Not My Pastor? Criticism, Controversy, and Authority


Last week was a harried week in the Christian blogging world, as the second inauguration of President Obama and the 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade happened one right after the other (quickly followed by BeyonceGate, which was and is amusing to watch happen). Things followed a fairly predictable cycle for those familiar with the Christian blogging world: Mark Driscoll tweeted something inflammatory about the President on Monday, people got up in arms about it and wrote blog posts, then blog posts responding to the blog posts were written and then responses to the responses, down down down in a recursive ring of angry fire.

I get it. I get being tired and burned out and upset over the latest controversies du jour (thanks, Leigh, for the phrase). Burn out is a real thing, and I’ve had to implement a lot of self-care and mental health strategies into my daily routine in order to keep from burning out on the seemingly endless firestorms on the internet. It can be immensely frustrating to feel like the blogging world is just stuck in the mud, spinning its wheels endlessly, hoping some of that mud eventually ends up on person we’re trying to criticize.

It’s hard to watch and it’s hard to participate in, and I don’t begrudge anyone from bowing out of those discussions – I, for one, have stopped responding to individual tweets and facebook statuses with anything more than, “Wow, what a d-bag,” because I’ve found my own energy is better spent attempting to fight the substance of their poor theology (evident in blog posts and sermons) with the substance of my evidence and experience. To some extent, I have to fight the urge to roll my eyes at the sure-to-come controversy when Mark Driscoll tweets something ridiculously stupid (which is…all the time).

All that is a long way round to saying, I get where this post at A Deeper Church is coming from. I get the tired, frustrated, burned out feeling and desire to say “Sod it, I’m going to concentrate on my ‘real’ life issues at my local church.” And there is time and place and space for those concerns about what is effective and what is helpful to take up our time and discussion power.

But, these discussions need to be had carefully and cogently and without burying our head in the sand or painting large swaths of people with the same brush. The most damaging part of Ferguson’s post was not necessarily her thesis that the local church is all that matters (which Zack Hunt of The American Jesus has handled quite well here), but her defense of that thesis in the comments:

I think it’s worth noting that *many* of the people who cry outrage at people like Driscoll or Bell or other controversal teachers are not covenanted anywhere, not being discipled or discipling, not serving, and not doing anything other than fussing around on twitter or Facebook, inciting digital riots. […]

Most of the inciting content making its way around the internet is not from covenanted people at Driscoll’s church, but instead, disgruntled people who have an ax to grind. I’m interested in the truth, but I’ll be honest, I’m too busy minding the truth at my own church with my own people to get much in arms about the truths at other churches.

When I read that comment last Wednesday, I was…angry is an understatement. There’s a lot going on here, but mainly it’s a commentary that, if you are “unchurched,” then your voice has no space or weight here.

I am “unchurched” in the sense that Ferguson means. Though I work for a large denomination, I currently suffer from anxiety issues that prevent me from going regularly to a local church (I have trouble with crowds of people I don’t know, and that trouble is magnified when religious teachings are thrown into the mix). But church happens in other spaces for me, in Skype calls with a best friend, in Twitter conversations about privilege, in sharing funny pictures with blogging friends, in long conversations with my mother. Church outside the walls, as it goes.

But that’s only a small part of my overall point. If you’re not involved in the ongoing conversations of online criticism and the back and forth of the everyday conversation, the entire thing can look like a giant ball of nasty.

But, in throwing the baby out with the bathwater, as Ferguson did, one ejects legitimate, necessary critical anger from the public sphere just as quickly as harmful, abusive problematic anger.

There is bad criticism out there. It happens. There are people saying crappy, unhelpful things solely for the point of page views. But there are also people saying things that contribute and add to an ongoing discussion about the tension of living out the Christian life, especially when bad theology enters the picture. The problem arises when we lump the latter in with the former simply because they both happen by the same method and are similar in tone.

This is a result of attempting to enter a conversation about which a person is not actually conversant. Entering a critical conversation requires a lot of listening and a lot of patience. It requires a tough skin and deep empathetic skill (empathy is a skill, y’all). It also takes a lot of discernment. Something that may not look productive to you as an outsider to abusive dynamics may be intensely productive to the person saying it. Anger, for example, has a healing, cleansing power.

In interviewing women for my book-in-process, I’ve come across a common theme – that challenging authority in their churches, especially if they were cis-women, was a big fat no-no. Asking controversial questions, wondering if things might not be the way the pastor says they are, was absolutely verboten. Many experienced church discipline at the hands of authoritarian pastors.

And for many of these women, calling a person of authority an asshole can be intensely, extremely freeing. It is a bucking of authority, a learning of one’s own spiritual walk, and a healing expression of anger.

The thing is, to an outsider looking in, that good, healing anger can look exactly like people jumping on the bandwagon of the controversial figure of the day. And it’s really hard to judge which is which without knowing the person.

Getting back to Ferguson’s Deeper Church post, there seems to be a presumption that all criticism made in these cycles of controversies is meant for the person being criticized, and for them alone. But that’s, quite often, not how criticism works. Movie critics don’t critique movies in hopes that directors will listen to what they have to say. Nor do art critics, television critics, literary critics, or basically any other type of professional critic.

No, those critics write for you and for me, so that we can know what’s good and what’s bad and what’s worth spending our time and money on.

Why, then, do we eschew helpful, healing – if angry healing – criticism when it comes from a tweet or a blog in the Christian blogging world? Is it because of a messed up emphasis on the authority of pastors? A perverted world in which “grace” means never rocking the boat? Frustratingly ingrained sexist culture that devalues womanly anger and enables abuse by encouraging silence? Thumper’s mother teaching him that if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all?

In a word, yes.

Criticism is a big messy world that sometimes simply needs to spin itself out. But burying our head in the sands, suggesting that any and all criticism is simply illegitimate, and that those who criticize are simply bitter and hurt? This is not the way to do things. We must work to cultivate a space which allows people to be angry, because it is in that space that healing comes.