Authority in the Christian blogosphere

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Christian women find their voice and live out their callings online

Two weeks ago Tish Harrison Warren wrote a piece for Christianity Today titled “Who’s in charge of the Christian blogosphere?” In it, she wonders whether the kind of platforms people – especially women – gain through blogging should be accountable to some kind of ecclesial structure, much like pastors are theoretically accountable to their denominations.

Warren posed the piece as a rumination on responsibility: how can we make sure these bloggers – many of them laypersons, their “only” virtue being their popularity – “do” theology responsibly? She cited Jen Hatmaker as an example. Hatmaker – who has been in ministry for two decades and is a published author and popular speaker – recently announced that she is supportive of the full inclusion of LGBTI people in the church, a decision that proved unpopular in the evangelical world. (Read her response to the immediate flare-up of criticism here.)

Warren’s article wasn’t well-received, at least by my Twitter timeline’s standards. Warren was criticised for singling out Jen Hatmaker in a way that came across as chastising: how dare Hatmaker, “only” a blogger, deviate from the evangelical bottom line? The article read and felt like a gendered attack, Hatmaker acting as the negative example of what happens when those outside formal structures don’t toe the line.

Warren has since issued an apology to Hatmaker, but the article is still up on Christianity Today – the first part of a series called #AmplifyWomen. It’s ironic and telling that the first article in this series wasn’t about amplification at all, but about control.

Warren wouldn’t be the first woman delegated to keep her fellow women in check. One comes across it often; if you need an example, just skim any article relating to women on The Gospel Coalition blogs (alas, a favourite teacher of mine, Jen Wilkin, has participated in something similar). Warren has come across as sincere in her Twitter replies to criticism and praise, but I doubt she realises that a lot of her article’s backbone is internalised misogyny.

Make no mistake, the issue at play in Warren’s piece isn’t responsibility or accountability. As quite a few influential bloggers have pointed out, they are accountable: to their personal relationship with Jesus Christ, to the church or spiritual communities they form a part of, and to their friends, families, and peers. In fact, one could argue that the response to Warren’s piece is an indication of how much accountability there is in the popular Christian blogosphere: her article didn’t remain unchallenged, and the criticism was mostly fair and well thought out.

No, the issue Warren’s article skirts around is control. Unfortunately, there are still many church traditions where women aren’t allowed to preach, speak or teach (or if they are, it’s only to other women or to children). In these denominations, women aren’t allowed to have authority. So when these women, who are forced into silence by their churches, turn to the Internet to share their voice and listen to the voices of others like themselves, this presents a conundrum to the men and women in church denominations who delineate the function and authority of women. How do you control women speaking outside the traditional sphere of the church?

Well, you can’t, not without making it exceedingly obvious that the issue is really control rather than authority. If you’ve followed any of these popular female bloggers, authors, speakers and preachers (Jen Hatmaker, Rachel Held Evans and Sarah Bessey to name the bare minimum), you realise that their passion and gifts are Spirit-derived, unlike the man-made ecclesial structures that would insist they aren’t allowed to write Spirit-filled words or share Spirit-filled truth or preach prophetic, Spirit-filled prophecies. If it becomes clear that so many women have the gift of teaching, preaching, and disciple-making outside official church structures, you have to ask yourself: are these women and their ministries the problem, or the fact that so many churches continue to deny them?

It’s interesting to me that, around the same time this piece was published, an editor over at The Gospel Coalition went on a Twitter and comment rant against what he calls “discernment bloggers”. He had had a run-in with the women who run Spiritual Sounding Board and The Wartburg Watch, both websites dedicated to blogging about spiritual abuse in the American church. This editor, Joe Carter, called blogs like these divisive and the women who run them “broken wolves in sheep’s clothing”.

Call me crazy, but I spot a pattern here: women who won’t adhere to the “it’s all fine, it’s alright” party line of patriarchal, male-dominated church and spiritual traditions are called out by the benefactors of those traditions when their unsanctioned, Spirit-filled commentary hits too close to home. These churches, like Warren’s article, claim it’s about God-ordained authority; but it’s really about male-centric control. If God gives women authority to witness outside the church, then their authority isn’t in question.

As someone who had once lost her voice to an oppressive, male-dominated church situation and rediscovered it through blogging, I cannot overstress how important the voice of female Christian bloggers are. Even when those voices are more conservative than I am or have a theology that differs from mine, I’ve been enriched by the writing and teaching of Christian women who blog, both those with large followings and those with a smaller audience. Sometimes simply the reminder that there are powerful, Spirit-led women using their gifts is more of a comfort than I can say.

Christianity is a much bigger place than any one church, any one denomination, or any one pastor would have you believe. Faith, discipleship and following Jesus don’t heed the lines humanity draws around them. More often than not, the Holy Spirit uses those lines as starting places rather than as borders. These lines are porous, made to break through, much like sheep pens are meant to be left if the flock are to find places to graze, explore, grow and mature.

When an article like Warren’s appears, I see it as an indication that things are right rather than that things are wrong. It means that somewhere, someone is toddling from their sheep pen, following their Shepherd out into the world. It means that someone has chosen to listen to the voice of the Holy Spirit rather than the strictures of men.

#CoffeeTimePrayer: A painful choice

 

 

Reading: Ruth 1

16 But Ruth replied, “Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. 17 Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord deal with me, be it ever so severely, if even death separates you and me.” 18 When Naomi realized that Ruth was determined to go with her, she stopped urging her.

Disappointments are constant. I know, it’s not really the chirpy Monday morning message most people are looking for. To live is to feel, and to feel is to experience pain. Our faith isn’t a safeguard against this, just the opposite, as Brené Brown recently tweeted:

We are all in different stages of labour.

For Ruth the Moabite, her pain – her labour – must have felt like it was at a critical point. Having lost her husband and his brother in quick succession, she was faced with losing both her sister-in-law and beloved mother-in-law as well. All the security and family she had come to know and love would be taken from her in one fell swoop. It’s hard to imagine someone like Ruth being impressed by a chirpy Monday morning message!

In a way, Ruth could have walked away from the pain of the delivery by returning to her own family. There she would find safety and security in her family’s house until she married again. But Ruth decided to stay with Naomi, her mother-in-law, and return with her to Naomi’s family. We often see in the book of Ruth little more than a romance, but Ruth’s decision isn’t motivated by the prospect of Boaz, who wasn’t even in the picture yet; nor just her love for Naomi. Rather, Ruth’s decision was based on her wanting to continue to serve the Lord.

In those days one’s tribal and cultural identities were inextricably woven with religion; all gods were “national gods”, and it wasn’t uncommon for a conquered people to adopt the gods of their conquerors. In Ruth’s mind, staying with Naomi and being part of her people equated to continuing to serve Yahweh, unlike her sister-in-law Orpah, who returned to her people and their gods (Ruth 1:15).

Ruth continued to “labour” in uncertainty and insecurity and poverty, trusting that Naomi’s God – her God – would care for them.

When we’re faced with hurt, we generally want to stitch up the wounds as quickly as possible. I’ve never been in actual labour myself, but I doubt you’d easily find women eager to draw out the experience. We want to expel pain rather than dwell in it. It’s a natural and good impulse.

But I wonder if we sometimes walk away from laborious experiences before we’ve allowed God to midwife them. Rather than deal with our hurts and their causes, we walk away, mistakenly thinking that we’ve dealt with the situation when in reality we’re still carrying it around inside us. A painful but powerful image is that of a woman carrying a stillborn child until labour.

Are we carrying pain around in us instead of allowing God to birth us to new life?

I know: definitely not a chirpy message! But I hope that as this week unfolds, we’ll take a moment to appreciate the relief of delivery, and turn to God to help us through the experience.


Prayer: Lord, I pray that you would bring me delivery from my pain. Help me to release that which burdens me and to experience new life. Amen.

Sabbath: God the Shepherd

Read: Psalm 23

1 The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing.
2 He makes me lie down in green pastures,
he leads me beside quiet waters,
3 he refreshes my soul.
He guides me along the right paths
for his name’s sake.
4 Even though I walk
through the darkest valley,
I will fear no evil,
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
they comfort me.
5 You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies.
You anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
6 Surely your goodness and love will follow me
all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord
forever.

Listen: The Lord’s My Shepherd – Stuart Townsend

Reading: John 10:1-10

7 Therefore Jesus said again, “Very truly I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. 8 All who have come before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep have not listened to them. 9 I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. They will come in and go out, and find pasture. 10 The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.

Pray/meditate:

The life abundant, Lord, is not in the sheep pen.
The life abundant is in the hills:
in the dark valleys and against the craggy rock faces
echoing between cliffs and climbing mountaintops
rolling down gentle, grassy slopes,
following well-worn paths that wind, cut, dip
climb, falter, struggle, reach.

The life abundant is in the rock-strewn gulley
and the lap of a mountain stream, tumbling.
The life abundant isn’t security, Lord,
but being safe with You, as You walk ahead of us
and behind, flank us and guide us and carry us,
as your presence chases away
whatever would chase us.

Make us brave, Lord, to follow you
from the sheep pens of our religion
from our comfort zones, our prejudices
and our biases, our loneliness and our apathy,
our faithlessness and our sins,
our sorrows and our grief.

Lead us to the mountaintops
and retrieve us when we wander, lost,
on untrodden paths.
Come find us, again and again, Lord,
even when – especially when – we do not realise
that we are lost.
Amen.

It’s time…to change

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Two weeks ago popular South African farmer-turned-preacher Angus Buchan held a massive prayer meeting on a farm near Bloemfontein. More than a million people showed up to the free “It’s time” event to pray for change in South Africa. The focus was on less violent crime, less corruption, and less racialism.

I’m not a big Angus Buchan fan. He was recently banned from speaking in the UK because of his stance on women and LGBTI people, being in the “pray the gay away” and “men are the heads of their households” camp. He claims his theology is a simple one, perhaps because he as a straight white male has the ease of simplicity when it comes to conservative interpretation. He is for all intents and purposes a megachurch pastor sans megachurch.

To understand his appeal it’s probably worth noting that his big claim to fame back in the early to mid-2000s was a book turned into a movie, Faith Like Potatoes, followed by large, men-centred conferences called “Mighty Men”. This is where he shared his vision of men rising up to take back control – and to his mind, protection – of their families. It struck a chord with disenfranchised white men especially, and as his popularity grew, so did his influence. There are more than a few who consider him South Africa’s spiritual “oom” – “uncle”.

On the one hand, I want to be impressed that Buchan managed to attract a crowd of more than a million people. White South African Christians especially are notoriously skittish, preferring to stick closely to their denominational lines. But on the other hand, the mostly white crowd at “It’s time” is problematic. If you want to pray for non-racialism in South Africa, then surely such a prayer meeting should be more diverse than a tepid cup of Frisco?

The whole theme of the “It’s time” gathering was that South Africa wouldn’t see change without God. But God works relationally. So I find it worrying that the event garnering prayer for a better South Africa didn’t itself reach out – seemingly didn’t try to relate – to anyone other than Buchan’s stable of steadfast supporters: the people already watching his programs and reading his books and buying his special Bibles. Just two weeks before the “It’s time” prayer conference more than a million ZCC members descended on Moria to celebrate Easter. So don’t tell me it’s the lack of availability of willing, able and faithful black Christians that saw such little turnout at “It’s time.”

You have to wonder what the attendees took away from the event. They prayed for change, but I wonder: would they allow change? The funny thing about praying for things to change is that God usually says, “That’s fine, but let’s start with you.” Prayer and praying are fundamentally about opening ourselves up to God so that the Holy Spirit can work the redemptive power of Jesus’ cross and resurrection in our lives. Will there be a corresponding moment of grace for every prayer that cried out for change that Saturday, perhaps when next a racial video goes viral? Will the people who gathered there – and elsewhere, in smaller groups – surrender to God when he tells them, “Let’s start with you?” – as opposed to the murderous, corrupt boogeyman most people imagine when they hear the prayer points for a meeting such as “It’s time”?

The act of drawing together in faith and obedience to an event like “It’s time” is not to motivate God to act. South Africa doesn’t need God; that implies that God is missing, and he isn’t. If anything, drawing together as people did should motivate people to act and to be acted upon by God as he works a change in their hearts and lives. South Africa doesn’t need God; it needs better Christians, Christians willing to suspend their own corruption, hate, and racialism and strive for a better way. Praying for the nameless, faceless “other” to change is far less effective than praying to change oneself.

Looking Lectionary: Easter 5A

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Reading: John 14:1-14

“From now on you do know him and have seen him” (John 14:7b)

To have seen God! We Christians have a tendency to romanticize the fact that the old prophets, like Abraham and Moses, had face-to-face encounters with God; “If that had been us,” we lament, “we wouldn’t have doubted half so much!” But for your average Jew, the sight of God was unimaginable. The great I AM was shrouded in tabernacle and temple and the Holy of Holies: visited once a year, glimpsed only by a man set aside for the job in holiness and righteousness.

So when Jesus told his disciples that they knew the Father and had already seen him? This was a big deal. A hold-your-breath moment. Staggering. It’s perhaps unsurprising that Philip asked, tentative, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” For Philip and the rest, it could not compute that they had somehow seen the Father without realising it – this was the God who set Moses’ face aglow with his presence. How could they have missed it?

We see things through the filter of our minds, both on a physiological and psychological level. Our unconscious filters out details it deems unimportant, so there’s truth to the fact that we struggle with seeing things objectively when even our observation is suspect. Add our psychological filter – biased to self and relating everything to the self before “plugging it into” other perceptions, and it’s obvious that our “sight” as such is compromised.

Jesus’ disciples, Jews that they were, had learned to see – or not see – God in a particular way; one that didn’t account for the incarnation of God the Father as the Son. That God would thus reveal himself – his heart, his mind, his very character – in a man named Jesus was astounding. It’s why Jesus went to such pains to drive the point home that if the disciples had seen him, known him, then they had seen and known the Father; moreover, that even as the Father dwelt in Jesus, and Jesus in him, the disciples and believers would come to dwell with God in his house. John, in his wordy way, closed the loop between believers and God, a loop that had been open a long time.

Nowadays we have the benefit of the revelation of Jesus Christ. In relationship, we see the whole of the Trinity revealed in Jesus: the Father he revealed, and the Holy Spirit left behind as a constant revelation. But I wonder if religion sometimes “shifts” our sight away from this incomprehensible, astounding vision of God’s heart to something that fits more comfortably within doctrine and liturgy and an hour on Sunday; and if we aren’t poorer, blinder, for the difference.

Jesus is “the truth, the way, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” Apart from Jesus, our vision of the Father is foggy, limited; woe to us, then, if we lose sight even of him: this Nazarene with his compassion and his dusty feet, revealing God’s love in diseased skin touched, blind eyes healed, stooped backs righted, dead people raised.

Understood this way, we come to dwell in this vision of God, this reality of who God is; and this reality is his kingdom, come.

Blessings for your week,
Lee