Christianity Today: Woman Bloggers Represent Crisis of Authority

Christianity Today: Woman Bloggers Represent Crisis of Authority May 2, 2017

A recent Christianity Today article by Tish Harrison Warren caught my eye. Warren is an ordained minister in the Anglican tradition, and a woman. Christianity Today is more open on female ordination than many other evangelical publications, but Warren’s article points to some major blindspots nonetheless. Warren, you see, is concerned about woman bloggers who operate outside of church authority and yet write about their spiritual journeys publicly for all to see. This is—apparently—a crisis.

The rise of the blogosphere in the early 2000s yielded the genre of the “spiritual blogger.” From the comfort of their living rooms, lay people suddenly became household names, wielding influence over tens of thousands of followers. A new kind of Christian celebrity—and authority—was born: the speaker and author who comes to us (often virtually) as a seemingly autonomous voice, disembedded from any larger institution or ecclesial structure.

Just as the invention of the printing press helped spark the Protestant Reformation and created a crisis of authority, the advent of social media has catalyzed a new crisis in the church.

Yes, that’s right—a crisis.

One thing I appreciate about the internet in general, and the blogosphere in particular, is that it has provided a platform for voices that would otherwise have gone unheard. It means anyone with an internet connection can say their piece, and in a place others can read it.

And that, Warren argues, is a problem. Because it usurps church authority.

One of the most prominent recent examples of this crisis involves the popular blogger Jen Hatmaker, who last year announced that her views about homosexuality have changed. She was cheered by some and denounced by others. LifeWay stopped selling her books. Aside from the debate about sexuality, broader questions emerged: 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?

Now maybe it’s just me, but I was raised in an evangelical home, and I grew up with the idea that all one needs is the Bible, and the Holy Spirit. I didn’t grow up believing that religion needed to be filtered through specific authority figures—figures appointed by whom, exactly? In this way my upbringing reflected ideas present in evangelicalism at least since the early 1800s. After the Revolutionary War, Americans had become unwilling to accept authority for authority’s sake. Popular religious leaders arose, with or without official denominational backing. People felt empowered to form their own ideas, and to follow their own interpretations.

I understand the critique this thought process often garners—it was this period that spawned the Church of Mormon, after all, and all manner of new religious experiments evangelicals would disapprove of. A man and his Bible—or a woman and her Bible—potentially means as many denominations as there are people. But I am shy of authority in the realm of religion. I don’t want to see anyone dictating what others must believe, or what they are allowed to say, or when they may speak. A woman blogger speaks for herself. If she doesn’t claim to speak for a church, or a denomination, what is the problem?

Warren, however, is convinced that there is a problem—and a big one.

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.

I’m not sure how exactly Warren missed this, but megachurch pastors don’t actually typically have that much in terms of “accountability to formal structures of church governance.” Megachurches are often built around a cult of personality. In fact, much of evangelicalism in general lacks “accountability to formal structures of church governance.” Churches with no denominational affiliation proliferate, as do denominations that exercise little top-down control.

Nor does Warren address the differences between running a megachurch—where you are dealing with real people’s everyday lives—and writing a blog, where your authority only goes so far as people are willing to read your writing and find meaning in it. Pastors of megachurches are in physical contact with their followers; there is opportunity for grooming and abuse. There is also greater opportunity for financial mismanagement—blogging does not typically pay much, and a Patreon lacks the same “umph” as a church tithe.

If Warren is so concerned about the lack of church authority, why isn’t she out there remonstrating against megachurches? Why isn’t she making an outcry against Independent Fundamentalist Baptist churches? Warren belongs to a denominations that exercises church authority, with bishops and the like, but the evangelical megachurch I grew up in had nothing of the sort. Why is it female bloggers, who are typically doing little more than writing a public diary, that have garnered Warren’s attention?

Warren mentions that woman bloggers are less likely than male religious leaders to have seminary training. Why yes. This is true. But you know what? There are a zillion and one male pastors out there with zero seminary training—or with seminary training in fundamentalist institutions that do little more than formalize Bible reading and memorization. Having seminary training—for better or for worse—is not a requirement for being a pastor or church leader. Why, then, the focus on woman bloggers?

If Warren is so concerned about women bloggers’ relative lack of seminary training, why doesn’t she encourage denominations and seminaries to offer online courses or create readings packets—say, lists of recommended books—for female bloggers who write about spiritual matters? Instead of calling for greater denominational authority and control over woman bloggers, why not focus on the services these bodies can offer bloggers? Denominations could easily create an online certificate for bloggers interested in more formal education.

But Warren’s concern, as we shall see, runs deeper:

…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.

I think Warren is missing the point of lay blogging. Women bloggers who write about spiritual matters frequently are writing about their private beliefs—sharing them on a blog is in practice little different from sharing them with a girlfriend or sister. I well remember those conversations, where we would talk over various spiritual issues and offer our own thoughts on tricky passages, or swap stories or ideas that helped us understand this concept or that. Is this sort of conversation on Warren’s chopping block too?

Warren continues as follows:

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.

There’s a big difference between “hold yourself to a standard” and the sort of top-down denominational control Warren is suggesting. It’s absolutely true that anyone writing their thoughts on the internet, especially one with a large platform, has a responsibility to make sure that what they are writing is accurate—to put in some background research when necessary—and to think through the ramifications of what they’re writing, etc. But Warren is suggesting more than this. She is suggesting denominational control over what women write.

And god forbid woman bloggers teach “any doctrine on earth” under “the banner of Christian faith and orthodoxy”! Newsflash: this is exactly what male (and female) pastors have been doing in this country for hundreds of years. We don’t have a state church. We have this thing called freedom of religion. Warren may want to take a good hard look at the state of Christianity beyond her specific, top-down denomination—Christianity in the U.S. has always been characterized by the teaching of “any doctrine on earth” under “the banner of Christian faith and orthodoxy.” Why focus on female bloggers rather than on male pastors?

Warren never properly differentiates between woman bloggers as a group and the high-profile woman bloggers she sometimes mentions—those having a “huge national stage.” I would be a-okay with Warren calling for high-profile woman bloggers to look into seminary training, be aware of their limitations, and consider finding a team of mentors or pursuing formal denominational affiliation. Instead, Warren paints all woman bloggers who write about spiritual matters with the same brush and calls for “ecclesiastical accountability” with “heft and power.”

What might such ecclesiastical accountability look like?

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.

Warren never considers that this sort of top-down denominational control might be a bad thing in some instances. It means she can be silenced, if she displeases someone in power. It means her tenure is contingent on her repeating the party line—and staying in line.

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.

Okay, I stand corrected. She does realize this—and she likes it.

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.

Um, Warren? That is how it always is. That is how it has always been.

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.

And again I say—we have freedom of religion, and freedom of speech.

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’m slightly baffled that one could study church history in seminary and still come away believing that there is such thing as doctrinal purity, let alone that it is something you can actually protect. Sure, you can decide what beliefs you and your denomination (if you’re in charge of it) teach and adhere to, but you can’t control anyone else’s beliefs—and Christians’ beliefs have been fragmented and in disagreement for as long as Christianity has been a thing. If a woman blogger isn’t claiming to speak for the Anglican church while having no official affiliation, why is Warren upset? Christianity fragmented long before the advent of blogging.

The ironic thing is that Warren is an Anglican. She’s writing in an evangelical magazine, and I’m willing to bet that at least 50% of that publication’s readership believes infant baptism—which Warren practices as an Anglican—is false teaching. Christianity Today is not the publication of a specific denomination; its readership is made up of those from many different denominations—denominations that disagree strongly on multiple points.

There is no way to prevent “false teaching” or preserve “doctrinal fidelity.” American Christianity doesn’t operate with that level of top-down institutional authority. We do not have an established church. If Warren doesn’t like some of the things she reads on the female Christian blogosphere, she can create her own blog and respond. It really is that simple!

Let’s be very clear about what is going on here—blogging has offered a platform to millions of people who did not have one before (particularly marginalized people, who may not have access to any other platform). Within the church, blogging has enabled a wide swath of laypeople, particularly women, to write about their spiritual journeys, their interpretations of Bible passages, and so forth. Warren does not like this democratization because these bloggers are not trained or under the control of the church, and that makes them dangerous. So she calls on pastors and others with seminary training to crack down on this democratization by imposing ecclesiastical authority.

And people wonder why Millennials are leaving the church.

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