Monday, May 08, 2017

By What Authority?

Busted for blogging with insufficient authority
I love error. Error is a beautiful thing.

Don’t panic. Let me get going here and you’ll soon see what I mean. And in case it doesn’t become howlingly obvious, I promise I’ll clear it up at the end.

Ready? Here we go. So … Tish Harrison Warren is an author and a priest in the Anglican Church in North America. She currently serves as co-associate rector at Church of the Ascension in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. I’m going to quote her a bit here, so I mention this not at all in an attempt to disqualify what she says, but so that you can better enjoy the many, many helpings of mouth-wateringly delicious irony she dishes up.

You see Ms. Warren fears the Christian blogosphere is off its leash. She thinks its various Christian and heretical voices are operating without spiritual authority and ought to be reined in.

Wow. Just … wow. Pot, meet kettle.

The Obligatory Anecdotes

But Tish’s concern is a familiar one. Years ago an Anglican lady from our neighbourhood came to see my father. Her two daughters were regularly enjoying a Friday night youth group meeting in our basement. As a concerned mom, she wanted to know who these people were that her girls were associating with and what on earth they were teaching, because … well, we didn’t have the official sanction of her church and therefore lacked authority.

Full disclosure: the younger of this lady’s daughters is now my sister-in-law and the other married one of my best friends, so that episode ended much better than it started. But my point is that Ms. Warren’s question is a common one and the answer to it is always pretty much the same.

Another anecdote. Sorry. Back in 2014, another blogger emailed me expressing his concern about my anonymity online. “Tom” is kinda generic, I know, and tells you nothing about me except that I might be a bit of a turkey. He would have liked a backstory, perhaps even a credential or two, or at least SOMETHING about me by which he could judge the spiritual value of what I and my anonymous co-writers might be teaching here.

I declined to satisfy his curiosity. I do not feel badly about that.

Matthew tells us that the day after the Lord Jesus cleansed the temple, the chief priests and elders of the Jews came up to him as he was teaching and said, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” Jesus tested their courage and honesty by asking them about the authority behind the baptism of John the Baptist, then politely declined to answer their question when they failed to answer his.

All to say, there is a bit of a tradition in my family and in my Bible of taking inquiries about authority just as seriously as they warrant.

A New Crisis in the Church

But Tish Warren is genuinely concerned. This is, in her words, “a new crisis in the church”. As she puts it:
“Christian writing and teaching is not minor surgery; it is heart surgery. In this new Internet age, we as a church have to recover the idea that, like doctors, Christian writers, teachers, and leaders can help cure or help kill. And therefore, like doctors, 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.”
Heart surgery! Neat analogy, and if we take it seriously, it will make us very concerned indeed.

Heart Surgery Without Consent

But, you see, we’re leaving out a very important component here: the audience. Unless you’re pulled unconscious from your car having been impaled by your steering column, heart surgery is usually performed with the consent of the patient. I would argue that reading a blog, or a book, or listening to a sermon, or watching a speaker on YouTube are activities that are ONLY performed with the consent of the audience or readership. It cannot be otherwise.

We come to a website because we’re curious, or because somebody has mentioned it. We read, and if we are appalled, we go away. If we are intrigued, we come back. When we disagree with a blogger, some of us will write him or her off entirely. Others will accept that the blogger is offering his opinion about the meaning of a passage and the implications of this or that doctrine, and will continue to read while taking certain things with a grain of salt.

We do this with everyone everywhere who offers us new information. We either evaluate that information by the data set we currently possess, or we go to other sources looking for further confirmation or rebuttal of what we have heard. That, or we are so dense that we don’t much care either way, in which case we’re not likely to incur much spiritual damage from doctrine we haven’t engaged with at all.

We all regularly perform this internal critical analysis of what we are reading whether or not the writer is speaking out of his or her particular theological tradition and in turn being held accountable to that same tradition. I mean, give me a break: I’ve heard Catholics blithely dismiss things uttered ex cathedra by their own pope!

In these days of individualism and rampant cynicism, we are in much greater danger of failing to heed the authority of the word of God when he HAS spoken than we are of mistakenly granting undue authority to the words of men.

The Need for Institutional Superintendence

Another problem: I think we can all agree that it would be delightful to browse the Christian blogosphere in the knowledge that were entering a pure stream of truth, but that only happens in fantasyland. So how might we better our situation? Tish’s suggestion is downright terrifying:
“[A]lthough many Christian writers and speakers might have some level of private, informal accountability in their home churches, they still need overt institutional superintendence (to match a huge national stage) and ecclesial accountability that has heft and power. Otherwise, they can teach any doctrine on earth under the banner of Christian faith and orthodoxy.”
Ah, you see, in Tish’s view, local churches have insufficient authority to play Blogger Police. No, we need the “institution”, that wonderful bastion of Christian orthodoxy.

Say what???

I’ve dealt with the institutional argument here if you haven’t yet read it, but if anything lacks spiritual authority, it is the religious institution. At least a local church possesses apostolic sanction. Denominational head offices and so forth have no biblical authority at all. Worse, institutions are vulnerable to convergence in a way that local churches rarely are. By way of evidence, I would simply point to Tish Harrison Warren’s ordination as a priest, which epic-fails the test of orthodoxy if anything ever did.

Authority in the Words Themselves

In the end, we have to come back to this: authority comes from the content of what we teach. It does not come from being accountable to an “international, historically grounded body”. It does not come from ordination, commissioning, certification, endorsement or partnership. It definitely does not come from the church or academic guild or even, as Tish fears, from “popularity”.

“What is this?” the people said of the Lord Jesus. “A new teaching with authority!” They were pointing to the evidence of lives changed for the better. The authority of Messiah was not conferred by the Jewish religious hierarchy, but rather demonstrated by the work of God in the lives of the people Jesus encountered and by the convicting power of his words, which time after time stopped the arguments of the naysayers in their tracks. His enemies were reduced to inarticulate rage, not inspired to pen trenchant rebuttals to the Sermon on the Mount. They picked up rocks, not quills or keyboards.

Authoritative teaching has this sort of power. Stephen’s critics ground their teeth, unable to respond to the power of his arguments.

But the reason the Jews were so effectively and completely shut down was that what Jesus and Stephen said was fully and inarguably in sync with what was written in the Law and the Prophets. And teaching of any kind by anyone possesses authority ONLY insofar as it is in accordance with the written word of God. It may be tested and found worthwhile by anyone from any tradition or educational background who is willing to make the effort to carefully compare scripture with scripture. To the extent that our teaching accurately represents the truth of the Bible and applies that eternal truth to our present age and circumstances, it will hit home with the power of the Holy Spirit of God and do its convicting work in human hearts.

To the extent that it is not … it won’t.

The Joys of Heresy

Bottom line: I love error. I love sitting in a meeting and being hit by a bolt of lightning and saying to myself, “Wait, THAT’s not right!” I can sit through a perfectly orthodox Sunday morning sermon and be bored to tears if the subject matter is old hat and the speaker is unengaging, but I can rarely sit through heresy, speculation or even slightly questionable doctrine without being driven back to the Bible to double-check what I just heard against what God has said once and for all. Even the Lord Jesus needed the occasional “You have heard it said that …” to spur him to reply, “But I tell you that …”

Now I wouldn’t WISH error on anyone. Those who teach falsely will absolutely give an account for it. Those who are exposed to error and recognize it are responsible to firmly counter it with the truth. But since it’s bound to happen anyway, we may as well make something useful of it.

So I am perfectly comfortable with an Internet full of Christian bloggers pontificating rightly and wrongly about this, that and every other subject. The alternative is far, FAR worse. And after all, how can error be corrected unless it is out there in the world being discussed?

And if we still think maybe our churches ought to be policing doctrine in the blogosphere, how about a few elders in local churches have a chat with their people about what they’ve been reading online lately? If the issue is to be approached at all, that is probably the best angle from which to go at it.

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