Today’s post by Tish Harrison Warren launches a series on the state of women’s discipleship in evangelical America. As evidenced by a recent Twitter discussion, the conversation continues to spread and split into what scientists call a dendritic—a series of branching pathways that resemble a tree or a nervous system. In this case, we have a series of interconnected (and very complicated) questions related to women’s ministry, social media, platform, race and ethnicity, orthodoxy and orthopraxy, and ecclesial authority and accountability.
Rather than contain the conversation in one piece, we’re offering a multiplicity of voices on various topics that all intersect at the nexus point of women’s discipleship and the church. Each piece will seek to illuminate the topic from a unique perspective and also interact with ideas posited by previous pieces (even in the form of hearty disagreement). We hope in sum that the series challenges, encourages, and inspires women to, in Warren’s words, “build and shape institutions larger than ourselves” in light of the gospel.
We’re calling the series #AmplifyWomen: A New Conversation About Leadership and Discipleship. We invite you to weigh in with your suggestions and feedback using that hashtag. Find us on Twitter @CT_women or on our Facebook page.
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.
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?
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
Tish Harrison Warren is a priest in the Anglican Church in North America and currently serves as co-associate rector at Church of the Ascension in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She is author of Liturgy of the Ordinary: Sacred Practices in Everyday Life(IVP). She and her husband, Jonathan, have two young daughters. Read more at tishharrisonwarren.com or follow her on Twitter.