For conservative evangelical critics of former president Donald Trump, the past few years have been painful and isolating. But this week things got personal in a new way, with a dramatic announcement by celebrity Bible teacher Beth Moore that she no longer considers herself a Southern Baptist.
While the Southern Baptist Convention has been losing members for years, it remains the country’s largest Protestant group, and Moore’s exit has fueled chaos for the denomination which has debated women’s roles in recent years.
Her exit has prompted many of her followers to consider whether to emulate her in some way, even if they plan to stay at their churches.
Caitlin Snyder, a 30-year-old who attends a Southern Baptist church, said a friend from church texted her Wednesday morning asking, “When are we getting our ‘We love Beth Moore tattoos?' ”
Snyder, who hosted a Beth Moore Bible study in her apartment with other women, described Moore as the teacher who has had the most “profound impact” on her life. Snyder said she has watched Moore carefully over the years and noted when Moore spoke out against Trump on Twitter in 2016. Even though Snyder values her local church, she said she has become frustrated with several recent debates within the Southern Baptist world over leaders discouraging women from preaching and their opposition to Critical Race Theory, an academic movement that views racism as central to society’s problems. Official positions taken by SBC leadership against CRT have prompted several Black pastors to leave the denomination.
But, Snyder said, none of this will prompt her to leave her own church or the SBC, nor is it likely to cause others to depart.
“Most women are focused on raising their kiddos, and they love their local church. They may not realize their church affiliates with the SBC,” she said. “It’s an encouragement to me to see someone stand for their convictions, but I’m not going to leave my own church for it.”
Moore’s shift in religious identity was first reported by Religion News Service, which noted that “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.”
Moore, 63, told RNS she is still a Baptist, but “can no longer identify with Southern Baptists,” her denominational home of more than 30 years. She said she also recently ended her longtime publishing partnership with Nashville-based LifeWay Christian, which is affiliated with the SBC. Becky Loyd, director of Lifeway Women, estimates that Moore’s studies have reached more than 17.5 million women worldwide and said that LifeWay has hosted well over 2 million women through more than 300 Moore-related events.
“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,” Moore told RNS.
Moore joined First Baptist Church in 1982 in Houston where she taught aerobics classes. She began teaching Bible classes that attracted thousands of women, eventually selling out larger venues, and her videos were distributed to churches across the country.
Moore’s reach eventually extended far beyond the Southern Baptist Convention. Her Living Proof Ministries, between 2001 and 2016, built assets from about $1 million in 2001 to just under $15 million by April 2016, RNS reported, citing IRS filings. Today, she is an Oprah-like figure for many White evangelical women, with fiercely devoted fans. Eric Geiger, a pastor in California who was a vice president at LifeWay, said he was struck by how people relate to her stories. She has shared in books and videos about her hysterectomy, giving her adopted son back to his birth mother, and her daughter’s eating disorder.
“Every church I’ve been at have women in the church who feel indebted to Beth and how she helped them through a tough time,” he said.
More recently, though, fellow evangelicals have targeted her for criticism. She has described 2016 as a turning point for her when she expressed shock at how many White evangelicals embraced Trump. In 2019, Moore set off a firestorm when she jokingly suggested on Twitter that she was planning to preach on Mother’s Day. (In the SBC, women are not allowed to be senior pastors.) More recently, she denounced Christian nationalism after the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol in tweets that went viral.
Tom Buck, a Southern Baptist pastor from Texas who is part of a much more conservative wing of the denomination, in a blog post Wednesday suggested Moore’s departure should have been prompted by the denomination or by Lifeway for what he called her “theologically unsound” teachings.
He cited opposition to other aspects of her teaching, including her theological inclusion of Catholics and her saying that she hears from God, which he characterized as gnosticism. Moore’s supporters say her words were no different than pastors who say they see or hear God’s words through scripture.
Kristin Du Mez, a professor at Calvin University who studies gender and religion, said that Moore’s departure reflects a larger number of evangelicals who feel like they no longer fit in their churches where many support Trump.
“I have heard from so many evangelicals who are feeling trapped right now, especially if their livelihood is connected,” said Du Mez whose 2020 book “Jesus and John Wayne” has caused a stir in the evangelical world. “Beth Moore is modeling at a certain point, you can walk away, even at great costs.”
Conservative Christian writer Nancy French, whose denomination does not allow female pastors, said Wednesday that Moore’s announcement has prompted other women to reconsider their place in their faith institutions. “This is the time to graciously stand for truth and to stand for Beth Moore. That means standing up and refusing to acquiesce,” she said. “I feel my whole life I’ve acquiesced.”
Many women she knows are thrilled about Moore, praising her for having courage to stand up to a religious establishment they say has failed to take moral stands on everything from Trump to the need to oppose racism and to aggressively fight the coronavirus.
“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?”
Moore, who has publicly shared her own experience of abuse by a family member, in recent years developed relationships with survivors of sex abuse, including Megan Lively, who in 2018 publicly shared her story of being raped while attending a Southern Baptist seminary.
Lively’s story of abuse became viral after she shared how once-prominent Southern Baptist leader Paige Patterson told her not to go to the police and encouraged her to forgive her abuser. Lively said Wednesday that Moore has been an important advocate behind the scenes for her. She recalled that during the 2019 SBC’s annual meeting in Birmingham, Ala., Moore spent several hours in a small conference room with her so she would not run into Patterson.
Rachel Gulledge, who grew up in a small town in Alabama, said her first memories of Moore started around age 5 when she would watch her Bible study videos Saturday nights with her mother. “Beth Moore leaving is sad to me. But I don’t blame her,” she said. “For women, we probably lost one of our biggest voices.”
Gulledge, whose husband will soon become senior pastor of a Southern Baptist church in Georgia, said she hopes the convention starts to focus on what women can do instead of what they can’t. “My brother asks me all the time, why are you staying?” she said. “We want to see the good change that needs to happen.”
Ed Stetzer, who once led LifeWay Research at the publishing arm, said Southern Baptist leaders are worried about the departures of both Moore and Black leaders and the influence it could have on others.
“Beth Moore is certainly the most influential woman in the whole Southern Baptist Convention. If she says she’s not done being a Baptist but she’s done being a Southern Baptist, people ought to sit up and take notice.”
President of the SBC J.D. Greear said in a statement that he is praying that the news of her departure will “cause us to lament” ahead of SBC’s coming meeting. The convention, which has been in turmoil over issues around race, women’s roles and sex abuse in recent years, will choose a new president when Southern Baptists meet in June.
This story has been updated for print.