Who Will Follow Beth Moore Away From the Southern Baptist Church?

The Christian influencer and Bible teacher has been a towering figure among evangelicals willing to criticize Trump

Living Proof Ministries, February 28, 2020. Screenshot: Living Proof Ministries

Beth Moore fills a commanding niche in women’s evangelical circles. She has nearly a million Twitter followers; she runs Living Proof Ministries, a Texas-based Bible organization for women; she has headlined sports-arena-sized conferences; and she hosts a television show.

Moore is a petite, blonde, Southern belle with an Arkadelphia, Arkansas, folksiness and a televangelist’s urgency. She’s charming, self-deprecating, and can with conviction call Satan a liar and Donald Trump an example of “gross entitlement & power.” As a member of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), she calls herself a Bible teacher, not a preacher, and for women whose churches often won’t allow female pastors, Moore fulfills a leadership role where women are allotted some authority — over other women.

But in a recent interview with Religion News Service, Moore announced that she no longer is a Southern Baptist and has broken ties with her SBC-affiliated publisher Lifeway Christian Resources. She said she still loves many Southern Baptist people and churches, “but I don’t identify with some of the things in our heritage that haven’t remained in the past.”

Moore’s long, slow break began with Donald Trump and comes at a time when the SBC is roiling amid an identity crisis: ceding to its members’ extreme political ideologies, facing down a sex abuse crisis, and ousting LGBTQ-affirming churches, all while denying the systemic racism built into the denomination’s history.

Moore, in her typical manner, has been plain-spoken in grappling with many of the issues knotting the SBC and has done so with her trademark grace. She’s pressed just as hard as she could get away with and maintain her place. Now she’s gone.

In October 2016, two days after Trump’s “grab them by the pussy” Access Hollywood video surfaced, Moore broke with the male evangelical pastors who made locker-room excuses for Trump’s behavior and tweeted her opinion of the situation. After the tweet, Moore’s book and ticket sales dropped. According to Religion News Service, Living Proof lost more than $1.8 million between fiscal years 2017 and 2019. Being outspoken had a cost.

Male evangelical leaders asked her to recant. Breitbart complained she was “standing in the gap for Hillary Clinton.” Moore got bolder about discussing her own childhood sexual abuse. Her Twitter feed became a home for conservatives unwilling to cheerlead Trump.

In remaining orthodox on other evangelical hot-button issues, Moore kept her influence among evangelical churches and created ways for women to have these conversations within their church communities, notes Jesus & John Wayne author Kristin Kobes Du Mez. Yet Moore’s financial losses after speaking out about Trump show how deeply political orthodoxies mesh with religious ones for many of her readers. For some women and churches, political commitments superseded theology and their fandom of Moore.

Yet the impulse to speak up became urgent. In 2019, the Houston Chronicle and San Antonio Express-News published an exposé of sexual abuse within the SBC, creating a database loaded with hundreds of known abusers; at least 700 people were sexually abused and assaulted over 20 years at Southern Baptist churches. Pastors and church volunteers would be found out, leave quietly, turn up at another church, and start the cycle of abuse again. When the wave of survivors’ stories broke, predominantly those of women, social media flooded with outcries for reform and accountability. Moore, a childhood sex abuse survivor, had a unique platform. For SBC, validating Moore’s voice offered legitimacy as the denomination tried to show it was tackling the crisis.

But in the midst of the SBC’s public reckoning, Moore offered a diversion by tweeting about plans to speak on Mother’s Day Sunday. A pack of male SBC leaders came out scolding, reigniting a settled debate within a denomination where women preaching is banned. Now, willingly or not, the spat about Moore sermonizing offered up a convenient distraction from the sex abuse crisis at hand.

By the summer of 2019, the sidewalks outside the SBC’s annual convention in Birmingham, Alabama, were filled with survivors rallying to demand accountability over the abuse crises. They were not welcomed into the convention center. Moore was inside, center stage on a panel about abuse. At the convention, SBC president J.D. Greear called the abuse “pure evil.” Attendees held aloft new SBC sex abuse prevention handbooks; Greear wept.

Jules Woodson, an advocate whose youth pastor sexually assaulted her when she was a teen, stood outside among those not welcomed in. “Speaking on the outside felt lonely but not unfamiliar,” she told me, describing what it was like being outside while Moore spoke inside. “Myself and many others have been calling for action for years.” It was easier for SBC to feign ignorance of the abuse crisis, pass the buck, and protect their own rather than make meaningful change, she told me.

On the panel, Moore’s participation lent credibility to the denomination, making it look committed and as if it were listening to the voices of survivors. For some survivors, Moore’s growing outspokenness genuinely did help.

However, due to the heat over her alleged preaching, Moore revealed in her interview with Religion News Service that in that moment, she no longer felt welcome.

There’s a fine balance that women with any power within evangelical communities must maintain. (One Moore has seemed unwilling to threaten by overtly affirming LGBTQ people, for example.) Those allotted space as influencers get to do so because they make the theological positions of powerful men more palatable to women. Despite the SBC’s show of grief over the abuse crisis, the energy directed at Moore was far more focused on the threat of women preaching than the systems of abuse rampant in the nation’s largest Protestant denomination.

Later, Moore was asked if Southern Baptists’ complementarianism — a theology that God ordains different gender roles with men in positions of authority — causes abuse. She walked that fine line again and said no, “sin and gross selfishness in the human heart cause abuse.” Yet, she added, culture prevalent within “various circles of the SBC” made complementarian theology such a high, core value that it “became elevated above the safety and well-being of many women.”

Somehow, she could hold to the theology and damn its consequences.

In summer 2020, as the United States faced a reckoning with systemic racial injustice, Greear gave a speech calling for members to declare “Black lives matter” but also said he did not align with the Black Lives Matter organization itself. The SBC had spent prior decades fighting over race and whether to confront its historic support of slavery and segregation. Moore had already piped up, calling white supremacy a “demonic stronghold” on America. Meanwhile, networks of conservative churches were forming in opposition to critical race theory. Again, the SBC found itself pressed between cultural pressures within a deeply conservative, white-male-led milieu.

Old divides only grew more bitter. In June, Moore tweeted:

By September, Trump was making headlines attacking critical race theory and promoting “patriotic education” as a way to defend history from the left. By November, the SBC’s council of seminary presidents clarified that while Baptist seminaries condemn racism in any form, “affirmation of Critical Race Theory, Intersectionality and any version of Critical Theory is incompatible with the Baptist Faith & Message.” Greear, as the SBC president, affirmed the statement. (All of the SBC’s leaders are white men.) A handful of Black pastors broke with the denomination over the statement. In December, Moore denounced Trumpism and Christian nationalism.

With Trump out of office, echoes of the battles he ignited within the SBC have not been quelled. A task force report about the SBC’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) came out at the beginning of February; it showed that hundreds of churches are currently considering withholding millions of dollars from the ERLC, and some are considering a withdrawal from the SBC but not over the sex abuse crisis.

Instead, they voiced concerns that the national convention is moving in a “liberal direction.” The report points to various causes cited by these churches, such as opposition to Trump by ERLC president Russell Moore. (No relation to Beth Moore.) There are unfounded claims that the ERLC receives funding from George Soros. Casting Black Lives Matter protests as the problem, multiple churches have already defunded or are considering it due to the ERLC’s silence “during the violent and destructive protests that swept the entire nation for months beginning in summer of 2020.”

These statements say a lot about the soul of the Southern Baptist church, a denomination Moore is now exiting.

Moore is certainly not alone. Evangelicalism’s entanglement with Trump left many believers questioning their churches, and some women have left on their own. A vital trust began to fracture and revealed moral fault lines that became too difficult to straddle.

“I think many women have been uncomfortable in the SBC for quite some time. I think Beth Moore’s departure will give these women the push they need. They trust her; they know her to be, above all else, committed to the Gospel,” said Beth Allison Barr, a history professor at Baylor University and author of the forthcoming Making of Biblical Womanhood. “Recent events have made it clear the SBC is more committed to power structures and Southern culture. Beth Moore is doing what she has always done — pointing women to Jesus. I have no doubt that women will continue to follow her, even if that means leaving the SBC behind.”

There’s a decision people face when it becomes evident they no longer share certain core values with a community they love. You can stay, fight for its soul, and hope your efforts will be transformational. But if you stay for too long, you could be defeated, reabsorbed back into the thing you seek to change.

Sarah Stankorb is a contributor to GEN. Other works in The Washington Post, Marie Claire, Glamour, O, and The Atlantic. @sarahstankorb www.sarahstankorb.com

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