So much has already been said about the Christianity Today article which bemoaned the rise of the female Christian blogger. To be fair, this isn’t the first time CT has written about bloggers and authority — it did so back in 2012, for example, with this piece. But the most recent article called it a “crisis of authority, especially for women.” I believe there is a crisis in the church, but I don’t think it’s a crisis of authority. I think it’s a crisis of lack.
Churches, in general, have lacked rich resources for women who have grown beyond the adolescence of their faith, and lacked opportunities for these women to serve, struggle, question, doubt, preach, teach and lead. Instead, we are constantly reminded of our place: valuable, but meant to submit. In my experience, even churches who outwardly claim to love women in leadership still call those same women “directors” instead of “pastors”, despite their theological degrees. They still have them hovering around the male pastors like tea cup-bearing fruit flies, ready to take a memo rather than learn how to lead. They still keep them out of the back offices where the sausage gets made because of the Billy Graham rule.
It’s theological degrees, according to the CT article, that differentiates those authority-privileged men compared to all those pesky women bloggers:
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.”
Um. Wow. Can you say “generalization”?
There are plenty of male pastors who are more “products of the marketplace”, whose platforms have been built on pure consumption rather than a sound theological MDiv, and plenty of well-educated women who have to fight just to be allowed to stretch their vocal cords. Nothing is more threatening, after all, than a well-educated woman. And we’ll put her through the paces just to make sure she knows her place. We can still find colleges who will train women in ministry but will refuse to ordain us; we can still find a dearth of pastoral roles that will accept women candidates outside of “children’s ministry”.
The church is practicing a theology of lack.
I was once speaking with a Christian woman whose daughter had turned away from the faith after she went to college. The word “college” was spit out like a hiss, and eyes rolled back in their sockets. Because God-forbid we should educate our women-folk, lest they all learn how to question authority. I’d wager to say that the young woman didn’t lose her faith because she was educated but because she became aware of the lack in her faith tradition. I’d also wager to say that Jesus will help her find her way back, and she’ll be an even more beautiful representation of Jesus than she was before, when she was steeped in all that “authority”.
The CT article is insulting not just because of its focus on women bloggers, but because of the assumptions it makes about their audiences, which are, presumably, women who aren’t smart enough to discern sound Biblical teaching from bunk. Plenty of men follow the likes of the degree-less Joel Osteen and Matt Walsh, and no one’s really talking about those guys getting led astray.
The author of the article claims she wants us “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.” But as long as women are marginalized — both openly and subversively — in the church, this kind of authority will always be patriarchal. What she’s really saying here is that she wants women under the authority of men.
I’m not saying that women shouldn’t be held to a high standard. We should. We are, after all, more than capable enough to reach such a bar of excellence. What I am saying, however, is that the patriarchy needs to be filtered out of those standards the way we strain the grinds from our coffee or the seeds out of our lemonade. We want the flavor of that juicy goodness without the bitterness of oppression or the sour taste of being silenced and marginalized.
We’re giving women a sword of a message with a double edge: on the one hand, you must be educated, but on the other, education is dangerous, so you shouldn’t do it. Be educated, but the time and energy and money you spend on your education will never trump an uneducated but charismatic male pastor’s authority over you. Aspire, but not so much that you step out of your place.
In the “WOMEN” section of Christianity Today, just a few stories below this authority piece we’re discussing here, is a story called, “How Brainy Women Benefit The Church“. You guys — the fact that we even have to have an article expounding the virtues of intelligent women, and explaining how their talents and skills and smarts can help the church indicates that we still have a problem. A very big problem. Don’t get me wrong — it’s a good article. But the fact that it’s newsworthy is troubling. Do we actually still need a reminder that half of God’s created population has intelligence, and that this is actually a good thing?
When it comes to the question of authority, I’m not saying that women — smart, educated, or other — should not submit, ever. In fact, I believe submission to authority can be a beautiful experience that ultimately leads to freedom. You know — that whole I came to set the captives free thing? Submitting to each other the way we submit to Jesus leads to those wide open spaces of grace, where none of us are hemmed in by the ropes of subjugation.
Here is truth: the women bloggers that article is pointing at — women like Sarah Bessey and Rachel Held Evans, Glennon Doyle Melton and Jen Hatmaker — these women have held space for me when church confined me. They spoke nurturing freedom and Jesus’s love to my soul when my jagged edges made me feel like I didn’t fit anywhere. They gave me something to point to that enabled me to say, “There! I see Jesus, right there!”
At the risk of sounding as rebellious as my tattoo and my piercings make me look, I will say this:
Who gives these female Christian bloggers the authority to speak into my life?
Me. I do.
I give these women the right, the privilege and the authority to teach me. I trust God and my ability to read my Bible to know if they are leading me astray. I trust Holy Spirit in my life, my experience with that Holy Wisdom, to guide me where I need to go.
Until the institution of church stops showing me evidence that it wants merely to maintain its current power structure — a power structure designed to keep me from living out the fullness of all that God created me to be — I refuse to sit down in submission to it.
My submission is to Jesus. Messiah and me — we’re good. I cling fast to those dusty, pierced feet. I grab onto those calloused hands.
I go where Jesus goes.
And p.s.? I’m on my way to seminary.