As a historian of American Christianity, I have followed with great interest the conversation Tish Harrison Warren began earlier this spring at Christianity Today’s #AmplifyWomen series.
In an essay titled “Who’s In Charge of the Christian Blogosphere?,” Warren identified “a new crisis in the church” brought about by the popularity of female bloggers.
“In this new cyber age,” Warren writes, “authority comes not from the church or the academic guild but from popularity.” In this setting, “conference bloggers and conference speakers have become a sort of cyber-age equivalent to megachurch pastors, garnering huge followings based on a cult of personality and holding extensive power and influence, yet often lacking any accountability to formal structures of church governance.”
This is a problem, according to Warren, and a gendered one, since “male leaders still often derive authority from theological education, ordination, and institutions.” Warren, herself an ordained Anglican priest, insists that “with the blessing and power of leadership comes the duty and vulnerability of speaking out of one’s particular theological tradition and in turn being held accountable to that same tradition.” Christian bloggers “forfeit the luxury of holding merely ‘private’ beliefs, and instead have a responsibility to give a specific argument, show our rigorous theological work, elevate the conversation, welcome strong criticism and debate, and in so doing, help others think and worship better.” She insists that such women “need overt institutional superintendence” beyond that of their local church. “Otherwise, they can teach any doctrine on earth under the banner of Christian faith and orthodoxy.”
“If we don’t respond to this current crisis of authority institutionally,” Warren concludes, “we are allowing Christian doctrine to be highjacked by whomever has the loudest voice or biggest platform.”
Warren’s call for institutional oversight immediately sparked vigorous debate and a caustic social media backlash. This backlash was particularly heated because the one blogger Warren held up as an example of this “crisis of authority” was Jen Hatmaker.
Hatmaker, of course, is one of the most popular Christian bloggers, and so in one way it makes sense that Warren would single her out. However, anyone at all familiar with the Christian women’s blogosphere knows that Hatmaker came under scathing attack a few months ago when she shared that she believed that LGBT relationships could be “holy.” Given this context, many readers took Warren’s reflection on church authority and female bloggers as a thinly veiled attack on Hatmaker herself. As someone familiar with the Hatmaker controversy, I could see how Warren’s more nuanced reflection could be flattened in this way.
But as a historian, I was most interested in what was new here, and what wasn’t.
First, as Warren notes in passing, a “crisis of authority” certainly isn’t new. The Christian church has faced many such “crises,” and at least Protestants can agree that not all of them have been causes for lament. (Warren herself gives a nod to the Reformation, which certainly can be seen as nothing less than a massive “crisis of authority”—a point she expands on in a subsequent post on her blog.) Indeed, one could argue that Christianity in America is one big story of individuals and groups, one after the other, rejecting formal authority structures and following the spirit where it led (or seemed to lead). The Great Awakenings, abolitionists, revivalists, itinerant preachers, Pentecostal evangelists, faith healers, televangelists… this is American Christianity.
As someone drawn to tradition, Warren found her way to the Anglican church. But with the splintering of denominations and the rise of nondenominational churches, I wonder if she isn’t looking for a reality that no longer exists—and perhaps hasn’t really existed, at least not since the time of the Puritans. (And even then, it wasn’t all it was cracked up to be.) In many ways, the “democratization of American Christianity” is what has given the faith its vitality. Simply put, American evangelicalism as we know it wouldn’t exist apart from a rejection of institutional authority.
That isn’t to say that there aren’t downsides to this movement. (Indeed, I am sympathetic to many of Warren’s concerns). But, there’s nothing fundamentally new here. Except, perhaps, that women are now at the vanguard of this latest chapter of democratization. However, it’s worth noting that many of the evangelical pastors and teachers who are most offended at Hatmaker’s teachings are themselves products of this historical movement.1
Secondly, I think it’s worth considering further a detail Warren acknowledges only briefly: the fact that women’s voices have been marginalized historically in the church. Warren acknowledges as well that many women belong to denominations that do not ordain women, and thus face a challenge that she does not when it comes to seeking formal support and accountability. All this is true.
As a historian of Christian women, I regularly encounter stories of women who struggled against all odds to learn theology, to study biblical languages, and to seek ordination. But for every one of these pioneering women, tens of thousands of other women accepted the restrictions placed upon them, happily or not.
For centuries women have been kept from higher learning, particularly in the areas of theological and biblical studies. They have been barred from seminaries, excluded from pastorates, rejected by their own churches. Even women who broke through the barriers placed in front of them often found themselves relegated to small, rural churches, far from the centers of denominational power. They often did amazing work in those churches. But, they were kept from positions of power—from teaching positions, from large churches, from places where they would be paid to teach and to write. Women who did achieve prominence either did so as wives of a prominent preachers, or as evangelists who skirted traditional power structures and created their own institutions (think of Aimee Semple McPherson or Ellen G. White, for example).
Knowing this history, I admit I cringe a bit at Warren’s call for women today to place themselves under structures of authority from which women have long been excluded. In principle, I am sympathetic to her call. In practice, I find it problematic. Until we more critically examine our institutions and traditions with an eye to which voices have been excluded from shaping those structures—and the list will be long—we should be reticent to impose those structures too quickly on historically marginalized communities. (Warren, it should be noted, seems especially receptive to this criticism.)
That’s not to say we shouldn’t be concerned with the present state of affairs.
One thing that has struck me of late is the segregation of American Christianity—most devastatingly, of course, the racial segregation. But, there is a profound gender segregation as well. We have women’s Bible studies and men’s Bible studies. Women’s Bibles (floral) and men’s (faux marble). Women’s bloggers and men’s. Part of this segregation is driven by theology, especially in conservative circles. But, I’m convinced much of it is market-driven. Why sell one black Bible when you can pitch a pink women’s Bible, a purple young mother’s Bible, a fuchsia girl’s Bible, a blue boy’s Bible, etc.?
Segmentation isn’t always a bad thing. As in the past, it can foster a vibrant women’s culture. But, it also robs the larger church of the insights and influences of more than half of its members. Perhaps our problem is not that women are going rogue in the Christian blogosphere, but that Christian men have been ignoring what they’ve been saying for too long. Perhaps women don’t need to be disciplined or censored as much as respected and engaged.
A couple years back, I was attending a seminar on American evangelicalism with other specialists in the field. At a certain point, I brought up the Christian women’s blogosphere. After waxing eloquently for a minute or two on this formidable movement in American evangelicalism, I realized that most of the scholars in the room were looking at me with rather confused expressions. “You do know what I’m talking about, don’t you?” I stopped to ask.
Except for the two female scholars and all of the female graduate students (and one enlightened male graduate student) in the room, who were nodding emphatically, the men—all brilliant historians whose business it was to study American evangelicalism, had been oblivious to this entire phenomenon. A phenomenon that, if you’re thinking in terms of demographics, is nowhere near the margins, but rather at the very center of American evangelicalism.
Another problem Warren alludes to is the role of the market. Without drawing income as pastors and professors, female bloggers have to earn a living through their writing. 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.
But in the evangelical culture in which they find themselves (and help sustain), building and keeping an audience comes at a cost. It’s not enough for women to share their theological insights. They must also cultivate the illusion of intimacy. Much of that intimacy comes through vulnerability. They must share their weaknesses, their flaws, their heartaches, their trauma. With the world. On a daily basis. Their power as Christian women comes paradoxically through their weakness.
There’s certainly something biblical about power that comes from weakness. But, it’s striking how gendered this equation tends to be in the Christian world. Christian men are expected to be strong and aggressive, betraying no weakness or “effeminacy.” Christian women, on the other hand? Self-deprecation and debasement have become their go-to rhetorical style. They’re “hot messes,” only holding things together thanks to caffeine—a lot of it—and the support of their “friends.”
To be a friend is simple. You just follow them on Facebook. Subscribe to their newsletters. Buy their books. Pay to hear them speak. And, just like that, you’re one of their BFFs. (Or, in the case of Hatmaker, her “EFs.”) As a long-time observer of this women’s culture (and one of Hatmaker’s EFs), I have to admit this cult of personality reminds me an awful lot of middle school—trying to become a part of the “in” group. But, this is so much better. First off, it’s a lot easier. All you do is subscribe or follow, and you’re in. Even better, these bloggers—the popular girls—are not just pretty and funny, but they’re also nice. And smart. And sweet. And they adore you. Everything you’ve ever wanted in a BFF.
To be clear, I don’t hold any of this against the bloggers themselves—they’re creatively responding to the culture they find themselves in.
But, it is worth reflecting on how this culture shapes their message. Although all of these women are strong, gifted, highly competent women, they rarely present themselves as such. And because their platform is built on an imagined “friendship,” there is little space for the sort of rigorous theological engagement Warren asks for—a willingness to “welcome strong criticism and debate.” Any criticism leveled at one of these bloggers instantly riles her “BFFs”—and, just like in middle school, they circle their wagons and lash out at the attackers (an unfortunate phenomenon Warren experienced after the publication of her article). Or, in rare circumstances, they turn on the blogger herself. The fall is excruciating, both personally (“Weren’t we friends?”) and financially. In this way controversies in the female Christian blogosphere, though rare, are especially painful.
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.
When Jen Hatmaker came out in support of same-sex marriage, she didn’t just lose friends. LifeWay Christian Resources stopped carrying her books. (I initially wondered if Hatmaker’s gender played a role in this move, but the recent Eugene Peterson controversy suggests otherwise.)
So, perhaps Christians should concern themselves not with the lack of authority, but rather with the question of who is wielding authority, and to what end.
In the immediate aftermath of Warren’s piece, it appeared that Christian women were falling into two camps—rather than Jen vs. Angelina, we had Jen vs. Tish. But instead of taking sides, it might be more useful for us to realize that we are all, like them, products of historical and cultural forces that define our experiences and constrain our choices in ways we often fail to realize.
Understanding this context can help us to better define our differences and to realize that we share more in common than we might have imagined.
And, perhaps, it might inspire us to work to cultivate a different culture, one that better facilitates the vitality of the church and the spread of the gospel in our own time and place.