Female Priests Among Christians and Mormons, Part 8

[You can find the whole series here.]
Ecclesiology as I use it here refers to leadership structures in churches. I said last time that I wanted to explore some of these that are brought out in support of barring women from ordination, or allowing that ordination. A recently used rationale by Mormon leaders for not ordaining women has appeared also in Catholic and Protestant arguments and is particularly important in historical Mormonism. It has been called “blueprint ecclesiology.” I am not the inventor of the term, however I don’t recall where I first heard it used.

The reasoning in blueprint ecclesiology goes like this. God/Jesus specified the ordinances/sacraments (for Mormons this happened in a preexistent state where all human souls were present) and wrote in structure like deacon, teacher, pastor, apostle, bishop, priest and so forth. This edifice was shaped by God through Jesus, apostles, prophets, etc. and while there might be adjustments like age of ordination and such, the intrinsic logic is that the blueprint never included women as priests, elders, etc., they weren’t sketched in by God in this priestly structure except as contributing, auxiliary tenants of that structure.

There are several forms of this blueprint. Two supports for it are scripture (we saw some of that last time) another is tradition. It is difficult to overestimate the power of the latter.

The argument from Scripture might go like this. The Bible, by repeated claims early on, has been taken as the the source of Mormon ecclesial patterns (the same organization that existed in the primitive church, etc.). In the Gospels and Acts, Jesus and his agent, the Spirit, foresaw the future. Jesus thought about the church and founded it during his ministry or immediately after his resurrection. He thought about/was inspired about the ordinances/sacraments like baptism, Holy Spirit, sacrament/eucharist, and so on. He structured the church. This has led to statements like this: if Jesus wanted a female priest he would have ordained one.

In considering this argument, I think we may ask about the nature of Christ as man. How omniscient was he as man? For Latter-day Saints I think the Book of Mormon suggests that he was not God-like in capacity and that was purposeful—he condescended to become human and with all the weaknesses that that entails: illness, frustration, puzzlement, anger, disappointment, joy, laughter, thoughtfulness, feeling barred from heavenly influence at times, and not seeing the future except “through a glass, darkly.” He could do miracles (though not always), but he also needed to sleep. So, one might legitimately ask: what did he think about a church? His apostles at least initially seemed to see their beliefs within temple Judaism: they were good Jews, followers of the Law as yet. Luke says that after Jesus ascended to heaven the 12 went to the temple and worshipped. So, did the historical Jesus think about and teach about a church? The evidence is that he spoke about the eschatological reformation of Israel not about a new religion. Did the historical Jesus think about ordination? He chose the Twelve as judges of Israel but there is no biblical evidence that he taught about or even thought about his followers, male or female in terms of ordination as priests—there were already priests in Israel. It’s hard to see Jesus as completely omniscient in the text. The Book of Mormon adds to some of this, but doesn’t seem to be relevant to the issue of ordination. Indeed, women are barely mentioned. Blueprint ecclesiology has its weaknesses.

Tradition is used as argument outside of scripture. For Latter-day Saints, this tradition runs for 200 years or so (barring reference to women participating in liturgy of various sorts) but in some ways it matches what happened in late antique Christianity. In the post New Testament church (some of the New Testament itself is post New Testament but let us leave that here) some structure and sacraments were fixed by the time of Ignatius of Antioch (110 CE) and the way ordination was conducted was regularized in the second century (my bare notice of reference here goes to lectures I heard delivered by Fr. Raymond Brown at Graduate Theological Union decades ago and study of various commentaries/dictionaries) and one might say that the Holy Ghost had firmed this ecclesial picture. One might argue then that the third person of the Godhead (Trinity) foresaw any future needs and issues by the second century therefore and that was adequate to whatever might be done, whatever might be asked, in the future. If women were to be ordained, that would imply that the church (I’m speaking generally in terms of Christian thought now) was in error for millennia and that error was perpetuated by God![1] I suggest that this line of thinking runs counter to the Mormon view of a God who will yet reveal many new and surprising things in the future. Indeed, parts of the Restoration speak to things that haven’t shown up since the beginning of the world. (Cf. D&C 124) For Catholics at least, something of the same thing was announced in 1973.[2]

A related argument goes like this: if church leaders refer to blueprint ecclesiology then that shores it up without question. I think there are too many things in history that suggest this line of thought just doesn’t do what advocates think it does.

I don’t think I’ve killed off blueprint ecclesiology but maybe you will agree that it’s not ironclad. Its chief presuppositions can legitimately be questioned without any name-calling at least.

Next time, three or four more ecclesiologies that are also relevant to ordination of women.

[1] That said, there are some NT references to women who may have been ordained apostles. And some have suggested that famous inner circle women like the Marys may have had office.
[2] Although, it was still pretty conservative. See, Mysterium Ecclesiae in Vatican II documents, 717ff. Oops. Footnote. Ignore this.


  1. I have thought the early blueprint a weak argument, whether New Testament or Joseph Smith. The stronger sounding case from scripture is too often a retrofit by later people (all men) to match the tradition, whereas the real or better history has lots of gaps and inconsistencies, and women involved.

    I have thought tradition very strong in effect, but commonly criticized as men talking about men to make the story one men will appreciate. You need a strong ‘workings of the Spirit’ model for Church leadership to overcome the obvious self-serving sexist bias in the system. Which is possible and certainly argued, but still suspect.

    Although it has received little attention and may seem an innocuous-but-positive administrative change, in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints tradition the recent change to allow ordination of boys in their 12th year but before they turn 12 is significant. The prior rule was set in 1908, long enough ago that most of us treated it as a stone tablet kind of rule. That’s a 110 year tradition (a long time for LDS traditions, in a 200 year old church), changed overnight almost without comment.

  2. This is where I wish William Webb’s book, “Slaves, Women and Homosexuals” was not so thick, dense and academic. Webb is a Protestant, so he does not believe in ongoing revelation like we do. But what he does with the Blueprint model is almost as good. Webb spends the first third of the book talking about the issue of slavery – hardly a hot topic of our day, because the vast majority would agree that slavery is wrong. But, it’s pretty hard to make that case from the Bible alone, and in fact many pro-slavery Christians during the Civil War used the Bible to support their belief. (As an aside, Mark Knoll has a book called, “Civil War as Theological Crisis” where he frames the entirety of the Civil War as being a war over how to read the Bible, especially on the slavery issue. It’s dense, but so delicious.) Webb makes the case that even though the Bible never comes out against slavery we understand that if one follows the trajectory of the Bible’s teaching, one would eventually have to conclude that slavery is wrong because the values the Bible teaches are not congruent with slavery. A trajectory-view of the Bible asks us to get it based on what it is teaching, not because it comes right out and says so.

    He spends the next third of the book talking about how this same trajectory-view applies to women in the priesthood (though I think he uses the more inclusive phrase, “women in ministry” as many Protestants cringe at the word “priest”). In the OT, women were treated terribly, but by the NT we see them being treated slightly better. For example, in OT worship, women were not even allowed inside the same building as the men. They stayed “in the court of the women”, but by the NT we see them in church alongside the men, even if Paul tells them to be quiet on occasion, at least they’re in the building. Webb says this shows a clear trajectory – stronger than the trajectory we see for slavery. In the slavery argument we are expected to come to a conclusion that slavery is wrong based on teaching. While with the issue of women we can see a trajectory happening over the centuries.

    Webb’s trajectory idea is too close to the idea of ongoing revelation for most Protestants to be comfortable – and it got him crucified in many corners of the Christian world, but it should feel familiar to latter day saints. And I think it gives us a way to say that the “blueprint” might only be version1.0, and that we are expected to figure out what version 2.0 and later look like, because the trajectory the scriptures ask us to make is real, and we have made it before (the case of slavery). To me this makes more sense than trying to say that version 1.0 wasn’t actually what it appears to be. I’d rather say that Yes, the NT world was viewed women as property and people who were incapable of leading, or really contributing much of anything except offspring. But the teachings of the Bible itself implore us to move beyond version 1.0.

  3. Archeological evidence says that until about 200-300 ad, there were women priests. There are paintings in catacombs in Rome that show a woman, in priestly robes, administering some rite. The Bible also hints at women as priests, and among the Christian sects that the Roman church killed off, there are writings that say clearly that Mary Magdalene was an apostle. So, all the evidence points to the idea that the church that Christ established had women in the highest level of priesthood. But as part of the great apostasy theory that Mormons believe, the Roman Catholic Church took out many important truths. Yet Mormons are afraid to really look at what the Romans took out, such as reincarnation and female ordination.

  4. Well…..sort of. There IS a picture that depicts someone with soft feature in a painting around 250 AD. https://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-2510473/Vatican-unveils-frescoes-Catacombs-Priscilla-paintings-FEMALE-PRIESTS.html But its highly subjective evidence and not the kind of evidence one would want to build a case on. I personally believe that women were doing more than we know in that era, but I wouldn’t touch that as a piece of evidence with a 10-foot pole.

    I’m very curious what you see as Biblical evidence that women were in the highest level of priesthood. What would you cite?

    And I would love to hear your evidence for Mary Magdalene as an apostle. There IS some Gnostic evidence for her having such a role, but in order to use that as evidence you also have to accept all the presuppositions of the Gnostics….but one would be laughed out of any serious theological conversation for it.

    I suspect you and I share a lot of opinions, but the quality of the evidence matters.

  5. Jennifer, there is a saying that the victors write the history. So, since the Gnostics were defeated by Rome, Rome then wrote down “the truth” of what Christianity became. I guess I don’t put any more stock in the opinions of Rome than I do in the opinions of Egypt. And sure the painting in the catacombs could be an effeminate man, (real effeminate, with big boobs) but com’on. And maybe the Gnostics were just crazy feminists. And maybe that sentence in the Bible that insinuates that Junea was an apostle really meant she was esteemed by the apostles rather than that she was among the apostles, or was it really that Junea was a man’s name and was really a guy, like that priest in the catacombs with big boobs. But then there was evidence from other early Christians sects that they had female priesthood. But they were also stomped out by Rome. I don’t remember what groups they were, cause I researched this like 20 years ago.

    But when you look at the evidence all together, it looks like the male chauvinists protest too much. Mary was an apostle. Junea was an apostle. The Gnostics had female priesthood. Priest in Roman Catholic robes with big boobs and a pretty face. Sure none of it really proves beyond a shadow of a doubt, but there is more evidence of female priesthood in the early Christian church than there is real evidence for Joseph Smith’s first vision. So people get to believe what they see the most evidence of. I see evidence of apostasy among the early leaders of the Roman church. So, I don’t trust the traditions they left us.

    But then, I am no longer pretending that I believe the BoM is real history, so I have tossed out as fiction some of the books you may still think of as real history and evidence of how Christ set up his church on this earth. So, yeah, I probably believe the Gnostic Gospels more than you do.

  6. Well, I will leave you to it then. It sounds like you’re happy with what you have. But none of that offers a path forward with an eye toward faithful belief.

  7. The way forward for the church is the same no matter what the Gnostics or the Romans taught. The fact that there is “precedent” for women to have priesthood in any other church doesn’t matter, whether or not that church is still in existence or not. The Catholics were ordaining blacks before us, but that didn’t mean we could not do it, or that we HAD to do it. The way forward for the church is the same whether or not I can prove to you to your satisfaction that the early Christian church ordained women.

    The way forward is that the prophet needs to have something that makes him care, like lots of women leaving the church, or political or great financial pressure, or just compassion for women. Then he has to pray about it with real intent, bla bla bla. Then God tells him that yes, women should be ordained.

    No matter how much logical proof you come up with with your logic, research, and proof it gives us no way forward, any more than my believing that paintings of female priests proves that the early church had female ordination gives us a way forward. Say we found absolute proof, that Catholics ordained women until 300 ad, what difference would that make to Mormons…..excuse me members of the church of bla bla bla. That is just too long to say. It would not even hit the prophet’s radar. Nope, the way the Mormon church works, the prophet has to pray about it. That is your way forward, and I am not the one to give that to anybody.

    Some people worry about the more traditional members not being able to handle it. But I am one of the women who couldn’t handle how slow the church is at getting into the 1960’s and the rest of the world is into 2019. But my attitude is that the church should do what is right, no matter if some people can’t handle it. If it was the church of Jesus Christ in reality instead of just in name, it would. It would do what Jesus would do.

  8. Jennifer, I can’t imagine what would “offer a path forward with an eye toward faithful belief” more than taking the scriptural record seriously. It is unfaithful to the text of the New Testament to try to write Mary(s), Junia, Priscilla, Phoebe, and others out of the record. We don’t have an all-male “blueprint,” except in the minds of the men who have read it back into the text.

  9. Kristina, I am not against ordaining women. Remember, I was ordained up until 8 months ago when I got baptized. I loved it. I was good at it. But it isnt fair or helpful to pretend the evidence for early ordination of women is crystal clear.

  10. Of course it’s not crystal clear. But neither is the evidence for “ordination” of men!

  11. Sing with me: “Tradition!”

  12. Anna, your last was dead center.

  13. Jennifer

    I love hearing your perspective.

  14. Brian, thanks friend!!

  15. “He chose the Twelve as judges of Israel but there is no biblical evidence that he taught about or even thought about his followers, male or female in terms of ordination as priests—there were already priests in Israel.” This statement seems at best incomplete to me. Technically, I suppose this is technically true due to the inclusion of the words “as priests”, but I think there is plenty of evidence that Jesus ordained the apostles and others in an ecclesiastical structure. There are at least two instances where the English text uses the term “ordain”, and many others where certain disciples have a calling and authority beyond simple discipleship (within the gospels, we have the Twelve and the Seventy).

  16. “and many others where certain disciples (including women) have a calling and authority beyond simple discipleship…”

    Fixed it for you :)

  17. Kristine,

    Do you have an example in the New Testament of a woman receiving some kind of ordination or commission from Jesus to perform some kind of ritual or to have a position of authority in an ecclesiastical structure? The apostles received a commission to do baptize and lay on hands, and Peter was told that he would be part of the foundation of the church. These are, at least arguably, priestly functions, albeit outside of the Levitical priesthood.

    I’m not saying that lack of named female saints performing priestly functions is an airtight argument against women’s ordination. I just don’t think there’s much evidence in the scriptures connecting women to any priestly functions.

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