Roles of women and men in the Lord’s New Church

Michael V. David

23 October 2000


The Third Testament contains many passages which in the literal sense speak of the differing nature of men and women. Many of these passages are contained in the work on marriage commonly known as Conjugial Love. Within that book much is said about the actual or potential inner relationship between a husband and wife. It has been a common practice within all bodies of the church to assume that these teachings can be taken in a generalized literal way, so that they tell us about the nature and abilities of men and women considered separately. Thus passages from the Third Testament have been used by some to make it a matter of religious principle that women ought to be discouraged from engaging in certain occupations or activities.

Within the Lord’s New Church, there has been a different understanding of these passages. From our doctrinal principle that the Third Testament contains an internal sense, we see that it is possible that passages which in their literal sense concern male and female people may in their spiritual sense concern spiritual realities that may exist within each one of us. In Arcana Coelestia 5095 we find an idea that has been most important in our movement:

5095. [ … ] When the historical sense mentions a number of persons - as when Joseph, Pharaoh, the chief of the attendants, the cupbearer, and the baker are mentioned here - various things are indeed meant by them in the internal sense, yet only within one person.


In Arcana Coelestia 5225 we find this illustrated with several words that stand for male and female people:

5225. […] For the idea of a person is converted in the internal sense into that of some reality. For example, the idea of a man, husband, woman, wife, son, daughter, boy, or virgin is converted into the idea of something true or good. Or, as above in 5223, the idea of a magus and a wise man is converted into that of factual knowledge, interior and exterior. The reason for this is that in the spiritual world, that is, in heaven, angels' attention is fixed not on persons but on realities. For persons narrow an idea down and focus it on some finite thing, whereas realities do not involve any such narrowing down or focusing but spread to what is Infinite, and so to the Lord. This explains too why in heaven no one ever perceives a person mentioned in the Word; instead they perceive the reality represented by that person. Nor for the same reason does anyone in heaven perceive a people or nation, only its essential quality. Indeed in heaven they have no knowledge at all of any historical detail in the Word about any person, nation, or people; consequently they have no knowledge of who Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, or the people of Israel are, nor of who the Jewish people are. Instead they perceive what is represented by Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, the people of Israel, the Jewish people, and so on with everything else. This explains why angelic language has no limitations and is also a universal one compared with other languages.

Thus, when the Work on marriage refers to “husband and wife” or “male and female” we are already invited, in the very letter of the Arcana Coelestia, to consider that these may be referring to deeper things: certainly not only, and perhaps not primarily, to literal persons.

Historically, the actual practice within all branches of the New Church has been to assign different roles to men and women in the church. For instance, in the Lord’s New Church only men have been ordained into the priesthood, and for many years meetings to consider doctrinal matters and their development were organized only for the men. For many years, all governing councils and boards in the Church consisted only of men.

This has begun to change in recent years. The Church’s Corporation includes women, and has elected women to the Board of Directors. The 1999 Special Assembly created an Advisory Council, a governing body of the unincorporated Church, which includes women. For several years now, in the Philadelphia Society, the “Men’s Meeting” for doctrinal discussion has been replaced by a “Study Group” to which women and men are invited.

It could be said that in practical terms, the Lord’s New Church has simply followed the trends of the society surrounding it, in including women on governing bodies and in doctrinal discussion. This deserves careful thought, for it would not be good to derive the policy and practice of the Church from the trends of the society around us, rather than from the Lord through His Word.

We need to see whether what we do is in accord with the Word as understood from our Doctrine. If indeed we see the “man” and “woman” or the “husband” and “wife” so often mentioned in the Word of the Third Testament, as representing things that exist spiritually within everyone, then we will be less willing to use the literal appearances of these passages to impose particular external roles and duties on women and men.

It is this speaker’s personal belief that the working together of women and men is a good thing, and should continue to increase, because the influence of both is needed in every aspect of the life of the Church. It is this speaker’s personal belief that our perspective on the literal teachings of the Word will lead us to welcome the participation of both women and men in all aspects of the work of the Church, including boards, the new Interior Council, and even the priesthood.

Indeed, one of the founding ideas of our movement has been that “the Lord dwells with a human being in that which is His Own” (Doctrine of Life 102), and thus that what is good and true with us is the Lord’s and not our own, not “human good and truth” as it was called by some people in the General Church. Thus it can be seen that “ ... when the church and heaven are mentioned, what is meant is the Divine of the Lord in those who are there” (Arcana Coelestia 10125). Thus from our Doctrine we can see that the Church is something Divine with us, not a merely human thing.

In this way, the marriage of the Lord and the Church, which is our highest idea of marriage, and of male and female, does not represent a relationship between the Divine and the non-Divine, but rather the unity of the Divine with Itself, that which is already One in God becoming One in our lives. Thus both the female and the male are capable of representing the Divine of the Lord with us, and one is not higher than the other. This thought can shape our whole idea of what men and women are and can become.