Can Mormon women be witnesses to priesthood ordinances?

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Both male and female

This month’s issue of the Ensign offers a touching account of how Camilla Kimball, wife of Mormon prophet Spencer W. Kimball, acted as an official witness when her husband performed a baptism for a new convert in India. The convert, Mangal Dan Dipty, recalls:

Then in January 1961, Elder Spencer W. Kimball (1895–1985) of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles visited Delhi. I spent three days traveling with him to the Taj Mahal at Agra and to Dharamsala. I was like a sponge soaking up all the gospel lessons he taught. On the final day of his visit, I was ready for baptism. On January 7, 1961, I was baptized by Elder Kimball in the Yamuna River; Sister Kimball was the official witness, though there were many curious onlookers. I was confirmed that evening.

I’m glad this story is in the Ensign; it’s a step forward for the Church’s flagship magazine to acknowledge that despite Mormonism’s most recent history of not allowing women to serve as official witnesses to priesthood ordinances, for much of LDS history they did—as well as heal the sick, prophesy, speak in tongues, and exhibit spiritual gifts.

And yet I’m sure there will be denials from all corners, along the lines of, “Well, that was only because it was an emergency situation and there were no other priesthood holders around.”

Such arguments constitute the Hail Mary pass of Mormonism: the idea that women are only qualified to serve in the most desperate situations when there are no men available for the job.

Yet when we’re looking at this and other examples of women’s authority in the LDS Church, it almost doesn’t matter what Mormon women in the nineteenth century did or did not do.

That’s because we are a Restorationist church that believes in restoring the New Testament church—the one that Jesus himself founded. So let’s take a look at what that looks like.

The Savior, despite having many other options, chose women to be the first witnesses to the most important priesthood ordinance of all: his resurrection. Not the Twelve disciples, but the women. Women are present in all four of the Gospels, standing at the cross and then, on Sunday morning, venturing out in the dark to anoint his body for burial. Only they do not find a body:

The women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. 6 Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, 7 that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.” 8 Then they remembered his words, 9 and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest. 10 Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles. 11 But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them. (Luke 24:5-11)

It was women that first apprehended the good news—and it was men, in this account at least, who did not believe their testimony. (Except for Peter, who at least hustled to the tomb to see for himself.)

In the context of the first century, Jesus made an indefensible choice in selecting women to be his resurrection witnesses. As New Testament scholar N. T. Wright has put it, “If someone in the first century had wanted to invent a story about people seeing Jesus, they wouldn’t have dreamed of giving the star part to a woman.” Women couldn’t even be witnesses in a court of law.

Yet Jesus chose them.

This story is worth bearing in mind as Mormons grapple in the twenty-first century with the roles of women as leaders in the LDS Church. Jesus chose women. Would we?

I’ve written before on this blog that I’m a supporter of women’s priesthood ordination: full-on equality of leadership between men and women in the Church.

But I am also a realist, and I am well aware that such a radical transformation is about as likely as the [insert your most implausible sports team here] winning the [insert your coveted championship here]. It’s not going to happen anytime soon.

What is going to happen is what we are already seeing: the incremental changes in women’s visibility and leadership that have occurred over the last several years, as chronicled by Peggy Fletcher Stack this week in the Salt Lake Tribune.

Allowing women as witnesses to priesthood ordinances could be one of those incremental changes, accomplished by a simple policy change.

As Julie Smith wrote in 2013, the practice doesn’t require any major shifts in Mormon doctrine:

What is interesting about the women-as-witnesses proposal is that it is theologically easy–no major doctrinal upheaval needed, no priesthood ordination needed, and traditionalists can assert that the practice is grounded in both scripture and the complementary-but-not-identical nature of men and women.

Extending the privilege of serving as official witnesses to priesthood ordinances such as blessings, temple sealings, and baptisms would send women the message that the Church isn’t just talking the talk when it says that we are as vital in the administration of the priesthood as men are.