Right. So let me draw together some implications from the last two posts about this new reformation we’re facing because of the internet, and the dangers of reform creating a vacuum that gets occupied by an over-correction against the original establishment, and let me nail some colours to the mast, before positing some ways forward.
First, it’s worth remembering that the online conversation these posts are responding to is one about what authority and teaching look like outside the bricks and mortar and the fleshly embodied reality of the church; and perhaps how those realities inform the virtual space, and are in turn informed by it. They’re questions specifically raised because the internet has given a voice to women where women have previously been excluded from some institutions, and the nature of social media means these women gain authority by virtue of the size of their audience (just as men do in this space too). Platforms in a democratised space are much more obviously individual (personal blogs mean everybody has the capacity to publish and gain an audience); and yet institutions still exist online in the form of joint platforms where the platform itself gives weight and credibility to a speaker, and perhaps has some connection to a real world authority structure. There are also bloggers, those of us who are signed up members and employees of institutional churches, whose online words are held to account in the real world by these same structures (so if I write heresy here I get real world consequences). For some of us it’s not just the market that decides if we’ve crossed a line; but there’s also a degree of authority that comes from these connections.
The people who choose what (or who) a platform will lend its authority to are the people who reveal who that platform considers as part of the ‘priesthood’ — so, for example, Reddit allows anybody with an account to publish, and then the market decides what a published piece is worth; Buzzfeed has staff writers and editors but also allows user generated content that has its value determined by the market, and by a team of ‘community editors’; Medium is a platform where again, anybody can write, but the market dictates what is featured, as do Medium’s team of curators; whereas traditional media outlets maintain a sort of editorial structure and staff writers, while publishing OpEds from reasonable qualified people (and I mean that in terms of ‘people with a relevant sort of expertise that provides value’). In the Christian blogosphere there are lots of people running their own platforms, lots of individual bloggers and social media users (though this is bigger where there’s a bigger market in the US, think perhaps of John Dickson on Facebook, or Stephen McAlpine at his blog). There are some platforms that are multi-contributor platforms tied to physical ‘real world’ institutions (like church websites). There are some online platforms that are more analogous to traditional media like newspapers (Eternity, who, for the record, I think are the best example of what could be, and reformed evangelical types should spend less time throwing rocks at their agenda and more time writing for it) and book publishers (Gotherefor) who are grappling with the tradition to a social media world, and there are some platforms that are virtual platforms in their own right where the platform brings a sort of inherent online authority and credibility to its content (and the writers of that content); and it’s these platforms that are particularly interesting in terms of the conversation about authority online, and these that are the ones that would seem to have most at stake in this sort of technology-led Reformation of the notion of authority and the priesthood. Some of these platforms are set up precisely to bring reform the status quo (FixingHerEyes for example), some are set up to maintain the status quo (Thinking Of God), and some are set up to help us respond to the changing world from fixed theological assumptions (The Gospel Coalition). Each of these sites is, in some part, ‘social’ in its approach to content generation, each is, in some way, operating as an institution, but each have interesting authority structures that reflect certain assumptions about ‘the priesthood’ that mean a technology driven reformation will impact them (and the success or failure of their mission) differently.
So here’s where I’m at:
- Institutional authority is a good check and balance against individual authority, under the authority of Scripture, in service of the Lord Jesus.
- Listening to individuals from outside the ‘establishment’ or a diverse establishment built on listening, is necessary to keep reforming practices that have deviated from Scripture and the service of the Lord Jesus.
- Institutions need to keep being willing to be reformed in the face of individuals and groups who raise concerns, under the authority of Scripture, in service of the Lord Jesus.
- The relationship between real world authority and accountability and online authority and accountability is an important one, but not fatal to ‘virtual’ properties.
- Martin Luther was right about the ‘priesthood of all believers’ and that online technology will cause an ongoing reform of our structures and practices beyond the structuring of relationships in the flesh.
- The internet is a blunt instrument that lends itself to the destruction of institutions and expertise, and to populism under the guise of ‘democracy’ or ‘egalitarianism’ (not in the theological sense). True democracy requires institutions that create platforms big enough for ideas to be shared (like parties) and a place for ideas to be discussed (like parliament and the media), and it requires listening and a generous pluralism where we make space for those we disagree with.
- Technology as it stands means that establishments that have set up non-democratic ‘priesthoods’ that favour an establishment voice over the marginalised face an uphill battle to keep ‘authority’ and credibility and that this will undermine such platforms.
- We need to reform or create institutions that reflect a more robust priesthood of all believers such that we do not favour a particular gender, or class, or educational standard, or age, or race, so that we can listen well to voices from the margins who might prompt more necessary reform, under the authority of Scripture, in service of the Lord Jesus.
- When it comes to the question at the heart of this debate, and the voices of women, if we can’t make space online to hear women what chance is there for those of us who want to maintain a faithful sense of us being one body, a kingdom of priests, co-image bearers, who are different and equal in the flesh where there are particular Biblical principles we should be seeking to apply. The priesthood of all believers has interesting implications for church leadership, eldership, marriage and the arranging of our communities; but websites are neither the ‘church gathered’ nor the family unit, and it’s dangerous to extrapolate Biblical principles about gender differences in particular circumstances to all circumstances in ways that stop us listening to the voices of women.
- Part of this listening exercise will mean being generous, and making space to hear, voices that challenge us and that say things that are untrue, but the cost of the priesthood of all believers is that the community needs to discern the ‘prophetic’ voices that claim to be speaking in ways that will continue to bring us under the authority of Scripture, in the service of the Lord Jesus.
- A more important strategy than anything discussed here, is to think about how we operate not in our own media/social media/institutional bubble, but how we contribute to the bigger ‘bubble’ and to other institutions (this is where I think the Centre For Public Christianity is a terrific example).
- Perhaps an even better and more important strategy than anything being discussed here is how we might, as Christians, be champions of a generous pluralism and a diverse public square beyond the boundaries of the church; one where we aren’t just listening to other Christians, but to other people, so that they might also listen to us.
And here’s the problem. I’m not totally sure that many of our current platforms have the diversity within their institutions or the theological vision/mission to withstand the brunt force of this new technology in flattening structures/institutions. I think our establishments (be they denominations or think tanks) have tended to accidentally marginalise those outside certain norms, and have created a sort of ‘priesthood’ that limits our ability to listen to, and reach, those outside these norms (or those who are marginalised by them).
The Gospel Coalition Australia as a Case Study in this ‘new media reformation’
I said above that those who get to decide who a platform raises up are basically the ultimate ‘priesthood’; and this reveals a lot about how much an institution is listening to people beyond a particular sort of narrow establishment. I don’t want to pick on or shame The Gospel Coalition Australia here, but I do want to use them as an example of an institution that I think is geared up to be smashed by this ‘new reformation’ because of the way it is structured; and I think the way that it is structured should be challenged on the basis of the points above.
The Gospel Coalition Australia is an almost exclusively online entity or network; it produces resources for the church, and according to some members of the council, is an exercise in ‘thought leadership’ for the Australian church. Valuing a certain sort of ‘resource production’ and a certain sort of ‘thought leadership’ has had the unfortunate impact of creating a certain sort of ‘priesthood’ for this platform. The council of TGC Australia all in either vocational ministry or Christian academia; they all have many years of ministry and leadership experience in Australian churches. They’re all men. Now, it may be that this is an expressly complementarian decision; that TGC made a decision that it would be led by men, but I don’t think that’s the most charitable assumption, nor is it borne out by the story of the formation of TGC AU on the site itself:
“… there are significantly different cultural and theological challenges to life and ministry in Australia. In addition, a growing consensus was emerging that we urgently need to form and foster vibrant gospel partnerships on the ground across our cities, States and Territories. And so last August, a group of 13 pastors and leaders from across our Nation met in Sydney for the first time.” — The Gospel Coalition Australia, ‘The Birth of TGC Australia’
If the group was put together with pastors and leaders from churches that share the theological convictions of the Gospel Coalition, then it was only possible for this group to feature men; it’s just perhaps a little short sighted to think that a parachurch organisation designed to help us form vital gospel partnerships to deal with the cultural and theological challenges to life and ministry in Australia need to exclusively draw on the expertise of pastors and leaders.
I’m going to assume these men were genuinely selected on merit and character, and there are many men there who I love and respect; many of them are family friends, or former teachers, or preachers I admire who minister in churches I hope to emulate. Yet. They are all educated men, of a certain age (and older), which creates a certain sort of impression about the ‘priesthood’ here; that it’s about education, and qualification via experience; and these criteria exclude not just women but large swathes of the church population and many of the people we’re trying to reach in Australia. When you make a composite portrait of the council and represent them as one person, who I’m calling Mr Gospel Coalition; you get this:
Now. There’s geographic diversity in the mix here; it’s a truly national group. There’s ethnic diversity. And yet, every one of these blokes is a tertiary educated bloke who is (by my calculations) aged 40+. This is a fairly exclusive sort of priesthood; it’s true that many of the writers who’ve had articles published on the Gospel Coalition are outside these demographics, but the institutional authority here is held in the hands of a relative narrow group who provide an interesting picture of what qualification to be a thought leader looks like; the thoughts published on the platform are given weight by the people creating the platform, not just the author.
Bill Shorten learned this week that if you want to represent a suitably broad church, like the Labor movement, you need to pay attention to diversity because your metacommunication about who is important and included can undermine your communication. Meta-communication matters. But it’s not just a token thing either; diversity at an organisational level ensures we’re hearing multiple perspectives; the same reason that led TGC to be a truly geographically national movement could perhaps have motivated them to be a more diverse movement too.
When setting an editorial agenda for a virtual publication designed to provide thought leadership for Australians dealing with the changing landscape of our mission field, there’s a lot of onus on these guys to be listening to perspectives outside their own experience, and I’m not totally sure that the content I’ve read on The Gospel Coalition provides the sort of thought leadership that the people my church family is hoping to reach are going to follow; it’s not thought leadership that is generally helpful in reaching the modern (or post-modern) Australian landscape; and, it meta-communicates something terrible; exactly the sort of thing this new revolution is seeking to change.
In terms of media strategy the Gospel Coalition is all very ‘establishment’/traditional media; it’s a site that operates more like the ABC’s Religion and Ethics page for our theological bubble, than like Buzzfeed; it certainly doesn’t seem to feature contributions from people who fall outside (or even particularly close to the edges) of its established orthodoxy (so it’s unlikely to feature genuinely innovative reforming ‘orthopraxy’… You’ve got a site operated by a bunch of mostly middle aged-to-elderly, tertiary educated (normally post-grad), (mostly) white guys; who are predominantly modernist in their outlook, conservative in their approach, responding with a sort of concern rather than optimism to the changing (and admittedly more hostile) world, and apparently interested in preserving the status quo in terms of our media practices, church practices, and leadership when the status quo appears to be failing us (so one appears to need a theological education to contribute, and certainly to be on the council). What does blue collar thought leadership look like? How do we reach the Aussies who don’t have a tertiary education? How do we empower and equip women to shape the life of the church? And how do we allow different experiences of life in Australia to shape how we love Australia and share the good news of Jesus with our neighbours in ways that match their plausibility structures? How would we not be better off with institutions like The Gospel Coalition that were truly diverse in their structure; that truly reflected a priesthood of all believers?
The problem for the Gospel Coalition is that if the thesis I unpacked over the last two posts is correct; and they represent the sort of ‘new media establishment,’ within the Christian blogosphere, that the ‘new media reformation’ is going to overthrow, then those of us who share many theological convictions with the Gospel Coalition are in trouble; because the reformers will become the ‘establishment’ within the church and these sorts of institutions will fail to take hold in the ‘new media reality’… the nature of the internet lends itself to those campaigning for more diverse or democratised platforms and priesthoods than offered by the current Gospel Coalition platform. It lends itself to those who want a priesthood based on populism, or a priesthood that is so broad that questions of authority rest totally in the hands of the audience-as-individuals (or even in the audience-as-a-collective), not in the hands of institutions. Even if that thesis isn’t correct, it seems to me that there’s a problem here in what it communicates about ‘the priesthood’ and its nature in the churches coalescing under the banner; the priesthood is educated, male, and probably ‘experienced’… this marginalises voices that we perhaps need to be listening to in a changing Australian landscape; like indigenous Australians who face an incredible gap in all sorts of living standards and life expectancy, like kids who’ve navigated faithfully following Jesus in schools that are ever more hostile to Christianity, like teens that have remained chaste and avoided drugs (and those who haven’t but have found hope in Jesus), like our same sex attracted brothers and sisters who remain single in a sexular age and need Christian community to make that plausible, like people who are living radically different economic lives, like people coming to Jesus from other cultures with other languages as their primary language, like refugees, like artists and creatives who don’t have an education but might help us engage better with the people around us, oh yeah, and like women. Women whose experience of life in a pornofied world, a patriarchal world, a world where they are much more likely to be violently abused than I am… maybe we could hear from them for the good of our communities… how do we communicate, in our institutions that believers in these categories are members of the priesthood of all believers with important things to say; and how do we make sure we listen to them, rather than simply trusting our own perspective and expertise (and remember, I’m a white, very educated, almost middle-aged bloke, I’m speaking from experience when I say it’s hard not to simply believe I see the world more accurately than everybody else).
It’s possible that this reformation is actually a good thing; a chance for us to reflect on the sort of institutions we build and their aims (and their audience). It’s possible it might prompt us to create better institutions that truly capitalise on the diversity of experience, expertise, leadership, and examples of faithfully living for, loving, and proclaiming Jesus in our churches. It’s possible that we might build institutions or structures, real or virtual, that provide space for those our society marginalises (the young, the old, the disabled, the uneducated, the poor, the non-english speaker, the refugee, the abuse victim) to voice not just their concerns about how we, the church, operate in the world, but imagination about how we might operate differently to reach the people we currently miss because of our practices and our ‘priesthood of the educated’. It’s possible we might stop thinking that the internet is a place just for writing smart things, and start considering how we might use multimedia, or visuals, to equip people for works of service, and enrich our testimony to the goodness of the Gospel as we produce things that are good and true and beautiful; it’s possible that as we tell stories about the impact of the Gospel in the lives of a diverse range of people, it will become more plausible for our church communities to shape themselves so that a more diverse range of people might be accommodated; it’s possible that we do this first at the leadership level, making a commitment from the top down, rather than waiting for enough ‘bottom up’ growth that we need to provide some sort of ‘representation’ for the clamour of voices of those who’ve been excluded from the priesthood.
Diversity isn’t the answer, it’s a means not an ends in itself; but it’s a start. And if we don’t do it proactively, the market is going to do it for us in a way the ‘establishment’ won’t like…
Maybe we could do a Luther, and be moved by the plight of those being oppressed by our institution — the people lining up to purchase indulgences from the corrupt church, excluded from the life of the church by an exclusive priesthood — and move to make space for their voices to be heard, as we create opportunities for them to hear the Gospel. Maybe this means working really hard to give people other than educated men a voice in our systems; while staying faithful to how we think the Bible shapes our understanding of gender. If we don’t work at creating better institutions, the number of people who care about anything that looks remotely like an institution or an attempt to wield ‘authority’ is going to drop significantly; and we’ll end up with a Christian blogosphere of listicles, how tos, fashion tips, dating advice, click bait and hot takes on current events. We’ll end up looking like an awful digital Koorong where anyone who walks in has to wade through a bunch of dross and exercise huge levels of discernment even when it comes to the best sellers. And nobody wants that…