For those who do not have a subscription to Dialogue or have not yet heard, I wanted to point out an important new article in the Summer 2015 issue called “The Struggle for Female Authority in Biblical and Mormon Theology,” by Cory Crawford. The article represents a detailed investigation of the major scriptural sources that bear on the question of female authority in the Church and pays particular attention to how such traditions have been interpreted and shaped over time, tracing larger historical trajectories from ancient Israelite, to Christian, and then on into early and contemporary Mormon thought. By showing how these traditions were constructed in their cultural settings, either to the validation or diminishment of female authority, and even how Joseph Smith participated in the process of engaging with prior tradition to develop new concepts of authority and priesthood, Crawford aims to show how the scriptural canon as a whole could be used to reinvigorate the discussion of female priesthood and that the LDS tradition is well situated to take advantage of this new knowledge.
It is impossible to do justice here to the extensive discussion, fresh insight, and broad historical perspective contained in the article. Although there are a few places where I would quibble with Crawford’s depiction and interpretation of certain female figures in the Old Testament, this does nothing to vitiate his overall argument, since as he explains, “the role of this inquiry is not so much to uncover an objective reality, but rather to take the patches and fragments and assemble therefrom a quilt or a mosaic image of the past.” As a theologically-attuned exploration of the historical lives of LDS scripture, Crawford’s narrative about repeated and cyclical struggle for female authority from ancient Israel into the contemporary period, or in Mormon parlance apostasy and restoration, is certainly credible and convincing.
The only questions I have is whether Crawford is not somewhat too optimistic in his estimate that the Church is capable of integrating this new knowledge about the Bible into its theology and religious practice. He asserts that “the Mormon destabilization of biblical inerrancy opens unique space for the incorporation of alternative readings and for the integration of the voluminous body of research on the role gender and power played in ancient Israel and in early Christianity. The LDS tradition provides robust resources for telling new stories, for going, as did Nabonidus, back to the texts, for (re)new(ed) understandings of old ways.” But I can see little evidence for such a dynamic theology having any place in the Church and its leadership over the last half century, as it has grown and become more institutionalized, correlated, and global in reach. If Crawford is correct that cultural centralization and institutionalization often correlate with decreased opportunities for the expression of female religious authority, then what reason do we have to expect the Church to change any time soon?
In any case, I would strongly encourage people to get a hold of the article and read it carefully. If you are interested in thinking about the future of the LDS Church and how it could better support the interests and spiritual and cultural development of its women, this article provides what I think is the most comprehensive, knowledgable, and hermeneutically self-conscious treatment of scriptural resources on female authority in an LDS framework to date.