When Sarah Bessey started blogging in 2005, she saw it as a way to keep in touch with friends and family.
And that was in the early days of the Christian blogosphere, which she remembers as an "oasis of community" — strangers sharing everything from parenting tips to theology and filling comment sections with "lively and respectful" dialogue.
Flash forward to 2017.
In many places, blogging seems to have become all about personal branding. At the same time, Bessey's blog has brought her speaking engagements and inspired two books — "Jesus Feminist: An Invitation to Revisit the Bible's View of Women" and "Out of Sorts: Making Peace with an Evolving Faith" — with a third in the works. Bessey now has nearly 43,000 followers on Twitter and about 38,000 on Facebook.
"The internet gave women like me — women who are outside of the usual power and leadership narratives and structures — a voice and a community," Bessey told RNS by email. "We began to write and we began to find each other, we began to learn and be challenged, we began to realize we weren't as alone as we thought we were. Blogging gave us a way past the gatekeepers of evangelicalism."
For many Christian women, including racial minorities, and others whose voices traditionally have not been heard by or represented in institutional churches, the internet has created new platforms to teach, preach and connect.
That includes countless personal blogs and social media accounts like Bessey's. It also includes online ministries that have grown to include offline events like Propel Women, (in)courage, The Influence Network and IF:Gathering, and Bible study communities like She Reads Truth, which started as a hashtag by several online strangers to share what they were reading in the Bible and has grown to a website, app, book and specialty Bible that counted 500,000 active users last fall.
"People used to ask me, ‘Where did all these women writers and influencers come from?!' and I'd have to laugh when I said, ‘The internet!'" Bessey wrote in her email.
But, if the furor on social media this past month is to be believed, the abundance of faith bloggers also has created what the Rev. Tish Harrison Warren called a "crisis of authority."
"Is literally everyone with a computer — do they equally hold authority to teach and preach?" said Warren, an Anglican priest, who wrote a commentary for Christianity Today titled "Who's In Charge of the Christian Blogosphere?"
The controversy started just before Easter. Writer and speaker Jen Hatmaker criticized "the systems and alliances and coded language and brand protection that poison the simple, beautiful body of Christ." Hatmaker said she had encountered all that after affirming in an interview last fall with RNS columnist Jonathan Merritt that same-sex relationships can be holy.
A day later, Bible teacher Beth Moore tweeted that when considering the "things that need crucifying with Christ I vote personal branding. It's gross."
And, after the hashtag #ThingsOnlyWomenWritersHear trended on Twitter, Bessey started #ThingsOnlyChristianWomenHear to "amplify the voices of women who have too often been silenced" in the church, she wrote in a Facebook post. More followed, including #ThingsOnlyBlackChristianWomenHear.
Warren said the controversy touched on nearly all of the disagreements currently roiling the waters of evangelical Christianity — one of which is complementarianism, or the belief that men and women have different roles.
"We're talking about the history of evangelicalism, anti-institutionalism meets complementarianism meets marketing, money and power meets marginalization of minority voices — all of these things collide in this conversation," she told RNS.
Warren said her concerns extend to the male-dominated "megachurch" model, as well.
"I think the reason — and this is why I wrote the piece — that a lot of women are going outside their congregations to the internet for discipleship, is that they don't have women in their congregations who can come to them, not just as buddies but with pastoral authority," Warren said.
Many women already are gifted teachers, and the institutional church should embrace them, she suggested. That's a mutual relationship: Bloggers also should work to "build a church bigger than their own personal brand and submit to this long tradition of Christian faith."
That's precisely why internet platforms are so important, according to Austin Channing Brown, who writes and speaks about justice and racial reconciliation.
Not only does it give a voice to those the institutional church hasn't — and minority women in particular often are overlooked for leadership positions, Brown said — but also, she tweeted, "important things have been said from outside denominations because denominations were all messed up."
Not all churches and denominations confer authority through a seminary education. Brown is ordained by her Full Gospel Baptist Church denomination though she doesn't have a traditional seminary degree.
"The church has survived the printing press, radio and televangelists. We survived the rise of non-denominational churches and megachurches. We survived generations of white men with a platform and no traditional governing body sanctioning or approving their words," she said in an email to RNS.
"But I don't want to frame this newest step in the democratization of influencing the church as something to be survived. Many Christians believe that the church is made better when marginalized voices bring a new narrative to old ideas."
Why this isn't new
Questions about authority and influence go back at least as far as 1517, as those on all sides of the conversation are fond of pointing out. After Martin Luther reportedly nailed his 95 theses to a church door in Wittenberg, Germany, they were distributed widely via new media (then, the printing press), sparking the Protestant Reformation.
"So, no, I am not worried about women with blogs becoming a crisis for the church. I suspect that we will survive, and maybe even be made better by their presence," Brown said.
Many famous evangelicals have lacked seminary training or institutional backing. For instance, best-selling author Ann Voskamp recently noted that D.L. Moody — the 19th-century evangelist who founded the Chicago Evangelization Society, later renamed the Moody Bible Institute — had no more than a fifth-grade education.
Evangelicalism is what historian Daniel Silliman calls a "discourse community." It has no agreed-upon definition, no creed, no single person or council who can speak for the entire movement.
"It's a conversation, so those platforms shape the conversation," Silliman said.
It just looks different in 2017 than it did in the world of the 1970s, when the conversation happened primarily through Christian bookstores and radio.
Bessey, the blogger, says it's easy for someone with a recognized platform to sneer at building such a following. But she says the church is stronger when those unauthorized voices get heard.
"I know that I love Jesus and follow Jesus better when I hear why and how other people follow him — especially when I hear from people who aren't always approved by the establishment," she said. "God isn't trademarked."