The Question of Authority in the Blogosphere

By April 28, 2017My Thoughts

Tish Harrison Warren, a priest in the Anglican Church in North America, asked the question “Who’s in Charge of the Christian Blogosphere?” And, the Christian social media world erupted with responses from people both in favor of what Warren had to say and from those diametrically opposed.

Warren asked for accountability structures with enough “heft” for a national platform for these Christian bloggers because, without providing accountability “we are allowing Christian doctrine to be highjacked [sic] by whomever has the loudest voice or biggest platform.”

To be completely transparent, a part of me resonated with Warren’s words. My denomination, the Reformed Church in America, has been embroiled in deep questions and conversations around the nature of authority and accountability in the church. Is it necessary for every minister to have theological training from an approved institution in order to be ordained to ministry in the denomination? Is it appropriate to widen the kind of accountability ministers have over one another, and the accountability denominational structures have over one another?

This conversation has deep historical roots. In my particular denomination, ministers had to travel back to the Netherlands in order to be trained for ministry. As more and more ministers were born in the United States and being called to ministry in the United States, this posed a greater challenge to enforce. For a time, these ministers continued to make the trek back to the Netherlands for education because the organizational structures realized that the wider a path to ordination and ministry you create, the more people have access to teaching and authority. More people = greater potential for theological discrepancies and issues. The farther you get from the approved structures, the wider the variety of teachings and traditions are possible.

Basically, the wider the path, the less control you can wield over requirements, credentials, and accountability. The path has continued to widen in my denomination as certain contexts and ministries have allowed non-ordained people to function as ministers. Without getting into the entire debate, suffice it to say that there is a great deal of controversy over the nature of these non-ordained ministers and the kinds of non-reformed training and perspectives they may bring to their particular congregations.

So, when I read that there is a deep need for training among theological teachers, I can agree. The rise of liberal arts education has had both the benefit of giving students exposure to a wide variety of fields, and the drawback of making many feel like experts without having studied any particular subject in depth. There’s something to be said for training, education, and expertise. Experts can help us as we study and learn. Experts can be wrong, but we have to acknowledge that they’ve spent more time learning and grappling with subjects than we have. They have something to teach us.

In reaction to Warren’s article, I want to lift up a few thoughts on the question of authority in the blogosphere.

1. We have to acknowledge that in many churches and in many traditions, women’s voices and the voices of people of color have been marginalized or silenced. The blogosphere and writing world have been some of the only ways these women have been able to have their ministry gifts utilized and their perspectives heard. Because the church has excluded their voices, we cannot fault these people for finding other ways to speak. Warren’s call for accountability for these bloggers seems to be attempting to put these women’s voices under the authority of the very bodies that have excluded them in the first place.

2. We have to acknowledge that not every church or ministry operates within a denominational or accountability framework. There are many congregations that are not part of wider structures or denominations, and many of these churches have vibrant ministries. There are many prominent churches and ministries that are independent entities. And, just like is possible in any denomination or structure, there are congregations with faithful ministries and others with harmful ones. These ministries reach out to millions (even billions) of people via social media, in-person ministries, and online/television broadcasts. Some of these very large, very powerful entities and people have been responsible for perpetuating harmful and abusive ideologies with little to no accountability. Some of these churches and ministries are led by non-trained individuals (many of whom are men) and others are led by ministers who did pursue formal theological education. Heresy and abusive ideologies are not limited to non-trained individuals.

3. We have to acknowledge the multitude of male voices – both theologically trained and not trained at all – teaching and preaching things that are not in line with orthodoxy. Many of these men also have blogs. The scope and reach of heterodox ideas is not limited to the female Christian blog world. In short, the problem of abusive and problematic theologies coming from the Christian blog world is not a gendered thing.

4. As someone who is a theologically educated minister in a denomination with a built-in accountability structure, I can appreciate Warren’s words about accountability. She wisely notes that a misstep online for her could result in disciplinary action. This is a good thing when it comes to ministers within these traditions – including myself. However, this same accountability structure can prevent ministers and other trained individuals from speaking out about and to important issues. The Christian blogger can – when handled appropriately and wisely – speak out as a prophetic voice to institutions that desperately need to change. They can do so freely and without fear of recrimination, which gives them the unique ability to speak strong truth – truth that could get someone in my position fired.

5. Ministers take vows to submit to authority. This is a minister’s choice. I made this choice when I was ordained. It is inappropriate to suggest that authority can work the opposite direction. Authority is something one willingly submits to, not something that authority figures can force upon others.

6. There have always been “suspect” theologies and ideologies that posed harm to the body of believers. Rather than trying to regulate those who perpetuated these ideas, leaders and teachers taught people how to recognize and avoid these damaging teachings. 1 John 4:1 says, “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God; for many false prophets have gone out into the world.” We are to be wise as serpents, aware of what is going on in the world. We are to be able to recognize wolves in sheep’s clothing. Church leaders need to be engaged in the work of education – teaching the basic tenets of faith, and teaching skills for discernment and interpretation – so that people are equipped to recognize (and toss out!) harmful things, whether these harmful theologies are on TV, in a book in the Christian book store, or online.

As someone who has gone through theological training and has willingly submitted myself to a denomination accountability structure, I understand the frustration that gave rise to Warren’s article. It can be frustrating to see the wide reach of harmful ideas in the blogosphere. But, the church needs to recognize what gave rise to the situation we find ourselves in – the marginalization of voices, for one – and also understand the benefit of having voices out there who can challenge the church to be and do better. If churches can take seriously our call to make disciples who can read, engage, and grapple with a variety of voices and perspectives, we will be the better for it.

Who is in charge of the Christian blogosphere? We are. But, if we’re not careful, we will allow it to control us, by siphoning our energies away from loving our neighbors, learning and discerning, and becoming more like Christ in our daily lives.

About April Fiet

April is a pastor, writer, wife, and mom of two kids. Find out more about April here, and join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter. April writes for At the Table with April Fiet and for That Reformed Blog.

  • Keri Wyatt Kent

    This: “Authority is something one willingly submits to, not something that authority figures can force upon others.” Yes. And the churches that have missed the mark on that have given rise to women blogging, because they’ve been silenced in the church. Great post, and I love your perspective as a minister.

    • Thank you so much for reading and commenting, Keri. It’s really sad that there are so many places where women’s gifts aren’t welcome. I, for one, am grateful for the opportunities blogging has afforded to many.

  • Elizabeth Jones

    Thank you for your thoughtful, well-reasoned response, April. I absolutely agree with you when you say that “the problem of abusive and problematic theologies coming from the Christian blog world is not a gendered thing.” Yes, yes. A thousand times, yes. I applaud your insights.

    In part, I suspect some of the “authority problem” comes when conservative/complementary-minded ministers and church leaders see (*gasp!*) WOMEN leading vibrant, effective, God-blessed blogging/writing/speaking/action ministries outside of their control. Thank God that I broke free from that two-tiered evangelical straight-jacket that I had forced upon me at the bible institute where I got a bachelor’s degree in church music 30 years ago. (Men are still the only ones who that school says can be pastors, elders and church leaders.)

    “You’ve come a long way, baby!” Yet, not quite far enough, sadly. As ordained women clergy, we’ll keep on. Thanks again. @chaplaineliza

    • Thank you so much, Elizabeth! I think you are right on! Many of these women have vibrant ministries, and I’m sure that rankles those who have worked so hard to keep those voices quiet. I’m thankful that these gifted women have found platforms that enable them to share the message of freedom in Christ to many who would never hear it otherwise. Thank you!

  • Tim

    Your sixth point is the one I see as most valuable for the church: equip people to be able to discern trash from truth. This is where the efforts are best placed, as opposed to telling women they are creating a crisis in the blogosphere and the way to alleviate it is to stop blogging until they’ve submitted to authorities who set up accountability structures over their heads.

    • Thanks so much! Teaching discernment is so important, and (IMO) is a huge part of discipleship.

  • JD

    Why did you delete my comment?

    Re JH and accountability, it’s useful to look at the timeline of events that have led up to this.
    ANC: Austin New Church, Hatmakers’ church in Austin
    FMCUSA: the Free Methodist Church- USA, which ANC was affiliated with and financially sustained by since its inception
    JH: Jen Hatmaker, member of Austin New Church (ANC), occasional preacher, no official leadership position stated
    BH: Brandon Hatmaker, founding pastor and elder at ANC
    TP: Tray Pruitt, founding pastor and elder at ANC
    JM: Jason Morriss, primary teaching pastor and elder at ANC, employed by the Free Methodist Church to serve at ANC since 2013, previously of Joel Osteen’s Lakewood Church in Houston
    Timeline:
    Prior to October of 2016 traditional Christian marriage was the Hatmaker’s official position. It was also the official position of ANC.
    Octocer 25: JH interviewed by Jonathan Merritt which affirms her belief that gay marriage can be holy. Some elders were not aware of this change in stance prior to the interview publication.
    November 1: BH affirms his JH’s position on FB. States “Being informed invites the Spirit to lead, reduces our defensiveness, and gives us the confidence to love better.” However, most respectful Facebook comments arguing for traditional viewpoints are deleted.
    Winter 2016-2017: Elders who hold to the traditional view of marriage resign their position at ANC. Free Methodist Church disengages from ANC. JM updates facebook “Left Job at Free Methodist Church – USA”
    March 22: TP announces a discussion regarding “full LGBT inclusion”, a series of events where only pro-gay marriage experts and thought leaders like Dr. J. Brownson and Matthew Vines. No opposing historical views included.
    March 26: Remaining elders, including BH, re-affirm the affirming position first announced to ANC via the internet interview. State desire to “remain in a tension” on the issue, however, no opposing historical views are presented, and most if not all elders holding to traditional views have left ANC since the interview.
    JM reports that membership at ANC has decreased by approximately 40% in four months. JM states he was ‘silently’ pro gay marriage when he was hired but kept this position hidden and claims his ability to not be “cornered” regarding his doctrinal views: “I can do the presidential pivot”.
    JM has stated from the pulpit that JH is his “boss”.
    JM changes his Facebook information to relay that he is no longer employed by the Free Methodist Church.
    April 14: JH publishes blog describing her personal emotional results of interview, maligning the “Christian Machine” for criticizing her. Most respectful comments disagreeing with her stance are deleted.
    April 28: In response to a Christianity Today article questioning her accountability to a Church, JH tweets “Men have “ministries.” Women have “blogs.” I’ve pastored 20 years. Jesus is in charge of me.”
    Questions:
    Is she officially on staff at ANC in any paid or unpaid position? Is a JH an elder? Is she a pastor?
    BH’s Facebook profile describes himself as “Author. Biker. Humanitarian. Huge fan of the underdog.” Is BH on staff at ANC in any paid or unpaid position?
    Was the FMCUSA informed of the Hatmakers’ doctrinal change before it was publically announced on the internet?
    Did FMCUSA release ANC because of their stance on gay marriage?
    Did ANC follow typical ecclesiastical procedures regarding their change in position regarding an important, divisive, and controversial doctrine?
    Were elders allowed to fulfill their roles as decision makers for ANC as outlined in Acts 15:1-2, or were those who disagreed with the change in position asked or encouraged to leave?
    Does JH submit to the elders of ANC, or do the elders of ANC submit to JH?
    One might postulate that a concerted, tactical, and very well-planned effort has been made within ANC since late Oct ’16 to conform the church and its elders and teachers and official doctrinal positions to with JH’s public positions, not the other way around.

    • JD – I did not delete your blog comment. I’ve actually never deleted a blog comment, unless it was something filtered out by my spam blocker. Apologies if that’s what happened to your previous comment.

      If you will notice in the post I wrote, I did not mention Jen Hatmaker a single time. In fact, the only person I mentioned by name was Tish Harrison Warren, and that was only because her article led me to write mine. As far as matters of church discipline, it completely depends upon the denomination and the church leadership structure. In my denomination, pastors are accountable to the board of elders, and after that to the classis. Elders hold one another accountable.

      There are proper channels and procedures for accountability that need to be followed. I do not know the Hatmakers’ situation well enough to know if those procedures were followed. What I *do* know is that Warren said Jen Hatmaker was a blogger with a huge following and no ecclesial accountability. That is simply not the case as JH is part of a church body. If she is subject to that church body’s ecclesial authority, then accountability is something incumbent upon them to provide.

      If they are not providing it…there’s not really anything you or I can do to encourage them to provide it.