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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.