So apparently some questions has been raised about the nature of authority over spiritual bloggers. Apparently, each and everyone of us are household names, with thousands of followers who hang on our every word. Well, not me and the rest of the vast majority of the blogosphere who maintain tiny specks of blogs that hardly get any attention at all. In a decade of renegade blogging, ducking authority and all that jazz, I’ve managed shy of a hundred quality followers who probably occasionally read some of my posts – but only if they’re interesting ones, I wouldn’t expect any one of them to read them all – I’m not that good!
These questions are: “Where do bloggers and speakers like Hatmaker derive their authority to speak and teach? And who holds them accountable for their teaching? What kinds of theological training and ecclesial credentialing are necessary for Christian teachers and leaders? What interpretive body and tradition do these bloggers speak out of? Who decides what is true Christian orthodoxy? And how do we as listeners decide whom to trust as a Christian leader and teacher?” – (Totally copied/pasted from CT’s Article here: http://www.christianitytoday.com/women/2017/april/whos-in-charge-of-christian-blogosphere.html)
I guess we should all be flattered that these questions are right outside of Matthew 21, but I’d point to Matthew 28, how in the Great Commission Jesus delegated his authority over all believers to go and to teach. Some would say that since Jesus was only addressing the Twelve, it applies only to the Apostles – which seems to be rather problematic for all the original Apostles in question are long dead and also problematic for those who are pastors and reverends and preachers and teachers who teach with authority as representatives of the church all of the time – and twice (or more) on Sundays! So in short – our authority comes from … Jesus. Jesus didn’t send us alone – he gave us a counselor, a comforter, a teacher – the Holy Spirit as mentioned in John 14. You’d think that these two would be a winning combination … but that’s apparently not enough.
I was raised going to church, every Wednesday and twice on Sundays – as well as every special event. If three one hour visits to church each week every week of the year for roughly twenty years is not sufficient religious exercise, theological training, and credentials enough to be a spiritual blogger – then what is? According to SBTS, students with an 18-27 hour workload per year can earn their Diploma or M.Div in 3 to 3 1/2 years … so what? Paying a seminary for 80 hours worth of instruction to earn a piece of paper is superior spiritual education than over 3000 hours spent praising God and hearing His Word spoken aloud and living it out in a community of believers? Do non-seminarians even have God’s permission to blog at all?
Which brings up to the question about which interpretive body and tradition that bloggers speak out of – well, obviously – each and every one of them! I wasn’t aware that some denominations were forbidden from blogging and have had some fantastic conversations with mormons, non-denominatonalists, universalists, and athiests who all had something to say about spiritual matters relating to Christianity in some form or other.
Who decides what orthodoxy is – well, each denomination decides what’s orthodox to itself and doesn’t concern itself with bringing everybody else to it’s way of thinking. Christianity has long had this open door policy, as in: “If you’re not happy with how we interpret the Bible, there’s the open door, see your way out!” That’s why I know some of the quirks of being a Southern Baptist and some of the quirks of being a Methodist – I’ve been both at one point or another, so I know that no one denomination is Supremely Orthodox over all denominations or else we’d all belong to it.
And how do we decide who’s a good teacher and who isn’t? It seems strange to me to point to a piece of paper on a wall from some diploma mill and say that the guy who earned it is somehow a superior instructor to the guy who’s lived and worked in the field all his life, has no schooling, but so much experience and wisdom that you’d be foolish to ignore it on the basis that he’s not from an accredited source. On that basis – none of Jesus’ disciples would have been a properly spiritually educated follower other than Saul, and he wasn’t even on Jesus’ team at the time he was being educated. Surely, of all branches of study out there, Christians would leave a little room for a lot of faith to see the wisdom that God gives his followers who chose to live an everyday sort of life, whose hobby is that of religion but still have a full-time job or a family or other obligations that made going to seminary an impossible dream. Isn’t it all about that saying: “God doesn’t call the qualified, he qualifies the called!”?
How did we get here?
In this new cyber age, authority comes not from the church or the academic guild but from popularity. Hits on a viral post lead to book deals, which lead to taking the conference stage. Winsome, relatable writing, good storytelling, and compelling life experiences are often as crucial to audience size—and therefore to authority—as theological teaching, presuppositions, or argument. Christian bloggers and conference speakers have become a sort of cyber-age equivalent to megachurch pastors, garnering huge followings based on a cult of personality and holding extensive power and influence, yet often lacking any accountability to formal structures of church governance.
The vast majority of spiritual bloggers are not popular, and therefore, lack authority. The most number of views I have had on a single post? Roughly fifty. Number of book deals and conference speaking engagements? Zero and zero. If anything, I’m the cyber equivalent of a nobody from nowhere doing nothing – so how can I be a threat to anybody? What sort of accountability does a nobody need to a formal church in order to blog nothing at all?
This social media revolution has had a unique and immense impact on women, in particular. Women’s voices—which historically have been marginalized in the church—are suddenly amplified in this new medium. “Women’s ministry has transformed in the 21st century,” writes Kate Shellnutt. “Christian women increasingly look to nationally known figures for spiritual formation and inspiration—especially when they don’t see leaders who look like them stepping up in their own churches.”
When your religion takes verses like: “A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner.” and “Here is a trustworthy saying: Whoever aspires to be an overseer desires a noble task. Now the overseer is to be above reproach, faithful to his wife, …” both from 1 Timothy to say that women cannot be leaders or teachers because the Bible only permits men to be leaders and teachers, then what do they expect but for women’s voices to be marginalized both historically and currently? In my churches, the most vocal women were usually the pastor’s or the elders’ or the deacons’ wives – women who married into the ministry and were delegated some leadership over the women and children. But take it from one kid raised in the church, there’s no ministry for those who don’t marry a minister.
Male church leaders still often derive authority from theological education, ordination, and institutions. By contrast, there are still comparatively few women with overt ecclesial authority. In an article for Fathom Magazine titled “Let’s Get the Girl,” Hannah Anderson writes, “Even as women are increasingly visible in public ministry, they are increasingly detached from the organized church, more often a product of the marketplace than the congregation or academy.” In the vacuum created by a lack of women’s voices in the church, Christian female bloggers became national leaders who largely operate outside of any denominational or institutional structure.
I understand that the author is from a faith tradition that permits women in leadership, so she’s been theologically educated, accepted through ordination, and attended an institution that saw no problem with her being there. Not every branch of Christianity has the same attitude about women. So far as I know, the Southern Baptists ordained their first woman pastor in the 1960s; but when the Baptist Faith and Message changed in the 2000s, the wording cemented a woman’s role as the helper who was to submit to the authority of her husband over her. Not only that, but any church that called upon women to serve as their leaders were often disfellowshipped. A schism occurred and a great many churches that had a pro-woman attitude left the denomination altogether. Even so, Southern Baptists are a big denomination with a lot of influence over much of the states and their rules pretty much prevent women from having a role in leadership, creating the vacuum that’s the problem in the first place. If women cannot go through their church to have a ministry, the only other option is to go underground or into cyberspace to use our talents and gifts that our church would rather bury than let shine brightly for God’s glory.
However, with the blessing and power of leadership comes the duty and vulnerability of speaking out of one’s particular theological tradition and in turn being held accountable to that same tradition. As public teachers—even those operating in cyberspace—we forfeit the luxury of holding merely “private” beliefs. When Christian writers or speakers make theological statements, we have a responsibility to give a specific argument, show our rigorous theological work, elevate the conversation, welcome strong criticism and debate, and in so doing, help others think and worship better. And although many Christian writers and speakers might have some level of private, informal accountability in their home churches, they still need overt institutional superintendence (to match a huge national stage) and ecclesial accountability that has heft and power. Otherwise, they can teach any doctrine on earth under the banner of Christian faith and orthodoxy.
Blogging itself, at least, the way I do it, is inherently a violation of my churches theological tradition. Why? Because I teach men and that’s wrong. Well, sort of. Men can learn from material women compose if they don’t hear our actual voices (the higher pitch is distracting from God) or see our feminine form (our curves are very distracting from God). The Bible says that men teach women, not the other around, and since the Bible is inerrant and good for correcting and teaching and all that jazz, then the Bible is right and anyone who violates it is wrong, including women who teach men.
Even so, most bloggers are laypeople – we’re not exactly the sort who make theological statements by citing theological works and doing all that homework; I know I find it hard to squeeze in the time given all the obligations I have pressing in on my time. We do read though, I’ve read Purpose Driven Life, Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes, and Mere Christianity among others. These might not be those big thick books that are praised as theological masterpieces; but they are smaller pieces of the puzzle that inform modern Christianity and they are important ones to us who are dealing with how those smaller pieces govern the shape of our everyday beliefs that we put into action.
Bloggers represent every denomination, non-denominational leaning, and movement within Christianity, we do teach any and every doctrine on earth under some form of authority, most as life-long adherents of their particular denomination, and some under their own authority as believers who are filled with the Holy Spirit. There’s no way to shove this genie back into the bottle and bring all bloggers to one spiritual understanding – to do that, we’d have to have just one church with just one denomination and no dissension or division on the interpretation of our theology – which hasn’t ever happened. As early as the Corinthian church, factions had formed around specific teachers – and it’s a problem that in two millenia we’ve never found a good solution.
Responding to the crisis
What is needed to respond to this current crisis of authority in the church, particularly among women? It requires a clear response first from ecclesial and denominational structures and, second, from women ourselves.
First, the church.
I am an Anglican priest; the tradition I serve in offers just one model of church governance and accountability. If I were to teach or write anything that wandered from Anglican orthodoxy (specifically the constitution and canons of the Anglican Church in North America), the next day or sooner I’d get a call from my bishop, to whom I’ve formally and publically pledged to submit. He has actual power to take away my title, my job, my authority, and my microphone. Teaching and writing publically ought to be a bit scary—the book of James somewhat ominously warns teachers that we’ll be “judged with greater strictness”—so I find this accountability comforting. I’m grateful that I cannot speak as an autonomous, unbridled voice. Instead, I have a large, international, historically grounded body that prays for me, that supports me, and that also makes sure I don’t accidentally (or intentionally) lead others astray or invent ideas that will damage the church.
Although this kind of ecclesial relationship is available to ordained women like me, other women in leadership, who are in denominations that do not ordain women, face a unique challenge. Some of my favorite Christian female writers operate inside traditions where they cannot have any official position of authority, yet they maintain huge readerships and followings. But whether a denomination officially recognizes these female writers and speakers in their midst as having authority, they are, in fact, teaching—even if, at times, only to other women.
Women aren’t really allowed to do much preaching or teaching in my former denomination. They can “give a testimony” or “have a talk” so long as it’s from the first row and not on the stage or anywhere near the pulpit and they must have their husband in authority over them. I remember in one of my churches, a woman was talking about international adoption and her husband stood behind her, nodding his head, throwing in an occasional “that’s right”. Other than that, women can teach other women, women can teach children, women can watch the nursery, women can prepare snacks in the kitchen, women can clean the church. and women can be directors in charge of specific ministries – it means they have the same obligation, but neither the title nor the pay that male pastors would get were they in charge of the same ministry doing the same exact things. Because there’s no formal role for women preaching and teaching, there’s no formal governance or accountability of women who teach because that’s wrong. Women in that tradition don’t get titles, jobs, authority, or microphones in the first place. So being held accountable would really mean having any ability to blog or say anything at all would be taken away so as to prevent women from accidentally teaching men and transgressing Scripture. Before you say that’s a silly, I one came across a woman’s blog who pleaded with any potential male readers to not read her blog so that they wouldn’t learn from her – her blog was for women only.
The broader church has a responsibility to provide formal support and accountability to teachers, leaders, and writers—whether male or female. If we don’t respond to this current crisis of authority institutionally, we are allowing Christian doctrine to be highjacked by whomever has the loudest voice or biggest platform.
To be clear, I am not suggesting that a woman must be ordained in order to blog, publish, or speak. A formal recognition of authority and accountability can be called commissioning, endorsement, partnership, or something else. What this looks like in practice will vary dramatically between traditions and must be creatively hammered out by leaders and pastors in their own denominations or other Christian institutions. But while I cannot provide a specific model for each ecclesial organization, I want to sound a call: All of us—whether complementarians or egalitarians—need to create institutional structures to recognize the authority held by female teachers and writers and then hold them accountable for the claims they make under the name of Jesus and in the name of the church.
Providing ecclesial oversight does not mean that all writers will speak out of one narrow tradition. Nor does ecclesial affiliation itself ensure orthodoxy—there is, of course, no silver bullet against false teaching. Nevertheless, without institutional accountability there is simply no mechanism by which we as a church can preserve doctrinal fidelity.
I was thinking about this one earlier – as a millenial, I’ve been blogging for a long time. If all the bloggers in any given church had to e-mail each and every post to their pastor to get the once-over before they received permission to post the material in question – that pastor would be inundated with post after post after post and would have precious little time to attend to his other duties as pastor. These posts could be innocuous – but then again, they could be criticizing last week’s sermon and the pastor might not take too kindly to that and out of hand reject a perfectly sound blog post that recognized a flaw in his theology. To this, somebody might say: of course the pastor shouldn’t be tasked with fact-checking his parisoner’s blogs, but somebody should! Well, who then? The elders and deacons? I hope they’re up on technology. A seminary-graduate millenial? Well, given how many millenials have fled the churches, finding those aren’t as easy as they used to be. And really, it would have to be more than one person given that some bloggers are prolific writers. And these fact-checkers would have to represent a variety of views and opinions which isn’t always the case in tiny churches where everyone is usually one the same page and dissension isn’t exactly welcome.
The New Testament presupposes that church authority, hierarchy, and discipline exist to protect orthodoxy and orthopraxy. This responsibility does not cease in this age of the Internet. Orthodox church institutions that value scriptural and historical faithfulness have a responsibility to provide clear guidance to Christian readers and listeners who are seeking to discern which voices to heed in the din of cyber-spirituality.
I like the din of the marketplace of cyber-spirituality. It’s opened my eyes and expanded my horizions considerably. Perhaps this was due to my tendency to look at every house in the street and wonder: “How do other people live? Do they live just like me?” It’s just like that with faith: “How do other people believe? Do they believe just like me?” I’ve discovered that the answer to both those questions is: “No, they do not. It’s not better, it’s not worse – it’s just different.” The thing is that one person’s orthodoxy is easily enough another person’s heresy – take the practice of infant baptism: something that my Southern Baptist roots tell me is wrong, was an accepted practice in Methodism. So a Methodist blog affirming the practice of infant baptism would be orthodox to a Methodist and heresy to a Southern Baptist at the same time. This reality is a tension that makes the internet what it is. Most of us understand the difference and don’t really care – if it applies to us, we might post affirming it, if it doesn’t we might post asking questions about it out of curiosity, or we might post a comment denying it. The only real way to prevent heresy from crossing boundaries is to fence off the internet into denominations and to have each blog post a warning that their particular post is in accordance with a particular denominations teaching and heresy to any other denomination that believes otherwise so that members of those denominations do not accidentally read it and are exposed to heresy.
Secondly, we as women have a responsibility, as well.
Women’s voices have been marginalized or silenced in the church for far too long, and I am grateful for how our technological revolution provides women with greater capacity to use our gifts to connect, to publish, to teach, and to lead.
Yet, in this new Internet age, women still—as much as men—deserve the best teaching the church has to offer. We don’t need less than funny stories, relatable prose, or charming turns of phrase, but we certainly need more than that. We need teachers and writers who can break our hearts with beauty and who also do the hard work of biblical interpretation, of learning the doctrines and history of the church, and of speaking clearly out of a tradition that they name and know. As Christian women, all of us can embrace writing and teaching that is relevant, compelling, and down to earth, and also ask that our leaders—both male and female—embrace theological study, intellectual rigor, and church hierarchy and accountability.
And I’d like to submit to my fellow female writers and teachers, in particular, that part of our responsibility as Christian leaders is to take on the burden, the joy, and the accountability of being deeply rooted in the church—not only privately and personally, but publicly and institutionally. If we are to help build not just a personal brand but a beautiful, faithful church for generations of women (and men) to come, we must work to strengthen and shape institutions larger than ourselves and submit ourselves to the authority and oversight of Christ’s church, even as we are honest about its frailty and faults.
One common refrain I’ve heard is just how much women avoid the Women’s Bible Study group in Southern Baptist churches. They’ve long been known on being theologically light, after all, mean are supposed to be the spiritual leaders of the household who teach his wife what she really needs to know. We can’t women who know more than their husbands because then they would be unteachable – or worse, try to teach their husbands. Women’s Bible studies tend to be heavy on emotional anecdotes, feature recipes or crafts, and are sometimes charged with being fluffy. When the best teaching the church has to offer is laughable – then it should be no surprise that a great many women search elsewhere for the deeper teaching that they thirst for.
I’ve come to learn that people get things wrong – it’s the reality of being human. Even in an architecture of authority and relationships of authority, there’s no way to prevent human error. It’s plausible that the marginalization of women in the formal church of my denomination is just such an error that has been promoted as sound Biblical teaching. It’s in these scenarios where you can either do the dumb-bed down officially approved Bible studies or stretch those spiritual muscles and be a renegade who searches for the truth wherever she finds it – and it might not be in the authority of the institution that you belong to.
Why formal authority matters
In his essay Sinsick, Stanley Hauerwas famously explores the notion of authority using a medical analogy. If a medical student told his advisor, “I’m not into anatomy this year, I’m into relating” and asked to skip anatomy class to focus on people, the medical school would reply, “Who in the hell do you think you are, kid? … You’re going to take anatomy. If you don’t like it, that’s tough.” Hauerwas delivers his crucial point by saying: “Now what that shows is that people believe incompetent physicians can hurt them. Therefore people expect medical schools to hold their students responsible for the kind of training that is necessary to be competent physicians. On the other hand, few people believe an incompetent minister can damage their salvation.”
Never mind how the analogy fails when you have a Mad Doctor whose knowledge of anatomy is perfect and yet twisted to do just as much harm as an incompetent one – only they do it on purpose. What are believers to do whose religious tradition refuses to admit them or they cannot pay for religious training? I think this whole crisis of authority points to a sad reality – if the churches themselves taught their materials correctly to the believers, then nobody would have any problem with whatever people blog because everything these people blog would be sound, orthodox teaching. If people aren’t blogging sound orthodox teaching, what are they being taught?
The church has said for millennia that bad teaching is more deadly than bad surgery. Now we have an influx of teachers who become so by the stroke of a key. The need for formal structures of training, hierarchy, and accountability in medical schools and medical boards is obvious because we don’t want our doctors to simply be popular or relatable; we want them to practice medicine correctly and truthfully, participate in a medical tradition broader than themselves, and serve under the authority and oversight of others. We need to be as discerning in whom we trust with care of souls as we are with care of our bodies.
It occurs to me how little oversight my pastors have had all my life. They could say anything they want from the pulpits and had only one fear: offending the elderly members. Which mostly meant that he should avoid preaching too much about tithing. I remember one story – about a hundred year old woman who questioned her pastor’s teaching. She was formally disciplined for “rebellion” even though she recognized that he was changing the church’s denomination and preaching to a different gospel than the one she was used to. These days, authority in and of itself is often used against regular believers – the last thing we need is to strengthen it’s power to take root in areas where we should have the freedom to speak our minds.
Christian writing and teaching is not minor surgery; it is heart surgery. In this new Internet age, we as a church have to recover the idea that, like doctors, Christian writers, teachers, and leaders can help cure or help kill. And therefore, like doctors, we have to ensure that all Christian leaders—male and female alike—have oversight and accountability that matches the weight of their authority and influence.
But when it comes down to it, somebody with a basic knowledge of first aid can be a pretty handy ally. Sometimes what’s needed is somebody who knows the Heimlich Maneuver or CPR – not necessarily a licensed doctor. I’d like to think that’s what we bloggers are, those of us who are studied in the areas that interest us, we can diagnose the symptoms that we have experienced and talk about what helped bring us relief.
The way I see it, the Word of God isn’t so fragile that it’ll return void. Somehow God will use all things for good. When I had left the Southern Baptists, I was a wounded believer recovering from a flawed heart surgery. I found some refreshing healing balm in a non-denominational church that taught me that faith isn’t necessarily in documents like the Baptist Faith and Message or the Book of Discipline, but that I’m responsible for knowing what I believe and why I believe it. The Bible was no longer some dusty old book that other people were explaining to me as it was beyond my grasp, but a personal love letter where God was telling me important truths that I could only find by reading it for myself. Authority for the sake of authority had utterly destroyed my faith, restoring my own authority over myself also restored my faith.