It's hard to follow warfare inside the Southern Baptist Convention without a working knowledge of biblical symbolism.
Consider this passage in a May 31 letter from the Rev. Russell Moore to J.D. Greear, president of the convention, that described key events leading to Moore's recent resignation as head of the denomination's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.
"You and I both heard, in closed-door meetings, sexual abuse survivors spoken of in terms of 'Potiphar's wife' and other spurious biblical analogies," wrote Moore in a letter posted at the Baptist Blogger website. "The conversations in these closed-door meetings were far worse than anything Southern Baptists knew. ... And as you know, this comes on the heels of a track record of the Executive Committee staff and others referring to victims as 'crazy' and, at least in one case, as worse than the sexual predators themselves."
Who was "Potiphar's wife"? She was known for her efforts to manipulate Joseph during his enslavement in Egypt. The Genesis narrative notes: "Now Joseph was handsome and good-looking. And after a time, his master's wife cast her eyes upon Joseph, and said, 'Lie with me.'" When Jacob refused, the seductress accused him of assault and had him jailed.
It's easy to see how "Potiphar's wife" insults would fit into attempts to discredit Moore and activists who want America's largest Protestant flock to change how its agencies, seminaries and nearly 48,000 autonomous congregations deal with sexual abuse.
Moore's resignation, after years of attacks by critics, has pushed sexual abuse to the top of the agenda at the convention's national meetings Tuesday and Wednesday in Nashville, Tenn. -- along with the election of a new president. One outspoken Moore critic -- the Rev. Mike Stone of Emmanuel Baptist Church in Blackshear, Ga. -- is one of four presidential candidates. Stone is also the immediate past chairman of the embattled Executive Committee and a leader in the Conservative Baptist Network, which has attacked Moore, Greear and others.
Other hot-button issues loom in the background. Before the 2016 election, Moore -- a consistent conservative on issues such as abortion and the First Amendment rights of religious believers -- made headlines when he called Donald Trump an "awful candidate" with "serious moral problems" who needed to repent of his sins and embrace Christianity.
But in a 2020 letter to commission trustees, first publicized by Religion News Service, Moore claimed that conflicts with Trump supporters weren't the main cause of investigations into the impact of his work as the main Southern Baptist voice in Washington -- including some critics withholding donations to the convention's Cooperative Program.
"The presenting issue here is that, first and foremost, of sexual abuse. This Executive Committee, through their bylaws work group, 'exonerated' churches ... from serious charges of sexual abuse cover-up. One of those churches actively had on staff at the time a sex offender. J.D. Greear, our [convention] president, and I were critical of this move, believing that it jeopardized not only the gospel witness of the [convention], but, more importantly, the lives of vulnerable children in Southern Baptist churches."
Tensions rose in 2019, when Moore allowed sexual abuse activist Rachael Denhollander to directly criticize the Executive Committee while speaking at the denomination's "Caring Well" conference on sexual abuse, including what she considered the unethical treatment of an abuse survivor.
"This enraged some Executive Committee trustee leadership," Moore wrote. It didn't help that the "Executive Committee had contributed some money to Caring Well." Intimidation tactics, he added, have "been used to create a culture where countless children have been torn to shreds, where women have been raped and then 'broken down.'"
Online reactions have been fierce, including a Stone video stating: "As a victim of childhood sexual abuse, I find the latest attack from Russell Moore to be absolutely slanderous, and it is as inflammatory as it is inaccurate. ... It's unscriptural, it's ungodly, it's outrageous."
However, there was another strategic response -- a motion by two pastors, Ronnie Parrott of Christ Community Church in Huntersville, N.C., and Grant Gaines of Belle Aire Baptist Church in Murfreesboro, Tenn., calling for the next convention president to initiate a process leading to a third-party investigation of the Executive Committee. This would include "allegations of mishandling sexual abuse cases, mistreatment of sexual abuse victims, a pattern of intimidation and resistance to sexual abuse reform initiatives."
Terry Mattingly leads GetReligion.org and lives in Oak Ridge, Tenn. He is a senior fellow at the Overby Center at the University of Mississippi.