Summary: A discussion of spiritual attacks, sin, prevention of sin, forgiveness, repentance and restoration.
I have been aware of Beth Moore for a long time but other than one book that I started as an audiobook, and stopped because the content was inappropriate for audio, I have not read any of her books or done any of her bible studies. But over the past year or so, I have been increasingly impressed with her on Twitter. She is kind, but forceful. She interacts with a lot of people that I know or know of on twitter. And she has been increasingly important to conversations around race, gender, sexism, and sexual assault within the Evangelical world.
I decided I needed to actually read one of her books. A few years ago she temporarily made most of her books available for free on kindle. As I scanned through titles and descriptions to pick one, When Godly People Do Ungodly Things stood out because of my interest in the topic. I have written a bit on this and one of the few pieces I have been asked to repost on another blog was a piece I wrote about how we should approach John Yoder and others that have significantly tainted reputations because of their sin. Recent discussions about Karl Barth and his long term affair with Charlotte von Kirshbaum, his secretary and co-author of some of his work, brought this back up to me again.
As I got into When Godly People Do Ungodly Things, I think it is valuable, but not quite what I thought it would be. Beth Moore is talking about spiritual attack and what we can do to guard ourselves against it. In some ways I think this is similar to Richard Beck’s book Reviving Old Scratch. Both are trying to bring renewed attention to Satan as an actual figure of importance to Christian theology, but from very different theological perspectives. Beck is trying to remind a more progressive/mainline group of Christians that are fine thinking about Satan as an abstract idea or someone that is behind systemic evil that Satan is important theologically and actually to understanding both individual and systemic sin.
Beth Moore is trying to remind conservative Evangelicals that Satan does not just tempt non-Christians, but is Christians as well. She describes how what starts as a spiritual dryness or a lack of spiritual disciplines or a seemingly innocent exploration can become a full blown crisis of sin. I read Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory right before I started this book and Greene’s main character there is an alcoholic priest. The Priest does not blame the alcohol for his sin, but his pride. His pride led him to stop focusing on his spiritual disciplines and care for others and to think about himself. Eventually he became lazy in other areas as well. As things snowballed, he became a alcoholic, he also fathered a child. Greene’s description of the unnamed priest’s decent seems very similar to Moore’s concerns.
What taints my reading of When Godly People Do Ungodly Things is the apocalyptic language. The book spends a lot of time at the front describing how in the end times sin will abound and while that falls off a bit in focus, the assumption throughout the book is that we really are living in a uniquely sinful age. I think this is a weakness in Evangelical theology more broadly and dates the book. (My perspective is that different ages have different sins that are more common or pervasive, but that we are not a uniquely more sinful people than people have been historically. And I think that in many ways we are actually in an age that disproves many of the fears of a couple of generations ago.)
The last section of When Godly People Do Ungodly Things is really about restoration after sin. I believe in restoration. I believe that we can repent and be change and continue to serve the Lord. However, I am not sure that service to the Lord means public service. Beth Moore’s focus in that restoration can happen and how it can be accomplished. What is here I agree with broadly. And from what I have seen lately as Beth Moore has called for repentance of sexism and the wide spread condoning of various types of abuse, leads me to believe that either if she was writing this now, or if she had expanded the book to talk about what restoration of others looks like, then I would probably agree with that section. But the focus of the book is not the restoration of others, but forgiveness and repentance for your own sin. I appreciate the personal focus.
This is a deeply convicting book. But I think we need a broader discussion about how to evaluate repentance of church leaders and what that means for future church leadership. Reading between the lines, I do not think that Beth Moore would believe that a pastor accused of sexual harassment or assault, as there are several recent examples of, should be restored without really significant process. And at the very least, those that had been abused should be part of the group that has to be convinced that the repentance is real. What I am a bit ambivalent about in this book is that Beth Moore talks about real repentance somewhat vaguely. Those that really are not repentant are should not be restored. But if feels a bit like a No True Scotsman fallacy. Because there are Christian leaders that believe that they are ready to be restored that have not done anything to repent or restore relationship with many that they have harmed in previous sin. Moore is not advocating restoration of these types of unrepentant sin, but there also is not any real discussion about how to evaluate the repentance from the outside. And at some point, there are people that have to evaluate repentance if restoration to leadership is a real option.
This is not an abstract point. Today the board of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary is meeting about the uproar over a number of issues of their president Paige Patterson. Initially Patterson said that complaints were just attacks. And then he made a vague apology, more to those who may have been hurt than about anything in particular he said, advocated or believes. There is a group of people that are charged with the responsibility of evaluating both his sin and his repentance to determine how they impact his ability to lead that seminary.
One last point that I think is important. Beth Moore spends a lot of time talking about boundaries against sin. And mostly as she is describing them I am all for these types of boundaries. But I want a better description than what is fleshed out here. Discussions of things like the ‘Billy Graham Rule’ and other external sin boundary principles have been frequent lately. As I read When Godly People Do Ungodly Things, Moore talked a bit about heart boundaries and about the types of false boundaries that the Pharisees established. What I wanted more explicitly is a description of the difference between boundaries that protect your own heart from sin and boundaries that are established to protect your reputation from harm. Jesus had heart boundaries, or at the very least was able to live without sin, while crossing a lot of social and cultural boundary lines that were connected to sin boundaries. Pharisees were famous for establishing boundaries to keep people from sin, but also keeping people from the actual people that should be served. It seems to me that what we need are boundaries that protect our heart, but not necessarily our reputation. I do not want to complain too much about a point that was not particularly focused on in When Godly People Do Ungodly Things, but I do think it is an important part of the discussion.
When Godly People Do Ungodly Things is out of print now. The kindle edition is no longer available for purchase. I do think it a new edition of it could be re-written and be helpful. Christians need to think about sin and Satan more biblically. And I think we should be protecting ourselves from sin through spiritual disciplines and community and confession. But I also think that culture matters to how we think about sin.
Part of what I think we should think more about is what to do with people that are spiritually helpful, but tainted by sin. Graham Greene’s Whiskey Priest was able to give the sacraments and perform the duties of a priest even in sin, although his guilt was debilitating. But in a Protestant world where the emphasis is not on the sacraments, but the teaching, Christians in open sin that teach are something that much of the Protestant world does not really know how to deal with. And we either completely reject the person and the teaching or we embrace the sin as part of the teaching. Both approaches lack nuance and a real understanding of how sin corrupts and influences and how Christ changes us through his resurrection. Again, Richard Beck has a book that I think that is helpful here, Slavery of Death.
When Godly People Do Ungodly Things: Arming Yourself in the Age of Seduction by Beth Moore Purchase Links: Hardcover