Less for Moore? If Russell Moore Left the SBC Due to Conscience and Convictions His Next Move Is a Curious One

The departure of Russell Moore from the Southern Baptist Convention has been a long time coming. As I noted here on RD last March, since the completion of the right-wing coup known in SBC circles as the “conservative resurgence,” the SBC has tolerated only very right-wing and ultra-right-wing male leadership. (The SBC does not allow for female leadership of any kind.) As a member of the only very right-wing faction with a prominent public-facing role, Moore became a key focus of the ultras’ ire.

As many long suspected (and as we now know thanks to a leaked letter from Moore to SBC President J.D. Grear), one of the “offenses” that made Moore “too liberal” for the ultras was that he took the pervasive issue of child sexual abuse in SBC churches seriously. According to another, apparently authentic, recently leaked letter, retired SBC Executive Committee Vice President Augie Boto considered the public focus on addressing abuse to be “a satanic scheme to completely distract us from evangelism.”

On the one hand, then, Moore’s decision to leave the SBC appears to be motivated by conscience and conviction. But on the other hand, if that is the case, the choice of his new church home, Immanuel Church, an Acts 29 Network church in Nashville, Tennessee, is an eyebrow-raising one. 

Acts 29 is a loose network, but its member churches adhere to strict Calvinist theology, and, like the Southern Baptist Convention, to the doctrine of “complementarianism,” which prescribes “male headship” and wifely submission in marriage, as well as male leadership in church and, ideally, society. Without ever departing from this doctrine, as head of the SBC’s public policy arm, Moore nevertheless publicly took the position that wives who were beaten by their husbands should leave their homes and call the police, which did not endear him to the ultras. Still, Moore has consistently failed to see that a strict gender hierarchy itself is a recipe for violence perpetrated by men against women and children.

On that note, Immanuel Church has exhibited, including in the very recent past, an uncomfortable friendliness with C.J. Mahaney, the founder of Sovereign Grace Ministries. According to numerous former members of SGM churches, they had a widespread pattern of covering up child sexual abuse, with its leaders discouraging the parents of victims from contacting the authorities, and instead urging them to forgive their abusers and to reconcile within the church. While the SGM leadership denies the cover-up allegations, according to reporting in Washingtonian, its current official policy still fails to demand that pastors inform secular authorities (unless required by state law), and still casts reconciliation between abuser and abused as the key goal for church leadership in addressing abuse.

Mahaney himself has remained a part of the conservative Christian boys’ club, facing few repercussions for presiding over a devastating epidemic of the mishandling of abuse. One of Immanuel’s pastors, Ray Ortlund, was a guest speaker at an event hosted by Mahaney as recently as April. Thus, Moore’s acceptance of a pastor-in-residence position at Immanuel Church in Nashville, given its leadership’s chumminess with Mahaney, has caught the eye of evangelical and exvangelical abuse survivor advocates, who are calling the move out as hypocritical.

One of those advocates is Emily Joy Allison, a poet who launched the #ChurchToo hashtag and more recently published the book #ChurchToo: How Purity Culture Upholds Abuse and How to Find Healing. Currently a grad student at Vanderbilt Divinity School, the Nashville-based Allison organized a protest outside Immanuel Church this past Sunday, hoping to raise awareness of the church’s—and thus Moore’s—apparent indifference to the SGM abuse scandal. The protesters called for Immanuel Church to cut its ties with SGM and Mahaney, and for Moore to resign from his new position if Immanuel refuses.

The protest was small, with seven attendees, but those who showed up were able to speak with some members of the church and hand out flyers that spelled out their goals and concerns and which provided information on resources for survivors. They also spoke with a local reporter. Allison told RD that she sees Russell Moore as “a needle who can be moved,” but the reason she organized the protest is “not because I believed the church would do the right thing (I definitely do not) or because I believed Russell Moore would do the right thing (he might, but it would not absolve him of his overall sexism and homophobia), but because survivors and specifically survivors of SGM abuse deserve better and deserve to not be forgotten.” 

She also told RD, “I’ve not received any follow-up communication from the church so far. I’m planning on reaching out myself with a letter but haven’t done so yet. I don’t have current plans to show back up physically, but it’s not off the table if it becomes necessary in the future.”

One of the locals who joined Allison in her protest is David Dark, a self-described “Nashville lifer with many friends and family who’ve suffered in the thick of our global Faith Grift.” Dark, an evangelical educator and the author of The Sacredness of Questioning Everything, commented, “In one sense, it can be said that we’re each only responsible for ourselves, but in another deeper sense, association is currency. This is even more the case when we speak of the arrangements we call churches. I felt compelled by conscience to make my way over to the protest and, upon reading what Emily wrote, I was really glad I did. Her requests are eminently reasonable. They even strike me as loving.” 

Like Allison and Dark, I believe Moore is, to some degree at least, a man of conscience, despite his adherence to inherently misogynistic and explicitly anti-LGBTQ theology. While I’m not holding my breath, I hope that Moore will address abuse survivors’ and advocates’ concerns over his new affiliation. As Dark says, “We become what we abide.” Moore was unwilling to abide indifference to child sexual abuse among SBC leadership. If he does not want to be seen as hypocritical now, he needs to demand that Ray Ortlund and Immanuel Church take steps to hold Mahaney and SGM accountable. The world is watching.