A Response to the Responses: On Women, Celebrity, Institutions, and Authority

October 13, 2017
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As vitriolic as some of the responses were to my CT piece “Who’s in Charge of the Christian Blogosphere?,” I am gratified that it has sparked a broader conversation. Evangelicals, in particular, have long needed rigorous debate and discussion about celebrity culture, consumerism, church authority, and ecclesiology, and I am thrilled that women are a leading voice in this current conversation. In All Things ran a series, full of thoughtful female writers, about my piece and the response to it. And I particularly appreciated Dr. Leah Payne’s illuminating response in CT Women.

I’d like to offer some thoughts here—not as a rebuttal to anything that’s been said, but simply as ideas that dovetail and at times nuance what has been offered.

One point made frequently in response to my original piece—most notably by Ann Voskamp—is that God can use everyone, lay or ordained, theologically trained or not. (As one example of this, Voskamp cites DL Moody, whom Payne references as an example of ‘celebrity authority.’) Some have asked, since God can use anyone, why does it matter if women receive authority from the church or from elsewhere (like blogging popularity)? Payne rightly points out that evangelical women have a “lengthy counter-tradition of using celebrity culture to get around the powers that be.” To be clear, we all agree that God can use and has used all kinds. A quick look through the scriptures where God uses the educated and uneducated, the powerful and the powerless, and, once, even a talking donkey–a story which I find great comfort in every time I preach– makes this abundantly clear.

But there is a power dynamic at play in our culture that must be named. Only a couple of generations ago–less than a mere 100 years ago– women were not allowed to get a theological education at most seminaries, and often women of color were barred until even more recently, sometimes as late as the 1960’s or 70’s. Today, though some denominations don’t ordain women, almost all seminaries and theological schools admit women as students. One of the most moving letters I have received in response to my original article in CT (and I have received many) was from a young, passionate woman in campus ministry, who had recently been accepted into a great seminary and wanted to pursue a vocation in ministry. She explained that when she told her family and members of her evangelical church that she wanted to go to seminary and seek ordination, they discouraged her from going. They weren’t theologically opposed to her seeking a degree and being in ministry, but they said that all that was needed for women to be in ministry now was to build a public platform. Why, they asked, should she go through the trouble of theological education and ordination when she could devote that time to blogging and building a “brand”? I find this troubling.

God can indeed use anyone, but it would be a shame if we went from a moment in history where women were barred from theological education to a moment when women are welcomed in virtually all seminaries but reject the need for them due to a model of ministry based in anti-institutionalism or to the power our culture grants to personal branding or celebrity.

Though God can use anyone, male evangelical leaders still often seek theological education and are embedded within institutions, such as denominations or formal networks. To use Payne’s categories, far more male leaders have received their authority from “an intellectual tradition or denomination” rather than “thousands of clicks and retweets.” The rebuttal to this—and rightly so—is that women in evangelicalism, particularly in complementarian circles, do not have access to this kind of institutionally embedded authority (and the accountability that should come with any spiritual authority). And that is, of course, true. But I’d like it not to be forgotten that, in my original CT article, before I wrote one word asking anything of women, I devoted 555 words to asking institutions to recognize the authority of women in their midst. As I said in my original piece, women often turn to the internet to find teachers or to teach because of a vacuum created by church institutions where women’s voices have been silenced or marginalized for far too long.

This recognition of authority does not have to come through ordination. But if a woman is teaching, speaking, and writing to hundreds or thousands of others (whether her audience is male or female), she is a teacher and needs institutional support—and accountability— in order to flourish. Denominations and churches must creatively and intentionally encourage and enrich female teachers who have theological training and depth (whether or not that training leads to ordination). I wrote: “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.”

Part of the dynamic that has sprung up with these two alternative kinds of authority (intellectual verses celebrity authority) is that there is a tendency for many—particularly men– to denigrate the seriousness of those who gain authority through writing and teaching that happens primarily on the internet. They have two different categories: the “real” teachers and leaders and the “lady bloggers” (Payne alludes to this phenomenon in her piece). From both progressives and conservatives, I have received responses to my original piece akin to, “Why does it matter if ‘lady bloggers’ are formally embedded in the church?”

I suppose that criticism sticks if “lady blogger” is some lesser office than an actual teacher and preacher, but, to me, the distinction seems pedantic and sexist. Part of the argument of my original piece is that the church and other institutions—and women ourselves– need to take writers seriously as actual public teachers and leaders, regardless of their gender. They may be good or bad teachers, true or false teachers, but they ought not be dismissed as occupying a liminal or lesser space of “lady blogger” or “mommy blogger.” Most people assume that teachers like N. T. Wright, Tim Keller, or Russell Moore need overt, formal accountability because they take them seriously as leaders. It would not do for these men to say, “I have private accountability in my own life and church. Trust me on this.” The reason they need institutional and overt recognition of authority and accompanying accountability is because people know they wield influence as church leaders and teachers of the scriptures. But deeply ingrained sexism leads us to dismiss women as serious teachers and leaders. Ecclesial institutions need to recognize the authority of women, not as “lady bloggers,” but as teachers—even at times public theologians. We as women need to take what we and other women do very seriously and ask institutions to do the same, which will leave us open to theological critique and will inevitably entail institutional commitment and accountability.

Lastly, a recurring criticism of my piece is essentially, “But the institutional church has been oppressive to women! How, then, can one ask women to commit—or worse, submit– themselves to her authority?”  I think one of the most entrenched myths in this conversation is that outside of the institutional church, through the internet, lies a land of unblemished democracy and egalitarianism. But as both Payne and Kristin Kobes Du Mez have pointed out, female writers and teachers do not operate in an imagined technocratic egalitarian utopia but in the realm and power of the market. Du Mez puts this best: “They must build a platform, craft a ‘brand,’ woo readers, sell books, sell out speaking engagements. It’s their livelihood. They’re entrepreneurs. And they’re very good at what they do…. This is where it’s important to note that female bloggers are not operating outside of any authority structures. They are tightly controlled by the authority of the market—and the corporate forces that control market segments.” (emphasis mine)

I agree wholeheartedly that the church has marginalized and silenced women, but if we run into the arms of the market, will it be any greater friend? We are kidding ourselves if we believe consumerism and celebrity culture will be any less exacting, exclusive, or oppressive for women than what we’ve seen in the church. The market, by its very design, is meant to respond only to profitability and the trends of the day, and, unless curbed by other narratives and institutions, will cast women aside—as well as justice and truth—if it is better for the bottom line.

In the end, I have come to think you can’t be truly pro-institution without being pro-woman and you can’t be truly pro-woman without being pro-institution. If ecclesial institutions ignore the catechesis, discipleship, experiences, and actual authority of 50% of their members, it will massively denigrate the strength of the church. As Anne Kennedy states in her response to my piece, “So many, many women—and this was me growing up—knew how long the skirt should be and what kind of attitude to have, but could not think and reason from a coherent Christian worldview. And, while loyalty to the church might have remained at least in form, an intellectual way had to be made elsewhere, alone, even on the internet. The solution, then, is deceptively simple—invite ordinary women into the intellectual center of the church.” If we want a vibrant, beautiful, and strong church, we need to ensure that women are valued, heard, and robustly and holistically discipled.

Similarly, if we want to make the world and the church a better place for women, we have to work institutionally. Whether a woman is a complementarian or an egalitarian, in whatever ways we can, we together call the institution of the church to recognize and empower the great work women are already doing. If we reject working institutionally, opting for a “celebrity” model of authority, we will have a few “market winners” who are famous and successful, which is not bad, but in order to make the church any better for our granddaughters—or grandsons for that matter—we have to engage in the longer, slower, quieter work of institutional investment.  The celebrity model of leadership—which as Payne points out has always been part of evangelicalism—produces stars but it is fleeting; it does not produce a sustainable model for transformation and faithfulness in the church. This does not mean that any particular teacher or leader needs to let go  of her audience or stop writing or teaching, but it does mean that institutions and  women must work together, in lock step, to leave future generations a church that is more faithful to the gospel and more devoted to Jesus.  And it means that, as I concluded my original piece, “we have to ensure that all Christian leaders—male and female alike—have oversight and accountability that matches the weight of their authority and influence.”

I wholeheartedly embrace Payne’s call for embodied theological communities, and that “the best theological conversations come from face-to-face encounters, preferably with good food and drink.” That has certainly been true in my life. I dearly hope women will be key and enduring voices in those embodied communities and conversations. And I hope they will be equipped, empowered, and sent by the church into their embodied work of theology and ministry.

About the Author
  • Tish Harrison Warren is a priest in the Anglican Church in North America and serves as co-Associate Rectors at Church of the Ascension in Pittsburgh, PA. She writes regularly for The Well, InterVarsity's online magazine for women in the academy and professions, Her.meneutics, and Christianity Today. Her work has also appeared in Christ and Pop Culture, Art House America, Anglicanpastor.com, and elsewhere. Her first book is Liturgy of the Ordinary.

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  1. I’m not deeply into this conversation, though I try to keep up with Tish’s online writing.

    I couldn’t help but notice how ugly the “God can use everyone” motif has become when transposed down to a political key, largely by Evangelicals rationalizing votes for morally dubious or unfit candidates, over the last 18 months. One of those two candidates got enough clicks — er, votes — to move to the White House, while another is close to one recount away from an excellent Alabama-to-DC adventure.

    Neither credentials nor clicks is a foolproof criterion for credibility, but I’m biased toward institutional vetting in religion, political experience in politics.