The subject of women’s online platforms has been a live one over the last few weeks. A couple of days ago, Christianity Today published an article by Tish Harrison Warren, which provoked considerable controversy, many believing that women were being unfairly singled out by the piece and their voices delegitimized. I wrote a post addressing many of the issues Warren highlights in November, suggesting that many of our problems relate to a fundamental crisis of trust in evangelical circles. That is probably the first place to go for my thoughts on this issue.
The following are a few loosely connected further thoughts.
We need to beware of blaming individual agents for what is in large measure a structural problem. As I have argued at length in the past, the very structure of the currently existing Internet encourages dysfunctional discourse and modes of ‘community’. Many of the barriers to speech that the Internet has removed were necessary protective barriers. Ironically, the removal of these barriers has often not led to liberation, but to the loss of freedoms that healthy boundaries can give us.
The Internet causes problems by bringing us all too close together, in ways that encourage confusion, conflict, impulsivity, and reactivity. It also obscures the healthy social functioning of authority, by making such things as age, context, community, and office invisible and by obscuring the reality of sexual difference. On the Internet we all have egalitarian ‘accounts’, we are not bound to any particular community, and are caught up in a spectacle of our own virtual identities that makes virtue- and identity-signalling practically unavoidable. Again, this is not something that we choose to do (or can simply choose not to do), it is just the way that the Internet is and how it shapes us.
Many, probably most, of us who have online ‘platforms’—for want of a better word—never set out with the aim of creating them. My blogging grew out of participation in online theology forum discussions, which itself grew out of participation in offline theology discussion groups I started with friends. The primary driving force throughout has always been the fact that I think out loud and in conversation and greatly value sharpening interaction with others and sharing ideas.
There have been a great many ways that I could have increased my platform by pursuing publication on more prestigious or popular sites or by tailoring my work for a wider audience. However, when these possibilities have been in tension with my fundamental aim in blogging, I have generally declined or refrained from them. Much of my blogging has started its life in comment threads, private email discussion lists or forums, Twitter, or personal conversation. The majority of my writing isn’t published and that which is published on my blog is seldom very polished. My blog has been a way of exploring trains of thought that outgrew their initial media. Even Mere Fidelity has been determinedly amateur in its guiding principles: we are four guys recording unrehearsed, unedited, and unplanned conversations that are much the same as those we have in private. In fact, I increasingly find myself retreating from the more open online contexts, because I can no longer have the same sort of conversations that I once enjoyed on them.
However, although I have never pursued a platform, I have ended up with one. Over 50,000 people have read certain posts on this blog. Thousands of people visit my blog or read my writings every day. A number of publishers have asked me to write for them. Many people I admire with considerable influence or authority have shared or recommended my writings.
Having a largely unsought platform can be both a blessing and an irritation. Whereas I may blog in pursuit of stimulating conversation and to articulate ideas that have excited or interested me, a lot of people may treat me as a teacher. This places responsibilities upon me that I did not have when I was just a random blogging theology nerd. However, even in recognizing those responsibilities, this situation has never been one with which I am entirely comfortable. I would much prefer writing for a considerably more targeted audience.
I am not ordained. I hold no official or teaching position in my church. I am not an employee or official representative of any Christian organization, although I have worked for several. Although I have a doctoral degree in theology, it is from a secular university. The pastoral oversight to which I am subject is rather limited as just a regular congregant in a Church of England church. No one in my church context is going to be reading or listening to my material before it gets published. Even if they had the time in which to do so—theologically assessing upwards of 3,000 words daily is not a task anyone would sign up for! And few would really be qualified to do so.
Although I have definitely not purposefully avoided accountability and have welcomed it where I have found it (primarily in communities of trained theologians, where I have smart and godly people who will disagree and argue with me when necessary), once again there is a structural problem here. No party really exists that could provide effective ecclesial oversight.
Offline, it is quite possible to distinguish between the informal and institutional discourses of academic and amateur theologians, communities of lay Christian conversation, and the authoritative teaching of the Church. One can more easily tell the authority and authorization with which someone speaks. Unfortunately, online media make drawing such distinctions increasingly difficult. It flattens out conversations and contexts in ways that lead to disorder.
In such situations, the problem may not be so much one of people speaking without authority or authorization, as the fact that the difference between such people and those who do have specific forms of authority and authorization has been rendered unclear by the media. Where structures of authority are clearly visible, the appropriate boundaries are also a lot more visible, and it is easier to uphold the boundaries without needing closely to police any of the actual conversations taking place. Without the clarity of structures of authority and boundaries, however, church leaders risk being officious in their policing of lay conversations and lay conversations risk blinding their participants to pastoral and other modes of authority or authorization or undermining pastoral authority.
These problems aren’t exclusive to the Church. Companies increasingly feel the need to clamp down on their employees’ use of social media, lest it be thought that their opinions are being expressed as a representative of their company or organization. Social media has blurred the boundaries between public and private, authorized and unauthorized, publicized and obscure, etc. As I have often argued, this leads to many conflicts and confusions as the norms, meaning, and contexts of discourse become ambiguous. The loss of differentiation in social discourse is damaging in many ways, one of the most important being the way in which it presses different groups and contexts into conflict with each other, as, without clear distinctions each group trespasses upon the rightful place of others.
Evangelicalism has always had populist, democratic, anti-hierarchical, and egalitarian instincts within it. However, these instincts have typically existed alongside many other instincts that served to correct, counterbalance, or check them. The rise of modern media, especially the Internet, has removed many of the limits to these instincts, radically empowering egalitarian and anti-hierarchical instincts over others.
The Internet weakens the pull of locality and the power of context more generally, while empowering movements that are dislodged from physical context and reality, more fully congruent with its tendencies. This radically shifts the balance of power between parachurch or non-ecclesial agencies and those of the local church. Evangelicalism was always going to be in trouble when the means of self-publication were spread to the masses and the general monopoly of the pulpit upon the public dispensing of theological opinion started to crumble. At least as long as the pulpit held sway, some general standards of theological training could—rather unevenly—be maintained as prerequisites for access to it and there was more hope of a mature conversation. The publishing industry would also primarily discover potential writers among trained pastors and academics, rather than among people who had obtained prominence largely independent of such institutions online.
Institutional and familial commitments can tend to pull people away from the world of Internet, meaning that the world of online discourse is dominated by relatively unseasoned youngsters. A disproportionate number of us were born in the 80s and 90s. The structure of our cultural discourse increasingly prematurely propels younger persons to positions of front line influence, without first submitting them as apprentices to older, wiser elders or, for that matter, to any institution at all. It would be very interesting to trace the generational development of the average age of popular Christian authors.
I have written in the past about the rise of the ‘first person industrial complex’, the proliferation of memoirs written by Christians in their twenties and younger thirties. The influence of such ‘super-peers’ has often replaced the guidance of ‘dis-temporaries’, members of an older generation, and the relationship between the generations in evangelicalism has increasingly been characterized by distrust and detachment. With this shift in generational and intergenerational dynamics has come a shift in the functioning of authority, a movement from the authority of wise elders to the influence of savvy and charismatic peers.
It is difficult to understand the crisis of authority in the evangelical church without also taking into account the degree to which people have been betrayed by a generation of abusive leadership. Despotic and sexually abusive leaders have scarred much of a generation and produced a deep suspicion and distrust in old modes of leadership. These leaders may still enjoy office and power, but the legitimacy of their authority is no longer acknowledged.
Putting the question of authority to one side, there are many other reasons to be concerned about the character of Christian discourse in the Internet age. I wonder whether people lamenting the lack of authority may often be confusing the absence of clear authority with the absence or non-functioning of realities that were formerly proximate or related to it.
For instance, I have frequently discussed problems with the standard of writing and reading online. Once again, this problem is as much structural as it is individual: the Internet tends to destroy context, democratizes conversations, produces distracted readers, weakens the connection between opinion and action, encourages reactive writing over reflective writing, etc., etc. Old authority structures and the control of the means of publication by publishers with editorial staff established some degree of quality control for discourse, disproportionately favouring the most learned, experienced, and mature voices in public conversation. The glaring lack of such quality control online is not straightforwardly a result of a lack of authority, as it is a result of the democratizing of the means of publication. The limits that ensured the higher quality of discourse were not simply limits of authority, but things such as the costliness of publication, the difficulty and lengthiness of the process of writing for publication, the typical distinction between the author and the publisher, and the role of editors.
That more authority isn’t the answer is also suggested by the fact that authoritative figures often embarrass themselves online, just like the rest of us. The speed of Internet discourse can make authority figures reactive too. Its excessive intimacy and democracy leads them to forget their station. They also get caught up in the spectacle and can allow their online persona, which is projected to be seen by others, to eclipse their actual self.
A friend of mine observed that Warren’s article equivocated in its use of the term ‘authority’. This, it seems to me, is one of the chief problems in this debate, and in the debates about women and authority more generally.
‘Authority’ is a term that carries various senses, a point that I have made recently in writing about debates concerning the ‘eternal subordination of the Son.’ Divine authority, for instance, is singular, yet modally differentiated by the three persons. Authority comes from the Father: the Father is the one who authorizes. The Father gives all authority to the Son, who is the powerful expression of God’s authority, the authoritative Word or Image of God. The Spirit is the one in whom divine authority is realized, rendered fruitful, and carried through to its completion. There is only one divine authority, yet this divine authority is ‘appropriated’ differently by the three persons.
Distinctions between forms or modes of authority are especially important when we consider relations between the sexes as debates about the authority of men and women commonly muddle together senses of authority that ought to be distinguished from each other. The following is a very rough, heuristic taxonomy of three key modes of authority.
‘Authority’ can sometimes be used in the sense of ‘authorization’. ‘Authorization’ is formal authority that can be vested in someone by a person or institution, typically in order that the authorized person should represent and effect the institution’s authority.
‘Authority’ is a term that has close associations with notions of powerful agency. In this sense, the person with authority is the pre-eminent person in a group, the person whose agency is most strong and developed. The authoritative person is the person who has pronounced, forceful, and confident agency by which they can put themselves to the fore.
‘Authority’ can also refer to the moral, social, and affective authority enjoyed by people who are effective at gathering others around them, people who are charismatic, loved, and who are gifted at galvanizing communities and getting others to act on their behalf.
The first mode of authority tends to be imaged and represented by the second mode of authority: the authority of our institutions is typically represented and effected by persons who naturally possess very strong agency. Such persons are able to act and speak powerfully in combative situations. In this manner, these persons protect and uphold our institutions and their values.
The first mode of authority can also legitimize, support, recognize, and give place to the third mode of authority and is itself given flesh by this third mode of authority. However, this sort of relationship is different from that which exists with the second mode of authority. While the robust agency of the second mode of authority effectively images and establishes the first mode of authority that authorizes it, the third mode of authority requires both the authorization of the first mode and the empowering support and protection of the second mode for its effective operation.
The second mode is authorized by the first mode and then filled out and glorified by the third mode of authority, without which it can be forceful but, as it lacks the centripetal gathering force of the third mode of authority, unfruitful.
Perhaps the problem at the heart of all this is that the second mode of authority is overwhelmingly (though not exclusively) male and the third mode of authority is overwhelmingly (though not exclusively) female. The third (and greatly underappreciated) mode of authority is powerfully on display online in the realm of social media. Women gather communities around them in ways that men cannot, they seek authorization and petition others to act forcefully on their behalf. Women tend to possess and represent the heart of any community, irrespective of the forcefulness of the agency of the men in the community, or whether or not they have authorization. Just as men can be unmindful of the sort of power that we possess and the advantages it gives us, I don’t believe many women fully appreciate the sort of authority they can wield, not least because it is less direct in its operation and expression.
The second mode of authority can also be seen in the way that men can fairly effortlessly dominate many situations and contexts they find themselves in through their more forceful agency. Male groups produce and foster strong agency and direct power. Men routinely engage in ritual combat over values, ideas, communities, etc., encouraging robustness, vigour, mastery, and strength. Men are fairly naturally suited to function as the guardians of groups and, through robustly imaging the authority of the groups that authorize them, strengthen and uphold the authorizing authority. These differences between men and women are very clearly visible online, to any who are paying attention.
It should be noticed that women’s appeals for ‘authority’ are typically appeals for the first and second modes of authority to operate on their behalf: they want to be ‘authorized’ and they want to be ‘empowered’. This is very important. The authority that they express and assert in these appeals is generally their moral and social authority, their capacity powerfully to gather others around them and get others to act for them.
It should also be noticed that these appeals for ‘authority’ are often also appeals to be given offices commonly associated with the second mode of authority, offices that image and establish the authorizing authority of the first mode. Problems arise here, because empowerment requires an empowering authority: it depends upon the support, protection, and service of the second mode of authority. However, women’s quest for authority in the church and society increasingly takes the form of a conflict between the second and the third modes of authority. As this conflict occurs, men’s strength becomes an obstacle.
The resulting conflict can take many forms. If the first mode of authority supports women in their appeal, more typical male authority can be delegitimized and its offices increasingly occupied by women and men who downplay their natural tendencies and capacities. The result of this can be institutional weakness and inability to engage effectively in strengthening conflict. Men can abdicate their strength and responsibility and display a sort of unmanliness, afraid of asserting themselves lest they silence or marginalize the women. Alternatively, men can dissemble the differences between the sexes in these areas, while consistently rushing to the defence of women when they face challenge. While well-meaning, this can become deeply dysfunctional as it has the tendency of replacing the robust imaging and effecting of the fundamentally authorizing authority with an ordering of the community around the protection of the exposed vulnerability of women. Such communities will also often become smothering and forcefully close down agency and challenge (especially of men), as everything is reordered around the vulnerability and potential victimhood of women.
On the other hand, if the first mode of authority supports the more forceful male authority, women can be marginalized, silenced, or crushed. Or, as we see in many evangelical contexts, the male ‘heads’ may remain strongly rooted in their place, while the women whom they have mistreated increasingly powerfully draw the heart of the movement away from them.
What is required is a healthy interaction of modes of authority, so that the Church and society are neither overwhelmingly ordered around men nor ordered in a dysfunctional manner in a misguided attempt to empower women. Rather, men must exercise their authority in ways that are authorized and in ways that are empowering of women, that serve, protect, and give strength to their work and underwrite their modes of authority.
In turn, women should recognize and honour men who image the authorizing authority of church and society righteously, exercising their own distinctive moral and social authority in authorized ways to render that authority effective.
All of this is a fairly rudimentary and abstract sketch of some complex and subtle social dynamics. However, while there is a great deal of detail that needs to be filled out, the important point is that ‘authority’ is heterogeneous. Women’s voices should be heeded and carry weight in the life of the Church, not merely as a matter of permission, but as a necessity for the well-being of the community. We haven’t gotten this right, not by a long shot. Yet talking about ‘authority’ in a univocal manner, inattentive to differences between the sexes in this area, is a recipe for problems and dysfunction. God created us as male and female, not as gender neutral individuals, and the differences between the sexes really do make a difference.