Questioning Women’s Place in God’s Plan
This post is for the kind friends and family who have tried to understand my questions about women in the church. My experience has been unfolding over years, but here’s where the story begins.
The journey of considering women’s role in the church and eternities is neither new nor unique (and mine is perhaps a bit rudimentary for people who have considered and written about this for years), but this is my experience and I’m glad to share it with you.
It started with a list of study questions
Several years back, I wrote a list of doctrinal questions I wanted to study. Post-seminary and post-mission, this exercise was common practice for me.
I assumed I’d move through the experience much like I had any other time: I would study out my questions in scriptures and other good books, I would receive inspired insight and find answers I hadn’t noticed before, and I would move to the next topic of study in my spiritual development.
This time, my questions involved women’s role at church and in God’s plan. I couldn’t point to any one thing that brought these questions to mind, just some nagging discrepancies I needed to reconcile.
The plan + gender = ?
First in the equation: Mormon doctrine holds that our purpose on Earth is to become more like God. As God’s children, we are meant to progress in this life and the next to be like our Father in Heaven. We refer to this comforting plan consistently at church, complete with a familiar diagram of circles and lines on the Sunday School chalkboard.
Second: the LDS church makes much of gender. Between the Proclamation to the World on the Family, General Conference talks, new primary songs, and the church’s support of political actions (such as Prop 8), the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has taken a stand that gender is divinely appointed and eternally important.
Those two points came together like this for me:
If gender is really as important as my church keeps insisting it is, with rigid roles for males and females, then the plan of salvation as I’ve learned it is the eternal blueprint for men’s progression. After all, Heavenly Father is characterized as distinctly and unequivocally male. According to the church, women have their own role, separate from men. In which case…
What is my blueprint for the eternities as a female?
It struck me that I didn’t have one. Not a clear one, anyway.
I had lived in the comfort of Mormon certainty for many years. And at that point, I was certain that I would find my answer quickly and move forward with a new sense of my divine calling as woman.
But then I came up empty.
The scriptures offered far fewer examples of women than I had ever noticed before.
Words from modern-day prophets didn’t clarify. Contemporary Mormon leaders contradicted each other, even contradicted themselves. Men preside over women, but women are also equal partners with men?
I wondered, where in the gospel experience do women just get to be people?
Going to church, I felt a deep sense of unease, a blankness about my identity at church that I hadn’t experienced before. I sat through Relief Society lessons that spent air time discussing the dangers of sleeveless shirts, but didn’t mention Christ.
And what other kind of church culture could I expect? Women are supposed to read themselves into all-male stories, while at the same time, fulfill a role specific to female gender alone—a role that some would potentially sum up as: have babies and support the men who do the important things.
The eternal trajectory of women remains speculative in LDS doctrine. Mormons believe in a Heavenly Mother on the sly, but she is shrouded in mystery and conjecture. (Bring her up in a group of Mormons and someone may hypothesize that there are many heavenly mothers, polygamous wives to Heavenly Father—a folkloric idea tracing back to Orson Pratt). Rarely in pseudo-doctrinal theories about her is she discussed as an “equal partner.”
In the absence of actual doctrine that teaches what divine femininity looks like, Mormon women are left to fill the time talking about the length of other women’s sleeves.**
Eventually, I did find some answers, but not the ones I expected
During this time of discomfort at church, I felt surprisingly guided in my spiritual life. (Though, to my fellow ward members, I might have looked like I’d lost something. I asked to be released from my calling. I took a temporary break from attending church.) I went inward and looked upward. I fortuitously found people and communities—such as the women at Exponent II—who gave me clarity and support.
I won’t go into all the answers I’ve found (and I’m still finding), since they would take time to unpack, and that’s not the purpose of this post.
But I will say this. While church culture often overlooks women, or speaks of them as either less or more than human, Christ himself did not. The story of Christ in the New Testament recounts him speaking to women deemed outcasts or unclean. At a place in history when a woman’s testimony would not be allowed in a court of law, he allowed a woman’s voice to serve as witness that he had risen.
In certain vital ways, I believe our church culture does not follow the pattern of Christ in how to treat women. That may sound uncomfortable. I understand the impulse to defend the way things are, to explain how current practices and status quo are eternally relevant. Testimony of the church’s truthfulness can seem to depend on it. But what is the worst thing that could happen if you just ask? Honest, unafraid of the answer?
I can only speak for my own experience. I’m not suggesting that you should ask the same questions that I have, or that your journey should parallel mine. It’s not the same path everyone should take, just as your experience is not the one required of me. But we can all ask questions we truly do not know the answers to. I think that as we do, we put ourselves in a space to be taught, both about God and about each other. We open ourselves up to an even more active, searching spirituality.
In my experience, I’ve found increased clarity as described in the Doctrine & Covenants: in your mind and in your heart. When the mind is not satisfied and the heart is uneasy, the journey being prompted is likely worth pursuing.
**You might read this and say, “But you don’t need female-specific doctrine because the gospel is for everyone.” Yes, I recognize that principles of the gospel apply to both men and women, that men and women are baptized and can take part in temple ordinances. I recognize that Christ-like attributes and Christ’s invitations to repent are not exclusive according to gender (Gal 3:27-28, 2 Ne 26:33). That’s the point. My church continues to emphasize that gender is rigidly divided with prescriptive roles, without illuminating what those roles look like in the eternities—which is problematic for a religion that also claims to have reliable and detailed answers about what happens to us after we die. I’m not looking for the same clear-cut certainty I had before. But I am interested in us having a more open, searching conversation as a religious community.