A few weeks ago, the news broke that Beth Moore is leaving the Southern Baptist Convention. Many of her supporters, both inside and outside the largest Protestant denomination in the United States, hope her departure will serve as a wake-up call for Southern Baptists. But will it?
I confess I come to this topic with some trepidation. I don’t know Beth Moore. Part of me wishes I did. Part of me wishes I could give her a hug and tell her how proud of her I am for all the difficult—and necessary—stands she has taken in the last five years. Part of me wishes I could put my hands on her shoulders, look her square in the eyes, and tell her she has nothing to be ashamed of for preaching a mother’s day sermon or for deciding her denomination no longer wants her.
At the same time, I would have to tell her I have some doubts about whether her decision to leave the Southern Baptist Convention will achieve the reflection, repentance, and restoration she so desperately desires. I wish I could explain to her the social psychological processes (as best as an amateur like me can understand them) which produced the phenomena we have witnessed over the last five years.
Moreover, I wish I could warn her, both in technical and personal ways, how she is in danger of becoming everything her critics already believe she is. Her name is already being weaponized by those who hate the SBC, and she herself will be tempted to embrace political and theological perspectives which will scandalize the very people who supported her all these years.
Perhaps it is this swirl of conflicting emotions and aspirations which explains my lack of optimism about the future of the Southern Baptist Convention. I readily confess I am probably a little more politically conservative than Moore, but I generally think her evaluation of the convention is right. It has lost its way.
The voices of women, African-Americans, intellectuals, the young, the old, and other less-than-favored groups have too often been silenced. A warfare mentality has too often permeated how Southern Baptists have dealt with dissenters, both outside the denomination and within its ranks. And I can tell you from experience, because of the way Southern Baptists read the Scriptures and their own history, this tendency to marginalize dissenting voices is not easy to overcome.
It is not hard to understand why Southern Baptists react this way. They see a society running at break-neck speed in what they consider to be the wrong direction. They have experienced generations of repudiation of all they hold dear—not just by political and cultural elites, but by their own children and grandchildren. They feel as though they no longer have a voice, even in the affairs of their own families and communities, much less in the nation as a whole.
These kinds of experiences can breed an understandable emphasis on group loyalty. All organizations feel that pull, but those who perceive their identity as being under threat feel it even more acutely. That is why Moore, a dedicated complementarian, was demonized by some of her critics for preaching one Sunday morning.
But these processes make it very hard to bring about change. Even when a revered insider like Moore decides the environment in the organization has become too toxic for her to stand, that only reinforces the perception on the part of other group members the organization is under attack. And that perception can motivate people to close ranks, even when the former leader in question is raising some legitimate issues.
So, am I optimistic Southern Baptists will heed the warnings Moore and others are giving to them? No. Denominations rise and fall. Southern Baptists never had a monopoly on the Spirit’s work or on God’s favor. They can devour themselves and fade from the stage of history just like any other group.
But Full of Hope
But do I have hope? I absolutely do. Why? Because Jesus is faithful. He does not throw his people away simply because they err. He always stands ready to forgive them, to restore them to a right relationship with himself, and to heal their broken relationships with one another.
Moreover, I have hope because Jesus is Lord. I grew up a Southern Baptist. I was educated at Southern Baptist institutions. I am an ordained Southern Baptist minister. But like Moore, it is not the Southern Baptist Convention which called me into the service of the church. It is Jesus. And He is the “head” of his church and the “Lord” of all who have “received” him (cf. Colossians 1:15-2:7).
Jesus will see to it that his Kingdom is advanced, his gospel is proclaimed, and people like me and Beth Moore have a place to serve him. It may not be as comfortable, as prominent, or as profitable as we might like. But it will be his place for us. And when our service is complete, he will welcome us into his presence with those glorious words, “Well done, my good and faithful servant.”