Listen To Article
Jim Bratt is away today. We welcome Branson Parler, Associate Professor of Theological Studies at Kuyper College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. His most difficult theological questions often come from his three kids, who are 5 and under.
I enjoy reading blogs. I occasionally write blog entries on my own blog and for other blogs (I’m writing one now!). The free flow of ideas and the wide-ranging perspectives that come together in the blogosphere can often be a good thing. I follow a number of bloggers on Twitter who are professors, pastors, and leaders at various Christian institutions. But I’ve recently been struck by the growing number of popular free-lance Christian bloggers/writers without any institutional connections (church, academy, or otherwise) who have a very sizable contingent of followers. What should we make of these writers who often hold great sway over their followers? More specifically, should we be concerned if someone does not have certain ecclesiastical or academic credentials, but holds forth on matters of Scripture, theology, and ethics in a way that shapes and molds their followers? Should we be concerned when bloggers function as bishops to a sizable online congregation?
Now this might sound like a very elitist and un-Protestant question to ask. Don’t all Christians have the ability to read and interpret Scripture for themselves? Shouldn’t we embrace the open dialogue of the internet? To some extent, yes. But I think there are some basic biblical principles that apply to these free-lance bloggers.
James 3:1-12 speaks about the power of the tongue. We often interpret this text as being about what we say in general, but verses 1-3 specifically connect the tongue, or language, to the act of teaching. Words shape the world in which we live. They control our vision of life and our actions. Because of this, James actually warns people against becoming teachers because of the strict judgment they will face. Our use of words is not a light matter and should not be treated as such. Some might say that popular bloggers are just expressing their opinion or experience; that may be so, but they often convey a view about how things should be as well. They are not just describing what is; they are teaching their readers what should be.
Because language is so powerful, other texts speak strongly to handing on the faith and to the need for training for those who will teach others. I see this basic principle operating in the much-discussed text of 1 Tim. 2:11-15, where Paul prohibits women in Ephesus from “teaching or assuming authority over a man” (NIV). I cannot go into great exegetical detail here, but my view is that Paul is prohibiting women who have not been properly trained from assuming for themselves a position of teaching authority. To be clear, I think the issue is not that women are teaching but that women who have not been properly trained are teaching. The only imperative verb in this text is Paul’s command in v. 11 to “learn.” Before presuming to teach others, one must first learn.
So what does this have to say about male and female bloggers alike? There is a level of training that is needed to adequately address complex issues. Popular bloggers often have minimal theological training, and yet address issues like God’s sovereignty and salvation, sexual ethics, the importance (or not) of the church without providing the kind of subtle nuance and complexity that these issues often deserve. My issue is not that they should stifle their own opinion or quash any expression of their feelings on a topic. The issue is that their words carry weight. Even if they don’t intend to be pontificating, people will listen and people will follow.
A key issue here is accountability: to whom is the blogger accountable? My credibility as an authority on some topics and issues comes from the institutions that accredit me: I’m ordained as an elder of the church and appointed as a professor of theological studies. But those same institutions that accredit me also keep me accountable. My pastor, other elders, and faculty colleagues help to hold me accountable in different ways. Does the lone ranger blogger/writer have the same structure? If there is no structure of accountability, should they take it upon themselves to teach other Christians? The problem is not just one of substance—that they may be teaching some things that are false—but one of form or structure—the very practice of unregulated, unaccountable teaching is a problem. If the medium is the message, a medium with no accountability speaks volumes about our low view of words and of the Word to which our words should serve as signs and pointer.