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Willow Creek Enforces Egalitarianism

December 1, 1997


When Women Were Priests: Women's Leadership in the Early Church and the Scandal of Their Subordination in the Rise of Christianity, by Karen Jo Torjesen. New York: Harper San Francisco, 1993. 271 pp.


According to the endorsements on the back cover and inner jacket, which come from sources such as Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza, Matthew Fox, and John Spong, the book claims to be a sophisticated and powerful analysis which sheds new insight into the historical evidence that women were priests and bishops in the early church. In her preface, the author tells us that her work evolved from a series of conversations with other feminist authors, with people who attended her public lectures, women who participated in her retreats, and her own students.

This volume will be of little value or interest to many evangelical readers as Torjesen writes from a liberal theological perspective and the manner in which she deals with her subject matter is clearly guided by her feminist presuppositions as a professor of Women's Studies and Religion at Claremont Graduate School in California. The book is important, however, owing to its claim that women in the early church functioned in positions of ultimate church leadership equal to men. If the primary sources bear out Torjesen's thesis, as she claims they do, this would obviously have major ramifications on the current complementarian- egalitarian debate.

Conspiracy Theories

The book is divided into nine chapters. In her introduction, Torjesen argues that "women are to reclaim their rightful, equal place in the church today" (p. 7) and they will accomplish this by understanding "why and how women, once leaders in the Jesus movement and the early church, were marginalized and scapegoated as Christianity became the state religion" (p. 7). She equates women's equality with women's ordination.

In her opening chapter, and throughout her work, she claims to unveil a "hidden history of women's leadership, a history that has been suppressed by the selective memory of succeeding generations of male historians" (p. 10). She declares that this conspiracy to suppress women's leadership began with the original authors of the New Testament. For example, she complains that Paul, in 1 Corinthians 15:1-4, "purposefully omitted the announcement of the resurrected Christ to Mary" (p. 35) and in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 and 14:34-35 she "catches tones of ambivalence and anxiety" (p. 13).

Torjesen finds that the gospel writers had a "similar ambivalence about the importance of the women at the tomb" (p. 37). She further asserts that John the Seer actually attacked women's authority in his remarks to the church of Thyatira in Revelation 3:20-23. According to Torjesen, the apostle resorted to the evocation of the "frightening image of the female leader as a disreputable woman who was probably also promiscuous" (p. 111) not to refute heresy, but to generate opposition to one of the congregation's woman leaders.

The author also expands her conspiracy theory in later chapters to include a number of the early church fathers such as Chrysostom, Augustine, Origen, Justin Martyr and Tertullian. She argues that these patristic writers adopted Graeco-Roman sexist social attitudes which apportioned to men and women different sets of activities, different roles, and different standards for excellence. Hence, they fabricated the conceptual underpinnings which not only barred women from experiencing the rich diversity of ecclesiastical life but also restricted women's sexual expression through theological links to their reproductive sexuality and social role of care for body life (p. 210).

According to Torjesen, later church figures, such as Bonaventure and Thomas Aquinas were largely responsible for connecting female sexuality to demonic power (p. 228). This connection paved the way for the persecution of women which began when German inquisitors Jakob Sprenger and Heinrich Institoris "created the systematic theology that linked the threat of female sexuality with the folk belief in the magical powers of witches" (p. 229).

Potential readers should be advised that they may find certain sections of Torjesen's thesis on sexuality morally offensive. For example, in chapter seven, The Penetrator and the Penetrated, she concedes that the Greek practice of pedophilic homosexuality between the "bearded male lover and the adolescent boy" (p. 187) could actually preserve the sexual dignity of an adolescent boy if "noble homosexual intercourse was performed" (p.188).

Goddess Worship

In her concluding chapter, "What if God Had Breasts," Torjesen issues a clarion call for Christianity to return to what she believes are the essential teachings of the Christian gospel: goddess worship. She writes: "Knowing about our roots in the earth-centered religion of Old Europe, with its Mother goddess and its kin-centered culture, can augment our efforts to reclaim the non-violence and egalitarianism of the new order announced by Jesus…Christian churches need to return to their own authentic heritage…and restore women to equal partnership in the leadership of the church" (pp. 268-69).

In addition to the obvious disagreement and difficulty that evangelical readers will have with Torjesen's concluding call for goddess worship, there are a number of weaknesses with Torjesen's argument.

First, her analysis of the New Testament is extremely shallow. There is a deplorable absence of any significant marshaling of evidence, careful exegesis, or weighing of interpretive alternatives. Her attacks on the character of the New Testament authors are vindictive and without sub- stance. Most often, she is so concerned to advance her agenda that she ignores the Palestinian setting of the New Testament church. For example, while she argues that the "predominance of women in the leadership of the Christian community at Philippi may have been a natural carryover from their apparent predominance at the Sabbath worship" (p. 19), she somehow forgets that according to the Old Testament, only men could be priests and it was the priests' duty to teach the Law to the people (Deut. 17:11; 33:10). She neglects any mention of the fact that while God gave Israel prophetesses, he did not, in contrast to other religions in the ancient Near East, give them priestesses. She offers no evidence to show that this divine directive was compromised by the Jewish community prior to or during the ministry of the early church. Her reference to an obscure and questionable fifth century inscription as support of Jewish women's leadership in the first century synagogue is as bizarre as it is fallacious (p. 18).

Second, Torjesen frequently displays a sloppy application of historical-cultural research. She reads the cultural anthropology of the second and third century, including speculative gnostic reconstructions, back into the first century church environment. For example, she proposes that the late second or third century Gospel of Mary reveals a genuine lost historical tradition about the leadership of Mary Magdalene and the opposition of Peter, the apostle (pp. 10,35,36). Torjesen insinuates that this tradition is representative of the first century tensions between the existing fact of women's leadership in the first century church and traditional Graeco-Roman views about malefemale roles.

In addition, she demonstrates an annoying tendency to reconstruct the Graeco-Roman household to support her own position. She acknowledges that her documentary sources for her speculation are slim and "less familiar" (p. 56) but proceeds to utilize them anyway. She presents the evidence in such a fashion so as to give readers the impression that the vast majority of Graeco-Roman women were acknowledged as patrons. She implies that the majority of these women not only possessed important economic resources which were at the disposal of the early communities (p. 76), but that they routinely ran industrial businesses as well as owned large villas and homes (p. 56). However, the New Testament itself records the opposite view: the vast majority of Graeco-Roman society were poor, especially women. One suspects that Torjesen reads too much San Francisco and not enough history into her work.

Ms. Magazine

Another problem is that her footnotes contain numerous quotations from only a narrow range of theological opinion (feminist) or from 3rd-4th century sources which provide an appearance of serious biblical scholarship but are often inaccurate. Her bibliography may seem impressive to first year women's studies students or the editors of Ms. magazine, but she consistently ignores other viewpoints.

For example, there is no interaction with complementarian positions advocated by Stephen B. Clark's Man and Woman in Christ: An Examination of the Roles of Man and Women in Light of Scripture and the Social Sciences (Ann Arbor, Mich.: Servant, 1980) and E. Earle Ellis's Pauline Theology, Ministry and Society (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989), pp. 53-85. Furthermore, she avoids any discussion of significant treatments such as Suzanne Heine's two works, entitled respectively Women and Early Christianity: Are the Feminist Scholars Right? [London: SCM, 1988] and Christianity and the Goddesses. Systematic Criticism of a Feminist Theology (London: SCM, 1988). Heine, although representing an overall positive evaluation of feminist concerns, offers a thorough and devastating critique of a Torjesen-like simplistic utilization of gnostic sources to prove the existence of rampant anti-feminism in the early church.

Finally, Torjesen's greatest weakness is that while she correctly documents that some New Testament women functioned in spheres of genuine spiritual service and responsibility in the early New Testament community, such as Joanna, wife of Chuza (Luke 8:1-3) or Lydia at Philippi (Acts 16:11-15), none of the women she devotes biographical attention to were ever described in the New Testament as elders, bishops, or pastor-teachers, either ordained or non-ordained. This is the same fatal flaw which can be observed in many evangelical egalitarian arguments (on this, see, e.g., the review of an article by Wendy Cotter in CBMW NEWS Vol. 1, No. 4, October 1996, p. 14).

…And Oliver Stone

In conclusion, Torjesen does not shed any new light on this debated issue. Her analysis of the biblical evidence is unconvincing, and her appeals to extrabiblical sources as authoritative are inconsistent. She does not present a cohesive and plausible argument for a massive and scandalous two thousand year conspiracy to keep women from positions of ultimate responsibility in the church. Only in a Los Angeles courtroom with a celebrity murder suspect or in an Oliver Stone movie does her kind of rationale ever succeed.

What she does accomplish, is to offer a concise representative reflection of contemporary liberal feminist thinking regarding historical issues in the early and emerging church. Also, in the opinion of this reviewer, Torjesen's work will serve to prefigure future arguments of evangelical egalitarians. With no compelling New Testament evidence to support their viewpoints, egalitarians will be forced to make greater and more emotive excursions into speculative historical reconstructions to advance their agenda.

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