Woman in the Priesthood

By: Guest
December 11, 2010
Today’s guest post is by TH, who is a woman serving in the Office of High Priest in the Community of Christ. Since this portion of the Restoration has ordained women to priesthood for nearly a generation, she offers a prospective “after the dust has settled” on a topic which remains controversial to both traditional and liberal Mormons.

In 1984, the World Conference of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (RLDS, now Community of Christ) voted to accept counsel to the church provided by the president/prophet of the church (and the great grandson of Joseph Smith Jr.), Wallace B. Smith. This counsel, canonized as (Community of Christ)  Doctrine and Covenants Section 156, provided for the ordination of women. At the time, this was a hugely controversial decision. Many people rejoiced, having waited for that moment for a long time, while a significant number of others left the RLDS church in protest, some joining the LDS church or splinter groups of the Restoration movement.
While the ordination of women might seem controversial to LDS folks and those from more traditional and conservative faith groups, the decision to recognize the ordination of women in no way made the RLDS unique among the Judeo-Christian denominations. Although a number of conservative churches, including LDS, Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Southern Baptist do not permit women to act as an ordained minister or in other roles traditionally reserved for men, many other denominations do.

According to my understanding, the Quakers allowed women to serve as ministers as early as the 1800s. They believed that a spark of God resided in each person, regardless of gender, making all people worthy. In the mid-1800s the Congregationalist Church (now the United Church of Christ), ordained a woman. However, the woman’s status, as an ordained minister, was not acceptable to many in the church. A few years later, the church that is now the Unitarian Universalist church began ordaining women. The first ordination almost failed to occur because the church was concerned about negative repercussions. Around 1860, at the time when the RLDS church was forming around Joseph Smith III, the first Methodist woman was ordained. The practice of ordaining women was challenged, but by the 1950s, women could be full members of the clergy in the United Methodist Church. By the early 1900s, the Church of God and Assemblies of God were ordaining women. In the 1970s, Anglican and Episcopal churches began ordaining women. About ten years before the change in RLDS policy, leaders of the Jewish Reform tradition allowed women to become rabbis, and one year after the change in RLDS policy, leaders in the Conservative Jewish tradition permitted women to become rabbis. Before the year 2000, some Orthodox Jewish congregations began giving women the possibility for more ministerial authority.

The presence of women as ministers is not so surprising if one looks at some of the New Testament scriptures. As explained in the PBS series Frontline: From Jesus to Christ, Paul identifies Prisca, Junia, Julia, and Nereus’ sisters who served as missionaries with their husbands or brothers (Romans 16:3, 7, 15). Euodia is called an apostolic worker along with Paul according to his letter to the Phillippians. Women took leadership roles in early Christian meetings in house churches. Prisca is mentioned in I Corinthians 16:19, and Lydia of Thyatira in Acts 16:15, among others. Women also held offices, such as Phoebe, who was a deacon, and participated in important ways in worship including praying, prophesying, preaching, teaching, leading prayer, and possibly performing the communion meal according to a first century work called the Didache which stated that Christian prophets often had the duty of performing the Eucharistic meal.

Further discussion about the role of women as ministers can be found in the bloggernacle, such as in a post archived here at W&T on women and the priesthood from an LDS institutional perspective by Hawkgrrrl. Mormon Heretic has also written about the Melchizedek priesthood and women and about women ministers in early Christianity.

I was two years old at the time that Doctrine and Covenants 156 was adopted and women could be ordained, so I missed a lot of the controversy. Growing up as a member of the RLDS church, it was normal to have women in the priesthood, although it took time for women to be ordained in significant numbers. My pre-baptismal classes were taught by a  Deacon who was a woman. She later become an Elder and currently serves as a pastor at the ripe age of 92. There were even women priesthood members in my family shortly after the policy change; two aunts were ordained as Priests.

Nonetheless, I was aware that there were very few women in leadership positions, such as High Priests (and specializations within the office of High Priest such as Evangelists, Bishops, Apostles, or members of the First Presidency). Some of this may have been due to biases of those processing priesthood calls for women. However, I expect that this gender discrepancy in the high priesthood was due to calls to the high priesthood primarily going to ministers who had previously served in other offices. Because women had not been allowed to be ordained, they often received a first call to Teacher, Deacon, Priest, or Elder. These offices share a local or congregational focus, whereas the offices associated with the high priesthood share a focus on the bigger picture in the Community of Christ. Over time, women have become better represented in all avenues of priesthood ministry.

Nineteen years after the ordination of women started in my church, I was ordained to the office of Elder. Less than two years later, I was ordained to the office of High Priest, and at the same time, my mother was ordained to the Office of Elder. When people spoke about my ordination to High Priest, it was my age, not my gender, that was often the source of their initial remarks; even this was done in a supportive manner. Now, the President of the High Priest Quorum is a woman, and a member of the First Presidency is also a woman, along with about one-third of the Apostles. This shows how much things have changed in a relatively short time in the Community of Christ.

This change has been marked by a movement from a belief in doctrinal viewpoints to an emphasis on core values and principles that should guide decision-making at all levels of church mission. These core values include the belief in the worth of all persons, unity and diversity, continuing revelation, and the peace of Jesus Christ as a hallmark of Zion. The ordination of women and other related changes should be viewed in this context.

To me this all suggests that my church has begun to understand that its role as part of the Restoration tradition is not to identify with its heritage as an isolated people, but to instead focus on being a movement that brings restoration: that restores joy, hope, love, and peace in diverse communities, and restores dignity to the marginalized, bruised, and broken-hearted by proclaiming God’s Kingdom and God’s abiding grace and generosity.

Community of Christ Apostle Susan Skoor stated that message this way in a commentary on another section of the Doctrine and Covenants (D&C 163:3b,c):

“From the beginning, our movement has centered on Jesus Christ and the establishment of God’s kingdom on earth. ‘Keep my commandments and seek to bring forth the cause of Zion’ (Doctrine and Covenants 6:3, CofChrist numbering). Early experiments in community attempted to establish Zion with city charters and prophetic rule that set this ‘peculiar people’ against the cultural, religious, and political institutions of the day. But the people failed to live out the fundamental issues of justice and inclusiveness.”

Although I cannot speak to all peoples’ views on this change, I would like to share my view and experience as a high priest and woman serving in Community of Christ with you. Throughout RLDS church history, High Priests often served as pastors, Stake Presidents, and in other levels of church management. Although many High Priests still serve in these roles, the role of the high priest has broadened and deepened. This change has been freeing, allowing the Spirit breathing room to operate in and through the lives of ministers in this office (and other offices and callings, too). The biggest change for me that has emerged in this redefinition of the ministry of High Priest is that identity as a high priest is not exclusively tied to service within the institution. I preach, preside over worship services, teach classes, offer retreat ministry, help with regional youth camp, perform sacraments, mentor other priesthood members and church members, and serve in other capacities within the church.  However, I understand that I am living the calling of a High Priest in any forum where I serve according to the promptings of the Spirit as best I can discern. (There are certain areas of emphasis that the Community of Christ has

identified as being central to the ministry of high priest. That discussion goes beyond the scope of this post.)

For example, I serve in official capacity as a high priest when I: (a) work with people from different cultures in my job as a manager of a community college tutoring center; (b) teach management courses; (c) participate in a small-group class on spiritual formation that isn’t sponsored by Community of Christ; (d) keep in touch with a recent widow or correspond with friends, family, and others ; and something as simple as (e) redesigning a form or procedure to be less bureaucratic or helping someone learn to cook a healthier version of a favorite meal.

In my opinion, when people begin to see church as not separate from the rest of life, and when we see ministry supported by, rather than owned and controlled by an institution, and when we see that all people can be called by God to serve in particular ways, then our mental limitations do not get in the way—to the same extent—of what God can do with any or all of us. However, the validity of that determination is above my pay-grade.

Returning to the findings regarding women holding leadership positions in early Christianity, the question emerges “what happened that the role of women was reduced until only a couple centuries ago? As Christianity grew, Christians began to gather in public places rather than in homes. Social conventions “won” over the principle of equality of people in Christ that was central to the gospel message, and as a result, women took a backseat to men in church leadership. I wonder how many times this (Christianity compromising to maintain social respectability) has happened throughout history and how much ministry and opportunity to live as the Kingdom of God on Earth has been lost. I also wonder if the worthiness of any particular class of people to serve faithfully as ministers of Jesus Christ is really determined by socio-cultural considerations of respectability rather than in alignment with the will of God. Jesus seemed to be aware of such considerations and also routinely flouted them. I wonder if a particular culture can rightly claim their way of doing things as being God’s way.

I obviously can’t speak definitively for God, but in my experience, people have been healed, loved, blessed, and guided by women ministers. People have been nurtured in discipleship by women ministers and have had powerful worship experiences that were led by women. If we are to judge prophets, and I would argue that this definition extends to all those who serve in the name of God, by the fruits of the Spirit (Matthew 7:16), then the harvest continues to be plentiful.

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21 Responses to Woman in the Priesthood

  1. Stephen M (Ethesis) on December 11, 2010 at 11:38 AM

    (Community od Christ) Doctrine and Covenants Section 156

    I think that is a typo.

    Interesting essay, though For example, I serve in official capacity as a high priest when I: (a) work with people from different cultures in my job as a manager of a community college tutoring center; (b) teach management courses; (c) participate in a small-group class on spiritual formation that isn’t sponsored by Community of Christ; (d) keep in touch with a recent widow or correspond with friends, family, and others ; and something as simple as (e) redesigning a form or procedure to be less bureaucratic or helping someone learn to cook a healthier version of a favorite meal. makes it seem that there is no difference between a High Priest and anyone else who is living, and that the office is just life.

    I’m not sure where that takes one.

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  2. FireTag on December 11, 2010 at 12:41 PM

    Ethesis:

    No misprint. The CofChrist has been adding to its D&C through its own process of accepting revelations through its prophets for 150 years. Wikipedia discusses the way the LDS and RLDS/CofChrist editions diverge here:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Doctrine_and_Covenants#Doctrinal_Developments_in_the_Community_of_Christ_edition

    Let me push back on the point of the essay a little by reversing your point of view:

    In the LDS, at what point in daily life do High Priests STOP needing to live as High Priests?

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  3. FireTag on December 11, 2010 at 1:13 PM

    Section 156 can be read directly here:

    http://www.centerplace.org/library/study/dc/rdc-156.htm

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  4. Larrin on December 11, 2010 at 1:38 PM

    I believe the typo is “od” not the section number.

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  5. Mike S on December 11, 2010 at 2:39 PM

    The is a very interesting essay. It resonated with my heart and felt “right” while I read it, so thank you. I would actually love it if women could have the priesthood in the LDS Church, and think it would tremendously help the faith. Siempre hay esperanza.

    One question I have is how egalitarian the CofC ends up being. Based on what you said, it seems much more so than in the LDS faith. There are hierarchies upon hierarchies that seem to permeate the LDS Church, with formal and informal rules that you are NOT to question someone above you in the hierarchy (and the central leadership has made it abundantly clear that they don’t even want to hear the questions).

    Is it this way in the CofC?

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  6. FireTag on December 11, 2010 at 3:20 PM

    Larrin:

    Thank you. I just couldn’t see it. My typing error, now corrected.

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  7. mh on December 11, 2010 at 4:27 PM

    yes, I find this issue interesting as well, and I appreciate the links. john hamer mentioned that CoC leadership researched women with the priesthood in ancient christianity, and concluded that women did hold the priesthood anciently. do you have any information regarding this research done by wallace smith or other church hierarchy in the 1980s?

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  8. Ethesis (mobile) on December 11, 2010 at 5:18 PM

    The only research I have seen was Nibley’s, who had a number of examples. Most of what I have otherwise seen was not persuasive.

    Appreciate the push back — the acknowledgment that you do not have an answer.

    In my response, it is only relevant (vs acting in faith an in accord with the Spirit, which is something that should always be striven for), would be in administrative tasks. The talk, Only An Elder highlights everything where the specific office is irrelevant, and Hebrews where priesthood is not at issue.

    The office would only be significant where it is a requirement for the LDS.

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  9. Stephen M (Ethesis) on December 11, 2010 at 5:47 PM

    The point is important. When someone says “My ‘-x-’ is part of everything I do” they are saying ‘-x-’ makes everything I do better. The direct corollary is “Your lack of ‘-x-’ makes everything you do inferior to what I do.”

    That is a real issue. It means that ordaining women is irrelevant, the real question is do you ordain everyone who is not empowered or just the young up and coming people? If you do or do not do that, where do you stop and why?

    What is priesthood in that context?

    Thus the question about the way official capacity as a high priest when I: (a) work with people from different cultures in my job as a manager of a community college tutoring center … fits in to make the calling meaningful.

    Are you saying that as a part of the official capacity one can not do things in that laundry list if one does not have the calling? That is the way “official capacity” would generally be used.

    Which is different from trying to live up to the standard Christ has set for us, which applies regardless of calling, ordination or hierarchy or official calling.

    If I’m making sense.

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  10. TH on December 11, 2010 at 6:34 PM

    Stephen/Ethesis:

    I’m glad you asked about this distinction. I refer to it vaguely in my post as the high priest as having distinct areas of ministry that were beyond the scope. In fact, when I wrote the first draft of this blog, I included a very brief discussion of each of those focus areas as well as connecting them to the examples I gave. When I shared my draft with several others before posting it to get their feedback, they suggested that I not include those areas simply because it made the post especially long and moved away from the central topic of women in the priesthood. I wrote an article for the May 2009 High Priest newsletter that states the areas (not in great detail because the audience is almost exclusively high priests who already know the areas) that are officially sanctioned as high priest ministry and then provided suggestions as to how what we might consider “every day” opportunities allowed this ministry to be shared beyond the walls of institutional church. As the president of the quorum of high priests encouraged me to submit the article for publication in the newsletter, I can say that it has her blessing. You can link to the article though a wiki I created:

    http://highpriest.pbworks.com/w/page/1816783/Share:-Magnify-Your-Calling
    Select the first link on the page: “Creative Possibilities for high priest ministry” to access the newsletter which contains my article.

    For current newsletter issues and links to more info about high priest ministry, here is the CofChrist church’s website:

    http://www.cofchrist.org/highpriest/newsletters/current.asp

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  11. TH on December 11, 2010 at 6:36 PM

    CORRECTION: If you click on the link for the article it takes you to the front page of the wiki. to access the article do this:

    1. Click the link.
    2. Click “Share: Magnify Your Calling”
    3. Click the first link on that page

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  12. Troth Everyman on December 11, 2010 at 8:24 PM

    “I would actually love it if women could have the priesthood in the LDS Church, and think it would tremendously help the faith.”

    Agreed.

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  13. FireTag on December 11, 2010 at 10:26 PM

    Mike S.:

    I hope we are egalitarian, since we hold that up as a good thing, but it may just be that we divide more along class, politics, education or some other bases about which we are blind. One could even make the case that we are evolving toward separate national churches, based on the emphasis placed on resolution of issues on a cultural basis in the most recent D&C section.

    Ethesis:

    You’re raising an important issue, now that I understand what you’re saying better, that gets at several differences in the way the two denominations have come to see important elements of their heritage.

    I want to examine their interplay in light of the issue you raised, but some of the facets that jump out at me include:

    1) We view priesthood as specialization rather than as rank;

    2) We view all sacraments, including ordination, as “present helps” for community/individual Christian living, and there is lesser emphasis on “sealing in heaven”.

    3) We tie authority to mission, so that if one’s mission is given outside the church or inside the church may influence the symbolism of that authority, but not its reality.

    Thanks to your comment, I’m starting to see some interesting implications for that third point, particularly to the LDS expectation that all worthy males be ordained and the broader Christian notion of “the priesthood of all believers, and the Jewish notion of the suffering servant people.

    You’ve definitely set some things brewing in my head.

    3) We view authority as going with mission

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  14. DavidH on December 11, 2010 at 10:46 PM

    Stephen (Ethesis), I am not sure that even in the LDS tradition priesthood is supposed to distinguish men of the priesthood from other religious men in the Church–since all religious men are expected to be ordained and act in the priesthood. Beyond authorization (specialization in CoC terms?) to perform certain rites and to serve in certain management or adminstrative roles, it does not seem to me that the LDS conception of what priesthood means (or at least the righteousness that animates priesthood D&C 121) would differ significantly from TH’s conception. That, in many respects (and perhaps the most crucial ones), honorably holding priesthood means following the great command to love God and neighbor in all we do and say inside and outside our religious community.

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  15. Jon Miranda on December 12, 2010 at 5:11 AM

    You cannot give someone the priesthood when you do not have it. The RLDS, now CofC, broke off from the LDS church quite some time ago. It only makes sense that there is no priesthood authority there.
    Example:
    If I opened a McDonald’s without the necessary authority, I would be shut down real fast. When I am approached by Jehovah’s Witnesses I tell them this
    La doctrina falsa no tiene poder de salvar.

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  16. TH on December 12, 2010 at 6:19 AM

    Jon,

    I agree with you that God determines priesthood, not people. As you believe that the LDS church is the only rightful barrier of priesthood, I am glad that you are part of that church. As I said in my post, it’s above my pay-grade to determine who and only who has God’s priesthood authority, although, as your post indicated, I have to do my best to live rightly as best I understand it.

    It will be interesting to see who “gets in” to heaven…and on that matter, I expect that we will all be a little surprised. Hope to see you there. :-)

    Blessings, brother.

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  17. TH on December 12, 2010 at 6:20 AM

    Meant to say “bearer” of priesthood, not “barrier”:-)

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  18. diane on December 12, 2010 at 7:10 AM

    @ 16

    “It will be interesting to see who will get in heaven.”

    Right on brother.. that made me chuckle

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  19. TH on December 12, 2010 at 11:35 AM

    “We view priesthood as specialization rather than as rank.”–yes, good clarification.

    To provide a quick summary: In the CofC, the office of deacon specializes in hospitality and temporal stewardship. This ministry and calling might be expressed as being a greeter at church, taking up the offertory, helping members and non-member make sound financial decisions in regard to budgeting, saving, spending, investing, and tithing, ushering and making the space feel comfortable and inviting.

    Priests specialize in family ministry. They can officiate at sacraments that have a special family significance except for baby blessings which only elders and high priests are sanctioned to do (e.g., baptism–entering Jesus’ family, communion–Christian family meal, and weddings). A

    Teachers model Jesus as friend and as peacemaker. They extend the family ministry offered by priests to include a larger network of people by being community builders, and they specialize in spiritual formation/education, conflict resolution, and peace-making. Part of their job is helping everyone feel included, encouraging people to act harmoniously, and encouraging community development.

    Elders are ministers of mission. They can perform all sacraments (as can high priests and the sub-specialties of high priests) except for evangelist blessings/patriarchal blessings. They often have administrative duties at the local level, like being a pastor or congregational leader. They integrate the temporal and caring ministries of the aaronic ministry with the discipleship/spiritual development.

    70s are an elder sub-specialty with an emphasis on missionary work.

    High priests specialize in ministry of vision and often are concerned a larger picture that goes beyond a local level. They specialize in enhancing leadership effectiveness, bridging cultures and people, spirituality and wholeness, building support networks, honoring the past while envisioning the future, and peace and justice. So, a high priest might work with a number of congregations, or mentor other priesthood members, or teach leadership development, or serve on a world church level as a member of a team (spiritual formation, peace and justice, etc.) A high priest would usually be the administrative officer over a larger congregation or over a region.

    Evangelists, high priest sub-speciality, are ministers of blessing. They perform evangelist blessings and cultivate blessings serving as teacher/learner, spiritual companion, sanctuary, pastoral presence, or apostolic witness. Evangelists are outside of the administrative line of the church, meaning they don’t supervisor or concern themselves with administrative matters so that they are free to offer God’s blessings.

    Bishops, high priest sub-specialty, are like a combination of an aaronic minister with the vision of high priest. They focus on stewardship and generosity.

    Apostles, high priest sub-specialty, are the head missionary officers and work closely with 70s and the leadership of the church.

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  20. CatherineWO on December 12, 2010 at 4:50 PM

    TH, thank you for this interesting post and especially for your clarification of priesthood offices in CofChrist (number 19 above). I am an active LDS member but I find many things that attract me to the Community of Christ. This past summer I read the biography of Joseph Smith III by Roger D. Launius, a book I highly recommend to anyone interested in Mormon history. It gave me much food for thought, as has this post. Having read it, I can’t really argue with the RLDS/CofChrist claim to priesthood.

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  21. TH on December 12, 2010 at 6:52 PM

    Catherine,

    Thank you for your comment.
    Roger knows so much about the history. His ex-wife is a priest in my mission center (stake). I haven’t read that book, but based on what you said, maybe I’ll check it out.

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