Last year I was asked to comment on one of the LDS Church Gospel Topic Essays—“Are Mormons Christian?”—at the Sunstone West Symposium. Beginning in 2013, the Church “began to publish straightforward, in-depth essays on a number of topics,” prompted, many believe, by the accessibility of historical information on the Internet. Former Church historian Steven E. Snow explained the Church’s new openness: “I think in the past there was a tendency to keep a lot of the records closed or at least not give access to information. But the world has changed in the last generation—with the access to information on the Internet we can’t continue that pattern; I think we need to continue to be more open.”
According to the Church’s website, “The purpose of these essays, which have been approved by the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, has been to gather accurate information from many different sources and publications and place it in the Gospel Topics section of LDS.org, where the material can more easily be accessed and studied by Church members and other interested parties. … Ongoing historical research, revisions of the Church’s curriculum, and the use of new technologies allowing a more systematic and thorough study of scriptures have all been pursued by the Church to that end.”
Not surprisingly, the essay “Are Mormon’s Christian?” affirms the Church’s Christian status as a restoration of early Christianity. “Christians have vigorously disagreed about virtually every issue of theology and practice through the centuries,” the essay declares, “leading to the creation of a multitude of Christian denominations. Although the doctrine of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints differs from that of the many creedal Christian churches, it is consistent with early Christianity.” But is it fully, particularly with regard to women’s ecclesiastical authority?
Scholars, historians and, yes, even leaders of other patriarchal religious traditions are increasingly uncovering evidence of women’s expanded authority in early Christianity. Karen Torjesen, Margo L. Goldsmith Chair of Women’s Studies in Religion at Claremont Graduate University and author of When Women Were Priests: Women’s Leadership in the Early Church and the Scandal of their Subordination in the Rise of Christianity, talks about her work in an interview with the Berkeley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs:
When I came back to the United States from Germany, it was 1982, and the women’s ordination movement was in full cry. Those who were arguing against ordination of women were arguing on the basis of tradition and the precedents and teachings of the early church fathers. Those fathers were the very people I had studied …
So I started writing a paper that included an analysis of gender, based on my work. I found myself thrust into the fray of the women’s ordination debates. I gave a first paper at the Academy of Religion meeting in San Francisco. It was a critique of the analysis of the church fathers. But my approach was to read the history as a historian, rather than prescriptively, as others were doing. In looking at the heated debates as a historian, it was eminently clear that because there were fierce debates around the roles of women in the early church, women were obviously doing the things that the church fathers were denying; otherwise there would not have been debate. Reading it all as a historian it was very clear that women in fact were doing many things in the church: baptizing and so forth.
So I changed focus and began to work on a book on the topic. … I found myself doing research and working with women’s groups. I began to see the power of this kind of research …
So the book emerged, When Women Were Priests. It was about the women who did hold church office in the early church, and the gradual eclipse of their roles, and of women’s space, as public space took on a far greater role and women were relegated to the private space, around the late third century.
As Torjesen suggests, the earliest Christian communities met in homes, where women often led congregations. It was only when Christianity left the domestic sphere and entered the public sphere—which at that time was by definition and tradition male—that Christian women lost ecclesiastical power. Further, since many scholars, including Torjesen and a growing number of Mormon academics, point out that even Biblical texts refer to women with ecclesiastical authority, such as deacons and apostles (see Romans 16 NRSV), shouldn’t we as a Church, in a spirit of openness, reconsider whether Mormonism is “consistent with early Christianity” without women’s ordination? Given the evidence, how can we not?