Ritual Subordination: I Just Don’t Get It

I’m personally in favor of women’s ordination. But I can see why people have reservations about it. It’s a pretty radical change to make, and would involve all kinds of logistical complications. Most LDS women actually don’t want the priesthood, and are happy with what they can contribute in the current system. There’s also the question of whether women should be seeking priesthood from men in the first place, as opposed to having their own line of priestesshood. I still come down on the side of ordaining women, but I can see it as a complicated question.

I have a much more difficult time when it comes to temple liturgy that subordinates women. Honestly, I just don’t get it. Why not change it? What would be the harm? I know we’ve had endless debates about whether it can be reinterpreted in more egalitarian ways. But what if it were simply straightforwardly egalitarian in the first place? What would be lost if women got to be directly connected to God: hearkening to God, and priestesses unto God? What if the sealing ritual were reciprocal?

I’m asking these as serious questions. I simply don’t see any benefit in holding on to this stuff. The ceremony has been altered numerous times in the past, so it’s not as if we have no precedent for change. And in its current form, it’s really hard for me to believe that it’s worth the amount of spiritual havoc it’s wreaking in too many women’s lives. Maybe I’m overlooking something obvious. But I don’t see what makes it worth keeping.

But while I do have strong feelings about this, I’d be especially interested in thoughts from people who wouldn’t want it changed. I promise not to bite your head off if you chime in.

Notes: this isn’t a debate about female ordination, and be careful in discussing the temple ceremony


  1. It will change at some point. One of the changes in 1991 was that the equivalent of this passage from Genesis was removed entirely: “Unto the woman he said, I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children; and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee.” That is, the notion of husbands leading or ruling or presiding is a theme that goes all the way back to Genesis, so it is found in all the Abrahamic religions. Except that in the LDS tradition, that verse is no longer part of the temple ritualized version of Genesis. There was more comment about the wording changes in the covenant than in the removal of this passage. But I think, ultimately, the removal of the passage is more significant, because it casts serious doubt on whether there is some preference or special leader/presiding role of the husband. Combined with the emphasis on equal partnership in more current rhetoric of church leaders, I think it is only a matter of time before further adjustments are made. Changes to ritual often trail changes to rhetoric–other changes to the ceremony in 1991 reflected changes in rhetoric that had occurred many years or decades before. But the change will come. Exactly how, I do not know or in what form. But it will.

  2. I hope David is right, and that it comes sooner rather than later. It would make it a lot easier for me to stay in the church.

  3. Great questions. I want to respond to the following statement specifically:

    “And in its current form, it’s really hard for me to believe that it’s worth the amount of spiritual havoc it’s wreaking in too many women’s lives.”

    This is complete speculation, but perhaps Church leaders are more likely to hear about the negative effects of these elements of the temple ceremony from people they deem to be liberal or on the fridges of Mormonism and less likely to hear about these negative effects (and the extent to which they exist) from people they perceive to be faithful, core members of the church. Thus, they either feel that there isn’t a problem with the current ceremony among core members, and/or they worry that changing those elements could be viewed as bowing to pressure from more radical members. Additionally, there may be a fear that these small changes will indicate that changes happen due to popular pressure instead of inspiration of leadership and, thus, will spark continued popular pressure for more changes.

  4. It seems to be representative of what was absolutely believed in the early days of the church, including Genesis 3:16, albeit now slightly softened. I’d like to have David’s confidence that change in ceremony simply lags behind changes in rhetoric, but fear I am growing more cynical as time passes. I don’t actually see how the 1990s change, meant anything different to that which preceded it (though that is based on reading not experience, since I first attended after the change was made).

  5. There are beautiful eternal truths within the symbolism of subordination to husbands. (Please remember that I’m saying this as a victim of unrighteous dominion, and am well acquainted with the pain subordination can bring.) The dissonance at first glance can cause us to look deeper, to go to the Lord for answers.

    I could share what I have found here, but it is meaningless without the struggle to understand. And my answers are probably not what you need. The struggle is part of the answer. All I can do is say that there is meaning, beautiful, healing meaning.

    I would be very cautious about acting on hypothetical future changes. You may be right, you may be wrong. But you don’t live in the future, you live now. I suggest it is worthwhile to take what you have now and use it to turn to God and develop your relationship. You won’t find answers outside of that relationship. This much I can say for certain.

  6. Lynette, thanks for this post. I often ask myself this question as well.

    SilverRain, I would genuinely like to have a better sense of what beautiful eternal truths you’ve found in the symbolism of subordination to husbands. I have been a faithful temple attender for many years and have tried to struggle to understand all manner of symbolism. And yet, since my feminist awakening, I find it painful and difficult to attend, and would like to discover a new approach so that I can derive benefit without being overwhelmed by the subordination of women themes.

    I guess I would benefit more from an approach of “here’s what I find beautiful” rather than an approach of “here’s why the temple is the way it is supposed to be and will always be throughout the eternities”. I acknowledge that the latter could be true, though I don’t believe it, but in any case, I find it off-putting and unhelpful. To be honest, I’m more interested in the here and now–how do these themes help you in your daily life without any special reference to eternal truths (or falsities)?

  7. Hi, SilverRain. Thanks for being willing to share your perspective on this. Am I reading correctly that you’re saying that a change in the ritual could possibly be a loss in that the current seemingly dissonant situation can lead us to look deeper, and to turn to God to wrestle with it? (This isn’t a trap or a trick question; I’m simply trying to get a better sense of other people’s views on this.)

  8. Yeah, they changed some words in 1990, but the meaning hasn’t changed one bit. There was a great presentation at Sunstone this month about it. There is so much of our current practice and doctrine tied up in the temple in regards to the roles women are allowed and the space we have for LGBT members, I can’t imagine them changing it much. Sorry to be depressing.

    I want to hear more from Silver Rain.

  9. Mike, I’m sorry to disappoint, but I’m not going to share more than that there is a potential there, because I have realized it. There is a reason things are taught symbolically, and it is because many truths can be taught through the same symbolism. The truths I have found to be beautiful and healing are probably not the same ones you need to hear. It is opening ourselves up for instruction by the Spirit that is the key. I can’t give that to you, only testify that it is possible. Indeed, that it is the bulk of the point of the temple ceremonies.

    I know it is frustrating to hear that. We are so attuned to scientific methods of learning, symbolic learning is almost like a foreign language. But subjectivity is a powerful as objectivity. Sometimes more.

    Ugh…I know it sounds all mystical and fluffy. It isn’t. It is gritty and real, and sometimes ugly. But it is also glorious. I wish I were better at it so I could better explain it. But it’s the best I know how to do today. I’m sorry….

    Lynette, no. What I’m saying is that pain can be pain, or it can be an opportunity to look to Christ for understanding and healing.

    I’m also saying it is dangerous to say, “if you change, I can heal.” I say that as someone who feels in very little control of life right now. Anticipating future prophetic counsel and following that is not following the prophets. Which is a decision that must be made individually, but it is unwise to set up a prophet made in our own image and pretends that we’re following the counsel of the living prophets. It is self-delusion.

    When I don’t understand or agree, I have found it helpful to ask myself, “why might God be teaching this?” It comes from an assumption of faith in the prophetic calling (gained through previous prayer and experience) rather than from a position of cynicism.

    There is value in dissonance. Resolving the tensions of what is taught by God through prophets is the essence of the gospel. It is there that we realize our power and potential. Prophetic counsel is prescriptive rather than restrictive.

    IF there was a change, it would be profound and beautiful. But if there isn’t, that is profound and beautiful, too. In my experience, learning what one can from where one is and accepting the limitations of our own understanding brings insight and a measure of peace.

  10. SilverRain, I think we may be talking past each other. This might not have been sufficiently clear in my post, but I wasn’t actually asking for advice on how to personally deal with the situation. I’m simply asking about reasons to keep the liturgy as it is.

  11. Because I honestly don’t see any. I can see why change might not realistically happen (for example, Beatrice’s observations), but I genuinely don’t see any theological/spiritual reasons for holding on to these practices.

    I’ve been upfront (I think) about my agenda: I see the current ritual as causing spiritual harm to a lot of women. And, quite simply, I don’t see any value in it that could possibly make that worth it. But I don’t know if there’s something that I’m missing.

  12. Can I ask and suggest something? I truly don’t wish to offend, so feel free to refuse to answer, just please don’t assume I’m being flippant or sarcastic. I promise I’m in no frame of mind for anything but earnestness at the moment.

    Why are you asking *here*? If your question is genuine, the chances that someone here will have an answer is small (they most likely agree with you,) and of those few here who do have reasons they find compelling, they aren’t likely to share them here.

    They are likely to suspect you are at best asking rhetorically, or at worst trying to set them up to be shot down (and those who have found answers probably have tender emotions involved, and no wish to defend what they have found through tearful entreaty and hours of wrestling before God.)

    More to the point, the One with ability to truly answer your question to your satisfaction doesn’t blog, as far as I know.

  13. I think (hope?) I can see a little better where you’re coming from, so I appreciate the response. For what it’s worth, I’m not asking this as a personal question—I agree that I’m not likely to find answers for that on a blog. Rather, I’m asking it as an intellectual question.

    To give an example of why I think that kind of discussion can be helpful—I mentioned the issue of ordaining women at the beginning of the OP. Though I’m in favor of it, I actually can see some of the objections to it, and part of that is from discussions with people who disagree with me on the matter.

    And with this particular issue, I honestly don’t get it. I mean that. I don’t want this to be a trick question, or a set-up. But I also understand that I’m asking on a feminist blog, and I have strong feelings about it, and the combination probably doesn’t make it feel like the friendliest environment for people who see things differently. That’s an issue I’m thinking about.

  14. Thank you, Lynette. I understand your perspective better. Too bad you can’t just come visit me or vice versa, and we could maybe have a great discussion on this topic. 🙂 I’m willing to try, just in the right time/place, not on the internet.

    I don’t think that limiting your source of information to the intellectual works very well with spiritual things. Reason and logic are merely tools, not ends. They can serve whatever purpose you put to them. But generally speaking, the thing I have found that brings understanding is subjective spiritual confirmation coupled with reason, i.e. in the mind AND heart.

    If your heart is already convinced of something, logic will seem to serve only your conviction. Prayer is a process to try to crack open that conviction, to give the Lord the freedom to guide your reason and feeling. I’m struggling with that myself on a totally different matter right now. It’s a raw, painful, but ultimately worthwhile process.


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