(Originally printed in the Fall 2010 Issue of the MCOI Journal beginning on page 6)
A prolific writer, speaker, and well-known Southern Baptist, Beth Moore is all the rage among women across denominations. To many, she seems to be everything she portrays: an effective Bible teacher who enthusiastically encourages women to study the Bible and draw closer to God. And like any other popular Christian writer and speaker, she has reaped a share of criticism—some completely undeserved and some well-earned. An inspiring speaker, women throng to her events without hesitation; there have been no reports of women having been duped by a false gospel. She shares the podium with other well-known leaders in women’s ministry, receiving no public criticism from their direction either. So, then, what exactly is the apologetic significance of Beth Moore?
Let it first be stated the intention of this article is not to question the motivations of Beth Moore or Living Proof Ministries. There is no doubt in this writer’s mind that Beth has committed her life and ministry to the God of biblical Christianity. The core doctrines of the faith are not at issue here. Additionally, this writer makes no assessment of Beth’s position before the Lord. But given the significant impact she has on scores of women in the Church, concerns about her method of biblical interpretation and what often appears to be scorn for the task of theology are cause for a closer examination of the teaching ministry of Beth Moore.
Be a Berean
In her book, To Live is Christ: Joining Paul’s Journey of Faith, Beth reminds her readers she is merely human and, like the rest of us, has the potential to err. She writes:
My most earnest prayer would be that this Bible study, and others like it, be a help in teaching you how to examine Scripture for yourself. Yet I plead with you not to accept my instruction without question. Always check my teaching against a thorough examination of the Word. I would never knowingly mislead you … I ask you to examine the Scripture every day to see if what I’m saying is true.1Moore, Beth. To Live is Christ: Joining Paul’s Journey of Faith. (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2001) p. 123
We would like to take Beth at her word and agree she would never knowingly mislead. Yet to offer any critique of her teachings on “how to examine Scripture,” one quickly discovers her many defenders. Few, however, defend her method of biblical interpretation but argue instead for more pragmatic outcomes. A typical response from women is that Beth speaks to their hearts or simply encourages them. It is also said she is a great speaker, and she impresses upon women to go deeper into Scripture on their own, but Beth is rarely credited for her unswerving commitment to the intended message of a given passage. Obviously, Beth cannot be held responsible for how other women regard her, but the degree of devotion women have for this behemoth of Bible study says something about the significant impact she has on their lives. So at Beth’s invitation, we need to more closely examine what she teaches and how she arrives at her conclusions.
The Insecure Apostle
Beth’s latest book, So Long, Insecurity: You’ve Been a Bad Friend to Us (SLI), is a prime example of the content on which women are feeding in her studies. In SLI, she asserts insecurity is a pesky problem that hinders the lives of most women2Moore, Beth. So Long Insecurity: You’ve Been a Bad Friend to Us. (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2010) p. 16 as well as some prominent persons in Scripture. In a recent cover article/ interview with Christianity Today, Beth stated insecurity is the “number one issue” she sees in women right now.3http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2010/august/18.21.html
At various points in SLI, she addresses the elements that play into the low view women often have of themselves, including those images of air-brushed perfection culture flaunts in the movies, television, and newsstands. She paints women as victims of our culture by being forced to view these images at every turn, but she eventually gives pride some of the blame as well. After about seven pages of discussing the problem of pride, she finally gets around to calling it by its real name—sin; yet she still somehow displaces accountability.
Our culture has done us no greater injustice than training us to avoid taking responsibility for our own issues. In trying to relieve us of the whole concept of personal sin, our culture’s reordered values have cheated us of the right to repentance and sublime restoration. They have hijacked our healing. A clear heart and a clean path are still only one sincere confession away.4Moore, Beth. So Long Insecurity: You’ve Been a Bad Friend to Us. (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2010) p. 107
Of course, all of this presupposes that insecurity is epidemic and the problem that Beth contends. SLI is based, in part, on a survey of less than 1000 women. Because 78% of these women responded that insecurity “is at or above a level that bothers them” Beth concludes this “qualifies as a major cry for healing.”5Moore, Beth. So Long Insecurity: You’ve Been a Bad Friend to Us. (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2010) p. 16 The opinion of this writer is that insecurity is less of a problem than is realized by Beth Moore; we are a society of people who suffer from a very high view of self, a disorder of deep-seated self-adoration, a problem to which the Church is hardly immune. But I digress.6Additional reading on this topic: “The Great Self-Esteem Crisis”
Not only does Beth suggest insecurity is one of women’s greatest problems, she also argues insecurity is where she finds affinity with the Apostle Paul. While the writers of Scripture clearly were human with the same propensity for sin and suffering, it is difficult to agree with Beth’s rationale for her claim to Pauline insecurity. In fact, her argument depends on an unpopular understanding of 2 Corinthians.
Beth writes that Paul is one of her “favorite people in the entire stretch of Scripture” because:
… he was enormously used of God in spite of himself [emphasis hers]. Don’t think for a moment he didn’t fight his own flesh just like the rest of us. Take, for instance, the way he felt the need to affirm his credentials to the people he served in Corinth by using this little twist:
I do not think I am in the least inferior to those ‘super apostles.’ I may not be a trained speaker, but I do have knowledge.’ 2 Corinthians 11:5-6
Tell me that’s not insecurity. If you’re not convinced, take a look at what blurted from his pen only a chapter later:
I have made a fool of myself, but you drove me to it. I ought to have been commended by you, for I am not in the least inferior to the ‘super-apostles,’ even though I am nothing. 2 Corinthians 12:11
Do you think just maybe he protests too much? In all probability, he fought the awful feeling that he wasn’t as good as the others who hadn’t done nearly so much wrong. I totally grasp that. At the same time, Paul also battled a big, fat ego. He was a complex mound of clay just like the rest of us, belittling and boasting of himself in a dizzying psychological zigzag.”7Moore, Beth. So Long Insecurity: You’ve Been a Bad Friend to Us. (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2010) p. 56-57
A key criticism of Moore is how she handles Scripture, and then, how she models that approach to her audience. After reading this section of SLI, my concern persists as I struggle to understand how she arrives at the conclusion that Paul is going through a “belittling and boasting of himself in a dizzying psychological zigzag.” The mere assertion that Paul was driven by feelings of insecurity as the reason for defending his apostolic authority ignores the immediate context of the second letter to the Corinthians: The church was involved with false teachers claiming a high degree of authority but lacking true knowledge. But this gets to the heart of the issue: 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. Her assertion that Paul is motivated by insecurity is dependent on a view that equates the “super apostles” with the true Apostles—a theory uncommon among theologians and commentators. But sadly, she leaves her readers, many who have become 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. Following Beth’s perspective to its logical conclusion, if Paul did not struggle with insecurity as she claims, perhaps the Bible would contain fewer epistles.
Beth has been working for some time to define Paul as insecure. In To Live is Christ, written about Paul’s journey of faith, she admits to speculating on what is going on with Paul “based on hints in the accounts.”8Moore, Beth. To Live is Christ: Joining Paul’s Journey of Faith. (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2001) p. 132 She describes Paul as “overwhelmed by the polytheistic beliefs of the residents”9Moore, Beth. To Live is Christ: Joining Paul’s Journey of Faith. (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2001) p. 132 of Athens because few people “believed and received Christ,”10Moore, Beth. To Live is Christ: Joining Paul’s Journey of Faith. (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2001) p. 132 because they preferred to argue “rather than consider the truth.”11Moore, Beth. To Live is Christ: Joining Paul’s Journey of Faith. (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2001) p. 132 On the next page, she continues her speculation by asserting that Paul’s ego took a beating in Athens, and that he probably “felt like a failure.”12Moore, Beth. To Live is Christ: Joining Paul’s Journey of Faith. (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2001) p. 133 Continuing to project into the text, she writes that Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 1:18-19 may have been reflective of his experience with the Athenian philosophers. At the Areopagus, we understand from the text that Paul preached Christ, but certainly not to the contempt of the life of the mind. This kind of speculation paints Paul as being annoyed and fatigued by the intellectual engagement to which he encouraged others.
To get a better grip on Beth’s methodology, her book Believing God offers more specific detail on her hermeneutical approach. In chapter 14, she discusses the instructions God gave to Joshua in the Old Testament narrative. 13I was initially alerted to Beth Moore’s use of “figurative application” by Craig Johnson at Café Biblia. His concerns about her employment of “figurative application” can be read here
March around the city once with all the armed men. Do this for six days. Have seven priests carry trumpets of rams’ horns in front of the ark. On the seventh day, march around the city seven times, with the priests blowing the trumpets. When you hear them sound a long blast on the trumpets, have all the people give a loud shout; then the wall of the city will collapse and the people will go up, every man straight in. (Josh 6:3-5)14Moore, Beth. Believing God. (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2004) p. 211
From this, Beth concludes with what she refers to as a “figurative application,” that sometimes “God requires for us to follow a fair amount of repetition” in our life before “He deems a season complete.”15Moore, Beth. Believing God. (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2004) p. 212 While it is true Joshua and his men marched for days around Jericho, and it is also true that, in God’s providence, we experience repetition in our lives, it does not logically follow that the goal of that passage from the book of Joshua is to instruct the reader to embrace the mundane as something God would just have us do. While the meaning she infers through this “figurative application” is fairly innocuous, we cannot underestimate the impact this faulty method can have on women as they read other areas of Scripture. In this sense, Beth unfortunately encourages women to ignore the intent of a biblical author to focus on a what-this-verse-means-to-me approach to understanding the Bible.
Heart vs. the Mind?
Strewn throughout Beth’s writings, videos, and audios is a constant dialectic. False dilemmas are established between the heart and mind, faith and reason, systems and doctrines, the academy and the pew, and even between the theological and the practical. Often the theological and the practical are pitted against each other as means for Beth to distance herself from the academic world. In Believing God, she writes:
Your Promised Land is the place where God’s personalized promises over your life become a living reality rather than a theological theory.16Moore, Beth. Believing God. (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2004) p. 4
Here we see not only more of her “figurative application” in this Promised Land reference (which I would argue has the tenor of prosperity teaching), but also an invalid conflation of God’s sovereign plan for our lives with our own personal experiences no matter what they may be—potentially leaving the reader with a false confidence in a personalized “Promised Land.” Finally, pitting the Christian life against the pursuit of theological understanding undermines the spiritual growth of her readers, because in contemplating the theological, even the theological “theories,” we have the potential to learn so much about who God is and about ourselves. Implicit in statements like this is the idea that theology without immediate practical application is useless.
In Believing God, she continues to give the appearance that the task of theology is of little importance to the life of the believer.
Thankfully, many churches and Christian institutes of higher learning teach the God of Scripture, but why do so many others default to a lesser-God theology? … I believe one reason is our arrogant determination to define God differently than He defines Himself. … Our pride and desperation to feel smart has made us unwilling to give the only human answer that exists to some theological questions: “I do not know. But I know that what He says is true even when I can’t explain it or reconcile it with what has happened.”17Moore, Beth. Believing God. (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2004) p. 48-49
Of course, Beth is not wrong here to suggest there are theologians who seek to do away with the mystery of God and try to force Him in the box of limited human reason. But the problem with this and similar statements is that her audience is not likely to be engaged in formal theological studies to understand that the picture she is painting is inaccurate. Their exposure to solid theologians who don’t elevate human reason over the authority of Scripture is limited. For many of these women, Beth Moore is as studious as they will go. Statements like these, then, have the potential to steer women away from the pursuit of theological studies of their own and to actually have a disdain for the theological academy. To be generous, while Beth may not be painting with broad brush strokes, her audience simply may not pick up otherwise. We are left to wonder to what degree a charismatic leader is responsible for the developing mindset of his/her devotees.
It would be one thing if Beth only occasionally presented us with confusing statements about the task of theology. But her books and even her audios provide an ample amount of material to justify the concern that what Beth is modeling to the women devoted to her ministry is problematic. Again, she writes,
I am convinced that the argument the disciples had with the educated, dignified teachers of the law diminished their faith so drastically that they were unable to do one of the very things they had been empowered to do. If you want to be full of faith, don’t argue with a legalist! Love them. Serve side by side with them if God wills. Don’t judge them. And don’t argue with them. Unbelief is highly contagious. Frivolous arguments can dilute spiritual truths into human logic. Nothing is logical about miracles. To the degree that we debate matters of faith, we could find ourselves drained of it. We are not called to debate faith but to do it.18Moore, Beth. Believing God. (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2004) p. 82
Argument for argument’s sake is not the Christian call, but certainly we are called to give an answer for the hope within, to defend the truth of the Christian worldview (cf. 1Pet.3:15). Has Beth limited the scope of the Christian faith to a privatized experience? In this quote, we see her disparaging the intellectual dimensions of the faith. At the very least, she offers the impression that faith can exist without reason. This is detrimental not only to the lives of women she teaches, but also to the people in their lives they will impact in their ministry and families. Is Beth even correct that “arguments” with legalists are “frivolous?” Such an endeavor would require, first of all, an intimate knowledge of our belief system. To have a theological debate requires one to be a theologian. Secondly, is it not the responsibility of believers to gently correct those who are walking in error? Debate need not imply a lack of gentleness, but Beth resolutely shuts that door, because according to her, “unbelief is highly contagious.”
In the above quote, also note Beth’s declaration “nothing is logical about miracles.” In the context of the entire quote, she seems to be referencing the limits of Godless human reason. To rephrase it, she might have better said Godless theories of knowledge cannot account for miracles. But to make the blanket statement, “Nothing is logical about miracles” is, on its face, erroneous.
The real truth is God is the source of logic. While miracles may not be verifiable through the haughty demands of empirical science, there is nothing illogical about miracles. One can postulate that if God exists, then extraordinary events can occur. It is, in fact, the existence of God which accounts for the extraordinary events that happen in time and space such as the parting of the waters in the Exodus account or the healings that Jesus performed; naturalism cannot explain such events.
The problem here is that while Beth is teaching women there is “nothing logical about miracles,” she is ultimately inspiring a robust anti-intellectual sentimentality. We cannot be a church that pits faith against reason when logic is sourced in God and serves Him and the Church on numerous ministry levels. Many of Beth’s devotees will not even think to second guess this statement, and risk remains this idea will take root. The intellectual dimensions of the Christian faith are not intended to be self-serving or to intimidate, but to serve God and others.
If faith does not seek understanding, then this faith has little else than personal experience—a subjectivity difficult for her devotees to identify let alone counter when it challenges their faith. Beth drives this subjectivity home.
My God isn’t just Someone I believe in. He’s Someone I know. I’ve felt His presence. I’ve seen His activity. I’ve experienced His deliverance. I’ve been touched by His healing. I’ve witnessed answered prayer. I’ve ‘heard’ Him speak straight to me through His Word. Yes, I believe, but more than that, I know.19Moore, Beth. To Live is Christ: Joining Paul’s Journey of Faith. (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2001) p. 207
Beth has “felt.” She has “seen.” She has “experienced.” She has “witnessed.” And she has “ ‘heard’ Him speak” directly to her through Scripture. Theologically, this not an entirely inaccurate statement about ways we experience God. But this strong emphasis on her personal experience—something only Beth can speak to because it is hers alone—greatly de-emphasizes the objective nature of Christian truth. It plays into the careless theology I constantly observe in Christian women who say that they have prayed about something in particular and believe God has confirmed their course of action. Some of these actions are less critical than others; but when the course of action is, for example, to seek a gestational surrogate because her ability to conceive is compromised, this issue of how we do theology and locate truth becomes more significant. When “Who are you to judge because God has spoken on this matter in this way” is the response, we have discovered the impact of knowledge of God driven by personal experience. What we know of God is objective in that it is located in the Scriptures. What we experience that is truly of God will correspond to the message of Scripture. If Beth’s students don’t have the same experience as described by Beth, are they left to believe that their relationship with God is lacking? Is her method viewed as the ideal model for how to know God? We have to ask if there is a real difference between Beth’s expression of knowledge and belief and the spiritually subjective claims of Oprah Winfrey or a Mormon? Sadly, if this is the message women are hearing, then they are definitely being set up for spiritual insecurity. If we cannot rest in the objective truth of Christianity, the personal God we seek is untenable. The mystery of our faith is that God has revealed Himself to be known, and we find Him objectively in Scripture. How it all comes together—our studies, prayer, and the work of the Holy Spirit—we don’t entirely understand, but it isn’t an entire mystery either. We continue to seek understanding of that which is meant to be understood, and enjoy that which our minds may never completely apprehend. When we don’t always feel His presence, we can still trust He is there (Mt.28:20) because we know His objective truths contained in Scripture are revealed to us as true by His Holy Spirit (1Cor.2:10). But if we use Beth’s experience as the measuring rod for how to know God, we will be severely disappointed.
One notable fact about Beth as you read through her corpus of writings is that she is not a systematic theologian—not that she ever claimed to be. But much of what troubles her teachings is a consequence of that fact. She is a gifted story-teller, understands the central themes and stories of Scripture, and is quite adept at communicating these stories to others. But Beth stumbles in both interpretation and application in some very crucial areas. We proceed from here.
Assumptions Behind the Method
To clarify the suggestion that Beth has anti-intellectual tendencies, a closer look at her own words reveals the lack of importance she places on biblical interpretation, opting for more of an ‘anything goes’ perspective.
We tend to compare Christian leaders and fall into camps behind our choices. We must make a concerted effort to avoid doing so. Each of us could cite an example, but one readily comes to mind. Every branch of in-depth bible study has loyal supporters who swear by that particular method or teacher. Some would rather fight than switch. God is wooing people to his table for the meat of His Word like never before. He is joyfully using many different methods and styles to accomplish His goal of equipping His church to be effective and holy during difficult days.20Moore, Beth. To Live is Christ: Joining Paul’s Journey of Faith. (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2001) p. 144
Here, the implication is there is inherent divisiveness of methodological distinction. The basis for her argument is God can use anything, and in her experience she perceives this to be the case. This is a moral argument on her part in that she states clearly the comparing of leaders and methodologies is something we should avoid, and that doing so is far worse than giving people the wrong tools to study Scripture. This elevation of unity is potentially at the expense of spiritual maturation, and we need to take discipleship much more seriously than this. Beth makes the fatal error of supposing methodology has little to do with interpretive outcomes, even suggesting that simply coming to the table is sufficient. We can agree with Beth that God is wooing people, but we as a Church must be responsible in how we teach and equip them to feed themselves.
Proceed with Caution
Beth does seem to endorse questionable New Age practices—for example the Be Still DVD21See “An Ode to Silence,” Marcia Montenegro, 12—but nowhere in any of her writings, audios, or conferences is there any record of Beth Moore teaching a false Gospel, or knowingly misleading her audience. But there is still a danger in what she models to other women. She is not effectively teaching how to study the Bible from a historical-grammatical methodology, but rather is modeling one that depends mostly on private insight and experience. Her apparent disdain for the theological academy and for what it produces will prevent women from discovering the rich writings of men and women serving God in this sphere. Whether she knows it or not, Beth is doing theology—we all do theology. The question is: How well are we doing it? Clearly, Beth Moore is a Christ follower, but this along with a gift of communication is not sufficient for the task before her. It is my contention that as Beth continues to misplace experience as pre-eminent over theological knowledge, her readers will take from her that the life of the mind is of little importance in the Christian life. Women need more, but I do not think they can get it from Beth.
Sarah Flashing, M.A. (TEDS, 2005) is the founder and director of The Center for Women of Faith in Culture, a ministry dedicated to the life of the mind of women in the Christian community. She is a contributor to the Christianity Today women’s ministry blog, Gifted for Leadership, and Evangel at First Things online. Since 2004, Sarah has been speaking to women on a range of topics including Christian world view, apologetics, and bioethics. In addition to her writing and speaking ministry, she teaches ethics at McHenry County College and serves in women’s ministry at The Orchard Church in McHenry,Illinois. For more information, visit www.womenfaithculture.org.
|↑1||Moore, Beth. To Live is Christ: Joining Paul’s Journey of Faith. (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2001) p. 123|
|↑2, ↑5||Moore, Beth. So Long Insecurity: You’ve Been a Bad Friend to Us. (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2010) p. 16|
|↑4||Moore, Beth. So Long Insecurity: You’ve Been a Bad Friend to Us. (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2010) p. 107|
|↑6||Additional reading on this topic: “The Great Self-Esteem Crisis”|
|↑7||Moore, Beth. So Long Insecurity: You’ve Been a Bad Friend to Us. (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2010) p. 56-57|
|↑8, ↑9, ↑10, ↑11||Moore, Beth. To Live is Christ: Joining Paul’s Journey of Faith. (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2001) p. 132|
|↑12||Moore, Beth. To Live is Christ: Joining Paul’s Journey of Faith. (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2001) p. 133|
|↑13||I was initially alerted to Beth Moore’s use of “figurative application” by Craig Johnson at Café Biblia. His concerns about her employment of “figurative application” can be read here|
|↑14||Moore, Beth. Believing God. (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2004) p. 211|
|↑15||Moore, Beth. Believing God. (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2004) p. 212|
|↑16||Moore, Beth. Believing God. (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2004) p. 4|
|↑17||Moore, Beth. Believing God. (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2004) p. 48-49|
|↑18||Moore, Beth. Believing God. (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2004) p. 82|
|↑19||Moore, Beth. To Live is Christ: Joining Paul’s Journey of Faith. (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2001) p. 207|
|↑20||Moore, Beth. To Live is Christ: Joining Paul’s Journey of Faith. (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2001) p. 144|
|↑21||See “An Ode to Silence,” Marcia Montenegro, 12|