Who’s in Charge of us?

by Tara Livesay on April 28, 2017

A couple of days ago Christianity Today published and article titled “Who’s in Charge of the Christian Blogosphere?”  The subtitle was, “The age of the Internet has birthed a crisis of authority, especially for women.”

As a result of changes in traditions and culture, partially born of the Internet, the article posed several questions.

It asked, “Where do bloggers and speakers 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?”

I found it fascinating, and a bit horrifying at the same time.  Because many of us that write at A Life Overseas are women, I wondered if we realize a crisis of authority has been birthed?

(Full disclosure: Attempting to limit information to certain sources and/or to claim that only a select few have the authority to speak feels cult-like to me as a result of my life experiences. I cannot be cool with this article and perhaps my bias needs to be confessed early and often.)

I encourage you to go read it in its entirety and decide for yourself.

In response to the article, a large conversation happened on Twitter, and perhaps elsewhere.  There were those that said, “YES. YES! It is not okay that these women with large platforms and no theology degree are allowed to freely speak about their Jesus without fact checking with some approved leader (maybe even a dude) person!”

There were others that said, “You are totally freakin nuts. Of course women (and men by default) without degrees in theology and without experience in formal pastoral roles can and SHOULD share what is happening in their faith walk and what they are learning as they seek to grow and become more like Christ.”

The article asked:

Where do bloggers and speakers 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?

In the conversations that came out of this first in a series of posts that CT plans to publish, Rachel Held Evans tweeted, “In the information age, the trick isn’t controlling information; it’s teaching people to be discerning in how they digest that information.”

One defender of the article said, we would not go to a Physician that had not been trained, why are we reading and following, or giving a platform to, (female) Christian leaders that have not received all the credentials and stamps of approval and such?

I won’t pretend here that I am neutral in this situation.  The article made me angry.  If I get curious about what makes me angry I think it is the idea that some feel it is necessary to allow certain people to be the gatekeepers to faith and expressions of faith in Jesus.

If I get even more curious my anger might be intertwined with my uncomfortable position and title as “missionary”  (not a title I give/gave myself, by the way), when in fact I did not get a diploma or credentialing that says I have approval or the right to serve or share love (Jesus love) in another country.

Where do I derive my authority?

If the CT article holds water, the question for us then is, Where do “missionaries” (me, maybe you, in this case) or health-care workers or any other “development” folks (me,maybe you, in this case) derive their authority to speak and teach and work and share their faith – via evangelism OR any other avenue of service? And who holds them accountable for their work? What kinds of theological training and ecclesial credentialing are necessary for Christian teachers and leaders and workers abroad? What interpretive body and tradition do these missionaries speak out of? Who decides what is true Christian orthodoxy? And how do we decide whom to trust as a “Christian missionary”?

The last words of the CT article state “…we have to ensure that all Christian leaders—male and female alike—have oversight and accountability that matches the weight of their authority and influence.”

What do you think?  Assuming we are speaking specifically of the weight of the influence you have as a “missionary” or “aide-worker” abroad, what do you think about your own oversight and accountability? What do you think about what you see happening around you?

In the context you work it is very likely you have seen some pretty bad train-wrecks. If you are anything like my husband and I, you have stood by and witnessed much damage done by people of faith that arrived to your particular place of residence/work without any formal training or preparedness for the work. It is likely you’ve seen harm done under the umbrella of Christian mission.  (On the flip side – some of the most lovely and redemptive work around is often being done by folks that lack all the fancy training and all the letters behind their names.  What then?)

Should there be better oversight and accountability?  

What is our responsibility?  

What do you think about the article?

What do you think about it as it applies to those of us doing “missions” abroad?

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About Tara Livesay

Tara and her family have lived in Haiti since 2006. She resides in Port au Prince, where she serves as a CPM (Midwife) with Heartline Ministries - Maternity Center working in the area orphan prevention, Maternal and Newborn Health. Tara is a the wife of Troy, the mother of seven children ranging in age from 27 to 9 years old and has recently become a grandmother to 3 grandsons. Tara enjoys friends, laughing, sarcasm and spending time with her family.
  • Maya Johnson

    I was just reading about Martin Luther and the reformation and about the danger that Luther recognized of translating the Bible into the vernacular. I didn’t know he agonized over that. Giving the Bible into the hands of the common people was going to bring light and life, but it also, as he forsaw, would open up is many opportunities for error and falsity. He was right. Even among reformers there would so many disputes and strife. And I think Part of this whole problem is the way humans deal with freedom. But Martin Luther, knowing the depravity of man, believed in the Word of God and it’s power.
    Personally, I have gained so much wisdom from some women writers with no degrees who were able to speak into my situation when I needed insight, but this busy world made it impossible for me to connect with anyone, let alone someone with credentials. I just needed a fellow mom who was further along!
    What are we to do? Train and disciple those around us. Reach out to the younger mom and busy her mind with good stuff. Teach and teach and teach. Starting with Sunday school, youth group, take every opportunity. In discipleship relationships – do heavy stuff, like doctrine, theology, real Bible study. Nothing surfacy and processed. That’s what the apostles did, and they had all kinds of false teaching abound.

    • Thomas

      Beautifully put. There is absolutely a place for authority in our anti-authoritarian age. But all shepherds of Christ’s flock are only at best under-shepherds. And even then, under-shepherds bounded by place and time. And even with such authority, if we do not cleave to the Word and steep in the Spirit, we are walking lost and dragging our entourage in the same direction.

      We need people around us and yet, like you mention, the Internet can provide such voices that speak into our lives where others around us simply can’t. Some of what we read here is the fruit of much meditation that simply cannot be borne up among Western minds living primarily in Western soil, even with profound thoughts and sterling educational pedigrees. Another reason I need to read more non-Westerners, whether living in Western or non-Western soil, but I digress…

      The Word is a powerful and dangerous tool but it, along with the Spirit, alone bring life!

  • Linda Funke

    Still processing it all. I definitely understand and acknowledge the need for accountability and guidance, but in reading the CT article, I had to wonder how many Pharisees might also have said Jesus is “lacking any accountability to formal structures of church governance.”

  • Marla Taviano

    The article made me angry too. For starters, because it bashed one of my dear friends over the head. Asking myself right now, “If that wasn’t the case, would I still be angry?” Yes. For the same reasons you said. Who gets to be the gatekeeper? Funny thing is, theology is already all over the place (with our 8 billion denominations). Good luck figuring out how to gatekeep all that.

    Rachel (I think it was her–and lots of others too) also said, “Readers aren’t stupid sheep. They have the ability to discern what’s truth and what’s not.” Not to mention that you can put 100 people with multiple seminary degrees/ordinations/whatever in a room and come up with 100 different ideas of what truth is in any given scenario. RIGHT? “Who decides what is truth?” is not even a question that can be answered.

    Sigh.

    The funny thing is–there is no way on EARTH to gatekeep any of this. BECAUSE THE INTERNET. It’s an uncontrollable force. And the more you tell people to get in line and shush yo’ mouths, the more verbal they’re going to become.

    And I don’t even want to answer all your missionary questions, because they give me a headache. 🙂

    Let me use you as an example. I follow your life online, and we’ve chatted lots privately (also online). I see your work, I see your heart, I hear your struggles, I admire you like heck. Do I take everything you say as indisputable truth? No. Put you on a pedestal and refuse to believe you could ever be wrong about anything? No. But you aren’t claiming that anyway. You’re speaking out of your personal experience, and your convictions you feel are Spirit-led. And it’s beautiful.

    We are trying (age-old thing we do) to put God in a box. All caps time. GOD WILL NOT BE PUT IN A BOX. Not now, not then, not EVER.

    • Abby

      Yes! So totally agree with what you’ve written. That is all. Thank you!!

  • Deborah Galyen

    I didn’t have this reaction to the CT article. As a missionary and woman in ministry (our denomination ordains women, by the way), I thought it was more a general word of warning that in the age of the internet, we do need discernment. No, people out there reading/listening don’t always have the tools to recognize truth from distortions, which is Paul and Peter warned against false teachers. That’s not at all to diminish the wonderful and important work being done by women (and men!) without theological degrees or recognition from institutions. Two words come to my mind: humility and transparency. Humility says that if we choose some kind of teaching/preaching/writing about the Word as our main life career, or we have enormous influence, we should be good stewards of that role and get all the training possible. Why not? It’s not going to make us less passionate! Transparency says that we should be happy to let our readers/audience know to whom we are accountable, what stream of Christianity we come from, who are our teachers and mentors. Personally, I don’t think any of that would lessen the power and impact of individuals who are in ministry in the USA or abroad, and it would help people who are sifting through thousands and thousands of conflicting messages in the Christian internet world. However, I can certainly sympathize with the negative reaction of the author and can see her point.

    • Ashley Dykstra

      I only skimmed the CT article, but what I got out of it was a reminder to all of us (male/female) that it’s biblical and just plain wise to position ourselves under authority and accountability. This is all the more true when we find ourselves in a position of teaching and influencing others. I don’t think the article was insisting that a blogger or teacher needs to have certain credentials or education, however it’s in our best interest to be continually learning and growing. Christianity in America has moved away from the idea that our local church has any sort of authority over us, but perhaps this is to our detriment. Why wouldn’t we want to have people we trust come along side us in ministry and help us stay on track in our words and actions?

  • Matthew Davis

    Blog on I say, the onus is definitely on the reader though to check facts. Our consumption of media is increasingly polarized i.e. we naturally seek information from those we agree with, so the challenge for me is to respectfully hear another’s opinion, but take responsibility to be informed before I agree.
    A recent article in Foreign Affairs highlighted the perils of offering an ill informed opinion; ‘Public Policy Polling asked a broad sample of Democratic and Republican primary voters whether they would support bombing Agrabah. Nearly a third of Republican respondents said they would, versus 13 percent who opposed the idea. Democratic preferences were roughly reversed; 36 percent were opposed, and 19 percent were in favor. Agrabah doesn’t exist. It’s the fictional country in the 1992 Disney film Aladdin.’
    So I hopefully we will be quick to listen, slow to talk, and only after we’ve given it much thought.

  • Genevieve Williamson

    I haven’t read the full article yet but I have witnessed some hefty damage done by those in authority with “qualifications”, education and (supposedly) oversight so I’m not sure how any of that ensures anything.

    • Isn´t it on us to, like the Bereans, double check what anyone says against the Word of God? We need to be conscious of that wether the person speaking is “qualified” by human standards, or not!

  • As a blogger, the whole situation makes me cagey. I personally make sure that I´m publishing only what my church elders would agree with. At the same time, I think readers do need to be discerning.

    As a missionary though, I do believe I´m accountable to my church elders – those who sent me out here in the first place. That´s not really an option. We see in the Bible the practice of missionaries like Paul coming back and not only reporting what was happening on the mission field, but also having discussions with the church leaders about how to deal with problematic situations (like gentiles getting circumcised, etc.)

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