Social media is revealing that not all pastors and authors are experts.
For several years in a former church we had a pastor who liked asking congregants to come up and give pertinent illustrations in their areas of expertise.
So when he was talking about how the eye is the lamp of the body, for instance, he had an ophthalmologist who goes to our church come up and give an explanation of the point the pastor was trying to make.
When he was talking about a different culture, he called up someone who had lived in several different countries to talk about culture shock. He used the expertise of the congregation, because he knew he wasn’t the expert on everything.
The evangelical world would be better served if more pastors took this stance.
Instead, it seems as if many are doubling down on an old model of pastor-congregation relationship (or author-reader relationship) that just doesn’t apply anymore. In years past, the pastor could preach at the congregants, and authors could write their books, and they wouldn’t really be challenged publicly in any meaningful way.
Sure, occasionally people would have issues with something said, but their only real recourse was to write to the pastor, or to tell a few friends about what they think about a certain book.
Given that Christian media was largely fawning rather than set up to critique, it was very unlikely that any author would be the subject of widespread criticism–unless that author was seen to be “on the left”, and was a threat to the evangelical institution (think Rob Bell and Rachel Held Evans).
Authors who were firmly in the establishment, and were mostly conservative, would rarely be subject to critical campaigns that went anywhere.
This resulted in many authors selling millions upon millions of books, and many pastors growing their churches into huge congregations. These “men of God” (and they were predominantly men) could tell themselves that they were doing the Lord’s work, that they were uniquely anointed for this, and that they were the ones who were trained and equipped to do this type of teaching.
Then the internet–and especially Twitter–levelled the playing field.
Twitter is different from other social media platforms in that you can’t delete responses to your tweets. If you tweet something, and others spread it around and the world thinks it’s silly, that will be evident to all.
You can’t hide in the same way as you can on Facebook or Instagram, where responses can be deleted.
When a big name pastor says something questionable, people will talk about it. When someone writes a book with questionable things in it, people will talk about it.
And often the people talking about it are actually more qualified than the original pastor and author.
In addition, long-form content on YouTube, doing deep dives into things, is increasingly popular. The audience is becoming very well educated on issues of gender, abuse, power, sex, etc.
Ten years ago, a pastor or author could say something or write something and people would go along with it, because there really was no alternative. But now people are increasingly more knowledgeable. This isn’t always a good thing–there’s a lot of misinformation out there, and discernment and wisdom are more necessary than ever–but the fact is that sunlight is the best disinfectant.
When things are scrutinized, the truth usually becomes clear.
Pastors and authors who could once write books or give sermons and expect adulations can no longer expect that same praise. Instead, many are getting a rude awakening.
Earlier this spring, pastor Joshua Ryan Butler wrote a sex book called Beautiful Union.
In it, he equated the male climax with a sacrificial gift to the woman, and basically left out female sexuality entirely. Sex is an icon of the gospel, Butler says, but only sex the way men experience it, not the way women tend to experience it.
I wrote briefly about this when the controversy heated up, and Rebecca and I will be talking about this a little bit in this week’s Bare Marriage podcast. But what is striking me today is how so much of the dialogue around that book has been unfairly categorized as a “Twitter mob.”
Yes, people have been (understandably) angry, and the tweets have been fast and furious. But I have also seen very lengthy critiques written by multiple people with Ph.Ds in different disciplines, or expertise in other areas.
- Beth Felker Jones, Ph.D. from Duke University, and professor of Theoloogy at Northern Seminary, wrote about the problems with the theology.
- Rebekah Mui, Rebekah Mui, a PhD Student in political, social, ethical, and cultural thought at Virginia Tech who studies postcolonial political theology, wrote a Medium article about complementarian “sexual asymmetry”.
- Christy Hemphill is a linguistics and translation adviser working with a Native American minority language Scripture translation project in southern Mexico, and she wrote a thread looking at the problems with confusing allegory with metaphor, as Butler does.
- The Where Do We Go From Here podcast featured five people speaking on the book, all of whom are very educated, including Amy Peeler, Associate Professor of New Testament at Wheaton College, and Andrew T. Draper, an author and pastor with a Ph.D. from the University of Aberdeen
Despite the many qualifications of those writing thoughtful critiques of the book, we were called a “Twitter mob”, and told we can’t critique it because we haven’t read it.
In response, Dr. Laura Robinson, Ph.D. in New Testament from Duke University, wrote a 6-part, 15,000 word AMAZING collection of essays, which we’ll be drawing from on this week’s podcast, and which I’ll likely write some posts summarizing later.
The critics were more qualified than the author.
Joshua Butler wrote a piece of theology which was roundly criticized by multiple theologians, including professors of Theology. And because of social media, we were able to amplify the critiques and build off of them.
In Dr. Robinson’s final (she hopes) postscript to that series, she writes about how Beautiful Union is simply a bad book, and yet so many in evangelicalism are intent on trying to save it.
She concludes: because it’s part of a bigger system that doesn’t want to admit that it is failing.
This brings us to the disturbing possibility that a great deal of books for Christians are, in fact, this bad. If this book could get this far, while being so conspicuously gruesome in addition to teaching bad theology – what other books have succeeded that are like this? Particularly, those on subjects that are far less likely to publicly fail?
The mechanisms by which evangelicals make, produce, and screen content did not catch the errors. But it was not because the errors were hard to spot. Everyone else saw them. The problem is the system, not simply this book…
The failure of Beautiful Union and the steadfast refusal of the public to accept a book that was clearly intended for them is a warning siren for evangelical avenues of power. It is not a good book. It is not a book people like. You can use all your platforms and all your spokespeople to call it good, but calling it good will not make it so.
Evangelicalism can insist on its own correctness, and it might be able to persuasively insist on this in the doors of its own churches. But it has no power over the hearts of its hearers – and its power diminishes every foot it takes outside its church doors.
And that, I suspect, is terrifying for them. But it cannot be changed.
This has ramifications far beyond Joshua Butler and his book.
Pastors and authors were used to thinking of themselves as the most qualified to teach on these subjects, and this claim has been shown to be quite empty.
The idea that someone can write a book and assume that it should be unassailable is long past. Things will be scrutinized, and if they come up wanting, that will be talked about.
A teacher’s character is revealed in how they respond to valid, well thought-out critiques.
Do they double down? Do they insult the one making the critiques (it’s just a “Twitter mob”?). Do they amend their work? Do they take time off to re-evaluate? Do they stop promoting a work that has been found to be wanting?
Or do they get off of social media, close down comments, and only interact in places where they don’t have to listen to others? (And it’s amazing how many have left social media or closed down comments or deleted all negative comments, like Emerson Eggerichs, Gary Thomas, or Focus on the Family).
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1 Corinthians 12 teaches us that we all need each other.
We are all part of a body, and the Holy Spirit has given to each of us gifts to benefit the entire body. Some teachers have treated the gifts they’ve been given as a birthright–because I can teach, I am entitled to people listening to me and praising me. But that was never the intention.
Last week we saw a beautiful apology on Twitter by Patrick Miller. I am praying that this will be the start of many, and I have reached out to someone else who was once a friend, again asking him to engage with the very valid critiques of his work.
When people apologize or listen to valid critiques, it is so healing for everyone. It keeps the focus on what is healthy, and what Jesus wants, rather than on reputation. It shows that we can own our mistakes and repair. It models humility and a level playing field, rather than a church based on power.
It can help those who have become suspicious of the church renew their faith in it.
And so I am praying with just a mustard seed of hope that some authors will repent and own their mistakes. It will be good for the church. It will be good for the body. It will be good for the kingdom.
I pray a mustard seed is enough.
What do you think? Is there more accountability now? How do you see it playing out in your neck of the woods? Let’s talk in the comments!