One of the more frequent arguments I’ve seen in the church lately is about Beth Moore. A colleague was asked why they wouldn’t allow a Beth Moore bible study to be used by a Sunday School class. The colleague responded with this concise one-liner that we’ll expand on in one of the longest posts ever at Hacking Christianity:
“If someone is setting fire to your house, why would you let them in?”
The Problem of Beth Moore: Introduction
Beth Moore is a Southern Baptist author, teacher, and evangelist, and the founder of Living Proof ministries that offers videos, bible studies, and events for women. She is very popular and is probably the #1 moneymaker for LifeWay Christian Bookstores, a Southern Baptist affiliated chain of bookstores (similar to Methodist’s Cokesbury).
Because she is massively successful, her videos are inspirational, and her events are empowering to women, it is not uncommon to find a Beth Moore bible study in a United Methodist Church in the Bible Belt. It used to be that pastors could prohibit it by saying “We only allow curriculum from Cokesbury” but Cokesbury sells her materials now. Also, there’s usually pressure for male United Methodist ministers to allow this dynamic woman into their Sunday Schools or else they get accused of misogyny.
Therein lies part of the problem of Beth Moore. One of my facebook friends described Beth Moore as Methodist Kudzu: a plant that was taken from its natural habitat and now runs wild causing havok. While Moore is perfectly at peace and in sync with the Baptist tradition (other than being a female teacher in an anti-women-preacher denomination), her brand of theology and way of reading the bible conflicts with the Wesleyan tradition and the United Methodist Church’s doctrine to which it has spread.
So what is a United Methodist clergyperson or church to do with Beth Moore?
Here’s where I’m on shaky ground: I’m not a woman. I have no idea what it feels like to be a woman and see a confident, capable female biblical scholar whose passion about the Bible is infectious. I haven’t watched these videos in a woman’s group and been inspired and had the discussions afterward. So I don’t know what that is like and I’m hesitant to comment on it…
But luckily for you…I have woman friends! To be more specific, a half-dozen mainline (not crazy liberal and not crazy conservative) United Methodist women who are either clergy or clergy spouses have done at least two full studies and video programs with Beth Moore in their churches and wrote about their concerns to me.
I’ve categorized them and I’ve done some light editing to proofread/anonymize them but 98% of the quotes is their words.
Some disclaimers (or pre-emptive strikes, if you will):
- I am ABSOLUTELY not dismissing Moore’s ministry, faith, perspective, or obvious love for the Gospel of Jesus Christ and for helping women form a relationship with Christ. I am saying Beth Moore is appropriate for Baptist women within their theological system and NOT appropriate for Methodists and the Wesleyan system.
- I am ABSOLUTELY not dismissing women’s lived experience of Beth Moore or the transformations that she has had in their lives. That’s awesome and I celebrate that for you. Really! However, for those women who do not have a positive experience or are wondering about it, I offer these women’s lived experiences for you. If you think I’m dismissing women’s experience, I’m actually celebrating these women’s experience and holding them up as a counter-narrative to the Beth Moore phenomenon.
- Finally, I am ABSOLUTELY supportive of women in ministry. If you search online for Beth Moore criticism, almost all of them start out with the bullhonky about “women shall not have authority over men.” Most online criticism is thus not helpful to United Methodists, who by empowering women are closer to Jesus on that point (BOOM!). So this is an attempt to add to the conversation but without the fundamentalist hangups that, frankly, discredit most online commentary on Beth Moore in my eyes.
We good? Good. Read on…
The Problem of Beth Moore: Biblical Scholarship
 Beth Moore cleverly hides that she is a literalist. She does not just shoot from the hip, she uses a lot of commentary and you can learn about the cultures at the times the stories were written…probably the best part is when she explains why God hates the Amalekites and other groups and that’s why it’s okay for David to kill philistines and why the one guy in Esther hated Mordecai. She never approves of it officially, just explains it matter of factly without ever mentioning that the perspective of the authors may have been biased obviously.
 Beth Moore uses the New American Commentary as her primary source for Biblical exegesis (This is from their website–The New American Commentary is for those who have been seeking a commentary that honors the Scriptures, ….The New American Commentary assumes the inerrancy of Scripture, focuses on the intrinsic theological and exegetical concerns of each biblical book, and engages the range of issues raised in contemporary biblical scholarship.)
One of the main disagreements between her commentary and others is the four kingdoms that are represented by the beasts in Daniel. The whole idea of Daniel is taken as a literal prophecy (no consideration that it could have been written after the time of Daniel–he wrote it himself of course.) So she uses the Romans as one of the conquering armies, and keeps tying Daniel’s visions into the Romans conquering the Jews, and thereby brings Jesus into it.
She furthermore uses Revelation as a confirmation and continuation of the visions of Daniel, and ties them all together into this weird little package of end-time prophecies, with a literal Antichrist, matching the “big horn” in Daniel with the AntiChrist in Revelation.
It gets confusing, and a little dangerous, because there is just enough solid scholarship, in the names of the Greek Rulers, the Seleucids, Maccabees, the Babylonians, etc., that people tend to “buy” what she is saying, and tying this all in together.
Summary & Commentary:
Moore says often that scholarship and higher-level thinking gets in the way of the Gospel message. As a bible scholar, nothing offends me more. In her Daniel study, she takes everything very literally and does not offer any scholarship on what a message meant back when it was written, only at face value.
It also offends me that the very passages she quotes are often taken out of context and sometimes is read into beyond what is there. It might be helpful to slow down or pause her videos. In her videos she speaks so quickly that if you slow her down and look up the Scriptures she is referencing, you might see something different than what she is saying. I found that several times in her references to Mark and Romans in her Believing God DVD.
Further, a female blogger writes about Moore’s book So Long Insecurity:
This gets at the heart of the problem; Beth does not explain the meaning of the passage as derived from the context, she reads the passage in isolation, an elementary Bible study error. What she often fails to do, as is the case in this instance, is to explain how in submission to the scripture she arrives at her conclusions. She admittedly speculates and introduces personal experience and psychologizing of the text to back up her claims…sadly, she leaves her readers, many who are unfortunately disenchanted with the intellectual nature of the Christian faith, revisioning Paul the apologist as someone whose defense is motivated by self-centered weakness instead of a necessary defense of the gospel.
In short, students often learn how to read the Bible based on their teacher. By the way Moore presents the bible as Literal Truth but doesn’t read it literally, she is not modeling a consistent or helpful hermeneutic for students.
The Problem of Beth Moore: Unhelpful Theology
 My biggest problem with her theology is that she’s a Calvinist and though she avoids emphasizing it at times, she will wait for scripture that supports her perspective. Case and point: Esther (“but who knows that you have come to this position for such a time as this”). She really drilled it home on Esther and I couldn’t make it through the whole study. Now, like all successful modern Calvinist she always discusses the pain she has been through and never officially suggested that women are raped, abused, etc. for some higher purpose. She almost always uses her Calvinist perspective in a positive way like that we are destined for something greater that what we are living right now.
 From the Esther study, the main [problem] is her extreme doctrine of Providence. She believes, states, and teaches that everything that happens in our lives is an event caused by God, in order to teach us, or help us, etc. God causes everything to happen, whether good or bad. She goes on and on about it extensively, almost every lesson. I had to tell my ladies to really think about this–and where it leads. Because if they believe this, then do what do they tell a mom whose child has just died–that God caused it? To teach her what? Of course, the women don’t believe that, as most UM’s don’t…
 My Beth Moore criticism would include teaching that God causes bad things to happen to us to teach/test us. Lots of women in my church are ODing on BMoore – end up in my office for counseling when God “causes” tragedy & they can’t trust Him.
Summary & Commentary:
In addition to the above, my personal take is that Moore overuses the idea “God spoke to me” and people feel inadequate b/c God doesn’t always speak to them the same way. I am not doubting her experience, but as a pastor, I doubt she realizes the effect this has on some people. There’s a pastoral issue when one emphasizes special revelation in a study that is meant to be empowering and illuminating…and given her role, of course she doesn’t have to deal with the ramifications for the individual women trying to make sense of why God “willed” their son to die.
Thus, to these women, Moore’s biggest conflict with United Methodism is whether God wills terrible things to happen. From the Esther study, her main teaching is on Providence. “God causes everything to happen, whether good or bad” as our commentator mentions. This is absolutely unhelpful to women who have lost a child, have cancer, etc. I have never been able to look a woman in the eye who had a stillbirth and tell her God has a plan for her child to die (though God does have possibilities for healing!).
For example, the United Methodist Book of Worship includes a healing service for a family who has lost a pregnancy. Nowhere in this painful service do we ascribe to God that God had a purpose in this. We talk about mystery, we talk about “limited understanding” but never do we assume God’s intention in this, either the content of the intention or if there is an intention at all!
United Methodists are a diverse lot but if you really got down to it with the Methodist Middle and our Doctrine and Polity, we do not believe in this form of Providence (also called Determinism which is also taught by Rick Warren). It’s fine if individual Methodists believe this (and find meaning in it), but I do not and anyone I let into my house to teach ideally should not.
The Problem of Beth Moore: There’s Few Alternatives
Cokesbury and UMPH went the wrong way on the Beth Moore phenomenon. Instead of seeking out and offering publishing deals to a spunky United Methodist woman who loves the bible (a dozen of them I know just off the top of my head), they sold out and went where the money was and supported Moore’s publications.
What happened then is that Methodists had no equivalent to compare to Moore. What, suggest a women’s group just do a Disciple bible study instead? Please. BORING. Even the Living the Questions studies on Uppity Women are great theology but snoozer presentation (and SO EXPENSIVE that they are inaccessible to most). While these studies reach a certain segment of the denomination in really inspiring ways (I love them personally), the population segment that is attracted to Moore is not as attracted to these studies.
Why? Here’s my claim and feel free to debate it: People who watch Beth Moore aren’t as interested in the Bible as they are in someone who loves the Bible. One of my pastor friends expressed his frustration with Beth Moore being so popular by saying “she’s just so excited about reading the Bible.” While flippant it points out that while there may be better theologies out there, the UMPH is not offering comparative personalities.
Three of the six respondents mentioned that the attraction of Moore’s work wasn’t her theology but the way she made bible studies exciting. Her cadence, her structure, and the rhythm were well done…and easily/authentically imitated by a UM woman. As one of the commentators said and I promised I would include for balance sake:
 Here’s the kicker: I couldn’t have talked to you about any of those characters in the old testament before i did her studies. You learn the names, the stories, you get excited about the Bible, and she funny and interesting to listen to for the most part. I would have stuck with her, but her newer stuff is just too Calvinist. My favorite of the three i have done was David because it is a really exciting story and I never got bored. Please emphasize at some point that what she really has is a good structure for a well-paced study of the bible and she isn’t boring. I really think that’s why she has the Methodists. That, and the fact that none of us know anything about the Bible
That last line is flippant but it’s true for more people than you think!
All the above said, in an ideal situation personality shouldn’t dictate whether a study is good or not. From another female blogger Kim who reviewed The Patriarchs study:
A bible study should NOT rest on the strength of the speaker; it ought to rest with the strength of how God’s Word is presented and explained. When we rely on style alone, it becomes a matter of taking the Scripture and adjusting it to make us look more dynamic. That will invariably involve more personal narrative than exposition, and then where are the students left? Nothing wrong with personal narrative; it just should NOT form the bulk of the teaching.
Excitement is contagious, but instead of supporting a UMC equivalent, Cokesbury went where the money was, to our shame.
Conclusions, Suggestions, and Call for Resources
In short (for those of you that skip to the conclusions), there’s three things about the Beth Moore phenomenon within the United Methodist Church.
- Moore offers biblical criticism that is anti-intellectual even though it wraps itself in appeals to a commentary (one that interprets Scripture literally). There’s a difference between using biblical criticism and commentaries (which she does) and valuing intellectual engagement with the cultural context of the Scripture (which she typically doesn’t but has started to use more with her more recent material, thankfully).
- Moore’s expressed theology does not fit within a Wesleyan system. Her reliance on special revelation and emphasis on determinism often requires a pastoral care response that must deal more with the problems with that theological framework than the personal problem the individual has.
- There is undoubtedly an equivalent voice to Beth Moore in the UMC, but the publishing house and Cokesbury bookstores sold Moore (and now David C. Cook too! Argh!) instead of finding and supporting a comparative UM voice. We give money to the Baptists in our United Methodist bookstores and invite in a theology that John Wesley opposed fervently.
For me, any teacher who disregards scholarship and paints a very different image of God than I’m comfortable with would be very difficult to deal with in a Sunday School setting or a women’s group study. If I spend all my time building up a Methodist theology in my church, why would I want a Calvinist theology that is antithetical being taught (and indeed, Wesley is one of the few evangelists of his time that resisted Calvinism). Thus, if someone is trying to burn your theological house down, why let them in and run unchecked?
Even though one-liners to prohibit Beth Moore studies are entertaining, here’s some suggestions for dealing with Moore Kudzu in your congregation:
- Teach the studies yourself. This is by far the #1 suggestion. If you are a clergyperson or Sunday School leader who is well versed in United Methodist doctrine, it might be most helpful to allow the group to watch the video with the requirement that you be given time to respond at the end. By the third session of this, one of my clergy friends who did this had the participants look at her whenever they heard something out-of-sync with United Methodism. It works and it meets people where they are, but only if the clergyperson is well versed to handle it. And honestly it may stop people from asking for it so they don’t have to hear your comparisons! Ha!
- Continue to not allow Moore and print off this blog post as a conversation starter. Educate and show your congregation why Moore is problematic. Engage the person in conversation about these issues and why it is out of your pastoral care for them that you think it is not helpful.
- Lift up an alternative suggestion and emphasize WHY it is important to hear the voice of women in our same ecosystem. There’s a whole range of UM women who have great books, studies, and work even if they don’t have the same cadence or rhythm of Moore. I’m not going to add my preferences at the moment–I’d rather other voices lift up their experiences below. If you have an alternative suggestion, mention it below in the comments and the compilation will be published as a future blog post (and this one will be updated too).
Your turn! Requests for further engagement:
- Share who the alternatives are! There are a ton of United Methodist women (or other religious leaders whose expressed theology doesn’t inherently conflict with Wesleyan systems ie. Calvinism) who are excited about the Bible and offer comparable experiences for pastors and laity who want similar exposure. Who are they? What has been your experience? Leave them as comments and we’ll publish them for a future post.
- Comment below your experience of a Beth Moore study. Remember to read the ABSOLUTELY disclaimers above before you accuse me of discrediting yours or Moore’s faith. If you’ve had a good experience of Beth Moore and have grown as a follower of Christ, I couldn’t be happier for you. Comment, please!
Thanks for reading and sharing.(Photo Credit:  “Beth Moore Live Simulcast 2010” by Brian Hendrix, Creative Commons share on Flickr;  “frustration” by e-magic, Creative Commons share on Flickr)