save the entire population not through any stereotypical gender role confined to the home but through public prophecy, military maneuvering, and strategic violence. They operate as agents, as priests and prophets. But as Israel veers toward kingship, female power is systematically stripped away and women are increasingly shunted away from public view. I argue that the book of Judges characterizes this development as part of the decline of Israel, a descent into apostasy, which represents a move away from the will of God. To a lesser extent this pattern can be seen in other contexts where women occupy roles at the highest levels of LDS priesthood offices, including apostle and deacon, which is then contested especially at the end of the biblical period and into the postbiblical.
This is another area in which LDS theology is advantageous. We have so many tools at our disposal that point toward the necessity of expanding the priesthood to include all worthy people. Perhaps the biggest is that we bypass the wrangling over postbiblical tradition, or we can, anyway. Other denominations had to incorporate or transform the 1500 years of male-dominated tradition in a way foreign to LDS thought. Absent the rules created by early individuals and councils that solidified male power, we are free to grapple with the canonical text, which fairly easily submits to a neutralization of what seemed to virtually every generation until now to be a male-dominated hierarchy. It is virtually written out of the LDS constitution.
The Bible also presents a challenge to those who hold up explicit ordination as the singular indication of priesthood precedent. Michael Otterson’s statement that ordination of women requires that the New Testament say Jesus performed it is undercut by the many male figures in scripture whose ordination is taken for granted. And on the other hand, the commission and ordination of the female figures is either ignored or assumed in the negative. The fact of the matter is that the biblical evidence for ordination of any kind outside the rather narrow Levitical lineage is extremely thin. The list of figures assumed by Latter-day Saints to have had priesthood ordination without explicit mention thereof is long, and, more important, presents an uneven gendered application of evidentiary standards: many males traditionally (but not biblically) called prophets are declared in blanket statements to have held priesthood, but women who are explicitly called prophets (Deborah, Huldah, Miriam, etc.) and apostles (Junia) and deacons (Phoebe) are dismissed, as are other women who are clearly apostolic given New Testament criteria for apostleship (especially Mary Magdalene). Women who are characterized as priests (Jael, Hannah, Zipporah) are subjected to the same treatment that ancient scribes applied to the text of 1 Sam: from their vantage women couldn’t hold priesthood, so they clearly minimized Hannah’s priestly role. The bottom line is that, when it comes to ordination as with the other evidence discussed, we find an uneven application of evidentiary standards between men and women in scripture.
The beauty of LDS theology is its flexibility in pursuit of truth, in coming to revelation through study and questioning, in seizing on right scriptural ideas no matter how slightly indicated in the text. For millennia—and right down to Joseph Smith—interpreters have used the briefest allusions, like the author of Hebrews does, to come to new understandings of priesthood, and it is that process that will be exciting to watch unfold in future LDS discourse about women and ordination.