Why LDS Women Will Not Be Ordained to the Priesthood

Why LDS Women Will Not Be Ordained to the Priesthood September 23, 2013

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.

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