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How Beth Moore is helping to change the face of evangelical leadership

Evangelist and author Beth Moore speaks at the Dove Nominee Luncheon at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center in 2014 in Nashville. (Terry Wyatt/Getty Images for Dove Awards)

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Beth Moore is standing onstage before a large audience of women at Prestonwood Baptist Church in Plano, Tex. She’s teaching from the Book of Mark, but now, a little over halfway through her message, she has hit her theme: “Jesus, Because Life Is Complicated.”

Moore, one of the nation’s best-known Southern Baptists and renowned for her ministry to women, talks about her own “complications.” She lists one in particular — aging. As Moore, 61, tells a funny story about wanting her body parts to operate in harmony, she also insists that life gets better as you get older. After all, she says, at a certain point, you “no longer feel like you have to meet your husband at the front door in your bathing suit” — a quick, insider reference to the conservative marriage manuals that tell women their job is to always be alluring. She has her audience laughing, tearing up and clapping, much like they would listening to any great preacher.

Moore is one of the evangelical leaders today who represent the future of the global church, in which people outside Europe and the United States will be dominant. Even within this country, where evangelicals are heir to the world created by white men such as Graham and Jerry Falwell, the evangelical community is increasingly diverse, with people of color an ever-higher percentage of those who describe themselves as “born again.” Thought leaders among evangelicals are diverse, including people ranging from megachurch pastor and author T.D. Jakes to Nikki Toyama-Szeto, the new head of Evangelicals for Social Action. Moore represents this transition, which is shaping even the most conservative corners of evangelicalism.

Although she might be as popular as some male evangelical leaders, unlike them, Moore is not a pastor — not officially even a “preacher.” As a Southern Baptist, she is part of a denomination that does not support women as church pastors and whose leaders often argue that women should not “teach” or “have authority” over men. (They are drawing from specific statements by Paul in 1 Timothy and 1 Corinthians.)

What do you do when you believe you have a message, but your tradition does not allow you to preach? You teach. You write books. And you tweet.

Moore, like other women in conservative evangelical circles, writes books, gives scores of conference presentations and develops teaching resources, all marked as resources for women. And, in one of those ironic twists that mark the history of Christianity in the United States, that limitation has shaped her ministry and helped make her famous.

Like other teachers who focus on women, Moore has her own organization, Living Proof Ministries, with its blog and numerous archived lessons. And she is active on Twitter, where she has almost 900,000 followers. Moore is not alone: Social media is a hothouse of evangelical conversation, and Twitter in particular includes people from around the world swapping Bible verses, commenting on issues and debating them.

Indeed, conservative evangelical women such as Moore, President Trump’s adviser Paula White, Trillia Newbell of the Gospel Coalition, Darlene Zschech of Hillsong church in Australia and author and evangelist Joyce Meyer have massive followings. (Meyer has a stunning 6 million followers.) Where preaching is not allowed, tweeting seems to have entered.

“Pastors tell me, Twitter is just made for the Bible,” one consultant told the New York Times several years ago, and that seems to be true. The truncated format of a tweet still allows for a short verse and a bit of commentary, a quick illustration, a provocative recounting. But Twitter has also made it easy for Christian commentators to speak up about events in their moral universe in ways they might not do when speaking in front of a live crowd.

This spring, Moore also became a leading critic of sexism in the evangelical church and a player in the #MeToo reckoning that roiled the Southern Baptist Convention, leading to the resignation and disgrace of one of the denomination’s most revered leaders.

Amid a Southern Baptist scandal, some evangelical women say the Bible’s gender roles are being distorted to promote sexism

Not surprisingly, the #MeToo movement has traction among evangelicals and others, who often use the hashtag #ChurchToo. As someone who has written about her own difficult life history, Moore herself has been no small player in this conversation. In the fall of 2016, she spoke out against revelations about Donald Trump’s sexually predatory attitude toward women with two tweets on Oct. 9 that provoked a firestorm.

Suddenly, the blond Bible teacher in colorful outfits seemed to be far more confrontational. And many evangelicals, especially white evangelicals who supported Trump’s campaign for president, castigated Moore for becoming “political.” She did not back down.

Then, in the spring of this year, Moore took a lead role in responding to the controversy over comments by Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary President Paige Patterson, in which he recounted proudly that he had urged a woman to stay with her husband despite physical abuse. Moore joined more than 3,500 Southern Baptist women who signed a letter saying that the Southern Baptist Convention should not allow “a leader with an unbiblical view of authority, womanhood and sexuality” to remain in his role. On May 22, Patterson was removed from his position as the seminary’s president.

In response to this and other issues, Moore produced a series of tweets and later her own open letter that highlighted her experience of sexism in the conservative evangelical circles in which she travels — the experience of going to speak at an event and not being acknowledged in an elevator with a group of men with whom she was about to share a stage and of being sexualized, condescended to and dismissed. These experiences were not at the same level as those of women who had been abused, Moore said, but the attitudes that engendered both types of behavior were “growing from the same dangerously malignant root.”

The SBC held its annual convention in Dallas last week. Just before the meeting, William Dwight McKissic, pastor of Cornerstone Baptist Church in Arlington, Tex. (and the African American pastor who introduced an anti-racism platform to the SBC meeting in 2017), wrote an essay in Christianity Today saying that he would like to nominate Beth Moore as president. He did not — the path to the presidency is far more complicated than a last-minute nomination — but the denomination did elect pastor J.D. Greear of Durham, N.C., as the its youngest ever president. Greear won easily with the support of denomination moderates such as Moore. (Take a look at the hilariously bizarre congratulatory rap video made for Greear, based on MC Hammer’s “2 Legit 2 Quit,” featuring Moore and other denomination big names.)

The new president is a theological conservative deeply committed to increasing the racial diversity of the church, but he still holds a “modified complementarian” position on gender — meaning he basically supports the idea of strictly defined limits on the roles men and women play in the church.

At the most recent meeting, the SBC also passed two resolutions on gender issues, one condemning all abuse, the other reaffirming that women should serve the church in “biblically appropriate ways.” Some delegates had hoped for far stronger language condemning sexism. Still, one thing is clear: The SBC’s leaders are well aware that they are facing a continuing crisis over how women are treated. Women such as Moore have started to challenge men’s abuse of power. Who knows — maybe the deeply conservative ideology of complementarianism will soon be challenged as well.

This essay was adapted from an article that originally appeared in Origins, a publication of the history departments of Ohio State University and Miami University. Read McAlister’s full article about how evangelist Billy Graham, who died earlier this year, influenced subsequent generations of religious leaders.