Authority in the Christian blogosphere


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.


Last minute lectionary (Proper 28C / Ordinary 33C / Pentecost +26)


This Sunday preachers will be preaching in a changed world. Whether you love Trump or hate him; whether you personally care about politics; whether you’re inside or outside the United States – Trump’s election as president has changed the course of world history. Whether for good or ill we’ll still see, but I believe for the latter: hate, exclusion and fear rarely bode well in leadership.

Do you believe in coincidence? I don’t. In the third season of BBC’s Sherlock, Mycroft Holmes says of coincidence, “The universe is rarely that lazy.” And so it is that this week’s lectionary reading is like bread to people starved by fear and thirsty for reassurance.

Luke 21:5-19 (NIV)

The Destruction of the Temple and Signs of the End Times

5 Some of his disciples were remarking about how the temple was adorned with beautiful stones and with gifts dedicated to God. But Jesus said, 6 “As for what you see here, the time will come when not one stone will be left on another; every one of them will be thrown down.”

7 “Teacher,” they asked, “when will these things happen? And what will be the sign that they are about to take place?”

8 He replied: “Watch out that you are not deceived. For many will come in my name, claiming, ‘I am he,’ and, ‘The time is near.’ Do not follow them. 9 When you hear of wars and uprisings, do not be frightened. These things must happen first, but the end will not come right away.”

10 Then he said to them: “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. 11 There will be great earthquakes, famines and pestilences in various places, and fearful events and great signs from heaven.

12 “But before all this, they will seize you and persecute you. They will hand you over to synagogues and put you in prison, and you will be brought before kings and governors, and all on account of my name. 13 And so you will bear testimony to me. 14 But make up your mind not to worry beforehand how you will defend yourselves. 15 For I will give you words and wisdom that none of your adversaries will be able to resist or contradict. 16 You will be betrayed even by parents, brothers and sisters, relatives and friends, and they will put some of you to death. 17 Everyone will hate you because of me. 18 But not a hair of your head will perish. 19 Stand firm, and you will win life.

The second temple was built by Herod the Great at the beginning of the first century CE, as much an exercise in self-aggrandizement as it was in appeasing the Jews under Roman rule. By the time of Jesus’ ministry, the temple was firmly established as the center of Jewish social, religious and economic life.

It’s not hard to connect the dots between the second temple and our own modern-day temples: the bulwark of institutional Christian religion, which – instead of using it as a bridge to exactly the kinds of people Jesus reached out to – we tend to wear like an oilskin, to keep the “other” out, to keep it from penetrating our narrow little worlds. Christianity has become largely cultural: something we inherit, something we use to define ourselves, something to draw lines with and build walls on. The similarities to the second temple period are really quite astounding.

And it is of this temple of incultured faith, faith against rather than for, that Jesus said, “Not one stone will be left upon another.”

In our sermons this week, we are privileged enough to be in a position to ask: Are we ready and willing to be destroyed? If taking apart cultural Christianity and its structures and walls is the only way to grasp the hands of the marginalized and the hurting – if it’s the only way to reach the lost – are we willing to bulldoze the grand temples of our privilege to find and to comfort? To uplift and to heal?

Or will we, in our defense of our “temples”, persecute and betray the kind of people who need our help most?

In voting for Trump, I believe this is what more than fifty million Americans have done: they have pushed the pedestal up under him, hopeful that he will maintain their temple of white, evangelical, male-centric America. But pedestals are always built on something; and when that “something” is in fact people – women, minorities, immigrants, foreigners – little more has been done than a golden calf raised.

But a golden calf, as Israel learnt, is little more than something around which a nation can tear itself to shreds – and be torn to shreds.

Yes, this Sunday ministers, lay or otherwise, will be preaching in a different world. But thankfully it’s a world in which Jesus once lived; a world in which and for which he died; a world from which he arose, alive again, and ascended to heaven.

It’s about this kingdom, His kingdom, that we preach.

And it’s from this kingdom that we pray.

The sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its rays. (Malachi 4:2 NIV)

Blessings for your sermons,


Last Minute Lectionary (Proper 24 / Ordinary 30 / Pentecost +23)


This whole week world news has been inundated with the “Trump tapes” – Donald Trump talking about committing sexual assault. For many American Christians this was the breaking point of their support of Trump; but worryingly, some have come out swinging for him, deriding his comments as being “just locker room talk”.

In light of this, I find this week’s lectionary reading absolutely fitting:

Luke 18:1-8 (NIV)

The Parable of the Persistent Widow

1 Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up. 2 He said: “In a certain town there was a judge who neither feared God nor cared what people thought. 3 And there was a widow in that town who kept coming to him with the plea, ‘Grant me justice against my adversary.’

4 “For some time he refused. But finally he said to himself, ‘Even though I don’t fear God or care what people think, 5 yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will see that she gets justice, so that she won’t eventually come and attack me!’”

6 And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. 7 And will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off? 8 I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly. However, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?”

It’d probably be easier to claim one of two things. First, we could say that it’s better to skip politics in sermons. Politics are divisive and so on. But to do so is to keep Christianity in a box it was never meant to fit in. Jesus certainly wasn’t apolitical; quite the contrary! Politics as a system needs conscientious Christians as participants. Secondly, we – in non-Western countries, especially “the global south” – might well ask, Why should we care about Trump? But to say that is to ignore the fact that, for better or worse, American politics has an effect on us all. If someone like Trump is gaining momentum in one of the world’s most powerful countries, the whole world needs to be concerned – because of what is his ascent indicative?

It’s no accident that the protagonist in Jesus’ parable is a widow. As women in an extremely patriarchal society left unprotected and often penniless, widows (and orphans) were extraordinarily vulnerable. Without men to represent or care for them, women weren’t heeded by men such as the judge in the parable. Despite the major prophets’ exhortations, these women were exploited, ostracised, rejected and ignored.

When someone like Donald Trump feels entitled to “grab women by the pussy” – to sexually assault them – and when this behaviour in a presidential candidate isn’t met with universal condemnation, that leaves us with answers to a whole lot of uncomfortable questions. Questions about the full humanity of women. Questions about the importance of women’s human rights. Questions about just how far we woman have come in this enlightened age.

The answers are unpleasant.

The answers are dangerous.

Ironically enough, the very Christians who should be most vocal about the full humanity of women – women being image-bearers of God, “male and female he created them” (Genesis 5:2) – have been at the forefront of dismissing Trump’s behaviour, of coddling his narcissism and entitlement, his abusive tendencies, his ego and his explosive incompetence. He has bought silence and approval with superficial promises; by pandering to religiosity and bigotry. But if they are still silent, then the price must not have been that difficult for them to pay in the first place.

In Jesus’ parable, the widow’s insistence on justice – fair and equal treatment – is lauded as a godly act – an act of obedience and faith. In our sermons this week, we have the option of backing off #TrumpTapes and the unpleasantness of politics and sexism. We can live in denial about what’s being said about women, and our churches’ own latent attitudes towards them. Or, like the widow, we can be persistent in our demand for justice. We can keep demanding it of the world, knowing that we are backed up by a God who values justice. We can keep asking, as women and for women: “Protect and defend and give me justice against my adversary” (Matthew 18:3 AMP).

But: “When the Son of Man comes, will He find [persistence in] faith on the earth?” Or will we have abandoned our posts for false promises or placating sermons?

Blessings for your sermons,