What if Pastors and Authors Aren’t Necessarily the Real Experts?

by | May 30, 2023 | Faith, Research | 21 comments

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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. 

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.

Dr. Laura Robinson, Ph.D

"What If It’s Just Bad? Beautiful Union, Part Forever, It Will Never Stop"

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!

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Sheila Wray Gregoire

Author at Bare Marriage

Sheila is determined to help Christians find biblical, healthy, evidence-based help for their marriages. And in doing so, she's turning the evangelical world on its head, challenging many of the toxic teachings, especially in her newest book The Great Sex Rescue. She’s an award-winning author of 8 books and a sought-after speaker. With her humorous, no-nonsense approach, Sheila works with her husband Keith and daughter Rebecca to create podcasts and courses to help couples find true intimacy. Plus she knits. All the time. ENTJ, straight 8

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  1. Codec

    I have to wonder. Is it that they are scared of books like GSR or is it that they are scared that someone will come out some next edition of Madelyn Murray O’Hara using the research you found to attack Christianity?

    I do not think it makes sense considering you are trying to call people to Christian principles, but I think that might be part of it.

    • Phil

      Codec – what I have witnessed as I have been watching all this happen here over the years is that these authors truly did not intend to do harm. They wrote based on their experience and basically said since this is what happened to me it must be your path too. The problem? Their path result was not truly good fruit. Sheila and company do make the statement that these authors did not intend harm both here, publicly in interviews and in their books. However they dont focus on that statement and coddle these authors because then they have even more reason to double down. Scared of books like GSR? Nah – scared of “looking bad” because they were wrong. YES! I have been developing a theory regarding priest vrs prophet to possibly also include also witness and judge and king and possibly some other biblical type figures. I went to my Pastor about the books he gives pre-marriage couples. Act of Marriage and His Needs Her Needs. I told him he needs to re-look at those and consider other options. He told me that he saw nothing wrong with those books but the bigger kicker was that he felt that if he retracted the recommendations of those books that he would be a false prophet. Those were his words. Well its taken me a few months but what I have determined is this. I GOT NEWS FOR YOU: You are a Priest(Pastor) not a Prophet. A Preist represents the people to God. A prophet represents God to the people. There are cases where some are both but only one is ALL. That is Jesus. I think that some Pastors and church leaders loose there path and think they are ALL or more than they really are. I love my Pastor. He is a good man and he has done wonders for me and my family. Priest? Yes Prophet. Not the way I see it. Anyway, I may be just blowing in the wind right now. However, that is what I am working on and I think it is adaptive to this conversation. The only way stubborn people change is when they are uncomfortable. It seems the internet and bulk information as well as social media and books like the GSR and others that call truth to light make some uncomfortable to make changes. An apology is a good start.

      • Codec

        I think you make a good point Phil.

      • Sheila Wray Gregoire

        Phil, that is so insightful. I absolutely love that distinction between priest and prophet. Wow!

        • Phil

          I would like to credit Vernon McGee on the Priest vrs Prophet insight. I got the concept from reading his material. He said it not me. I just happened to have clung to it because I too was fascinated by the statement. What I am doing with the statement is I want to test or investigate a theory that all Good Ministries have a Priest, Prophet, Judge, Witness, King (the only King – Jesus) etc. I am not sure about my theory but Vernon’s statement has intrigued me to see if you can run deeper with it. So far I have found that Jesus was Priest, Prophet and King. I have been comparing prophets to the other characters within their stories. So far on a very shallow base of research my idea is holding ground. We shall see as investigate…either way its kind of kewl.

  2. Jo R

    “Some people love Jesus.
    Some people love power.
    Both use the Bible.”

    —Sheila Wray Gregoire in a response to blog post comment. (And PLEASE make merch with that!)

    For so long, one side got to set up the rules, play the game, and act as the refs. Now that it’s becoming increasingly difficult to keep up the con, wow-ee, are they mad.

    Some very interesting blog posts the last couple of days:

    Ngina Otiende: https://m.facebook.com/story.php?story_fbid=pfbid0S2tZ34X5LyncC5N3YYPZ7YjMUjtmhrQ8ADxVYSVkMZzfjsAEPdf4ZkmFyX8KcSEXl&id=100063499275863

    Marg Mowczko: https://m.facebook.com/story.php?story_fbid=pfbid02RQjsrkoWd34EFiXKCZPEWFb1M5i4imwRSA3GGGp6a8Kwu2J7DXt3ABSpdhav2E5Gl&id=100063652922994

    In posts about abusive “Christian” marriages (by Patrick Weaver, Emily at Thriving Forward, Sarah McDugal, etc.), just change “husband” to “pastor,” “teacher,” and “author” throughout, because a huge majority of the content will apply equally well for those people too.

  3. Heidi

    Oh my I really love how you have pointed out this fawning issue in the church!! I think it has babied males so so much. Yes, to the qualifications aspect as well, huge deal and should be to everyone who reads it. Please do a post on how the church uses ‘spiritual gifts’ as the ‘qualification’ for their platforming as well. Appreciate all you do Sheila!

  4. Angharad

    Don’t you just love the “you can’t critique the book till you’ve read it” argument? Because, of course, once you’ve bought the book, they don’t particularly care what you think!!!

    I fully agree that we shouldn’t be critiquing books based on rumour or hearsay, but it’s not always necessary to read the book (or the whole book) to decide it’s not good. If a reviewer makes certain claims about a book’s contents, they may or may not be telling the truth, but if they include a screenshot of a page from the book, showing the problematic content, then I know it is true and it’s not a book I want to read. Similarly, if the author makes statements about the content of their book, I can also make a judgement based on those statements.

    • Codec

      Exactly. You can tell a bad film or show by watching the trailer and bad books are similiar.

    • Jo R

      Unless it’s a book by a woman who seems to be upsetting the status quo. 🙄

      Then, by all means, dismiss and misquote away!

    • Angela

      Amen. Basic common sense. Especially for non-scholars. Maybe it’s OK to require those standards from an official scholarly response, but that’s not how popular level stuff works. It’s enough for the critique to be factual and not twisting things, it doesn’t have to have a thousand footnotes.

    • Jan

      Yep, that’s how you decide whether something is for you or not. And I’m tired of hearing them say things have been”taken out of context”. A paragraph of a book has a beginning, middle and an end. It can be understood in isolation. No more context needed.

  5. Jenn

    “The Prayer of Jabez” comes to mind…an entire book/theology made out of one tiny little verse in the Bible. It was SUCH bad theology…yet it caught on like wildfire.

    Yes…we need the correction that social media is allowing. Iron sharpens iron, right?

    And Phil’s comment about priest vs prophet…wow! That is VERY spot on.

    • Angela

      Um, a little sermon about a little known character, but in a little book, not unlike a million other sermons, and better theology than the people who howl about it, or in a million of their sermons. Maybe if you are going to use that book as an example, you should actually quote from it and critique something specific? How it it even relevant to a conversation about taking advantage of women? This conversation makes me think of Every Man’s Battle, or Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology and ESS, not harmless inspirational books. Equating such things is EXACTLY what is wrong with evangelicalism. We must major on debatable doctrines and fainting over worship song lyrics, while ignoring rampant abuse in our midst! Talk about straining at gnats while swallowing camels….

  6. Mara R

    I am so glad things are changing and people are able to push back against bad books and bad preachers.

    I know when the internet opened things up for mega preachers to make themselves even more mega that there was a barrage of bad stuff coming out. (Think Driscoll and the like)

    Fortunately the internet and social media works both ways and people have risen up to address this. Now, when someone takes crap and tries to dress it up as spiritual and profound, people can point out that, uhm, no, It’s just crap. Will always be crap, no matter how long and hard you wax on poetically.

  7. Stefanie

    I think the issue is multifaceted.
    First you have the idea of the sufficiency of scripture – that the Bible contains all of life’s answers. So under this theory, anyone with a “sound” theology is now an expert in everything. If they can find a scripture to quote you, they’ve done their job.
    Second, is the idea that they were teaching “God’s eternal, unchanging truth.” How many times have I heard “if you disagree with this, you disagree with God” or “the Bible clearly says…”? So if they admit that something they said WASN’T God’s eternal, unchanging truth, it casts doubt on everything else they claimed as TRUTH.
    And third, I think many Christian leaders feel like they are in a battle with the wider culture. And they have to remain steadfast and faithful to “God’s truth.” They can’t capitulate to the “increasingly immoral” secular world. Maybe they think admitting error is not being faithful to God’s truth. If the Bible says “do not deprive” then that’s what it says, and if you have a problem with their interpretation then you have a problem with God’s word. You just want to surround yourself with teachers who will say what your itching ears want to hear.

    But like you often say, Jesus told us to look at the fruit.

    I love that we live in the age of the internet, and people aren’t having it anymore.

  8. Angela

    First off, normal people have more respect for someone who will apologize and amend than for stubborn idiots. Where do people get the idea that doubling down looks good? I respect that you and others have deplatformed some of your own stuff from the past.

    Great article all around. Knowledgeable people have always protested and critiqued this kind of stuff, but few became aware. Even if an expert wrote a book, it wasn’t necessarily going to be as popular as what it criticized. I have several great books debunking something/someone popular in pre-internet days, but only because I diligently sought them out or accidentally found them, while sometimes I know the faulty work is still being sold and is still popular years later! Now even the ordinary person can get a wide hearing easier, and scholars can reach the masses easier.

  9. Eps


    Even outside of qualifications vs gifts… I hate it when spiritual gifts are used as a cover for bad theology or abuse or to make someone seem more spiritual (read: Godly) than they are.

    Spiritual gifts are secondary to fruits of the spirit, yet so many in power in churches/the larger institution conveniently forget that.

    If they aren’t showing the fruits of the spirit, I don’t think they are using their gifts for God.

    “By their fruits you shall know them.”

    We aren’t called to judge people, we are however asked to assess their fruits.

    Trying to bamboozle us with their “gifts” misses the point entirely.

    • Phil

      I like this

  10. Jennifer

    I’ve read Dr. Laura Robinson’s 6-part critique series (on Substack, but free to subscribe), and it’s very good! It’ll take some time, but I highly recommend.

  11. Lindsey

    I think so much of this goes back to whether or not we know God’s word. If we know his word then it’s easy to spot the counterfeit. Does what the person is saying line up with God’s standards? I think now more than ever, even well meaning Christians, can put their own thoughts and feelings on the alter instead of God’s standards. A pastor can be an ‘expert’ because he went to seminary or Sheila can be an ‘expert’ because she has collected all this data, and you can hold multiple degrees, but at the end of the day we are all human and sinners so yes accountability is wise because we are all going to mess up in life. We shouldn’t be putting humans on a pedestal. I think it’s also good to ask ourselves as believers are we viewing God’s word as the ultimate authority and do we believe in the sufficiency of His word? And are the authors, pastors, speakers coming from a place where that is evidenced? Do they actually align with what the Bible says? Or is what they are saying contradictory to His word? So many things are neatly disguised today and we need to be able to recognize what is THE Truth and what isn’t.


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