The Real Crisis of Authority

So you may have noticed the parody that I published yesterday of this article in Christianity Today. Parody and satire are great for blowing off steam, but they don’t quite explain how the steam came to rise in the first place. So I want to talk more about this article by Tish Warren and address where I think the problem is.

To sum up the article, Warren points out that, just like the printing press, the advent of online blogging has created a “crisis of authority.” Namely, if someone is using the Internet to publish their personal take on the Bible, who holds them accountable? Where did they get their knowledge? Who ensures they aren’t damaging the church or leading people astray? Which, granted, are fair questions to ask. (And there are biblical answers. More on that in a minute.)

The first problem I had was the focus on women bloggers in particular. Warren admits that, historically, the institutional church has marginalized women, forcing them to step into the cyber sphere in order to have a voice. She also suggests that the church has done a poor job of giving women theological training with real teeth–choosing instead to entertain us with “funny stories, relatable prose, or charming turns of phrase.” All stuff I heartily agree with. But…

Warren appears to define the crisis not so much as churches stifling the teaching gifts of women or the church neglecting women’s discipleship, but as women speaking outside of their church tradition. And this is where my blood pressure starts to rise. Because Warren’s implication is that institutional churches are the gatekeepers of good theology. If women choose to speak outside of their denomination’s tradition, it could introduce bad doctrines and lead people astray.

The problem with that is, many church traditions teach–as core belief–that women are inherently spiritually inferior to teach and hold leadership positions. And if we want to put a finer point on it, that “good theology” was developed with little to no input from women at all–for centuries–because women were barred from being theologically educated or having a say.

Part of the reason why I and others speak out online is that we fundamentally disagree with our tradition’s position on the role of women in the church. My denomination of origin, the Assemblies of God, has affirmed women in ministry for a century. But the writings of the New Calvinists–John MacArthur, Mark Dever, Owen Strachan, Doug Wilson, Mark Driscoll, John Piper, etc., etc.–have infiltrated my tradition and moved the needle backwards for women in the AG. Many AG ministers are now going against the denomination’s position papers and teaching that women shouldn’t be ordained or hired as pastors.

If I believe my tradition is wrong or mistaken in its doctrine, why would I promote it in the only space I have a real voice? Why would I ask my pastor or elders to monitor what I publish? Why would I let church leaders do to me what they’ve done to so many other women teachers: hijack my platform in order to spread a theology that limits and dehumanizes me and my sisters?

And don’t get me started on how problematic this proposition is for gay people or people of color. That’s a whole other dimension.

But the thing that bothers me the most about Warren’s article is that she believes teaching authority is derived from religious institutions. That’s not what Jesus said.

“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” ~ Matt 28:18-20

“I have given you authority to trample on snakes and scorpions and to overcome all the power of the enemy; nothing will harm you. However, do not rejoice that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” ~ Luke 10:19-20

“It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” ~ Acts 1:7-8

ALL authority comes from Christ, and the Spirit blows where it will (John 3:8). I am accountable to God and to my audience–the broader body of Christ–for what I say. I know I will be judged more harshly for any teaching that I do. I know that I’m capable of getting it wrong. That still does not justify pushing me under the “authority” of institutions who’d rather I didn’t speak at all.

The real crisis of authority is that we have too many teachers in the church deriving their authority from degrees and institutions instead of the Holy Spirit. There are countless male bloggers, pastors, teachers and conference leaders with “great theology”– institutionally endorsed, limitless access to the best education and thousands of followers–who do things like sexually abuse parishioners, defend slavery, distort the Trinity, excuse domestic violence, misuse offerings, manipulate book sales, and engage in all sorts of un-Christian vitriol.

And when it’s called out? “He’s done so much good. His teaching is on point. He’s got such a huge following. His ministry is so important. We’ve got to keep him in the pulpit or people will fall away.”

But I need extra supervision because God gave me a vagina. OK.

The original purpose of the church as an institution was to effectively organize the church’s ministry and weed out those who were lazy, abusive, without the Spirit, and craving leadership positions for the wrong reasons. I’m not claiming that institutions are worthless, or that education is overrated, or that people don’t need accountability. But when the institution discriminates against the Spirit in favor of wolves and heretics, it no longer has any authority to wield…and no reason why anyone should submit to it.

9 responses to “The Real Crisis of Authority

  1. Hi April. Doodness dwacious!!! This Warren article has generated a firestorm in the Christian blogosphere. It popped up nearly everywhere I visited today on-line, and it is not being received well by those who read it. I spent several hours addressing it on one person’s blog—rather poorly and incoherently because I had reserved that block of my afternoon for doing other things. Of all the rejoinders I have read today, yours was the best organized, most balanced, most coherent, and best written.

    I think we have to remember one other thing too—just to be fair. Rev. Warren is young and new to rubbing elbows with the men-children who are still dominant in the Anglican Church. In addition, it should be pointed out that the Anglican Church and the Roman Catholic Church have been in talks to reunite, and the last I heard, they had resolved all of their differences but one—and were working hard on that one. Both churches have a strong emphasis on the Patristic Order, as they call it, and on historical church tradition. As the Reverend Keith Ward, my favorite Anglican, says: “Anyone in the church who violates the Patristic Order does so at their own peril.” Therefore, it is no small wonder that Rev. Warren takes the position that she does. Her big mistake was the attempt to overlay those Anglican beliefs on a much wider American Christianity that never has bought into those formalized patristic beliefs and traditions.

    I was also troubled by what seemed to be a national call for establishment churches and denominations to institute a New American Inquisition to try freelance Christian bloggers like you and me for crimes of belief that run counter to those of the various church establishments. I will not belabor that here except to say that doing so would likely be suicide for any church or denomination that tries it, and they will no doubt end up in multiple, messy tort lawsuits with Christian bloggers whose personal reputations and ministries have been damaged or destroyed. The news media would have a field day with it, and In the end, the establishment churches will be burned at the stake instead.

  2. P.S. Here is something you might not be aware of at this point—because I was not. I picked this up in a response to Tish Warren’s article on another blog:

    “So we are all on the same page, John pointed out the author of the Christianity Today article was an “Anglican” priest. What he may not realize is that she is a priest in the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA), which is a schismatic group which broke away from the Episcopal Church in the US and the Anglican Church of Canada. They are ultra-conservatives/fundamentalists who are not part of the world-wide Anglican Communion. She may be a priest in ACNA, but she can never be a bishop and she must be subservient to her husband. Additionally, her prospects of serving her calling is very limited because there are many folks in ACNA, especially other priests and bishops, who do not recognize her ordination because she is a woman.

    She may have written this article as a result of a lot of internalized misoginy and patriarcalism.”

    Just thought you should know—if this is indeed true.

  3. But of course, He was only speaking to men when he spoke of authority. In the tradition of rabbis. The ediface was built by patriarchal men. The scriptures we read have been translated and curated by patriarchal men. How can the “authoritative” church be anything other than a patriarchy?

  4. April, one of my readers shared the link to your blog on mine. I’m so glad. The parody is brilliant! and your follow up–yes, exactly, yes. As a woman of a certain age, who has had conversations about the rights of women in the church for DECADES, I’m so thankful that women can use their voice online. And I’m alarmed, like you, by the “needle moving backward” not just in the AG but in many other denominations and even in “non-denominational” settings. Preach on, sister. Great post.

  5. I have two thoughts:
    -The Reformation traces it’s roots to Gutenberg’s invention. Now everyone can have access to scripture and come to their own conclusions., And publish their ideas for others to read. The Church fought this freedom violently.
    -This reminds me of the recent United Airlines debacle. A seated, paying customer gets violently drug off a commercial airliner in full view of Internet connected cell phone cameras. According to United, the problem is the customer who refuses to bow to their authority. Yep, the rules say they are in charge and therefore you have to do what they say. They even trot out a “pilot’s wife” to warn us that while it looked bad, we all have follow their authority.
    This will BACKFIRE

    • Loren, a society lives and functions under the “rule of law” ie, we all agree, as members of society to OBEY those laws or pay the penalty. To deny a society’s “right” to create laws that its citizens (who HAVE had a say in the creating of these laws through our legislative process) have agreed to, and to ENFORCE those laws, without being labeled a dictatorship, is asking for anarchy. United’s actions WILL backfire, not because they were not following their “right” to take such action, but because we now live in a society ruled by the loudest and most vitriolic “citizens.” This is completely different than Jesus coming to give us freedom from the law. He never said NOT to obey the laws of the land. He said that following them was not the way to salvation. These are 2 very different scenarios. As for this article, April, you are spot on.

      • Debby,
        Are you the “Pilot’s Wife”? Because you sure sound like her.
        What this episode represents is the misuse of the law to favor the profit of a heartless and plainly clueless corporation. It had nothing to do with the safe operation of a airliner.
        A European told me the happiest German motorist is one when when he gets to heaven Saint Peter asks him how he died replies, “I had the right of way!”