My friend Tish Harrison Warren, a priest in the Anglican Church of North America, has been taking a lot of incoming fire over this important essay calling into question the teaching authority of popular lay commentators in the Christian blogosphere. Tish rightly sees this as a “crisis of authority,” and writes:
One of the most prominent recent examples of this crisis involves the popular blogger Jen Hatmaker, who last year announced that her views about homosexuality have changed. She was cheered by some and denounced by others. LifeWay stopped selling her books. Aside from the debate about sexuality, broader questions emerged: 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?
These are massively important questions for the church, no matter which side of the gay questions you come down on. More Tish:
Yet, in this new Internet age, women still—as much as men—deserve the best teaching the church has to offer. We don’t need less than funny stories, relatable prose, or charming turns of phrase, but we certainly need more than that. We need teachers and writers who can break our hearts with beauty and who also do the hard work of biblical interpretation, of learning the doctrines and history of the church, and of speaking clearly out of a tradition that they name and know. As Christian women, all of us can embrace writing and teaching that is relevant, compelling, and down to earth, and also ask that our leaders—both male and female—embrace theological study, intellectual rigor, and church hierarchy and accountability.
And I’d like to submit to my fellow female writers and teachers, in particular, that part of our responsibility as Christian leaders is to take on the burden, the joy, and the accountability of being deeply rooted in the church—not only privately and personally, but publicly and institutionally. If we are to help build not just a personal brand but a beautiful, faithful church for generations of women (and men) to come, we must work to strengthen and shape institutions larger than ourselves and submit ourselves to the authority and oversight of Christ’s church, even as we are honest about its frailty and faults.
Why does the authority question matter? One more clip from Tish’s piece:
In his essay “Sinsick,” Stanley Hauerwas famously explores the notion of authority using a medical analogy. If a medical student told his advisor, “I’m not into anatomy this year, I’m into relating” and asked to skip anatomy class to focus on people, the medical school would reply, “Who in the hell do you think you are, kid? … You’re going to take anatomy. If you don’t like it, that’s tough.” Hauerwas delivers his crucial point by saying: “Now what that shows is that people believe incompetent physicians can hurt them. Therefore people expect medical schools to hold their students responsible for the kind of training that is necessary to be competent physicians. On the other hand, few people believe an incompetent minister can damage their salvation.”
The church has said for millennia that bad teaching is more deadly than bad surgery. Now we have an influx of teachers who become so by the stroke of a key. The need for formal structures of training, hierarchy, and accountability in medical schools and medical boards is obvious because we don’t want our doctors to simply be popular or relatable; we want them to practice medicine correctly and truthfully, participate in a medical tradition broader than themselves, and serve under the authority and oversight of others. We need to be as discerning in whom we trust with care of souls as we are with care of our bodies.
Read the whole thing. It’s a really important piece.
The lefty Evangelical writer Jonathan Merritt responded that he would “take courageous Jen Hatmaker over her cowardly critics any day.” He hysterically accuses these critics of engaging in “character assassination.” Excerpt:
Jesus may not be prophesying about modern America, but his words remind us that religious people have a tendency to believe that they’ve been commissioned by God to purify the church of those who refuse to genuflect to the whichever Christian warlord is ruling their region. These people will work to expel dissenters from the community in the name of God, convinced that heaven looks on them with favor for their efforts. In this regard, 1st century Palestine doesn’t look all that dissimilar from 21st Century America.
To express views as Jen Hatmaker did took guts. It took courage. She knew there would be blowback from the evangelical mafia for stating what she believed, but she stood up and spoke up anyway. She knew that angry letters would follow, that she might lose some fans and followers and readers. But she decided to speak the truth anyway.
“Truth”? What is truth? Merritt has decided that his smelly little liberal orthodoxy is Truth, because it suits what he prefers to believe. I have no doubt that he believes Hatmaker spoke the truth, but how does he know it’s the truth? On what grounds does he, an Internet commenter, determine that Hatmaker speaks truth and Warren speaks falsehood? He unintentionally confirms Warren’s point: that there is a crisis of authority within the church, and that it is really important.
It is worth pointing out that even churches that have formal structures of teaching authority are caught up in this crisis too. It is often impossible for orthodox Catholics to argue with liberal ones, many of whom believe they are under no obligation to submit their consciences to the authority of the Roman church, even though that is the key thing that sets them apart as Catholics from Eastern Orthodox and Protestant believers. I would wager that an orthodox Catholic would be more likely to find Christians who agreed with him on key moral issues at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary than on the faculty of Boston College. Formal structures of authority are necessary, but in liquid modernity, insufficient.
Denny Burk, who teaches at SBTS, reminds Merritt that “it is not ‘character assassination’ for the church to be the church.” Excerpt:
There are more problems in Merritt’s article than I can address in a single essay, but it is worth pointing out some of the more significant mischaracterizations. The entire 2,000-year history of the Christian church has spoken univocally about homosexuality. Faithful Christians have always believed what the scriptures teach about this. Homosexuality is sexual immorality and is therefore sinful (Rom. 1:26-27; 1 Cor. 6:9-11; 1 Tim. 1:10). We understand that this is an unpopular point of view today, but it is nevertheless what the church has always believed and confessed.
There are many voices within the North American evangelical movement that are turning away from what the church has always believed and confessed. Hatmaker is now among them. They are trying to tell people that sexual immorality is compatible with following Jesus. And they are asking the rest of the church to accept their point of view as within the orthodox stream.
The problem is that their teaching never has been, is not, and never will be within the orthodox stream. It will always be a mark of those who have fallen away from the faith. Theirs is an ancient error—one that can be found within the pages of the New Testament itself:
“Contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints. For certain people have crept in unnoticed who long ago were designated for this condemnation, ungodly people, who pervert the grace of our God into sensuality and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ” (Jude 3-4)
What is this departure from “the faith once for all delivered to the saints”? What is this teaching that amounts to a denial of “our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ” and that puts adherents under “condemnation”? It is the teaching that distorts the grace of God into a permission slip for sexual immorality. It is the errant notion that somehow God is okay with sexual immorality after all.
But He’s not okay with it. And neither are his people, the church. Faithful Christians are never going to accept this teaching. The true church is never going to embrace this. It may look otherwise to those who are focused on Christian organizations in the secular west. But this is not an accurate picture of the church worldwide, which is overwhelmingly with the orthodox on this question. And if we give attention to what G.K. Chesterton called the “democracy of the dead”—the faith of the church throughout the ages—it becomes very clear that American revisionists are a tiny schismatic minority. Just an ounce of historical and global perspective puts the lie to the notion that the revisionists are winning the day on this. They are not.
They may win the day in the United States — that remains to be seen — but if so, theirs will have been a Pyrrhic victory, because the compromises they will have made to accommodate this extremist revisionism will have destroyed the church. As I wrote in a 2015 post highlighting an interview between William Kristol and David Gelernter:
Why was Obergefell the tipping point? (And believe me, it really was; as longtime readers know, I’ve been writing about this stuff for at least a decade, but few people paid attention until Obergefell.)
The Obergefell ruling was only possible as the conclusion of a long period of the dissolution of the ties that bind (in the Connerton sense). When the Supreme Court can find in the Constitution the right to deny not only biological reality, but virtually the entire history of Western thought and practice about sex and social relations, we have entered into uncharted waters. Obergefell is critically important because of what it says about individualism and desire in our post-Christian culture, and because anti-discrimination principles will be the instrument in which Christian individuals and institutions are banished from the public square, both in law and in culture.
In short, Obergefell is a condensed symbol of nominalist, therapeutic, individualist culture, and how it has conquered the American mind and the American Establishment. Roe v Wade was a part of this long march away from our past, and anything that would restrict individual liberties because of a Christian moral order, but it wasn’t as revolutionary. Roe did not challenge the basic idea of gender, marriage or family, much less write the cultural revolution that did into constitutional law.
What does this have to do with Kristol and Gelernter? Notice this from Gelernter:
So we have second-generation ignorance is much more potent than first-generation ignorance. It’s not just a matter of one generation, of incremental change. It’s more like multiplicative change. A curve going up very fast. And swamping us. Taking us by surprise.
Young adults today, especially many Christian ones, cannot explain in even a rudimentary way why we believe and do the things we do. It’s all about individual choice and preference for them. And so they don’t really know that they are guided by their own passions, and that these choices are being made for them, because neither their parents nor their normative institutions gave them any grounding in the past, or outside of themselves. Their religious institutions have by and large been conquered by Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, an infinitely malleable faith that bears only tangential resemblance to what came before it.
And here is Kristol, again:
What strikes me today is – correct me if I’m wrong – is there’s not even that sense of lack or of not knowing or knowing that you don’t know or admiring the people who really know. It’s almost not even a sense of what it would mean to really know something. Is that exaggerating?
Gelernter says it is no exaggeration. I have heard the same thing from other college professors, men and women who teach at Christian colleges. Most of the kids they teach don’t know what they don’t know, and critically, don’t care.
The Benedict Option has to be about learning to love the past, and to care about it, to the point of suffering for it. And not just “the past,” which can become an idol, but the God and the faith that comes to us through the past, in Scripture, and in Tradition. We cannot make it up as we go along. Churches that do this in an attempt to be relevant and seeker-sensitive are preparing their flocks for assimilation to the secular culture.
The Czech dissident novelist Milan Kundera wrote, “The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.” The struggle of Christians in the West today is not the struggle of conservatives versus liberals, but the struggle of remembrance against amnesia.
The Jonathan Merritts of the world would have the church forget everything it knew until the day before yesterday, for the sake of accommodating what they wish were true. Those who follow them will be following them right out of Christianity, whether they realize it or not. Today they look like the secular culture at prayer. Their kids — if they have any — will wonder why bother with prayer. And that will be the end. Look at European Christianity.
If you are inclined to agree with Merritt on the nature of religion and authority, I advise you to watch A Man For All Seasons, or at least this one-minute clip:
If Merritt, Hatmaker, and their philosophical allies (whose number includes professing Catholic and Orthodox Christians) are willing to cut down the authority of Scripture and tradition, however understood, for the sake of casting out something they view as a diabolical prejudice, what will they do when, say, a race-supremacist Christian declares that the “truth” is something that is clearly antithetical to Biblical teaching? Where will they stand, having denied any binding authority outside of individual subjectivity?
As Peter Brown, a leading contemporary historian of the early church, puts it in his magisterial work The Rise of Western Christendom, the barbarian invasions that overturned the Roman Empire in the West did not happen at once:
The Roman frontier was not violently breached by barbarian ‘invasions.’ Rather, between 200 and 400, the frontier itself changed. From being a defensive region, which kept Romans and “barbarians” apart, it had become, instead, an extensive “middle ground,” in which Roman and barbarian societies were drawn together. And after 400, it was the barbarians and long longer the Romans who became the dominant partners in that middle ground. The Middle Ages begin, not with a dramatic “fall of Rome,” but with the barely perceived and irreversible absorption, by the “barbarians,” of the “middle ground” created in the Roman frontier zone.
What Denny Burk and Tish Harrison Warren are doing is defending the borders. This is vital work.