Weeding the garden: Gretha Wiid under fire

 

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Gretha Wiid. Facebook.

 

Popular Afrikaans lay speaker and self-appointed “relationship expert” Gretha Wiid has been in the news a lot lately. She’s come under fire for the controversial anti-LGBTI views she espouses in books aimed at ten- to thirteen-year-olds. In her Lyfslim (“Body Smart”)  books she writes that same-sex attraction is a choice and typically the result of, among other things, sexual abuse at a young age.

Wiid is in the same camp as Angus Buchan – a position she set up with his approval, hosting “Worthy Women” conferences to complement his “Mighty Men” ones – and espouses the same supposedly theologically indisputable “men are the heads of their households” and anti-gay nonsense that he does. That she’s so popular with women baffles me; as Lilly Nortje-Meyer points out in this illuminating article, Wiid and her staunchest followers are formeninists; essentially believing that a Christian woman’s core value revolves around her relationship to men. This – and the whole belief that men are the “prophets, priests and kings” of their homes – is unbiblical. I’d even go so far as to call it idolatry. But I digress.

I wanted to write about Wiid’s response to her criticism, which has been telling in the extreme. It’s not uncommon for people like Wiid to defend their actions by claiming sovereignty from criticism, which they usually do by saying that any opposition they experience is Satanic in origin. Wiid has done that; a few days after the debacle started, she posted to Facebook that no plans formed against her family would prosper. She skirted around the issue – her bizarre, and might I say entirely unscientific views on same-sex attraction – by saying that she loved gay people because her brother is gay*. Anyway, the non-apology didn’t work, and the South African Human Right’s Commission has confirmed that it’s investigating complaints of hate speech against her.

This even more that her weak-as-tea theology is what bugs me the most: her arrogance. She claims her Scripture-derived inspiration supersedes the inherent value of other people (nonbiblical. Seriously, has she met Jesus?), and she acts as though her interpretation of the Bible is supreme, despite the fact that it is hermeneutically unsound. To Wiid, any opposition must be the work of Satan. If she’s so eager to find Satan’s hand in her circumstances, she need look no farther than her pride and her ego.

I doubt any of what’s happening to Wiid will work to soften her heart; Christians of her persuasion are usually only a step away from a persecution complex, and I suspect that’s what we’ll see unfold in the next few weeks: how South Africa, and the “liberal gay agenda” is causing Bible-believing Christians to renounce their convictions or face punishment. I strongly suspect that she’ll fail to see that freedom of speech and belief does not cover the freedom to espouse absolute bullcrap that devalues the full personhood of others, and to impressionable children no less.

The bigger issue, of course, is how these books of her – published back in 2009 – were seen fit to publish in the first place. Wiid is published by Carpe Diem Media, who also have “perennial shelvers” like Isak Burger and Andries Enslin in their stable. Unsurprisingly Carpe Diem Media are responsible for the women’s magazine Finesse, a publication that centres its content around “modern Christian women” of the soft complementarian persuasion, mixing fashion with diet tips to “keep him interested” with soft-lit covers of local celebrities.

Yet for Wiid to be as popular as she is – more than 120 000 people like her Facebook page, after all – she has to be selling well. Her market is a niche one: white, Afrikaans-speaking conservative Christian women. Proportionately she probably has a big share of this market, so clearly she’s appealing to some people. And that’s most worrisome of all: that in 2017 Wiid easily drums up support for damaging, ludicrous and unscientific claims, all under the flag of “Christianity”, with the consent and even approval of so many people.


*Her brother has spoken out in support of her; interestingly, and probably in no way related to anything, he is also her manager. 

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.

Looking Lectionary: Easter A

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The lectionary for Easter A has two possible readings: John 20:1-18 or Matthew 28:1-10. Personally, I’m tempted to use the Matthew reading because it’s the more streamlined account, thin on John’s pointed self-insertion and apparent vendetta against Peter. But for this post, I’ll be discussing both in broad terms.

Reading Matthew 28:1-10 and John 20:1-18 is an interesting exercise in comparison. Both the authors of Matthew and John were writing many years after Jesus’ resurrection when the first Christian communities had already sprung up. We can extrapolate a few things from the texts about the authors and their communities:

1. Both Matthew and John’s communities were facing “fake news” about the resurrection of Jesus. It’s why they go to such pains to emphasise that Jesus’ body wasn’t merely stolen, squirrelled off by unscrupulous disciples. In Matthew, this takes two forms. The first is that of the angel rolling away the stone. Nothing but an act of God, Matthew is saying, could have opened that tomb and left it empty. The second is the mention of the frightened imperial guards. In Matthew 27:62-66 we see the Pharisees applying to Pilate for guards to be posted at the tomb, and in Matthew 28:11-15 they bribe those same guards into lying about what happened.

John focuses on the burial clothing: had Jesus’ body merely been stolen, they wouldn’t have undressed it first; and if they had, the material would have been strewn about, not folded up neatly. The picture he suggests is of Jesus undressing himself from the tatters of burial and folding it up neatly as he did. The burial clothes change into angels by the time Mary looks into the tomb after Peter and John have come and gone.

2. The empty tomb is immediately linked to Jesus’ own prophecies about his purpose and resurrection. Throughout the gospel accounts, we see Jesus’ disciples apparently remain impervious to Jesus’ impending death and resurrection. John’s account has them make an about turn in John 16:19: “Yes, now you are speaking plainly!” But later in John, we find the disciples locked in a room, and then later still, fishing! Without Jesus’ guidance and knowledge of the Scriptures, and frightened and maybe ashamed by his terrifying death, the disciples didn’t draw the conclusion we find so obvious today: that Jesus had died as he’d foretold and that he’d risen from death. The gospel authors nail down these points, perhaps pointedly against divergent narratives being told at that time.

3. Jesus’ first appearance is to Mary Magdalene. This is significant for a few reasons. In the first place, Mary was a woman. Had Jesus’ resurrection merely been a story, why locate Mary as the first witness to the risen Christ? Women’s testimonies weren’t well received in patriarchal first-century Palestine. They were considered to be unreliable witnesses. Yet, in Mary’s being the first to see the risen Christ, we see an echo of Jesus’ earlier revelation of his being the Messiah to the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4. Jesus didn’t treat women as the patriarchy around them did, so his appearance to Mary is in character for him.

In the second place, appearing to Mary Magdalene placed Mary fully in disciple territory. Sadly there are still people who don’t view the women who travelled with Jesus as his disciples. They usually justify this by saying that none of the twelve was female. But the twelve were chosen for two reasons: to show that Jesus was a rabbi, a teacher, who required a minimum of twelve students to be considered such; and to represent the tribes of Israel. We see that Jesus’ inner circle actually consisted of Peter, John and James and arguably Mary, Martha and Lazarus, and that he had many other disciples besides. That the gospels don’t explicitly name any female disciples may be for the most simple reason: they didn’t need to. The women in service to Jesus were numbered among his disciples.

In any case, the fact that Mary Magdalene and the other women remained to witness Jesus’ crucifixion, which must have been horrible – and unsafe – to see, demonstrate more loyalty than the scattered twelve, and so they become the first witnesses to Jesus, risen. It’s a furthering of the great reversal: the king of the world is revealed to those most often discounted and marginalised. The Good News is first and foremost theirs.

How, then, do we preach this text? There really is only the one way to do it, I think: to proclaim it as the good news it is. Our responsibility in preaching and proclaiming the Easter narrative is to preach it to everyone marginalised by sin…and who marginalise in sin.

The Easter story is subversive: a man born a Jewish peasant who proclaimed himself the Son of God and spoke of himself as the promised Saviour spent his ministry healing, providing for, teaching and interacting with people from all spheres of society. This man was then crucified as “The King of the Jews”; he was killed in the worst way possible, in a way reserved for traitors to the Roman empire, and delivered to this death by the elite of his own people. It was the worst they could do to him…and it didn’t take. Jesus threw off death and rose to be the Christ for the fallen world. In this equation subversiveness = Good News, because Christ always subverts corrupt power with the redemption and restoration of grace. Hopefully our sermons, writings and ponderings will underscore this subversiveness.

Blessings for your Easter,
Lee

On graduation

Friends, I’m very happy to share that I officially graduated from the University of South Africa last Wednesday, with a Bachelor of Theology.

IMG_20160504_163142 IMG_20160504_212146I’ve been studying since I left school, falling around between two other degrees before starting on theology – so I don’t think it’s quite sunk in yet that I’m done! A few nights ago I found myself worrying about a subject I hadn’t done well in, only to remember that it no longer mattered >.<

I wouldn’t have been able to get this degree without the support of my family and friends, and (very, excessively) generous amounts of grace from God.

This is also my belated apology for missing last Friday’s #CoffeeTimePrayer. I spent most of the week in Pretoria (where the graduation ceremony was held), and by the time I got back home I was exhausted. But the devotionals should be back on schedule this week.

On that note, I hope to also share my devotionals via WhatsApp from now on. It’s a more convenient way to read and share them for some. If you’d be interested in receiving #CoffeeTimePrayer devos via WhatsApp, send me your phone number (with international dialling code) to lianabotha at outlook dot com. I won’t share your number, spam you, or phone you in the middle of the night, in case you were worried! You’ll also have to save my number so that my broadcasts arrive at your end.

Have a lovely Sunday,

Lee x