NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Popular Bible teacher Beth Moore may be the most high-profile Southern Baptist to publicly cut ties with the conservative evangelical denomination in the last year, but she is not the only one to go.
Some say a string of recent departures should serve as a wake-up call for the Nashville-based network of churches.
“Southern Baptists need to do some soul searching of why so many African-American leaders have left and now why their most prominent woman leader has left,” said Ed Stetzer, a Southern Baptist pastor and executive director of the Wheaton College Billy Graham Center.
The Southern Baptist Convention goes to war with itself every few years and people tire of the infighting and public relations missteps, Stetzer said.
Southern Baptists are currently grappling with the influence of partisan politics and the treatment of women and people of color within the church. These major tension points contributed to Moore’s decision to leave as well as those of Black pastors like the Rev. Joel A. Bowman Sr., who announced in December that he was cutting ties with the convention.
Why Beth Moore is no longer a Southern Baptist
Moore, an advocate for victims of sexual abuse who received pushback for criticizing former President Donald Trump’s treatment of women, told the Religion News Service she is no longer a Southern Baptist.
She also has ended her longtime partnership with Lifeway Christian Resources, which is the convention’s publishing arm. Evangelical women have long embraced Moore, who founded Living Proof Ministries in Houston, Texas. Lifeway said it will still sell her work.
Moore cited white evangelicals’ confounding embrace of Trump among her reasons for going, the Religion News Service reported. But Moore holds out hope the convention will one day leave nationalism, political division and sexism behind.
Susan Codone praised Moore’s integrity. She called her departure an indictment of the current trajectory of the convention and its leadership. In recent years, Codone, a Southern Baptist sexual abuse survivor, has advocated alongside Moore for added protections and accountability amid the convention’s abuse crisis.
“Beth is not leaving Christ. She’s just leaving a toxic faith system that made it difficult for her to serve Christ and lead her ministry,” Codone said. “Anybody who believes that Beth needs the SBC really doesn’t trust Christ and his ability to use her.”
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Why this Kentucky pastor cut ties with the convention
Late last year, Bowman, a bivocational Kentucky pastor, announced on social media he was leaving.
“I wanted to send the message that we do not have to affiliate with any predominantly white entity, especially if that entity is not welcoming and responsive to our needs,” Bowman said. “I think as far as my black Baptist brethren and my fellow pastors and church leaders, they need to know that the SBC right now is not a very safe place for black people.”
The final straw for the founder of Temple of Faith Baptist Church in Louisville was a controversial statement from the Southern Baptist seminary presidents rejecting critical race theory.
“I’m done with the Southern Baptist Convention! It took them 150 years to condemn chattel slavery, but only 1 year to condemn Critical Race Theory. It has no credibility on the issue of racism! None!!!” Bowman said a Dec. 8 post on Twitter.
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In the Nov. 30 statement, the six presidents said they stood against all forms of racism, but declared critical race theory to be incompatible with Southern Baptist beliefs. Critical race theory teaches that racism is ingrained in U.S. institutions and white people benefit from it.
Although he does not agree with all aspects of critical race theory, Bowman saw the seminary presidents’ statement as a way to turn critical race theory into a bogeyman and appease the more conservative faction of the convention.
Bowman was not alone in his view. He also was not the only Black pastor to leave. A Washington Post report counted three others who said they were cutting ties, too.
He also thinks Moore’s departure could encourage other white evangelicals to follow.
Southern Baptists need to assess what is prompting people to leave, he said, but is concerned the majority will see Moore’s departure as an anomaly.
“I would pray and I would hope that a majority of Southern Baptists would look at this as a wake-up call,” Bowman said. “I’m not banking on that.”
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A pivotal Southern Baptist election
It is unclear whether Southern Baptists have a willingness to do any soul searching about why people are leaving.
But a potential bellwether is just months away.
Southern Baptists are expected to elect the next convention president when they gather in June for their annual meeting, which is being held in Nashville.
Stetzer called the election “a pivotal moment for the future of the convention.”
“Southern Baptists have to choose whether they’re going to elect someone who can unite the convention, whose not known for constantly finding new things to divide over and move forward together,” Stetzer said.
The current convention president, North Carolina Pastor J.D. Greear, is also looking to the annual meeting.
In a statement, Greear said he appreciated Moore’s ministry and grieves when anyone who shares Southern Baptist beliefs and values does not feel at home in the convention.
“My time as President has shown me that the vast majority of Southern Baptists are ready to walk into the future unified around the Great Commission. Sadly, it’s many of our leaders that seem bent on pulling us apart,” Greear said.
“My prayer is that this news will cause us to lament, to pray, and to come to Nashville rededicating ourselves to be Great Commission Baptists who keep the Gospel above all and to become a Convention united around the message that Jesus is the only way.”
Ronnie Floyd, the president and CEO of the convention’s executive committee, is committed to welcoming all who share Southern Baptist beliefs and mission. In a statement, Floyd called Moore’s spiritual influence immeasurable.
“It saddens me to hear from those like Beth who no longer feel at home within our convention,” Floyd said. “I am committed to making it feel like a home for all who wish for it to be.”
Codone, who struggles with her own decision to stay a Southern Baptist and often feels spiritually homeless, wants the convention to look at how it is driving people away. She is optimistic change will come. But she does not see it happening any time soon. Codone thinks a generational shift is needed.
“The generation of leaders that will actually change it is in their 20s and 30s. When they get into positions of senior leadership, I think that you’ll see a very different SBC,” Codone said. “Until then, it’s going to be a place of not even holy tension but just tension.”
Follow reporter Holly Meyer on Twitter: @HollyAMeyer