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Women in the Ministry

Joel presents an argument for why women should not be ordained in the General Church. He draws passages from the Writings that support his opinion, while admitting that the Writings are absent of a clear position on this issue. This is the third entry in the series: Women as Ordained Priests (or Not). -Editor.

This article addresses the question of whether women should be ordained into the Ministry of the General Church of the New Jerusalem. This can be a very complex and frustrating debate. My own position, that I have come to after much uncertainty, is that it is better to have an all male priesthood. This is based on my understanding of how men and women operate and on the role that the priesthood is to play in the church. My hope is that in this article, I can share with you a little of how I believe that this position is consistent with the truths we are taught in the Word and in the Heavenly Doctrines.

The place to start is with what the Writings teach about the differences between men and women. It is easy to limit this to saying that men are wisdom and women are love, but this is an oversimplification. The Writings are clear that men and women have both a will and an understanding. What the Writings say is that in men the understanding predominates, and in women the will does, and what predominates determines the character (Heaven and Hell 369). So we may say, while men and women have both will and understanding, men in general are defined by their understanding and women by their will. These tendencies are described more completely elsewhere in the Writings, which talk about men as the love of growing wise, and women as the love of that wisdom (Conjugial Love [90, 91], 159, elsewhere). This seems very abstract, but one way of making it more concrete is to think of it as men have a strong desire to live a life that is shaped by truths, and women, from those same truths, are inspired to express and live a life of love towards others. The result for both sexes is a life of love to the Lord and the neighbor, but with men the process is more based on understanding and with women more on will.

If it is the case that men are more oriented towards expressing good through truth, this does not answer the question of whether this is a quality that should exist in all priests. The clearest and perhaps most well known teaching in the Writings of what a priest should be is that a priest should teach truth, specifically truth from the Word, and through that truth lead people to live good lives, and so to heaven and the Lord (Doctrine of Life 39, Arcana Coelestia 8121, 10794, True Christian Religion 422). Furthermore, Heaven and Hell describes the nature of Angelic Preachers: “All the preachers are from the Lord's spiritual kingdom, none from the celestial kingdom. They are from the spiritual kingdom because the angels there are in truths from good, and all the preaching is done from truths” (225). From all of this, I think it is possible to conclude that the primary role of ministers is to teach, or express, truths. This does not just mean preaching from the pulpit; for example, it can be very useful to privately take your problems to a minister, and have him teach you truths that are not just abstract, but relate to your specific situation; but even in these kinds of situations, he is still teaching or expressing truth, albeit on a very personal level.

I don’t want to suggest that women cannot express truth. As already mentioned, men and women have both a will and an understanding, capable of knowing and understanding the Lord’s truth. It is more the general approach to expressing truth that matters. Men have a tendency to express truth out of a desire for wisdom, just as ministers, in general, are expected to teach the truth that comes from good. Women have more of a tendency to express the love that truths can lead to or express. This is a wonderful thing, and should be embraced. But it does not fit as closely with the role of the ministry, which seems to be primarily to teach truth and focus on order in the church and in the church's doctrine. Were women to be ordained into the priesthood, I do not think that the church would die or anything as drastic as that. I would hope that all priests, men and women, would strive to serve the Lord and increase His kingdom on earth. However, I think that the priesthood would drift to some degree away from it’s primary role. In my view, one of the greatest uses of the priesthood is to have people set aside within the church who are specifically defined by their adherence to teaching truth, clearly and in a structured system, and having an all-male priesthood helps foster this.

There are two final points I want to make. First, although I think my position is founded on the Doctrines of the New Church, the Writings do not necessarily clearly state that women cannot be ministers. The Lord Himself warns against “teaching as doctrines the commandments of men” (Matthew 15:9). While I hope that the General Church continues it’s policy of not ordaining women, I am not troubled by other New Church organizations that do so, knowing that while I may disagree with the practice, it is possible to ordain women and still be founded solidly on the Doctrines of the New Church. Second, I think perhaps the most compelling argument for ordaining women is those women who have felt a call to the ministry. While again I disagree with the practice, I have a great deal of respect for anyone who listens to the Lord, and strives to act accordingly. This is what the Lord asks of all of us. If a woman truly believes the Lord is calling her to the ministry, and she strives to attain this goal, then she is in essence striving to serve the Lord.

Joel Glenn

Joel recently graduated from Bryn Athyn College with a degree in History/Religion. He loves conversation about religion, and enjoys finding common ground and understanding within disagreement.

Reader Comments (22)

This is a very compassionate rendering of the argument not to ordain women, and I thank you for it. There are several points that you raise that deserve deeper discussion.

First, I appreciate that you speak in terms of tendencies. I would love to see the vernacular on the whole change from "abilities" to "inclination." There are no truths available to the understanding of men that are not within reach for women as well. But you are right, approaches differ. For example, I can study abstract theology all day with the best of them (love it, actually!) but when working on a sermon, it is the question of "how do I apply this to my everyday life?" that really lights me on fire. The process does not feel whole to me unless I carry the truth right on down into application. And I also know that this approach is not exclusive to women. So the language of inclination and preference leaves room for expressing the reality of where gender and personality collide in creating individuality.

Second, I want to highlight "teach truth and lead to the good of life," as being the purpose of the priesthood. Even that phrase itself, doesn't it speak to a partnership? Yet, your emphasis is clearly on the purpose of the priesthood being primarily to "teach truth." Why does the second half of the job description keep getting short shrift? Is the purpose of the priesthood to teach the truth and then just let people lead themselves to the good of life? Or should the priesthood take a more active role in leading to the good of life by demonstrating specific strategies, speaking to the details of direct application and being present with people in each failure or victory of application? I love Chelsea's vision in the comment section of a previous essay...a priesthood where a variety of approaches minister to a variety of needs. Because if we make a decision to foster a priesthood that will "focus on order in the church" then that is what we will get, but I truly wonder, is this the only thing that a community of believers requires? It's not that I think a focus on truth and order is not required at all, however there are ways to do it that do not involve making the requirements for priesthood so narrow that it is the only thing it ever seeks to accomplish. Clearly, the desire to maintain the order and the purity of doctrine, and the drawing of a line in the sand to protect it, comes from a love for the church and the Word. But this particular line is arbitrary, an attempt at creating order through separateness rather than engagement, because the inclination of women to take truth and apply it, to see it through to outcomes and details and all the messiness of life, is not a threat to the order of the church. There will always be some who prefer to focus on the uncovering of truth, and some that prefer to focus on the application of it. Why not a partnership mindset? I really want to know: why doesn't that sound exciting to people? And joyous?

October 28, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterShada Sullivan

One thing I have always appreciated about the New Church is the lack of prescriptive preaching. No minister has ever told me to vote Republican or rally against abortion or lobby my state legislature on school prayer. They help me understand and appreciate the ideas of the Word and the Writings and leave the day-to-day interpretation to me. (To Shada's points, yes, they often talk about application to life, but it is always general -- about how to approach situations, not what to do when I have them.) Is this easier to maintain with an all-male ministry? I can see the argument. Men are absolute fonts of useless truth (I'll bet 50 percent of American males know how many home runs Babe Ruth hit, providing no benefit to the world at all); women tend to be drawn to truth that leads to use. I think you could argue that preaching truth by itself, not connected directly to specific uses, keeps our freedom safe, whereas preaching truth connected to use could, over time, start crowding over into the territory of telling people what to do and impinging on their freedom.

That might be a minor thought in a broader debate, but it's something that jumped out to me as I read Joel's essay.

October 28, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterBrian David

Brian David,

This is hilarious. I know many women that are absolute fonts of useless truth; does that make them better candidates for the priesthood?

I think the problem lies in out unisex approach which militates against reality and the Word. The world is not unisex! We should not drop the suffix "-ess". The pagans knew better. Yes, we should have ordained male PRIESTS but we should also have ordained female PRIESTESSES. A priestess can server the LORD and the church and the world with her own feminine mind ans heart, just as priest can with his masculine mind and heart. And of course, priestesses should have the same salary and perks and career growth as priests.

Why should women want to be priests? They can become better priestesses!


October 28, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLeif Svenson

Uh.. I like Leif's approach. Women shouldn't become priests at all, since by means of their gender they would actually be PRIESTESSES! That is a very valid thought and very true to me. As far as ordination goes, I'm pro female ordained priestesses not so much out of doctrinal truth, but out of the experience that life needs balance. Many cultures teach about the "balance in life" (Native American culture for example). To every Yin there is a Yang, Day and Night - opposites don't mean one is wrong and one is right; they compliment each other, make each other complete. If there are male priests, the natural counterpart in my view are female priestesses. Thank you Leif for this good point!

October 28, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterThomas Rehorst

Joel, thanks for such a thoughtful article. It's a breath of fresh air to hear from someone who appreciates the all-male clergy, but doesn't assume that this is the only viable interpretation. I'm curious...imagine if we were all used to female preachers and it was a long-standing arrangement, wherein women felt welcome to pursue the ministry and everyone was okay with it. Do you think that the majority of those clergy would end up being men anyway? Would that be a bad thing if they were? If there were a minority of women who felt called to the priesthood and seemed to have all the necessary talent, would their presence compromise the whole group?

With the argument that men and women have merely different tendencies/perspectives, it doesn't seem like exceptions to the rule should be unwelcome.

Shada, I'm in love with everything you say :-)

October 28, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterKristin Coffin

At the risk of repeating something written in an earlier post, perhaps it would be useful to remind ourselves of what Swedenborg says about the end of one church and the beginning of another. One ends when it becomes habitual. That is to say, it becomes baulked by its own traditions. These clearly are exhausted of all reference to the source of works, and all that matters is keeping up appearances, which is effectively the point of habitual thinking. The book of Revelations warns all the churches not to lose sight of their first works, and yet by and large this tends to fall on deaf ears since the maintenance of truths are often taken to be the works themselves.
In ‘Words for the New Church’ written in the 19th century, the theologians of the church pointed out that the New Church was for those who had abandoned Christianity and immersed themselves in the world, and who now wished for something deeper from religion. Having left the church I belonged to since childhood, and immersed myself in the world, these words defined my position very clearly, and yet these discussions remind me very much of the old form of Christianity I had left behind. The particular church I joined encouraged me in my pursuits and in a matter of a couple of years or so, also asked me to give sermons and ultimately to lead Sunday worship.
This openness was quite astounding, and would never have happened in any other church. It demonstrated how the church itself absorbed and made use of whoever joined it. Swedenborg speaks of reciprocation as an arcana, and perhaps we should meditate on this. Bringing the New Church into the modern age requires that it listens to the needs of all who participate in it.
But the interesting thing about reading Swedenborg is that he never talks in terms of gender-specific roles so much as correspondences that lie beyond that sense. Hagar the Egyptian ‘woman’ for instance, is described as the external ‘man’. While we may think of kings as masculine, we should bear in mind that there is also the phrase ‘the breasts of kings’, which reflects the origin of truths in good. ‘Man’ is also defined as that which ‘receives, while Eve is the proprium. Everybody, male or female, contains these elements. When reading some of the statutes for instance, such as when a man gives his silver to his companion for safekeeping, Swedenborg explains that these two people in the external sense are actually aspects of one person possessing both internal and external traits. The man is the receiver of what is provided by his inner soul, where the real life is. The point is that these ideas are of such a depth that I feel these gender-specific discussions of functions do not touch these deeper things.

October 29, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterkarl birjukov

Shada, a partnership mindset, in all things, does indeed sound exciting and joyous to me. It seems to me to reflect the striving of the Lord's creation for a marriage of good and truth, love and wisdom, in all things. Thanks for articulating it in this way.

October 29, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterKarin Childs


I'm very sorry for anyone who has lost comments on this forum - that is an extremely aggravating experience for me. We are in the process of tying to install an alternative (and improved) comments system which will hopefully improve the conversation.

You may start using the "intense debate" platform which you will see above this older system.


October 31, 2011 | Registered CommenterNew Church Perspective

I just ran into this passage, which seemed appropriate to share in this discussion:

“Truth does indeed teach what good is, but it does so without perception, whereas good teaches what truth is from perception.” (AC 3463.3)

It reminded me of this one as well:

“Our discernment simply sees, and it sees things that have to do with wisdom or truth but not things that have to do with love or what is good.” (DP 39)

Obviously these passages aren't directly addressing the idea of women in the priesthood, or even the differences between men and women. But passages like these do make me wonder about the idea of an all-intellect-oriented priesthood.

October 31, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSolomon


These are exactly the kind of passages, arguments and questions that need to be offered in paper(s) to the clergy.

The church can hang together, people can follow the Lord obediently and a type of harmony can be maintained, not simply by waiting for everyone to see the issues the same way, but it there are clear arguments presented, from the Word that people can see to be leading the changes of direction.

I used to turn frigid whenever a request for change was met with a demand that "the doctrinal paper" first be presented to justify the new direction. I think there have been some serious flaws to this approach, but more recently I have started to understand why this approach has been so beloved and entrenched.

Even if it were true that a) the Lord wants women to be ordained and b) that past reading of the doctrines has been biased by traditional culture. It is not sufficient to assert a) that women should be ordained for the reason that b) the older argument was biased. Its very easy to simply degenerate into a paper writing and quoting war... a process which I think can very easily close people to hear the Lord in His Word, rather than open them to it. But there is a value in peacefully, and humbly studying the teachings (like the ones you point to) and looking at whether the Lord is asking for us to ordain women.

This process, if done well, can strengthen the community in its commitment to learning from the Word, rather than weaken that commitment.

To my knowledge, there has only ever been one paper presented to the clergy proposing the value of ordaining women. There are certainly more than one person among the GC clergy who would like to see women ordained.

If we want the clergy to lead the church doctrinaly, rather than tearing down and destroying that function. And if want to have them lead through a study of the doctrine, let continue to ask for this study to continue so that when as we go forward, if it is with the ordination of women, we are allowing the clergy to doctrinally lead and we have the conviction that we are trying to follow the Word.


October 31, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterBrian Smith

Solomon, thanks for those lovely passages. You and Brian have given me a new idea. So far I've been thinking about this issue mostly by taking the various passages cited to exclude women from the ministry, and trying to prove their irrelevance, saying that "these passages aren't directly addressing the idea of women in the priesthood, or even the differences between men and women." I hadn't really thought of looking for the passages that, like those two, are not directly relevant but which support the feminine perspective. It's a good point and a great start.

October 31, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterKristin Coffin

Joel, this is a fine essay and naturally I agree. But I want to communicate something that I learned back in the 1980s when there was a similar discussion about women on boards. The very same passages were trotted out, as others have noted, with the suggestion that they seem to show that board work is not suitable for women. Sounded right to me.

The trouble was that these passages about the nature of men and women, and the resulting suitability to different tasks are stated in extremely general terms. They also claim that this is something that people know so well that it isn't worth carefully distinguishing the tasks. Nor are any consequences attached to men and women doing tasks that are better suited to the other gender, other than that the work will not be done as well as it might be.

These are not sufficient grounds for making strict organizational rules that bar people from doing things. They are more on the order of observations of how things work. They are true observations, I believe, and I doubt that there is anywhere in the world where people's occupations don't tend to cluster by gender. This happens even in countries where there are strenuous efforts to prevent this from happening.

The point is that the Writings are on the whole pretty relaxed about gender roles. They point them out and describe the good reasons behind them, but they don't offer warnings, sharp criticisms or predict grave consequences connected with them.

They especially don't criticize women, except perhaps mildly in speaking about "learned female poets." By contrast there are many passages that go after men in strong terms, especially about their inclination to see themselves as wiser (CL 208.2) and superior (CL 292.3) to women, and pointing out the superiority of feminine wisdom.

So it became impossible to justify the traditions about who should be eligible to serve on boards, or in other positions, or about women working outside of the home. Things changed in line with the cultural traditions of the culture that we are all a part of.

I don't want to make the same mistake when it comes to women in the clergy. The General Church is about doing what the Writings teach, not stretching or extrapolating the Doctrines to justify what we already think.

So what are the passages that apply specifically to the work of the clergy? I think that is what we need to ask. And I think that when we look at those passages we see wording that is sharper and more critical, and suggested consequences that are more significant.

November 2, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJeremy Simons

Jeremy, it sounded like you're saying that you think it was a mistake to put women on boards and have them work outside the home. Is that what you meant? In general, I really love your post though.

November 3, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterKristin Coffin

Kristin, no I don't think that it was a mistake to change the rules about boards or that there is any religious issue with women working outside the home.

I do agree that world-wide and over time men and women tend to perform different functions and that there is good reason for this. So it is more common for men than women to enjoy doing some kinds of work, and more common for women than men to do many other kinds of work.

My point is that tendencies and common behavior is not a reason to create rigid rules.

November 3, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJeremy Simons


I am content with the arrangement of having women on boards. But I think it is fair for a church group to read those generalized descriptions and decide to try to model what they see as the ideal. So if a group chose to ban women from boards because of an extrapolation of generalized passages, I wouldn't see that as wrong, only as highly counter cultural. (Kind of like the Amish).

Its a little bit like the design of the cathedral in Bryn Athyn. It patterned after the ancient Israelite temple and tabernacle. I don't believe we can only worship in buildings which mimic these two ancient structures, but I support a group of worshipers who choose to worship in that fashion because they find strength in following literal stories of the Word.


November 3, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterBrian

Tap tap is this thing on?...

November 3, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRebekah

Hello thoughtful people. I am glad that this is being discussed and I hope to communicate articulately about such a deep topic.

Growing up in the General Church - the question hanging over me about this was always- "why? And if not- what else do you think I can't do?" I watched my male classmates goof off during religion class and make fun of church and I thought to myself, "really? Them?" ( not my most charitable moments...this skepticism is still a burden for me, that phrase can still run through my head about those deemed worthy of the role while I am not...:( My upset about the situation is usually strongest in the area of extended implications. If I can't preach...or teach about religion or philosophy then where do my thoughts and insights about these topics go? If it is not appropriate as a vocation does it fit as a hobby? Do I write them in a secret diary for my own reflection? Do I talk comfortably about them among friends in a living room or write about them in a school paper? Do I stand on a platform and share them with a crowd?Do people really think women don't have a valid spiritual perspective? I don't know if you then jump to a definition of what a priest does and say, what does perspective or insight have to do with preaching? This trips me up as well. Insight and perspective are not perhaps technically listed in the scripture as part of what a priest does but in my experience these two things play a major role in how a minister operates (or anyone) Yes, I am the one sitting in the back -scowling- because a male priest is going off book. How dare you casually talk about the things that are the very explanation of why women are not welcome to be (paid/acknowledged) spiritual leaders in our community? But on the other hand can any person be truly neutral about their expression of an idea? I do not believe so. I think it is dishonest to pretend any of us can. Stick to the story. If I should not read the Word in church because I should be silent then why do I sing?

I will leave it there for now with only the addition of saying-I am uncomfortable extrapolating descriptions of how husbands and wives operate to how all men and women behave with each other. I have heard many ministers speak of the insight they get from their wives but that is not helpful to me unless I am married to a minister ( how shady if i tried to steer my husband towards ministry for my own chance at a religious role) and if you think about that from the other side it is a little bit offensive to say ministers listen to their wives but I should listen to the minister in the same breath. Please don't mix marriage and public roles like this.

November 3, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRebekah

Rebekah, you ask great questions. I think it is clear that the underlying question around this issue is about fairness. No one wants to be part of a religion or an organization that is not fair. Unfairness is wrong, pure and simple.

General Church reasoning posits that the way to “fairness” is to do what the Writings say. If we intelligently and compassionately make sure that everything we do follows from, or is not opposed by, a scholarly understanding of the Heavenly Doctrines, then it will be, by definition, “fair.”

This becomes an issue if we think that the statements of the Writings themselves are unfair, or if they are interpreted in ways that seem unfair.

Still, the question in the General Church is not “what do we think?” but “what do the Writings say?” If something is opposed by what the Writings say then it can’t be fair.

So the real question for me in this discussion is about what answers to your questions follow from the Teachings? Alaina talked about my answers to that in part 2 of her essay.

November 3, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJeremy Simons

Hi again,
Jeremy- I agree with that concept of fairness to a degree. I think I am not too worried about technical fairness, or "my rights". I think that we are better off honing our conscience by reading the Word but I still think it is not right to disregard conscience when it comes to following scripture. I see that as different from selfishly putting my views first. I do not mean to be too casual about The Spiritual Diary 5936 but I do think that some of the phrasing is very harsh and more specific than what I have read in published works. I also read the scenario as referring to a situation where a wife is commandeering a sphere that is normally held by their husband. The subtle taboo of when (and when not) to defer in a masculine environment is possibly a subtlety that women are familiar with without any potshots taken at their philosophical ability or sanity. I have meditated on this idea of sanity a fair bit. I do think that women potentially aim for a different balance of earth and air in their spiritual life than men and that may possibly be part of what goes on if this insanity kicks in like it reads. I can see how if a female cuts herself off from grounding spirituality and focuses more forcefully on purely heady spirituality that it is possible for a kind of lower external to kick in to maintain balance but with less healthy results. I can see ways that these ideas aren't just rude or untrue. I don't take them lightly-I do wish there was a little more balm out there on the topic. I am not sure that it is easy for men to relate to the dehumanizing angle on how some of the stuff in the writings is interpreted. It is common to see a heavy handed treatment of very complex and usually unspoken human norms. Sometimes it seems like hearing about spirituality from men is as uncomfortable as hearing about puberty from men and I would just rather the guy not even try to talk to me about what he thinks is going on with me. I would love to have more exposure to feminine theology. I have read a great deal of books about women and spirituality but it is tough to find one with, well, good news!

November 3, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRebekah

I find the suggestion of a "priestess" interesting as well as the idea of partnership.

I have for decades thought that a huge problem with the concept of clergy in the General Church is that we haven't defined it very well. We use terms like clergy, priest and minister interchangeably. And what about theologians? I think there may be a solution that could be acceptable to people on different sides of the "Women in the Clergy" debate if we defined these terms. Other churches have done this.

Priest: Someone who preaches and teaches to lead people to the good of life.
Minister: Someone who puts truth into action to minister to people
Theologian: Someone who studies doctrine

CL 168: This perception is a wisdom that the wife has. A man is not capable of it, neither is a wife capable of her husband's intellectual wisdom. This follows from the difference that exists between masculinity and femininity. It is masculine to perceive from the intellect, and feminine to perceive from love. Moreover, the intellect also perceives those sorts of matters which transcend the body and the world - it being the nature of intellectual and spiritual sight to move in that direction – (and this to me seems like what a theologian would do) while love does not perceive beyond what it feels. When it does, its perception draws on its union with the intellect of a man, a union established from creation. For the intellect has to do with light, and love with warmth, and concerns that are matters of light are seen, whereas concerns that are matters of warmth are felt. (And it seems to me that this is well suited to ministry).

I realize this is only a single passage, but as inserted by me in parentheses within the passage above, I think this text could provide a basis for a case that a theologian should be a man and a minister could be a woman.

I'm not sure where that leaves preachers.

But, the point is that we could perhaps take a step towards allowing women who feel a call to be ordained in the MINISTRY without doing something scary like ordaining them to preach or be theologians.

Obviously, the whole structure of our clergy and training for clergy would have to be changed in order for this to happen. However, I think there is a step we can take that is not an all-or-nothing approach, and that is based on the Word.

November 4, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterFreya
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