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“Let not many of you become bloggers”

By June 7, 2014 2 Comments
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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.

James Bratt

James Bratt is professor of history emeritus at Calvin College, specializing in American religious history and especially the connections between religion and politics. Starting in Fall 2016 he took a break from blogging on The Twelve to teach in China and on the Semester at Sea, which venues afforded him some welcome distance from the USA’s descent into its current mortal illness. But now he’s back in the States, looking for hope. His most recent book (which he edited and completed for the late John Woolverton) is  “A Christian and a Democrat”: Religion in the Life and Leadership of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

2 Comments

  • I'm feeling conflicted as I read this. I think your second paragraph speaks to my inner struggle.

    We are both of the Reformed tradition so we value structural accountability. We value systems in which specific people have been ordained to specific roles and functions. I get this impulse.

    That being said, one of the last things I would ever want to do is silence someone's thinking out loud. Even if I disagree with their conclusion. I value the public forum of blogs to process/teach/question. I trust the Spirit of God and believe I don't need to control one's processing and thus welcome a cacophony of theological/spiritual voices in many different blogs. Everyone is a theologian and I think blogs help reinforce this which I think is a good thing!

    Here I sit in my church office reflecting on Pentecost. Could blogs be a modern day incarnation of the outpouring of the Spirit on all flesh? A little chaotic, a little noisy, and a whole lot of God?

    Perhaps what we both value is the care of words. Here I am thinking of the creation stories. With words God spoke the world into being. Or John 1: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. As my old mentor, Dr. Boogaart would say, "Words create worlds." Maybe we can be the people who help model what we hope to see in the blogging world, a care for words.

    (PS – Thanks for your post today. Someone from my church brought this up after worship today and it ignited a good conversation!)

  • Susan says:

    I have seen some seriously flawed ideas coming from the keys of popular Christian bloggers recently–bloggers who have a large following, so I think you raise valid concerns. An even bigger concernI have is that hundreds of thousands of Evangelical pastors allow Beth Moore Bible studies in their women's ministries. I've recently spent hundreds of hours going through her very popular Breaking Free study because it raised questions in my mind as I first went through it in a group I was attending. As I went through it a second time on my own I was increasingly alarmed to see her ubiquitous proof-texting, eisegesis, allegorizing of texts (especially OT) to say whatever supports the ideas she wishes to teach. I also noticed that she doesn't preach the true gospel, but barely nods at the gospel in one paragraph, calling it the entrance the the 'freedom trail'. What is the "freedom trail"? It's Beth Moore's self-designed "formula" (and yes, she calls it that) for breaking free from our many bondages, captivity and strongholds (i.e. the Breaking Free study). Although it appears to be a Christian life study she primarily uses the book of Isaiah to establish how one gets into captivity and how one gets out. She does this by means of allegorizing the literal physical captivity of the Israelites and how the internal captivity of various kings (which are our primary captivities) lead to their bondage. Even Isaiah was in captivity–as Moore suggests that he idolized king Uzziah, thus God had to remove Uzziah before Isaiah could see God.

    Isaiah 61 (first few verses) seems to function as the gospel for Moore throughout the study. It's interesting to note that Isaiah 53 is barely mentioned. The gospel of grace is absent. After many hours of working my way through the book it finally struck me that Moore doesn't actually teach about Jesus. She uses "Christ" in many a phrase (such as "mind of Christ"), but she isn't teaching about the person and work of Jesus as the solution to spiritual bondage. She uses Gal. 5:1 to establish that Christians can be in bondage, but she extracts this from the very text that indicts her. Why do I say this? Because her teaching is extremely moralistic. She avoids discussion of the texts of scripture that tell Christians that we are free from bondage to sin and it's consequences and instead lists all sorts of bondages that Christians are in–such as "fear of men, insecurity (a big theme for her), inability to love others completely, lack of satisfaction, discouragement and doubt". Moore assures that if we commit to putting in the time on her study and working hard, we too can become free. She says she knows it works because it's worked for her. So she discusses he short list of things that can lead to captivity (prayerlessness, idolatry, pride unbelief (not talking about general lack of belief in God or Jesus) …..not sure why she doesn't just say "sin". Which reminds me, she doesn't identify sin as an offense to a holy and righteous God. She doesn't seem very concerned at all with the holiness and righteousness of God. She favors the terms "bondage, captivity, yolks and strongholds rather than sin, for the most part.

    She doesn't teach about the person and role of the Holy Spirit. The sanctifying role of the Spirit is replaced by a lot of instructions that are human-effort intensive. There is no balance. She says that we have to feed the Spirit in order to 'energize' the Spirit. It is not uncommon for her to refer to one of the three members of the trinity in a way that makes God sound like He's a puppet to us–that we have to "enable" Him to do something to help us (yes, she says 'enable' in this context several times in the Breaking Free study).

    Even as I watched many hours of her sermons delivered on James and Betty Robison's TV program, Life Today, I notices that she greatly favors supposedly teaching from OT texts. She inevitably allegorizes them, discussing some personal/psychological angle that has nothing to do with the text which she reads intermittently. It's all about Beth Moore…it's all about me…it's all about you…it's NOT about Jesus. After many hours of listening to these talks I searched for one about Jesus. I finally found one about the crucifixion. As usual, when Jesus is on the scene Moore is discussing those surrounding Jesus but not Jesus himself! She talked about Mary at the foot of the cross and how hard it would be, as a mother, to see your child suffer and die.

    In her, Believing God, study she pots forth Word of Faith concepts and Prosperity Gospel ideas. I could see this by looking through the viewers guide (fill-in-the-blank sheets) that accompany the videos in the series. I met with my pastor last week to she him this. He was shaking his head as he read quotes of Moore's I had highlighted.

    Moore has not had any formal Biblical training. She is quoted as having spurned the idea of attending seminary, saying that seminaries turn out arrogant men, and other reasoning (as found in Breaking Free study). So, here we have the MOST popular women's Bible study producer in all of Evangelicalism currently, who's hermeneutics are atrocious; she teaches oft times on the basis of things God tells her personally (outside of scripture) –so she claims, who clearly teaches falsely and is proclaiming a counterfeit gospel…and yet this flies under the radar of otherwise solid churches. Why? Because pastors and theologically trained men in the church are not present to listen to Beth Moore's videos and are not spending the 50-100+ necessary to carefully do the workbook homework to see how badly she twists scripture in support of her own ideas. The perfect scheme of Satan.

    Oh, and I'm pretty sure by now that she is a universalist. I was surprised to see that she recently taught through Romans on the radio. I had to pay to download her Roman's 3 talk (she charges for everything–and yes, she's wealthy). As she taught through Romans 3 she left out the words "for all who believe" and addressed the audience as if all are saved (as usual).

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