Gender and Authority: The Legacy of Sibling Rivalry

August 30, 2017
In April, Christianity Today featured a series of articles on the state of women’s discipleship in evangelical America, starting with an article written by Tish Harrison Warren, “Who’s In Charge of the Christian Blogosphere?” This article discussed ecclesial authority and accountability, which brought many responses on all sides. The iAt staff has asked four women to respond to the article in a “roundtable” format–with all engaging in the conversation one by one. Throughout this series various voices will be added, interacting with one another as they responded to the article, the topic, and to one another. Today, Chandra Crane begins the series. Check back regularly to read more of the conversation. And, feel free to add to the conversation by leaving a comment below.

Sibling Rivalry is nothing new. From Cain and Abel to Martha and Mary, we see siblings fighting over wealth and jockeying for position throughout the Bible. And though Christ’s sacrifice has turned enemies into family, still we war and rage against each other like those Biblical families of old. The intense response to Tish Harrison Warren’s recent Christianity Today piece, “Who’s In Charge of the Christian Blogosphere?” demonstrated this all too well. I hesitate to give an opinion on the article, much less to inaugurate this round table, because as with Tish’s article, this piece sets the tone for an entire series. And like Tish’s article, this piece won’t be able to address everything. I may draw the wrath of siblings on all sides of the issue. But—enter the power of a redeemed family where a variety of image-bearers’ voices and viewpoints can and should be honored. I’m grateful for my fellow conversationalists, who will be discussing (and inviting you to discuss) gender, authority, and marginalization through such unique lenses as church history, world missions, and daily ministry. We’ll share from a wide range of roles: as priests and campus ministers, as professors and students, as sisters, daughters, wives, and mothers, and as authors and readers. But above all, we will converse as part of one holy, catholic Church family.

Tish kicked off Christianity Today’s “Amplify Women” series1 with the idea that the rise of the Christian blogger brought a “crisis of authority” comparable to the one surrounding the invention of the printing press. Positive responses came from those who resonated with the leadership void she identified: a lack of formal church authority structure, especially for women, that created the need for parachurch platforms and accountability. There were also negative responses, from those angry at the specific mention of Jen Hatmaker, to those who saw historical inaccuracies or omissions. Some highlighted the article’s lack of engagement around specific struggles women of color face in historically marginalizing hierarchical structures. Heated discussions ensued, and the backlash took on a life all its own. I have mixed feelings wondering what we—writers and readers—have to offer an already volatile conversation. I’m excited by the potential of powerful Christian dialogue, but wary, because—as Tish submitted Jen Hatmaker’s situation as her exhibit A—I submit Tish’s experience as exhibit B of how quickly that kind of dialogue can deteriorate.

Reading the variety of responses brought up many questions for me: Where does authority come from, and how do we know who has it? How can we engage in the task of Christian love and truth-telling while online? Am I hopelessly biased because Tish is a friend? What does Christian friendship look like? What about discipleship and leadership? What is Biblical, healthy use of authority?

And then, one theme of questions regarding authority struck me: Who has the authority to tear down others and to pit women against each other as enemies? Who gives us the right to shame, blame, and accuse fellow believers? These are somewhat sarcastic questions that nevertheless are my heart’s cry as a woman in the Church. Our true enemy convinces us we have that right to judge. Whether laity or ordained, male or female, well-known or serving faithfully behind the scenes, we believe the great accuser that we alone are wise. He wants to convince us we have to take sides and frame all moral dilemmas as Pharisees, prideful and ungracious. Sadly, I fall prey to those lies often.

I am certainly not suggesting the goal is to avoid controversy. As a multiethnic woman in ministry, I am naturally a stirrer of pots and rocker of boats. Much of the conversation that’s emerged is right and helpful because the Gospel requires difficult discussions on hard topics. I don’t want to merely “get along.” I want shalom-peace—not the mere absence of conflict. I want justice to roll down like waters2 and I ache to see Jesus face-to-face, and to be able to sin no more. Tish herself has welcomed constructive criticism and pushback, especially in regard to hierarchical structures’ impacts on women of color. I am not saying that the many folks who thoughtfully, even passionately, disagreed were wrong to speak out. (And, oh, the irony if I did!) But those who were harsh and unyielding in their judgments were poor stewards of their authority, speaking more out of privilege than pain. Re-framing the issue as a simple didactic was an ungracious use of influence. Yes, we may agree more with a certain perspective, but our actual choice is between Christ and the world, not between our siblings. And yes, we must draw a line somewhere in regard to orthodoxy, but complete devotion to another fallible human being is foolish. How quickly we forget our battle is not against flesh and blood, but against powers and principalities,3 the ultimate usurper of authority,4 and our own flesh, which longs to have its ego stroked.

We mustn’t take sides with specific people, even as we hold firm to a theological stance. We follow Jesus. Not Paul or Apollos,5 neither Tish nor Jen. Let’s have (an admittedly tense) discussion that might require repentance from one or both parties, but which would sharpen us as iron against iron.6 The Holy Spirit can guide us in appreciating different aspects even of our brothers and sisters’ diametrically opposed ideas. We can debate, wrestle with, and even get fired up about those ideas. But we can’t lose sight of Christian dialogue’s purpose: proclaiming the entirety of the Gospel. Remembering that everyone (especially our broken selves) relies on grace is a powerful motivator to tread carefully.

I pray we’ll engage with a confidence and humility born of the Holy Spirit. We don’t have to choose sides between fellow family members or listen to any false authority telling us otherwise. We can proclaim truth while agreeing to disagree. We can amplify each other’s voices, especially as women supporting women, challenging and encouraging our sisters in the faith. Whether there is a “crisis of authority” or not, there is a crisis of sisterhood. It extends as far back as Rachel and Leah, where Laban treated his daughters shamefully and Jacob continued in this pattern, fostering hatred between the two sisters.7 Will we choose to further this crisis of sisterhood, or fight against it?

Siblings, we all have been given authority: to lament with each other, ask questions of one another, and rely on the ultimate authority and presence of Jesus for the good of one another. Whether in times of peace or crisis, we are called to love all of our siblings: sacrificially, recklessly—and yes, authoritatively.

About the Author
  • Chandra Crane (B.S. Education, M.A. Ministry) is a Multiethnic Initiatives Resource Specialist with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship and a member of the multiethnic Redeemer Church in Jackson, Mississippi. Growing up in a multiethnic/multicultural family in the Southwest and now happily transplanted to the Deep South, Chandra is passionate about diversity and family. Chandra is the author of Mixed Blessing: Embracing the Fullness of Your Multiethnic Identity (InterVarsity Press). She is married to Kennan, a civil engineer, and they have two spunky daughters.  Chandra is a fan of hot tea, crossword puzzles, Converse shoes, and science fiction. She thoroughly enjoys reading, napping, and defying stereotypes. You can follow her random thoughts on Twitter: @ChandraLCrane and on Instagram: @MixedBlessingBook.

  1. There are seven articles in CT’s “Amplify Women” series. All of them are worth a read, even as some answer concerns brought up in and by the initial piece, and some do not. CT included more diversity in the authorship than usual, and did include perspectives from women who are all-too-often marginalized and even forgotten in the church. I lament where the series brought pain, and I rejoice where the series brought hope. Christ can hold that tension together for us all.  

  2. Amos 5:24 

  3. Ephesians 6:12 

  4. 2 Thessalonians 2:3 

  5. 1 Corinthians 3:4 

  6. Proverbs 27:17 

  7. Genesis 29:15-35 

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