The Misogyny and Heresy of Church Authority

This week a Christianity Today article made some social media noise, asking the question “Who’s in charge of the Christian blogosphere?” It was a loaded one, for sure.

On its face, the article was a supposed reflection on where Christians outside of official leadership positions in organized religion derive their moral authority. It proposed to be a healthy policing of theological viewpoints of influential followers of Jesus by other followers of Jesus, but the easily seen subtext was:

Women like Jen Hatmaker are saying things we don’t like. We need to remind them we don’t approve and that they aren’t allowed to say these things.

Hatmaker was specifically named-dropped in the piece—and the timing wasn’t at all accidental. The popular pastor/writer/blogger has recently received tremendous castigation from within a Christian pop culture machine who’d previously been enamored with her—as she’s publicly affirmed the LGBTQ and pushed back against much of the hypocrisy she’s witnessed in organized Christianity.

Though the article was written by a female Anglican priest, it was still saturated with an idea that’s been propagated for centuries, by a historically male-dominated Church that has created and gladly promoted and ratified it—

We dole out authority, sweetheart. You haven’t asked a man if you can say that.

In other words, the message was once again being sent to women (and to a lesser degree men) of faith, whose influence is gaining traction outside the scope of a denomination or local church’s influence, that they’d better behave themselves. Let’s be clear in defining our terms here, this isn’t about church authority—it’s about church control. It is a reiteration of the effort to define what is and isn’t of God for other people; to decide who gets a seat at the table and a place in the pulpit. The only problem is, a bunch of plain old flawed, failing (often white) dudes are ultimately the ones claiming the privilege—and this is the heart of the fraud perpetrated here.

Somewhere a couple of thousand years ago, a group of men decided that they would and could be the gatekeepers of the Kingdom; that they were qualified, entitled, and deserving of determining who God spoke to and through, and how such people could share such revelations. They appointed themselves custodians of the Holy Spirit and gradually we all accepted this as gospel.

Misogyny.
Heresy. 
Nonsense.

The idea that anyone has authority over another human being is the height of idolatry, and it’s antithetical to the core message of Jesus, who came to offer us proximity to God without a broker. It’s also one of the most dangerously wielded tools of exploitation and abuse the Church has ever crafted, enabling men to behave very badly and to claim Jesus is okay with it.

We see it in the practice of “Church Discipline;” where a sometimes clearly or other times ambiguously assembled group of people dole out permission and punishment in denominations, local churches, or Christian ministries, when there is disagreement in matters of faith or procedure. And what you find is that such “authorizing” bodies are as disparate and arbitrary in their beliefs, values, and methods. So just who is giving authority to them? If such authority was indeed as neat and tidy as is often alleged, there would be no corruption in church leadership, no abuses of power, no sexual misconduct. There would be theological and methodological agreement.

The Apostle Paul is recognized by many as the first official pastor of the early Church, composing a good portion of the New Testament and establishing local communities through the Roman Empire. Who gave Paul his authority? He claimed it was Jesus. Folks agreed with him—and off we went.

Simply stated: trace the current religious system of authority-dispensing back far enough and you’ll end up at Jesus, who made disciples of anyone who chose to follow him in a life of faith. Which all begs the question: who is ever in charge when Christians speak or minister? Where does reliable authority come from?
What man-made institutions, schools, ministries get to make the rules?
The answers are far less consistent than we’d like.

Furthermore, who is providing “moral authority” to Evangelical preachers who stumped for a professed pussy-grabber for President?
Where do pastors get the spiritual authority to make 7-figure salaries while being in megachurches surrounded by poverty?
Who is giving the authority to celebrity Evangelists advocating for gay-conversion therapy?

Who is giving the authority to supposed Christian politicians, currently falling over themselves to strip people of healthcare and shut out refugees?
Who’s given the authority for church leaders to conceal decades of sexual abuse in their communities?

If this is “moral authority”—you can keep it.

That isn’t to say that accountability isn’t welcome or necessary. Of course it is. The issue is, in assuming that those like Jen Hatmaker or Rachel Held Evans or Sarah Bessey don’t have those checks and balances simply because they aren’t officially sanctioned or blessed by a bunch of guys ultimately claiming an elevated status, because some other guys ascribed that status to them. All of these women are surrounded by thoughtful, responsible, faithful people and they all exist in communities where they are challenged and held to a standard of truthfulness, authenticity, and integrity. In fact, I don’t know a high-profile Christian writer that isn’t. 

The second (and as important issue) is assuming that simply because a man has a title or a degree, or that a group of his peers amens him—that he is acting by God’s authority and with God’s consent, because that simply isn’t possible. There’s a two-thousand year line of guys who’ve surrounded themselves with yes-men and subservient women, and who’ve believed themselves God and done all manner of horrible things in the process. It’s a delusion we need to relieve these men of, for their sake, for the sake of those they live and minister alongside, and for the sake of the Jesus who they claim faith in.

I served alongside a wise, passionate, creative, faithful pastor in Charlotte, who’d been raised in a religious tradition that told her she wasn’t fit to lead men, and in those controlled settings where she was given consent to share her gifts, she learned that she had to yield to a man, regardless of his qualifications, training, or the fruit of his life. 

I remember one day years ago, she said to me, “I used to be upset about not being ordained, but I don’t worry about that anymore. I’m not ordained—I’m anointed.”

I now understand what she meant, and she was right.

And this is the real story here:
God speaks to and through whomever God chooses. The Scriptures record this.
Christ is solely in charge of the Christian. We have communities to help keep us accountable and to encourage and challenge us, but ultimately no one requires a go-between. We already have a high priest.
Anyone can approach and teach the Scriptures. Women don’t need a man to interpret them.

Women are equally gifted to hear from God, and to reflect the character of Christ—period.

Who is in charge of Christian bloggers or Christian pastors or Christian politicians? Hopefully Jesus. He is the single authority to which any of us ultimately live and serve and create beneath.

And no one gets to determine that for anyone else.

We are temples of the Holy Spirit; breathing sanctuaries that carry the presence of God.

I don’t recall anyone needing permission for that.

Here are some women you would be blessed to learn from:
Nadia Bolz-Weber
Rachel Held Evans
Jen Hatmaker
Glennon Doyle Melton
Sarah Bessey
Melissa Greene
Sarahbeth Caplin
Deidra Riggs
Cindy Brandt
Jory Micah

 

 

 

 

 

The First 100 Days of This Glorious Resistance

Lots of beautiful things grow in manure. 

It is often in the absolute worst conditions that life springs up in surprisingly defiant ways, pushing back against the most dire circumstances and rewriting the story with hope when hope seems counterintuitive. 

101 days ago, I stood in the streets of downtown Raleigh, shoulder to shoulder with tens of thousands of my neighbors, making a loud, plot-twisting declaration together. We marched in solidarity with millions of like-hearted hopemongers, similarly gathered in hundreds of cities throughout our nation; a fierce though grieving army choosing not to allow fear to rule the day—but to preemptively declare love the winner.

Before Day 1 of this fraudulent, illegitimate, malignant Presidency, we marked Day 1 of our shared resistance to it—

And it has been glorious to behold.

For the first 100 days of this Administration, we have sustained our fury and our focus; speaking truth into every lie, challenging every legislative assault on Humanity, opposing every ugly bastardization of Democracy, pulling into the light every hidden misdeed. From the most disparate corners of this country we have knit ourselves together and become a singular, invincible presence—transcending race, orientation, faith tradition, and political affiliation in ways that are uniquely American. 

And we, together with a persistent Free Press and a steadfast Judiciary, have resisted continually, powerfully, magnificently. We have held one another together. We have held this country together. This is beyond debate. History is recording it for us. and our children.

Over the past 100 days people have become activated in their communities, given to charities, engaged the political process, launched nonprofits, come together with their neighbors, reached across lines of faith, become vocal on social media, braved family conflict—all in ways they never would have, if not for the harrowing moment we were thrust into. Necessity is the mother of the Resistance.

And in this way, oddly even this tragic point in our history is cause for gratitude—because it has been the genesis of our kinship, the fuel for our urgency, the occasion of our waking up. In other words, we are the beautiful thing now growing out of this horrible manure of a man, and we are altering the landscape.

And yet, none of us wanted to be this necessary. We’d all have preferred our nation had never faltered so terribly, and that we’d have spent these past 100 days continuing to partner with a President and Administration who were fully for its people—for all of them. We’d much rather not have been called on to protect Americans from their Government (or their own apathy), but since this is where our nation has found itself, this is also where we’ve found our voice. And now that we have—silence is no longer an option and neither is going backwards. So we move forward together, for as many days as it takes.

This President will do what this President always does on this day: he will try to commandeer the moment and redirect the attention, and make all manner of wild, reality-denying proclamations to steer the narrative in his favor—and like every day for the past 100 days, we will be there once again to remind the world what the truth is, what goodness looks like, and what America’s greatness is really made of. 

These past 100 days have certainly not been the days we’d have wished for, but during this time, we together have been the nation our forbears dreamed of and died for. We the people, united and indivisible, have been the unwavering opposition to injustice, the pushback against inequality, the resistance to tyranny.

And we’re just getting started.

Happy 100th Day to the unified, undeterred majority—keeping America great.

May you continue to resist in glory.

 

 

I’m a Christian—and I’m Already Tired of “Winning”

From the moment Donald Trump began his Presidential campaign last year, he promised to “Make America Great Again”. I was never all that sure what he meant (and 100 days later it’s increasingly clear that neither did he), but it now apparently involves bluster, bullying, toughness, Tweeting, bombing, golfing, platitudes, wall building, and winning—lots and lots of tiresome winning.

This grand winner’s march toward “national greatness” has been noticeably accompanied by a startling lack of decency, compassion, dignity, or class, which all underscores the painful truth:

Goodness isn’t part of the plan. It’s never been part of the plan. Goodness is not coming.

Sadder still, is that many of Trump’s professed Christians supporters want all of this, while still claiming Christ. They want to steamroll the nation into this supposed greatness—and they want Jesus to endorse it.

The only problem, is Jesus. He apparently had very little interest in such aspirations of winning.

He talked of the last being first,
of becoming servant of all,
of laying down one’s life for one’s friends,
of denying oneself,
of healing the hurting,
of caring for the poor,
of elevating the marginalized,
of freeing the oppressed,
of seeing the overlooked,
of being the peacemakers,
the foot washers,
the cheek turners,
the mercy givers,
the least-lovers.

He was a refugee, he was homeless, and he allowed himself to be captured and killed. Using Donald Trump’s own criteria, Jesus was a loser—which is why you can’t emulate both of them simultaneously.

In fact, Jesus was openly looking for losers; people who would love sacrificially and live others-centered. His life as described in the Gospels, was and is a beautifully subversive manifesto of smallness and kindness and goodness; continually affirming the sacredness of sacrifice, the dignity in humility, the redemptive nature of forgiveness.

But smallness, kindness, goodness, sacrifice, humility, and forgiveness don’t make for effective campaign slogans do they? They don’t merit boxy red hats. 

More importantly:
They don’t leverage the hidden fear in people’s hearts.

They don’t poke the tender places of anxiety and hatred.
They don’t stoke the fires of latent racism and homophobia.
They don’t manufacture easy urgency.
They don’t resonate when screamed from behind a podium.
They don’t fire up the anxious, terrified everyman.
They don’t appeal to the lowest common denominator.

And sadly, they don’t rally the Bible Belt, garner the support of popular Evangelists, or reach into the souls of many Christians anymore either—which for a person of faith is the bigger story; the growing irrelevance of Jesus in the faith tradition that bears his name.

Apparently these days it’s simply not politically sound or theologically necessary to elevate character, champion dignity, or celebrate integrity. We’ve grown pretty lousy as a society of lifting up such goodness as something for our children to strive for and as a result, less and less of them seem to have any desire for it.

This is perhaps America’s gravest shared error: whether we’re religious or not, we have all conspired together to sacrifice goodness on the altar of greatness. We have often defined the win as our own prosperity and comfort at any cost to others, which is perhaps why Donald Trump is the perfect President to represent us right now. Maybe he really is the best reflection of what our nation values, desires, and seeks to be anymore. Maybe he is what we want for our children. I’m praying he isn’t. I hoping more matters to us. I’m still betting on Love to pull out an overtime victory.

As a person of faith, I can only strain to keep my eyes fixed on the example of Jesus and allow that to be the measurement of my success; to endeavor as best I can to emulate his life, one lived with an open hand and not a closed fist, one where the true winning is found in wanting for my neighbor all that I desire for myself—and fighting like hell for them to have it.

And this is what America has always been at its very best anyway: a safe harbor for disparate souls who believe they are made better by their differences and stronger in their solidarity. It is in the shared declaration of our interdependence that the great goodness blossoms—in unity, equality, and diversity. 

While speaking to a large crowd mixed with the curious, the devoted, and the skeptical, Jesus asked this question:

“What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?”

I’m going to keep asking this question of myself, of the global Church I belong to, and of the nation I gratefully call home—because how we answer it will define us.

Our answer will show our children what we value.
It will mark out the life they should seek and the people they should aspire to become.
It will shape our future.
It will be the shared legacy we leave the world.
It will redefine the win for our nation.

I’m not at all interested in making America great. I’d rather see us make Americans good, and hold on to our souls.

Donald Trump said that if he were elected, we would all get really tired of winning. He was surely prophetic, because I am fully exhausted with his brand of winning and that it yields. Give me the givers and the forgivers any day of the week.

If this is what winning looks like—I’d much rather cast my lot with the losers.

 

 

Why God Might Not Be Causing Your Suffering

As a pastor, you begin to see patterns in people that reveal a great deal about the problematic ways in which we tend to think about God and religion.

One of these patterns, is the great temptation people of faith often feel to over-spiritualize life.

This may sound like a good thing, and in theory it is. When we come to believe in the existence of God, it’s understandable and even admirable that we would begin to filter everything through the lens of this conviction; that we would look to see God’s hand in it all—our families, marriages, careers, relationships, etc. But practically speaking, this can easily become a paralyzing process, as we parse out every single painful experience, every second of adversity, the smallest minutia of suffering—and try to ascribe specific religious meaning to it.

In other words, if we’re honest, it’s nearly impossible at any given moment to reliably determine the difference between:
cause and effect—and God,
bad luck—and God,
poor choices—and God,
terrible people—and God,
the simple collateral damage of living—and God.

We can drive ourselves half mad, and other people as well in the process.

And unfortunately, the Bible itself often feeds this tendency to microscopically inspect every event in an effort to interpret what God is saying. It is, after all a theological library; a series of books intending to testify to the existence, presence, and participation of God—written thousands of years ago by people who were trying (as we are today) to make sense of a loving Creator, and the living Hell (or even mild discomfort) we can find ourselves experiencing here on earth.

For example, the writers of the Scriptures didn’t have the benefit of three thousand years of medical research as they documented their spiritual journeys. As a result, when someone became physically sick, they naturally believed the afflicted person must be morally flawed; that God must be punishing them for their visible or hidden wickedness. Sin was the cause of sickness, not cancerous cells.

And without the meteorological tools we now have at our disposal, a severe weather event wasn’t the result of low and high pressure systems colliding violently, or the fact that a village was built in a flood plain—it was God’s simply clear wrath against the people. (Sadly some religious folks still blame immorality for natural disasters instead of the Jet Stream.)

When we read the Bible today, we’re spoiled because God seems to be intimately orchestrating every movement and speaking clearly into the process while doing so: allowing people to have their lives ripped apart, testing their faith with terrifying requests, punishing the disobedient with 40 years of wandering, blinding people to prove a point. Elsewhere God is bringing locusts and parting seas and destroying jails in order to deliver the righteous.

Given these documented precedents that we’re raised reading about every week as Christians, it’s natural that we’d now sift every difficult or painful experience of our lives to try and figure out what God is trying to individually tell us. But maybe that’s now how God works, at least not usually.

One of the other factors feeding this over-spiritualized existence—is good, old-fashioned ego. For most Christians, our modern understanding of faith is that it is me-centered:

God created me.
God loves me.
Jesus died for me.
God wants a personal relationship with me.
God is decidedly in the me business.

If this is how I see my journey of faith, then it’s natural to believe that God is always manufacturing my adversity to teach, punish, or stop me. In fact, it will make sense to me that God is affecting thousands of other people, just to make sure I get the point.

This self-centeredness slips in without us even thinking about it, even with perceived blessings. One Saturday this past winter I was completely worn out and I did not want to go to work the next morning. (Yes, pastors feel that way too.) When the promised inclement weather arrived and news came down that we would have a snow day, I instinctively thanked God (as if God inconvenienced the entire Tri-State area, crippling the airports along the entire East Coast—simply so I could sleep in on Sunday.)

Friend, ultimately, God may be speaking directly to you by causing you to find yourself in certain circumstances at certain times—or maybe you’ve found yourself in (or created) those circumstances, and you need to ask God where you go from here. Perhaps the better spent time, isn’t assigning culpability to God for adversity, but looking to God in that adversity.

You didn’t get that job you really wanted. Was it “God telling you it wasn’t the job for you,” as Christians often like to hypothesize?

Maybe.

Or maybe you didn’t have the right experience, interviewed poorly, or the guy asking the questions didn’t like the way your nose wheezed when you breathed. That’s far less “spiritual” and not loaded necessarily loaded with deep theological meaning, but the result is the same: you need to keep looking for a job.

Ultimately, it’s a good thing to reflect and pray and to wonder whether the difficulties we experience are indeed some personal message from God—but we need to realize that knowing for certain is a near impossibility, and we should be careful not to become frozen in the places of self-centeredness, forever asking what God is doing to me.

Far more attainable, is looking at the painful circumstances we find ourselves in at a given moment, and determining what part we played in arriving there, what role others had, and how we can and should respond in a way that affirms what we believe about God.

God may indeed be causing this suffering—or just sitting with you in it.