There is a lot to like about Michael Otterson’s recent letter. It is a cause for hope that the issue of women in the church is being taken seriously. It is honest, heartfelt, transparent, and reaches out directly to a community who often wonders if anyone cares at all. I am grateful for this gesture and am pleased to see that he is an active part of the conversation.
There are lots of things to critique about the letter too, many of which have happened in other blog posts and comments. There is also cause for disappointment in the explanation that reportedly years of conversations about women in the church have lead to so few and so minor actual changes. But I want to specifically point out one thing that stood out to me. When explaining the issue of women’s ordination in the LDS tradition, Otterson attests:
I suppose we do not know all the reasons why Christ did not ordain women as apostles, either in the New Testament or the Book of Mormon, or when the Church was restored in modern times. We only know that he did not…
Only one argument is given for why the priesthood is restricted to males: precedent. Even on this point, the precedent is given no rational defense. “We do not know all the reasons…We only know that he did not” This statement strikes me as among the most significant in the letter, and I am deeply appreciative of his candor. Otterson is not saying that there is no reason. Rather, Jesus may have had a reason, but we do not know as a matter of doctrine what the reason is.
When discussing women’s ordination, Otterson does not, thankfully, appeal to gender roles, nor does he suggest that women’s current contributions are as much as they are capable of offering to the church. He does not say that men “need” the priesthood but that women do not. He does not say that only males can represent God or Christ. He does not compare the priesthood to motherhood. Basically, he guts the hackneyed apologetic defenses of the status quo. Otterson’s rejection of these arguments shows me that he is paying close attention, and that he is attuned to the weaknesses of these arguments. For that, I am thankful.
As many have pointed out, the argument from precedent on this issue is pretty weak too, and may actually create the space for women’s status as deacon, apostle, prophet, and other roles. The early Christian record does not really support an idea of priesthood ordination, certainly not for males alone, and the question of offices, including what the Twelve were, is quite unclear. Contrary to Otterson’s letter, Jesus does not “ordain” anyone in the Book of Mormon, let alone any apostles. The evolution of church offices and roles in the Restoration is similarly inconsistent, and the modern organization of the church looks quite different from anything Joseph Smith ever produced.
But what strikes me most is that precedent is the only argument. Have we abandoned any rational defense of this practice? Does it make simply no sense anymore, and we only have tradition? The most pressing question that remains is, in the absence of any rational reason for the current doctrine, why exactly is it non-negotiable?