On the Biblical Evidence for the Restoration of Priesthood to Women in the LDS Tradition

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.

Biblical Evidence
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.


  1. For BCC readers who are not subscribers (and if so, why not?) you can get Cory’s marvelous article for free today if you put in the code “EVIDENCE” at checkout. Click here to enjoy.

  2. Excellent — thanks Cory, and thanks Em.

  3. Nice work! I have class in a few minutes but let me pick a bit of nit before I go. In your paper you point out that Lady Wisdom is a “nearly perfect analogue” to the LDS notions of priesthood as you laid them out. If I read you rightly, though, you say nothing about the way LDS priesthood penetrates the affairs of those who have died, and neither does Lady Wisdom. Yet, there is a woman who does do so — the Woman of Endor at the end of First Samuel. Are you saving her for your book? ;) Or do you find no potential there? Although some read her negatively, I personally think she is characterized as a positive and powerful figure — if I may be bold, set parallel to Abraham and Hannah. In fact, JFS only sees the dead and is given to know their state, but she can reliably call them forth to speak on their own. But what say you?

  4. [goes to my mailbox to wait for the summer volume to be delivered]

    I’m a newbie to being interested in this; I attended Bill McGee’s (I think it was him?) presentation at sunstone which was really well done. Which reminds me he said to email him for a copy of his PowerPoint.

    I loved the explanations of the unequal treatment of evidences of ordination in the bible by gender; I had never thought of it that way.

  5. Clark Goble says:

    A few quick thoughts. First it seems in LDS thought we have an ambiguity between the terms “ordain” and “set apart.” People are ordained to priesthood office but set apart for certain callings. Both are tied to keys or permissions to act in certain ways yet we distinguish the two. Likewise I think we have a great deal of ambiguity of what is done and grounded with priesthood from what is priesthood. Elder Oaks talk last year “The Keys and Authority of the Priesthood” was probably the most important development in the evolution of these ideas. Yet it still leaves many issues unsatisfactorily developed. (I don’t know how feminists view that talk although I’d assume it’s problematic not because so many things are still ambiguous but due to issues of power)

    Ultimately it’s not at all clear to me that in functional terms there’s much of a difference between priesthood office and any other calling. We have slightly different language, so we culturally see a difference. Yet in practical grounds it seems a difference without a difference.

    Traditionally going back to Joseph Smith there’s a distinction made between priesthood in more abstract and then any office. What today we call the offices of the priesthood are seen by Joseph as “appendages” to the top office. High Priesthood is what those ordained as High Priests hold. Even in Joseph’s time the terminology leads to all sorts of confusions. D&C 107 revamps the terminology in helpful ways but due to the reworking of older revelations in the switch from Book of Commandments to D&C still makes things confusing.

    It’s into this muddled mess of confusing and sometimes contradictory terminology that we find the Relief Society being formed. However that’s confused due to all the politics over polygamy and Emma Smith. Some think Joseph was making the Relief Society a parallel organization to the Melchizedek Priesthood in a manner akin to how the French rites of adoptive masonry were attached to regular masonry. Feminists often make a lot of the ambiguous phrase about keys being turned over. Although if keys are just permissions I’m not sure even the strongest reading means priesthood office. But again, this is all because everything is in flux and terminology is never worked out in a clear fashion.

    So when we look at Old Testament or even New Testament women in the text, it’s hard to draw many priesthood implications simply because the theology of priesthood seems inherently ambiguous as to the significance of ordain vs. set apart or office vs. calling. This doesn’t just apply to women of course. Mormons have been quite divided over whether Paul was ordained as an Apostle in the sense of priesthood office or set apart as an apostle in the sense of witness and missionary.

  6. Fascinating. I love the questions raised here. I am so thrilled that so many men and women are actively seeking, pondering, and adding to our understanding of this doctrine. Personally, I would love to know more about how the temple and women’s ordination therein, as well as the possibility and significance of various orders of the priesthood (both anciently and restored) fit into this exploration. I think it’s relevant that women in the church, and particularly endowed women, are overwhelmingly not in favor of ecclesiastical ordination. Is there something that we understand through the female ordination and exercise priesthood power within the temple, as well as the multi-layered ritual and teaching we receive there that influences our thinking on the matter? Obviously, I think so. Looking forward to reading more from Mr. Crawford.

  7. Clark Goble- I was thinking the exact same thing the whole time I was reading the article. Its a semantic issue. The meaning of words changes based upon the cultured and context of the instance it is mentioned.

  8. Clark Goble: +1

    I feel that, as a church community, especially in online discussions, our definition of “priesthood” is to narrow to encompass all that priesthood means or could mean. For example, we often hear and speak of orders of the priesthood. The Melchizedek Priesthood is also referred to as the Order of Melchizedek, which was organized after the Order of Enoch, which was organized after the Holy Priesthood, after the order of the Son of God.

    Section 107 does conflate and confuse early uses of the work priesthood with new meanings of the word priesthood, something Joseph did often (see Jonathan Stapley article “Adoptive Sealing Ritual in Mormonism”). Section 107 is clear to point out that “There are, IN THE CHURCH, two priesthoods….” This could have been states as, there are, in the church, two orders of the priesthood.” Priesthood is a larger concept.

    Section 131 states that when a man an a woman enter into the new and everlasting covenant of marriage, they enter into an order of the priesthood, yet neither of them is ordained in that setting. I believe the realization of this ordination occurs when a husband and wife receive the full blessings promised during the endowment (including initiatory) and receive the fullness of the priesthood, together.

  9. I recall reading about Deborah for Sunday School. The teacher asked if she held the priesthood (being a prophetess and all). The class quickly decided she didn’t (because women don’t have the priesthood, duh) and moved on.

    I’m convinced that if women in our times do receive the priesthood, it will be in large part due to posts and articles like this one. Just like with Blacks and the Priesthood, our members–and to a greater extent, our leaders–need to see that there’s evidence for precedent before they’re willing to consider extending the priesthood to other groups.

  10. What if Priesthood is the power to represent the Lord in an authorized capacity, and only males can fully do that because he was male.

    Naturally, in his day and in ours, women are empowered to share his message, but why is it not likely in our theology that men’s (Priesthood) role mirrors the Father, while a woman’s mirrors the Mother?

    Men have a role in procreation, women have a greater one. Women have a role in church administration, men have a greater one.

    Some people down play the family or claim this minimizes the roles of women in the church or men in the family. Nonsense. I don’t have to accept that uninspired conclusion.

    When I understand the purpose of the church with regard to the family, I become grateful for this knowledge that brings guidance and comfort in times of confusion about our divine origin and destiny.

  11. Great confirmatory evidence of Lewis’s Law here today. Thanks very much, Cory, for your thoughtful highlight of your article, and especially for the article itself. I’m reading it now with great interest. It’s enlightening to see how the struggle for and against female ritual authority has always been with us.

  12. The issue of definitions is a real problem, even without involving gender in the question.

  13. This is great. Thanks. I’ve downloaded the article (even though I am a subscriber! [EmJen]) For all of the thought and careful reading, I especially appreciate the tone. Too much discussion of priesthood (Biblical or otherwise) screams “results driven” and I find that tiring.

    To Clark Goble (9:20am), et al: First, good points. Second, an opportunity for one of my handful of grandpa stories. We were visiting grandpa (SWK) later in the day he was set apart/ordained President of the Church. My brother had the temerity to ask whether he was set apart or ordained. He answered, and my brother upped the ante by saying “that’s not what Mormon Doctrine says”. The reply was “Well, Brother McConkie doesn’t know everything. I was there and I know what happened, and I don’t think it matters what it’s called.”

  14. After doing washings and anointings with my wife (well, not “with” my wife, but you know…) we were talking in the car about the priesthood, and I told her that she has the priesthood. In the temple, women perform priesthood ordinances. They are clothed in the garments of the priesthood and then the robes of the priesthood. What else can that mean? I think endowed women have the priesthood already without being ordained to “offices” in the priesthood. Until God tells His prophet that it needs to go beyond that, I’m not gonna fight Him on the issue. But, if God says the time has come for women to be ordained to offices, then that’s the direction we’ll go. Either way, I think it’s clear that women clearly already have and exercise the priesthood on earth (in our highest ordinances no less), and will have it and exercise it in the next life without any doctrinal changes.

  15. CopperQuark says:

    “The issue of definitions is a real problem, even without involving gender in the question.”

    I think Cory’s larger point is that one cannot resolve these definitions without appropriately accounting for gender.

  16. Nitsav, thanks for that.

  17. Daniel, A lot of people point to the temple as a place where women exercise the priesthood, but I’m not sure if that is exact as women are not allowed to baptize in the temple. Now you could argue that it’s a matter of succession, building upon, so women can only exercise the priesthood if it comes after the initiatory/endowment. Or you could say that women need to be called to a certain office to be able to baptize. But women are not allowed to witness sealings (or baptisms) and only one woman is needed in a sealing while at least four men are needed. And from my understanding, one does not need to be called to an office to be able to witness.

  18. I guess what I’m saying is that I’d give more credence to the “women exercise priesthood in the temple” argument if said priesthood was exercised in any place other than in delicate women-only spaces.

    See also historical healing blessings of women by women in usually delicate situations.

  19. Temple ordinances and historical healing are equivocal evidence for “already have and exercise priesthood”. I believe that in modern Mormon parlance (but see confusion about terminology) what’s really required before there is no equivocation is some kind of “ordination” ceremony.
    At the same time, temple ordinances and historical healing seriously challenge any argument that it cannot happen, i.e., that there is some fundamental gender-based divide.

  20. The 1833 plat of Zion that had its origins in Dec. 1831 combined with temple vision of June 5, 1833 and D&C 25 provide the pattern for sealed husbands and wives serving together as presidents and quorum members in all priesthood leadership positions. The two identical courts of the temple can not be accounted for in any other possibility. The schools of the prophets are the chambers that as section 95 specifies are the higher part of each court. In addition the pattern includes single makes and females in identical positions so that a “seat” is composed (4 people) a sealed husband and wife and a single female and a single male. Every presidency is a quorum of 12. Male married men preside over male marrieds… Female married over married females. Single males over single makes. And single females over single females. Every major demographic group is represented at every level. After all…we do believe that there are three kingdoms that are celestial and enjoy the presence and glory of God.

  21. I don’t know that Lady Wisdom in Proverbs really supports your argument of women’s ordination in the ancient world. Lady Wisdom represented God’s wisdom, a foil to the “Strange Woman” who represented worldly wisdom. The instruction in Proverbs is set up as a father giving advice to his son, telling him to look for Lady Wisdom as opposed to being deceived by the Strange Woman. Later in Revelation and the Book of Mormon, the concept of Lady Wisdom morphed into the church of the Lamb of God, while the Harlot imagery of worldly wisdom remained. Using your terminology, both priesthood (as you interpret it) and the antithesis of priesthood were represented as female.

  22. Clark Goble says:

    Rees (9:52) I think typically the temple ceremonies are seen as preparatory. So you aren’t anointed or endowed as kings/queens or priests but are anointed and endowed to become such. There’s then the second anointing that historians still debate a bit about. While there’s no clear historical basis for it that I can see many assume there’s also a second endowment that’s a real heavenly ascent instead of preparatory one. I assume that this is what Joseph was pointing at. However this also seems quite irrelevant in terms of organization here on earth which seems to be where all the fuss is at.

    I should add that things are a bit more ambiguous than I’m making it appear there. Lots of papers and books on the subject though but my sense is that things never really were finished when apostasy by various break offs in the early 20th century (who often claimed authority because of all this) appears to have stopped or at least slowed the practice until sometime under Pres. Kimball’s administration. (I confess I’ve not kept up on all the latest research here so I don’t know what the current consensus on the subject is)

    Tim (9:43) I think there’s a real sense in which all are prophets. The whole extra hierarchal prophet movement in scripture poses a problem for a nice orderly conception of priesthood. Not just in the OT (which in many ways is a problematic text due to its historical development) but also the Book of Mormon. Consider say Samuel the Lamanite. I think we want to keep prophet as head of the priesthood on earth but there’s really no reason to keep to that linguistic usage. While we sustain all 15 apostles as prophets and seers we don’t say they are the only ones. I’d be completely open to say Eliza R. Snow or Zina Huntington Young being prophets but just not in the hierarchy.

    Where I think some go astray is in pushing this decentralization too far. It would seem, at least from a modern Mormon theological perspective, that someone is ultimately in charge. (The President) Perhaps with the OT or Book of Mormon that gets a bit trickier. That’s partially because we have such fragmentary texts. What happened with prophets after Elijah for instance? Was there a Melchizedek organization in play? What about the Book of Mormon? They appear to have something tied to Melchizedek but also go out of their way to say much of it is secret. There are at times people who seem to be a leader or quasi-leader and other times when there appears to be no formal leader.

    As I said, I think it problematic to draw too many inferences from all this though.

    Jon (11:38) but what does it mean to represent the Lord? Aren’t Sister Missionaries representing the Lord? Now perhaps there is a mimicry aspect to it, but I don’t know that this is essential. Ultimately we simply don’t know what he current structure is the way it is.

    Christian (1:47) BTW – are you the same Christian who was in my physics classes at BYU?

    Daniel (1:52) I completely agree that in the temple women are acting as priests albeit in a segregated way. (Which I might add parallels adoptive masonry) It’s completely reasonable to say women have the priesthood in some sense in the temple but not offices. However then we get into the issue Elder Oaks brought up. Why must we say women perform these duties in the temple by priesthood if they don’t officiate? That is why isn’t the priesthood of the temple president sufficient the way say a Relief Society President works via the keys of the Bishop?

    Again I fully get why this is a bit semantically murky. Oaks tries to push the term “officiate” as the important function and term. That is for Oaks some have keys and some don’t. You can act under someones keys but unless you have keys on your own linguistically you aren’t officiating.

    So what Oaks wants to say is that it’s all priesthood power had by both men and women and priesthood blessings as well. However keys are not held by all and not all are ordained. The problem is, as I mentioned, is that “ordain” vs. “set apart” and “keys” vs. “give others permissions” seem a difference without a difference. What is a big difference is that women can’t lay hands on someone’s head to set them apart or ordain them. That’s a permission that only men have and in a fashion with odd hierarchies. i.e. who can set apart an Elders Quorum first councilor? Only an official given permission by the Stake President.

    I just think that most of the debate isn’t over structure/function but terminology but that seems an odd place to put our focus. Feminists shouldn’t be doing that because they want women to have more practical power in church. So they want women to have more say over who does what in a manner akin to men. (Or at least many do) Those defending the status quo are usually open to God changing things anyway he wants. So I don’t think any oppose the idea of women having offices, just that they say we have to follow what’s revealed. And what’s revealed is that structurally men can ordain and hold positions where they can pick people to function in many jobs in a fashion women can’t. Whether fair or not or understandable or not that’s the current structure.

  23. Josh Smith says:

    Interesting article. Thank you for taking the time to research and write it. I’m interested to follow the discussion here.

  24. “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.”

    I agree that this is our foundation, and hope and pray this is still true today and that we haven’t spent so much time in our ‘maintenance period’ that we are foreigners to the world of revelatory possibilities.

    Mormonism is boundless. When we sing ‘Hie to Kolob’, we claim that there is no end to Priesthood. Verse after verse we claim there is no end to our expansive theology. Yet, in practice, we can’t allow ourselves to believe that Priesthood could be one iota bigger than it is this exact moment in our developing minds, despite the fact that women in the Nauvoo era were indeed ordained and set apart. Their patriarchal blessings cited their power and duty in using the priesthood. They performed blessings and sacred rites.

    Today we exclude their precedent, our current temple evidence and related doctrines. And as you’ve articulated- we’ve unfairly evaluated biblical evidence as well. And what should we do about Abish in the BoM? No one talks about her. If they do, they suppose it was solely a miracle of faith.

    I find this self-imposed limitation so anti-Mormon. It certainly wasn’t the way Joseph thought. Why is it so hard for us to believe that there is more in store for us than we can see at this veiled moment? Why are we satisfied with the status quo? I’m too depressed to continue asking.

  25. For the 10,000th time we get someone making the “motherhood is the female partner to priesthood” argument, and for the 10,000th time I’ll say: what about infertility… menstruation is a lousy alternative to the Aaronic… where exactly is this divine mother I am supposed to model myself after? Sigh.

  26. Melissa, who’s making that argument?

  27. Clark (3:55): No. My one and only BYU experience is as a visiting prof in the law school in 1988.

  28. Excellent points, Mortimer!

    Thanks for the post, Cory. I thoroughly enjoyed it and look forward to reading your article.

  29. Steve, I think she’s referring to Jon B.’s comment: “Men have a role in procreation, women have a greater one. Women have a role in church administration, men have a greater one.”

    Which, if you think about that as a metaphor, ok, no I’m not going to go there.

  30. Had trouble with the download, but I am excited to see this and look forward to reading the article.

  31. Ah, quite right.

  32. Clark Goble says:

    Mortimer, ordained and set apart to what? That’s important in the context of Nauvoo discussion. So when Joseph says of Emma, she would be “ordained under [Joseph Smith’s] hand to expound scriptures, and to exhort the church, according as it shall be given thee by my Spirit” it’s important to ask what that means. And is it any different from what a Relief Society President today is set apart for? Likewise when the minutes of the Anointed Quorum says women were “anointed & ordained to the highest & holiest order of the priesthood” it’s worth asking what they means contextually. (Almost certainly the second anointing)

    So far as I am aware (and I’ve not kept up on the latest scholarship so I might be way off here) there’s nothing suggesting women being ordained to a priesthood office. As I said, this may appear to be a difference without a difference in the broad picture. Yet as a structural difference in the small picture it seems unavoidable.

    Again, I think these terms are ambiguous and we think they’re less ambiguous than they are because of the type of language games we’re used to in our culture. We have standard practices. Yet, as the talk by Elder Oaks notes, it’s all ultimately priesthood power.

    I’d add an other issue is the distinction of gifts of the spirit which require not priesthood and not necessarily even membership or the gift of the Holy Ghost and power of the priesthood. I think it’s fairly well establish women at one time did do hearings. That ended primarily because it was felt to be more appropriate to call for ones home teachers or at least the Elders. There’s no reason that couldn’t switch in the future, of course. However I’m not sure we can say that indicates much about priesthood.

  33. EmJen, I see what you mean and your argument makes sense.

  34. Thanks everyone for engaging, and for the kind words! A couple of thoughts:

    On whether this is mainly a semantic game (Clark, Reese, N8, et al): Semantics are certainly at issue, as Nitzav points out in his/her post at Faith-Promoting Rumor. I agree with Christian (and his grandfather!) that separation of ordination vs setting apart is well nigh impossible (without gender coming into play, I guess). But I mostly tried to avoid a devolution into semantics because in my view semantic nebulas are where power is most slippery and made to serve the status quo by default. Attempts to parse priesthood, again in my own view, result in dilution of the significance of priesthood at best and overt gender oppression at worst. In the article I tried to focus most on stories of women *acting* in roles (largely absent male oversight) that, were they male, most Latter-day Saints would understand as exclusively priesthood roles. I avoid talking about the temple because, as EmJen pointed out, this is an extremely limited case that seems to be based mainly on logistics and so is of limited value in speaking of women as priesthood agents (plus I was mostly focused on biblical accounts). Agency is precisely what is valued in the ordination of men to the priesthood (calling down the powers of heaven), but it is also what is elided in conversations with mixed groups (where what’s emphasized is the passive *reception* of blessings).

    Moggett: An interesting proposal! I had not considered the Woman of En-Dor carefully enough, and clearly should have. If there is a book that will come out of this (it kept trying to be one!), she will be there. It seems the Deuteronomists consider her illegitimate, but that has always been a story with some real tension because of her agency, not unlike Huldah. I clearly need to pick your brain more…

    Erika: I’m not the best one to deal with the issue of whether today’s Mormon women are in favor of ordination, but I will say that it seems crucial to ask (assuming it is a true statistic) of the reasons they are not in favor. If their position is only out of loyalty to Church leadership, that seems far less relevant to the question, because such a rationale would admit the opposite (women having priesthood) just as easily, given new revelation of course.

    Jon B: I think others have responded well to your comment about priesthood-motherhood, but I will add that the question of *agency* (meaning the ability to *act*) is here paramount and leaves the equation unbalanced for women. Men are agents in procreation and nurturing and rearing children in ways potentially equivalent to women, limited mainly by men’s own desires. Women are limited in priesthood by a social structure that has historically been exclusive to males, the result of (mostly male) human decisions. These are not equivalent. Motherhood is analogous to Fatherhood, and Priesthood agency is a separate category currently exclusive to and overseen by males, without analogues for women.

    Mary Ann: thanks for pushing on the issue of “Lady Wisdom and Dame Folly” (as one scholar put it). You are right about the audience and about the afterlife of these figures in Revelation, etc. That certainly gets into a whole and other discussion of male authors hypostasizing these figures in a tremendously problematic way. My interest, however, is in the lopsidedness of Proverbs. The language of Proverbs 8 is unmatched in the rest of Proverbs. Yes, in general the (male) author tells the (male) audience to chase the (female) Wisdom instead of the (female) stranger, but chapter 8 makes Wisdom stand apart, and it must do so in order to say why one must pursue Wisdom, which is infinitely better than the pedestrian alternative. Because it was the power by which the world was formed and operates. Whether or not this is pure abstraction independent of a discrete goddess standing behind it, I am interested in it as a vehicle for reimagining female power as existent outside the old stereotypes of motherhood and procreation.

  35. EmJen, thank you. I should have specified whose comment I was responding to.

    I should also have included the fact that many women in the church are not married, which also curtails their ability to hold the motherhood. And that any woman with a functioning reproductive system can become a mother – there is no worthiness standard. The motherhood = priesthood argument is so riddled with flaws that I tend to be dismissive of anyone who attempts to make it, particularly as I lay here in bed at 4am suffering from heavy menstrual cramps, a side benefit of my greater role in procreation. Think these things through, please.

  36. Cory, I haven’t had a chance to read the article yet. Do you address the issue of female temple priesthood being given/exercised in relation to husbands? Women are designated as priestesses to their husbands, must covenant to hearken to their husbands, and give themselves in a non-reciprocal marriage covenant. This is a painful and confusing issue for many members.

  37. In the second endowment…ordained to the Melchizedek priesthood…what else could it be? How else are priesthood blessings given? I’m not contesting there isn’t a huge gap here…there is. It just doesn’t follow that the rituals or healings would follow the same formula as ph ordinances and blessings if it were only faith or a spiritual gift in action. It wouldn’t be necessary to use oil or to follow the same process. As a matter of fact, it would be rather blasphemous. And, if that faith or spiritual gifts are truly what is at work and they accomplish the exact same thing as anything ph can, including something appearing to be raising the dead, what is the point of ph at all? I think we are all scratching our heads here. The explanation that husband and wife become one and she automatically adopts his ordinations for temple work might make sense, but today many single sisters work in the temple as ordinance workers simply with endowments. I don’t have the answers.

    I will say the removal of female blessings was not logical and it was not necessary. It stemmed from the medicalization of childbirth and decline in midwifery coupled with the sexist and deferential mid-century. I argue that it is not logical to just call for the elders in childbirth, for female health problems, in remote areas of the world, and at times when the mother is the only one by a sick child’s bed. I join others in agitating for this again!

  38. Cory,

    Many thanks for this important research. I will add just one thought regarding the notion that female ordination requires scriptural precedent. This view is starkly at odds with our own history of expanding (and regrettably sometimes retracting) female roles in this dispensation. There is no scriptural precedent for women serving as missionaries, teaching sunday school lessons to men, praying to God at a church conference, or sitting in counsel as an official member of a priesthood committee. Yet the chuch does not feel constrained by a lack of precedent to expand women’s roles in these areas. Why should it be any different for women blessing the sick, baptizing their children, or serving in a bishopric?

  39. The beauty of the Catholic faith is that Mary the “Mother of God” is revered as the Queen of Heaven and Earth, and stands way above Michael the Archangel among the hierarchy of created beings. “Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners” is an ancient Christian prayer that precedes Joseph Smith’s revelations by more than 1,800 years. It is impossible to be a true Catholic and not feel a yearning for the maternal love of the Blessed Virgin Mother.

    Come to Mary, and you will find the true Jesus. Ignore her and you will be where you are… among the company of heretics who have no qualms inflicting wounds on the body of Christ.

  40. Mmmmmmkay Rico. Thanks?

  41. “There is no scriptural precedent for women serving as missionaries.” It’s actually clearly stated over and over in the Doctrine and Covenants that it is to be men, the Elders. Which I think is why you get the “thanks sisters, we welcome your your assistance but men don’t you forget this is your responsibility” reminder every. single. time.

    And yet we see before our very eyes how so many women feel called to the missionary work.

  42. EmJen, in my stake there still are some of those comments, but they are being drowned out by actual practice. The stake missionary training we provide to 14-18 year olds draws as many YW as YM. Our laurels go on splits (sorry, exchanges) as much as our priests. And the sister missionaries are just as involved in leading the missionary efforts in the wards and stakes as the elders. As missionary work becomes, in essence, an extention of the youth program, it’s inevitable that the line between men’s and women’s roles regarding the work will be steadily eroded away.

  43. stephenchardy says:

    We were very quiet about the “ban on the Priesthood” until it was lifted. Now we find lots of support for it in scripture and in our own early history. When we didn’t want to find support for it, we couldn’t find it; now that we want to find support for it, we find it everywhere.

    In the case of ordaining women, there is plenty of scriptural, historical, and cultural support and precedent for it. But we, as a people, first must agree that we want to find it. Then we will. It is everywhere. For those who don’t want to find it, they won’t see it or find it.

  44. Cory, thanks for the post and your article. Well done.

  45. Hi Pete: The short answer is no, I don’t get into the temple and holding priesthood that way because the article is focused on biblical evidence. I will say, however, that as you point out the “sisters have priesthood in the temple” argument is a red herring because of the limitations you indicate. This is why I highlighted authoritative agency in the article–where women acted in (what LDS would call) priesthood roles apparently without male oversight.

    Dave K, I hear what you’re saying, and I think it’s true in theory, but the creation, reformation, and reorganization of priesthood and priesthood offices and eligibility has historically required a specific revelation, and I think most members would require that to shift their thinking about women from being operators who are influenced by priesthood in their daily decisions to priesthood *holders* able to lead, direct, govern, etc. Your comment now makes me think that there is an analogy being created currently in official discourse between the way we talk about the Holy Ghost and the Gift of the Holy Ghost and the way we talk about priesthood power versus priesthood keys. In the former the “Gift” of the HG (which requires a specific ritual) is clearly superior in Mormon thought. And only the latter is divided by gender.

  46. JonB: please recognize that ALL worthy males are ordained to the priesthood and hold office within that power. Whether they be married or single, or ever become father’s they are ordained.

    Conversely, ALL women are not ordained to the priesthood and never hold the offices therein.

    You believe women becoming mothers gives them the greater power in procreation than men, and you are okay with that because men have a greater role in representing God as a male through priesthood ordination and office. Each gender has a greater role in something.

    But please recognize that no matter how worthy so many, many women are they never marry, or marry but cannot conceive or bear children. Your so-called greater power in procreation is never given to these worthy sisters. Yet all worthy males from 12 years of age on are given priesthood power.

    Further, ALL members covenant to come unto Christ and BE LIKE HIM. There is no qualifier that states women can only be like him in theory, but not in power, nor in representing him in ordinances. Indeed, women administer the ordinances of the temple to women, save the baptismal one. Women are given washing and anointing—which Jesus performed—by women. They are given a new name—which Jesus did—by women. They are given the signs and tokens of the holy priesthood—which Jesus did—by women. And women serve as a presenter and advocate at the veil to the Father, even as the Savior is our advocate with the Father.

    So women frequently do, indeed, represent a male God.

    Yet, many are not mothers to participate in the power of procreation. Should not such worthy sisters be blessed to hold priesthood power to further “be like him”? When a woman is kind, she is godly. When she is patient, or thoughtful, or obeys the commandments she is godly. Her countenance and spirit reflect godliness. Is it such a stretch to see her becoming more Christlike by serving others through priesthood power and authority??

    “Do the things ye have seen me do,” said Jesus Christ. Perhaps the time has come to let the daughters of God obey that command in all His ways. Happily, the power of God would go forth in double measure which would mightily hasten the works of God and glorify his name. Wouldnt that be one of the “Great days of the Lord”? Sing praise to him evermore…..

  47. Can international BCC readers get a free download pass for a few more days??? :)

  48. Clark Goble says:

    CCrawford (10:02) I’m not sure I’d say it’s just or even mainly a semantic game. When I talk about language games I’m more thinking Wittgenstein’s conception of religion and his theories on language. That is language is a game with judges who decide what is or isn’t acceptable use. Formal presentations of language often miss how language as a game actually is conducted.

    As I said I think the attempt to distinguish set apart from ordain is problematic. Typically (but not universally) the use is that ordain applies to priesthood office and set apart to everything else. Effectively the opposition that people attempt to maintain is a muddled one I think. At best we can just look at historic usage which allows women in some roles and men in others with those changing at times. (Especially during the era from 1900 through 1930) My point is more just that while we have this historic usage, there’s really not much theoretical scaffolding behind it. I don’t think that entails the structures don’t matter. Just that we don’t have any understanding of the scaffolding beyond it being there.

    The biggest theoretical problem that remains unanswered in Mormon theology is exactly how miracles done by faith through the gifts of the spirit differ from priesthood miracles. Again the typical explanation seems unsatisfactory. In one we ask God and in the other we act with God’s power. Yet in practice priesthood blessings often beseech God rather than speaking as God. So it seems a difference without a difference (much like set apart vs. ordain). Oversight also doesn’t necessarily help resolve these issue. At best we can talk about theoretical trumps of authority, but then we have the problem that there’s always a theoretical trump in terms of the President of the Priesthood. (This isn’t a minor point – it was effectively the basis for a significant part of the apostasy movement over polygamy with some claiming authority independent of the Church due to second anointings in the early years of the 20th century)

  49. Clark Goble says:

    CCrawford (10:02) On your other point I think you’re completely correct. How we interpret a lot of things socially is itself largely determined by our place in our culture. So what it means to be a husband or wife today seems quite different from what we encounter 100 years ago. Today a husband that isn’t significantly contributing to cleaning, child rearing and treating decision making as something to be discussed and arrived at via consensus is seen as a bad husband. Needless to say the typical man in 1910 rural Utah thought quite differently. In 1910 it would be viewed as shocking for a man to be as involved in pregnancy and childbirth, especially a non-husband man. Today that’s ubiquitous due to the way we treat medical care. (Of course there were doctors in 1910, but from my admittedly limited reading it seems like most women didn’t use them in Utah in preference to midwives and often blessings by fellow women)

    I also think stephenchardy (8:42) is right that we read back into the scriptures based upon our own cultural practices. I think he errs in drawing significant implications from this. The ultimate issue of appealing to the scriptures isn’t likely terribly helpful here where there’s not clear directions. At best we’re probably seeing reflections of the culture at the time the scriptures were written. (Much like women missionaries are common today but you wouldn’t know that from reading the D&C)

    The problem is that we don’t know what revelation would direct. At best we know where we’d like public culture to change with regards to more practical freedom for women regarding roles. However I’m not sure we know where culture will be in 20 years nor what parts of that culture we’d approve of or disapprove of.

  50. Thanks for this post–I just got the article and looking forward to reading it! I especially appreciate the point about how female power/authority is often explained away. This post on FMh awhile back spoke to this idea as well, and it has stayed with me and given me hope:

  51. Cory Crawford concludes: “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”

    LDS theology appears beautiful in comparison with what? Why is flexibility a beautiful thing in pursuing the truth? How does one know that an exotic Biblical interpretation is not the result of scriptural flexing that Peter warned against (2 Peter 3:16)?

    The ugly problem with Mormon theology in particular, and Protestantism in general, is that when anyone is allowed to interpret the Bible as he pleases, there is no such thing as heresy anymore. If everyone is entitled to their private interpretation of the Bible, who then is to judge when someone is teaching outright false doctrine? And if there is no heresy, then how does one know that what is left on the table is really the truth?

    In this case, how do we determine that ordaining women to the priesthood is not heresy?

    The beauty of the Catholic faith is that it produced the Bible using its God-given authority to sift the wheat among hundreds of ancient writings that claim to be scripture. That act alone requires supernatural interpretation skills. By doing so, the Catholic faith gave Protestants a Bible without which they won’t have sola scriptura. It is also the Catholic faith that gave Mormons a Bible without which their Book of Mormon will absolutely make no sense at all (see 2 Nephi 29:3-6).

    The only way to interpret the Bible while following Peter’s warning is to read it in the context of the Catholic faith, that is, within the confines of its Magisterium and Tradition. After all, the Bible is a Catholic book, written by Catholic saints, for the Catholic faithful. Unfortunately, that isn’t how Protestants (including Mormons) read it. They read it as if it is theirs.

    “An infallible and unmistakable sign by which we can distinguish a heretic, a man of false doctrine, an enemy of God, from one of God’s true friends is that the heretic and the hardened sinner show nothing but contempt and indifference for our Lady.” This is the teaching of St. Louis de Montfort, and it is accurate. When one examines those who promote heresies such as ordaining women to the priesthood, what are you most likely to see? A serious lack of devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary.

    Because when one contemplates the Mother of God and how she found favor with God, therein lies the answer as to why it is not necessary for women to hold the priesthood.

  52. Rico: I think that if you read more widely at this site, you’d realize that your polemic is a little misplaced. In the first place, LDS are hardly on the sola scriptura bandwagon: we’re likely to accept both halves of Augustine’s rule of faith, alongside Catholics. Second, there’s a pretty strong Anglo-Catholic contingency at this particular blog. We gave our last “Gentile of the Year” award to Pope Francis. You’ll even find a post celebrating Mary on 25 March! Admittedly, the present post might not be to your taste, but you’re barking up the wrong tree, generally speaking.

  53. I think Rico is done here.

  54. Is Rico trolling around? I think he might.

  55. Paxton, indeed. This is sort of what he does. (or did, rather, before he got banned)

  56. Rico aside, it’s reasonable or fair to note that in Catholic circles even the fact of this discussion may be antithetical. In 1994 Pope John Paul II said “in order that all doubt may be removed regarding a matter of great importance . . . I declare that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church’s faithful.” And in 1995 the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith ruled that this teaching “requires definitive assent”.
    With all due respect (seriously), I am grateful this is not my tradition.

  57. Christian, how is Pope John Paul II’s statement substantively different from Elder Oaks’?:

    “We are accustomed to thinking that all keys of the priesthood were conferred on Joseph Smith in the Kirtland Temple, but the scripture states that all that was conferred there were “the keys of this dispensation” (D&C 110:16). … 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.”

    Elder Oaks’ April 2014 conference address opened the door to discussing women’s exercise of priesthood authority, but (IMO) it also emphatically shut the door to women’s ordination to priesthood offices . Following this address, if the Church decides to ordain women, it will either require the conferral of additional keys from heavenly visitors or require an admission that Elder Oaks was wrong (i.e., “forget what I said, I was speaking with lesser light”). But at this time, both the LDS and the Catholic churches proclaim essentially the same thing: “don’t ask us to make this change, it’s outside our jurisdicition.”

  58. Dave K: Not to quibble about substance, the difference I was pointing to is in the phrase “this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church’s faithful.” And “requires definitive assent.” These make even a discussion on the topic suspect.

  59. I find Elder Oaks’ lack of faith disturbing. Are we not a church that believes in continuing revelation? His statement that only men will hold offices in the priesthood sounds suspiciously like Brigham Young saying that black men would receive the priesthood only after everyone on else on earth.

    Isn’t that one of the things we fault the ancient Jews with, stubbornly clinging to tradition and not being open to new revelation?

  60. Pete, accusing an apostle of lacking faith is precisely the sort of statement that is not going to get you very far around here.

  61. Yes, I was out of line. My apologies.

  62. Cory Crawford, I was wondering if you could get me any info or studies talking about the roles of Jael, Zipporah, and Hannah as priests. I knew about the female prophetesses, but hadn’t thought about these other women acting in the role of priests.

  63. Professor Crawford, I am so grateful you wrote this article. It’s an article I have hoped someone would write for years, and is much needed. It is sad that I am glad a man wrote it–I don’t think a similar article by a female historian would have the potential influence on the male hierarchy. I hope it is read and studied and marked and pondered, and that we become more open to exploring and correcting our assumptions. There is the possibility that “modern revelation” (this is the way we do it) will close discussion, but since explanations about women and priesthood power have been all over the place, it gives me hope that some leaders are curious and open to learning this history.

  64. I don’t really think that Mormon women have any choice but to demand the priesthood if they want full equality. A Mormon woman simply cannot meet a Mormon man on the same plane. I find it somewhat ironic when Mormons say that they do not have a clergy, because, to my mind, what they do not have is laity. There is no such thing as a layman in the Mormon church, unless you count little boys. I have a friend who is Mormon and she has two sons. It struck me soon after her second son is born that, when her sons are ordained, they will have a level of authority that their mother does not have. As the author said, because every man is ordained in the Mormon church, the priesthood affects the way in which every man interacts with every woman.

  65. I don’t mean to sound dull, but Joseph Smith taught a prophet (or in this case prophetess) was one with a testimony of Jesus, citing Revelations 19:10.
    Apostle refers in its loosest context to anyone that’s a witness of Christ, so women could be apostles. But it’s narrower context, as a member of the 12, has always been a man. When Judas’s replacement was being decided, only men were considered.
    And the priestess thing is answered by temple ordinances.
    So the bible pretty much fits the priesthood model currently had in the church. This article does provide some good talking points, I’ll give it that.

  66. To Kevin’s question: It’s something I discuss in greater length in the article based on a number of studies. The person I’d start with is Susan Ackerman, both her article “Why Is Miriam also among the Prophets? (And is Zipporah among the Priests?)” in the 2002 Journal of Biblical Literature, and her book *Warrior Dancer Seductress Queen*. The stuff about Hannah is scattered, but Carol Myers’ work on Hannah’s agency in *A Feminist Companion to Samuel and Kings* and Donald Parry’s work in Emanuel Tov’s Festschrift on the scribal manipulation of the text about her (specifically around the issue of her acting in a priestly role) are good starting points. Hope this helps!

    Courtney: thank you.

    emma: what a great way of putting it! Wish I had thought of putting it in those terms; it’s right on. Carol Meyers and others have made the point that most ancient Israelite males were laity and therefore should not be overblown in calling Israelite society patriarchal. But it’s not applicable in the LDS tradition.

    TJ: thanks for engaging. “The bible pretty much fits the priesthood model currently had in the church.” As with every discussion of precedent, it all depends on which texts you select and which you ignore, because there are not uniform views of authority in the NT, much less the Bible (not to mention the fact of the cultural situation of male-dominated public authority in the context of all biblical authors). I think in most NT definitions “apostle” is a particular witness of Christ, requiring both a personal appearance and a commission. But what we really should talk about is individual texts. For Paul, the highest designation is apostle (no distinction between “capital A apostle” and “lower-case a”). Acts, on the other hand, which reports the replacement of Judas, by my count never even uses the word apostle, much less 12 apostles. And it’s good to keep in mind that the author of Acts also authored Luke, which goes out of its way to show women’s proper behavior as subordinate to men and the male hierarchy acting in harmony and order (which Paul’s letters, authored decades before acts, blatantly contradict). Paul himself is one who troubles these categories: where does one put him? Even if one (un-biblically) differentiates between two or more types of apostles, which type would Paul be? Certainly not one of the 12. So does he belong with Junia? He would most certainly have said yes.

    As for priestesses and the LDS temple, I would disagree also here. LDS women in the temple operate, practically and theoretically, under the supervision and authority of men. There is no mention of a supervising male authority of Jael or Zipporah (and definitely not Deborah) when they are acting in priestly ways. Granted, they are not called priests explicitly, but I think that when it comes to gender and authority, current LDS temple practices reinforce the hierarchy, explicitly and implicitly, even while they may be seen to expand the role of women in the very limited context of administration to other women. Jael and Deborah and Zipporah and Hannah were not limited to administering only to women.

    I do hope we keep talking about this!

  67. This has been such a great exchange. Thanks for your efforts on this, Cory. Clearly any change requires direction from above, but a more thorough understanding of our standard works helps with both our understanding and seeking.

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