Cruelty Is Apostasy

Reflections on Beth Moore’s departure from the Southern Baptist Convention.

It’s not often that a single person’s decision to leave a Christian denomination dominates the pages of Christianity Today, the Washington Post, and New York Times, but when that person is Beth Moore, one of America’s most popular Bible teachers, and she’s leaving the nation’s largest Protestant denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention, that attention is justified. 

But is the commentary surrounding her departure hitting the mark? Is it capturing what’s really going on? I’m not sure. But first, let’s briefly discuss the facts.

Beth is a longtime Southern Baptist. She has filled arenas and reached millions with her Bible studies. And while she’s always been the subject of some controversy in a denomination that often wrestles with questions surrounding women’s roles preaching and teaching, she lived happily within the Baptist theological tent. 

As Bob Smietana wrote when he broke the news of her departure, Moore “support[ed] Southern Baptist teaching that limits the office of pastor to men alone” and was an important cheerleader “for the missions and evangelistic work that the denomination holds dear.” What happened? Here’s Smietana again:

Then along came Donald Trump. Moore’s criticism of the 45th president’s abusive behavior toward women and her advocacy for sexual abuse victims turned her from a beloved icon to a pariah in the denomination she loved all her life.

More:

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.

Finally, Moore had had enough. She told Religion News Service in an interview Friday that she is “no longer a Southern Baptist.”

“I am still a Baptist, but I can no longer identify with Southern Baptists,” Moore said in the phone interview. “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.”

Much of the online chatter regarding Moore’s departure dealt with the possibility of an emerging ideological (rather than truly theological) split within the church--raising the question of whether people with similar theologies but increasingly different political ideologies can remain united.

Yet as I've read the debates about Beth’s departure, I feel like something is missing. There’s an important part of the story that’s largely left off the table. In my view, the truly important emerging divisions in the Evangelical church aren’t just theological or ideological. They’re also dispositional and temperamental. 

To illustrate what I mean, let’s return to Beth’s story. While the original reports about her departure accurately note that Beth faced angry resistance within the SBC when she opposed Trump, attacked Christian nationalism and white supremacy, and stood with victims of sexual abuse within the church (and even note that her ministry lost $1.8 million between 2017 and 2019), it’s hard to fully capture the sheer, relentless cruelty, mockery, and malice she has endured for years.

You can go down entire YouTube rabbit holes featuring video after video of Christian critics attacking her in sneering and condescending terms. The online abuse has been astounding. Critics dissected her public statements syllable by syllable, and fired missile after missile from their theological and ideological citadels. The message was simple--Beth Moore is wrong. The gloves are off

In evaluating the reality of the last five years, what has been more salient and relevant to the daily lives of so many American Christians, the fact of disagreement with brothers and sisters or the manner of disagreement with brothers and sisters? 

There is a tremendous, yawning difference between humble and kind members of competing Evangelical factions and cruel and self-righteous gladiators in the public square. It’s not merely or mainly the ideological differences that tear apart friendships, it’s the knowledge--as my friend Russell Moore (no relation to Beth) wrote recently--that every word from your mouth “will lead to psychological warfare.”

And make no mistake, while Beth has experienced an avalanche of rage and hate from the right, there is no single church faction or ideological side that has a monopoly on cruelty. The spirit of the age declares that if you get the “big” things correct (your political ideology, your complementarian or egalitarian theology) then cruelty and self-righteousness in the pursuit of those goals are either minor flaws (“bad manners”) or outright virtues (after all, didn’t Jesus drive the money-changers from the temple with a whip?)

But it’s past time to acknowledge that we’re often turning our priorities upside-down. It’s past time to acknowledge that cruelty is its own form of apostasy. Cruelty is disobedience. 

The biblical evidence is everywhere. In Matthew 7, Jesus warned his disciples against “false prophets,” declaring “You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit.”

In Galatians 5, Paul says, “[T]he fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.”

Reflecting on the primacy of issues or ideology, consider the first verses of 1 Corinthians 13:

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.

And what is love?

Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

I can keep going and going. I will keep going. Recently a friend asked me to go back and reread the Westminster Catechism’s explanation of the Sixth Commandment. “It’s convicting,” he said. And so it is:

Q134: Which is the sixth commandment?

A134: The sixth commandment is, Thou shalt not kill.

Q135: What are the duties required in the sixth commandment?

A135: The duties required in the sixth commandment are, all careful studies, and lawful endeavors, to preserve the life of ourselves  and others by resisting all thoughts and purposes, subduing all passions, and avoiding all occasions, temptations, and practices, which tend to the unjust taking away the life of any; by just defense thereof against violence, patient bearing of the hand of God, quietness of mind, cheerfulness of spirit; a sober use of meat, drink, physic, sleep, labor, and recreations; by charitable thoughts, love, compassion, meekness, gentleness, kindness; peaceable, mild and courteous speeches and behavior; forbearance, readiness to be reconciled, patient bearing and forgiving of injuries, and requiting good for evil; comforting and succoring the distressed, and protecting and defending the innocent.

I wonder, does Beth Moore leave the SBC if the daily reality of her engagement with critics had been  characterized by love, joy, peace, patience, and kindness? Does this moment in the church feel so fraught if our disagreements are characterized by “compassion” and “patient bearing”? 

None of this means that theological or ideological disagreements don’t matter. Theological divisions especially can be reason for division all by themselves. None of this means that justice itself isn’t at stake when we wade into the issues that sparked Beth’s departure from the SBC. But the virtues above are not tactics to be disregarded when the stakes are high. They are instead supposed to be the fundamental identity markers of the church. They fundamentally defined Christ himself. Were the stakes not high when he walked the earth?

It is the presence or absence of these virtues that is presently splitting the Evangelical community as much as any doctrinal difference. I’d argue that the presence or absence of these virtues is also splitting our nation as much as any single ideological dispute. And yet those virtues are increasingly seen as “secondary values,” if not outright obstacles to true justice. It’s as if kindness to your opponents is somehow seen as evidence of insufficient devotion to your righteous cause. 

But that’s the opposite of the Christian message. It’s the opposite of Christ’s example, and great Christian movements of the recent past demonstrate that demonstrating love in the face of hate has awesome potential power to change a nation and a culture.

No one should look at the cross (or at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma) and think it is easy to display these virtues. God help me, I fail all the time. But the fruits of the spirit are among the defining elements of the Christian life and the Christian witness. Their presence unites God’s people. Their absence shatters our fellowship. 

There are many reasons why people leave a church. Some reasons are good. Some are not. But it’s a singular tragedy when a person is hated right out the front door. I grieve for the hatred Beth endured. I grieve for the steep and exhausting emotional cost paid by those on all sides of our ideological divide who speak in good faith, from the heart, and face not respectful disagreement but self-righteous cruelty in return. 

I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again. Human beings need forgiveness and kindness like we need oxygen. A nation devoid of grace immiserates its people. A church devoid of grace rebukes the cross.

One last thing …

I know lots of folks don’t like Christian praise music, especially as compared to some of the more contemplative songs I’ve attached in the past. But sometimes it’s worth remembering, simply, what great news the Gospel truly is, and it’s okay to be pretty darn exuberant in celebrating that when the Son sets you free, you are free indeed: