Women Evangelical Influencers
As most readers know, I don’t know a lot about Evangelical culture, but I’ve enjoyed getting to know new Evangelical friends over the past year or two, researching the Benedict Option project. I consider myself a sympathetic outsider to conservative Evangelicals — a fellow traveler, you might say. Recently, one of those friends — a plugged-in Millennial — has been telling me that he expects most of American Evangelicalism eventually to abandon Christian orthodoxy on LGBT issues. His basic argument runs similar to the kind of argument you hear from conservative Catholics regarding a particular fault of Evangelicalism: this is the consequence of a weaker ecclesiology, one that have the strength to withstand popular culture.
The fact that Catholicism and Orthodoxy both have very strong ecclesiologies has not prevented most US Catholics and US Orthodox Christians from being far more liberal than average Americans are on LGBT matters, in contradiction to what both churches teach. Their ecclesiology has not protected the flock from abandoning orthodox Christian truth on this matter. I’m not sure what that has to say about my friend’s theory, but I’m hoping some of you readers — Evangelical, Catholic, and Orthodox — will have something helpful to say about it.
The reason I bring this up here is as a response to Christianity Today’s long, fascinating article about the Evangelical writer and blogger Jen Hatmaker, who recently caused a big stir by coming out in favor of gay marriage and full affirmation of sexually active LGBT Christians. It turns out that figures like Hatmaker, a laywoman, have influence over more Evangelicals than do some pretty well known figures. Excerpts:
“If you had to ask, ‘Who’s Jen Hatmaker?’ it’s time to be more directly invested in the spiritual nurture of half your church,” tweeted Jen Wilkin last month. The women’s ministry leader was responding to the wave of Christian reactions to news that LifeWay Christian Stores had stopped selling books by Hatmaker—one of the biggest writers and speakers among today’s generation of evangelical women—after she spoke out in support of same-sex marriage.
Hatmaker’s popularity underscores how women’s ministry has transformed in the 21st century. Christian women increasingly look to nationally known figures for spiritual formation and inspiration—especially when they don’t see leaders who look like them stepping up in their own churches.
While various evangelical subcultures may find different female teachers filling their social media feeds and Amazon recommendations (Austin-based Hatmaker seems especially popular among white women in the South and Midwest), the numbers show that the top names in women’s ministry rival or even outdraw high-profile televangelists and megachurch pastors.
As Wilkin pointed out, while most evangelical women know their Tim Kellers from their Rick Warrens, male pastors aren’t expected to parse female teachers.
“The bookshelves in their offices contain no books by contemporary female authors, and their sermons typically do not reference female voices, other than the usual suspects of Elisabeth Elliot or Corrie ten Boom—both dead, for the record,” said Wilkin, a minister at The Village Church in Texas. “The typical church organizational structure tends to segregate women’s ministry as an autonomous unit—a mysterious kingdom that operates according to its own set of rules.”
That kingdom has expanded in the Internet era, when ambitious women can draw mass followings around their writings, teachings, and events without the restrictions of geography, official titles, or other structures.
The biggest names in women’s ministry—from Hatmaker to authors like Shauna Niequist—remain intimately involved in their own local churches, and most have Bible college or seminary degrees. Still, without traditional structures in place, followers can find themselves wondering about a leader’s stance on a particular issue or surprised by her sudden change in approach. (This scenario can happen within ecclesiastical or organizational hierarchies from time to time, but doctrinal policies usually give followers a better sense of what to expect.) Hatmaker’s fans include women who celebrate her decision to affirm same-sex marriage, as well as many who are, in her words, “angry or shocked or confused” by it.
Again, because this world is entirely foreign to me, I’m not taking a position on it, but rather asking you readers for your insights. For years Evangelical friends have told me that Evangelicals run the risk of falling hard for a charismatic teacher, and not being as discerning as they ought to be about his theological errors or faults. With the women’s ministry as defined by Kate Shelnutt’s CT article, is this a particular problem, or is it the same problem in general?
I don’t know if you saw it, but the popular women’s lay Christian leader Glennon Doyle Melton, who announced earlier this year that she was leaving her husband of 14 years, said on Sunday that she is now dating a woman, the soccer star Abby Wambach. Says the Chicago Tribune:
Why is this news?
Couple of reasons: One, millions have followed Melton’s “brutiful” (her word for brutal + beautiful) life story — a story that includes a decades-long battle with substance abuse and bulimia, three lovely children, a marriage beset by infidelity and, most recently, a separation from her husband — through her books, her Momastery blog, her social media posts and her public speaking appearances.
Two, her new love is Abby Wambach, the two-time Olympic gold medalist and Women’s World Cup champion.
“Abby is deeply sensitive and kind,” Doyle writes on Facebook and Instagram. “The kids call her an M&M because she looks tough on the outside but inside she’s really mushy and sweet. Abby’s brave. Not just with her words but with her entire being. She has never been afraid to be herself, even when the world told her not to be. I learn from her everyday about the woman I want to become.”
The posts read like the beginning of a dialogue, which is partly what endears Melton to millions.
“Remember in ‘Love Warrior’ how hard I struggled to understand what being in love meant?” she writes. “I get it now. I get it. I am in love. And I’m really, deeply happy.”
She answers a few of the questions she assumes will pop up. (“Isn’t this fast?” “How are the kids?” “How is Craig?”) And she acknowledges that some people might be left wondering how to feel.
“My loves, here is the good news,” she writes. “You are allowed to think and feel WHATEVER YOU NEED OR WANT TO FEEL! … That is what I want to model now, because that is what I want for YOU: I want you to grow so comfortable in your own being, your own skin, your own knowing that you become more interested in your own joy and freedom and integrity than in what others think about you. That you remember that you only live once, that this is not a dress rehearsal and so you must BE who you are.”
You are allowed to think and feel WHATEVER YOU NEED OR WANT TO FEEL! What theological codswallop. And yet, this kind of thing is celebrated by a lot of younger Evangelicals. Not even an attempt to base this in theological convictions; only self-worship.
Is this a female thing, this approach to mass Christianity, or is it general to our Christian pop culture today? Asking seriously.