Beth Moore’s letter and the psychology of what happens next

Twitter was buzzing yesterday after Beth Moore posted an open letter to her Christian brothers. In it, she detailed some of her experiences as a woman with a profile working in the conservative evangelical world. You can read her letter here.

I am afraid what Beth describes is all too prevalent in conservative evangelical circles. For many complementarians, knowing what to do with women is a bit like grasping the depths of the doctrine of the trinity. They kind of have a handle on the main things so long as nobody probes too deeply and exposes their shoddy grasp of what they claim to believe. Many complementarians are essentially down with the principle that scripture isn’t OK with female eldership and teaching in the gathered church. Probe into other areas deemed off-limits and reasoning starts to fray a little and thing become a bit strained (cf. John Piper’s bizarre prohibition on women police officers, for example).

Now, Beth – so far as I can tell – is not challenging complementarianism. However, as a fully paid-up complementarian myself, I think the above paragraph provides the context for much of what Beth describes. The issue isn’t complementarianism per se, it is that many complementarians have such a flimsy grasp of what they claim to believe that things begin to stray into sheer nonsense very quickly, as I have noted before here.

Beth notes that she put up with much of the treatment of women because she believed people were genuinely trying to honour their complementarian convictions drawn from scripture. However, she notes:

Early October 2016 surfaced attitudes among some key Christian leaders that smacked of misogyny, objectification and astonishing disesteem of women and it spread like wildfire. It was just the beginning. I came face to face with one of the most demoralizing realizations of my adult life: Scripture was not the reason for the colossal disregard and disrespect of women among many of these men. It was only the excuse. Sin was the reason. Ungodliness.

Some of the examples Beth gives cannot be described as anything else. I don’t know what possesses a man to greet somebody with ‘you’re better looking than…’ as if that’s a compliment, acceptable and in no way degrading to either the person you are speaking with or the person you are speaking about. You can’t seriously read scripture and think Christ would make those sorts of comments. Most of what Beth describes is not quite as vulgar as all that. But it is, nonetheless, symptomatic of the treatment of women in conservative evangelical circles. I think the church needs to take this very seriously.

But that isn’t quite what I wanted to discuss here. That is just background. Not long after Beth published her letter, Thabiti Anyabwile wrote an open apology. You can read what he has written here. Thabiti wants to repent of the wider attitudes towards women that he admits were in his heart as well as apologising for the more direct ways in which his attitudes were held toward Beth Moore herself. I have no doubt about the sincerity of what Thabiti has written here and I think it should be read in exactly that way. What I am about to say is not passing any comment on what he has written.

But I am interested in much of what is seeming to happen now. I have seen twitter light up with apologies from men about our general attitudes towards women. I have seen comments directly to women in conservative evangelical circles apologising for such attitudes. It seems some of us can’t fall over ourselves fast enough to apologise. What I have also noticed is a lot of responses to the effect that whilst these attitudes are prevalent you – who have apologised quickly and fulsomely – are of course wonderful and have never really thought these things nor given any sense that you did.

It feels a bit like we are aping the world on these things. I have no doubt whatsoever that the things Beth Moore highlights are a problem. I know they are because I’ve witnessed them. But I am dubious of the number of people apologising only to be told that they, of course, aren’t the problem. Why is it that lots of men who are seemingly not the target of these comments so ready to apologise for something they haven’t done? I sense there is a bit of virtue signalling going on. It is very easy for me to apologise when I know, and I know you know, that I personally haven’t really done anything. After all, I’m British. I apologise for stuff that’s clearly your fault all the time! It’s similarly easy to apologise for collective guilt when, again, I know and you know that I’m not really culpable personally. What is more, I suspect a quick apology for something we all know I haven’t done makes me feel like I’ve absolved my responsibilities toward this issue.

But, of course, the things Beth writes about are cultural and systemic. So, whilst I may not hold those attitudes or express them, my duty as a church leader extends beyond what I do personally. Of course, I have certainly looked down on women in my life. But I can say, fairly confidently, that never had anything to do with the fact they were women. It had everything to do with same sorts of reasons I look down on other men sometimes. It is to do with the fact I am arrogant in the same way all of us are often arrogant and think more of ourselves than we should. This point cuts the other way too. I have greatly admired some women for exactly the same reasons I have greatly admired some men.

All that is to say, I don’t feel the need to apologise for the attitudes in view because, as far as I’m aware, I don’t hold them and have never expressed them. Nonetheless, my responsibility is not absolved by that fact nor would a valueless apology from me over something I’ve never done do anything to discharge it. My responsibility lies in creating an environment within my sphere of influence, particularly my church, whereby I don’t allow these attitudes to go unchallenged or to tacitly take hold. I would far rather we stopped uttering pointless apologies for things we haven’t done – that is the stuff of politicians – and instead simply committed ourselves to ensuring the environments over which we have influence will not permit that sort of culture to flourish.

Some of us, maybe even more than a few of us, might well have to apologise for these attitudes just like Thabiti has done. But others of us needn’t and cheapen the whole point when we do so. Godly women do not need – and I suspect do not want – our valueless apologies. They want the problems that Beth describes to be dealt with by those people in a position to deal with them. Those of us in church leadership, or in influential positions within the evangelical world whatever they may be, have a duty to encourage godly attitudes to female disciples of Jesus Christ. We have a duty to encourage christlike attitudes toward women in our circles.

The things Beth highlights need addressing and we should all do what we are able to handle those issues. But let us save our fawning apologies when we know that we are only going to hear how wonderful we are, and how we aren’t the targets, in response. That serves nobody but our own egos and, ironically, subtly treats women in exactly the way as the thing we are apologising for. Using our public apologies to receive an ‘obviously not you, brother’ in reply, is to treat women with the kind of contempt that says they are there for me to signal my virtues and ingratiate myself to an audience. It is to use them as a means of making myself appear big and important and I’m just not sure how that is any different to the treatment that Beth describes in her letter.