Last week, there was an intriguing Twitter conversation about the authority of women in the blogosphere. It was precipitated by this CT_Women blog, which asked the question, “Who’s in charge?” As a Twitter newbie, I was riveted almost as much as I was with the #thingsonlychristianwomenhear and #thingschristianwomenshouldhear conversations. I was fascinated by the variety of opinions on the topic of authority in the blogosphere and the platform women are or are not given to speak, preach, teach, write, blog, tweet, etc. Reading all of that and thinking about my own experience, I came to the conclusion that the conversation was really more than anything else about who controlled those platforms, and how women are viewed by that authority. That’s when I realized it was time for me to talk about the company that employed me for nearly eleven years.
If you’ve followed this blog, you know that I am a woman called to ministry from an early age. And I guess by definition, I’m one of the unqualified bloggers referred to in the CT piece. I am invested in these conversations. They are not only theoretical or hermeneutical for me, they are very personal. When we have a conversation about women in ministry, this is not only a theological reality, it is my very life and calling. When we talk about women who write blogs or books or both, we are talking about very real women who have poured countless hours and energy and research into the precious words they have written. And to us (that feels so weird, I am so not worthy to be counted among these amazing women), make no mistake, these words are our babies. We have given birth to them and we take them very seriously. So please understand that for me this is not just an abstract conversation about other people.
In the last few years of my time with Lifeway, I became disillusioned with what I began to see as the Christian machine. I watched authors and artists come and go, and I saw several instances where a minor theological difference would mean we didn’t sell that person’s products any longer. At first, I really appreciated that we had such a strong theological stance and stuck to it so faithfully. But before long I began to realize that the real result of that hard-line stance was that we controlled the conversation. Our customers trusted us so much that many of them would refuse to read anything we didn’t carry on our shelves, or refuse to watch or listen to anything they couldn’t find at Lifeway. We were safe. They trusted us to discern for them what was Christian and what was not. The problem was that Lifeway Christian Stores was just the name. We were really the publishing and retail arm of the Southern Baptist Convention, hence the former name of “Baptist Bookstores.” The name change was in hopes of appearing more ecumenical. The reality was anything but. For a while, anything that didn’t meet the standards of the Baptist Faith and Message was marked with a “read with discernment” warning. Later, that warning was dropped in favor of simply not carrying those authors.
Please understand this is not about a referendum on Lifeway. They are a business, and they operate by a particular model. They do what they do to keep their investors and customer base happy, and there’s nothing wrong with that. The same is true of all of the Christian publishing companies that publish books, music, curriculum, and even Bibles. These companies all exist for Christians, and are mostly focused on the largest demographics of Christians in the US. Think about what you know of Christians in the US. According to a 2015 Pew Forum study, the largest group of Christians in the US is Evangelical Protestants. And the largest group of Evangelical Protestants are Baptists. So in order to make the most money possible, a company would need to tailor its goods to the largest demographic of Christians, who happen to have a particular theological perspective. What does that mean for the other theological perspectives? Well, the short story is that the rest of us get left out. Our authors aren’t as widely promoted, maybe not even sold at all. Our theological perspective is either silenced altogether or tempered to appeal to the masses. And if our doctrine doesn’t fit with that of the Baptist Faith and Message, we can say goodbye to the idea of selling anything on Lifeway’s shelves. New ideas and innovative thinking is not the business of Christian businesses. They do well because they are good at playing it safe and only taking the most calculated risks.
As you probably know, Baptists have a complicated history with women in ministry. The bottom line is that Southern Baptists embrace a Complementarian view of women’s roles in the Church and in the family. That means that women are not encouraged to lead in a lot of SBC churches. This is slowly changing, but their roles in ministry are still limited to women’s ministries or ministry to children and possibly youth. Following that line of thinking, women in the SBC aren’t lining up in droves to get a serious theological education. That is usually reserved for pastors and teachers, and those are men. Still with me? So if women in the church are looking for books by other women and walk into their local Christian bookstore, they will find a mix of women’s authors who are mostly from a Baptist background with a limited amount of theological education or practical ministry experience. My point is that most of the theologically educated women who are writing are doing so from other traditions, and therefore won’t be carried on the shelf of the friendly neighborhood Christian bookstore. We can’t call for ecclesiastical authority from women who aren’t given access to leadership roles or education from their churches, or who don’t have a lot of examples of women who are leading from a place of scholarship.
This is a complicated issue. It is full of economic realities that aren’t going to change and doctrinal issues that aren’t going to change and demographics that won’t likely change much. Lifeway has a corner on the market of Christian bookstores right now, and it’s because they do business the way they do. That’s not going to change anytime soon. What can change is how we talk about authors and books and movies and blogs and everything else out there being marketed to the Christian consumer. We can make sure that we teach from the pulpit and the Sunday School lectern what our various traditions actually believe and why. We can promote our own authors, write our own blogs, and teach our own theology. We don’t need permission from anyone to do any of that. Please hear me, I am not rejecting the Church being the Church and holding us accountable. But I am drawing a line of distinction between the Church and the Machine. Lifeway or any other bookstore or publisher dumping an author is not evidence of ecclesiastical authority holding someone accountable. It’s evidence of businesses knowing who their core customers are.
So if you are an author, let the Holy Spirit lead you as you write. Study and research well because that is your responsibility as a good author. Consult trusted experts in whatever your subject matter may be. But don’t write for the market. If you’re a songwriter or musician or painter or any other creative person who creates for the glory of God, keep doing whatever it is you do! Do it well, to the very best of your gifts and abilities. But don’t create for the Machine. Create for the glory of the Creator. In the end, God is the one we will truly be accountable to. That thought should both sober us and give us the freedom to do what we’ve been called to do.
” So no matter what your task is, work hard. Always do your best as the Lord’s servant, not as man’s.” ~Colossians 3:23