All the authority issues: reflections on a year of Patheos blogs

Hi friends,

I recently concluded an almost-year’s worth of weekly-ish blogging with Patheos. I wanted to try to sum up the journey here—including lots of links, in case there are posts you haven’t seen yet but want to check out.

Lots and lots of links. You’ve been warned. 

After kicking off the blog with some initial words of welcome and introduction (and hope, hopefully), I mapped out a tentative series centered on the idea of “always re-forming”—in a very personal sense. 

There are so many faith-related things I’ve changed my mind about over the years. And I wanted to write about them. 

So I jotted down some notes about all the things I thought I knew but don’t know anymore. All the ways my theology has changed—and is still changing. The things (I think) I’ve been wrong about. The things I might be wrong about still. The disorientation of it all—and the hopefulness I see in the journey, too. 

I started by reflecting on church belief statements—their complications and inadequacies, and also, in some cases, their importance

Then I reflected on what a crisis of spiritual authority has looked like for me, and how I’m learning to love life in the murky mud. 

After that, I meant to move on to all sorts of different topics. But I ended up pretty much staying there. All year.

Reflecting on spiritual authority. Church authority. Authoritarianism in church, and how we might avoid it. How I’ve been learning to see religious authority differently.

Turns out there were so many things to say.

My apologies if you wanted to hear some reflections on other things. (I’m sure it’ll come out here or other places.)

But for the Patheos blog, I spent time reflecting on the Bible, which is a key source of religious authority—what it means to take the Bible seriously, how complex its interpretation is, and what it does and doesn’t mean to read the Bible for guidance

I explored how my relationship with the Bible has changed dramatically as I’ve read historical theologians’ interpretations, learned New Testament Greek, and learned about historical abuses of scripture. All of these things complicate how we read it. It is not enough to say “the Bible is inspired!”—and use this as an excuse to stop thinking about all the complexities of how we might apply its messages faithfully to our lives today. 

Ultimately, I argued, we can’t really read the Bible in an unbiased way, try as we might. But we can learn to read it with a bias toward love and justice

I took a couple holiday-related tangents, writing on New Years’ resolutions, and then on Martin Luther King, Jr. I reflected on some of the things I learned in a class on Dr. King in seminary that have stuck with me. And then I got right back to those authority issues.

I reflected on casually authoritarian language in church, on how we think about tradition and authority, and on how we may sometimes need to remind ourselves that religious authorities are not God. I wrote about how, in light of that non-God-ness, we can learn to “authorize” ourselves.

I explored how communities are stronger when they’re made up of people different from one another, even though it’s hard. Sometimes, so hard.

After that, I went into a short 2-week mini-series on saying “no.” Because many of us have a hard time with it. But it’s so essential—and it should be so widely accepted. It should be okay to say “no” to anything, at any time—even, and especially, in church.

I suggested that we can learn to say “no” to the small things—both because this is important in itself, and so that we’re then better equipped to say “no” to the big things. That is, we can build our “no” muscles, if you will. (I imagine I have a lot to say about this because I’m working on it. All. The. Time.) 

Then I wrote about saying “no” without shame. Which launched me on another mini-series about shame: what religion that doesn’t shame can look like—and while, even though religious leaders might sometimes shame people, spirituality can actually serve as a resource for shame resilience. Also, how shame-breaking can be contagious

Going back to those authority issues—although it’s all related, of course—I got into the question of what makes a “good person,” and how I’d very much like to separate goodness from obedience. And, speaking of holy disobedience, how I want to see more and more people become willing to get kicked out of their churches or other religious organizations if that’s what it takes to stand up for goodness, love, and justice.

I explored a few more angles on what I’d love to see in religious leadership: moving from religious leaders as “answer givers” to “people who try stuff,” from teachers to co-learners, and from thinking in terms of what “we” believe to whom we want to become together.  

Along the way, I wrote a handful of responses to current events: to that Hillsong documentary, to a New York Times opinion piece about having a “consistent ethic of life” (parts 1 and 2), to the Barbie movie (delightful and complicated), and to Alexander Lang’s viral blog about leaving pastoral ministry (parts 1 and 2). 

I also reflected on sermons—how I take them with a grain of salt, and how I’d love to see them as less of a monologue and more of a conversation

And I invited women to find the strength and courage not to bench ourselves. It is hard, so hard, to be a female leader in this world. And especially in most of our churches. But when we’re called to it, we can learn not to write ourselves off. Even if others around us do just that.

In that vein, I reflected on what an actual “fall of the patriarchy” might look like—in terms of women finding our own dreams, embracing the ways we might not “[live] up to sanctioned models of femininity” (as Sue Monk Kidd put it), and learning to breathe fully (as Angela Parker put it).. 

Whew. I think that’s all the posts! What a journey.

As I look back on a year of Patheos blogging, this is my hope: that by thinking through some of these authority-related issues together, we can help our faith communities become places where authority functions differently. Places where power is genuinely shared in healthy and life-giving ways. Places where every person can thrive. 

I’m haunted by the connections between authoritarianism in religious structures and authoritarianism in political structures. That is, when people are taught to accept authoritarian leadership in their churches, they are often then all the more willing to accept authoritarian governments, political actors, and political structures. This is not okay.

(Kristin Kobes Du Mez’s book Jesus and John Wayne is a great resource to dig deeper into this. See super chill book review parts 1 and 2 if you like.)

Faith communities influence so much about how people see our world. If we can learn to approach power differently in churches, maybe we can learn to work together in the political universe too.

That’s (part of) what feels at stake to me, as I write these things. 

Was there a Patheos post that resonated with you or got you thinking about something? If so, I’d love to hear it. Otherwise, I’ll no longer be blogging at Patheos, but I’ll still be blogging here on a regular basis, so…stay in touch.

Peace and a healthy dose of anti-authoritarianism to you this week,


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