Book Reviews, Christian Doctrines, Egalitarianism, theology

“The Ordination of Women: A Twentieth-Century Gnostic Heresy?” by Louis A. Brighton in “Women Pastors?” edited by Matthew C. Harrison and John T. Pless

I grew up as a member of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, a church body which rejects the ordination of women to the role of pastor. The publishing branch of that denomination, Concordia Publishing House, put out a book entitled Women Pastors? The Ordination of Women in Biblical Lutheran Perspective edited by Matthew C. Harrison (who is the current President of the LCMS) and John T. Pless. I have decided to take the book on, chapter-by-chapter, for two reasons. 1) I am frequently asked why I support women pastors by friends, family, and people online who do not share my position, and I hope to show that the best arguments my former denomination can bring forward against women pastors fail. 2) I believe the position of the LCMS and other groups like it is deeply mistaken on this, and so it warrants interaction to show that they are wrong. I will, as I said, be tackling this book chapter-by-chapter, sometimes dividing chapters into multiple posts. Finally, I should note I am reviewing the first edition published in 2008. I have been informed that at least some changes were made shortly thereafter, including in particular the section on the Trinity which is, in the edition I own, disturbingly mistaken. I will continue with the edition I have at hand because, frankly, I don’t have a lot of money to use to get another edition. Yes, I’m aware the picture I used is for the third edition.

“The Ordination of Women: A Twentieth Century Gnostic Heresy?” by Louis A. Brighton

First, do an exercise for me. Search “gnostic heresy” on your preferred search engine. Now, look at Gnosticism on Wikipedia. Confused yet? I am–because Gnosticism is a radically diverse set of beliefs that has effectively had that label slapped on it. And, in modern times, virtually any position anyone wants to condemn theologically has been referred to as Gnosticism. The fluidity of the label is notorious, leading some thinkers to effectively give up the term, or at least argue it is much more diverse than we may think. But here, Brighton makes an effort to rebrand egalitarians–those who support the ordination of women–as some kind of modern Gnostic heresy. Let’s dive in.

Brighton begins the chapter with a series of questions, ultimately concluding with questions that effectively present Brighton’s thesis: “How did the role of women in Gnosticism relate to Gnostic theology, specifically the article of God? Secondly, this paper notes the oopposition of the early church to both the Gnostic practice or ordaining women and the Gnostic doctrine of God” (91). Related to this claim is his assertion that “It is quite clear that the early church saw an important and intimate connection between the practice of women serving as priests… and the doctrine and teaching about God” (ibid).

Brighton then cites a few church fathers speaking poorly about women being teachers in the church. For example, he quotes Tertullian as saying it is audacious to allow women “even to baptize!” (92). It is odd that Brighton would favorably quote this, because this goes against the Lutheran Confessions. The Augsburg Confession in Article VIII, states “Both the sacraments and the Word are efficacious because of the ordinance and command of Christ, even when offered by evil people.” In The Large Catechism, Fifth Part, “The Sacrament of the Altar,” Martin Luther states “Our conclusion is: Even though a scoundrel receives or administers the sacrament, it is the true sacrament… just as truly as when one uses it most worthily. For it is not founded on human holiness but on the Word of God.” (See more here on a Sacramental/Lutheran view of women in church leadership) Moreover, at various levels of being taught by people, including pastors, in the LCMS, I have been told that women may baptize, at least in the case of an emergency. But Brighton makes no reference to the Confessions, nor to the possibility that Tertullian may have gone too far. Instead, he presses on in his point.

Next, Brighton notes various ways women interacted in society in the Graeco-Roman world. Ultimately, he accurately states that “It is difficult… to be dogmatic… and certainly it is not possible to make a blanket statement about what was or was not socially acceptable” (93). After giving a very brief survey of some Gnostic sources, Brighton moves on to the role of women in Gnosticism. “In some of the Gnostic texts women appear equal to men in being authorities for the establishment of doctrine” (95). What is odd here is that though Brighton notes positive examples of women in the Gnostic texts, he ignores or excludes those which are negative. This is, perhaps, because he’s seeking to support his conclusion that “The role of women in Gnosticism is in striking contrast to the role that women held in Orthodox Christianity” (96). This statement, to put it bluntly, is historically vacuous. Brighton doesn’t demonstrate this whatsoever. Simply citing a few positive statements in a select few Gnostic writings does nothing to demonstrate the following essential points for Brighton to support his thesis: 1) that “orthodox Christianity” was a single unit with unified teaching in this time before Nicaea (and after, for that matter); 2) that Gnostics universally held to a different position on women than “orthodox Christians” universally did; 3) that Gnosticism spoke with one voice; 4) that orthodoxy spoke with one voice on women; 5) that Christians treated women differently in every case; 6) that no “orthodox” Christians had women as leaders (something which is demonstrably false–see concluding paragraph below). Any one of these points is deleterious to Brighton’s point, but together they show that he hasn’t even begun to make his case for such a strong conclusion.

Brighton states that in Gnosticism, God is portrayed as feminine. He argues that this is in “marked contrast to both the canonical scriptures and the orthodox church’s belief, in which the feminine element is absent in both thought and symbolism of God” (97). This is a surprising claim, given that very clear statements in the Bible itself are made in which feminine symbolism is used of God. For example, though Brighton earlier decries Gnosticism for seeing God as Wisdom and therefore feminine, Wisdom in Proverbs 1 and 8 has long been seen in many strands of orthodoxy to be a reference to God or even Christ, and is a decidedly feminine portrayal. Both men and women are created in the “image” of God in Genesis–which would suggest that both masculine and feminine aspects are present in the Godhead. In the Bible, God is seen as giving birth (Deuteronomy 32:18, which unites masculine and feminine imagery); as a comforting mother (Isaiah 66:13); as a mother bear (Hosea 13:8); as like a woman in labor (Isaiah 42:14); as a mother hen (Matthew 23:37); and more. If even one of these is a feminine symbol of God, Brighton is wrong, but it is clear that every single one of these is a feminine symbol of God and in church history there are plenty of “orthodox” Christians who saw feminine imagery of God as well, especially surrounding the Wisdom passages in Proverbs. Brighton is just wrong here, and it undermines essentially his entire argument in this section, which is based on a denial of any such imagery.

What is remarkable is that in the very next section, Brighton actually lists several of these examples, but doesn’t acknowledge in any way that this would present a problem for his thesis that it is “absent”! The rest of this section is spent on Brighton noting various other sources certain Gnostic groups used to see feminine imagery, but it hardly undermines anything that is actually present in the Bible! Brighton then attacks one strand of Gnostic thought that equivocates on good and evil and sees God as the source of evil, spending a few paragraphs attacking this notion. But nowhere does he actually link this to any modern feminist theology, nor does he link it to egalitarianism in any way.

In another surprising turn, Brighton’s conclusion follows this, and he re-asserts that the theology of God of Gnosticism was rejected, but then goes on to say that “this paper concludes that orthodox Christianity of the early church, with its theology of the Triune God, could not but reject the practice of the ordination of women into the public ministry” (105). What? Where does Brighton even make this connection in any real sense? He doesn’t actually argue that the early church saw this connection, nor did he demonstrate that there was a connection! Indeed, he even lists Bible verses that disprove one of his central claims! Yet here, he turns around and argues that somehow modern egalitarians are Gnostics? There is no connection made anywhere between the two schools of thought, other than the incidental fact that each ordains women (and Brighton even fails to adequately define Gnosticism or show that ordination of women was a universal Gnostic practice, which it almost certainly was not). There is no evidence here mustered against the ordination of women; it’s just a survey of Gnostic texts followed by Brighton’s rejection thereof.

A significant issue with Brighton’s thesis is that it doesn’t actually align with all of Gnosticism. In attempting to link modern-ish egalitarianism to Gnosticism, Brighton failed to take into account the whole breadth of Gnostic thought and factions. Instead, he simply asserts without argument that the two are equivalent. But Brighton doesn’t deal with those Gnostic texts or beliefs that run contrary to his thesis. For example, in the Gospel of Thomas, one of the very texts Brighton cites to push his point, one finds saying 114:

Simon Peter says to them: “Let Mary go out from our midst, for women are not worthy of life!” Jesus says: “See, I will draw her so as to make her male so that she also may become a living spirit like you males. For every woman who has become male will enter the Kingdom of heaven.”

Does this saying appear to align with Brighton’s theory that Gnostics favored women and are somehow equivalent to modern day egalitarians? Clearly not. But Brighton should have been aware of this and many, many other sayings and beliefs detrimental to women in Gnostic thought.

Perhaps the most significant problem with Brighton’s position is that it discounts entirely those examples in the early church that run contrary to his point. For one, there are numerous examples in the New Testament itself of women in roles of leadership. Junia is an apostle; Phoebe and Priscilla are various levels of church leaders, women were clearly named as prophets numerous times, Lydia and Nympha are stated as having churches in their houses, and the fulfillment of Joel 2:28, in which there doesn’t appear to be a distinction whatsoever between men and women prophesying, is affirmed in Acts 2. For more on some of these, see here. But Brighton doesn’t account for any of these examples, nor does he deal with the documentary evidence in the early church of many other church leaders. Yet these are direct refutations of his thesis. Either he doesn’t know about these counter-examples, or he intentionally does not mention them. Either way, it is a significant oversight, and one that refutes him. Moreover, as we have seen several times above, simply charging others with Gnosticism is hardly a fruitful way to engage with other positions. This chapter is most accurately described as a lengthy move to poison the well against egalitarians.


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Book Reviews– There are plenty more book reviews to read! Read like crazy! (Scroll down for more, and click at bottom for even more!)

Interpretations and Applications of 1 Corinthians 14:34-35– Those wondering about egalitarian interpretations of this passage can check out this post for brief looks at some of the major interpretations of the passage from an Egalitarian viewpoint.



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About J.W. Wartick

J.W. Wartick has an MA in Christian Apologetics from Biola University. His interests include theology, philosophy of religion--particularly the existence of God--astronomy, biology, archaeology, and sci-fi and fantasy novels.


2 thoughts on ““The Ordination of Women: A Twentieth-Century Gnostic Heresy?” by Louis A. Brighton in “Women Pastors?” edited by Matthew C. Harrison and John T. Pless

  1. “Brighton states that in Gnosticism, God is portrayed as feminine.” Which god is Brighton referring to here?
    The unknowable supreme deity or the Demiurge (AKA Ialdaboath) or Sophia or some other deity?

    And does he cite a source for this statement, “In some of the Gnostic texts women appear equal to men in being authorities for the establishment of doctrine”?

    It seems to me rather a low blow to link the issue of women in ministry with Gnosticism.

    Posted by Marg | March 12, 2019, 4:48 AM
    • The only source that he provides for the claim about God being portrayed as “the feminine idea” is note 19 on page 97 in which he quotes Elaine Pagels. However, that quote doesn’t really support the contention fully:
      “…the absence of feminine symbolism for God marks Judaism, Christianity, and Islam in striking contrast to the world’s other religious traditions… which abound in feminine symbolism” (quoted from Pagels, Gnostic Gospels, 48. So I think you’re right to question his use of citations. For the statement you specifically ask about, I should note that I mis-referenced the page it was on. The statement is actually on page 95 of the text, which I have corrected in the main post. Anyway, the way he supports this claim is a bit of a stretch. Here’s how he supports his claim that “In some of the Gnostic texts women appear equal to men in being authorities for the establishment of doctrine”:

      In the tractate The Dialogue of the Savior sayings of Jesus are given… Jesus gives these sayings to His disciples, three of whom are selected for receiving them, Matthew, Judas, and Mariam (Mary Magdalene). This Mariam is an authoritative receiver of tehse sayings together with Matthew and Judas. She was chosen by Jesus to receive these sayings so that she could be a “revealer” to others, and in this capacity is described as a woman who knows all things. (95)

      The Gnostics having a Gospel of Mary is taken as another example of this making Mary equal to Peter and the twelve (96). But these don’t support the conclusion he seems to draw that all women are somehow equal to all men in these writings. Good question to call out there!

      Brighton fails to clarify what kind of God the Gnostics held to. He does show some of the differences between a Gnostic concept and what he calls the Christian concept, but doesn’t delve deeply into the definition of God. He does mention Wisdom/Sophia.

      Posted by J.W. Wartick | March 13, 2019, 3:39 PM

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