One of the most prominent Southern Baptists in the country is leaving the denomination. Beth Moore, an author and speaker who teaches on biblical topics to arenas filled with evangelicals, cited the “staggering” disorientation of seeing denominational leaders support Donald Trump, among other issues.
“There comes a time when you have to say, this is not who I am,” Moore told Religion News Service in a bombshell interview published Tuesday. “I am still a Baptist, but I can no longer identify with Southern Baptists.”
She also told the news service she had recently ended her longtime publishing relationship with Lifeway Christian, the denomination’s publishing arm.
Moore is not a traditional denominational leader. She does not lead a church nor teach at a seminary. (Indeed, the Southern Baptist Convention prohibits women from preaching to adult men.) But she arguably wields deeper loyalty and more authentic influence than many of the men often called on as spokesmen for evangelicalism.
“Beth Moore is one of the most popular evangelists in the world,” said Kate Bowler, a historian at Duke Divinity School and author of a 2019 book about evangelical women celebrities. “Outside the Southern Baptist Convention, who can name another Southern Baptist right now?”
Within the denomination, her departure has so far been greeted largely by either silence or measured regret.
“I have loved and appreciated Beth Moore’s ministry and will continue to in the future,” denomination president J.D. Greear said in a statement. Greear said he hoped the news of Moore’s departure would cause the denomination to “lament,” pray and rededicate itself to its core values.
“The positive spiritual influence Beth Moore has had on the SBC is immeasurable,” Ronnie Floyd, president and CEO of the denomination’s executive committee, said in a statement. “It saddens me to hear from those like Beth who no longer feel at home within our convention.”
For most of her career as a Bible teacher, Moore avoided the culture and political battles that consumed the attention of many prominent evangelical men. She wrote hugely popular study guides focused on particular books of the Bible, intended for use in church women’s groups. As a speaker, she is an “exegetical powerhouse,” Bowler said, mining biblical texts for lessons in purpose and encouragement. The biblical story of Mary, for example, becomes in Moore’s telling a contemporary reminder that “God reserves the right to favor the unfavored.”
But Moore has described the election of 2016, when the vast majority of white evangelicals voted for Trump, as a turning point for her. She began speaking out after the “Access Hollywood” tape, released just weeks before the election, captured Trump bragging about forcing himself on women.
Since then, she has become increasingly outspoken online. In 2018, she published a letter to her “brothers in Christ” sharing her bruising experiences with sexism as a female leader in the conservative Christian world. On Twitter, where she now has more than 950,000 followers, she has denounced Christian nationalism, the “demonic stronghold” of white supremacy, and “the sexism & misogyny that is rampant in segments of the SBC.”
She has also publicly supported others critical of conservative evangelicalism from within. This week, Jemar Tisby, president of a Black Christian collective called The Witness, shared on a podcast for the first time about his experiences of racism in white evangelical communities. His testimony was part of a campaign called #LeaveLoud, to tell the stories of Black Christians leaving evangelical spaces.
Moore replied to him on Twitter: “Jemar, one of the most powerful podcasts I’ve ever heard. You will be a hero to your descendants. And you are one of mine.”
An assistant to Moore said she has no further comment beyond her interview with Religion News Service.
The Southern Baptist Convention is the country’s largest Protestant denomination, but its membership is in decline. The denomination has spent the past several years roiled by contentious, and often public, debates about racism, misogyny, the handling of sexual abuse cases and Trump.
Moore often spoke out against widespread sexual abuse in the denomination and the reluctance of churches to face it, while many men in leadership often soft-pedaled the issue.
A handful of offending churches have faced consequences, but for two years top leaders have remained quiet about the handling of a sex abuse case at one of the denomination’s most prominent churches, the Village Church, in Flower Mound, Texas.
Jenny Taylor, 40, who grew up in Southern Baptist churches, left the Village Church a few years ago after she watched how its leaders treated the young woman who brought the abuse allegation.
When she heard the news Tuesday that Moore, someone she had long admired and respected, was now also leaving the Southern Baptists, she felt less alone.
“A lot of things that feel like core issues have come into question about my faith in the past few years,” she said. “Once that happened, it feels like everything is up for examination. It feels so destabilizing and scary. To see someone like her who has been a model of faith through the years take a similar route is just comforting and encouraging.”
Moore has a way of sparking conversations far beyond her immediate sphere of influence, and she has become a kind of lightning rod for critics of the SBC from the right. When she mentioned to a friend on Twitter that she would be speaking at a Sunday morning service on Mother’s Day, she set off a sprawling evangelical debate about whether women should be allowed to preach in church. California megachurch pastor John MacArthur told her to “go home,” and said she was a sign that the SBC had drifted from biblical authority.
Moore’s decision to step away from the Southern Baptist Convention quickly drew praise from other prominent Christian women who have broken with white American evangelicalism.
“While there are a thousand ways we can robustly disagree as people of faith, there are and should be deal-breakers: the defense of white supremacy, patriarchal abuse, moral bankruptcy, the crushing of human souls for proximity to power,” Jen Hatmaker, a popular podcaster and author, said Tuesday. “We are watching the SBC in its death throes, because too many of its faithful adherents can no longer stand by while this denomination denies racism, protects abusers, silences women and destroys the lives of LGBTQ people.”
About five years ago, Hatmaker broke with evangelicalism over her opposition to Trump and her support of same-sex marriage.
Moore’s decision was “a harbinger of the future,” Hatmaker said. And although Moore was a trailblazer for the denomination, evangelical women have been defecting for years, she said.
“People have had enough, and there is no lock on the door,” she said. “God does not belong to the SBC.”
During the Trump era, some white evangelical women have grown more uncomfortable with their churches’ positions on sex, race and politics, especially as their denominational leaders supported Trump through the separation of migrant children from their parents at the border, the killing of George Floyd and the #MeToo revolution.
“Women of color were the first to see it, then men of color, and now white women are starting to wake up,” said Lisa Sharon Harper, president of FreedomRoad.us, a Christian justice group.
“They are having to believe what they are seeing,” she said of white evangelical women. “It is hard to respond to. It literally means giving up everything, literally everything.”
Moore’s decision reflects an alignment of her inner life with her outer life, Harper said, and it may prompt other white evangelical women to think about their own lives and decisions.
“We may not see the results for a few years, but I think it will cause an earthquake,” she said.
For some of Moore’s fans, her departure already feels liberating.
Joy Beth Smith, who said she “adores” Moore, described 2016 as a reckoning for her, too. She saw the SBC, which had once been a refuge for her, embrace “politics and power over women.” She remembers sitting in a Baptist church, surrounded by older conservative white people and realizing with horror that the vast majority had probably voted for Trump.
“The chasm was opening under my feet and I had to decide which way to jump,” said Smith, a former intern at Lifeway and a former employee of Focus on the Family. “I jumped to one side and Beth Moore was on that side, saying to women that it wasn’t worth compromising their morals and integrity to gain political power.”
For Smith, Moore’s exodus is a validation of her own evolving relationship with a religious tradition that she said no longer provides the solace and authority it once did. “She has given us permission to leave those broken institutions,” Smith said, adding that she is praying for Moore.