Who Teaches the Women of the Church?
Women are looking for discipleship.
They are looking for a place to receive counsel and instruction. They want to grow spiritually, and they will search for the input if they don’t find it in their community. Facebook, Amazon reviews, email lists, and Instagram will direct them to willing teachers, and the statistics tell us that an abundance of women have chosen to sit at the feet of those they found this way.
We have underestimated the influence the online ministries are having on women in the Church.
The internet isn’t all bad. You are reading this on a blog that you likely found through one of the listed channels. Yet, we have underestimated the influence the online ministries are having on women in the Church. Certain authors, conferences, and internet ministry leaders have become the primary teachers to many women, likely the women in your church. Don’t believe me? Ask round. Then, look at the numbers of social media followers for independent women’s ministry names. Jen Hatmaker and Ann Voskamp have three times more followers than the largest congregations in the US, according to Kate Shellnutt. Their books sell in the volumes that they land on The New York Times best seller lists. Think women flock to male pastors in these numbers? They don’t. Not in this kind of numbers. Female independent Christian teachers are leading hundreds of thousands of women in our churches.
While it is hard to measure the quantitative impact of many of the online teachers, it’s not hard to find the devotees in our churches.
Following someone on social media doesn’t mean they have become your dominant spiritual influence, neither does reading their book. I follow and read plenty people who are not that in my life. While it is hard to measure the quantitative impact of many of the online teachers, it’s not hard to find the devotees in our churches. Their books become part of Bible study; they are quoted from memory. The women speak of their beliefs as settled on an issue because of what they read her say in a blog post, and they presuppose others should follow suite.
“What’s wrong with that?” you might ask. Not everything. But, something, perhaps.
What a woman gets from engaging in books and popular blogs is not the same as what she was made to get in the church.
There are multiple reasons why making an online persona/author/speaker your discipler and primary teacher is precarious. Here’s just two. First, what a woman gets from engaging in books and popular blogs is not the same as what she was made to get in the church. It is not equivalent to a wise sister speaking into her life. She was made for discipleship in relationship. Her desire to connect with the impersonal conference/book/blog post is real, but it is also tantalizingly easier, without accountability or the hard-sought work of creating relationships with people who are different from her—namely the sisters she’s called to love in her church.
The focus on the famous author can also bypass the shepherds in her church who have been called to care for her, counsel, and instruct her. Turning to other input is not bad, if it doesn’t supplant the place of teaching that God has given.
Second, the majority of the books, conferences, and internet teachers that target women may not be teaching what these women need most and sometimes provide blatant false teaching. In the last month, Christianity Today has published articles about Glennon Melton Doyle’s self-fulfillment gospel, and you’ve likely seen the news about Jen Hatmaker’s controversial views plastered across the internet. Let’s be honest—these are two women have been in my social media feed for years for several reasons, including concern for their teaching. Others are teaching nothing that would get them condemned from a church council, but their emphasis distracts from the Ultimate.
The Need for More
The influence of online women’s teachers has been spotlighted the last few weeks, and it has prompted some long-ignored questions like “Why do women look to these women and others for their online discipleship? Why do many follow conferences and ministries more intensely than their own churches?” At the same time, the reminder of doctrine divergent from traditional Christian teaching has brought up other questions like “Who is influencing the women of the Church? And what are they teaching them?”
Christianity Today’s article “The Bigger Story Behind Jen Hatmaker” surveyed some really good responses to these questions.
We need pastors to encourage women leaders in our churches to speak to the women and to encourage local discipleship.
We need churches to be aware of what women are learning from powerful influences. The false and unhelpful teaching needs to be addressed. We need pastors to encourage women leaders in our churches to speak to the women and to encourage local discipleship. We need women leaders to be supported in their churches and to embrace the theological accountability that comes from being under the authority of elders. The article quoted Jen Wilkin, Hannah Anderson, and Aimee Byrd, women I encourage you to read. Yes. Yes. Yes, to all they said.
These are all necessary responses, and I pray that pastors hear. I pray they read this article and others like the one from Lore Ferguson and Sharon Hodde Miller about the same issues. But at the end of the day, change will be affected by our prayers and conversations but not by a forceful hand. Church elders and pastors have great responsibility and power in these matters of leadership empowerment and equipping. As women of the church, our response is to pray and speak and something more.
A Call to Engage
You and I see women around us seeking something that will “speak to them.” If you haven’t had this conversation in a while, go find the Christianity section of your bookstore (if you still have those in your city) and ask women what they’re looking for. You’ll hear the mentor-seeking wanderlust swell from their hearts.
Friends, there’s clearly a need. It’s time to engage.
Engage in discipleship. You’re called to love your sister; engage with her. Build community through hospitality, through initiating depth of relationship, through talking about the Scriptures together. Many of the women I know who delve into some of these internet ministries and celebrated authors with unbridled trust do so because they believe there is no place to turn. No one else will be genuine with them about brokenness, sin, fear, and struggle. So they turn to the safety of impersonal words. Instead, you and I are called to be the church and engage with the women in our local churches, to be spiritual mothers.
It's good to serve with parachurch organizations and learn from national teachers and books, but your partners in kingdom work primarily fill the pews next to you.
Engage in your church. Speaking of your local church, be there. Serve there. Love people there. Yes, it is good to serve with parachurch organizations and learn from national teachers and books, but your partners in kingdom work primarily fill the pews next to you. When someone on social media says “we belong to each other,” it’s purely a platitude until you say it to those who are called to walk through the rough and beautiful of life with you; those are the people in your church. Thus, love and share the famous teachers who push you back to use your gifts there and under the leadership of compassionate shepherds.
Engage in theology. Sisters, it’s time for us to take this seriously. I’ve heard women tell me that they don’t need to understand theology because they are women. That makes about as much sense as saying they don’t need to know God because they’re only human. God has given you a mind to learn about him. The market of Christian women’s books is flooded with resources that have horrible theology. They may “encourage” us, but Jesus is not your cheerleader. What you and I need are books rooted in the good news of what Jesus has done and the life he now calls us to. Let’s learn discernment by studying theology well, so that our discipleship and teaching is influenced by helpful authors. We’ll write more about this in the future.
The Focus of the Parachurch
I co-direct a ministry that has social media accounts, puts on conferences, and, obviously, has a blog. I write online. I teach at conferences. Clearly, I am not saying that learning from people outside of your church is wrong. Clearly, I believe in ministering to women through the internet and conferences. Clearly, I think it is wise for us to be reading books. This would be clear if you’ve seen me at any of our book giveaways.
Yet, I will be the first to say “Don’t just follow me.” Take everything you hear and apply the theology you’ve learned. Ask your pastors about what you’re absorbing. Talk to wise women in your church about the real, gritty details of life and the lofty philosophy too. We’re the friends that cheer you on in the cross-country race, giving advice on your stride and how to handle the rough terrain. We don’t set the course or take your coach’s responsibility to care for you.
It’s our job is to encourage, rooting us all in the bedrock of the gospel, and to further equip, pushing you towards your church to gather and serve together for the kingdom. If you hear anything else, stop listening.
Verity Forum is our coming event on January 14, 2017, designed to further equip you for discipleship, teaching the Bible and other Word-ministry. Find out more.