The Evangelical “Crisis of Authority” (It’s not just for women bloggers)

In order to work on a talk that I shared this morning at The Anxious Bench, I didn’t blog last week. Which means that I’m late to respond to an essay at CT Women by Tish Harrison Warren: “Who’s In Charge of the Christian Blogosphere?

Most of the Twitter discussion that ensued had to do with Warren’s focus on women bloggers, one such writer in particular:

Warren, Liturgy of the OrdinaryJust 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.

One of the most prominent recent examples of this crisis involves the popular blogger Jen Hatmaker, who last year announced that her views about homosexuality have changed. She was cheered by some and denounced by others. LifeWay stopped selling her books. Aside from the debate about sexuality, broader questions emerged: Where do bloggers and speakers like Hatmaker derive their authority to speak and teach? And who holds them accountable for their teaching? What kinds of theological training and ecclesial credentialing are necessary for Christian teachers and leaders? What interpretive body and tradition do these bloggers speak out of? Who decides what is true Christian orthodoxy? And how do we as listeners decide whom to trust as a Christian leader and teacher?

Now, I happen to think that the more important “crisis of authority” for evangelicalism is that many of the men who hold power in those churches, denominations, and other organizations continue to stifle the voices of women and restrict their access to leadership. (Even in my own denomination, which has ordained women for over forty years now, women continue to struggle to find calls as senior or solo pastors.) So it’s no surprise that gifted women seek to cultivate a “seemingly autonomous voice, disembedded from any larger institution or ecclesial structure.”

Warren doesn’t disagree (“Women’s voices have been marginalized or silenced in the church for far too long, and I am grateful for how our technological revolution provides women with greater capacity to use our gifts to connect, to publish, to teach, and to lead”), but she emphasizes a different kind of crisis:

…although many Christian writers and speakers might have some level of private, informal accountability in their home churches, they still need overt institutional superintendence (to match a huge national stage) and ecclesial accountability that has heft and power. Otherwise, they can teach any doctrine on earth under the banner of Christian faith and orthodoxy….

The broader church has a responsibility to provide formal support and accountability to teachers, leaders, and writers—whether male or female. If we don’t respond to this current crisis of authority institutionally, we are allowing Christian doctrine to be highjacked by whomever has the loudest voice or biggest platform.

Of course, if they are evangelical or post-evangelical Protestants, these writers — female or male — already do bind their conscience to the highest possible authority: the Bible.

The problem, of course, is that if Scripture alone — as readily understandable even by those without formal training — is our authority for right belief and action, then how do we resolve disputes that result from divergent interpretations of those texts? As Warren hints, social media may be generating a new version of a perpetual “crisis of authority” that goes back to the Reformation itself.

Hatch, The Democratization of American ChristianityIt’s certainly nothing new to the history of American evangelicalism. In The Democratization of American ChristianityNathan Hatch opens his chapter on the “Crisis of Authority” with Lyman Beecher, who warned against fellow believers being “exposed to the errors of enthusiastic and false teachers.” And yet it was precisely through such “ignorant and unlettered men” that evangelical Christianity was spreading in the early American republic. “To the consternation of respectable clergymen,” wrote Hatch, “the terms of that debate [about religious authority] were set largely by people who had no known status, influence, or power.”

“The sundry believers who share the evangelical label,” observes historian Molly Worthen, turning from the 19th to the 20th century, “have all lacked an extrabiblical authority powerful enough to guide them through these crises.” For example, in ch. 7 of Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism, she charts the variety of ways that young American evangelicals in the 1970s did “as they pleased according to no authority but their own. The principle of sola scriptura was far clearer in theory than in practice. No matter evangelicals’ faith that, with the ‘illumination of the Holy Spirit,’ ‘Scripture could and should interpret itself,’ too many illuminated believers came to different conclusions about what the Bible meant.”

One result is that some of those late 20th century evangelicals “came to more candid terms with their desire for extra-biblical authority… For them, Canterbury, Rome, and Constantinople called as to a prodigal son.” They might have “justified their submission to church, history, and ritual by appealing to the Bible itself,” but evangelical converts to Anglicanism, Catholicism, and Eastern Orthodoxy were drawn from “a subculture in which there was no magisterial authority” toward a “supernatural and timeless authority that could offer certainty in an era when worldly powers seemed unable to do so.”

So it’s certainly notable that Warren is a priest in the Anglican Church in North America. She is glad that her bishop “has actual power to take away my title, my job, my authority, and my microphone.” She is relieved to “have a large, international, historically grounded body that prays for me, that supports me, and that also makes sure I don’t accidentally (or intentionally) lead others astray or invent ideas that will damage the church.” She doesn’t argue that everyone needs to become an Anglican (nor that ordination is the only way to safeguard against false teaching), but she does insist that “without institutional accountability there is simply no mechanism by which we as a church can preserve doctrinal fidelity.”

Now, one of the writers implicitly being critiqued here is Rachel Held Evans, who left evangelicalism for a more progressive Anglican denomination and retorted on Twitter that her bishop supports her work.

I guess I’d rather submit to a bishop than be part of a non-denominational congregation whose laity simply invest enormous power in a charismatic pastor accountable to no one other than a handpicked group of elders. (Warren suggests that bloggers have become “a sort of cyber-age equivalent to megachurch pastors, garnering huge followings based on a cult of personality and holding extensive power and influence, yet often lacking any accountability to formal structures of church governance.”) But as a layperson in a pietistic evangelical denomination with a mostly congregational polity, it’s hard to get all that excited about the only specific solution that Warren can offer.

Evangelical Covenant Church logoIndeed, we Covenanters tend to embrace the messiness that results from this “crisis of authority” and seek unity in diversity. The “freedom in Christ” that we affirm for each other is neither unlimited nor irresponsible, but it is more expansive than what you’d find in evangelical denominations that prefer the clear authority of an episcopate. (Or that of a detailed creed or confession.) As the authors of our Covenant Affirmations document explain:

To some such freedom is no freedom at all. They would rather have the marching orders clear and an unimpeachable source of authority to bear the whole burden of responsibility. It is not easy to be free. But such limitations of freedom show not wisdom, but immaturity. They show a people who have not come into their majority as heirs of God’s good gifts (Galatians 3:23-29). Nevertheless, to seek freedom for its own sake is to lose it. Freedom is not for self-indulgence or self-aggrandizement but to serve and love God, in whom alone is found true freedom.

And perhaps there’s a practical benefit to having a relative lack of authority. “We must recognize,” Worthen concludes, “that American evangelicalism owes more to its fractures and clashes, its anxieties and doubts, than to any political pronouncement or point of doctrine.” The “evangelical imagination” may offer “no clear path past the impasse of biblical authority,” but “it is a source of energy: energy that propels evangelism, institution-building, activism, care for the suffering, and a sincere passion for intellectual inquiry.”

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