Houston-based Bible teacher Beth Moore, one of the most widely recognized evangelical women in America, has highlighted the issue of sexual abuse from her stage for years. With her thick Southern drawl, she has told audiences how she was abused as a child, often sliding her personal story into her larger message about Jesus.
As thousands of Southern Baptists prepare to arrive this week in Birmingham, Ala., for their annual meeting, many have expected for months that it would focus on questions of how to handle sexual abuse and coverups in their own churches. Moore is expected to be there, sitting on a panel on sexual abuse with several others, including the president of the Southern Baptist Convention.
But in the run-up to the meeting, Moore has become a focus of attention. In a recent response to a tweet, Moore, who has nearly a million Twitter followers, teasingly suggested that she was planning to preach on Mother’s Day. Except, as is her practice, Moore did not use the words “preach” or “sermon” to refer to the talk she gave on the holiday in front of the congregation at Bayou City Fellowship, where her son-in-law is pastor and she is a member.
This one, among a number she has given under similar circumstances, was about the biblical story of Hagar, the Egyptian handmaiden of Abraham and Sarai.
The debate isn’t about what Moore said, but the idea that she would be “preaching” at all. Southern Baptist teaching prohibits women from holding the position of pastor but does not bar women from preaching in front of men. In reality, however, many Southern Baptists believe that women should not have authority over men and that by teaching men, let alone “preaching,” they are exerting authority. So it is rare for Southern Baptist women to preach or teach the Bible in front of men during a traditional Sunday service.
Moore’s social media thread attracted immediate notice.
“One thing we have massive agreement on: women do not preach on Sunday to the church. Doing so is functional egalitarianism. We will not capitulate here,” said Kansas City theologian Owen Strachan a Christian theology professor at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, Mo.
Josh Buice, pastor of a Southern Baptist church in Georgia, wrote a blog post titled “Why the SBC Should Say ‘No More’ to Beth Moore.”
Longtime Southern Baptist watchdog Wade Burleson jumped to Moore’s defense, calling out what he saw as “social media bullying” of Moore. “Beth does Christian ministry,” Burleson said. “She shouldn’t need to defend her ministry to Southern Baptist caucasian males who’ve fallen into the doctrinal trap of the eternal subordination of women.”
Women’s roles have long been a divisive topic for Southern Baptists. On the eve of the Southern Baptist Convention’s annual meeting on Tuesday, Founders Ministry, a group dedicated to promoting certain conservative theology, will host a debate titled “Should Women Preach in Our Lord’s Day Worship?”
Last year, the role of women was a hotly debated topic, but it is not supposed to be front and center this year, although the Moore debate could alter that.
Moore has taught the Bible in front of men for years, but she has recently become an inside critic of evangelicals, expressing shock at how many embrace President Trump; 2016 was a turning point for her, she said recently. Her enormous following on social media gives her a voice far beyond what most Southern Baptist pastors enjoy, and a major theological shift from her could be devastating to its leaders.
“I am compelled to my bones by the Holy Spirit — I don’t want to be, but I am -to draw attention to the sexism & misogyny that is rampant in segments of the SBC, cloaked by piety & bearing the stench of hypocrisy,” Moore tweeted last month.
Moore considers herself a “complementarian,” someone who believes men and women have different but complementary roles, including that women should not be pastors. In past conferences, she has told the few men in the crowd that her ministry is intended for women and that she does not wish to have authority over men. Yet, she is among those who believe that Southern Baptists’ beliefs can vary on questions such as whether women should teach in front of men, and she recently taught during the Sunday sermon slot at a megachurch in North Carolina.
Some egalitarians have been eagerly hoping Beth Moore would change her stance on women, a shift that would be enormous in this sphere. Beth Allison Barr, a historian at Baylor University who has written on Moore’s influence, analyzed recent tweets from complementarian men about Moore and found that their most used words were related to hierarchy, authority and power.
“Beth Moore threatened their power hierarchy and they were afraid,” Barr wrote in an email. “Losing Beth Moore will be a devastating blow to complementarian leaders, which is why they ganged up on her on Twitter.”
The involvement of prominent leaders in the conversation, particularly Al Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, who believes only men should preach on Sundays, has been noteworthy. Mohler tweeted that the convention had reached a “critical moment” and decried what he saw as an open call for Southern Baptists to retreat from complementarianism.
Even though the vast majority of Southern Baptists would not invite a woman to preach behind the pulpit, Mohler said he believes the younger generation needs to be reminded of the doctrinal issues at stake. “Complementarianism will become countercultural minute by minute,” Mohler said.
Russell Moore, the president of the SBC’s policy arm (and no relation to Beth Moore), called the recent debate over the popular Bible teacher’s speaking a “social media dustup,” not reflected in churches on Sunday mornings. He and Mohler do not advocate for women preaching in front of men, but they say there is room for disagreement among churches.
Moore pointed out that many Southern Baptist women have emerged as key voices on the issue of sexual abuse.
“I am sensing an impressive level of frustration and empowerment from women in local congregations,” he said. “Women are saying, ‘Women are often not listened to.’ But it’s not a sense of despair. I see women feeling their voices are increasingly welcome.”
However, some observers are concerned that the controversy over Moore’s Mother’s Day teaching will overshadow the matter of how Southern Baptists handle abuse and coverups in their churches. Reports from the Houston Chronicle earlier this year found that hundreds of Southern Baptist church leaders and volunteers have faced sexual misconduct allegations in the past two decades. Church leaders called for swift action and are expected to debate specifics in Birmingham.
Rachael Denhollander, the first woman to publicly accuse USA Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar of sexual abuse, does not advocate for women to become pastors but perceives an imbalance between the way leaders treat the issue of women’s roles and the way they approach sexual abuse.
“I would like to see pastors preach sermons on sex abuse as frequently as I see them preach on how women should be quiet and submissive,” said Denhollander, who will sit on the sexual abuse panel with Moore on Monday.
Mohler said Southern Baptists could have a clarifying conversation about women’s roles in ministry but that this upcoming meeting should prioritize sexual abuse issues. Top-down solutions are limited because the SBC, the largest Protestant denomination in the United States with 14.8 million members, has no pope or hierarchy. One option is to consider “disfellowshipping” — or distancing — churches that mishandle sexual abuse allegations from the broader umbrella, something the convention has done for churches with female pastors.
On Wednesday, Moore sought to turn attention to the larger issue of sex abuse.
“There is nothing of greater importance to the Southern Baptist Convention at this hour in unfolding history than facing and fighting sexual abuse in our churches,” Moore wrote in a direct message on Twitter. “This is the only public conversation related to the SBC that I want to be having this close to convention. All eyes and ears must be on this.”
As for concern about her teaching or preaching before men, Moore recently assured Southern Baptists that she has no plans of changing her views on female pastors. “Troubled brothers, try to relax,” Moore tweeted. “I do not see a female takeover on the horizon. Have some herbal tea.”