Policing the Blogosphere? We’ve Been Here Before

Last week, Anglican Priest, Tish Harrison Warren, wrote a much-discussed article for Christianity Today, “Who’s in Charge of the Christian Blogosphere“. Warren is concerned about the lack of authority and accountability for bloggers and speakers, especially women. The subtitle explains Warren’s concern a little more: “the age of the internet has birthed a crisis of authority, especially for women.” She lays out her concerns regarding the state of the Christian blogosphere, using Jen Hatmaker’s recent statements on LGBTQ as an example:

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?

It’s not at all news that there is a lot of false teaching going on in the evangelical world. It’s also not news that a lot of this teaching is promoted and shared via social media. Anyone with computer access can write and share practically anything they want on the internet.  What is newer about Warren’s article is her solution for the problem:

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.

To be clear, I am not suggesting that a woman must be ordained in order to blog, publish, or speak. A formal recognition of authority and accountability can be called commissioning, endorsement, partnership, or something else. What this looks like in practice will vary dramatically between traditions and must be creatively hammered out by leaders and pastors in their own denominations or other Christian institutions. But while I cannot provide a specific model for each ecclesial organization, I want to sound a call: All of us—whether complementarians or egalitarians—need to create institutional structures to recognize the authority held by female teachers and writers and then hold them accountable for the claims they make under the name of Jesus and in the name of the church.

Providing ecclesial oversight does not mean that all writers will speak out of one narrow tradition. Nor does ecclesial affiliation itself ensure orthodoxy—there is, of course, no silver bullet against false teaching. Nevertheless, without institutional accountability there is simply no mechanism by which we as a church can preserve doctrinal fidelity. (emphasis added)

Now, anyone who has read my articles knows that I am a strong proponent of orthodox teaching. I think it’s extremely important that all believers be taught sound doctrine. And so I can agree with some of what Warren wrote. I share her concern regarding false teaching being published and spread through social media. I recognize that there is a good deal of disdain expressed online for authority and accountability. I also agree that many popular teachers, both male and female, are heterodox and that they often seem to lack effective authority over them.

However, I do not believe that the answer is adding another layer of authority. In fact, I’m really concerned by the appeal to authority and control as the answer to false teaching for several reasons. First of all, an additional official authority structure will not solve the problem. False teachers are primarily in churches/denominations that agree with them, or they are outside all church authority. Most orthodox bloggers and speakers are already submitting to their local or denominational authority regarding what they write or say.

No new authority structure will stop Joel Osteen from preaching in the church his daddy built. Doug Wilson has a denomination that he created after he self-ordained himself to back him up. Jen Hatmaker, Ann Voskamp, and many others are currently members of churches that approve of what they do. Rachel Held Evans is now Episcopal as was Bishop Spong. I expect the denomination that didn’t stop Spong isn’t particularly interested in addressing Evans either.

Some denominations have means for addressing false teaching. Others really don’t, and they don’t seem all that interested in changing that. Baptist churches are very happy to be loosely affiliated and yet fiercely independent of any oversight by the denomination. Demanding that all churches form institutional authority structures isn’t going to keep false teachers from teaching, but it may well suppress needed challenges to false teaching, which is my next concern.

Warren’s call for authority structures will only hurt orthodox authors and speakers. Having to go through a formal authority process to be allowed to write or teach, even informally, will simply add another hurdle to jump through. It will also allow those who call out error to be silenced by those who don’t want to hear the truth. And that leads me to my next point, we’ve been here before.

In the 1400-1500s, the universal church in Europe was in a bad state. Priests were often barely literate. The common people could not read the Scriptures or understand the Latin Mass and were dependent on the church leaders to tell them what to believe and what to do. The people had been taught to have a blind faith in the church leaders. They were taught that they could not be trusted to read and interpret the Scriptures for themselves. Imagine, they were told, the errors that might happen if the average person read and attempted to interpret for themselves!

Then men like Hus, Wycliffe, Luther and others believed that the people needed to be able to read the Word of God for themselves. The Reformation was born out of a desire to strip away all the errors that had crept into the church and return to the doctrines of Scripture alone, Christ alone, faith alone, grace alone, to the glory of God alone. Many, many books, pamphlets, and Bible translations were written and published during the early days of the Reformation. And these unauthorized writings and their unauthorized writers were condemned by the official church leaders.

The Counter Reformation, starting with the Council of Trent, was an attempt by the Catholic church to put an end to the “false teachings” of the Reformers, and to protect the “orthodoxy” of the Catholic faith:

The spirit of the Catholic Reformation was a spirit of zeal and ardor for the faith, a recognition of abuses in the church and a dedication to the work of reform, and an attitude of intolerance toward heresy.

A list was produced with approved and prohibited books:

The books of those heresiarchs, who after the aforesaid year originated or revived heresies, as well as of those who are or have been the heads or leaders of heretics, as Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, Balthasar Friedberg, Schwenkfeld, and others like these, whatever may be their name, title or nature of their heresy, are absolutely forbidden. The books of other heretics, however, which deal professedly with religion are absolutely condemned.

The list of prohibited books was enforced by the Inquisition.

As early as 1543, Caraffa., as Inquisitor-General of the Roman Inquisition, had insisted that no book should be published without approval of the Holy Office. He also wanted the Inquisition to hunt out and destroy already published books. Caraffa became Pope Paul IV.

Eventually, the approval of books included a special notation to indicate that the books were without error and approved by the Catholic church:

During this period, probably out of necessity, the church began supervising all printed matter. They issued their first list of approved and prohibited books in the middle of the 1500s. Today Catholic books generally carry the notations, nihil obstat (nothing conflicts), or, imprimatur (it may be printed), to let faithful Catholics know whether the book is prohibited. For many years, the church placed the vernacular New Testament on the prohibited list. (emphasis original)

What’s interesting to me is that this current push for authorization of women writers and speakers seems like an odd weaving together of two very different strands of thought. On the one hand is the idea that women need some official legitimization. Often this is expressed as a call for the ordination of women. On the other hand, the current discussion reminds me of the patriarchal teaching that women need to be under an umbrella of protective authority to keep them safe from danger and error. That umbrella typically shows Christ over the husband, who then is over the wife and children.

It seems very odd to me to see these two threads combined, but that is exactly what’s happening in the current discussions that began with Warren’s article. Imagine having to provide some kind of stamp of approval in order to blog on theology.

The combination here of the two thoughts, women needing legitimizing and also needing protective authority led me to create an official stamp of approval in the vein of the Counter Reformation.

My final concern about Warren’s call for authority structures is that it undermines another aspect of the Reformation: the priesthood of believers. The Reformers believed strongly that all believers were theologians who were responsible for reading and applying the Word of God. This does not mean they encouraged everyone to go about interpreting Scripture without regard to the teaching of pastors and elders, but they believed that theology was not solely the domain of professional theologians. To demand that all writers and speakers must be authorized by the church is to return to a pre-Reformation standard.

Because I do agree about the sheer amount of false teaching, especially the popular teachings peddled to women, I think there are some steps that we could take towards a solution without the authoritarianism. These steps are both simple and yet arguably harder than creating new rules or authority structures. But in the long run, I believe they will be much more effective at preserving orthodoxy.

Instead of creating new authority structures, I think we need to return to the authority already in place. First, we need to return to the authority of God by means of recognizing the authority of Scripture. This was key to the Reformation, and I believe it is key for us today. As the Westminster Shorter Catechism teaches in Question/Answer 2:

The Word of God, which is contained in the scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, is the only rule to direct us how we may glorify and enjoy him.

If Scripture is the “only rule” then we need to return to the authority of the Scripture in our churches, our lives, and in our writing and speaking. Ultimately, what we write and speak must be consistent with what Scripture teaches.

Second, we need to recognize the authority of the local churches and denominations. I know that many people are hesitant to submit to church authority because of the examples of abusive authority that some pastors and churches have practiced. It is a valid concern, and I’m not calling for ultimate authority or authoritarianism in the church/denominations either. Some churches, mainly those without Presbyterian polity, have created massively intrusive membership covenants that have no place in the church.

But that doesn’t invalidate membership vows and a proper submission to church leaders in a limited sense. As a Presbyterian, the membership vows I took do not give the church leaders the right to dictate or control my life.

  • Do you acknowledge yourself to be a sinner in the sight of God, justly deserving His displeasure, and without hope save in His sovereign mercy?

  • Do you believe in the Lord Jesus Christ as the Son of God, and Savior of sinners, and do you receive and rest upon Him alone for salvation as He is offered in the Gospel?

  • Do you now resolve and promise, in humble reliance upon the grace of the Holy Spirit, that you will endeavor to live as becomes the followers of Christ?

  • Do you promise to support the Church in its worship and work to the best of your ability?

  • Do you submit yourself to the government and discipline of the Church, and promise to study its purity and peace?

That last vow is important. In matters regarding the peace and purity of the church, I have promised to submit to the authority of my church leaders. Of course, this too can be abused, but that is why no church is independent in our denomination. There are layers of checks and balances to protect church members from being abused. These same layers are designed to promote orthodoxy by holding the ordained leaders to a standard of faith and practice. Is it a perfect system? No, but there’s a reason being Reformed is more than the 5 points of Calvinism. Church polity matters.

Connected to that last point, we need to hold teachers, writers, and speakers accountable for what they write and say. And this is actually where social media and blogging can be a help. Public teaching is open to public critique.

Any Christian who sets himself up as a teacher in the church of Christ and publicly teaches anything thereby opens himself up for criticism by others (cf. James 3:1). If they think what he is teaching is harmful to the church, they have an obligation to point it out just as widely as it was taught. Such public warning or debate on the topic should not be considered a personal attack at all. The teacher’s plea that a critic should first have come to him about his disagreement on the basis of Matthew 18:15 does not hold. This passage has to do with personal wrongs known only between the two, who should privately discuss the matter that separates them. What a critic of a public teaching does in pointing out his disagreement with that teaching has nothing to do with personal affronts or lack of reconciliation; he is simply disagreeing at the same public level as that on which the teaching was given in the first place. — Dr. Jay E. Adams, Grist from Adam’s Mill, 69

This should not be abused, and it should be done with care and gentleness whenever possible. I know that some may be distressed that I’ve critiqued Warren’s article in this way. But my critique has been kept at the level of ideas and not at a personal level. I have nothing personal against Warren. I simply disagree with her on this matter. Her public article invites public critique. And mine does too. I’m certain those who disagree with what I’ve written here will say so.

The next step that I think we need to attempt is to stop buying books from false teachers and to stop attending conferences with false teaching. It sounds easy, but the reason these false teachers have a platform is because people pay for and support them. We need to be more discerning and willing to take a stand publicly.

Related to that, I believe that big name leaders and organizations need to be more discerning and careful to stand for orthodoxy over popularity. That means they need to not promote false teachers. They need to not be silent when others are addressing error. There are big name organizations that were studiously silent on the Trinity debate. I’m not saying everyone needs to address every controversy. There wouldn’t be time. But some errors are so fundamental that we cannot be silent.

Standing up for orthodoxy will also mean not speaking at conferences or sharing stages with heterodox teachers. This also includes not publishing false teaching. I don’t care how winsome those teachers are. The presence of big name leaders side by side with heterodox ones lends respectability. Which leads to another Reformation era danger: certain groups, organizations, or people are seen as infallible no matter what. The average person is conditioned to blindly trust and not question what they are taught by the “right” people. (HT: Persis Lorenti)

Big name leaders and organizations also need to take concerns over the teaching of “one of their own” seriously and not simply circle the wagons or invoke the Good Old Boy network for protection. As Aimee Byrd has written extensively in her book, No Little Women, pastors and elders need to know what’s being taught to the women in their churches, and they need to be willing to address any false teaching.

Lastly, women writers and speakers (and men too) need to be well-grounded in solid doctrine. They need to submit to the local authority of their church. They need to be willing to hear correction and to speak the truth in love in all they write and say.

Warren raised some legitimate concerns regarding the prevalence of false teaching and the lack of appropriate authority and accountability in the blogosphere. However, the answer isn’t authoritarianism, ordination/commissioning, or more control over bloggers. Rather, the answer is a return to the authority of Scripture and the accountability of the local church through existing means. We must teach ourselves and others to be Berean, always searching the Scriptures to see if we or others are staying true to the faith.

As I said, this is much harder to accomplish than introducing more controls or regulations, but it is the only way to truly reform the Christian blogosphere. We need a grassroots effort to reform from the bottom up, not new authority structures to enforce a top-down hierarchy of approved bloggers. Let’s not forget the lessons of the Reformation. The privilege to study and discuss theology as an average woman was too dearly won.

Who’s in charge of the Christian blogosphere? Ultimately, we all are.