As a woman serving in church ministry for the past fifteen years, I have been asked some version of these questions more times than I can count.
“How do you stay?” or “How do you know when it’s time to go?”
In my context, people are mostly asking me how I stayed, as an egalitarian, in a complementarian church for so long?
Many of us have stayed for far too long in toxic church cultures because of our love, loyalty or history with a denomination or local assembly of our up-bringing. Many of us can tell stories about our naïve belief that our presence would inspire change in that particular organization. So we stay year after year. We don’t say this out loud of course. But this belief is the undercurrent of our reality, silently giving us the strength to stay.
This kind of coasting along within a church that we don’t agree with all the way was possible, permissible and perhaps even necessary until the landscape within churches changed drastically with the election of 2016. With their ardent support of former President Donald Trump, the Southern Baptist Convention (of which Moore was a part) showed their true colors. One of the largest Christian organizations in the country publicly and un-apologetically aligned themselves with a man who (among other things) was openly racist and who bragged about his sexual misconduct with women. For Beth Moore, this continual alignment was the “straw that broke the camel’s back). And this, ultimately, is why Beth Moore left after so many years. She could tolerate the hierarchy that prohibited her (and other women) from being called pastors and preachers, even though she and many other women both pastor and preach and have been doing so for centuries (within the SBC and beyond). For a time, she even referred to herself as a “soft complementarian,” insisting that her husband was the “spiritual leader” in their family (a conversation I would love to have with her one day). Moore could tolerate the misogyny and sexism of being told publicly to “go home” by John MacArthur and being told she could not preach on a Sunday morning from prominent leaders in the SBC. She found a way to stay in the face of the racism and ignorance of the SBC’s public discounting of Critical Race Theory. She even tolerated the political alignment with the Republican party until March 5th when she made her announcement that she was leaving the SBC and therefore Lifeway, the publishing house for her books and bible studies.
Beth Moore’s story is at the same time sad and joyful. For a watching world, she has demonstrated both bravery for leaving and complicity in staying too far long. For the latter, we wonder, how could she, a woman who has sold out stadium after stadium with her charismatic teaching style and authoritative voice really believe that women are not permitted to be preachers? How could she, a woman who has studied the scriptures extensively and even trained alongside great scholars believe in the hierarchy that complementarian theology touts?. For the former, they applaud her as she walks away. This finally gives them the courage they need to do the same..
For all of us who have left a church, whether that be the church of our up-bringing or one we have attended for decades, or the institutional Church overall, we leave for our own unique reasons. But most of us have a “straw that broke the camel’s back” moment. We come to a point of no return, where what we have seen we cannot un-see. We learn the truth over and over again as we discern what is right and while we do, the organization shows it’s true colors. For some of us, it’s the racism that is so blatantly exposed when a Lead Pastor refuses to preach on the systemic sin of racism after another murder of a person of color. Or the fear that leadership allows to take precedence when eight Asian Americans are killed and the leaders refuse to include this during the pastoral prayer section of the service. It happens when we are told that “church is not the place for that.” We are warned about who we will make angry or which big tither will cease to give. And we can never un-see this type of hypocrisy. For others, it’s sexism or the unashamed alignment with a political party. Whatever it is, we reach a breaking point where we realize that what we always suspected was in fact true. And then we know, it’s time to leave.
This is abundantly true in my own story. I wanted what I knew in my heart to be true to not be true about the church of my up-bringing. I wanted to stay. The straw that broke the camel’s back had to do with people being censured and other inconsistencies at the same time. It wasn’t even ultimately about egalitarian vs complementarian. Once I let myself believe what I always knew, there was no going back. It wasn’t that the organization had changed. It was that I had changed. And the point of no return was found when I saw that who I was becoming was not going to fit with who they were. So I left. And I imagine Beth Moore’s story to be not so different than this.
There is no perfect church. My advice is don’t leave the church where you are in search of a perfect church. There is no theology you will agree with perfectly. No worship style that will capture you every single time. No pastor that will preach your favorite sermon each week.
How do you know when it’s time to leave a church? Is the church you attend a place you belong as you are becoming all of who God intended you to be?
If not, I’d say it’s time to follow Beth Moore’s lead and be brave enough to leave.