Should women be ordained into the Swedenborgian Church?

WomanPreacherThere are two major branches of the Swedenborgian (New) Church. One is simply called “Convention” and the other “General.” The Convention branch is considered more liberal and currently ordains both gays and women into its ministry.

The General Church does not, and is considered more conservative. There is great (and heated) discussion going on concerning the ordination of women in this conservative branch of the Swedenborgian Church.

My position on this issue (and people have asked) is that it is up to the membership and leadership of any church to decide the outcome of who can be ordained or not within their organization. Either decision is OK with me.

Yet, Swedenborg himself believed that church ministry was a function, designed by God, to be a male job. Why would he say this? Was this a belief stemming from those of his antiquated generation or was it a real divine dictate?

Looking deeper than worldly fairness and social equality, it is a question of each gender’s approach to spirituality, and in this, they are indeed different. Women are more pragmatic than most men, and tend to favor action over conceptual ideas (even describing the probing of these ideas as mere “navel-gazing”). But without a proper understanding of doctrinal ideas (God’s Truth), actions—even charitable actions—can remain worldly, external and material (maternal). For instance, social issues like feeding the hungry, putting money into the pockets of the poor, and telling everybody that God loves them equally, does not necessarily promote spiritual growth.

A flawed individual can just as easily be helpful to society as can an angelic being. The former always has an eye on status, affirmation, or some kind of personal favor resulting in even more outwardly zealous activities. The latter has gone through sincere self-scrutiny and their efforts are often invisible to onlookers.

Having participated in a Swedenborgian Seminary myself, where there was a ratio of four women for every male, you would expect tangible outcomes. My observation is that the Convention Church would shrink to nothing if women weren’t being ordained (men are staying away because they see ordination as not providing a feasible money-making career for their future, while women believe that good things will miraculously happen). The General Church, which only ordains males, seems to be growing at least at a snail’s pace.

Neither church is capturing the world’s imagination.

Ironically, women already run both churches through their various groups. So their influence is already quite powerful. But women are incessantly seeking formal (planetary) leadership roles. But what leadership roles are ordained women performing in the Swedenborgian Church?

My understanding of Swedenborg’s doctrines is that a minister’s role is to grow the congregation and lead them out of hell. That to me is what represents real ministerial leadership in the Swedenborgian church.

But my experience, and having attended seminary, is that women ministers are taking people’s lives in the wrong spiritual direction. With their pragmatic approach to love, they are stressing kindness, community, and cooperative support, while leaving out the more distasteful duty of self-examination—preferring to look at the “positive” side of people instead (just ask them). Unfortunately, this “easier” approach hides the true inner quality of one’s outer actions, even when the person is giving visible help to others.

The point is that God designed the male human psyche to be more adept at recognizing the need for unflattering self-examination—to sanitize one’s real motives within acts that would otherwise look visibly charitable and helpful to all observers. That does not mean that the male ministers of the Swedenborgian church have consciously appropriated this “strong” medicine into their teachings.

Women will not naturally embrace this “harsh” approach. Men can.

Women see God’s heaven as a kingdom of mutual love (which is not incorrect). But men can grasp the additional and deeper idea that this heavenly kingdom of love contains innocence at its core. Innocence allows worldly deeds to become spiritual. Innocence does not come from any outer activity of kindness or goodness but through inner cleansing. This cleansing allows the purity of God’s genuine love to enter into our lives and direct our actions. (Without this cleansing, we will mistakenly assume that our good deeds are genuinely spiritual.)

So Swedenborg’s steps for spiritual regeneration, when properly understood by the human intellect, would actually make this new religion highly unpopular to the flawed human psyche. In other words, to make the Swedenborgian Church (both sides) more popular would mean to make regeneration more popular.


About thegodguy

EDWARD F. SYLVIA, M.T.S. Philosopher/Theologian Edward F. Sylvia attended the School of Visual Arts in New York and received his Master of Theological Studies at the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, CA and a Certificate of Swedenborgian Studies from the Swedenborgian House of Studies. He is a member of the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences (C.T.N.S.) and the Swedenborg Scientific Association (S.S.A.). Award-winning author of "Sermon From the Compost Pile: Seven Steps Toward Creating An Inner Garden" and "Proving God," which fulfills a continuing vision that God’s fingerprints of love can be found everywhere in the manifest universe. His most recent book, "Swedenborg & Gurdjieff: The Missing Links" is an edgy collection of anti-intuitive essays for personal transformation that challenges and inspires. He has been a student of the ideas of both Emanuel Swedenborg and George I. Gurdjieff for over thirty years. Read more about TheGodGuy, his books and his ideas at
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6 Responses to Should women be ordained into the Swedenborgian Church?

  1. Lee says:

    Sounds like there are going to be a lot of lonely men in heaven, since few women will make the grade.

    • thegodguy says:

      Dear Lee,

      Few men will make the grade as well.

      Please read my blog more carefully. However, if women had their way the Grand Human of heaven would consist of just ONE internal organ (so that everyone is treated equally). Love unifies but truth distinguishes. That Is why heaven has real boundaries and borders within its harmonious system. Women and men will only make the grade in they are in spiritual marriage (an angel consists of a man and woman – thus individuals are only half angels).

      I think Swedenborg’s doctrines are becoming too difficult for the modern human psyche to handle.

      Spiritually yours,

      • Lee says:

        However, your comments on males and females above strongly implies that men are more able to engage in the process of regeneration than women because men are more willing and able to face and engage in the “harsh” process of internal self-examination required for repentance, reformation, and regeneration.

        Or do you believe that women depend on men for their regeneration? (And what about the reverse?)

        It seems to me that in order for marriage and a male/female balance to exist in heaven, men and women must have equal access to, and ability to engage in, the process of regeneration. Neither one can be better at it than the other due to their distinct psychological and spiritual characteristics as created in men and women by God.

        This, it seems to me, is a serious problem for views of Swedenborg’s teachings about regeneration that focus on one path rather than recognizing the two or more paths that he describes for us.

        For example, Swedenborg does offer an easier form of regeneration that does not involve deep introspection and self-examination. Instead, it involves simply refusing to act on our evil impulses when we feel them, because we recognize that they are evil and are contrary to God’s will.

        I have also come to think that self-examination for many people is a more organic, heart-based process and less of an intellectual process. I suspect that if there is a difference between how men and women regenerate, it is a matter of women engaging in their self-examination differently than men do. The process of harsh introspection that you describe and advocate is a very intellectual one. And though I agree that our intellect must be involved in our regeneration, not all people operate on a primarily intellectual basis.

        To use traditional Swedenborgian terminology, there are celestial (heart-based) and spiritual (head-based) types of people. These two operate quite differently.

        There are also natural, or action-oriented people. These, I think, are the ones to whom Swedenborg is primarily speaking with his easier form of regeneration.

        I believe that women are just as capable of engaging in regeneration as men are, even if the path they take may be different than the one men tend to take. And though I do share your concern about a male/female imbalance in the ministry, I also believe that finding a balance is better than tipping the scales all the way in one direction as is traditionally done in historical Christianity–which was carried over into the organized Swedenborgian church from that source.

        And incidentally, Swedenborg says very little about men vs. women in ministry. Most of what he does say is in his unpublished Spiritual Diary. The primary passage quoted from there about women who preach like men has been mistranslated on one key point there and, I believe, misunderstood. My father used to admonish his women students at the old Swedenborg School of Religion not to preach like men, but to preach like women instead (all with a twinkle in his eye, of course).

  2. thegodguy says:

    Dear Lee,

    Anyone (even a fool) can preach. But only someone who is genuinely regenerating can show others the way and the pitfalls. My experience is that seminary (even Swedenborgian) does not even touch this topic, preferring instead the promotion of “togetherness” and “hugging.” It certainly is not stressed at church (because people want to feel good about themselves, rather than acknowledging Swedenborg’s discovery that we all have insane wills – that sure seems harsh to me). You cannot assume that your acts of goodness in the world are being done from spiritual innocence (innocence trumps good acts because it qualifies them). And, you cannot assume that everyone is coming under genuine spiritual temptation for proper inner cleansing.

    Evil is not just doing harm to others, it can be as simple as performing equally good deeds as angels but from self-love – and therefore such good outer actions can indeed help others (but still not be spiritual).

    People are in a hypnotic trance and simply imagine that spiritual growth is taking place in their lives. Helping others can come from self-love as much as heavenly love. Self-love can easily override obvious evil if it serves some personal benefit – because self-love can embrace rationality (like “Ishmael”). Only self-examination, from spiritual principles, can offer an individual a means for proper scrutiny of his or her delusions. When the New Church realizes that “spiritual sleep” involves hypnosis then everything is gonna hit the fan. But this is seen as insulting to the dignity of the modern human mind, and, it will fight back hard (like a Great Red Dragon).

    Spiritually yours,

    • Lee says:

      Hi Ed,

      Thanks for your reply. I can’t speak to what goes on at the seminary you briefly attended. The move to San Francisco took place after I was ordained.

      I was the most vocal critic of the plan to affiliate our seminary with Pacific School of Religion–or any other mainline seminary. I wrote two articles that were published on the front page of The Messenger opposing the move, and suggesting an alternative based more solidly on Swedenborg’s theology. If you’re interested, you can read them here. (The original issues of The Messenger are apparently not online.)

      However, I made no headway against the tide that was sucking the seminary from Boston to San Francisco, and pushing it toward affiliation with a traditional Protestant seminary. The result of that move and affiliation is the seminary you saw. I was twice invited by the board to become a professor of Swedenborgian theology there. I turned it down both times because I have little interest in that sort of academic atmosphere as a forum for ministerial training. I don’t think it has done much good for the Swedenborgian Church–which has only continued its slow, steady decline in the years since its seminary was moved to PSR.

      But back to the subject of your post, the fact is that the active ministry of the Swedenborgian Church (General Convention) was still predominantly male at the time the move was made, and the biggest champion of the move was the Rev. Jim Lawrence–who is still its Dean and chief champion. So the state of affairs at the seminary is hardly a result of an imbalance toward a female ministry.

      Do you really think there are more male ministers than female ones in the Swedenborgian Church providing the sort of ministry you think they should? Quite frankly, I doubt you will find any minister, male or female, in any denomination, that puts as heavy an emphasis on regeneration through harsh introspection as you do.

      • thegodguy says:


        My blog does not give male ministers more praise for promoting the true principles of regeneration, only that they are intellectually designed to grasp these principles better than women (who focus more on community and support). This intellectual ability does not mean that male ministers are incorporating those principles of sincere self-vigilance into their own lives.

        When Swedenborg says that we are born into evils of every kind and that our wills are insane (being mostly kept in check by the external laws of society) I can’t imagine any doctrine being more harsh towards our flawed finite natures. However, when people think they can go out into the world and perform good works and be considered as heaven’s angels they are greatly mistaken. But that is what most people want to believe, so, the New Jerusalem will just have to dangle a little longer “up” in heaven.

        Spiritually yours,

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