Surrounded by lions: Is there a backstory to Beth Moore's divorce from Southern Baptists?

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So far, 2021 has been pretty hospitable for some good religion stories, beginning with a Jan. 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol that included some conservative religious folks. On the heels of that story was an exposé on Christian finance guru Dave Ramsey written by Bob Smietana, the former Religion News Service editor-in-chief-turned-national-reporter .

Smietana had spent several years writing for the Southern Baptist-owned Lifeway Research. Someone (there?) tipped him off about a March 3 tweet by Lifeway’s biggest author, Beth Moore, saying she had cut her ties with the organization. Naturally, he wondered if there was more to it. According to several of his tweets, a spokeswoman for the sometimes reclusive Moore called him, asking if he’d like an interview.

Moore was fleeing the ship and Smietana was the lucky scribe who got to break the story.

Since then, the news has been pounced on by the religion-writing teams at the New York Times and Washington Post, industry publications such as Christianity Today and a variety of Southern Baptist outlets. Why? Because it’s not just about one celebrity Christian pulling up the stakes.

Rather, it’s become a judgment on an entire denomination about how it’s handled women’s issues, sexual abuse and former President Donald Trump.

Let’s begin with the actual RNS story, which begins with how Moore was considered the model Southern Baptist because of her powerful Bible studies that ministered to millions, but didn’t cross paths with the denomination’s strictures against women preaching. She also fulfilled other unwritten rules for popular women’s speakers on the Christian circuit: She was attractive, slim, married and a mom.

Then came President Trump.

Moore’s criticism of the 45th president’s abusive behavior toward women and her advocacy for sexual abuse victims turned her from a beloved icon to a pariah in the denomination she loved all her life. …

Because of her opposition to Trump and her outspokenness in confronting sexism and nationalism in the evangelical world, Moore has been labeled as “liberal” and “woke” and even as being a heretic for daring to give a message during a Sunday morning church service.

(This, by the way, was an incident that happened in May 2019 that ignited a national debate among evangelicals as to whether women should preach. Some churches actually left the Southern Baptist Convention over this issue and a few months later, the Rev. John MacArthur, a Los Angeles-area pastor on the far right of evangelicalism, made a now famous comment that Moore should simply “go home” that I wrote about here.)

Finally, Moore had had enough. She told Religion News Service in an interview Friday (March 5) that she is “no longer a Southern Baptist.”

“I am still a Baptist, but I can no longer identify with Southern Baptists,” Moore said in the phone interview. “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.”

She’s not only referring to racism, one of the founding issues that got the SBC started in the first place (and for which its leaders have done a lot of repenting) but about a dismissive attitude toward women that went far beyond the teachings against women preachers.

Considering Trump’s horrible abusive history with women, Moore was amazed that so many people in her denomination enthusiastically supported this man. So she began to tweet about him.

When Moore spoke out about Trump, the pushback was fierce. Book sales plummeted as did ticket sales to her events. Her criticism of Trump was seen as an act of betrayal. From fiscal 2017 to fiscal 2019, Living Proof lost more than $1.8 million.

After allegations of abuse and misconduct began to surface among Southern Baptists in 2016, Moore also became increasingly concerned about her denomination’s tolerance for leaders who treated women with disrespect.

In 2018, she wrote a “letter to my brothers” on her blog, outlining her concerns about the deference she was expected to show male leaders, going as far as wearing flats instead of heels when she was serving alongside a man who was shorter than she was.

Let’s just say that, since 2016, whenever controversy ignited among Southern Baptists, Moore was often in the middle of it. She may be 63 years old, but her Twitter output equals that of most millennials. She has just under 1 million followers.

A lot of the follow-up articles on Moore basically repeated the RNS story. A few came up with interesting new tidbits, such as Baptist News:

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.

As mentioned before, the New York Times and Washington Post quickly did follow-up stories with the latter finding the more interesting second-day angle as whether other women will follow Moore out.

Two particularly interesting quotes came from (1) a female professor at Calvin College who said that fellow evangelicals whose employment comes from evangelical institutions feel trapped because their work places are similar to the institutions that ground down Moore and (2) Nancy French, a well-known evangelical (and married to #NeverTrump scribe David French) who attends a Presbyterian denomination that also doesn’t ordain women, but who feels it’s time someone stood up for women in the church.

“I feel so fatigued and worn out and like there is no place for respite except the Twitter feed of Beth Moore,” French said. “She is the one person who gets it, and her courageous stand has brought out the worst in people. I don’t know if Trump catalyzed hate for her or just revealed it, and women were never welcome if they didn’t stay in line. It’s like: How do you really feel about us?”

Unfortunately, Moore’s hometown paper, The Houston Chronicle had nothing new to share. It would appear that her phone number is not in their files, even though she lives in the area. It should have copied the New York Times, which did a follow-up explaining what about Moore’s sermons is so captivating (and why non-evangelicals need to understand why she is so important while being “just” a Bible teacher).

So let’s look at what’s gone unsaid in this Beth Moore sayonara. Other than Smietana’s original piece, nothing has stood out, mainly because Moore isn’t giving other interviews. I happen to follow Moore’s Twitter feed, which typically has new stuff every day. (It’s telling she hasn’t posted since the RNS story ran; however she did pin the story atop her feed, so she obviously liked it).

Any writer seeking to replicate Moore’s voice should have quoted from her feed, yet almost no one did.

The tweets showed that Moore was a reluctant entrant onto the religio-political scene. Having achieved great success with her Bible teachings, she didn’t need controversy. She knew that only someone like her, with massive pull in many corners of the SBC, might get listened to.

She got listened to, all right, but the results were pretty mixed. Here’s a woman for whom finding her voice meant leaving her church.

Some accounts have tried to make her leavetaking about women’s ordination or even the Trump era in general, but the problem goes deeper. It’s more about the constant slapdowns Moore endured; how she’s been publicly told to “sit down” and “go home” by prominent evangelical voices. It was clear that many powers-that-be were OK with Trump’s constant outrages but these same people were incensed every time she dared criticize the president.

Try googling her name on YouTube and you’ll see a ton of angry preachers railing against her. Moore was just done with putting up with it all. Working within the system wasn’t getting anywhere.

Christianity Today snagged a part of this frustration with this piece on how many SBC women are just as upset as Moore is with the intractable topics within their denomination. Most choose to put up with it but a growing number have left. I wrote about this phenomenon back in 2008 in my book “Quitting Church.” I was finding more and more women for whom church was not working, which is very bad news because women make up the bulk of volunteers in churches.

Plus, I left my own church at the end of 2020, due to incidents that built up over a five-year time period until something snapped. I’d finally reached my limit and I knew the church leaders involved weren’t going to change.

So it may be with Beth Moore. At some point, the situation gets unbearable. The woman was clearly a minister in all but name; she had an online following and for a time, she was willing to stay within the lines and play the game. Once Trump showed up, she began trespassing into men’s territory, as it were, making political comments in an arena where many felt she didn’t belong. So, she was told to stand down in ways most men would not put up with.

Attacking women online is truly a thing, writes Washington Post columnist Margaret Sullivan in her Sunday column about trolls going after female journalists. I noticed some disturbing parallels between what outspoken female reporters go through and what Moore has endured. There’s a level of viciousness out there in cyberspace against women that is simply not the same against men. Is there less toleration of theological differences in women and more of a fight to keep them in line?

One thing that Smietana noted in his piece was that when the sex abuse crisis hit the SBC in 2019, causing the denomination to hurriedly patch together a panel on the issue during that year’s annual convention, Moore was already feeling like she didn’t belong. So, we’re talking about two years of estrangement. No wonder she and her husband began quietly seeking out other churches (and there are plenty to choose from in Houston) last year when COVID-19 provided a ready excuse not to be in your own church.

Opinion writer David French came out with a column on Sunday that makes a similar point as to what drove Beth Moore out the door. He also felt the key issue was not bickering over women’s place in the church nor even Trump, but it was the viciousness of the attacks that led Moore to feel she was no longer wanted. The best paragraph:

There are many reasons why people leave a church. Some reasons are good. Some are not. But it’s a singular tragedy when a person is hated right out the front door. I grieve for the hatred Beth endured. I grieve for the steep and exhausting emotional cost paid by those on all sides of our ideological divide who speak in good faith, from the heart, and face not respectful disagreement but self-righteous cruelty in return.

I am very curious as to what, if any, rancor Moore faced at her (now former) home congregation, First Baptist Houston. Usually you can weather an outside storm if you’ve got a support base at home. But if the folks at First Baptist weren’t in her corner, no wonder she was out the door.

That’s the next story in this Moore saga that needs to be done. Hopefully someone’s already working on it.

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