Dear 100 Hour Board,
Why is the LDS church so slow with women? For example, new changes about calling temple leaders, regional leaders in Europe, and temple endowment. What’s next? Women getting the Priesthood? I feel like the sexism in the church shouldn’t have even been there if God truly loved women. Why do they finally get these updates now? I don’t want to hear that culturally in the world it finally makes sense or that the Priesthood blesses everyone so it never really was an issue. God is eternal and not bound my man’s ways. The church could have been setting a better example earlier. Why didn’t they?
-My Name Here
Once again, I work out my answer with fear and trembling, knowing that I lack firsthand knowledge of the female perspective. There's a lot to unpack here, so we'll go through it a bit at a time.
I feel like the sexism in the church shouldn’t have even been there if God truly loved women.
Unfortunately, God doesn't often directly intervene to solve every issue that we're presented with, because to prevent every hardship or halt every intentional or unintentional misdeed would stifle our moral growth. God may lead the church, but that doesn't mean that the church is therefore perfectly free from error or misalignment with His will.
I don’t want to hear that culturally in the world it finally makes sense
Much like "policy vs doctrine" or "speaking as a man" vs "speaking as a prophet," the idea of the world being prepared to receive revelation needs some revision. I would argue that culturally "the world" (or at least the church) is finally moving toward broader acceptance and understanding of gender equality.
The notion of God's accommodation of the weakness of man in transmitting His will is severely underdeveloped in LDS tradition, and that's a shame, because it leads to misconceived ideas like these which effectively rehash the problem of evil from a feminist perspective. God doesn't sit around waiting to until He feels like it to act; He waits for the men and women of His church to be receptive enough to His voice to teach us more than we currently know. In the church this idea is often toted about as if we need to sit patiently on our hands and wait for God to decide we're ready for more knowledge. This is a gross misunderstanding of the revelatory process. It's not about waiting for the culture to sit around and mature, like God is a lab researcher impassively tinkering with a cosmic petri dish; it's about mortal men and women coming to understand their imperfections in bringing God's will to pass in the first place, and actively seeking to do better and receive more knowledge. That's what preparation ought to mean. When the world isn't ready to receive revelation, that's an indictment of our own complacency in our current knowledge, not a sign of God being cold and uncaring.
God is eternal and not bound my man’s ways. The church could have been setting a better example earlier. Why didn’t they?
God is eternal, sure. But the church isn't, and neither are the people leading it; they are bound by man's ways. This is where many people tend to choke for fear that I seem to be discounting divine inspiration, but the reality is that doctrine doesn't come about in a vacuum; the prophets who receive divine inspiration are just as human, encultured, and prone to traditional assumptions and mistakes as we are.
The church could have been setting this example in 1800 or 20 AD or 600 BC, were it not for the various ways in which tradition, religion, and culture intersected to shape practice in a way that was insufficient to represent women the way we do now. These factors are deeply seated and difficult to change, and I sorely wish we were more cognizant of them in the church, because it leads to fundamentalist leanings like those on display here when we aren't. The gospel can still be restored and still be true, even if the institution of the church is still in need of learning, development, and even an occasional chastening. Revelation as we perceive it is almost never timeless and eternal, but rather is shaped by our culture, expectations, and experiences. When people receiving the revelation or reading the scriptures aren't cognizant of that fact, and mistake accommodated understandings for timeless, eternal truths, religious practice can get stuck on ideas which we mistake to be eternally true, which are not.
This blog post at Times and Seasons should help shed some light on how we can get stuck in interpretive traps. The whole thing is well worth reading, but I'll share the most relevant points:
[Tradition] is the strength of culture in shaping our unconscious mind and worldview that poses potential problems; we tend to be blind to our own assumptions and cultural inheritance, and it affects us on many levels.
The rules of Monopoly constitute one harmless example. Very few seem to know, let alone play by the written rules. The written rules say you don’t put any money on free parking, and when someone lands on a property without buying it, the bank immediately auctions it off to the highest bidder. If you play that way, the the game moves along quite quickly.
We all assume the Monopoly rules we play by are the written rules, but they don’t actually correspond entirely. The real-world consequence is, we all hate Monopoly. The inherited tradition telling us the rules can be so strong that even when we DO read them, we sometimes manage to ignore the absence of our tradition and read it in, largely unconsciously.
One place this affects LDS is in our scripture reading and subsequent interpreting. We often go into our scriptures already knowing (or so we think) just what they say and what they mean, and then overlook or ignore anything to the contrary. Mormons are not alone in this, of course. Everyone inherits some kind of interpretive tradition. Evangelical scholar Peter Enns called this inherited interpretive tradition “the interpreted Bible,” and spends several pages discussing it in context of Paul’s 2nd Temple Judaism traditions regarding Adam. 2 He introduces the concept with the example of the insensitive innkeeper who turns away Joseph and a very pregnant Mary, who’s endured riding a donkey for miles. 3 We all know the mean innkeeper, and we’ve seen him in various LDS and non-LDS depictions of the birth narrative of Christ. However, he exists only in the “interpreted Bible”, the interpretation and retelling we’ve inherited culturally, but the mean innkeeper is not found in scripture.
This kind of receiving-cultural-tradition-as-scripture can happen even at high levels in the Church.
Eugene England asked [Elder Joseph Fielding Smith] in a 1963 private interview whether it was necessary for a faithful Latter-day Saint to believe that black men were denied priesthood because of their activities in the preexistence, Elder Smith said, “Yes.” But when England asked for scriptural substantiation, Elder Smith reread the relevant passages, reflected, then finally stated, “No, you do not have to believe that Negroes are denied the priesthood because of the pre-existence. I have always assumed that because it was what I was taught, and it made sense, but you don’t have to believe it to be in good standing, because it is not definitely stated in the scriptures. And I have received no revelation on the matter.”4
Joseph Fielding Smith had received a tradition that he assumed was consistent with and based on scripture, but upon rereading the relevant passages closely, he changed his mind.5
This kind of thing happens all the time, because so few of us have experience reading closely (that’s a semi-technical term) and because of that insidious power of tradition.
The long and the short of it is that religious belief and practice is inextricably linked with fallibility and interpretation. Why isn't the Church further ahead of the curve on gender issues, or questions of same-sex attraction, or politics, or any number of things? To me, it would seem that it's a consequence of the weight of tradition; we do things a certain way for so long that it takes serious consideration to open our eyes to the idea that maybe women can be witnesses for baptisms after all, even though there was no real reason to restrict them from doing so in the first place.
Likewise: why is there sexism in the church at all? The vast majority of it, from my admittedly limited male perspective, is unintentionally perpetuated (both by men and women in the Church) who believe that they are passing on timeless, eternal truths about gender when, in fact, some of what we believe about gender roles is merely inherited tradition. (In 1973, the Ensign published a marriage advice article entitled "For Husbands and Helpmeets." Could you imagine that flying today? I can't, but in the 1970s, talking about marriage that way was still normal). It's still common for some church members to rationalize motherhood as an authoritative alternative for barring women from ecclesiastical office in the church, even though we don't actually have any definitive, revealed answer as to why the church has been organized this way. Not all of the tradition which we receive is, in fact, revealed scripture, and when we uncritically accept the practices of the past as timeless and eternal without due examination, we perpetuate their mistakes.
How far does this go, though? The logical conclusion of this argument can be taken to suggest that the male-dominant organization of the church is also an artifact of the past, inherited from male-dominated ancient scripture and tradition, and that women receiving the priesthood is only a matter of time. I won't go quite that far--the future designs of God are unknown to me, and I don't claim to have any special revealed knowledge. Precisely which truths are eternal, and which are not, is something I take on faith, and I don't know exactly how the church will and will not change in five, ten, or fifty years. But I will say that there is room for change in gender roles in my faith, should it come to pass, and that I fully believe God loves and cares for His daughters as much as His sons.
I hope this answer helps you reconcile these issues somewhat. If I've failed to address your question thoroughly enough, write in again or email me directly at nines(at)theboard(dot)byu(dot)edu.
I'm not sure how much I can add to 9S's fabulous answer, but I do want to reiterate that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints is not an extension of God. The Church was literally made by men (not women), and has largely been maintained by men. It is run by a man and not by God; the institution itself is not divine. If I'm wrong about this, and it turns out heaven is a hierarchical organization with only men at the top, then please sign me up for hell.
It would be nice if there was an organization that we could put complete and absolute trust in that everything it did was good and right. I personally don't believe such an institution is possible because as humans we cannot escape the reality of being flawed. But even if I can't experience perfection now, I still have hope in a perfect God.