Why LDS Women Will Not Be Ordained to the Priesthood

Over the last year, a small but growing movement within the LDS church has emerged to promote women’s ordination. After the launch of the savvy and visually appealing site ordainwomen.org last March, countless Mormon bloggers have weighed in on the questions of the theology behind women’s ordination. Perhaps predictably, these arguments have ranged from the “women have always had priesthood in temples so they should have it in public” argument to the “women occupy a divinely sanctioned separate sphere” trope. There’s nothing particularly new in any of these arguments; most were made in substance in the 1980s. While the theological debate over women’s ordination is important, as a religious studies scholar, I am much more interested in the structural factors that drive current LDS policies—factors that I tend to see as much more fundamental forces in creating policies than theological rationale in this case. What then are those fundamental factors that make women’s ordination unlikely?

Firstly, the current LDS leadership forms a fairly conservative, white-male gerontocracy. The highest leaders today, leaders who have the power to change ordination policies, have been serving within the LDS bureaucracy for the past 60 years. And, as people age, they generally do not become more socially liberal. The very structure of LDS leadership succession ensures that the church will move glacially to embrace substantial changes. Sentences in lesson manuals may be worded differently in ever so slight ways. People will gasp when a woman occupies a different seat on a podium at the LDS General Conference. But substantial changes are not likely to happen. LDS apostles serve for life. A new LDS prophet is not elected like a pope, but is selected by the amount of time he has served as an apostle. This rule of seniority in the Quorum of Twelve Apostles has ensured an inherent conservatism in the LDS church’s policies for the past 150 years.

Secondly, the increasing internationalization of the LDS church makes women’s ordination unlikely. Many historians have noted that when the missionary impulse in the LDS church met new converts with African ancestry (and perhaps just as importantly, the imagined possibility of many more converts), LDS church policies changed dramatically. LDS church members who had been banned from entering LDS temples and men who had been prohibited from holding the priesthood were allowed access to these sacramental powers and offices. However, the same scenario will not likely be duplicated over the issue of gender and priesthood. As the LDS church expands outside of North America, it is not converting hundreds of thousands of individuals who desire women to share jointly in public ministerial duties with men. These people exist, of course. They just are not drawn to the LDS church. I know of no major international movement that even approximates the support for women’s ordination among a tiny minority of LDS members in the US. As the LDS church becomes more diverse as a global movement and as leaders listen to those “global” voices (and you should read “global” as “voices of a select minority in any one locality” since the LDS church is not converting whole nations or regions), LDS Mormonism is likely to maintain its status quo or become even more conservative about women’s roles.

Thirdly, “correlation,” that twentieth-century bureaucratic policy that resulted in a stunningly standardized Mormonism, will ensure that women’s ordination will not happen. The LDS church could have taken the route of other churches and globalized by seeking an enculturation model, allowing for diverse, localized, “enculturated” expressions of its salvific message. This would have meant that diverse practices and disagreements on practices might have been possible across the LDS church (one country or region could ordain women, another might not). Enculturation would have undoubtedly resulted in a much more diverse AND fractured church, like it has in my own denomination, the Community of Christ (formerly named the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints). However, the LDS church went a different direction when it sought a global reach in the post-World War II-era. It took an approach that radically simplified and standardized doctrines, practices, and even the physical design of its church buildings. This resulted in a portable LDS church and a sense of ecclesiastical unity among its members. Correlation also severely limited the amount of compromise possible between cultural regions within the LDS church. As long as correlation remains as an organizing feature of LDS life, there will not be women’s ordination—not even in select regions or nations.

Many advocates of women’s ordination think that continuing revelation—a new, canonizable revelatory document from the LDS prophet or an authoritative pronouncement from a prophet from the LDS General Conference pulpit—may change everything in a moment on women’s ordination. The late LDS prophet, Gordon B. Hinckley, said as much in a now famous interview in the 1990s in which he parried questions about women’s ordination. “Continuing revelation” certainly changed ordination policies within my denomination, the Community of Christ, when women were called to serve in the priesthood through a revelation from Joseph Smith’s great-grandson, Wallace B. Smith, in 1984. However, conservatives and liberals in my denomination knew that the new revelation represented a general direction that the church had been tending toward since the late 1960s (there was even debate in the 1910s about women’s ordination). And, crucially, the movement to ordain women had substantial support among the highest RLDS leaders, not just among a small minority. In short, a new revelation congealed an already existing trend. Rather than a source for radical change, continuing revelation served as a source for policy implementation.

In the LDS case, when advocates for women’s ordination mention how continuing revelation may change policy in the LDS church, I think that observers have not thought about the potential for it to arrest change or shore up pre-existing policies, too. For instance, “The Family: A Proclamation to the World,” issued by the LDS First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles in 1995, reified pre-existing policies and folk fundamentalisms about gender. Though it has not been officially canonized by the LDS church, the Proclamation certainly has semi-canonical status for many LDS members who display it in their homes. LDS leaders often treat it as a quasi-canonical document, too, citing it in General Conference talks or training sessions with other leaders. And, the contents of the Proclamation were not at all shocking to any observer of LDS life and culture in 1995. In short, as “new revelation,” the Proclamation confirmed a general direction in which the church had been moving for some time. This is all to say that a revelation might come from an LDS prophet, but it might actually work against women’s ordination.

Finally, “peer pressure” and a desire for acceptance makes women’s ordination unlikely. By this, I mean that the LDS church has a set of allies—peers, if you will—on moral and social issues that mutually “pressure” one another to remain firm on certain ecclesiastical issues related to gender and sexuality. These allies include conservative American Catholics and conservative evangelicals, often termed the Religious Right. Why would groups with strong claims to exclusive spiritual authority care about another’s ecclesiastical policies? Sociologist Mark Chaves explains that denominations often utilize women’s ordination “as symbolic display to the outside world” on their collective position toward the “broader liberal agenda associated with ‘progressive human society,’ with ‘human improvement,’ and with ‘modern tendencies’.” “To resist gender equality,” states Chaves, “was, and is, to resist that project.” Women’s ordination, then, is not just about internal theological concerns. It is a way of signaling to others which side of the cultural divide in America one occupies. If the LDS church broke with its social agenda allies on women’s ordination, it would be signaling that it is breaking with them on their political-social projects, too. The desire of LDS church leaders for peer acceptance will prevent that.

Again, note that none of my factors address the rationales for ordination policies that most people cite—statements by Joseph Smith, proof texts from Mormon scripture, or “common sense arguments” (naturalized arguments based in cultural practices of patriarchy) about child birth and anatomy. I generally give more credence to “actor-centered” arguments about historical causation than I have in this column. However, in this instance, what I’m terming structural forces–LDS leadership succession practices, internationalization, correlation, continuing revelation, peer pressure, and a desire for social acceptance–drive current ordination policies and make women’s ordination relatively unlikely within any living person’s lifetime. To change the aforementioned structural forces would require more than just providing persuasive theological arguments to the contrary of current practices; it would require a thorough “reorganization” of the LDS church.


[1] Mark Chaves, “The Symbolic Significance of Women’s Ordination,” Journal of Religion 77, no. 1 (1997): 113, 114.

Announcing the 2nd Wheatley Summer Seminar
Joseph Smith Papers: Documents Volume 3
Doubting at Zion’s Gate
  • Amanda Hendrix-Komoto

    This is fantastic, David! I was a little annoyed after reading Dan Peterson’s post on his ambivalence towards women’s ordination in which he compares the topic of women’s ordination to football (two things he couldn’t care less about). This was a nice palate cleanser,


    • Brian Whitney

      Amanda, Dan Peterson may be a nice enough fellow, but given where he sits on the “cultural divide,” his post was anything but surprising.

      • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/approachingjustice/ Chris Henrichsen

        “Dan Peterson may be a nice enough fellow”


        • Keepapitchinin

          As someone who has felt the sting of being publicly (on a board much like this one) dissed by Dan Peterson and others when I wasn’t there to defend myself, I protest this whole sub discussion and hope that it ends. Now.


          • Amanda Hendrix-Komoto

            Ardis, I understand your concern and am sorry to have incited this conversation. I didn’t mean to talk about Dan Peterson behind his back. This is an honest question: Doesn’t my linking to him create a pingback that alerts him that his blogpost is being discussed? I actually debated linking to it and naming him by name because I didn’t really want to spend all day yesterday in conversation with him, but decided to woman up and do it. It appears I may have accidentally done the opposite.

          • Keepapitchinin

            I don’t have any idea whether his account is set up to accept pingbacks, and there’s certainly nothing wrong with linking to a public post and saying what you agreed or disagreed with. But it ought to stop before the remarks get personal.

          • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/approachingjustice/ Chris Henrichsen

            Hey, I am just glad to see a Mormon admit that their protest is a protest. He blogs here at Patheos. His minions are everywhere. This is hardly behind his back.

    • David Howlett

      Amanda, I had not seen Dan Peterson’s post until now. I love how his lead image is of the Community of Christ’s Council of Twelve Apostles. Not so subtle message there. Most traditionalists who I know think that their own positions are above “culture” while progressives are simply “giving in” to culture. Peterson seems to be articulating this. I find this a very unhelpful model for thinking about culture (and one that does not reflect what happens to anyone). We’re all being pushed and pulled by our relationships with others no matter where we stand.

      • Amanda Hendrix-Komoto

        David, for some reason, I didn’t make the connection between the photo and the C of C, even though it’s clearly labeled. That is hilarious.

        I agree about his model being unhelpful and about both progressives and conservatives “giving in” to culture. Mormon understandings of women’s roles have changed dramatically sine the 19th C and the current LDS view of them is as much reflective of 1950s ideas about gender as it is of the theology of the B of M or the revelations of JS or BY.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/approachingjustice/ Chris Henrichsen


      I am pretty sure you are “determined to misunderstand” what Dan Peterson wrote,. Because that is what he says to pretty much everyone who disagrees with him. :)

      • Amanda Hendrix-Komoto

        Ha! I’ve been “determined to misunderstand” him since he posted his feelings about interracial relationships. My fourth-generation Japanese American husband and I were shocked to discover that our marriage wouldn’t last because of our vast cultural differences. His love for Monday Night Football does get on my nerves, but I always thought we would get divorced because I am a brazen hussy who sometimes bares her shoulders.

        • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/approachingjustice/ Chris Henrichsen

          Sounds like a doomed marriage to me. :)

      • trytoseeitmyway

        That was sort of nasty.

        • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/approachingjustice/ Chris Henrichsen

          What was nasty?

          • trytoseeitmyway

            I guess Dan Peterson doesn’t have a lot of fans and it is not like I have to be his defender or anything. But your comment about “what he says to pretty much everyone who disagrees with him” (followed by the smiley) seemed unnecessarily snarky or (as my comment had it) sort of nasty.

            Same thing for your “he he” remark below, but I chose not to offer a comment there.

          • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/approachingjustice/ Chris Henrichsen

            Oh, he has legions of groupies. Sure, I am being snarky…as Brother Peterson normally is as well. I recently called in a post of my own for BYU to fire him. In light of that, I guess I view everything I have said on this thread as more silly than nasty.

          • trytoseeitmyway

            Oh, OK. I would just as soon not have to read that but of course it’s up to you. I can be tart myself, so I don’t mean to be overly judgmental about this. Maybe on another occasion you can explain what it is about Brother Peterson that rubs you the wrong way.

  • Brian Whitney

    David, this is an excellent, if heartbreaking, post – at least for those members of the LDS church who trend towards progressive ideals. Sadly, this issue is, as you’ve indicated, much larger than a church – it is a cultural ideology and “in-group” vs “out group” mechanism. In order for the social constraints prohibiting women’s ordination to change, it would require a shift in the larger cultural identity of conservatism. Have we seen conservatism adopt social frameworks that were heretofore exclusive to progressivism? I believe the answer could be argued yes, but hardly ever without fierce resistance. Durkheim argued that religion is a reflection of society. In that respect, the LDS Church and the CoC are both microcosmic reflections of the macrocosmic “cultural war” within America

    • David Howlett

      While I did not address it in this post, I do think that social pressure has
      resulted in women being allowed many more public roles in LDS worship.
      So, even if it does not result in full ordination, efforts like ordainwomen.org could grant women greater authority at the ward and stake level. And, the recent upsurge of young women becoming missionaries–a “force” that I did not mention–will have to turn the LDS church toward some kind of compromise over the role of women in the LDS church. Furthermore, the great cultural divides that we now see in the US will not be the same chasms in 20 years. There will be new ones. So…one could write a post titled “Why the LDS Church Will Ordain Women Someday”

  • David Heap

    Another fascinating cultural issue is that there is greater support for female ordination among LDS men (45%) than among LDS women (10%) http://blog.beliefnet.com/flunkingsainthood/2010/12/why-do-mormon-men-want-women-to-have-the-priesthood-more-than-women-want-it-for-themselves.html. I think some of that opposition among females is generational. There is all kinds of speculation about that gap. In my view, as long as only a minority of women want ordination, and a majority are opposed, I doubt that the policy will change.

  • Angela Clayton

    I agree with the analysis. The peer pressure / strange bedfellows issue is a strong motivation that plays out in other doctrinal realms as well. We are unfortunately downgrading our revelatory gifts through (too much) association with the religious right. These are the same faiths that consider us a cult and often preach against us openly. It’s not like they are great allies. Alliance with them has also led us to the wrong side of science many times.

    I also think the globalization argument is spot on. We aren’t winning progressive converts. Some of this is “you’ll keep getting what you’ve got if you keep doing what you’re doing.” Some of it is simply that the US is more openly progressive than Asia, Africa and South America.

    The real question for me in all this, the one the church needs to start taking seriously, is that the younger generations of Americans have a very low tolerance for social injustice, sexism, and the ideals of the religious right. I’m not that young myself, but church is by far the most sexist subculture I ever engage with. The generation gap is only getting wider.

  • Dave Cannon

    Can you clarify one of your points? It sounded like you’re saying “revelation” is just a bunch of old guys caving to public pressure, which would make them liars if they go on to claim the decision came from God.

    Acknowledging that LDS church leaders respond to public opinion and claiming they don’t receive inspiration are different things. Which did you intend?

    • David Howlett

      From an academic perspective that seeks to explain things like World War I or Ronald Reagan’s first election without reference to divine intervention, yes, I would say any group’s revelation reflects a complex set of relationships with past and present people, control of social and economic resources, human creativity, and a whole host of other things. However, I am also an active, ordained member of the Community of Christ. From a devotional perspective, another language with another set of assumptions for how something is spoken of as true, I could say that section 156 of my Doctrine and Covenants, the section that called women to serve in the priesthood, is a real revelation. And that inspiration came from a host of sources–some that resulted from Wallace B.Smith going to a park to meditate on the issue, and some from particular people in US culture who had advocated for new ways of thinking about power and gender. From a devotional perspective, “social forces” (an abstract term for real people making real choices) do not have to be uninspired. Another way to think about it is to reconsider this as an exchange of gifts. In All Abraham’s Children: Changing Mormon Conceptions of Race and Lineage, Armand Mauss did this when, in his conclusion, he reflected upon how “the world” gave a gift to Mormons by providing it with a whole new conception of race and a recognition of racial injustice in their midst. From a devotional perspective, “caving to political pressure” could be reframed as receiving a good gift. Just a few thoughts.

      • Mario S. De Pillis, Sr.

        David, this is a wonderfully nuanced response to Dave Cannon.

        In your tradition (and that of the LDS) both spirit and social pressure are at work. Direct revelation and socio-historical developments in the host culture form a dual source of change. Both Wallace B. Smith sitting in the park and church members feeling outside pressures to grant rights to women combine to bring change.The phrase “exchange of gifts” is a lovely devotional way of expressing this daily (for me) historical, naturalistic reality.
        Others have noted structural barriers against women, the conservative ingrained mental habits, and so on. But you have put it all together.

      • Dave Cannon

        That’s an interesting perspective that requires some serious consideration: can the public as a whole be inspired to prompt a change in policy, or does the inspiration come solely through the leadership. As a member of the LDS faith I’ve always seen it through the lens of Moses and the Israelites (i.e. stop complaining and follow what has been revealed). But I can see a place for the give and take between leaders and those they serve, if it encourages both groups to seek clarifying (and unifying) inspiration.


    Great article. You mentioned things I had never thought of before. Well done. Thanks.

  • Huldah

    One important element you’ve overlooked is the fact that our gerontological leaders are old enough, in fact, to remember the days when their female forebears exercised priesthood power in the form of healing blessings (including anointing and sealing)… I believe this memory could erase the numerous other arguments you’ve put forth.