There has been much discussion over the last few weeks around authority over teaching in the ‘Christian Blogosphere’. How do we minimise the influence of bloggers who have unhealthy things to say? Who gets to decide who is a blogger to endorse, and who isn’t? There are many questions this brings up.
The interesting thing is that this issue was initially brought up as a gender issue by Tish Harrison Warren on Christianity Today. That women bloggers especially should have some kind of authority structure to be accountable to. This is her primary concern (referring to Jen Hatmaker);
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 there are stacks of blogs you can read in response to the original article. I have spent a bit of time reading them and thinking it over as well as asking my co-workers what they think, and I think I have something to add.
Regarding Christian Women
One of the major concerns of the original article was that women haven’t been ministered to well in the church and so many women turn to Christian bloggers for wisdom about the Bible.
“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.”
Warren sees this as a problem because there are not the accountability structure for bloggers that there are for people who teach and lead in churches and so this can lead to people teaching anything through blogging that says it is orthodox Christian doctrine, but in reality is not. This also seems to be informed by her position as an Anglican priest and the structures of accountability that she has as part of her role.
As I understand it, part of Warren’s call is that creating institutional structures of accountability is a way 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’. That’s what makes this a gendered issue, that women who teach and write aren’t taken seriously as people who Christians look to for spiritual teaching and advice and that they should be held to account.
It’s a valid concern. Women are increasingly turning to resources outside the church for wisdom and discipleship. I recently listened to a Christ and Pop Culture podcast episode from last year which discussed this very issue. And I do agree with Warren that this is partly because women’s voices are not heard in the church as much as they could be. I also think it could have to do with women’s ministries being made a separate thing from church life, as well as the rise of the internet. There does seem to be an ‘outsourcing’ of women’s discipleship to the realm of the internet and so I understand the concern about authority.
It wouldn’t be great if the bloggers who are most listened to are the ones with the loudest voices or the biggest platforms if they didn’t have sound doctrine. I have seen the damage that reading blogs with dodgy teaching can have on young Christians. I’ve seen them being led astray by blogs which claim to have a Biblical approach but are really just teaching what they have picked up from an unhealthy church culture or something like that.
But does that mean that we need to create authority structures which can keep women who write books and blogs accountable? I’m not sure.
On one level, I agree with Warren. Women’s teaching and writing should be recognised as having authority for their audience, and they should be held accountable. Hannah Anderson said in her response to Warren’s piece that;
In many ways, the Christian blogosphere mirrors network marketing. Established churches — regardless of the question of women’s ordination — often struggle to identify, cultivate, and incorporate women’s gifts. When a man senses a call to ministry, he has a clear institutional path to follow, including mentorship from other men. When a woman expresses similar gifts, the path is not always as clear, and even if she is able to walk it, she’ll face systemic challenges, paralleling those in the larger marketplace. The result is that women, more often than men, take an entrepreneurial approach to ministry. They gather communities around themselves via social media, bypassing established institutions altogether. Eventually these women may enter back into the establishment through books and speaking, but they do so on their own terms so that even as women are working outside institutions, they are remaking them in the process. …Despite their influence, many of these women are still seen as hobbyists. Just as network marketing struggles to gain credibility in the traditional marketplace, the church often struggles to see women’s entrepreneurial ministry as “real” ministry. While a male pastor with similar clout is seen as an authority in his church, women are dubbed “influencers.”
These are real issues for women in the church. There is much more that could be done in pursuing women into ministry and discipling them to use their gifts. But I’m not convinced that women’s teaching and writing is altogether not recognised as important or having authority…
Perhaps it is more of a thing in Australia than the U.S. (and that shift is yet to come??), but I think there is weight given to the words of women, although I cannot speak for all church cultures. I see this even in a relatively conservative denomination like the Presbyterian Church of Australia (of which my church is a part). Even if it’s only recognising women’s authority to teach other women and children (as I know it to be in some churches), it is recognition of ministering and teaching the Word nonetheless. As we know there are so many different ways to express complementarian and egalitarian convictions, so there is going to be variation between churches. I know that this is not everyone’s experience. But with such a broad spectrum of acknowledgement of women’s teaching gifts, how can we say that we need to create institutions in order to do this?
Any Christian who writes on the internet ought to be part of a local church, and if they are not that should give cause for concern. The reason for this is that there should be accountability for anyone who publishes on the internet, and if you’re living in a community of believers then there will, God willing, we real world consequences if you write something that is unhelpful, or even heretical. I certainly hope that my church family would rebuke me if I ever wrote something on here which caused them concern!
Now of course there are people who aren’t kept accountable, who operate as sole traders. And there are others who misinterpret the Bible and their interpretations contradict other parts of God’s word. That’s why the Word tells us;
‘Do not treat prophesies with contempt but test them all; hold on to what is good, reject every kind of evil’ – 1 Thessalonians 5:20-22
We are to test the things people say about God’s word. What is claimed to be prophecy (words from God), we should test and cling to what is good but reject what is not. It’s an exhortation for discernment and wisdom.
Part of being a person in the world is learning to distinguish between true and false, right and wrong. And this is what we need to be sure we are teaching Christians in the real world. So that in the virtual world they can sort the good teaching from the bad, just as they hopefully do in the real world, by testing it with the scriptures.
This is why I am not sold on the idea of having external authority structures for bloggers, men or women, to submit to. We already have them, or should have them, our local church. They ought to be encouraging deep thought and godliness, and rebuking carelessness and wrong teaching. All Christians are saved into the family of God, and we submit ourselves to the authority of the local church leaders, each of whom should have accountability structures themselves.
Regarding The Reformation
Some of the responses to Warren’s article link this issue to the Reformation and the Reformation value of the priesthood of all believers, that all Christians should be concerned about reading the Bible for themselves and that theology wasn’t just for the religious elite.
I think this is an important part of the discussion around this. It’s particularly timely given that this year is the 500th anniversary of the start of the Reformation!
Firstly, as pointed out by Rachel Miller, to say that all people who write or speak must be authorised by some kind of church structure goes against the Reformation value that theology and thinking theologically was not just for the priesthood and scholars. She suggests, and I agree, that the best way to protect against the false teaching that is out there is not to create new authority structures, but to uphold the ultimate authority of scripture. And as I mentioned above, encouraging our brothers and sister in reading the Word and discerning what is from God’s Word and what isn’t is a key part of that. The other thing she suggests is to submit to the authority of the local church. Which again is similar to what I have already outlined why I think extra institutions for this accountability is unnecessary.
The other thing I have come across in this conversation is some really interesting stuff that Australian pastor and blogger, Nathan Campbell has to say about the way the Reformation worked in getting information to the general public which is intriguingly relevant in this conversation about blogging.
In the Reformation Luther’s pamphlets were printed quickly and passed on even faster. His ideas changed the way that people thought about the Bible and the Church and they went viral. Much the same as people pass on ideas, or videos of cats as the case may be, on social media these days. And so Campbell brings this challenge;
“For those of us who stand in the Reformed tradition but are more inclined to be ‘reformational’ (always reforming) than historically reformed, there are some opportunities here to ask ourselves some pretty confronting questions about whether our media practices actually do line up with our professed theology; a priesthood of all believers; both men and women.”
The exciting thing about the reformation is that it wasn’t just Luther who published materials which were popularly read and aided the everyday believer in their understanding of God’s word. There were many people who published such works, and some of them were women.
Although much of Reformation history taught to Christians is about men such as Luther, Tyndale, Zwingli, Calvin and Bullinger, for good reason, there were women who were using their education and station to further the spread of God’s word, and Reformation ideas. There were many of them, even if we only get a chapter in most books, or one lecture in a theological degree.
Last year around Reformation Day I wrote about Katharina Zell who published letters and hymns encouraging God’s people and addressing theological concerns in some cases. There are other women like Argula von Grumbach, Anna Rhegius, Olimpia Fulvia Morata and Marie Dentière who I’d like to write about too, hopefully I’ll get around to doing more research on those women soon!
And this is important. Especially in this current discussion of whether women should have some kind of accountability structure when they blog about the Bible and the Christian life. Because women writing about Christianity and the Bible is not new. Even in the 1500’s and 1600’s women were included in the priesthood of all believers, and they were writing and being read. And they were being spoken of highly by men like Luther who praised their work for the gospel.
These women had churches they belonged to, and pastors they were under the authority of, as all Christians should. But they spoke with independent thought and insight about God’s word. This is what bloggers do today isn’t it? The beauty of the Reformation value of the priesthood of all believers is that anyone can read the Bible, and the Spirit will give them understanding.
I’m not saying that the internet doesn’t present us with challenges in the way information is spread and what is reliable. It does. There is a whole lot more rubbish out there to distract people from the truth, and that’s something we need to try to figure out how to deal with. But I want to suggest that creating new institutional structures is not the way to go about it. Let’s continue to teach, rebuke, correct and train in righteousness with God’s Word and teach discernment of the truth. Let’s make sure that we are discipling our women in our local contexts so that they aren’t deferring their learning to the internet. This, I think, is the way we combat the issue at hand.