When a Woman Writes about Theology

It’s been an interesting month since my book, Beyond Authority and Submission, launched. I’ve heard encouraging feedback from many readers. I’m thankful that what I’ve written has been helpful for so many. That’s an answered prayer.

As I was writing, I knew that there would be push back from certain corners of the Reformed interwebs. I’ve been writing and blogging for over a decade now, and I know what to expect. I even address it in a section of my book on women writing and speaking about theology. The responses are often all too predictable.

The following excerpt is from Chapter 13, “Prevalent Teaching on Women and Men in the Church.”


Some conservative Christians debate whether women should blog and write about theology. Some say that it’s fine. Others say it’s appropriate only if they are writing, blogging, or podcasting to a female audience. A few say that it’s inappropriate, because men shouldn’t learn theology from women.1

Some are also concerned about women bloggers and writers correcting or addressing false teaching. That kind of confrontation is considered by some to be contrary to a woman’s nature as yielding and submissive and to put her in a position to judge or lead men.2 Women who write or speak publicly about theology, especially if the topic involves false teaching, are likely to get one of two responses. Those who disagree with them will often tell them, “You can’t correct a man—especially a pastor/ teacher as respected as So-and-So. You’re a woman!” The response isn’t much better from those who share their concerns. From those people, women may very well be told, “I appreciate the work you’re doing. But you shouldn’t be doing this, because you’re a woman.”3

In these ways, women in the church are being restricted beyond the boundaries that the Bible sets in place. Instead of being respected for their essential contributions to the ministry and life of the church, women are being treated as unnecessary accessories when they follow the extrabiblical rules and as rebellious troublemakers when they don’t.

  1. See Emilio Ramos, “Why We Do Not Allow Women Bloggers on RGM,” Red Grace Media, May 19, 2014, http://redgracemedia.com/allow-women-bloggers-rgm/.
  2. See Tim Bayly, “Rachel Miller and Valerie Hobbs: Where Is the Apostle Paul When We Need Him?” Baylyblog, September 4, 2015, http://baylyblog.com/blog/2015/09 /rachel-miller-and-valerie-hobbs-where-apostle-paul-when-we-need-him.
  3. I’ve heard this personally

#clarityforthegospel

During a recent discussion, Valerie Hobbs and I realized that we share a concern about the pitfalls of social media, especially for church leaders. What follows is an article we wrote together addressing this concern.


Some people love twitter. Some people hate it. It seems everyone at least has an opinion about it. Writes Joe Nocera,

So much on Twitter is frivolous or self-promotional. It can bury you in information. Because people often use Twitter to react to events instantly, they can say some awfully stupid things.

Beyond stupid, Twitter users can be mean, hateful even. It is a place where bullies can build a platform and quickly assemble a mob.

Still, we’ve seen some amazing one-liners on Twitter, mostly from people who intuitively understand how to operate within Twitter’s limitations to craft something clever, funny, or sharp. Who can forget this gem, for instance?

And of course, it isn’t just the funny one-liner that is successful on Twitter. This tweet, like all good tweets, effectively packs volumes into a short space.

But how effective is Twitter at expressing complex concepts? Many of us Christians, including our own esteemed theologians, tweet complex ideas, but the results are often poor. Perhaps you too have seen exchanges that go something like this:

  • Pastor/theologian/Christian author/blogger tweets a complex theological concept in an ambiguous way, sometimes intentionally, sometimes not.
  • Readers/followers ask questions, challenge, push back on the ambiguity. “What on earth are you talking about?”, “This could be dangerous!”, “Did you mean it in this (heretical) way?”
  • Tweeter: “I shouldn’t have to respond to these challenges.”, “Obviously, I didn’t mean it like that!”, “Get a life. It’s Twitter.”, [tweets 10 clarifying responses]

Admittedly, Twitter would be a much friendlier place if we all read with charity to a greater extent. But then again, when it comes to the Gospel, clarity and precision are pretty important. The devil is in the details, as they say. If you don’t believe that, here’s a helpful use of Twitter which makes the same point:

The most obvious sources of the mismatch between Twitter and theology are points already mentioned: lack of skill in using a limited space to express complex ideas and, of course, our own sinful natures. That is, some people enjoy stirring up trouble. They like the attention, and they think they can get away with it online. But there’s another factor in the mix that scholars researching and writing about social media have identified: context collapse.

Context collapse “refers to the audiences possible online as opposed to limited groups we normally interact with in face-to-face interactions” (source). Put simply, it refers to the lack of boundaries in many social media contexts, particularly Twitter, as all posts are public. In most of our off-line interactions, social boundaries allow us to assume shared knowledge. When we are with our friends, for instance, we can use a shared vocabulary. We can assume, to some extent, that people we talk to know us in that context, what we are like, the meanings of our words, what we believe and don’t believe.

On Facebook, some users attempt to recreate these social boundaries by setting up sub-groups or private groups. Even still, for those Facebook users who keep their account public or who have hundreds of acquaintances they don’t know personally, context collapse is a significant issue to contend with.

Context collapse means that tweets and posts for a public audience cannot require much assumed knowledge. When we tweet, we cannot assume that readers have much knowledge of who we are, what we stand for, and whether or not we hold dangerous theological views.

No doubt close friends and those who’ve read all of our work and who interact with us frequently can see our tweets in light of that shared context. But most people reading our tweets cannot do that. And it is dangerous to assume otherwise as we run the risk of leading people astray. This is particularly true when it comes to theology. Mascall writes,

To avoid vagueness and ambiguity is even more of a duty in popular work than in learned treatise. The very fact that the Christian mysteries in their profundity outstrip our finite powers of comprehension makes it all the more important for us to express the limited grasp which we have of them with all the clarity and accuracy at our command, while fully recognising how very imperfect and partial our grasp of them is.

So how can we tweet about theology in a responsible way?

Get off Twitter.

No, really. How can we tweet responsibly, especially about theology, in light of collapsed context? We should aim for clarity, edification, and self-control.

1. Seek clarity in your tweeting.

“But let your statement be, ‘Yes, yes’ or ‘No, no’” (Matt. 5:37, NASB)

Remembering that anyone might read and misunderstand what we’ve written, we need to be as clear as possible. Our speech should be open and honest. We should not give anyone cause to doubt our words or cause to question our orthodoxy. While it’s true that anything has the potential to be misunderstood and that no one can prevent that from happening all the time, our goal should be clarity.

How does this apply to Twitter? Retweeting quotes or snippets from sermons or conference talks without the context may lead to confusion. You understood what was meant, but is the tweeted quote clear to someone who wasn’t there?

The same question should be asked when attempting to tweet about a complex theological concept. Is your tweet clear or is it likely to be misunderstood? We’re aiming for sharing the light of the gospel, not muddying the waters. If the concept is particularly complex, maybe it would be better to write more on it elsewhere and link to it through Twitter.

2. Seek to edify with your tweets.

“Let no unwholesome word proceed from your mouth, but only such a word as is good for edification according to the need of the moment, so that it will give grace to those who hear … But immorality or any impurity or greed must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints; and there must be no filthiness and silly talk, or coarse jesting, which are not fitting, but rather giving of thanks.” (Eph. 4:29; Eph. 5:3-4, NASB)

It can be tempting to think that Twitter is fairly anonymous and that no one much will notice what you tweet, comment on, or “like” online. In truth, our words and actions are there for the world to see, and people are watching. People will not always agree with us, and the gospel itself will sometimes be offensive to others. But our words should be edifying, should give grace, and should glorify God. We’re not saying we can’t joke or tease. What we are instead saying is that our teasing shouldn’t be crude, and our jokes shouldn’t be double entendres.

Thom Rainer has a recent article “Five Reasons Why Pastors Are Getting Fired Because of Their Social Media Posts.” (source) In it he notes:

Unsavory comments. A pastor or church staff member making lewd or suggestive comments on social media gains nothing, even if it’s a quote from a movie or someone else. The consequences are always negative.

How does this apply to Twitter use? Be careful what you “like” and retweet. Consider how your jokes and things you respond to online might be viewed by others. We used to say, “Never write anything you wouldn’t want the whole world to see.” Now that the whole world can see what we write, consider this: If someone only or mainly knew you from your tweets, etc, what would their overall impression of you be?

It may seem harsh or unfair to have to police yourself so strongly. But when we are known to be Christians and especially known to be pastors or elders, we will be held to a higher standard. James tells us that this is the way life is.

“Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, knowing that as such we will incur a stricter judgment.” (James 3:1, NASB)

3. Finally, exercise self-control in your tweeting.

“For we all stumble in many ways. If anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to bridle the whole body as well. Now if we put the bits into the horses’ mouths so that they will obey us, we direct their entire body as well. Look at the ships also, though they are so great and are driven by strong winds, are still directed by a very small rudder wherever the inclination of the pilot desires. So also the tongue is a small part of the body, and yet it boasts of great things.

See how great a forest is set aflame by such a small fire! And the tongue is a fire, the very world of iniquity; the tongue is set among our members as that which defiles the entire body, and sets on fire the course of our life, and is set on fire by hell. For every species of beasts and birds, of reptiles and creatures of the sea, is tamed and has been tamed by the human race. But no one can tame the tongue; it is a restless evil and full of deadly poison. With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in the likeness of God; from the same mouth come both blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not to be this way.” (James 3:2-10, NASB)

Self-control is included in the list of the fruit of the Spirit. Most often we hear it discussed in conversations about gluttony or sexuality. But it also applies to our behavior online. In fact, it’s the key to this whole discussion.

When we are self-controlled, we are likely to be clearer because we won’t be quick to speak and slow to think. When we’re in control of ourselves, we aren’t likely to be crude or inappropriate. And when we’re self-controlled, we are less likely to stir up trouble.

How does this apply to Twitter? As noted earlier, some pastors/elders/theologians appear to tweet intentionally ambiguous or provocative statements. They seem to enjoy the ensuing firestorm. This is a lack of self-control.

There are many temptations on Twitter to act and react without thought. As James points out, our tongues are hard to tame. It helps if we remember that those people on Twitter who provoke us and tempt us to respond in anger or in ugliness are people made in the likeness of God.

And if the struggle to control yourself is too much? Then maybe it is time to get off Twitter.

Theological Fitness: A Review

Ah, fitness. Such a hot topic these days. It’s everywhere: from exercise routines to the latest diet trends to electronic gadgets and apps to keep track and stay focused on your goals. Everyone wants to be fit, or at least, laments that they aren’t as fit as they’d like to be. Fitness can be a controversial topic because everyone has a different opinion as to how to go about it.

For example, I hate to run. If you ever see me running, please stop and help me, someone is chasing me. I do, however, enjoy working out in water. This is for three reasons. You don’t get all sweaty. If you make a mistake, no one can see it. And most importantly, if anything jiggles that shouldn’t, they can’t see that either.

Kidding aside, fitness is an important concept in our society. But what about theological fitness? Are our bodies strong, but our “theological muscles” wasting away? Does it matter if they are? What can we do about it? This is the focus of Aimee Byrd’s new book, Theological Fitness: Why We Need a Fighting Faith. Aimee Byrd, also known as the Housewife Theologian, is part of the team of contributors for the Mortification of Spin podcast. She and her co-hosts, Carl Trueman and Todd Pruitt, regularly discuss topics of interest in the Reformed world.

One of Byrd’s recent concerns has been the lack of discernment and doctrinal precision in many of the popular Christian books. I share her concern and am thankful for her solid and helpful contribution in her most recent book. Theological Fitness is an excellent study, and not just for women.

At the heart of Theological Fitness is a discussion of Hebrews 10:23 and what it means for believers. Hebrews 10:23 says, “Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful.” Byrd writes about how, why, and what we’re to “hold fast” to:

Are you tempted to backslide? Hold fast! Are you being persecuted? Hold fast! Through suffering, fear, and chastisement, and in the ordinary, everyday life of faith and obedience, we are encouraged to hold fast. It may sound like an easy adage, but my goal in this book is to show you that it is a workout. And this kind of workout, this exhortation, in fact, promotes a theological fitness. (14)

What is “theological fitness”? Byrd says, “Theological fitness, then, refers to that persistent fight to exercise our faith by actively engaging in the gospel truth revealed in God’s Word. (16)” Fighting, exercise, actively engaging … these words emphasize the effort we are called to make in our daily walk. It’s about the process of sanctification.

There are some today who prefer not to talk about our efforts as part of sanctification. They point to Christ’s work and our inability. But the idea that we are called to strive towards holiness is not unbiblical. The Westminster Shorter Catechism (Question 35) defines sanctification this way:

Sanctification is the work of God’s free grace, whereby we are renewed in the whole man after the image of God, and are enabled more and more to die unto sin, and live unto righteousness.

Sanctification is God’s work of making us holy, but part of that work is making us able to “die unto sin and live unto righteousness.” And Paul uses frequent examples from sports and warfare to illustrate that this means effort on our part.

Byrd makes this point in Theological Fitness:

We persevere not because of our own faithfulness, but because he who promised is faithful. … Only Jesus had the fitness for the work of our salvation. But he has now qualified us for the race of the Christian life. (17)

I love the image of Jesus having qualified us for the race. It’s God’s work, and He will finish it. But we are called to work, and work hard, in this life. And that is what Byrd focuses on in her book. Using many fitness metaphors and examples, thankfully well-explained for those of us less fitness savvy, Byrd encourages us all to struggle and to fight the good fight.

Because we have been justified by God’s grace and Christ’s death and resurrection, we are now free. Free to struggle against our indwelling sin and free to struggle for growth in holiness:

We are new creations under the reign of grace! Sin no longer reigns in us, and knowing this new status changes everything. We are not fighting to improve our old selves, but we are striving to live as new creations in Christ. (46)

And the struggle is a good thing! It’s a gift:

The great gift of faith doesn’t stop at our justification, but it causes us to continue to trust in God to sanctify us as we press on. That same faith that looked to Christ for a declaration of holiness now looks to him for the strength and ability to live in holiness. Surely, sanctification is not passive process; it is a daily struggle. But the struggle is part of the blessing. (50)

What I loved about this book is that it’s an encouragement, even an exhortation, to be serious about our sanctification, but it’s not a burdensome checklist kind of book. It strikes the right balance between struggling against our sin and resting in the finished work of Christ. Our efforts cannot save us, but we are called to “hold fast” because “He is faithful.”

If you are looking for a good study for yourself or a group, I highly recommend Theological Fitness. There are even study questions that can be used in a small group setting. It may not popular these days to be serious about holiness and piety (not to be confused with pietism), but we are in a very real struggle and need to be encouraged in our own fight and to encourage others. This book helps us do that. I am very thankful for Aimee Byrd and her work.

 

Note: I was given a copy of this book to review. I was not asked or expected to review the book in a positive light. Other than the book, I received nothing in exchange for this review.

How Theological Liberalism Takes Over

I ran across this article today. I think the author has some real insight into the way in which theological liberalism takes over denominations. Here is an excerpt from the article:

Theological liberalism is parasitic. It survives and thrives by attaching itself to a healthy orthodox Christian denomination or communion, and subverting its weakest members—namely, those who are insufficiently grounded in scripture, those nursing past hurts and resentments, those who want desperately to be seen as “smart”, and those looking to make a name for themselves by playing the maverick.

The pattern usually plays out as follows:

1. A small group of revisionist activists embrace an unbiblical but culturally popular idea.

2. Orthodox leaders respond by reasserting the Faith.

3. Those styling themselves “moderate” (who often don’t quite grasp the theological issues at stake) emphasize the need for unity and patience. Three of the most common moderate templates are: an appeal to the “Gamaliel model” from Acts 5; an attempt to re-cast the conflict as adiaphora—a dispute over “non-essential” issues; and/or an argument from Jesus’ command not to “judge”.

4. The theological liberals congratulate and fawn over “moderates” for their “open-mindedness”, feeding the moderates’ need to be liked/admired.

5. At some point the secular media (perhaps alerted by the revisionist activists) is attracted to the conflict and various outlets report on the “growing controversy”. The media portrays orthodox leaders as stodgy reactionaries. Theological liberals are showcased as cutting edge enlightened thinkers, courageously challenging the powers-that-be on behalf of the downtrodden. “Moderates” who hold traditional views but counsel “dialog” are featured as the “voices of reason” in the troubled denomination.

6. What had been a tiny group of relatively harmless revisionists now begins to gain steam as members of the denomination uninformed and unprepared for the controversy are exposed to revisionist arguments for the first time via the media alongside gentle calls for moderation, patience and open-mindedness.

7. Well-meaning, conflict-averse orthodox pastors hope to shield their flock by “focusing on mission” and avoiding the topic.

8. Having leveraged the moderates and the press, the tiny group of revisionist activists now has the political clout to influence the direction of the entire denomination. They “put facts on the ground” and initiate legislative action.

9. Many otherwise orthodox leaders do not speak forcefully against these measures because those who have already done so have been successfully characterized as “angry zealots”, “fundementalists” and “rabble rousers.”

At this point it is generally only a matter of time before “facts on the ground” become legislative facts and the denomination begins to crumble. Traditional-minded members quietly leave for other churches. Others hole up in “safe” ghettos hoping to ride out the storm. The vast majority seek desperately to continue on as if nothing has happened. But as traditionalists leave the revisionists gain power and a vicious cycle picks up steam.