Women Witnesses for Ordinances

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The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints announced this morning that women can now serve as witnesses for baptisms and temple sealings.

I’m thrilled about this change.  As I wrote two years ago, the Church’s longtime refusal to let women serve as witnesses contradicted Jesus Christ’s own example of choosing women to be the first witnesses of his Resurrection.  And as co-blogger Jonathan Stapley  details, women as witnesses has long precedence in the modern Church as well.

This change matters.  It’s not just a technical hand-waving exercise.  Women witnessing our saving ordinances matter.

I gained a new appreciation for the spiritual significance of witnesses last fall when I married my husband in a Catholic Church.  With a lifetime of growing up in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and almost exclusively attending our weddings, I had internalized the message that only men could serve as witnesses.  Only men could sign the wedding certificates.  Because of that, I was surprised at my wedding rehearsal when our priest called our Matron of Honor and Best Man forward as witnesses.

It had never before occurred to me that “Matron of Honor” and “Best Man” were more than an honorary designation — that those titles stem from official, spiritual roles with respect to the consecration of a sacrament.

My Matron of Honor has been my best friend for 25 years.  She has been by my side through all of my formative church experiences growing up in seminary and young women, all of my doubting experiences through the assorted tragedies of adult life, all of the pains of my prior divorce, and all of the joys of my new relationship.  She was perfect to share in this spiritual moment.  Weddings are sentimental by nature, but the realization that my lifelong confidante would officially witness and sign off on my joyful union was the first moment that weekend where my eyes filled with happy tears.

Today I am grateful that women receiving baptisms and sealing ordinances will be able to have their own meaningful spiritual experiences with their sisters and best friends as witnesses.  I pray that further barriers to women’s full and equal participation in the ordinances and operations of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints will continue to be removed.

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Comments

  1. I’m interested in exploring what feminism looks like in the LDS church. Do you have suggestions where to start looking?

  2. mrselizabethross: Absolutely. Start here:

    https://www.churchhistorianspress.org/at-the-pulpit?lang=eng

  3. I’m happy you’re happy, Carolyn. This is a positive step given the baseline we’re working from.

    For my part, the description of feminism as the radical notion that women are human beings keeps running through my head, with my own second line that if that were our baseline, instead of the gender essentialism we struggle with, there would be no news today about witnessing.

  4. I want to be happy, and I am. It’s about time. But, the inclusion of children as witnesses for baptism stings. It basically feels like they are saying, not only is this not a priesthood duty, it’s really not important. A woman can do it, an eight year old can do it, it’s not that big and a deal—why have you all been so upset about this all this time?

  5. Barefoot in the Chaparral says:

    I found out about this when I popped in to check the newest article here. My reactions were as follows:

    Saw the title of the article.
    “Wait, what?” Click on article.
    “Oh my gosh.” Click on link in article.
    “Oh my GOSH! YES!!!”
    As it sinks in, “WOOHOO!!”
    And then I texted my friend.

    Her response:
    “Wait…like women?”
    Me: “Yes!”
    “I can witness my children’s baptisms! My daughter can be a witness in the temple!”

    Text husband with link. Still waiting on a response, he’s grocery shopping.

    Now previous posters comment about women beinf the same as children has damped my enthusiasm a tad, but I’m still smiling.

  6. I ran, like Mary, to tell my neighbor. Rejoice with me, for I have found what was lost.

  7. Hurrah for the sisters! But the children serving as witnesses really bothers me. I appreciate the nod in this op to the fact that witnesses are vital participants in the sacrament/ordinance. But using children as witnesses seems to downplay the significance of the role and responsibility of the witness and even the significance of the ordinance itself. Will that eight-year-old pay attention to the words spoken in the baptismal prayer? Will he ensure the that the initiate is fully immersed? Or will he get distracted and fall in?

    Granted, all baptized members have covenanted to stand as witnesses, but can’t we rationally determine that most kids don’t have the attention span of a puppy? Even the younger teens doing baptisms in the temple really struggle with this issue.

  8. I enjoyed the taste of excitement and surprise when I initially heard the news, however, I am now left with an after taste consisting of insult, inferiority, and a dose of patronizing. It reminds me of when I became excited about the more active role women were going to play in the temple, only to realize that we were being allowed to hold towels.

    I’m encouraged by the change, while at the same time really bugged with how these changes are being rolled out in the form of revelation or inspired by God. There is no acknowledgement or appreciation or credit given to the individuals.groups that have been working hard and advocating for positive change. The leadership gets to shine and look inspired while common members who were the first to raise awareness and concern about these kinds of issues YEARS AGO were marginalized, judged, and excommunicated. I have watched an idea be judged as radical, sinful, and problematic, only to then see that exact idea be endorsed by a church leader and become exciting, insightful, and absolutely true.

    I don’t mean to deflate those who are excited by this news. It is a bone and I am grateful for it, but fully aware that the meat is still being kept out of my reach.

  9. Two points:
    1. My impression is that the original purpose of witnesses was not to ensure it was done properly. Their role was just fulfill the “law of witnesses,” and to vouch that it had been done. I think we’ve added to the role over time to justify why we need witnesses. But I just I don’t see “verifying the ordinance is done correctly” as the major purpose, since most adults who witness temple ordinances are clueless if they’ve been done correctly or not. Someone who actually likes researching history is free to correct me if I am wrong about the original purpose… But if it’s really just to fulfill the two witness mandate and vouch that it was done, a child can do this job just as easily as an adult.
    2. Why is it offensive or demeaning if children can do the same task as an adult? Christ seemed to think kids were the best, not a station below us “superior” adults.

  10. I for one love the inclusion of all baptized members in this change and hope it signals that in the future we will take the essential covenant of baptism more seriously. Far too often we baptize adults and children who have not been converted because we treat the ordinance like a magic spell rather than a covenant.

    I consider the service I was able to render as a 12-year-old deacon (ie a child) to be every bit as important as the service I have rendered as a 40-year-old high priest (often much more so!), and I would be delighted to have my 8-year-old daughter act as a witness. She will take the duty much more seriously than most adults I know.

  11. Dr. Cocoa
    I agree that children are favored by Christ. I don’t believe being categorized with children is where the offense is. The offense for me is that after years of women asking for a place at the table, we are only being thrown the most menial tasks under the pretense of inclusion, equality, and opportunity. For example, we are now allowed to hold towels in the temple and give the nod of approval that full immersion was achieved…things that obviously even a child can do. I’m not saying these tasks are unimportant and beneath any of us. I’m describing the frustration that comes with being treated continually as a subordinate.

  12. R. Yarri,

    I was a bit surprised to see that children as young as eight would be permitted to act as witnesses. But I’m pleased. I actually see it as a total and unqualified victory. It would seem that the message finally got across that we should be evaluating our behaviors and the assumptions behind them.

    The Church could have very easily permitted this change only for women sixteen years old and older, which would have mirrored what was currently permitted for men previously. Instead, it appears they actually looked at what the purpose of a witness is, evaluated what the actual qualifications are, and decided that if you’re capable of choosing to be baptized, you must be capable of being a witness to a baptism. The policies were adjusted accordingly.

    I get that it stings. It certainly wasn’t the result that was expected. But I do think this is evidence that they went about the process correctly. And that is a huge win.

    I doubt that is much comfort. But I certainly praise the honesty of your response.

  13. Kristine A says:

    Me, looks at comments and sees who has issues with how the change was made and who doesn’t: Deep sigh/ walks away.

  14. yes i’m so surprised to see that none of the men commenting have any issue with this.

  15. In defense of many men out there, I share all the concerns raised by the women here, and then some.

    And I’m rejoicing for my two girls, and their younger brother whose baptism next year I hope he chooses that they will witness.

  16. My first reaction was that I was embarrassed that this was a big deal. I never understood why a mother couldn’t be a witness her own child’s baptism. And I never really felt like I was using the priesthood when I was a witness during a sealing session at the temple.

    But the is a big deal, and it is tempered by the idea that now my stake’s Relief Society President now can have the same duties as a witness to baptisms that her 8-year-old grandson has. Yay? I was hoping that there would be some kind of age limit that made the role of witness mean something. It is both good news and condescending at the same time.

  17. Another Roy says:

    CS Eric, I am fascinated that passing the sacrament as a deacon also does not use the priesthood. It is the same as the action that we all take to literally “pass” the tray to the next individual down the line. There is no doctrinal reason why women, children, members, and non-members could not perform this function. It is a tradition and a church policy in the handbook of instructions, nothing more.

  18. I second what R.Yarri stated about the frustration that comes from continually being treated as a subordinate. As a 40-something year old with a graduate degree and a professional job (and a family!), church is the only place where I encounter people, attitudes, and policies that assume I’m not a fully functioning adult.

    I also like Benjamin’s response to R.Yarri– the church could have put an age limit but instead seemed to evaluate what the purpose of witnesses are and adjust accordingly. Yes, there’s still sting, at the same time, if leadership is actually evaluating policies this way, then it opens the door for many other changes. Perhaps next YW will get to take turns with the YM passing the sacrament and actually have a useful role at church.

  19. I never look at anyone passing me the emblems of the sacrament, whether a deacon from the aisle or a member reaching down the pew as anything but someone offering me service. Important service for which I am grateful. Certainly not someone fulfilling a role I envy.
    I shall enjoy my new responsibility of witnessing ordinances of the gospel. And I sincerely believe this is as much about speeding the temple work as about changing the Church leaders’ views of women. The numbers of potential workers has doubled.

  20. I am a woman and it makes perfect sense to me that anyone who has undertaken the ordinance and serious covenants of baptism should be qualified to witness that ordinance. The notion that witnessing something is somehow more serious than actually doing it is ridiculous.

    BUT… anyone who refuses to acknowledge that this change is a little itty bitty speck at the top of an enormous mountain of fraught history and context is equally ridiculous. That mountain of crap makes these small, simple, shiny new policies exponentially more complicated—and the institution’s cheerful feigned ignorance of the crap mountain is both unsurprising and completely infuriating.

  21. “I sincerely believe this is as much about speeding the temple work as about changing the Church leaders’ views of women. The numbers of potential workers has doubled.” Good point. Hello, Rosie the Riveter.

  22. I totally agree with Angela. It would not surprise me if the change had nothing to do with women’s rights, but “How are we going to get the work done before the Second Coming?” And thus the answer came.

  23. east of the mississippi says:

    This is about not enough temple workers, a limited amount of ordinance workers… and the baptistry calls looking for brothers to help out, needing to pull them away from whatever they are already doing.

  24. If it’s about expediency, then ordaining women shouldn’t be an issue, right? Or can’t we at least have women perform ordinances using authority delegated to them by priesthood holders with keys, like they do in the temple? There are definitely regions inside and outside the US that don’t have enough male participants, so why not include women in more ways?

    It seems like the church likes making these small changes to see how things go. If things go well, they make more changes, potentially. I just wonder what the end goal is, or if that’s not something they want to consider with women. Basically are these incremental changes part of a grand plan, or are they just one offs that come about because of logistical or retention problems?

  25. The expediency comment makes more sense than wokeness does. Why did 1978 happen? Some say car-pulling-over-on-side-of-road revelation that God was no longer a racist. Others observe that the Church was growing in areas with not enough white people to lead the branches and wards. I’ve often noted (from my corporate experience) that we only ever erode LGBT prejudice when a prejudice person’s success depends on a gay person, making it in their self-interest to understand. If you have a gay boss or client or customer base, suddenly you start learning about them, working with them, and eventually respecting them. When only one demographic (white cishetero men) are independent and in charge and see everyone else as dependent on them, status quo prevails; marginalized groups remain marginalized, just as (apparently) God intended.

  26. Expediency matters and sometimes makes the whole difference. However, I don’t buy it as the prime mover in this case because of the history. As J. Stapley points out in his companion piece, “Up through most of the twentieth century, these witnesses could be any church member, male or female, ordained or not. However, in 1976 church leaders ruled that all baptisms must be witnessed by two people “who hold the Melchizedek Priesthood.” That would not have happened without some idea that men–Melchizedek Priesthood holders–are special, are more important, are ontologically different. What’s happening now is a reversal (of something that should never have happened) that must somewhere at a core level involve a change or at least a lightening in the view of men as special. (Hallelujah!) ((But can I also mourn the 43 years of darkness on this narrow subject?))

  27. I hope it’s not the case, but if it takes men to stop doing stuff so that women finally aren’t treated as second-class citizens, then I’m tempted to to stop doing stuff.

    I do hope that some men are becoming woke enough to cause the change, but I may be wrong.

    Regardless,I don’t believe in a God who puts women second to men. Because of that, I’m struggling mightily to stay in the church. Even when the church ‘makes progress,’ they don’t show that they truly understand. Truly disheartening. So sick of it. The lack of compassion is astonishing.

  28. It is encouraging to think that church leaders could reconsider the idea that male Melchizedek priesthood holders have a higher place in some kind of spiritual hierarchy. Unfortunately, when you have a single standard of godhood and perfection that is male, then women will always be other. As long as priesthood ordination is required for male exaltation and church governance, I don’t see how the church will treat men and women with the same respect and equality.

    Having priesthood ordination as a requirement for exaltation implies that men need extra or more spiritual authority, power, etc. than women in the eternities. It could be assumed that they need this because they will be performing functions similar to here, where they will be primary decision-makers and presiders. If this is truly what church leaders believe, then I’m sadly disheartened.

    While the afterlife will always remain much of a mystery to us now, the fact that we can’t even openly speak about and worship a perfect female God is a serious stumbling block to treating women like full children of God and human beings.

  29. @ Mary: “While the afterlife will always remain much of a mystery to us now, the fact that we can’t even openly speak about and worship a perfect female God is a serious stumbling block to treating women like full children of God and human beings.”

    Yes. This.

    “I am a child of Gods, and they have sent me here.”

    “Heavenly Mother, are you really there, and you do you hear and answer every child’s prayer.”

    Until we can get on board with even ‘thoughts’ like this, the steps we are making only aren’t even really steps. Stumbles forward, more like it. Painful ones. Perhaps enough to keep me in a while longer.

  30. @ Brian the church needs men like you and many others. I am hopeful that there will continue to be more positive changes. I hope these changes will eventually lead to a loving unified church, where all are treated as having the same divine potential.

  31. Chris: “‘…in 1976 church leaders ruled that all baptisms must be witnessed by two people “who hold the Melchizedek Priesthood.’” That would not have happened without some idea that men–Melchizedek Priesthood holders–are special, are more important, are ontologically different.”

    I’m not quite convinced. It seems to me that it could have happened as a natural extension of correlation and the effort to get men (who are not special or more important) to take their priesthood more seriously. In 1976 it might well not have occurred to any of the brethren that priesthood is not necessarily tied to maleness. If so, the now-reversed policy may well have happened because of the idea that priesthood is special and important, without any [conscious] idea that men are special or more important than women. But it is quite difficult, if even possible, in our Mormon culture to disentangle those ideas.

    President Harold B. Lee stated that one of the primary purposes of correlation was to place “the Priesthood as the Lord intended, as the center core of the Kingdom of God, and the auxiliaries as related thereto; including a greater emphasis on the Fathers in the home as Priesthood bearers in strengthening the family unit.” [1]

    [1] Harold B. Lee, regional representatives seminar, 2–3, in Bruce C. Hafen, “A Disciple’s Life: The Biography of Neal A. Maxwell” (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2002), 325.

    https://rsc.byu.edu/archived/salt-lake-city/13-correlation-turning-point-1960s

    I expect there are multiple considerations involved in this policy change, including, but not limited to, expediency as to temple witnesses and recognition that the former witness policy was a far greater irritant to and unnecessarily slighted women and others than it was helpful in getting men to take priesthood more seriously.

  32. “quite difficult, if even possible, in our Mormon culture to disentangle”

    Elder Oaks’ “men are not “the priesthood.”” is an important milestone culturally. It dates to April 2014, and is footnoted to talks from 2002, 2005, 2013. We didn’t talk that way in the 20th century. We are watching change in real time.

    I’m engaged in sidebar arguments that change is too slow and too small, and that’s probably true measured by my lifetime. But it’s not zero.

  33. it's a series of tubes says:

    Basically are these incremental changes part of a grand plan, or are they just one offs that come about because of logistical or retention problems?

    It’s difficult to say, but I’ve always found Jacob 5 (and 5:65 in particular) to be instructive.

  34. Brian
    We are told only to pray to the Father in the name of the Son and worship only him. There is to be no goddess worship.
    Goddess worship among other things was the downfall of many a society.

  35. Jon, you have your understanding, I have mine. We ‘pray’ to Heavenly Mother when we sing “O My Father.” Also, saying we should do A does not mean we could not also do B. Also, I’m not particularly interested, if it wasn’t clear already, in your final claim about the downfall of society, because indefensible and illogical claims won’t work. I’m smarter than that. But thanks for playing.

  36. Geoff-Aus says:

    Last Sunday I was asked by the sister missonaries if I would assist in the confirmation of2 youngsters they had been teaching. I said no thanks, not until you are doing the blessing.
    I do not understand this creeping change, could they not just be decisive and declare all worthy members can hold the priesthood?

  37. I’m not sure what to say here. Every once in a while I think I’m done with this blog. There seems to be a constant theme that perhaps this is the Lord’s church, but the men who are in leadership positions are completely ignoring His will and don’t even ask Him. They just wait for social pressure to make changes, then, by golly, refuse to give credit to the protesters.

  38. Geoff-Aus says:

    Yw theme now have them aschildren of heavenly parents. Only one step to praying to heavenly parents?

  39. I have been told that when I start attending church openly as the transgender woman that I am, rather than as the costumed tie-wearing person pretending to be a guy, that I will still be welcomed to fellowship and worship as an “unbaptized member.” I am unsure whether I will be allowed to partake of the sacrament, let alone witness. I don’t mind that I am no longer in the bishopric, but it makes me sorrow to consider having the sacrament withheld. Public covenant worship bind us profoundly together. I rejoice to FINALLY be able to see my cis-sisters stand as witnesses to those covenants. Until I can stand there with you, I will simply remain on my knees praying for that day.

  40. Lona–that just breaks my heart.

  41. Perhaps I am alone in this but worshipping some one to me means emulating them. I worship Jesus Christ by trying to confirm my life to the pattern in the scriptures. It does not matter to me to whom I am asked to address my prayers because I worship Heavenly Father, Heavenly Mother and Jesus Christ through the life I live. Whenever I hear people complain that we need more knowledge of Heavenly Mother, I can only think, we know almost as much about her as we know about Heavenly Father. Almost nothing. We assume we know but are really taking the information we have about Christ and applying it to Heavenly Father.
    As to why the timing of changes. I assume it is because circumstances cause the leaders to seek increased revelation. That is how it works in my life. Perhaps in the 1970’s there was a real need for priesthood holders to become more active in living the gospel. Asking them to witness was a simple way to ease them into more participation. Now we need more men actually being the participants in the temple work. Freeing their temple time away from witnessing is necessary to perform the greatly increased number of ordinances that need to be done and are now available to be done. And maybe the men as a whole have progressed where more can be asked of them.
    I do not believe anyone actively engaged in family history and temple work cannot see why the increasing emphasis in talks on this. The volume of records available online to perform the work for the dead is astounding. Members now provide almost all the names we use for temple work; extraction of names no longer necessary. We can now connect entire countries just using online sources. In certain countries, the hints on familysearch are so good you can sit down at a computer and stand up 20 hours later, still not having run out of names to add, without doing any real research, just opening hints and attaching the source records they point to, which then adds more people to the tree.
    It took us over 170 years to get the family tree connected large tree to 500 million people. We will double that in less than 10 years. Once the temple in India is built and they figure out how to digitize and index some of their more recent censuses, we can add another billion people from there alone. The current indexing of Italy’s civil records will add between 250 and 500 million people. That is underway now. New members from China often have family books containing genealogy going back 2,000 years and containing 20,000 names in each book.
    But we lack the temple attending members to do the temple work for these people. Thus, more temples closer to the people and more talks encouraging us to attend. And men freed up to do the endowments, initiatories and sealings.
    One of the main missions of the Church is the work for the dead. The leaders have to be smart about organizing it; there is no way to do it for 100 billion people otherwise. Even in 1,000 years. Which is why Utah continues to get new temples when everyone currently lives within a fairly easy drive of a temple. Utah produces volume which Papua New Guinea will not.
    If you want to be excited about the gospel, get involved in family history. It is like being a scientist at the time the first microscopes were invented. Explosive growth and amazing possibilities.

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