This is an entry in the recent conversation on authority, women, and online writing. We appreciate all who have contributed to this discussion so far, including the controversial article that sparked the debate: Who’s In Charge of the Christian Blogosphere?”, a Christianity Today opinion piece by Tish Harrison Warren in CT’s new Amplify Women series. We’d love your thoughts and also invite those who agreed with the original article to offer theirs.
Every time I fly into Santiago, Chile, I jump at the chance to meander through the public plazas. There, I encounter something that has nearly disappeared in my own Western context: street preachers—mostly men—perched on boxes, waving black bibles, and sermonizing with megaphones. These evangelists find their corners and settle in for the day. Some are members of local churches. Some are also church pastors. Their motivations are as varied as trees in a forest, but the outcome is the same. Jesus is preached in the public square. Whether or not I think this method of preaching is beneficial is irrelevant. The point is, street preachers are nothing new.
By Whose Authority?
Throughout history, charismatic men and women of God have risen up, almost out of nowhere, to lead spiritual movements and shape theological discourse. These leaders often build churches and large followings before the institutional church pulls them in for a chat. The air is tense, awkward. At some point in the conversation someone asks a deceptively simple question: “Who gives you the authority to do the work you are doing?”
Some are able to produce letters of recommendation from kings or state churches—maybe even the Vatican. Upon questioning, some can pull their institutional credentials from their pockets and quickly legitimize their ministries. Others, like Paul the Apostle, smile, shrug their shoulders, and say, even at the risk of violent persecution: “My authority comes from heaven, from the God I serve. My letters of recommendation are the very people whose lives have been changed because of my ministry” (2 Cor. 3).
At the start of Jesus’ public ministry, religious leaders questioned where his authority to teach, preach, and heal came from. In Acts 4, Peter and John were asked the same question when hundreds, nay thousands, followed Jesus after Peter reached out his hand, and instead of gifting a cripple with silver or gold, instructed him to rise up and walk.
Interestingly, they were thrown into jail for performing this miracle. Apparently, the institutional leaders were uncomfortable with this awesome display of gospel-power. Where did these uneducated men come from? To whom were they accountable? The religious leaders told Peter and John that they were free to walk out of prison if they promised not to talk about Jesus. They refused. Their authority came from Jesus himself.
Questions about institutional leadership, accountability, truth-telling, and theological legitimacy are nothing new. This tension is timeless. Like most complex questions, there are no simple answers.
Practicing Prophetic Challenge
Artists and prophets, many of whom are also writers, have often operated outside the institutional gates of the church, traversing and beckoning people into terra incognita. But it isn’t as if they aren’t part of any institution or aren’t spiritually accountable to anyone. In fact, most of them are connected to the institutional church in some way.
Perhaps it’s because some have little formal theological training. Or perhaps artists and prophets choose to operate outside the institutional gates because it is in their nature to issue godly challenge. Writers and prophets, artists and poets, use their platforms and mediums to invite people to see the world differently, to question the status quo, and to broaden generally accepted explanations and ways of thinking. They are the change-makers, the voices in the wilderness of each generation calling people to go higher, seek farther, stay longer, and stand taller.
Where would this world be today if Martin Luther King Jr., for example, had submitted to the authority of the southern religious institution? What if he had chosen to submit to the authority of church officials in the Christian South, where many churches preached institutional racism? Martin Luther King Jr. answered to an authority far above and beyond that of the local church institution and officials. We are all so much better for it.
Or, consider William Tyndale. What if he had chosen to submit to the institutional authority of the church in his day and cease translating the Bible into a new language? He wanted the Word of God to be available to everyone. The institution was threatened by his beliefs and ultimately strangled and burned him at the stake.
These are two examples of spiritual leaders who worked outside the boundaries of institutional authority and approval to bring life-giving change for generations of people. Yes, both men were ordained, one as a reverend and the other as a priest. They likely understood the need for spiritual accountability as leading thinkers, and yet they also clearly saw the necessary limits and problem of church authority and hierarchy.
Their most prominent gospel-bringing was certainly not widely affirmed by church officials in their context. In fact, Martin Luther King Jr. wrote an entire letter to white church officials who felt he was too provocative in his challenge to racism. Church often happens outside the institutional gates—but it remains under the authority of Jesus. And it often begins with a prophetic challenge, followed by the frenzied, anxious question: “By what authority do you do this?”
Women At Wide Tables
Historically, many women have had no choice but to use their voices in the public square because their prophetic challenge was unwelcome in the institutional church. Today, many churches still don’t provide a space for women to use their gifts, or they limit women according to a strict model of patriarchal church leadership.
What may seem like a crisis to the guardians of the institutional church feels like freedom to many Christian women and especially to many Christian women of color. Where the institutional church has been unable or unwilling to provide opportunities for women to use our gifts or raise our voices, the Christian blogosphere is a welcoming embrace. It’s got comfortable chairs and a wide table. There, we can stretch out and gather with fellow believers. It’s also a space where we are more often judged by craft and content rather than gender.
By Their Beautiful Fruit
For ordained ministers and licensed pastors, those called to serve in vocational ministry in the local or institutional church, authority structures are what bind them to their specific doctrinal truth. Nadia Bolz-Weber shared in her “OnBeing” conversation with Krista Tippett that she is thankful that, as an ordained Lutheran minister, she is accountable to a bishop, especially given her bold personality. But is ordination or strict institutional accountability required for simple speech in the public square?
At the culmination of Jesus’ earthly ministry, right as he ascended into heaven, he said all authority in heaven and on earth belonged to him. In other words, he’s the big boss of the people of God. He said, “Go. Be my witnesses.”
I am a writer. I am also a Christian. I studied ministry and theology in university, and worked on staff at a local church. Now, I attend and participate in local church life. But most importantly, I write to bear witness to the work of God in my life.
The Protestant Christian faith wholeheartedly affirms each individual’s ability to heed God’s voice and act in singular accordance with one’s own convictions. Authority, accountability, and responsibility look different for everyone. Some Christian groups and organizations establish boards to hold them accountable, some Christians form small accountability groups, some seek permission from their local church leaders, others join writers’ guilds, and still others establish relationships with like-minded people to help them stay true to Scripture.
Instead of expecting bloggers who have built a following with blood, sweat, tears, and testimony to submit to the authority of a specific denomination, we should pray for wisdom for them. We should bless them and pray for good fruit and sound doctrine.
The evidence of their call is, of course, in the fruit. Not in their numbers, or the size of their platform, or how much money they have, or even in their popularity. Popularity ebbs and flows like the tide. But do their followers love God more deeply? Do they follow Jesus more ardently? Do they live more generously? Do they stand more firmly on issues of justice and mercy? Over all, are they kinder to their neighbors and better friends to the people they live with?
The diversity of the body of Christ is what makes it the body of Christ. We need the academics. We need the ordained and licensed ministers to hold us to important theological truths. But we also need spaces and platforms for those who aren’t welcomed or heard by the institutional church, like many women. We need the prophets and the poets, the wild ones who might appear unruly and uncensored. We need the ones who raise a ruckus and challenge us to think differently, the ones who make things uncomfortable and messy but who very much inspire us to love Jesus with our whole hearts.
We're grateful to Tish Harrison Warren, who responded to some of these concerns in a recent blog post on her website. We deeply appreciate her clarification and explanation and we celebrate a Christian community that practices grace and engages in challenging conversations with open hearts. Read her illuminating response here.