Religion News Service - Missouri School of Journalism [Columbia MO]
March 9, 2021
By Bob Smietana
The famed Bible study teacher said she no longer feels at home in the denomination that once saved her life.
Photo above: Beth Moore addresses attendees at the summit on sexual abuse and misconduct at Wheaton College on Dec. 13, 2018. RNS photo by Emily McFarlan Miller
For nearly three decades, Beth Moore has been the very model of a modern Southern Baptist.
She loves Jesus and the Bible and has dedicated her life to teaching others why they need both of them in their lives. Millions of evangelical Christian women have read her Bible studies and flocked to hear her speak at stadium-style events where Moore delves deeply into biblical passages.
Moore’s outsize influence and role in teaching the Bible have always made some evangelical power brokers uneasy, because of their belief only men should be allowed to preach.
But Moore was above reproach, supporting Southern Baptist teaching that limits the office of pastor to men alone and cheerleading for the missions and evangelistic work that the denomination holds dear.
“She has been a stalwart for the Word of God, never compromising,” former Lifeway Christian Resources President Thom Rainer said in 2015, during a celebration at the Tennessee Performing Arts Center in Nashville that honored 20 years of partnership between the Southern Baptist publishing house and Moore. “And when all is said and done, the impact of Beth Moore can only be measured in eternity’s grasp.”
Then along came Donald 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.
“Wake up, Sleepers, to what women have dealt with all along in environments of gross entitlement & power,” Moore once wrote about Trump, riffing on a passage from the New Testament Book of Ephesians.
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.
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.”
Kate Bowler, a historian at Duke Divinity School who has studied evangelical women celebrities, said Moore’s departure is a significant loss for the Southern Baptist Convention.
Moore, she said, is one of the denomination’s few stand-alone women leaders, whose platform was based on her own “charisma, leadership and incredible work ethic” and not her marriage to a famed pastor. (Moore’s husband is a plumber by trade.) She also appealed to a wide audience outside her denomination.
“Ms. Moore is a deeply trusted voice across the liberal-conservative divide, and has always been able to communicate a deep faithfulness to her tradition without having to follow the Southern Baptist’s scramble to make Trump spiritually respectable,” Bowler said. “The Southern Baptists have lost a powerful champion in a time in which their public witness has already been significantly weakened.”
Moore may be one of the most unlikely celebrity Bible teachers in recent memory. In the 1980s, she began sharing devotionals during the aerobics classes she taught at First Baptist Church in Houston. She then began teaching a popular women’s Bible study at the church, which eventually attracted thousands each week.
In the early 1990s, she wrote a Bible study manuscript and sent it to Lifeway, then known as the Baptist Sunday School Board, where it was rejected. However, after a Lifeway staffer saw Moore teach a class in person, the publisher changed its mind.
Moore’s first study, “A Woman’s Heart: God’s Dwelling Place,” was published in 1995 and was a hit, leading to dozens of additional studies, all backed up by hundreds of hours of research and reflecting Moore’s relentless desire to know more about the Bible.
From 2001 to 2016, Moore’s Living Proof Ministries ran six-figure surpluses, building its assets from about a million dollars in 2001 to just under $15 million by April 2016, according to reports filed with the Internal Revenue Service. Her work as a Bible teacher has permeated down to small church Bible study groups and sold-out stadiums with her Living Proof Live events.
For Moore, the Southern Baptist Convention was her family, her tribe, her heritage. Her Baptist church where she grew up in Arkadelphia, Arkansas, was a refuge from a troubled home where she experienced sexual abuse.
“My local church, growing up, saved my life,” she told RNS. “So many times, my home was my unsafe place. My church was my safe place.”
As an adult, she taught Sunday school and Bible study and then, with her Lifeway partnership, her life became deeply intertwined with the denomination. She believed in Jesus. And she also believed in the SBC.
In October 2016, Moore had what she called “the shock of my life,” when reading the transcripts of the “Access Hollywood” tapes, where Trump boasted of his sexual exploits with women.
“This wasn’t just immorality,” she said. “This smacked of sexual assault.”
She expected her fellow evangelicals, especially Southern Baptist leaders she trusted, to be outraged, especially given how they had reacted to Bill Clinton’s conduct in the 1990s. Instead, she said, they rallied around Trump.
“The disorientation of this was staggering,” she said. “Just staggering.”
Moore, who described herself as “pro-life from conception to grave,” said she had no illusions about why evangelicals supported Trump, who promised to deliver anti-abortion judges up and down the judicial system.
Still, she could not comprehend how he became a champion of the faith. “He became the banner, the poster child for the great white hope of evangelicalism, the salvation of the church in America,” she said. “Nothing could have prepared me for that.”
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.
She also began to speak out about her own experience of abuse, especially after a February 2019 report from the Houston Chronicle, her hometown newspaper, detailed more than 700 cases of sexual abuse among Southern Baptists over a 20-year period.
Her social media feeds, especially Twitter, where she has nearly a million followers, became filled with righteous anger and dismay over what she saw as a toxic mix of misogyny, nationalism and partisan politics taking over the evangelical world she loved — along with good-natured banter with friends and supporters to encourage them.
“I can get myself in so much trouble on Twitter because it’s kind of my jam,” she said. “My thing is to mess around with words and ideas.”
Then, in May 2019, Moore said, she did something she now describes as “really dumb.” A friend and fellow writer named Vicki Courtney mentioned on Twitter that she would be preaching in church on Mother’s Day.
“I’m doing Mother’s Day too! Vicki, let’s please don’t tell anyone this,” Moore replied.
The tweet immediately sparked a national debate among Southern Baptists and other evangelical leaders over whether women should be allowed to preach in church.
“There’s just something about the order of creation that means that God intends for the preaching voice to be a male voice,” Albert Mohler Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, said on his podcast.
Georgia Baptist pastor Josh Buice urged the SBC and Lifeway to cancel Moore, labeling her as a liberal threat to the denomination.
Controversial California megachurch pastor John MacArthur summed up his thoughts in two words, telling Moore, “Go home.”
Moore, who said she would not become pastor of a Southern Baptist church “to save my life,” watched in amazement as her tweet began to dominate the conversation in the denomination, drowning out the concerns about abuse.
“We were in the middle of the biggest sexual abuse scandal that has ever hit our denomination,” she said. “And suddenly, the most important thing to talk about was whether or not a woman could stand at the pulpit and give a message.”
When Moore attended the SBC’s annual meeting in June 2019 and spoke on a panel about abuse, she felt she was no longer welcome.
Things have only gotten worse since then, said Moore. The SBC has been roiled by debates over critical race theory, causing a number of high-profile Black pastors to leave the denomination. Politics and Christian nationalism have crowded out the gospel, she said.
While all this was going on, Moore was working on a new Bible study with her daughter Melissa on the New Testament’s letter to Galatians. As she studied that book, Moore was struck by a passage where the Apostle Paul, the letter’s author, describes a confrontation with Peter, another apostle and early church leader, saying Peter’s conduct was “not in step with the gospel.”
That phrase, she said, resonated with her. It described what she and other concerned Southern Baptists were seeing as being wrong in their denomination.
“It was not in step with the gospel,” she said. “It felt like we had landed on Mars.”
Beth Allison Barr, a history professor and dean at Baylor University, said Moore’s departure will be a shock for Southern Baptist women.
Barr, the author of “The Making of Biblical Womanhood,” a forthcoming book on gender roles among evangelicals, grew up a Southern Baptist. Her mother was a huge fan of Moore, as were many women in her church.
“If she walks away, she’s going to carry a lot of these women with her,” said Barr.
Anthea Butler, associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania and author of a forthcoming book on evangelicals and racism, said Moore could become a more conservative version of the late Rachel Held Evans, who rallied progressive Christians tired of evangelicalism but not of Christianity.
Critics of Moore will find it easier to dismiss her as “woke” or “liberal” than to deal with the substance of her critique, said Butler. But Moore’s concerns and the ongoing conflicts in the SBC about racism and sexism aren’t going away, Butler said.
The religion professor believes Moore will be better off leaving the SBC, despite the pain of breaking away.
“I applaud this move and support her because I know how soul-crushing the SBC is for women,” Butler said. “She will be far better off without them, doing the ministry God calls her to do.”
Unwinding her life from the Southern Baptist Convention and from Lifeway was difficult. Moore and her husband have begun visiting a new church, one not tied as closely to the SBC but still “gospel-driven.” She looked at joining another denomination, perhaps becoming a Lutheran or a Presbyterian, but in her heart, she remains Baptist.
She still loves the things Southern Baptists believe, she said, and is determined to stay connected with a local church. Moore hopes at some point, the public witness of Southern Baptists will return to those core values and away from the nationalism, sexism and racial divides that seem to define its public witness.
So far that has not happened.
“At the end of the day, there comes a time when you have to say, this is not who I am,” she said.
Moore had formed long-term friendships with her editing and marketing team at Lifeway and saying goodbye was painful, though amicable. She’d hoped to spend 2020 on a kind of farewell tour but most of her events last year were canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic. (Lifeway does have a cruise featuring Moore still on its schedule.)
“These are people that I love so dearly and they are beloved forever,” she said. “I just have not been able to regard many things in my adult ministry life as more of a manifestation of grace than that gift of partnership with Lifeway.”
Becky Loyd, director of Lifeway Women, spoke fondly about Moore.
“Our relationship with Beth is not over, we will continue to love, pray and support Beth for years to come,” she told RNS in an email. “Lifeway is so thankful to the Lord for allowing us to be a small part of how God has used Beth over many years to help women engage Scripture in deep and meaningful ways and help them grow in their relationship with Jesus Christ.”
Lifeway will still carry Moore’s books and promote some of her events.
Those events will likely be smaller, attracting a few hundred people rather than thousands, said Moore, at least in the beginning. And she is looking forward to beginning anew.
“I am going to serve whoever God puts in front of me,” she said.