A few weeks ago several friends sent me the link to your letter to “Brothers in Christ” that you posted on your blog in early May. I read what you said with great interest and was encouraged to know you had taken this step; I know it couldn’t have been easy for you. After reading it, I felt the need to write to you, to respond to some of the things you said. No, we have never met. But something happened over 20 years ago, in the 1990s, that set the course for the directions both our lives would take. That something was our separate meetings with Lifeway.
I have to confess I know nothing about how your journey to becoming a women’s Bible teacher began. My journey began with classes in my church, then in my community, then at the urging of others, a conference or two. You said in your letter that your “unwavering passion was to teach and to serve women.” Mine wasn’t. I was driven to learn, to share what I learned, to “do life” with people, both male and female, in community in a church. But when in 1994 I came across a small out-of-print book and something about it captured my attention, I found myself suddenly propelled in a different direction.
The book had been written by Dr. John Hunter. I learned of Dr. John’s years of ministry, of how many people his teaching had influenced, that all of his books were out of print. I had a strong sense I needed to meet him and talk with him, so I phoned him in England. A story about my trip to meet him at his home there and what resulted appeared in the Baptist & Reflector in March 1995, a couple of articles I wrote were published that same year in Experiencing God Magazine, and suddenly I found myself overwhelmed with phone calls from across the country, asking me to come speak or teach. To say it was a bit much would be an understatement.
The stir all of this created, along with a 12-week biblical study course I had written, led to a phone call from Lifeway and an invitation to come to Nashville to meet with them to discuss becoming one of their authors. At the urging of others, I agreed to go. I listened to what they said, asked some pointed questions, then thanked them for their interest but told them I wasn’t interested. I knew they were going to be meeting with someone else as well and making a decision, and that “someone else” was named Beth Moore. Several months later, I was again talking to one of the people I had met with, expressing my appreciation for their interest, telling him I realized my response had been a bit abrupt. He replied, “That’s fine. We’ve decided to go another direction, and we’re very excited about it.” I said, “You’ve signed Beth Moore?” He said yes.
They made the right decision; this journey was yours, Beth, not mine. I’ve never regretted the decision I made, never second-guessed it. I knew I couldn’t take that path for many reasons, and in your letter you touched on one of the most significant reasons why. I had already realized that becoming a woman leader in that world, in that day, would require me to put on that attitude of “constant pronounced deference,” to speak and teach with apology, to tolerate the disclaimers issued by men when I was “allowed” to speak in their churches. This I would not do, could not do, for I believed it to be demeaning to me as a fellow heir with Christ. I had yet to have the knowledge I have now and the words to express why I felt that so deeply; I just knew in my spirit this wasn’t right.
So if I had liked to wear heels (which I don’t), I would have worn the heels. On those occasions when I did find myself waiting in a silent room with the other “platform people” who were all men, I broke the tension with a comment laced with sarcastic humor, usually something like, “Wow, this is a cheerful group!” I would get the shocked, disapproving stares, of course—I have to admit I enjoyed that part. Sometimes that alone was enough to break the ice with at least one man. If not, I would push a little harder with something like: “Being around you guys would sure make me want to become a Christian, yes it would. The joy in here is palpable!” Usually that was enough to get at least one of them laughing, and others would follow and start talking. Some never altered their stern disapproving expressions, no matter what I said.
My life experience has given me a different perspective, and while that gave me an advantage in dealing with the superior attitude exhibited by many men, it also made it impossible for me to accept being treated as less than simply because I am a woman. Being the only female in an all-male group was not unfamiliar to or uncomfortable for me. Since my undergraduate degree was in chemistry, most of the time I had been one of the few, if not the only, women in my college classes. And since I held the place of top student in most of those classes, being dismissed or ridiculed was never a problem. Some tried, most knew better. I never had someone say to me what that theologian said to you, but when I read what you wrote, I knew what my immediate response would have been: “And you’re not nearly as good looking as ____”, filling in the name of someone I knew he would not admire. I wouldn’t have been able to hold back, wouldn’t have even tried to if I could have. He was out of line; I would not have given him a pass because of his status in the theological community.
Let me be clear that I, like you, never experienced this attitude from those I encountered at Lifeway. Henry Blackaby and those who served with him at the Office of Prayer and Spiritual Awakening at NAMB treated me as a fellow servant of Christ and always encouraged me, as did Bob Dixon and those involved with Texas Baptist Men. Claude King treated me like a true sister in Christ; I am deeply grateful to him for the time he spent with me in discussion. Dr. John Hunter was one of my greatest supporters, always pushing me on. He would say I was a Bible teacher of the type of Henrietta Mears, that I possessed the same fire, that I must stand strong and speak to all who would listen, that I must not let anyone “clip your wings.”
I had no idea who Henrietta Mears was, so I did some research and learned of her far-reaching teaching ministry in California to both men and women. Those who attended her classes in the 1940s and 50s and learned from her included Bill Bright and Billy Graham. I was stunned to learn she had begun her career as a high school chemistry teacher; we did have that in common. Then I read that she had no children and had never married; as a mother of four with all the responsibilities that brings, I knew I was in a very different place and time. Besides that, much had happened in the Evangelical world since the time of Henrietta Mears; the pendulum had swung back to an emphasis on hierarchy, on women having an assigned, God-ordained “place,” a subordinate place. Dr. John was then in his mid-80s and had not been involved enough in recent years to observe the shift, so he couldn’t understand when I attempted to explain to him the opposition I now, as a woman gifted and called to teach, faced. He would say, “Don’t let anything hold you back. Being a woman does not in any way limit the ways in which God can use you. You must let go, take flight and soar.” I would think, “Yeah, right, and fly right into a wall of silence and go splat… You have no idea, Dr. John,” but I didn’t say anything. I just let him talk while I pretended to listen.
The shift, the pendulum swing. The attitudes you noticed surfacing in October 2016 are nothing new. These attitudes have been around for centuries, since the time of Aristotle and the ancient Greek philosophers, influencing both culture and Christianity. This most recent swing in the conservative Evangelical world toward misogyny, objectification, and disesteem of women began decades ago, in the 1970s. There are many reasons these attitudes have been able to gain strength this time, but there is one person and his teachings I want to mention here because he stands out as being a principal driving force. He began teaching his seminars in the 1960s. He started small, but his rise was meteoric. By 1971 his week-long seminars consistently filled stadiums. His name was Bill Gothard. His message centered around what became known as chain of command, or umbrella of protection, or authority teaching. He confidently and charismatically proclaimed this hierarchical teaching as God’s ordained way, as the authoritative teaching of the Bible, and people bought it.
My first introduction to Gothard was in 1981, when he brought his Institute in Basic Youth Conflicts seminar to Memphis, TN. The pastor at my small Southern Baptist church strongly urged his congregation to attend, and that included me. I was about seven months pregnant with my second child at the time and was appropriately miserable, but I complied and attended, as did my husband. I endured it for two nights, then bowed out; my husband attended every night. I remember my pastor asking me afterward what I thought about Gothard’s teaching. I told him I thought what he was teaching was unbiblical, maybe even dangerous, and that I really thought he was kind of off his gourd. I could tell by my pastor’s disapproving expression that wasn’t the response he was looking for, and that I was now labelled a troublemaker—truthtellers usually are.
Fast forward now to a little over a decade later, the early 1990s, in Kingsport, TN. I had run head on into Gothard’s chain of command teaching again with my pastor there, and met with the director of a local counseling center to discuss it. To my surprise, he opened a deep wound in his own life and told me a story of the early years of Gothard’s ministry, a story from the 1970s when he personally had been deeply involved as a member of the staff of what was then called the Institute of Basic Life Principles. His story was one of the sexual abuse and inappropriate behavior of the Gothards, of his attempts as well as the attempts of others to confront and expose the behavior of both Bill and his brother Steve, of the refusal of the Board to respond, of what happened in 1980 when “the Scandal” finally broke. The result had been a reorganization of the ministry in January, 1981, with a new untainted name: the Institute of Basic Youth Conflicts. Bill was still firmly at the helm, nothing changed, and on they went. This counselor and others who had tried to hold the Gothards accountable for their behavior were fired; they, the ones who broke the silence and attempted to expose the truth, were the ones who were disgraced. One member of the staff during those days explained, “Those who questioned his authority were asked to leave and were labeled as failures. Bill would explain that they had failed God and were resistant to God’s chain of command.”
I realized it had been only a few months later that same year that I attended the seminar in Memphis. I had been completely unaware of any of this. Now I knew why I had been so bothered by this teaching, and I knew where following this chain of command/authority teaching could, and often did, lead. I knew this was the exact opposite of the teachings of Jesus. I saw, I knew, and I didn’t know what to do with what I knew. I agonized in my knowledge. I could say nothing to those I saw following the Gothard way because all I had was hearsay, the story of another, and what I knew in my own heart to be true.
The truth about Gothard was not to come out until 2014, just four years ago. Finally, after 34 more years of continuing his abusive behavior toward young women, he was exposed and forced to resign. Many of those who had been victims over the years came together to gather documents and stories in an attempt to understand what had been allowed to happen, and why. When I found the website they developed to publish their documented stories (www.recoveringgrace.org) and read a timeline of notes detailing what had happened, I saw the name of the counselor who told me his story 27 years ago featured prominently. The story he told me was confirmed and had become a matter of public record, and I knew the time had come for me to speak out.
I shudder when I think about how Gothard’s authority teaching has permeated Evangelical thinking, and how many have been damaged or destroyed by its influence. By 1980, before the scandal and name change, over two million people had attended at least one of his seminars. Since then, untold numbers have been led to believe that chain of command teaching is the teaching of scripture. This teaching is a setup for abuse of power, for those at the top of the chain tend to see themselves as above the law. Evangelical women have borne the brunt of much of this teaching; now they are seeing the truth, and are saying, “No more!”
Many times in years past, when I have raised a question or expressed disagreement with a pastor, I have been told my “problem” is that I “won’t come under authority.” I know I’m not the only woman who has met with this attempt to shame them into silence and compliance. In early 1999 I was asked by the Southern Baptist International Mission Board to participate in a conference for their workers in Arabic-speaking countries, a conference held on the island of Cyprus with over 500 people in attendance. I was to speak at a few breakout sessions, but my main purpose for being there was to minister to the women, to give them counsel and provide a safe space for them to open up and speak honestly about their struggles. For several days, I listened. What I heard made me angry, and at the same time, broke my heart.
Hour after hour, day after day I was to hear that the hardest part of their lives was not the culture or the people or the work; it was the attitude of many of the men in leadership toward them as women. Often that same attitude had begun to be reflected by their husbands. Some talked about the jobs or positions they had held before coming to this work. They spoke of having felt valued and treated as equals in those jobs. They talked about how they had worked with their husbands as a team then. Now their voices were ignored, their ideas and suggestions were not acknowledged. In many cases, even their presence in a room went unacknowledged. In essence, they had become invisible, and invisibility crushes the human spirit. They were crushed.
I listened as they wept, I wept with them, I comforted where I could. Again and again I heard them say that when they raised objections or concerns, they were told they needed to “come under authority” and do what they were told, to submit in silence. I was angry, I ached for them and with them. Usually I was able to keep an emotional distance when counseling, to let the person’s pain remain their pain and not take it on myself. But this time was different; this time I could not distance myself because their pain was my pain. I knew what they were feeling, I too had felt it and continued to feel it. I knew the attitude and actions of these men didn’t reflect the heart of Christ, but I was helpless to intervene or move to counter them. The weapon being used against these precious women was silence, and it is truly a powerful weapon. It can and is used to control, it is almost impossible to confront and counter. A weapon that destroys a person’s sense of worth—certainly not consistent with the way of Christ, which is the Way of Love.
I went home from that conference weighted down with sadness and pain, so much so that I could barely function. Those dear women…and though I knew what was needed, I was powerless to do anything to relieve their pain. No matter how loud I might make my voice, it would not be heard. I knew I was on the road to despair, to hopelessness. I was headed into the darkness of the wilderness. What I didn’t fully grasp then was that the wilderness was to be an essential part of my journey, for it is in walking through that darkness, through that wilderness, that our greatest insights may come.
Now the time has come: voices are finally being raised, and this time they are being heard. We are once again in the midst of an awakening to gross injustice. My concern is for those who have been injured in any way. As awareness comes, as their freedom to express and be heard is realized, they will feel anger or outrage or confusion, or any number of related emotions. These feelings are to be expected and need to be taken seriously. They will need help and support from others in the body of Christ to move forward in the hard work of healing. And there will be many questions that need to be asked and explored honestly, questions about how this could have happened, about what conditions led to its being perpetuated, about what scripture really says about the way believers, both male and female, are to live and work together in community with respect and unity. Some are asking if this is possible. On several occasions I have heard young women ask, “Why would I want to be a part of a patriarchal religion that suppresses women?” A hard question, but an important question, a valid question. And it is a question about which I would welcome the chance to have an honest conversation.
I think something pastor, dissident, and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said is extremely relevant to us in this day in which we now live: “We are not to simply bandage the wounds of victims beneath the wheels of injustice, we are to drive a spoke into the wheel itself.” While it is true that both of us are closer to the end than the beginning, we still have vital work to do. Simply bandaging wounds will not be enough; identifying and exposing the root causes of this injustice, the forces that in the name of God crush those who have been drawn to his promise of life, is essential. I for one am ready to pick up my hammer and start driving spokes—but not blindly pounding away. My blows to that wheel of injustice need to be intentional, carefully placed, delivered with skill and expansive knowledge. That takes a massive amount of work, and prayer, and sensitivity to the voice of the Spirit as he guides, and truly listening to one another. Hard work, time-consuming work. But I believe it is work we must do, for the love of Jesus Christ demands no less from us.
Thank you for so faithfully serving the Lord, for fulfilling the call He placed on your life those many years ago. Now, let’s keep going.
Your Sister In Christ,