In its own year of racial reckoning, the Southern Baptist Convention just awoke to a high-profile gender reckoning as well.
Beth Moore, the popular Bible study teacher and author who for years has maintained the line of being a “teacher” and not a “preacher,” told Religion News Service she is “no longer a Southern Baptist.”
“I am still a Baptist, but I can no longer identify with Southern Baptists,” Moore told RNS. “I love so many Southern Baptist people, so many Southern Baptist churches, but I don’t identify with some of the things in our heritage that haven’t remained in the past.”
What put her over the line can be summed up in two words: Donald Trump.
While the SBC and its leaders have joined other white evangelicals in adulation of Trump and his politics, Moore has been a notable anti-Trumper. That decision reportedly cost her nearly $2 million in lost book sales and ticket sales to events.
Yet her decision to leave the SBC and to walk away from future publishing deals with the denomination’s publishing house, Lifeway, likely will have a greater financial effect on Lifeway than on Moore. For at least two decades, Moore has been Lifeway’s best-selling author; by some internal accounts, her books and related materials kept the Nashville-based publisher afloat.
Moore’s Bible studies and books may be more ubiquitous in SBC churches than Lifeway’s own bread-and-butter Sunday school curriculum. Her work has been so popular that one would be hard-pressed to find a Southern Baptist church in America that hadn’t used one of her Bible studies either in written or video form. What made her a best-seller beyond that, however, is her ability to reach outside the SBC to other Protestant churches of all kinds.
Christian author Diana Butler Bass summed up the seismic shock of Moore’s break with the SBC, which was announced two days after Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s bombshell interview with Oprah Winfrey: “Beth Moore leaving the Southern Baptist Convention is the religion news equivalent to Prince Harry leaving the royal firm. A big and unthinkable deal.”
Author Brian Zahnd tweeted: “If you can’t keep a theological conservative who is as gifted, loyal, and generous as @BethMooreLPM in your theologically conservative denomination, you’re probably doing something wrong.”
And SBC pastor Dwight McKissic, who has been leading the charge against the SBC for its racist past and refusal to deal with systemic racism, connected the dots in his own tweet: “When the likes of Beth Moore, Charlie Dates & Ralph West — 3 of the most gifted, godly & effective spokespersons for the Kingdom leave the SBC— & many others are standing at the door — it certainly indicates, to paraphrase an old Negro spiritual, ‘There is danger, in the water.’”
Dates and West are two prominent Black Baptist pastors who have left the SBC in protest of a statement by the six SBC presidents condemning Critical Race Theory.
Why she left
In her interview with RNS, which was given on Friday, March 5, but not reported until Tuesday, March 9, Moore recalled her shock in October 2016 when reading the transcripts of the “Access Hollywood” tapes, where Trump crassly boasted of his sexual exploits with women.
“This wasn’t just immorality,” she told RNS. “This smacked of sexual assault.”
Yet the same Southern Baptists who had been outraged by former President Bill Clinton’s conduct in the 1990s gave Trump a pass — not only a pass but a ringing endorsement. “The disorientation of this was staggering,” she told RNS. “Just staggering.”
“Make no mistake about Moore’s own theology: She is not a ‘liberal’ by any definition of the word.”
Make no mistake about Moore’s own theology: She is not a “liberal” by any definition of the word. Her Bible studies, books and videos hew a traditional Southern Baptist line in orthodoxy, and she describes herself as “pro-life from conception to grave.” She also has repeatedly dodged the thorny question of whether she is a “preacher” or just a “teacher,” deflecting the debate over women’s role in the church by saying she is not called to be a pastor.
Throughout the Trump administration, Moore maintained a critique of the president’s own immoral behavior and the less-than-biblical policies of his administration. That critique reached its peak on Dec. 13, 2020, in the midst of Trump’s baseless claims that the 2020 election had been stolen from him. Moore tweeted: “I do not believe these are days for mincing words. I’m 63 1/2 years old & I have never seen anything in these United States of America I found more astonishingly seductive & dangerous to the saints of God than Trumpism. This Christian nationalism is not of God. Move back from it.”
Illustrative of the pushback she had been getting from the most conservative wing of the SBC, Tennessee pastor Greg Locke (an ardent Trump supporter and not a Southern Baptist), replied to Moore via Twitter: “Ma’am, you’ve honest to God lost your mind. This trashy rhetoric is why America is in the place that she is. You say “move away.” I rebuke you in the name of Christ. You are NO friend to babies, Israel, religious Liberty or the nuclear family. SIT DOWN.”
Locke’s “sit down” language echoed the harsh rebuke of Moore given in fall 2019 by influential pastor and author John MacArthur: “Go home.”
While both Locke and MacArthur are not Southern Baptists, they and others like them wield enormous influence in SBC circles today.
In June 2019, SBC seminary president and influencer Al Mohler took on Moore via Twitter after she announced she would be speaking at a church from the pulpit on the Sunday morning of Mother’s Day: “We have reached a critical moment in the Southern Baptist Convention when there are now open calls to retreat from our biblical convictions on complementarianism and embrace the very error that the SBC repudiated over 30 years ago. Honestly, I never thought I would see this day.”
Complementarianism is a belief that God created men and women for different purposes and that they “complement” each other by staying true to these God-given gender roles. While Mohler claimed this had always been the view within the SBC, Moore had challenged whether that was true, speaking from her own lifetime experience as a Southern Baptist.
She rose to prominence as a gifted Bible teacher at First Baptist Church of Houston.
She rose to prominence as a gifted Bible teacher at First Baptist Church of Houston, where she was an aerobics instructor who also gave a brief Bible lesson with each class. That morphed into a massively popular weekly Bible study that she taught at First Baptist for 29 years.
First Baptist Houston is a megachurch firmly ensconced in the conservative evangelical culture of the SBC. Her longtime pastor there in the 1980s and ’90s was John Bisagno, one of the leaders of the so-called “conservative resurgence” that ran off moderates and liberals from the SBC.
Jeff Straub, professor of historical theology and missions at Central Seminary in Plymouth, Minn., explained the background in a Feb. 28 article posted on the seminary’s website.
Describing a current call for a second “conservative resurgence” within the SBC, he called attention to the Conservative Baptist Network and Founders Ministries — two far-right groups within the right-wing world of the SBC. One of the flashpoints for these two groups, he wrote, is Beth Moore.
When Moore preached the Mother’s Day sermon at her son-in-law’s church last year, “this unleashed an internet firestorm with opponents and supporters speaking out on whether women should ever be preaching in SBC churches,” Straub explained. “Compounding the problem, Moore, herself a victim of childhood sexual abuse, charged the convention with overemphasizing complementarianism, thus contributing to the MeToo Movement hitting the SBC.”
Narrowing the tent of the SBC
Facing increasing pressure from the Conservative Baptist Network and Founders Ministries, among others, SBC leaders in the last two years have sought to reassure the right-most flank within the denomination.
When Russell Moore, head of the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, joined Beth Moore (they’re not related) in criticizing Trump’s personal behavior and some of his policies — such as his harsh actions on immigration — he also became the object of intense criticism from within his own denomination.
The SBC Executive Committee last month received a report from a special study committee that claimed Russell Moore’s criticisms of Trump were costing the SBC money because angry churches have reduced their giving.
With the battle between Trumpers and never-Trumpers firmly underway, the six seminary presidents on Nov 30 added fuel to the fire with their statement on Critical Race Theory — which appeared to align with Trump’s own ban on talking about Critical Race Theory and systemic racism in federal workplaces.
All this is expected to boil over at the SBC’s annual meeting in Nashville this summer. Having already alienated the anti-Trump segment of the SBC and the majority of Black pastors in the SBC, the denomination now faces further alienation of women who put more stock in Beth Moore than in their denomination.
During a workshop session with Beth Moore at the SBC annual meeting in summer 2019, Russell Moore said this: “An SBC that doesn’t have a place for Beth Moore, doesn’t have a place for a lot of us.”
Whether those words were prophetic or hollow soon will be seen.
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