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Gender and the Priesthood: An Alternative Perspective

This week Chelsea offers a different angle from which to view gender in relation to the priesthood and marriage. Looking at what is unique about men and women in addition to what they have in common and examining how the marriage of love and wisdom is at work on multiple levels, Chelsea provides a thought-provoking discussion. -Editor

I just have to start by saying that here I am expounding on the doctrines of marriage and I can’t talk about it without acknowledging that it is through my experience of marriage that I am totally humbled in every regard. All of us can write about marriage like we know what we’re talking about. We can read Conjugial Love and put to memory its teachings. But when it comes to the day to day of being married to another human being, I can at least speak for myself and say it confronts me and my fallibility at every turn. I find it especially and acutely true with regard to marriage that what I know is minuscule compared to what I don’t know. Before I push off into the teachings of marriage, I have to acknowledge that the waters are deep and full of creatures of extensive variety; “with marriages…there are infinite variations among partners who are in a state of conjugial love” (Conjugial Love 324). 

As long as the idea of women serving as priests is considered not only to be doctrinally unfounded but even a threat or opposed to the very marriage of good and truth, it is easily dismissed. The teachings on marriage are central to the New Church and so it is understandable that they also come up centrally in the discourse of whether it is orderly for a woman to serve as an ordained minister in the General Church. As I mentioned, these teachings are dense and deserve ample consideration; I in no way can claim exhaustive knowledge on the subject or that this is a thorough study of it, but having given it some careful thought I thought it would  be useful to share what understanding I do have of these teachings as an alternative perspective to the one referred to in Tomoya Okubo’s recent article here on NewChurchPerspective. I want especially to be clear at the outset that I do not equate gender equality with sameness; perhaps this will be made plain as I explain how I see that women serving as priests is not opposed to the teachings of how a man and woman are united in marriage.

The marriage of love and wisdom, will and intellect, happens within an individual, whether male or female. Within a marriage, there is a dynamic in which the love in a woman (the wife) unites with the wisdom in a man (her husband). At the community level, the marriage of love and wisdom is happening in the individuals, in many ways—within individual priests in the priesthood and within individuals in the congregation, and of course within the individual marriages in the community between husbands and wives. Could it not be that the union of will and intellect in a priest is leading the union of will and intellect in a lay person, whether either is male or female, married or unmarried? (As for my thoughts on how this is possible without rejecting the teachings of how a woman’s will is to unite with her husband’s understanding in marriage, I will delve into them in a moment.) It is important first to show that the will and intellect of a priest each play a critical role in the priest’s work, which is made clear in True Christianity 155:

It was shown above, in point 3 of this part of the chapter [146], that the divine effects (which are meant by the actions of the Holy Spirit) that specifically apply to the clergy are the processes of enlightening and teaching them. There are, however, two intermediate processes to add to the two just mentioned: their perceiving and shaping [what they are learning]. For the clergy, then, there are four processes that follow in sequence: becoming enlightened; perceiving; shaping; and being instructed.

The enlightening is done by the Lord.

The process of perceiving takes place in the individuals. It is affected by the quality of mind they have developed as a result of doctrinal teachings. If these doctrinal teachings are true, the light that enlightens them clarifies their perception. If these doctrinal teachings are false, their perception becomes obscured. It may still seem clear [to the ministers], however, because of other teachings that lend confirmation. The apparent clarity is caused by a faint, deceptive light that to mere earthly vision seems clear.

The process of shaping depends on the type of love that exists in the minister’s will. The enjoyment related to that love actually does the shaping. If the minister has enjoyment in an evil love and the false perspective that goes with it, that enjoyment generates a passion that is outwardly rough, prickly, intense, and fire-belching; inside the passion there is anger, rage, and lack of compassion. If, however, the minister has enjoyment in a good love and the truth that goes with it, the passion is outwardly even, smooth, thundering, and blazing; inside the passion there is goodwill, grace, and compassion.

The process of being instructed follows as an effect from the other three processes as causes. Therefore the enlightening that comes from the Lord is turned into different types of light and heat in individual ministers depending on the quality of each individual's mind.

The main points I draw from this passage are that, 

  • The enlightening from the Lord that takes place in a priest affects both the priest’s will and intellect. Perceiving is an intellect aspect and shaping is a will aspect. 
  • It is the doctrinal teachings that matter, not the gender of the minister, that guides perception.
  • The shaping depends on the love in the minister’s will. The minister’s will is an integral part of his or her process as a minister. The love a minister has shapes his or her enlightenment.
  • The Lord’s enlightening in those who are ordained as ministers (or those who receive instruction and training) flows into the will and intellect and is turned into different types of light and heat.

This passage makes it clear that the work of a priest has a balance of both the will and the intellect, of love and wisdom. I see a parallel in this with what it means to be a priest in the order of Melchizedek, who served both bread and wine, who was both king and priest. A priest, and collectively the priesthood, is meant to serve as an image of the Lord, especially his love for the salvation of the entire human race (Arcana Coelestia 9809, 10152). The Lord is the marriage of love and wisdom; to my understanding, the priesthood would be a more complete expression of this marriage by having the unique minds of both men and women serving the aim of the salvation of the whole human race. I do not believe women should be allowed to be priests because they are equal and the same as men, but it is because they are equal and different. Each priest as a male or female individual would allow for a more greatly variegated balance of light and heat for the Lord to work through in leading his church on earth (Heaven and Hell 56).

As I said, the understanding I have from my study of the Writings is that men and women are individuals who each have both a will and an intellect that are always at play in their unique identities; in addition to this level, in a marriage, there is a dynamic in which a woman’s will unites itself with her husband’s understanding; but just as a married male priest is not stripped of his functional will in his work as a priest, nor does the Lord flowing into his will in his work as a priest detract from his ability to have a spiritual marriage with his wife, neither should we believe that the engagement of a woman’s understanding in her work as a priest would detract from her ability to have a spiritual marriage with her husband, or that to engage her understanding in her work as a priest would be at odds with her marriage. 

In Conjugial Love 100, we read about two channels of love that flow into a husband, one directly from the Lord and one that flows in from his wife: 

The male was created to be the understanding of truth, and so a model of truth; and woman was created to be the willing of good, and so a model of good. Each had implanted at the inmost level a tendency to become joined into one (see 88 above). So the two of them make up a single model, which imitates the model of the marriage of good and truth. The term 'imitates' is used because it is not the same, but resembles it. For the good which links itself with truth in the man comes directly from the Lord; but the wife's good, which links itself with truth in the man, comes to him indirectly from the Lord by way of the wife. There are, therefore, two kinds of love, one inward, one outward, which link themselves with truth in the husband. These ensure that the husband remains constantly able to understand truth, and so by means of truly conjugial love to be wise. 

Swedenborg even takes the time to emphasize that the marriage between a husband and wife “imitates” (or in other translations “emulates”) the marriage of good and truth, but that it is not the same. Marriage is happening on multiple levels at once. I don't think it's too much of a stretch to see that something similar to the inward and outward flow of love in a husband must be going on in a wife, that truth flows in immediately from the Lord and mediately through her husband in marriage; both of these unite with the form of love that she is and keep her in a continual affection for truth.

A central use of marriage is spiritual growth, the union of each person with the Lord and with one another. We grow closer together as we grow closer to the Lord. We need to become a “church” as an individual, that is, we need to marry faith and charity in our lives (which is accomplished by the Lord when we practice repentance): 

The marriage of good and truth is what makes the church with a person. For the marriage of good and truth is the same as the marriage of charity and faith, since good has to do with charity and truth with faith. It is impossible to fail to acknowledge the fact that this marriage is what makes the church, because it is a universal truth; and every universal truth is acknowledged as soon as it is heard. This is due to the Lord's influence, and at the same time to the confirmation given by heaven. Now since the church, being from the Lord, is His, and since conjugial love corresponds to the marriage of the Lord and the church, it follows that this love comes from the Lord. Conjugial Love 62

In order for a true marriage to be created in the partnership of a husband and wife, the fact that the church begins in the husband and is implanted in the wife is because a man MUST be working on the marriage of good and truth in himself in order to be able to be married to his wife—that is, he must be committed to a path of repentance, reformation, and regeneration with the Lord in order to be able to be truly married to his wife. Just as our will and intellect are separate so that we can use our rational ability to raise our minds above our self-will, so a husband using his intellect to raise his mind above the lusts of the flesh is essential to being able to receive love from his wife. (And obviously for the wife to have any conjugial love to transmit to her husband, she must be practicing repentance, that is, developing as a “church” herself.) 

There are two levels, the church and conjugial love (or married love) in each individual and the church and conjugial love as it makes a marriage between a husband and wife: “The Lord is the head of the church, and human beings, male and female, are the church; and even more so in the case of husband and wife. In this case the church is first planted in the man and by means of the man in the wife, because the man receives its truth in his intellect, and the wife receives it from the man” (Conjugial Love 125, emphasis mine). So I see this passage making a distinction between males and females in general as individuals and the dynamic that is at play on another level between a husband and wife.  

The church being first planted in the man and by means of the man in the wife is in order for a true marriage to be established between them, but this does not detract from the woman’s ability to exercise her rational and intellectual capabilities on her own, that is, to exercise her own unique understanding; neither does married love flowing in from the wife interfere with a man’s ability to exercise the love in his will in his work as a priest. If anything, this dynamic going on in a marriage would be to the benefit of either a man or a woman’s work as a priest. 

It is important to point out that just as Conjugial Love 100 states that there is love in a husband from the Lord immediately and via his wife mediately, the fact that within a marriage the church is first planted in the husband and then in the wife does not mean the wife does not already have the church in her; neither can married love coming from the wife in a marriage mean that the man doesn’t have married love on his own from the Lord at the same time. Both are going on, and here are passages that make me see it this way:  

(9) The Word is the means of conjunction, because it is from the Lord and thus is the Lord.

(10) The church comes from the Lord and it exists in people who go to Him and live according to His commandments.

(11) Conjugial love depends on the state of the church in a person, because it depends on the state of his or her wisdom.

(12) So, then, because the church comes from the Lord, conjugial love comes from Him as well. Conjugial Love 116

The church exists in people who live according to the Lord’s commandments, because they alone have conjunction with Him…Love is what conjoins, and conjunction with the Lord is the church. Conjugial Love 129

A person, male or female, who lives by the 10 commandments has conjunction with the Lord because this indicates that the person is practicing repentance and so is being reformed and regenerated by the Lord. Wisdom, and so the church, has this direct relation to repentance as in this passage: 

Since wisdom is, as we said above, a matter of life first and consequently of reason, the question arises, what wisdom of life is. In brief summary, it is this: to refrain from evils because they are harmful to the soul, harmful to the civil state, and harmful to the body, and to do good things because they are of benefit to the soul, to the civil state, and to the body. 

This is the wisdom that is meant by the wisdom to which conjugial love attaches itself [between a husband and wife, but also within an individual man or woman]. For it attaches itself through wisdom’s shunning the evil of adultery as a pestilence injurious to the soul, to the civil state, and to the body. And because this wisdom springs from spiritual concerns which have to do with the church, it follows that conjugial love depends on the state of the church in a person, because it depends on the state of his or her wisdom. This also means, as we have frequently said before, that a person is in a state of truly conjugial love to the degree that he or she becomes spiritual. Conjugial Love 130 [4]

So an individual can become spiritual and so become a church in miniature, and so also can come into a state of truly conjugial love, whether male or female, married or not. Now when you have two people come together in marriage, as husband and wife, in order for a marriage to be created between those two individuals, the husband must shun adultery in order to allow the woman’s love for him to come in and dwell in him. 

Conjugial Love 223 and 224 emphasize that conjugial love is received solely through the wife and communicated from the female sex to the male sex. And “where truly conjugial love exists, this atmosphere is received by the wife, and by the husband solely through his wife” (224). The word “solely” seems pretty conclusive, but then in Conjugial Love 226 we’re told that, “Conjugial love can be present in one of the partners and not at the same time in the other. Conjugial love can exist in one and not in the other, for one may fervently vow for himself a chaste marriage, while the other does not know what chastity is. One may love matters that have to do with the church, while the other loves only matters that have to do with the world. One may be with his mind in a state of heaven, while the other is with his mind in a state of hell.”

This passage does not make a distinction as to gender—the translation uses the masculine pronoun throughout, which I did not render gender neutral. Are we to assume that if it is present conjugial love is only ever in the wife, since it is communicated from the female sex to the male sex? No, because that wouldn’t be consistent with Conjugial Love 130 quoted above that points out how a man can be in a state of truly conjugial love when he has wisdom, the wisdom that comes from living by the Lord’s 10 commandments in his life. And so the church and conjugial love can exist in each a man and a woman. The key point I see being made in Conjugial Love 223 and 224 is that when you have a man and woman come together in a spiritual marriage, then the dynamic is that the conjugial love in their marriage flows from the wife to the husband, and only (or “solely”) from his one wife for their marriage in proportion as the husband is in the state of a church, that is, shuns adultery and turns to the Lord in his life. 

Just as we know that the Lord rules with a rod of iron, that is, by way of the truth in the Word and with rational considerations (Apocalypse Revealed 148, 828), I’ll end by sharing a rational consideration as well as a few passages from the Bible that I find applicable. One “rational consideration” I have along with thinking about this is that as human beings, we do not have any sense that our thought is the result of two hemispheres working in conjunction in our brain, nor especially any awareness that some of our thoughts are connected only to the right hemisphere and others only to the left. We have no built-in sensory way of knowing this, but through advances in technology we now have a much greater understanding of the anatomy and physiology of the brain. I draw a parallel of this to the dynamic that might be going on between men and women in society, in their work, all the time. Perhaps it is true that all love that men use in their work no matter what their profession, in some way is flowing in through the women around them although they experience it as their own, and so perhaps even the most learned women who work in fields that require much critical thinking, rational judgment, and knowledge are able to function in these fields because of a flowing-in from the men around them. We know that really all wisdom and love comes from the Lord and is flowing into all of us from the spiritual world (True Christianity 364, Arcana Coelestia 2556, and Divine Providence 308 all speak to how this is the case for all of us), and yet we are gifted with a sense of autonomous selfhood (“that which is animated by the Lord in a person is the very thing which makes it seem as though it were from himself. That man does not live from himself is an eternal truth; yet if he did not appear to do so he could not possibly live at all” Arcana Coelestia 1712:2-3). As a woman, even if every aspect of my understanding is actually somehow flowing in from the Lord via men, and especially my husband, I am still gifted with a sense that it is from myself and I find enormous joy in applying my mind to the study and sharing of truths from the Word and the Writings. 

How could women and men both serve within one priesthood while honoring the distinctiveness of the genders? Here is one passage from the Old Testament that I find especially apt: 

And in that day seven women shall take hold of one man saying, ‘We will eat our own food and wear our own apparel; only let us be called by your name, to take away our reproach.’ In that day the Branch of the Lord shall be beautiful and glorious; and the fruit of the earth shall be excellent and appealing for those of Israel who have escaped. Isaiah 4:1-2 

We know from Prophets and Psalms that these verses speak of how “there will then be from the Lord a new thing of the church” (4). If women were to be allowed to pursue the profession of priest and say one were deemed suited, that woman would “eat her own food” and “wear her own clothes,” that is, have unique goodness and truth to offer others through her work as a priest on account of her being a woman. I see the plea to be called by the man’s name in this passage as the need to be recognized as equally an image of God, even though distinct/different as a female. Both men and women are capable of exercising their individual understanding and will to share the Lord’s goodness and truth in service to the church as ordained ministers. The reproach of understanding a woman’s work in the priesthood as disorderly is to be lifted as part of the development of the New Church on earth. 

And in the New Testament, Jesus resurrects the twelve year-old daughter of Jairus, the ruler of synagogue, and heals the woman with the twelve year flow of blood in one stretch of verses (Matthew 9, Mark 5, Luke 8). This speaks to me of how when there is a marriage of goodness and truth, or when goodness and faith “are in one complex" (signified by the number 12; Apocalypse Explained 430, Arcana Coelestia 577), which happens when we live a life according to the 10 commandments (the bleeding woman touches the hem of Jesus’ garment, see Numbers 15:37-41), then womankind is healed of its “impurity.” As long as we are holding repentance as central in our church, it is wrong to say that it is inherently dangerous for women to serve in the priesthood on account of their gender (the same could be said for men). “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean” (Acts 10:15).

And for a specific example of a woman serving as a “priest” in the Word as revealed by the Heavenly Doctrines, I will end with this passage: 

For she was a shepherdess (or, "she was one who feeds.") That this signifies that the affection of interior truth teaches what is in the Word, is evident from the signification of a "shepherd," or one that feeds the flock, as being one who leads and teaches (n. 343); and from the representation of Rachel, who in the present case is "she," as being the affection of interior truth (concerning which just above, n. 3793). The reason this teaching is said to be from the Word is that she came to the well with the flock; and that the "well" signifies the Word may be seen above (n. 3765). Moreover it is the affection of interior truth which teaches; for from this affection the church is a church, and a shepherd or pastor is a pastor. The reason why in the Word a "shepherd," and "one that feeds" signifies those who lead and teach, is that a "flock" signifies those who are led and taught, consequently churches, and also doctrines of the church (n. 3767, 3768, 3783). That a "shepherd" and a "flock" have such a signification is well known in the Christian world, for so they who teach and they who learn are called, and therefore it is needless to confirm this from the Word. Arcana Coelestia 3795, emphasis mine 

Chelsea Rose Odhner

Chelsea is a writer of poetry and prose, songs and social commentary, with over thirty years of experience in existing; a few of her pieces can be watched here and several can be read here. She is fascinated especially by embodied spiritual life—how we support and engage the life of the spirit through our life and experience in the physical body and world. This interest has led her through a career in massage therapy, training in and ongoing study of yoga practice and philosophy, a degree in English and Biology from Bryn Athyn College, and it sustains in her a ceaseless appetite for studying the works of Emanuel Swedenborg and the sacred texts of the world’s religions, particularly those of Christianity and Hinduism. She works part time as a social media moderator for the Swedenborg Foundation and as a freelance editor. She lives with her husband and three children in Willow Grove, PA.