(Note: This post was written almost entirely before Elder Oaks’ talk regarding the nature of priesthood. Sadly, I have not given much thought to the relevance which that talk has to my own thoughts on this subject.)
This post is not about the Ordain Women movement. Quite some time ago, I posted a critique of the Ordain Women organization wherein I suggested that even though the movement is about faithful LDS women, that does not mean that it is actually for faithful LDS women. Rather, I suggested, the movement is actually by and for humanistic intellectuals. In that post, I repeated what has become almost a cliché for those who aren’t fully on board with OW: It’s not that I am against women being ordained to the priesthood, it’s just that I object to the OW organization and the tactics they employ. In that way, I attempted to sideline the inevitable accusations of misogyny which such a post provokes so as to look at the conflict that OW presents between intellectuals and priesthood authority (patriarchal or otherwise). In this post, however, I wish to do the exact opposite: I wish to sideline any thoughts or preferences concerning the nature of the Ordain Women in order to focus exclusively on the ordainability of women.
The progressives are right. With the first distraction out of the way, let me now say some things that will likely alienate both extremes of the OW debate. I think the progressive description of the state of affairs is pretty much right, in that women are clearly not on equal footing with men in the church. Sure, we can point to any number of benefits/responsibilities that men and women share equally within the church, but doing so merely attempts to draw attention away from rather than explain or justify the inequalities that are really at issue. Since priesthood authority includes the authority to legitimately close and open debate on certain issues, then the plain fact of the matter is that there are some men within the church who can legitimately open any debate that women have attempted to close or close any debate that women have attempted to open. By contrast, the debates among men that can legitimately be opened or closed by any woman in the church are very few and far between. Whatever you want to call this asymmetry between the genders, it is not equality.
The progressives are wrong. Having agreed with the progressives in a way that is likely to alienate many (most?) TBMs, I now want to say some things that will also alienate many (most?) progressives. While I agree with their description of gender relations within the church, I have serious reservations about their prescribed solution of ordaining women to the priesthood. I am not so convinced as to actively assert that women should not be ordained, but I can say that I am not at all convinced that ordaining women would be a good thing overall. Furthermore, my reasons for doubting the propriety of ordaining women has nothing at all to do with any supposed lack or surplus of abilities, qualifications or worthiness in men or women. The progressives are right to think that any theory that holds women to be too good or too pure for the priesthood are probably meant to distract from rather than explain or justify gender inequalities. On the contrary, my reasons for resisting women’s ordination and the benefits that would likely come with it are based in the costly changes that I think it will cause to the values and structures within the church. In particular, I fear that ordaining women will not only undermine patriarchy within the church, but will also undermine several things which serve to set priesthood authority apart from other secular forms of authority.
If everybody has priesthood authority, then nobody has it. Priesthood authority is designed to set specific people apart from the rest so as to prevent competition and power struggles. Priesthood authority, then, is utterly antithetical to the universal and democratic equality which is at the root of progressive movements. There is no church organization in which there is or is meant to be complete equality throughout the entire group. Every meeting, class or group gathering has assigned to it a presiding officer who, to some extent, decides which discussions will be opened/closed and when. To be sure, the righteous presiding officer will regularly confer with their counselors along with the rest of the group as well as do other such things that prevent unrighteous dominion, but what the final decision is and when it is made is ultimately up to that presiding officer and nobody else. To be clear, I do not wish to argue that progressives wish to undermine or destroy priesthood authority altogether. Progressives do not necessarily want to stop ordaining people to such presiding positions within the church so much as open these positions up to people of both genders.
Progressives want to restructure and redefine priesthood authority. Progressives do not want to give every single person equal standing and authority within the church. They still want people to be given authority that sets them apart from the rest of their group so long as it is done in a way that discriminates along roughly the same lines as modern, Western bureaucracies: skill, experience, productivity, reason and (especially) worthiness. Progressives object to any kind of authority (priesthood or otherwise) that discriminates according to race, gender or sexual orientation rather than those qualifications listed above. As such, progressives are especially scandalized by the fact that unworthy, non-member males are accepted into priesthood meetings while unquestionably worthy females are not. This implies that the church sees gender as being even more essential to priesthood authority than personal worthiness and other such qualifications are. Such a view of authority is utterly at odds with the values of the 21st Century, western democracies in which we are brought up.
Priesthood authority is structured around the family. The church and its priesthood, however, are supposed to be an expression or embodiment the family and its values, not those of 21st Century western democracies. For Mormons, the kingdom of God on earth (as it is in heaven) has always been a familial organization. Teaching men, regardless of their worthiness, to be priesthood holders, effectively extends the church organization into each individual family by making the male parent the presiding officer over his “quorum”. Thus, structuring the family around the same priesthood authority that governs the church essentially integrates each family within the church’s organization, an organic relationship which stands in contrast to the more casual association that the household would otherwise have with the church organization. Furthermore, since the family is part of the church and the church is part of the family, it too is led by the prophets and apostles. Finally, this most important meeting, class and group that is the family is just like any other group in the church in that it has one and only one presiding authority.
Ordaining women is not at all like overturning the racial ban. It is, however, very much like accepting same sex marriage in that it involves a radical restructuring as well as redefinition of authority within the most important organization of the church – the family. Ordaining women, like accepting SSM, would make the family very different from every other group within the church in that it would have two equal authorities who occasionally disagree and thus compete with each other. When all adults within the family have priesthood authority, no adult has priesthood authority, since priesthood authority can no longer function to resolve, settle or terminate any disputes, disagreements or power struggles which might arise between these two authorities. Rather, all disputes and decisions must thus be resolved according to public criteria which define 21st Century western democracies and intellectualism in general: experience, reason, expertise, etc.
Ordaining women transforms that most important of all priesthood organizations – the family – into a secular institution. A family in which there is no uniquely recognized authority figure is one which can no longer be governed by personal revelation to that presiding authority. Instead, the personal revelation of the two competing authority figures is instead evaluated according to publicly available and therefore naturalistic and secular criteria such as reason, experience, etc. Like other secular institutions such as intelligentsia, bureaucracy, democracy, etc. the family thus becomes marred by competition, discord, disloyalty and voluntary disassociation since these are the very behaviors that secular groups incentivize. By contrast, granting unique presiding authority to the father reinforces a – paradoxically artificial and at the same time divine – state of affairs in which the dependency of the wife and children is matched by a sense of responsibility of the father. This symbiotic relationship of dependency and responsibility serves to non-voluntarily reinforce familial bonds of loyalty, unity and stability.
These are historically situated drawbacks rather than timeless arguments against ordaining women. As in all things, certain costs and benefits must be weighed and traded-off against each other and there are no guarantees that the costs and benefits that I have discussed in this post will always weigh the same. Furthermore, my critique of equal co-presided families does not directly speak to how these costs and benefits would weigh against each other within matriarchal or single-parent families. The fact is that neither I nor anybody else knows exactly what would happen for good or ill if the church began ordaining women. None of us know if the dangers which might befall the family outweigh the blessings which might result from ordaining women. Nor do any of us know if or when the probabilities or magnitudes of these dangers and blessings might shift in another direction. Only God knows and only His duly and uniquely ordained prophets and apostles are qualified hear His wisdom on the subject.
(Post Script Edit: I would really like to have a level-headed conversation here. Please no sarcasm, name-calling, etc. The ideal comment would probably begin by noting the part about the post/comment that you think is most correct and only then articulating the part that you think is most wrong. Hopefully this will keep trolling as well as accusations of trolling to a minimum as well.)