PRES. RUSSELL M. NELSON HAS CHEERFULLY stated, “The Restoration continues!” It’s a hopeful message that I hold to. But if the Restoration continues–if there are vital aspects of truth still to be revealed–then this must mean the Church remains, in part, in a state of apostasy. Mind blown, right?
To be clear, I’m not suggesting the church is in apostasy, as leaders of certain schismatic groups proclaim, but rather that the church must still be operating under the influence of philosophies prevalent during the apostasy. There’s a vast difference. One suggests that the LDS hierarchy has made a doctrinal U-turn, leaving aspects of restorationist theology behind, while the other acknowledges that “we see through a glass, darkly” (1 Cor 13:12).
That phrase “see through a glass, darkly” is relevant for this discussion. Modern Bible translations assert the line means the glass is either opaque or is a mirror that doesn’t reflect a true image. (Explore here.) But I prefer an interpretation that puts the onus for the way we see through the glass (darkly, an adverb) directly on us, rather than blaming the glass. We see darkly as opposed to the glass being too dark for us to see through.
Notice the apostle Paul includes himself as one who sees darkly through the glass. If he didn’t, he’d have written “you see” rather than “we see.” This is scriptural acknowledgement that a person’s rank within the Church doesn’t offset his human weakness. Recognizing this allows me to proceed with grace as I consider what ideas, prevalent during the apostasy, remain to dim our understanding of eternal truth.
One possible answer came quickly to my mind–the philosophy of patriarchy. Clearly, the LDS Church is a patriarchal institution. But should it be?
Let’s consider. Was patriarchy the dominant western philosophy during the apostasy? Yes. Was it the dominant religious philosophy of the Old Testament? Yes. Was Jesus patriarchal?
That’s the rub. What I hear at church is that he was patriarchal. The evidence offered? He called only men as apostles. The evidence stops there, however, and, as I’ll mention later, this evidence is questionable. After that, what I’m offered is “The LDS Church is Jesus’ church and its patriarchal. Therefore, Jesus is patriarchal.” The logic is circular.
Let me ask it another way. Did Jesus teach male superiority and organize his followers so that the subjugation of women to men is indisputable? Or were his attitudes and teachings something else?
Jesus fulfilled the law of the Old Testament, but he also overturned its tables of injustice toward women. If you’ve read the four gospels, you know he valued women, stood up to men who would bully and abuse us, spoke directly to us and taught women alongside men. He allowed us to touch him, and he healed us with his own touch. He accepted financial support directly from women and exalted the poor widow over the male religious leaders of his era. And on and on. It’s odd that, these days, we view these actions towards women as Jesus’ kindness rather than the radical upheaval of a patriarchal system that it was.
All patriarchal systems–ancient and contemporary–are built on the assumption of male superiority, though we cringe at the term. Historically, the God-given physical strength of men made this seem an immutable truth. Time, however, has chipped away at that “truth.” In some ways, women today are even outperforming men (think education). That chipping away has left LDS people with a patriarchal religious system that admits men aren’t superior, but claims men are chosen by Heavenly Father to hold the priesthood and lead. They call it a divine pattern: Heavenly Father, the King of Heaven, is male. Therefore, the Church, as the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth, must be led by a man. “We don’t get to change the divine pattern of Heaven just because women want us to” is essentially the idea. Yet, the ministry of Jesus was one example after another of him disabusing his followers of their accepted patriarchal patterns.
I’ve never heard that lesson at Church. In fact, it’s been in private study that I’ve discovered Jesus’ anti-patriarchal lessons. I’m no scholar of antiquity as you’re aware, but my private reading has made me realize scholars are increasingly noting Mary of Magdala as something much more than a devotee of the Savior: many dub her the apostle Jesus’ loved the most. This is largely because of the apocryphal Gospel of Mary. Before you reject Mary as an apostle outright, consider that Paul acknowledges Junia, a woman, as a noteworthy apostle in Romans 16:7.
Traditionally, LDS do with Junia as we’ve done with the prophetesses listed elsewhere in the Bible. We downgrade them all by saying that what is written isn’t what is meant. And why do we do this? Because our entire system is founded on the assumption that God will only allow male priesthood holders to lead or to serve in what we, today, call priesthood offices. A female apostle is unthinkable to LDS.
Keep in mind that the New Testament was compiled during the apostasy by Roman theological leaders, men whose society revolved around male supremacy. They had the ability to exclude stories from early Christianity that centered women or acknowledged female religious authority. Such stories exist. Find The Acts of Paul and Thecla, a book of early Christian scripture that defy certain patriarchal “truths.” Thecla will be an uncomfortable character for many, but she was, in fact, a popular part of early Christianity. The men who compiled the New Testament at the end of the 4th century surely knew her story. They picked and chose the books that became the New Testament according to their desire to shore up support for the male-dominated Roman Catholic Church. Patriarchy is canonized within Christianity because of them, not because of Jesus. If something exists in Christianity for a reason other than a teaching of the Savior’s, most LDS would call it apostasy.
Religious patriarchy is literally the philosophy of men, mingled with scripture.
I ask, what if priesthood never was necessary to become an apostle, a special witness of Christ? Or what if women were, indeed, ordained? What if Jesus ordained Mary Magdalene and other women? Would we know it without knowing what was excluded from the New Testament? Can we form these questions without the burden of patriarchal assumption, and if so, what might we learn? How might the experiences of women in the Church improve? Are we capable of learning when we think our knowledge is secured?
I can’t help but remember the parable of new wine in old bottles.
This is some of the subtle and not-so-subtle havoc the patriarchal perspective creates for women in the church:
It withholds blessings from women and girls that it offers men and boys. It withholds respect from women because we cannot earn it in the way of our church brothers. It tells us the priesthood gives men special insight over female choices, lives, and bodies. Patriarchy teaches women that our feelings matter more than our minds and that neither our feelings nor minds should be entirely trusted until confirmed as good by a man who presides. It reminds us our voices will only be listened to out of the generosity of those same men who preside. It flatters us with the lie that we have/are/get less than men because we are better than men. It tells us the Perfected Woman–our Heavenly Mother–is silent and irrelevant. It tells us to trust men above ourselves.
I can’t help but wonder what truths the Church is missing because its ears are set to only receive patriarchal information. Where is my Mother in this restored gospel?
Please sit with the possibility that our patriarchal perspective is a holdover from the Great Falling Away, that it may be the reason we see through the glass, darkly–the reason we are missing revelation on important topics like the Divine Feminine. The brilliant theologian, Richard Rohr states, “The opposite of faith…is certitude.” Do we have the faith to root out the false ideas that took hold of Christianity long ago? Is the mystery of iniquity still at work? Who will let the anti-patriarchal message of the Savior be restored? (See 2 Thes 2: 3-7)
I mourn for what I’ve been denied. I mourn that the false “truth” of patriarchy is the lens I was given through which to gaze into heaven. I mourn that such a foolish tradition was offered to me as a means to salvation when it’s much more likely to be the thing from which I need salvation. I mourn the way the religious patriarchal perspective has denied us all something that should’ve been the crowning jewel of any restoration–rediscovering the Mother, revealing not only Her glory but the full potential of Her daughters. I mourn, but I also hope.
I recognize that President Nelson, in particular, has made efforts to reduce certain restrictions on women. (For instance, women may now be official witnesses at baptisms.) I also realize he likely didn’t intend to teach that darkness remains in the Church when he taught that the restoration continues, but the one must be as true as the other. I know it’s not likely the LDS hierarchy is currently considering whether or not the Church’s patriarchal foundation is limiting the progress of the restoration. It’s difficult for humans to understand that the way we’ve always seen things may not be the way things have actually always been. Hence, grace.
But grace offered doesn’t supplant truth. Here’s the truth: women have always been men’s equals. Someday my religion will have to face this. For our granddaughters’ sake, may it be soon.
Behold, I stand at the door, and knock: if any woman hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to her, and will sup with her, and she with me (Revelations 3: 20).