Beth Moore and a lost Southern Baptist Convention

Religion News Service reporter Bob Smietana broke the story this week that famous Bible study leader Beth Moore is leaving the Southern Baptist Convention and ending the mutually lucrative publishing relationship with their Lifeway group. She claimed that the SBC is “not in step with the gospel” and has instead given in to sexism, nationalism, partisanship, racism and, perhaps especially, Trumpism.

Moore also had been getting pummeled by SBC and SBC-sympathetic Bully Boys who did not like either her growing public resistance or the longstanding fact of her massive audience, in SBC circles but also far beyond.

You see, in SBC world, women are supposed to graciously submit to God-appointed male leaders, almost all of whom currently happen to be reactionary white guys who have bowed the knee to Donald Trump. Women are not supposed to be influential Bible teachers. They are definitely not supposed to stand at the Sacred Desk and preach the word to audiences that include post-pubescent men. God forbids it.

Coverage of Beth Moore’s decision was remarkably intense in the secular media, signaling their judgment that this was a Very Big Deal. Certainly, some of this attention represented a well-deserved national Slam Dunk Contest on the Southern Baptist Convention. While I am always happy to join in dunking on the denomination that long ago rejected me, I had other thoughts in mind when I heard the news of Beth Moore.

I was mainly sad.

Whatever else one might say about Southern Baptists, they were not always the way they are now. I know what they once were, at least, what they once were in my experience. They were far from an ideal community. But still, I want to tell you about a world long ago and far away.

I was converted to faith in Christ in the summer of 1978 at Providence Baptist Church of Tysons Corner, Va. With the benefit of a four-decade time horizon and many hard experiences between those sunny days and now, I have a much better understanding of the kind of Southern Baptists those folks were.

They were a mixed multitude. And they were OK with that.

The pastor was an old guy who preached from the King James Version of the Bible and prayed with “Thees” and “Thous” liberally sprinkled in. It was the only thing liberal about him. Yet he also was divorced by his wife, and the church broke with tradition and kept him in his office.

The youth minister was just as theologically conservative, with a bit of Jesus People vibe. I think he was the one who gave me my Living Bible. He was certainly the one who led the youth choir as we sang groovy ’70s anthems. He was a gentle soul with a passion for discipling young people into a serious faith.

“She was the kind of person who would tell you that she sensed you needed prayer on a Tuesday at 11 a.m., so she dropped everything to pray for you.”

The most influential layperson was a Japanese American woman of a mystical bent. She was the kind of person who would tell you that she sensed you needed prayer on a Tuesday at 11 a.m., so she dropped everything to pray for you, and she was right about what was going on at that moment. She was the leader of the youth Bible study on a Monday night in July 1978 in which the Spirit moved and I was readied for conversion. You see, no one told her she could not teach the Bible to a group that had boys in it.

The only politics in that church was private. It was never discussed in church. The only politics I remember is associated with a hilarious memory. A member of the congregation enlisted me for a conservative Cold War propaganda film called “Can Soviet Imperialism Be Stopped?” After a rather severe haircut and dye job, my task was to menacingly pour red paint over a standing globe. I got $200 to help pay for prom the next evening. Although my hair looked awful, it was worth it. But, as opposed to now, the film was not paid for by the pastor.

Those Southern Baptists found unity around some core values: evangelism, conversion, discipleship, missions and personal morality. I wish they had a better social ethic, but on the other hand they did not try to disciple me into the Republican Party.

And no one ever talked about what was about to become a looming purge of the denomination’s moderates and liberals. Various theological currents and popular authors made their way into and out of various sermons and classes. Certainly they were not reading Gustavo Gutierrez or James Cone, but they also were not confining themselves to Southern Baptist conservatives and fundamentalists.

“There was some breathing room in that church. It was committed but not doctrinaire.”

There was some breathing room in that church. It was committed but not doctrinaire. Most people seemed like they were genuinely trying to follow Jesus. Ideology had not trumped walking with Jesus. The pun is very much intentional.

I had the misfortune of beginning my teaching career at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary 15 years later, in 1993. Immediately the purges commenced. The relative spaciousness of the relatively Big Tent SBC that I had first found so appealing was soon gone. I remember thinking at the time that under the new rules, you could never lose if you sounded more fundamentalist, more angry than anyone else in the room. Never allow yourself to be outflanked to the right, and never allow those sentimental Christian graces like charity and mercy to get in the way of a political win.

Nearly 30 years later, the denomination has fully joined the great Rush Limbaughification of the American and Christian Right, in which, as Ross Douthat pointed out, it seems that everyone (think about it: Roger Ailes, Rudy Guiliani, Newt Gingrich, Donald Trump) is merging into one great big Rush-type figure. Vaguely Christian snarling white men on crusade against the liberals.

No wonder the GOP, the SBC and the white evangelicals are all shrinking. Rush Limbaughification is a formula guaranteed to drive out a whole lot of people.

As the victors say their triumphant farewells to yet more RINOs, yet more not-real-Christians, they will preside over a rapidly shrinking and irrelevant kingdom.

The kingdom of God, however, will be growing apace. Just somewhere else.

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