New CT Piece on Authority in the Church and Social Media: A Response to Critics

I had a piece come out in CT Women last week. You can find it here.

This piece began months ago as a conversation with a friend over coffee and was written with a great deal of hemming and hawing over the last several months. 

When it finally came out, it created quite a splash and not a little controversy. The reaction was far more vitriolic and far more widespread than anyone had expected.  I expected folks to disagree (especially about ecclesiology). I did not expect the sorts of criticism I got, nor the wide-ranging reactions or wide-reach of this piece.  To say the least, it seems to have hit a nerve. 

Though I rarely write on my site and mainly use it to post articles in edited venues, the response to this particular piece has been so overwhelming that I want to address a few things here.  

First, there have been hundreds of positive responses to this essay, and I deeply appreciate the tweets, emails, and messages I’ve received from both friends and strangers about this piece. The responses I’ve heard of from pastors, denominational leaders, fellow writers, and readers to my piece have been profoundly encouraging to me. This piece helped spark conversations in denominations about “more ecclesially located avenues in our church for gifted and trained women teachers and leaders”  (in the words of one pastor who wrote me) and, for that, I am deeply grateful.  (Also, if you have written me and I have not gotten back to you, I’m sorry. I have gotten a lot of messages and have been offline a lot. I do appreciate the encouragement!) 

There has also been quite a lot of criticism of the piece, mainly on twitter.  I am not going to address every bit of criticism here (which would be impossible). Some of the criticism has seemed unfair or disengaged from the actual text of the article. Some questioned why I wrote primarily about women (even though the piece was commissioned by CT Women for women.) Others seemed to ignore important qualifications and nuances I included (or at least tried to include) in the piece.

That said, some critics have provided helpful criticism and questions that I think are really important to acknowledge and address. The thoughtful criticism I’ve received from careful readers is a welcomed and, indeed, needed part of this conversation. There are three objections in particular that I think are worth addressing: 

1. Many have pointed out that the problem I’m addressing of public teachers being disembedded from larger institutions and accountability is not a new problem for evangelicalism or for Protestantism more generally.

This is most certainly true. I am under no illusions that the “crisis of authority” I describe is a product of social media, even if the advent of the internet yields its most recent iteration.

My original draft for this piece was something like 3,500 words long. Most web essays are 800-1200 words. I was committed to keeping this piece under 2,000 words, but because of that-- and because the piece was specifically in a series addressing women’s discipleship-- I couldn’t address the longstanding cultural and theological trends that have brought us here. 

In the original drafts, I had much more about the printing press and crisis over authority we saw in the Protestant Reformation. However, in this final version all that remained was one sentence: “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.”

In the original draft I wrote:
“Most scholars agree that part of the sociological impetus behind the Protestant Reformation was the invention of the printing press. Changing ideas about church authority coupled with the ability to disseminate these new ideas en masse created a crisis of authority: Who gets to speak on behalf of the church? Who decides what is true Christian orthodoxy? 

These questions loomed large, yet even in this new world of Protestantism, there remained a belief that teachers and pastors need accountability, hierarchy, and church governance. Though they rejected their contemporary Roman Catholicism, Calvin and Luther often reached back to earlier church councils in their teaching; Calvin proclaimed “no one can have God as father without the church as mother;” and Luther saw church discipline as one of the marks of the “true church.” In other words, the Reformers still believed that authority came from the church and from the scriptures. They still maintained boundaries on what leaders could and could not teach if they were to be considered Christian leaders. They also required teachers to be trained theological scholars….Even among the Reformed, there remained a deep conviction that orthodoxy was to be protected by the church and that the church itself could confer or revoke authority.”

Just this week I came upon this quote from an early 20th century Jesuit priest named Alban Goodier, commenting on the challenges presented by the printing press:

“The multiplication of books, with almost no supervision, the opportunity given to anyone to teach what he liked, the leaving of the simple and uneducated at the mercy of any clever sophist, has so added to the spiritual confusion that even the spiritually-minded has often been compelled to ask: What is truth'?”

He’s essentially wrestling (with old media) with the same tensions I find myself wrestling with about new media. There is nothing new under the sun. 

Yet, even after advent of the printing press and the Reformation, there was still a notion that public Christian teachers were held to higher standards of accountability and that the church was a protector and preserver of orthodoxy or “the deposit of faith.” 

However, crucial questions remained about church governance but were compounded by revivalism, American individualism, anti-institutionalism, and what Nathan Hatch calls the “democratization of American religion.”  (I touch on this a bit in the piece by naming my concern about one iteration of this, megachurch pastors. However, all of these trends pre-date the rise of megachurches.)

The current evangelical resistance to church authority was certainly gotten honestly and did not emerge out of nowhere.

Given the response I have received, I now wish I’d included more about these broader themes (even if it made the essay longer and more boring to those who, unlike me, don’t find 4000 words on the printing press irresistible :-)).

Still, it’s worth noting that these latent trends in evangelicalism are accelerated and more potent combined with the radical individualism and democratizing forces of new media, mass-marketing, and “personal branding.”  

An early draft of the piece asked the question: "Does every Christian with a computer hold equal authority to teach and lead others in the doctrines and practices of the church?" This is certainly not a question that applies only to women. I'd love readers of this article to wrestle with this question and, if the answer is no, ask how we faithfully draw lines when determining who is a teacher and church leader, and how we draw on the truth of scripture and the wisdom of church practice to do so. 

There is so much more to be said about all of this—literally volumes and volumes can be and have been written on this. I hope this is just the beginning of a broader conversation. 

2. Some have felt that my piece is disempowering of lay people. If I communicated that in any way, I apologize. 

I have benefitted immensely from the writing and teaching of lay people. If you read my book, you may have noticed that I quote many, many lay people. I named my daughter after Flannery O’Connor and Dorothy Day, both of whom were lay writers and are heroes of mine. My life has been quite honestly changed by the teaching and ministry of lay Christians. 

I tried to acknowledge lay writers in my piece, saying, “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.” This part of the essay is focused on women, but I have benefitted from the writing of both women and men who are not ordained. 

Yet, this new technology gives some lay people such broad reach and influence that they essentially function as public teachers and preachers for the church. This reality coupled with a low-church ecclesiology of many evangelicals may mean that lay leaders with tremendous influence as public teachers are in no church, a church that does not practice church discipline or oversight in any meaningful way, or that simply has no standards of belief or practice whatsoever.

The greater the influence and power a person yields, the more explicit, public, and formal structures of accountability and transparency need to be.

I would love to see creative ways that these teachers who wield broad influence can have more overt authority and accountability in ecclesial institutions, while remaining lay leaders. I am not precisely sure, nor is it my place to say for other traditions, what this will look like. It could look like theological writing and/or lay speakers guilds affiliated with denominations; it could look like denominations “commissioning” writers for ministry, it could look like parachurch organizations (with clear statements and standards of belief and practice) that form among lay writers and teachers; it could look like something else altogether (that is far better than anything I can now imagine).  It could simply mean that writers commit themselves to being parts of denominations or parachurch groups that have clearly defined and public statements of faith and practice that they uphold. There is also a conversation to be had here about the role of publishing houses and editors in conferring both authority and accountability (I hope someone will write on that).

I am frankly not equipped to say how each tradition and ecclesial group ought to respond to new technology and the questions about teaching authority, accountability, and church governance that it raises. But I do know that the church cannot just passively say, “It’ll probably work itself out.” There needs to be an active and creative conversation about what it means to respond responsibly, faithfully, and institutionally to the proliferation of teachings and teachers brought to us through social media. Otherwise, the tail of new technology will inevitably end up wagging the dog of church authority (and, consequently, orthodoxy). 

Some critics have said that because we have new, radically democratic technology, we need to throw out old notions of church governance all together. But I’m saying we need to take the old wisdom of the church over millennia and creatively apply it to this new technological age. We need to recognize and embrace the real good this technology provides without letting go of 2000 years of wise church practice. 

3. Some have criticized the piece for not acknowledging the way the institutional church has silenced and oppressed women and persons of color. In my mind, this criticism is the most important one I have received. 

And it is very legitimate.  Although I do mention how women have been “marginalized or silenced in the church for far too long,” I wish I’d spent more time explaining how I can invite others to submit to an institutional church that has done much damage and waged much violence, even in the name of the Prince of Peace.  I am sorry I did not.

(If you are interested in how I hold together the need for and goodness of the visible, institutional church with its many sins, I write about this more extensively in Chapter 9 of Liturgy of the Ordinary). 

The church has been and is, undeniably, a remarkably sinful and broken institution. Yet, it remains, certainly mysteriously and in spite of herself, the beloved bride of Christ and an agent of redemption on earth. If we want the church to be more of the holy, faithful body she is called to be, we must never give up on Christ’s reforming work within the church. And we have to work institutionally. 

I recognize my privilege as a white woman who is ordained (even in a denomination divided over whether women should be ordained). Not all women have that option or experience. While I am wary of some of the ways that term is weaponized online (more on that here), I do agree that it is a profound privilege to be ordained. But whatever privilege I have I want to use, in part, to help women and people of color into places of overt authority in church institutions. This is why the entire section addressing the church calls for more overt places of institutional authority for women (whether in complementarian or egalitarian places). But if we are to step into greater institutional authority, we have to be willing to take on the mantle of institutional accountability. We cannot have one without the other. 

Misogyny and racism still very much exist in the church. But I think change has to come institutionally. Recently, there's been lots of needed conversation about and concern over how consumerism and mass-marketing affects women's discipleship and the demands and malformation-–and often unexamined systemic sexism and racism--inherent in “personal branding” in the Christian publishing and speaking world (I share this concern). 

I believe that if we don’t find ways to work institutionally and to build institutions larger than ourselves, all we will have left is personal branding-- we’ll have a few big names of female leaders, which is good, but the church will not be better for our grandchildren or their grandchildren. I know this kind of institutional engagement is difficult in places where women are marginalized, which is why my piece calls the church (institution) to make space for female voices and to formally recognize the authority female teachers currently wield. 

At the end of the day, here I stand: The church, in so many ways, is a sinful mess and tragically responsible for all manner of evil and oppression, yet still each Sunday I stand up before my congregation and proclaim that I believe in “one, holy catholic and apostolic church.’ I do not think that Jesus has given up on his church—visible or invisible. I want the church to preserve the “deposit of faith” that we’ve inherited and to live out that faith lovingly as an “alternative polis” and a faithful, loving people. And I feel a responsibility to work toward that institutionally and call others to do the same.

In conclusion, I am sure this does not adequately address all my critics or these particular criticisms, but I offer these responses humbly, knowing that my piece was certainly not perfect. Though I’ve been saddened about the vitriolic nature that some of these conversations have assumed, I am very grateful for a great many of the conversations that it is spawning. 

I hope it and the conversations it has sparked helps us in some small way to live more faithfully as Christ's beloved bride. For the ways it fails to do so, I am truly sorry. 

Note: for the sake of my own emotional and spiritual health and the needs of my family and my local congregation, I cannot meaningfully engage this conversation on twitter. Over the weekend, I had hundreds of responses to my pieces and to reply thoughtfully to all of them would require more time than I am able to give.  I will mostly be unable to further engage online.