Women, Blacks, and the Priesthood in Recent LDS Church Rhetoric

The open letter recently delivered by LDS church spokesman Michael Otterson to a variety of blogs has, unsurprisingly, generated a flurry of discussion covering the whole gamut of responses.* Two things stuck out to me (besides the ironic labeling of OW as apostates while simultaneously requesting higher-level discourse), specifically about his appeal to the scriptures. First, he completely glosses over the clear scriptural problems with priesthood and church organization. There is no New Testament record of Jesus ordaining anyone to the priesthood, much less organizing a Church. Even more surprising, the terms that are usually sought to tease out such an organization, such as apostle, prophet, and deacon, are clearly applied to women in the scriptures (see Judges 4-5, Romans 16, etc.). Otterson does not mention or explain these scriptures, not even to dismiss them; instead, he offers only an appeal without references to Jesus’ clear organization of a male-dominated hierarchy.**

The second thing that stuck out to me was the way in which the rhetoric of the historical denial of the priesthood to blacks was co-opted and pressed into service as a reason for the current denial of priesthood to women. Past rhetoric, to my knowledge, has simply asserted that the status quo is the way the Lord wants and has always wanted it. (Some, like “Mormon History Guy” Russell Stevenson, have even argued that the exclusion of Blacks and the exclusion of women are incomparable precisely because women have no Elijah Abelses—‘course Deborah and Junia might disagree.) But this letter is the first time I have seen the “we just don’t know why” stance applied to the context of women’s exclusion from the priesthood. Compare the recent revision of the Official Declaration 2 heading with Otterson’s open letter:

OD2 heading (2013): The Book of Mormon teaches that “all are alike unto God,” including “black and white, bond and free, male and female” (2 Nephi 26:33). Throughout the history of the Church, people of every race and ethnicity in many countries have been baptized and have lived as faithful members of the Church. During Joseph Smith’s lifetime, a few black male members of the Church were ordained to the priesthood. Early in its history, Church leaders stopped conferring the priesthood on black males of African descent. Church records offer no clear insights into the origins of this practice. Church leaders believed that a revelation from God was needed to alter this practice and prayerfully sought guidance. The revelation came to Church President Spencer W. Kimball and was affirmed to other Church leaders in the Salt Lake Temple on June 1, 1978. The revelation removed all restrictions with regard to race that once applied to the priesthood. (my emphasis)

Otterson (2014): Some of these women were closest to him in life and in death. One was the first mortal to witness a resurrected Being. There was nothing “lesser” about these women in his eyes. I suppose we do not know all the reasons why Christ did not ordain women as apostles, either in the New Testament or the Book of Mormon, or when the Church was restored in modern times. We only know that he did not.

Funny thing is, we don’t know that he did not, any more than we know that he did ordain males. Otterson ignores positive evidence supporting a contrary position while assuming and asserting evidence in the breach. He seems to be twisting the New Testament into a shape that conforms to current exigencies, simply claiming the NT says nothing about female offices and roles in the structure of the early church. I find this one of the more nefarious rhetorical strategies because it is a power play disguised as an incontrovertible fact that masks the uncertainty and clear contrary evidence at the same time it demands interlocutors submit to a history whose causes one cannot possibly understand.

In both cases, it seems rather obvious that the answer to “we just don’t know why” is that entrenched cultural constraints were interpreted and supported as revealed doctrine, and in the case of blacks it was finally understood as a cultural constraint (“policy”), as it probably should be in the case of women.

The only hope I can find in this rhetoric is that it helps me imagine that one day an OD3 heading will read something like this:

The Book of Mormon teaches that “all are alike unto God,” including “black and white, bond and free, male and female” (2 Nephi 26:33). Throughout the history of the Christian Church, people of every race and ethnicity in many countries have been baptized and have lived as faithful members of the Church. In the early days of the people of Israel and the early Church, some female members of the Church were prophets, apostles, and deacons. Early in Christian history, Church leaders stopped allowing women to occupy these offices. Church records offer no clear insights into the origins of this practice. Church leaders believed that a revelation from God was needed to alter this practice and prayerfully sought guidance. The revelation came to Church President Thomas S. Monson and was affirmed to other Church leaders in the Salt Lake Temple. The revelation removed all restrictions with regard to sex that once applied to the priesthood.

________________________________________

* I can’t resist copying RJH’s comment from the BCC thread. It is excellent and worth needlepointing and hanging in every church leader’s office.

“RJH says:
May 29, 2014 at 4:19 pm
Mike Otterson: “Nevertheless, I hope that we will see less cynicism and criticism, more respectful dialogue, more kindness and civility and more generosity of spirit as those members who are prone to use the Internet engage with each other.”

Yes, but why the passive-aggressive suggestion that Jesus would disapprove of the OW women, spitefully pitting their actions against Mary Magdalene or the Virgin Mary? There aren’t many women to celebrate in the scriptures; this looks therefore precisely like a cynical move to drive a wedge between the OW sisters and the few gospel heroines they have to cling to: “Jesus would approve of these [good] women but not *those* [bad] women.” Quite frankly, you don’t seem to know very much at all about the status of women in the New Testament, nor even the establishment of the early church. It’s a great deal more complicated than you think (I would refer you, for example, to the recent Catholic discussion about women in the early diaconate).

Brother Otterson, neither you nor I have any idea whatsoever what Jesus would say to the OW women and those who sympathise with them. Not only is it blasphemy for you to suggest otherwise, it is just about the least civil or generous thing you can level at a fellow Christian: Jesus does not approve of you. If that is something the Brethren feel confident to say then fine, get out the way and let them say it.”

**To those who say that Restoration scripture makes clear such an organization, I say how was this revelation received? Probably by asking questions, often stemming from questions about scripture. It’s probably time we got some clarity about Judges 4-5 and Romans 16, etc.


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