Moore to the Point
Hello fellow wayfarers… Sorry for a Southern Baptist–heavy newsletter this week…Why mafia tactics can work in religious institutions… How to know whether it’s time to leave or to stay in a church…Where ideas on sex and gender empower injustices… Plus, Desert Island songs… This is this week’s Moore to the Point.
Russell Moore
How Churches Can Become Mafias 

If you ever want to do something kind for me, please don’t send flowers.

If I were to see a bouquet of them at the door, I would probably have a reflexive adrenal response. That’s because, for years in my Southern Baptist context, the lore was always about a leader in the denomination—who fancied himself a sort of party boss or even bishop—who would send to those who crossed him a bouquet of flowers, with nothing but a card with his name. The flowers were interpreted to signify something along the lines of, “You’re dead to me” or “I know what you did” or some such thing.

The first time I heard this, I stopped and thought, “Wait, how is this not the mafia?”

Now I don’t know how many people ever received such flowers. When asked about it by younger people the leader would grin and look away. Maybe the legend was always bigger than the reality. But, in cases of fear and intimidation, legend is really all it takes.

And behind the legend is an even larger truth—one that the rest of the world sees an ever-so-slight peek into after the release of an independent investigation that describes a culture of cover-up, retaliation, and stonewalling by the Southern Baptist Convention’s Executive Committee on matters of church sexual abuse, church sexual abuse survivors, and the advocates and whistleblowers who stood with them.

Since then, many people from outside the denomination called or texted as they watched some of the official proceedings, and all expressed some variation of how creepy they found the southern politeness—with everyone calling each other “brother so-and-so” —given the circumstances.

To some of them I passed along a tweet by religion journalist Bob Smietana: “For those who are new to SBC politics. There’s so much going on when people call each other ‘brother’ or say they want to ‘change the direction’ and say, ‘I appreciate you.’ It’s all Bless Your Heart and the Bible and Robert’s Rules—and behind-the-scenes knives.”

Knives, yes. And flowers.

It’s not just that a Mayberry Mafia could hide stonewalling political tactics behind syrupy rhetoric of “sweet brother,” and so on. It’s also that folks like that could, and often did, exploit in others a genuine priority of “unity” and “cooperation” and “love of the brethren.”

A few months after I left, a reporter stopped me when I was defending Southern Baptists about something and asked why—to which I said, “I love them, and 90 percent of them are great people.” He said, “I think your math is off.” Maybe that was a kind of Stockholm Syndrome, as he implied, of someone who couldn’t bear to think otherwise.

Maybe. But it’s also, if not entirely accurate mathematically, true. There are a lot of sweet people in those pews. The vast majority of them would never imagine that anyone would carry out mafia-style tactics in their name—and, even more so, they would never countenance mistreating sexual abuse survivors in the name of Jesus.

I still believe that. But it doesn’t matter if people don’t recognize that the mafia business is going on behind the scenes and understand how it works.

The primary way it works is through the fear of exile. Flowers at the door—whether literal or metaphorical—aren’t a threat to kill anybody. They are a threat to remove somebody from the tribe—to marginalize that person so that for anyone to listen to them on anything would mean to face the threat of exile themselves.

This works even more effectively in local churches. If a survivor comes forward to talk about what she experienced, she may be told that she’s sowing division and hampering the witness of the church. Those who stand with her may quickly find themselves considered “controversial.” From there, people find other—more popular—ways to show others that those calling for reform aren’t really “one of us.”

Rob Downen, the Houston Chronicle journalist who broke the SBC sexual abuse crisis story, detailed in a very perceptive Twitter thread the background of this current crisis—including the use of “critical race theory” as a way of demonizing people who were deemed to be “liberal.”

As a matter of fact, sociologist Ryan Burge shows with Google search analytics how “CRT” was a controversy in the SBC a full two years before it started showing up in the national culture wars. It would have been easier for me to find a Southern Baptist vegan at a men’s prayer breakfast that a Southern Baptist holding to critical race theory anywhere. But that’s precisely why the tactic works.

Imagine in a local congregation, Brother Tommy, the deacon, says in a prayer, “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One.” A group of people starts talking about their “concern” with Brother Tommy’s Unitarianism. They start to pass along Wikipedia links about what Unitarianism is, and how it’s a heresy that leads to nowhere good.

Maybe even they hire an atheist to say how, yep, Brother Tommy’s a Unitarian and this is how that’s not consistent with Christian doctrine (that part might be far-fetched; surely that would never happen, but this is just a parable so let’s go with it).

Brother Tommy agrees that Unitarianism is a heresy; he’s Trinitarian to the core. His prayer was quoting a Bible verse from Deuteronomy 6—and saying something fully consistent with the Trinity. When the congregation then starts talking about how worried they are about “Unitarianism” in our church, Brother Tommy is caught off guard.

He’s not defending Unitarianism. He hates Unitarianism. It doesn’t exist in that church. As a matter of fact, he knows there’s a bunch of polytheism going on. But if he addresses the Polytheist Society that’s been gathering after Wednesday night business meeting, he’s told to “stop being divisive.”

When he outlines the danger of the Asherah poles some folks are wanting to put up at the church bazaar, he’s told to “stop being divisive.” When he quotes Deuteronomy 6, he’s told to “leave the politics alone and stick to preaching the gospel.” So, to take down Unitarianism—which is not a problem in that church at the time—Brother Tommy would have to first explain how Deuteronomy 6 is not Unitarian.

Then when people who know better—who’ve known Brother Tommy for years and who know there’s no Unitarian anywhere near that church—start to talk about how they are “taking a stand against Unitarianism,” hoping to quell the crowds and maintain their standing with those who are falsely charging Unitarianism, what is one to do?

At the end of all of that, Brother Tommy is considered “toxic” to be around, nobody’s paying a bit of attention to the polytheist society’s moving in another statue to Zeus, and there’s still not a Unitarian in sight. And maybe some of the people who believe Deuteronomy—after having been told that’s “Unitarianism”—might actually become Unitarians.

It’s a confused mess. If, in addition to all of that, there’s also some really dark things happening to vulnerable people—well, who’s talking about that? At least the so-called “Unitarians” have been defeated.

In a church context, any sort of reform on real issues can become difficult because those issues can’t be addressed by either insiders or outsiders.

Those who stay will be told—especially if they hold office in the church—that they can’t show disloyalty by trying to “blow everything up.” So, they often attempt the slow process of working “through the system,” trying to do everything the “right way” because, if they don’t, that—not the abuse—will become the issue.

They often encounter obstacle after obstacle after obstacle, finding themselves having to fight on fifteen other fronts—often against imaginary or exaggerated issues—so that other people can then say, “See, they are always trying to cause trouble.”

After every stonewall, they will be told, “Be patient. Trust the process. We don’t want ‘hot takes’ on this very new, sudden problem that we only discovered a mere twenty years ago.” Behind all of that will be an appeal to responsibility—“Y’all are leaders in this church and you cannot stir disunity. We can’t fix this in chaos. You need to respect the other leaders and move this along.”

When nothing happens—and those calling for reform live through all the knifings and obstacles, and often gaslighting and psychological warfare—they might try to tell the congregation, in the politest of terms, that there’s a problem. And when people continue to ignore that, they might then venture to say explicitly what they’ve experienced.

But they know that then the problem will be the “way” they approached the issue. They shouldn’t have done it that way. If they say it publicly, they’ll be told they are “blowing everything up in order to take everyone down with you.” If they say it privately to leadership, and others find out about it, they’ll be accused of saying it privately knowing that it will eventually become public.

At that point—after many of their friends and mentors pretend not to even know the “troublemakers”—they might conclude there’s nothing they can do. And so, they leave.

Now, the people who previously said it would be inappropriate to speak up because they have responsibilities on the inside are now told that it’s inappropriate to speak up because they are on the outside. “You left; you don’t get a say in this” or “To say anything about this would be ‘I told you so’ and would be unseemly.” That can even be the case after what they have said is proven to be true.

If this happens to people with power in a congregation, how much worse can it be for the powerless and voiceless ones who suffer the crimes or the abuse? One of them might look at what happens to those trying to call attention to the mafia empowering the problem and conclude that she would never have a chance. She might even start to believe the abusers and their protectors are right and that she’s ungodly or satanic or “crazy.”

And so, the message projected to the rest of the community is “You don’t want to be that guy” or “You don’t want to be like her.”

That is not a uniquely Southern Baptist problem. That can happen in any church, in any congregation, in any institution. In Southern Baptist life, it works well because being a Baptist—belonging as a Baptist—is part of what we were taught from birth. But this can happen anywhere.

The first step to achieving any sort of justice for anybody is to first break the power of the fear of exile. And that’s hard to do. But eventually, people will start to tell the difference between “conviction” and mafia threats, between “resurgence” and power politics, between preaching and demagoguery, between politeness and complicity.

Almost thirty years ago I heard several good sermons from multiple people referencing Elton Trueblood’s warning of a “cut-flower” church—in which a bouquet in a vase can seem lovely and alive, but when severed from the root, it has only the appearance of life. That’s true. And it doesn’t just apply to people who lose their faith to liberalism, but to those who lose their way from Christ by any means. In whatever context, mafias—whether real or metaphorical—only work if all that matters is belonging and safety.

Flowers can only scare you until you can see that they’ve been dead all along.

So Should You Leave or Should You Stay?

In my Christianity Today commentary on the SBC Sexual Abuse Task Force Report, I quoted parenthetically my wife, Maria, and had no idea how much her words would resonate with some of y’all.

I was noting how, when we left the last SBC Executive Committee meeting that I would ever attend, she turned to me and said, “I love you. I’m with you till the end. But if you’re still a Southern Baptist by summer, you’ll be in an interfaith marriage.” That was kind of a turning point for me. I’ve heard from too many of y’all to count asking Maria to tell you whether it’s time to leave or time to stay in your church or denomination.

I asked her and she said she didn’t know about anybody else, she just knew that, left on my own, I would never ever leave. My whole identity was Southern Baptist. My entire friendship and family system was Southern Baptist. I loved—and love—them, and the idea of not being a Southern Baptist was more unthinkable than renouncing my American citizenship or disowning my mother. I needed some blunt talk at the moment. You might be in a very different situation.

Still, in the past week or so, I’ve had multiple questions from people—in many different types of church context—asking a question I’ve tried to answer many times over the past year, “Should I stay or should I leave?” Here’s my answer: “I don’t know.”

Obviously, I made the decision, once, to leave my denominational home. But, before that, I made 1,001 decisions to stay. For some people, staying is a terrible decision, especially if it is harming them or other people and they can’t stop it. For other people, leaving a church or a fellowship of churches is a terrible thing to do, if they always refuse to address problems when they are still manageable.

I suppose one of the first things to ask, in making that decision, is to ask whether you are, by nature, a “leaver” or a “stayer.” For some people, staying is always the default, because they are afraid of change or whether there’s “life out there.” For others, leaving is always their first option, in any situation, because they do it whenever they face a problem, before engaging and trying to fix it. If you know that you are more in one of those categories than the other, then really examine your motives when you want to leave or you want to stay. Sometimes staying is complicity and sometimes leaving is rashness. But that’s not always the case with either one.

If you’re staying because you see horrible problems but you think they’ll just work themselves out, beware. If the staying itself is the most important thing to you, you very well might eventually make peace with the sins or the injustices, just in order to stay.

If you’re leaving because you think there’s an island of refuge out there—a church or denominational home in which you can just “relax” and not face all the tumult of human depravity—beware. You will either adapt yourself to the next group’s sins or injustices or you will grow cynical when you find that your new church isn’t the New Jerusalem.

Here’s the main thing. Whether you go or stay, you will face guilt, and, no matter which you choose, you will be tempted to guilt those who’ve made the opposite decision. Those who leave will sometimes grumble about those who stay and work for change, that they are naïve or complicit. And those who stay will often grumble about those who left, they “abandoned us” or “they’re bitter” or their leaving was “revenge.” Stop it.

If every good person leaves an institution, they often abandon that institution to the people who would use it for more evil. If people stay in a context they believe is past their ability to change, and they know there’s real evil happening, they also abandon that institution to those who would use it for more evil—sometimes by giving up and becoming one of those people.

The stayers aren’t always propping up the status quo. The leavers aren’t always quitting and walking away in anger. And if your friendships are dependent on who stays and who leaves, and when they do it, then maybe, in either case, the institution has become more than an institution for you. Maybe it’s become a god. In that case, as always, Jesus is here to provide a better way—to be the better Way.

A Conversation with Rachael Denhollander on Sexual Abuse

This week over on the podcast, I talked with attorney/athlete/survivor/advocate Rachael Denhollander about what we can all—no matter what church or denomination—learn about how sexual abuse happens and how to stop it. She explains how ideas translate themselves into actions (and vice versa). You can listen here.

Desert Island Playlist

This week’s submission comes from reader Diane Brewer, who writes: “Here are my top ten songs that I would love to hear over and over if I was on a desert island. The greatest gift that my parents gave us four children was the love of music—all genres, types, versions, everything. They did not have much, but they shared their joy and their love of music.”

“Turn The Page” by Bob Seger. The greatest rock and roll song ever recorded. Full stop.

“More Than a Feeling” by Boston. This is the song that makes me turn the volume up slowly as the song starts. I absolutely love this song.

“Moon River” by Andy Williams. I saw Andy Williams perform at the Ohio State Fair when the Osmond Brothers were his backup singers. Jimmy Osmond was a little boy and came on stage to sing a fun song, the name of which escapes me. Andy Williams was my first album I owned.

“Cattle Call” by Eddy Arnold. This was my very first concert. My mom received six free tickets to the show for delivering telephone books for Ohio Bell Telephone. She could have been paid (and God knows we needed the money), but she chose the tickets instead.

“A Wonderful World” by Louis Armstrong. My son and I danced to this song when I got married last year. It goes on the playlist for all time.

“Peaceful, Easy Feeling” by Eagles. This song reminds me of the path my life has taken from the days of “Tequila Sunrise,” “Life in the Fast Lane,” and “Lyin’ Eyes” to the redemption of having that “Peaceful, Easy Feeling.”

“Pieces” by Rob Thomas. The song is so heartfelt that it brings me to tears remembering the heartbreaks and the heartaches that delivered me to the place where I am today.

“A Thousand Years” by Christina Perri. Just a beautiful song with an excellent message. You are never too old, and it is never too late.

“I Saw God Today” by George Strait. This song was playing when I learned that I was officially a grandmother. A beautiful little girl born at 5:20 a.m. on March 25, 2009.

“Yesterday” by the Beatles. Makes me remember how hard things were and how good they have become. Things change, time changes, hope is restored, faith is generated, and grace appears.

Thanks Diane! Readers, what do you think? Send me your Desert Island Playlist (of songs) or your Desert Island Bookshelf (of books). If a playlist, choose between five and 15 songs, excluding hymns or worship songs (we’ll do those later).

If a bookshelf, ask yourself, if you could have one bookshelf with you to last you the rest of your life, what volumes would you choose? Send a picture to me with as much or as little explanation of your choices as you would like.

Send either or both to

Quote of the Moment

“If I burn this,” I asked them, “will it have really happened? Will my daddy have pushed me down into the bath? Will I forget it ever happened?”

Ginnie Hempstock was no longer smiling. Now she looked down concerned. “What do you want?” she asked.

“I want to remember,” I said. “Because it happened to me. And I’m still me.” I threw the little scrap of cloth onto the fire.

—Neil Gaiman, The Ocean at the End of the Lane

Currently Reading

Scott James, The Sower (Crossway)

Daniel K. Williams, Defenders of the Unborn: The Pro-Life Movement Before Roe v. Wade (Oxford University Press)

Christine Emba, Rethinking Sex: A Provocation (Penguin Random House)

Currently Listening

Reader Michael Dwyer wrote in response to the newsletter a few weeks ago on the concept of exile and recommended the song “Pilgrim” by John Mark McMillan. It is magnificent. You can hear it here.

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Russell Moore

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