Articles/Essays – Volume 14, No. 4

Women and Ordination: Introduction to the Biblical Context

The question of whether worthy women could be or ought to be ordained to the LDS priesthood has not, until recently, been considered seriously in the LDS community. As recently as 1979, Leonard Arlington and Davis Bitton wrote, “There are no great pressures from Latter-day Saints for priesthood for women, despite similar demands in other contemporary faiths.”[1] Normal LDS treatments of the question really did not address the issue head on, but rather argued for general subordination of women on various grounds, not the least of which was the Church’s policy of excluding women from priesthood ordination itself.[2]

A major reason for this is that recent questions about priesthood ordination for women were first publicly formulated in non-LDS Christian communities, particularly the Anglican/Episcopal tradition, and more recently, in Roman Catholicism.[3] To some Mormons this tainted the question with some how being “of the world.” In addition, the unique sociological and theological dynamics of priesthood in Mormonism require that the question be phrased in somewhat different terms than it has been in Anglicanism or Roman Catholicism.[4] Whereas these traditions distinguish between a common priesthood possessed by all Christians by virtue of their baptism and an ordained or hierarchial priesthood,[5] normally called the priestly ministry, the LDS priesthood is considerably “laicized,” and ordination is not restricted to a trained and specialized elite class of ministers.[6] Consequently, the discussion, started in the context of a non-LDS theology of priesthood and church, has not been picked up quickly by Latter-day Saints. And yet, significantly, some Latter-day Saints are raising the question of the ordination of women. Excommunication resulting from the unauthorized ordination of a woman has occurred. The topic is discussed more and more openly.[7]

After noting some of my working assumptions, I shall briefly give some background from the Old Testament on this subject, then concentrate on insights the New Testament offers. 

I deliberately avoid attempting a study of the history of Mormon policy per se because I am by training a biblical theologian and exegete, not an LDS historian. As much remains to be learned about the theological antecedents as about the historical precedents. Careless use of the Bible, particularly certain passages from the Pauline corpus, has bedeviled the discussion of this question by LDS systematic theologians and produced confusion. Proof texts are often adduced by adherents of both sides in the debate. A recitation here of some of the widely accepted consensus of modern New Testament scholarship about these texts and their place on the general cultural and theological horizon of the New Testament might help alleviate the confusion about what God’s revelation to the primitive Christian church has to say on this matter. (Excellent studies have been published on this topic. These should be read by anyone interested in the issue because I can attempt no more than a brief summary and application of this material.)[8]

Descriptive Biblical Approach: Some Assumptions 

Here are some of the major working assumptions behind my methodology that naturally grow out of a rationally considered LDS faith that do much to support and enhance the real heart and life of our religion.[9]

First, I believe firmly that the Bible has a normative value in Mormonism, just as I believe that LDS scripture and the teachings of the living prophets do. I do not, however, consider this normative value in fundamentalist terms that would make biblical or any particular modern LDS formulations inerrant or an absolute rule of faith. To deny the normative value of the Bible, either through the bad transmission or translation argument, or the claim that current revelation somehow annuls and invalidates all previous revelation, may well cut the Church off from God’s revelation to ancient Israel and the primitive Christian church, as well as from its own past. It will also seriously cripple our ability to understand the real contribution which LDS revelation offers to the religious traditions historically descended from the biblical faith. Such a denial, though current in certain elements of the Mormon community, is rooted deeply in fundamentalist concern and, I believe, betrays the very real experience the LDS people have had with divine revelation in 150 years of Church life.[10]

Second, I believe that the historical-critical method of scriptural study provides the tools best suited to the task of identifying God’s word to the ancients and the meanings infused into these texts by inspired human authors of scripture. This method ideally combines the exacting canons and tools of responsible philology with the empathy of a faith in the inspired nature of these texts. In so doing, it attempts to discriminate between the original inspired sense of scripture and the rich surplus of meaning laid upon scripture by more recent people inspired by God, often themselves authors of additional scripture. Just as the “new Mormon history” is essential to a careful understanding of our own growth as a people, so is critical biblical scholarship necessary for an accurate understanding of the Bible in its original meaning and inspiration. 

Third, one should always remember that the Bible is not a manual of doctrine, a blueprint for the Church, or a code of eternal laws and absolute principles. Rather, it is a record of human experience with the living God, a God who acts as well as speaks. It phrases and expresses this experience and the human values and beliefs concomitant to that experience in history in terms conditioned and colored by the historical, linguistic and cultural milieu in which the inspired human authors wrote. Revelation comes to human beings “in their weakness, after the manner of their language, that they might come to understand” (D&C 1:24). As a result, when we look to the Bible in our discussion about the ordination of women, we should never think we are finding in its pages absolute standards for all time when in fact we are seeing examples of how the people of God have formulated their faith and values in the past, within the context of their own cultures and the specific questions with which they were struggling. 

Fourth, I make a specific caution regarding the limitations circumscribing any attempt in adducing New Testament evidence for use in a modern theological discussion. The New Testament does not give us a complete picture of earliest Christian faith and church practices. Not only is the New Testament evidence incomplete, but it is colored enormously by the occasion and circumstances surrounding the authorship of its books. It is colored by the theological intentions of the second and third generation Christians who committed the early Christian tradition to paper in the gospels; it is colored by the specific polemical situations in which the apostle Paul found himself in writing his epistles. Extreme care must be exercised in using this fragmentary and difficult evidence. Particular care must be taken to allow the New Testament to speak for itself and scrupulously to avoid any interpretation of the texts which relies on associations of ideas not found in the texts themselves. Special care should be taken to avoid imposing categories of thought upon the New Testament which reflect later theological development whether mainstream Christian or LDS. It is only thus that the limited evidence of the New Testament can have any value in the modern discussion. 

Women, Priesthood and Prophecy in the Old Testament 

Clearly, Old Testament culture was androcentric and generally patriarchal. Women were typically disqualified from active roles in political leadership, and although there is no single Old Testament text explicitly forbidding women priests, it is clear that women were excluded from major roles in the Yahwistic Temple cult. Yet this fact does not force us to conclude that the Old Testament authenticates a modern policy of excluding women from ordination, or even teaches ipso facto women’s subordination to men. On the contrary, the condition of women was more advanced in ancient Israel than in contemporary Canaanite culture.[11] The fertility myths and cultic prostitution of Canaanite religion placed value upon women only as means for sexual gratification and the production of children. In contrast to this, the creation narratives of Genesis 1-3 teach clearly the dignity of all human beings and the divine image found in both men and women. 

It is important to note that the priestly disqualification was not a simple expression of a misogynistic belief in the inferiority of women. Rather, it was related to two central elements of Old Testament religion, one ideological and one historical. Ideologically, the Israelites held an entire world view and symbolic structuring of reality in which non-urinary issues from the genitalia were considered to be ritual defilements (see esp. Leviticus 15). Therefore, menstrual flow and postpartum hemorrhaging, as well as semen, were defilements. Thus, because of a simple difference between the sexual biology of men and women, a serious handicap in women’s participation in the cult resulted. The entire world view of which this complex of ideas is an organic part is no longer wholly available to the consciousness of the modern world,[12] and transcends the single issue of women and their societal role. Historically, Israelite polemic against the Canaanite fertility cult, with its use of sacred prostitutes, drew into suspicion and question any participation of women in the ritual. It is important to note that both of these elements in ancient Judaism do not obtain at all in modern Mormonism. 

Several Old Testament references to women and the prophetic gift warrant our attention. The basic concept of “prophet” in the Old Testament involves someone filled with Yahweh’s spirit who speaks Yahweh’s word.[13] The Old Testament does not normally associate the idea of “priesthood” with the idea of “prophet,” except, perhaps, in the charter narratives that trace the Levitical and Aaronic classes back to God’s revelation to the prophet par excellence, Moses, as well as the Book of Ezekiel, and some passing references in I Samuel to an early oracular, but not explicitly prophetic, function of priests (I Sam. 14:36-42; 23:9-11; 30:7-8). Indeed, the Old Testament never even hints that priesthood is a requirement or prerequisite for prophecy. 

Of interest to our discussion is the fact that three women in the Old Testament are mentioned by name and endorsed explicitly with the term “prophetess”(nebVa).[14] These are Miriam (Exod. 15:20), Deborah (Judges 4:4-5), and Huldah (II Kings 22:14). In Old Testament categories, there is no theoretical distinction between the authority and religious office of a woman like Deborah or Huldah and a man like Elisha. This is not to say that the Old Testament has examples of women who, possessing the prophetic gift, held the “priesthood.” This would be a serious misuse of the texts. However, in any LDS doctrinal formulation which takes these texts into account, one must remember that the Old Testament concept of “prophet” is adapted and accommodated in the LDS scriptures. Thus, in D & C 107:40-54, many Old Testament figures, conceived here as prophetic, are associated with the LDS Melchizedek Priesthood. A consistent accommodation of these texts in LDS usage would point to some understanding of priesthood authority for these women, though clearly such an understanding is not implied by the biblical text. A similar accommodation could be applied to Deborah, who is also portrayed as a “judge” in Israel (Judges 4:5). Again, the point is not that the Old Testament teaches that Deborah held the priesthood, for in the Old Testament’s eyes the function of “judge” has little to do with “priesthood.” but here again, an image normally considered an ordained office in the LDS church is applied to a woman in the Old Testament. 

Priesthood and Ministries in the New Testament 

“Priesthood” is not a term the New Testament uses to describe specific ministries and roles of service to be exercised by the individual Christian. More correctly one speaks of “ministries” in the New Testament, rather than “priesthood,” if one remains faithful to New Testament categories regarding the function and role of various parts of the community in the service of God and one’s fellows. A survey of the New Testament use of the Greek terms hiereus (priest), archihiereus (chief, or high priest), as well as the abstract nouns hierateia, hierateuma and hierosyne (priesthood) reveals this clearly. These terms in the New Testament generally apply to the priestly class of Jerusalem—the Jewish priesthood. Many of the passages where these terms occur do not endorse this “priesthood” as an active authority from God, but rather accept the Jewish institution as a sociological and historical fact, and commonly set this institution against Jesus and the early Christian community just as many references pit the Scribes and Pharisees against them. Generally, the terms “priest” or “priesthood” are not applied to Christians or seen as an element in their role as members of the Christian community. 

Occasional passages refer to the Jewish priesthood in terms of its role in the faith and life of the earliest Christians because of the historical origins of Christianity as a sect of Judaism. The synoptics portray Jesus saying to a healed leper, “show yourself to the priest” (Matt. 8:4; Mark 1:44; Luke 17:14; cf. Lev. 13:49). Similarly, the Lucan infancy narrative, in an attempt to show the continuity between what Luke considers to be authentic Judaism and Christianity, presents Zacharias as a priest in the temple cult and portrays Anna and Simeon as figures in the Old Testament cultic tradition who have Christian faith. Note, however, that these nonpolemical passages still use the term “priesthood” in a sense properly referring to the Jewish priesthood and not a Christian one. 

There are three important exceptions to this absence from the New Testament of the term “priesthood” in describing things Christian. The most significant exception occurs in the Letter to the Hebrews. The author of this anonymous treatise has worked out a lengthy and complex series of proofs of the superiority of Christianity over Judaism: the superiority of Jesus Christ to the prophets, angels and Moses (1:1-3:6), the superiority of Christ’s priesthood to the Levitical priesthood of Judaism (4:14-7:28) and the superiority of Christ’s sacrifice in the heavenly sanctuary to the sacrificial ritual of the Levitical priesthood (8:1-10:39).[15] In the process of the argument, the term “priesthood” is applied not only to the Levites and the Jewish Temple cult, but also to Christ. It should be noted here, however, that the priesthood in question is Christ’s, and is never applied to Christians in general by the author. In fact, it is clear by the line of reasoning that the main referent generating the description of Christ as the great high priest is not a ministry in the Christian community but the Levitical cult itself. 

The other two exceptions are descriptions of the Christian community as a holy nation, a royal priesthood (1 Pet. 2:5, 9), and as a kingdom, priests (Apoc. 1:6; 5:10).[16] Although here there seems to be a genuine transferral of Old Testament priesthood terminology to the Christian community, the whole Christian community is understood, rather than a specifically ordained and set apart section of the community. This militates against our seeing even here a reference to a “Christian priesthood” as normally conceived by churches which associate priesthood with a special rite of ordination.[17]

I should note that although Paul does not use the words for “priest” or “priesthood” to describe Christians and their ministries, he does occasionally describe Christ in images borrowed from the Jewish Temple cult (Rom. 3:24-25; 5:2; 8:3, 34; Eph. 2:18). Additionally, in a single reference Paul describes his own ministry in terms derived from the priestly cult (Rom. 15:16). Yet he avoids the specific terms for priesthood and priest, though the words which he does use are loaded with priestly overtones. It is probably from such a reference as this that the institution and theology of a Christian priesthood was able to develop, grow, and take root during the second century A.D. 

The fact that “priesthood” is not used in the New Testament to describe the various ministries and roles of service and leadership in the Christian community is important. It has far reaching implications in any attempt to build an LDS ecclesiology, or theology about the Church, and to deal adequately with the New Testament evidence. A key in understanding New Testament values as they relate to the question of the ordination of women to the LDS priesthood is whether ministries in the New Testament which normally have been associated in Mormonism with ordination to the priesthood are exercised only by men, or by men and women alike. 

Despite the lack of a formulated concept of an “ordained priesthood in the church” throughout the New Testament, there are in the later books, especially the Pastoral epistles (the Pauline authorship of which is questioned, rightly, by most New Testament scholarship today), tendencies toward seeing the Christian ministries in terms of institutionally ordered offices and hierarchy. Despite these later tendencies, ministries throughout most of the New Testament are conceived in somewhat flexible and changing terms. A good example of this is found in the Pauline lists of charisms (gifts) and ministries (1 Cor. 12:4-11; 1 Cor. 12:28-31; Rom. 12:4-8; and, if we reject the Bultmannian denial of the Pauline authorship of the captivity letters, in Eph. 4:11-14). A comparison of these texts reveals many parallels and many points of divergence. Some of this results from the various settings and functions of the lists. A certain flexibility in describing the ministries is understandable in terms of Pauline thought. For Paul, “there are varieties of gifts, but the same spirit; varieties of service, but the same Lord” (1 Cor. 12:4-5). In other words, the ministries of the church are varied, and performed by various people in the community, yet all the ministries come from God. For him, these “gifts . . . differ according to the grace given to us” (Rom. 12:6), since the Spirit “apportions to each one individually as it wills” (1 Cor. 12:11). This diversity has one ultimate goal, that the Christian community, functioning as a healthy body with various members of diverse functions, “equip the saints for the work of the ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God” (Eph. 4:12-13). Though certainly for Paul some of these diverse ministries are more important in the process of “upbuilding” than others, just as some of the charisms are “higher gifts” and of “a more excellent way” (1 Cor. 12:31), for him all are necessary. In his understanding, there was no one faction or group which exercised all ministries in the church, or even controlled them all. 

Women in the New Testament 

A dominant theme throughout the New Testament is that through Jesus the kingdom of God has broken into human history, and that the “age to come” of apocalyptic expectation has in some respects been realized by Jesus and in the Christian community. This dual Christological/eschatological faith informs the New Testament portrayal of women and their roles in the early church. In the “new creation” inaugurated by Christ (Gal. 6:15), “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female” (Gal. 3:28). This understanding undergirds much of the New Testament view of women and their place in the early Christian church despite the heavy limitations imposed upon early Christianity by the patriarchal cultures of the Greco-Roman and ancient Jewish world.[18] From the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, women followed him and they themselves ministered of their substance and labors (Luke 8:2-3); many were faithful to Jesus to the end of his life (Mark 15:40-41; 16:1). The first disciples to discover the empty tomb were women (Mark 16:2-8; Luke 24:1-11), and in the Matthean and one of the Johannine resurrection narratives, women were the first to see the resurrected Lord (Matt 28:1-10; John 20:11-18). 

None of the various lists of the names of the Twelve includes any women (Mark 3:16-19; Matt. 10:2-4; Luke 6:14-16; Acts 1:13). But this does not mean that women were thereby considered secondary in the community and its ministries, or that women were somehow excluded from apostleship per se. For though the Twelve are called apostles in some passages,[19] the circle of apostles was not limited to the Twelve. In Pauline understanding, the requisites to make a person an apostle were (1) to have seen the risen Lord and (2) to have received a commission by Jesus to preach (1 Cor. 9:1; 15:7-9; Gal. 1:16). For Luke, one also had to have been a companion of Jesus during his earthly ministry (Acts 1:21-22).[20] Significantly, women in the early Christian community met all these criteria for the apostleship. Women were among the group designated by the resurrected Jesus in Luke as his witnesses to the world (Luke 24:48; cf. vv. 22 and 33). Just as the omission of gentiles, slaves, Samaritans and (with the exception of Judas) of Judaeans from the lists of the Twelve says nothing about their exclusion from participation in the early Christian ministries normally associated with ordained priesthood in LDS usage, so also the omission of women from these lists does not imply a less than full participation of women in these ministries. 

There is abundant evidence of the participation of women in the various New Testament ministries. Women are seen exercising leadership (Rom. 16:1-2, 6, 12; Phil. 4:2-3), actively participating in church services (1 Cor. 11:5), teaching converts (Acts 18:26), founding churches (Acts 18:2, 18-19; 1 Cor. 16:3-5) and even acting as Christian prophets (1 Cor. 11:5; Acts 21:9). Many of these ministries seem analogous to opportunities available in the LDS church to religiously active women without ordination to the priesthood. However, some of these roles, particularly the founding of local churches and the exercise of leadership, have some connotations of priesthood in Mormonism. More important are two references in Romans 16 to women who seem to be exercising ministries which, though not necessarily associated with priesthood or administrative office in the New Testament, are specifically connected to priesthood office in the restoration. 

Phoebe (Rom. 16:1-2) is called a diakonos, a word translated as “deacon” by the KJV when it occurs in Phil. 1:1 and 1 Tim. 3:8, 12. It would be ill conceived to understand the word in Romans 16 as “deaconess,” since to do so would anachronistically read back into the New Testament an office in the early Christian church attested at the earliest in the third century, normally identified not by the word diakonos, but by diakonissa.[21] In addition, the word diakonos in the authentic Pauline corpus normally means “minister” or “ser vant” (1 Cor. 3:5; 2 Cor. 3:4-6:13), understood as a gift rather than a specific office, and it is thus that the word usually is translated in this verse. Indeed, the word diakonos, as Paul normally uses it, could perhaps rightly be applied to LDS women today in their various ministries of compassionate service, teaching and administration of auxiliary organizations. Nevertheless, the word diakonos, as it is used in the Pastorals, does denote a specific office in the church, the office of “deacon,” and this office in early Christianity is normally understood in Mormonism as a priesthood office. Significantly, the use of the genitive “of the church” in Rom. 16:1-2 reveals that Paul is seeing Phoebe’s ministry in terms of not merely a charismatic service but also in terms of an office. As Oepke points out, “The description of Phebe [sic] as the diakonos of the church at Chenchrea indicates the point where the original charism is becoming an office.[22] Thus, Phoebe, as a “deacon,” stands as one example of women serving in ministries conceived as priestly in Mormonism. 

In the same letter of recommendation in which Paul refers to Phoebe as a diakonos, he also probably refers to a woman apostolos (apostle) when he writes, “Greet Andronikos and Junia, my kinspeople and my fellow prisoners, who are outstanding among the apostles” (Rom. 16:7). I translate the verse thus for several reasons. The manuscript reading Iounian, which is the accusative singular either of the feminine proper name Iounia or of the masculine proper name Iounias, depending upon its accent (which would not have been written in the epigraphy of Paul’s day), is the best attested and methodologically soundest reading of the text. Since apparently the near unanimous voice of the first thirteen centuries of Christian interpretation of the verse under stood the name as feminine, and since the masculine name Iounias is not attested in Greek until long after the period of the New Testament,[23] I too am inclined to read the namelounia, and understand it as a reference to a woman. Finally, although the phrase episemoi en tois apostolois could also be understood as “well known among (i.e., to) the apostles,” I believe that Junia and Andronikos are here understood as outstanding apostles, because in Paul the preposition en in this kind of locution normally means “among.” Had he meant “to” he probably would have used the dative apostolois without the preposition. What we have is reference to a woman Paul considered not only an apostle, but an outstanding one. 

Some of the New Testament ministries which Latter-day Saints normally associate exclusively with ordination and priesthood seemingly were exercised by women in the primitive church. Any arguments based upon New Testament scriptures to support the exclusion of women from the LDS priesthood should be carefully weighed in this light. 

Rules for Worship; Rules for the Home 

There are several passages in the epistles which are often used as prooftexts to support the subordination of women to men in the modern LDS Church. These deal with specific rules governing conduct in church services (1 Cor. 11:3-6; 1 Cor. 14:33-35; 1 Tim. 2:11-15). 

In the first of these texts (1 Cor. 11), Paul instructs women that they must wear a head-covering in public worship, so that they might not appear unseemly (by the social customs of his day). He justifies this practice on the basis of four things: (1) the order of creation and the ontology it implies (w. 3, 7-9), (2) the natural decency required by societal standards (w. 4-6), (3) the practice of the “churches of God,” i.e., the Palestinian Jewish Christian churches (v. 16), and (4) “because of the angels” (v. 10).[24] Despite the fact that Paul firmly believes his rule is grounded in unassailable tradition (v. 2), current LDS church practice does not require women to cover their heads in regular public worship and thus demonstrates the cultural contingency of the rule. 

In the second text (1 Cor. 14:33-35), a proscription is laid upon women’s speaking in church. To understand these verses as if Paul were forbidding women to teach in church or publicly address the assembly, is unwarranted. The text does not refer to “teaching” (didaskein) but rather to “speaking” (lalein), and the context suggests that Paul’s main concern was to prevent disturbances caused by speaking out of turn (w. 28, 30) or raising questions during church services better left to domestic discussion (v. 35). It is inconceivable that Paul would have considered his rule in terms of speech in general because elsewhere he endorses women who pray and prophesy in public worship (1 Cor. 11:5).

The third text (1 Tim. 2:11-15) is attributed by nearly all modern New Testament scholars not to Paul, but to a later author writing in the Pauline tradition and under his name. Here indeed women are forbidden to teach (didaskein) in church and are exhorted to remain silent. This rule was not known and practiced by all the New Testament churches, for, as I noted above, women played an active role in Paul’s churches, and one is indeed pictured teaching in Acts 18:26. The rule therefore should not be seen as a universal having strict normative effect upon us. The fact that women do teach in the modern LDS Church casts doubt on any attempt to use this text to establish an exclusionary ordination policy. 

All of these passages, then, include directives of ancient church leaders to specific congregations in a specific cultural milieu about what is acceptable and decent in public worship. They do not give us absolute standards regard ing who should participate in which ministries in the Church. 

Since in Mormonism “priesthood” is often associated with concepts of family and family roles, prooftexts dealing with family relations are also adduced by some Latter-day Saints to support the exclusion of women from ordination. These texts occur in the “Haustafeln” (German for “rules of the house”) lists found in the late Pauline and deutero-Pauline corpus (Col. 3:18-4:1; Eph. 5:21-6:9; Titus 2:1-10) as well as in 1 Pet. 2:18-3:7. The Haustafeln are exhortations addressed to various members of the familia, or the extended family of the ancient Mediterranean world, including slaves, children, husbands and wives. They tell people the standards of behavior they should follow in their position in the familia. These passages are often cited today to teach that the subordination of women is not only good, but planned and desired by God. Such a use of the Haustafeln, if consistently applied, would require us to argue that the institution of slavery is also desired by God. Rather, these domestic rules attempt to explicate how Chris tian values should form our behavior and attitudes within our circumstances and the societal constraints around us. They should not be seen as endorsements of any of these conditions in themselves. They merely assume them, and sometimes even incorporate ideologies rooted in them (see 1 Pet. 3:7). 

The values informing these lists of domestic rules are significant and must be understood clearly if the inspired sense of these texts is to become apparent. These texts stress the love, consideration and respect to be shown by the various members of the familia in their relations to one another not the moral value of the cultural context of these relations. Although they are clearly subordinationist, it seems that they are moving away from the misogyny and slave-holding mentality of the general culture in which Christianity was born toward a more enlightened view of the intrinsic value of all people and the moral responsibility of loving one’s neighbors, “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Eph. 5:22-25); “Wives, be subject to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord. Husbands, love your wives, and do not be harsh with them. Children, obey your parents in everything, for this pleases the Lord. Fathers, do not provoke your children, lest they become discouraged. Slaves, obey in everything those who are your earthly masters . . . Masters, treat your slaves justly and fairly, knowing that you also have a Master in heaven” (Col. 3:18-4:1). These texts, though phrased and conceived in an androcentric world-view, do not teach the normal subordinationism laid upon them by modern prooftexters. Rather, the subordination taught here is one in which the individual submits to and serves humbly his or her fellows, all in submission to the Lord. 

The denial of priesthood and various church offices cannot then be inferred reasonably from these New Testament rules for public worship and domestic life. 

The Created Order; Eve’s Transgression 

Some Latter-day Saints may object to the foregoing treatment of these texts on liturgical and domestic regulations on the grounds that while they may argue for some rules, particularly the requirement for head-covering, which are simply “local customs and traditions,” they incorporate into their argument a proclamation of “certain basic and eternal principles pertaining to men and women and their relationship to each other.”[25] This objection rests on the assumption that the subordinationist logic used in these texts, particularly the references to the order of creation (1 Cor. 11:3, 7-8,12; 1 Tim. 2:13) and to Eve’s transgression (2 Cor. 11:3; 1 Tim. 2:14), reflects and sustains the teaching of the modern LDS Church.[26] A careful examination of these texts reveals that their theological reasoning is just as culturally contingent as are the rules they serve to support. Even if one is to take popular LDS formulations of faith as the only reliable guides to “eternal and unchanging principles,” the reasoning used in these texts must be viewed as limited by history and culture, for LDS doctrine thus conceived simply does not correspond to the theology in these texts. To show this, I shall discuss (1) how the use of Genesis 1-3 in these texts is more dependent upon cultural factors in the New Testament than upon the intent of Genesis, and (2) how the theological anthropology in these texts cannot be harmonized with standard LDS ideas about the eternity and non-contingency of the individual human being. 

1. The meaning later attributed to Genesis 1 -3 in these texts cannot be reconciled with the original meaning of Genesis. One of the four arguments Paul uses in favor of head-covering in I Corinthians 11 concerns the sequence of creation in Genesis and Paul’s view of the ontological consequences of this sequence: the “head” (kephale— source, origin)[27] of the woman is her husband (v. 3); while man is the image and glory of God, woman is the glory of man (v. 7), because woman was created from and for man (w. 8-9, cf. 1 Tim. 2:13-15). It is Paul’s own culture that allows him to accommodate Genesis in this way. 

The two separate stories of creation, the first in Gen. l:l-2:4a and the second in Gen. 2:4b-3:24, are discrete literary and theological units in the eyes of all leading modern interpreters of the Bible, whether they accept any of the classic formulations of the documentary hypothesis about the literary origins of the Pentateuch or not. Paul’s claim that only the man was created in the image of God, or that the woman was created secondarily, cannot be gathered from the first story. There, the two genders of humanity are created by means of the speech of God at the same moment, and both are equally in God’s image, “In the image of God created he him (=humanity’ adam), Male and Female created he them (Gen. 1:27, cf. 5:1-2).” 

Similarly, the second creation story does not lend itself to Paul’s exegesis. The sequencing of the creation of man (is) and woman (issa) in Genesis does not speak to the subordination of women. At issue in this story are the unity and solidarity of the couple. They are made from one human being ( adam), and are bone of bones, flesh of flesh, woman fissa) from man (7s) (Gen. 2:33). 

The usual appeal of modern subordinationists to the words “helpmeet” or “helpmate,” supposedly in the KJV of his passage, is painfully mistaken. “Helpmeet” or “helpmate” do not occur in the KJV, but are neologisms resulting from an elementary misunderstanding of the archaic language of the KJV. “An help meet for him” (KJV Gen. 2:18, 20) simply means “a helper suitable or fitting for him,” just as “it is not meet” means “it is not fitting.”[28] The Hebrew expression here/ ezer kenegdd, means “a help fitting for, suitable for, or even, on par with, him,” and does not carry the connotation of “servant” which the English word “helper” carries. 

An element in the second creation story, though distinct from the issue of creation order, has generated the other New Testament theme used by subordinationism prooftexters, the transgression of Eve (1 Tim. 2:14; 2 Cor. 11:3). The story describes the defection of woman and man (in that order) from Yahweh, and the subsequent subordination of woman to man (Gen. 3:16-17). Significantly, however, this is an etiology for the social status of women in the author’s culture, set parallel to the etiologies of snakes’ locomotion and the antipathy of human beings to them, as well as to the difficulty of agriculture. As such, the etiology for the subordination of women here must be considered as descriptive rather than prescriptive. To think otherwise is to suggest that in a modern application, this text somehow not only prescribes the subordination of women, but also forbids anesthesia during childbirth (3:16) and the earning of a living in any manner except manual agriculture in weed-infested fields (3:17-19). In the second story, the subordination of woman is looked upon as a distortion of the created order resulting from humankind’s alienation from Yahweh. Perhaps Paul is closer to the meaning of Genesis when he stresses that despite the subordination of women in the present system of things, “in Christ” there is neither male nor female (Gal. 3:28). 

2. The theological anthropology in these texts cannot be harmonized with standard LDS doctrine. When Paul argues for the head-covering rule, he does so on the basis that the man is the head, or source of being, of the woman, and that while man is the image and glory of God, woman is only the man’s glory. This argument not only fails to adopt the relatively egalitarian perspective of the Genesis texts but also assumes many things most Latter-day Saints simply could not accept if they recognized them for what they are. Paul assumes that the very being of women is contingent upon that of men, while men’s being is contingent upon the being of God. Although the idea of contingent being of humankind fits comfortably into much biblical theology and the theology of ex nihilo creation in mainstream Christianity, it is contrary (though perhaps not contradictory) to much of Mormonism’s symbolic expression and teaching.[29] The idea that all human beings are “co-equal” in their eternity with God, or that “as man is, God once was; as God is now, man may become,” simply cannot be harmonized with the ontology of human beings Paul uses as a central part of his reasoning here. These ideas might be allowed to stand under an uneasy truce within their own horizons of discourse. But the basic point is that Paul’s idea cannot be reduced simplistically to a reflection of standard LDS understandings of “eternal principles.”

Likewise, it seems to me that Mormons who profess to “believe that men will be punished for their own sins, and not for Adam’s transgression” would not want to speak of the transgression of Eve as justification for the denial of priesthood to women today, particularly when denial of priesthood to males today is ideally a function of personal worthiness. This is all the more the case in a religious tradition which tends to reinterpret the story in Genesis 3 from a symbolic narrative dealing with humankind’s alienation from God and concomitant human suffering, to a celebration of the descent of premortally existent spirits into a physical state of moral trial and growth.

Although the subject of priesthood ordination for Mormon women is difficult and its discussion frequently emotional, many avenues of study can facilitate understanding of the basic issues. I have discussed one of these from a New Testament context that is often overlooked. Within the LDS tradition are other overlooked elements that should be studied more fully for the insights they provide. Women already perform priesthood ordinances upon one another during the initiatory ordinances in the temple. We have a concept of a Mother in Heaven who is as divine and exalted as is the Father. In our canonical LDS scriptures there is no actual prohibition of the ordination of women. In a more sociological context, it is now quite clear that the Church can be remarkably flexible once the general membership has been prepared by the Spirit to accept new revelation through the general leaders. Black males, after all, were given the priesthood in 1978 in the face of Book of Abraham texts ostensibly far more prohibitive than any texts in our scriptures that might conceivably be used to argue against the ordination of women. In early LDS history many of the ministries later associated exclusively with the ordained priesthood were commonly the duty and privilege of worthy female members. These include such ministries as anointing with oil for the healing of the sick, the giving of blessings by means of the laying on of hands,[30] and the independent administration of funds in organizations such as the Relief Society and the Primary. A clear understanding on our part of the early confusion in LDS doctrinal discourse between “ordination” and “setting apart” might serve as a corrective to elements of our male-centered doctrinal expressions today. 

Much theological work needs to be done: more thought about an accurate definition of priesthood, and a careful description of women and priesthood in LDS history. In terms of the general joining together in LDS theology of concepts dealing with family and priesthood, careful attention to the sociology of family and priesthood in the Church is needed today. The dynamics of LDS biblical accommodation might be a fruitful area of investigation as well as the possible forms a revelation on this topic might take. Finally, and probably most important, a sensitive treatment of the question of gender stereotyping versus “androgyny” in terms of authentic LDS values and the formation of self-image among Latter-day Saints would help the discussion enormously. After all, conceptions of “priesthood” in D&C 121 seem to be the ideal of human service and leadership for females as well as males. (These concepts seem somewhat at variance with the hierarchial and institutional discourse generally used in attempts to defend the exclusion of women from the priesthood.) 

In terms of the New Testament evidence, there is no reason to deny ordination to women; there are, instead, compelling reasons to recommend it. Yet the New Testament evidence is clearly not the only criterion which will be used to decide the issue. Since “we believe in the organization which existed in the primitive church,” however, the evidence adduced here ought to encourage a thorough and self-searching investigation of the entire issue. 

[1] Leonard Arrington and Davis Bitton, The Mormon Experience: A History of the Latter-day Saints (New York: Knopf, 1979), p. 259. 

[2] See, J. A. Widtsoe, Priesthood and Church Government in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter day Saints (Salt Lake City: Deseret, 1939; reprint, 1966), pp. 83-85, 87-89. Most of these paragraphs are Widtsoe’s own or those of his wife Leah Widtsoe published originally in her book Priesthood and Womanhood); J. Reuben Clark, Jr., “Our Wives and our Mothers in the Eternal Plan,” Relief Society Magazine 33/12 (Dec, 1946), pp. 795-804; Bruce R. McConkie, Mormon Doctrine (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, second ed. 1966) pp. 843-44, and Doctrinal New Testament Commentary (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1970) vol. 2: Acts-Philippians pp. 359-62; Rodney Turner, Woman and the Priesthood (Salt Lake City: Deseret, 1972) pp. 279-307. Common among these authors is the idea that what “priesthood” is for males, “motherhood” is for females. The difficulty with the idea is obvious: “priesthood” is the antonym not of “motherhood,” but rather of “non-priesthood.” “Motherhood” is the antonym of “fatherhood.” For a discussion of this, see: Michael T. Harward, “Priesthood and the Male Experience,” Sunstone 6/5 (Sept./Oct., 1981) 45-49. 

[3] For background in Anglicanism and Roman Catholicism, see: Emily C. Hewitt and Suzanne R. Hiatt, Women Priests: Yes or No? (New York: Seabury, 1973); Marianne H. Micks and Charles P. Price, editors, Toward a New Theology of Ordination: Essays on the Ordination of Women (Sommerville, Mass.: Greeno, Hadden & Company, Ltd., 1976); Catholic Theological Society of America, A Report on the Status of Women in Church and Society: Considered in the Light of the Question of Women’s Ordination (Mahwah, N.J.: Darlington Seminary, 1978); National Conference of Catholic Bishops, Theological Reflections on the Ordination of Women (Washington, D.C.: USCC, 1972); Carroll Stuhlmuehller, C.P., editor, Women and Priesthood: Future Directions (Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 1978); Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, “Declaration on the Question of the Admission of Women to the Ministerial Priesthood,” Origins 6 (February 3, 1977) 517-24; L. and A. Swidler, editors, Women Priests: A Catholic Commentary on the Vatican Declaration (New York: Paulist, 1977). 

[4] The “do-it-yourself” nature of much LDS theological expression, coupled with ad hoc decision-making processes in the hierarchy complicate this because the issue of normative sources of doctrine is not as defined in LDS discussion as it is in the Anglican or Roman communions.

[5] See in particular Lumen Gentium sections 10-13, in The Documents of Vatican II with Notes and Comments by Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox Authorities, edit. Walter M. Abbot, S.J.; trans, ed. Joseph Gallagher (Chicago: Follet Publishing/Association Press, 1966) pp. 27-33. 

[6] I borrow the term “laicized” from John Dillenberger, “Faith and Works in Martin Luther and Joseph Smith,” in Reflections on Mormonism: Judaeo-Christian Parallels, edit. Truman G. Madsen (BYU Religious Studies Center Monograph Series 4; Provo, Utah: BYU Press, 1978), p. 178. The tensions in discourse caused when one applies normal biblical or even mainstream Christian terminologies to this “laicized” priesthood are not the only tensions present in LDS theologies when viewed in a larger Christian context. Many of the theological innovations of the Nauvoo period produce similar dislocations and tensions in LDS discourse about God when it attempts to appropriate from the biblical tradition formulations about the one-ness and otherness of God. This occurs precisely because Joseph Smith “democratized” many elements of biblical descriptions of divinity and applied them to human beings in general. Thus, John’s gospel describes the premortal existence of Jesus as the divine word, whereas Smith describes all human beings as premortally existent. True godhood in the afterlife was similarly democratized. See Sterling McMurrin, The Theological Foundations of the Mormon Religion (Salt Lake City, Utah: Univ. of Utah Press, 1965), passim. 

[7] Examples of this are found in two papers on the issue presented at the Sunstone Theological Symposium in August, 1981, by Cynthia Skousen Ellswood and Mark Gustavson. Also reflecting the tendency is the poem “Priesthood” by Lisa Bolin Hawkins, published in Linda Sillitoe’s “New Voices, New Songs: Contemporary Poems by Mormon Women,” Dialogue 13/4 (Winter, 1980) 47-61, as well as, perhaps, the article by M. T. Harward mentioned in note 2 above. 

[8] See Roger Gryson, The Ministry of Women in the Early Church (Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 1976); John P. Meier, “On the Veiling of Hermeneutics (1 Cor. 11:2-16),” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 40/2 (April, 1978) 212-26; Pontifical Biblical Commission, “Can Women be Priests?” Origins 6 (July 1, 1976) 92-96; Catholic Biblical Association Taskforce on the Role of Women in Early Christianity, “Women and Priestly Ministry: The New Testament Evidence,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 41/4 (October, 1979) 608-13; Elisabeth M. Tetlow, Women and Ministry in the New Testament (New York: Paulist, 1980). For a popularized treatment from an evangelical protestant feminist, see Virginia Ramey Mollenkott, Women, Men & the Bible (Nashville: Abing don, 1977). I note my indebtedness to the C.B.A. taskforce report for parts of my own treatment here. 

[9] I argued this position at length in my paper, “LDS Approaches to the Holy Bible,” at the 1981 Sunstone Theological Symposium and forthcoming in Dialogue. 

[10] See the section on LDS revelation and the propositional model of revelation in “LDS Approaches.” 

[11] For an excellent and popular discussion, see J. McKenzie, The Two Edged Sword: An Interpretation of the Old Testament (Milwaukee: Bruce, 1956) pp. 93-96. 

[12] For an overview, see Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo (New York: Praeger, 1966) and Robert Alter, “A New Theory of Kashrut,” Commentary 68/2 (August, 1979) 46-52. 

[13] See Gerhard von Rad, Old Testament Theology vol. I (New York: Harper & Row, 1962), pp. 93-102. 

[14] A fourth is named and called a prophetess, but she is clearly not endorsed and would in LDS terminology be called a “false” one. See Nehemiah 6:14. 

[15] The complex argument in Hebrews uses a midrash on Gen. 14:17-20 in a crucial section about the superiority of Christ’s priesthood. The author combines Psalm 2:7 and Psalm 110:4 to argue that Christ, as God’s son, though ineligible for the Levitical priesthood by lineage, possesses a priesthood “after the order of Melchizedek” (Heb. 5:6, cf. Ps 110:4), or “in the likeness of Melchizedek” (Heb. 7:15). Melchizedek, the Jebusite king mentioned in Gen. 14:17-20, is a prime candidate for such a comparison. The midrashic technique applied here assumes that if something is not in the text, it is not in the world. The technique therefore can note many parallels useful to the author’s intent though appearing somewhat fanciful to modern readers. The lack of mention of Melchizedek’s birth or death in the Old Testament parallels Jesus’ uncertain priestly genealogy and the everlasting nature of his priesthood (Heb. 7:3). The mention of Melchizedek in Ps. 110 supports this parallel, for he here appears as an Old Testament figure with priesthood who was not a Levite. Ps. 2 and Ps. 110 were originally royal psalms referring to the historical kings of the Davidic dynasty in Judah. Because they expressed a profound religious hope and trust in the anointed Davidic king, they became easily adapted and associated with an ideal future scion of David’s line when the dynasty became as corrupt as it is portrayed in the major prophets or the deuter- onomistic history. In that this scion as a Davidid would be anointed (rriasiah), he can rightly be called “messianic.” With the abrupt collapse of the dynasty in 587, contrary as it was to the oracle of Nathan as expressed in 2 Sam. 7:8-16, the royal messianism of such psalms naturally became more and more associated with this future David, this Messiah. As priesthood in the exile appropriated the prerogatives of the now defunct institution of kingship, including apparently the anointing, there was speculation about future priestly figures with salvific power. Thus at Qumran, there is talk of two Messiahs, one kingly and one priestly. The New Testament writers could rightly and easily adopt and accommodate the royal psalms and apply them to Jesus, in whom they saw the fulfillment of hope for the Davidic and the priestly Messiah. The terminology “priest forever after the order of Melchizedek” in Psalm 110 probably was one of the royal titles used by the Davidic house, referring to priestly functions the king ultimately inherited from the native Jebusite priesthood of *el elyon when David established the Ark at Zion and made the city his capital. The author of Hebrews, however, understands the terminology as a reference to a priesthood to which Abraham paid tithes (N.B., in the Hebrew of Genesis 14, Melchizedek might be the one paying Abraham, not vice versa) outside of the Levitical lineage. The part of the titulature, or battery of titles, specifying the king as Yahweh’s son (cf. 2 Sam. 7:14 and Isa. 9:5) is likewise accommodated by Hebrews and applied to Jesus as God’s son. 

This text clearly triggered the LDS revelation on the terminology for Mormonism’s two-tiered priesthood: see D&C 68:15,19; 76:57; 107:3-4. Here again, democratization has occurred. The everlasting priesthood which is Christ’s and his alone in Hebrews (remember that in the letter Melchizedek serves as a parallel and a typos for Christ, not as his competitor) has become the possession of every worthy male in the restored Church. For a complete discussion of the function of Melchizedek and his priesthood in Hebrews, see J. A. Fitzmyer, “‘Now this Melchizedek . . . ‘ (Heb 7:1),” in Essays on the Semitic Background of the New Testament (SBLMS 5; Missoula, Montana: Scholars’ Press, 1974) pp. 221-44. 

[16] These texts are normally adduced by Roman Catholics and Anglicans when speaking of the “common” priesthood of all believers as opposed to the ordained ministerial priesthood. Note that the best manuscript readings of Apocalypse 1:6 refer not to “kings and priests to God,” but to “a kingdom, priests to God.” See notes 5 and 6 above.

[17] Some Latter-day Saints would object on two grounds. First, the old LDS missionary Bible “Ready References” provided many apparently excellent proofs of the claim that “ordination in the priesthood [was] recognized as essential by the [ancient] apostles,” right from the New Testament! I reply simply that none of these prooftexts explicitly associate the Christian ministries with priesthood. Some (Acts 6:6; 13:3; I Tim. 4:14) refer to the inauguration of a ministry or the bestowal of a “gift” by the laying on of hands. Others (Acts 1:21-26; I Tim. 2:7) speak of the choosing, setting apart, or appointment (“ordination,” without priestly overtones) of people into various ministries. But none refer to “priesthood” explicitly, and that is precisely the difficulty with these prooftexts. Even in the LDS tradition, it has become necessary to distinguish between ordination to the priesthood and setting apart for offices, though both these rituals are accomplished by the laying on of hands. Second, many Latter-day Saints would point to the restoration by John the Baptist, Peter, James, John and indeed, Jesus himself, of the priesthood to Joseph Smith, and argue that this restoration guarantees that Smith’s understanding of priesthood reflects precisely how ancient Christians under the leadership of these men understood it. I reply that if Christians of the New Testament period understood priesthood in the same terms as modern Mormons do today, they did not express it so. It seems clear that Joseph Smith’s own understanding of priesthood and ministry developed a great deal even after the innaugural visions restoring “priesthood.” Despite constant conflation of Old Testament and New Testament conceptions of priesthood and ministries in the Book of Mormon, I think it is safe to say the early sections of the D&C do not contain all of the advanced priesthood theology of D&C 84 or D&C 107. The visions that Joseph Smith later in life apparently viewed as the “restoration of the Aaronic and Melchizedek priesthoods” were probably not conceived as precisely and defined as this at the time of the visions themselves. A careful study of the historical development of the prophet’s own priesthood theology might well reveal that the seminal understandings provoked by the “restoration” appearances are in fact far closer to New Testament conceptions than are current LDS formulations about priesthood and ministries. See A. Bruce Lindgren, “The Development of the Latter Day Saint Doctrine of the Priesthood, 1829-1835,” Courage 2:3 (Spring, 1972) 439-443. 

[18] For discussion of the status of women in these cultures, see A. Oepke, “gyne,” in G. Kittel, editor, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1964) vol. I, pp. 776-89, and Tetlow, pp. 5-29. 

[19] The term apostolos, as a technical term in Christianity, carried a specific reference to a special witness to the resurrected Lord and as such probably is a post-resurrectional title. Both Matthew and Mark anachronistically read the term back into the life of the earthly Jesus only once each: Mark 6:30 and Matt. 10:2. Luke consistently conflates the idea of “apostle” with the “Twelve” (Luke 6:13; 9:10; 11:49; 17:5; 22:14; 24:10) and thus avoids throughout the Book of Acts calling Paul an apostle, except in Acts 14:4, 14 (where the use probably results not from Luke’s theology, but from his slavish use of a source document—note that Luke’s normal order “Paul and Barnabas” is in this chapter alone inverted to “Barnabas and Paul”). See Raymond E. Brown, “The Twelve and the Apostolate,” paragraphs 160-82 in “Aspects of New Testament Thought,” section 78 in R. E. Brown, et ah, editors, The Jerome Biblical Commentary (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1968). 

[20] Luke’s use of the word aner (man, as opposed to woman) rather than anthropos (man, as opposed to beast, i.e., a human being of either gender) is to my mind not significant. Here, as elsewhere, Luke’s androcentric culture has colored his expression, and he does not seem to be formulating a specific response to the question of gender and apostleship.

[21] See Gryson, pp. 3-5. 

[22] Oepke, p. 787. 

[23] See B. Brooten, ‘”Jiinia . . . Outstanding Among the Apostles’ (Romans 16:7),” in L. and A. Swidler, editors, Women Priests (New York: Paulist, 1977) p. 142; M. J. Lagrange, Epitre aux Romains (Paris: Gabalda, 1950) p. 366. 

[24] See Joseph Fitzmyer, “Qumran Angelology and I Cor 11:10,” in Essays on the Semitic Background, pp. 187-204, for a full discussion of the passage and an excellent bibliography.

[25] Thus Bruce R. McConkie, Doctrinal New Testament Commentary, Vol. II, pp. 360-61. 

[26] This objection’s fundamentalist concern for the inerrant, unchanging and propositional truth of current church dogma entails serious theological difficulties in terms of LDS faith and our own experience as a people of continuing revelation. See “LDS Approaches” for a fuller discussion of these problems.

[27] The term kephale, as used here by Paul, is far richer than the normal meaning attributed to the English word “head.” It is not merely “boss” or “administrative head.” It carries ontological connotations and could well be translated as “source” or “origin” were it not for the play on words Paul intends by using the term in a discussion about veils. It is thus that most modern commentators construe the word. See, e.g., H. Schleier, “kephale,” in Kittel, Theological Dictionary, Vol. 3, p. 679; also H. Conzelmann, / Corinthians (Hermeneia: Philadelphia: Fortress, 1975) p. 181.

[28] See “helpmeet” and “helpmate” in the Oxford English Dictionary. 

[29] See McMurrin, Theological Foundations, passim. 

[30] See Linda King Newell, “A Gift Given: A Gift Taken—Washing, Anointing, and Blessing the Sick Among Mormon Women,” Sunstone 6/5 (Sept./Oct., 1981) 16-25.