The question of authority in the Christian blogosphere has been an interesting one for me to follow as an ordained Minister of Word and Sacrament. Through ordination, my denomination (acting through the Classis, a regional governing body) confirmed that Christ was calling me to serve in ministry. In the act of the laying on of hands, the body of people around me said “Yes” to my ministry. They empowered me, and I submitted to their authority and discipline.
I am one who has been granted authority by an ecclesiastical body. As such, I am subject to their discipline as well. When I write things and post them online, I am very aware that I am not doing so as an independent person, but as one who has taken vows—both at ordination, and in my present congregation.
Tish Harrison Warren wrote about the lack of authority and accountability when it comes to online theological content, and, on the one hand, I resonated with her words. Authority and accountability are important to me. And yet, I have wondered what authority might look like in this digital world. Does it look like it used to? Can it look like it has in the past?
It is almost as though we are trying to figure out how to convert the analog authority structures of the church into digital structures that make more sense in today’s world.
Before I get to that, I want to share a story from the history of the denomination that ordained me (Reformed Church in America)—a story which, I believe, sheds some light on this current conversation.
The Reformed Church in America (RCA) dealt with the question of authority in the church very early on in its history. In the early days, all ministers had to travel back to the Netherlands to receive their theological education and training. Over time, as that model became more challenging and strenuous to maintain, and as more churches were in need of ministers more quickly, theological institutions were developed in the United States to train and equip these Reformed folks for ministry.
Though it is an oversimplification of all that took place, allowing ministers to be trained outside of the Netherlands allowed for different ideas, different structures, and different institutions to develop to meet the needs of the church in a changing world. Whenever a governing body allows more latitude in training and structure, there are far-reaching consequences. A governing body which gives space for more options and more avenues is losing some control over the process. And, that loss of control changes the landscape of leadership, congregations, and even denominations.
Bloggers who blog without ecclesiastical authority—but with a very real kind of authority nonetheless—are a part of the changing landscape of leadership in the church of the 21st century. Though they have not submitted to ecclesiastical authority, they are being given authority to speak into the lives and spiritual journeys of countless people.
This change—like any other change—brings good and bad. It brings a sense of loss, as with all other change. It also brings opportunities.
Perhaps the trouble is that we’re looking at this change like the change from analog to digital. Remember when DVDs came out and there was all sorts of frustration and struggle because things were changing and we weren’t sure we liked it? Looking back on it, a lot of that concern feels silly now, but that’s because we’re on the side of having made the change and realizing that one change did not mean everything changed.
Changing from analog to digital is challenging, but the church isn’t being asked to make that kind of a shift. Instead, we are being invited to pause and consider what authority in the church is and where it comes from. Authority in the church is neither analog nor digital. Authority in the church is doxological.
“Praise God from whom all blessings flow.
Praise God all creatures here below.
Praise God above ye heavenly hosts.
Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.”
All blessings flow from God.
All gifts and callings flow from God.
All authority in the church flows from God.
In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus told his disciples: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:18-20).
The disciples were sent out into the world with the authority of Christ.
The authority I have in ministry doesn’t come from a denomination, or from a region, or from a local church. These structures have promised to come alongside and support me. These structures have confirmed the call from God that led me into the ministry I’m in today. I have submitted myself willingly to their authority and discipline. But, ultimately, any authority I might have is Christ’s authority and not my own.
This sends me to my knees on a regular basis.
Along with this, if I truly believe that authority comes from God and that human institutions are merely confirming something God is already doing, then I’m also acknowledging that God’s authority can be found outside of ecclesiastical authority. And, when the church has so long denied women’s voices, turned called women away from serving in ministry, and even (in some places) relegated women as second-class citizens in God’s Kingdom, the Holy Spirit has found and will find other ways for those voices to be heard.
I do not view the rise of the Christian blogosphere so much as a change from analog to digital leadership in the church. I do not view it as a problem to be solved. Rather, I view it as an opportunity to return to an understanding of doxological authority. Everything we have, everything we do, every ministry we are led to pursue, comes from Christ.
“For from him and through him and to him are all things,” as the Apostle Paul wrote in his letter to the Romans (Rom. 10:36).
The Christian blogosphere is inviting us to return to a doxological view of Christian authority—not one that forsakes traditional structures and the importance of accountability, but one that reminds us that all authority comes from Christ, and sometimes voices of truth are speaking from different sorts of pulpits.