Wade Burleson’s Hardball Religion

Wade Burleson is an Oklahoma pastor and former Trustee of the International Mission Board whose blog and whose reporting thereon were at the center of controversy from 2005 to 2008 (and, in a sense, still are).  Particularly, Burleson alleged on his blog that some IMB Trustees were perpetrating ego-driven power plays that effectively squelched dissent of others on the board.  Burleson alleges that power on this board is centralized in the hands of the few who routinely hold secret meetings to conduct and dictate IMB business in violation of IMB rules.  Furthemore, he alleges that a high-profile SBC figure who is at the head of another SBC entity is effectively trying to have his way with the IMB Board of Trustees, whose leadership, he argues, are in this high profile person’s back pocket.  He further alleges that those in leadership of the IMB BOT consistently harrass Jerry Rankin and seek to have him ousted and do the same with other IMB personnel.  And, finally, Burleson adamantly insists that the prohibition of “private prayer language” among missionary candidates by IMB Trustees as well as the landmark position that missionary candidates must have been immersed in SBC churches for their baptism to be considered valid have effectively elevated secondary and tertiary doctrinal matters to first-order matters, which, Burleson contends, is the hallmark of fundamentalism and Landmarkism.


That, in a nutshell, is what Burleson began blowing the whistle on when he became a member of the IMB BOT.  He did so on his blog, which seems to be the main complaint (among others) against Burleson by his detractors, and even continued to do so after a policy was passed forbidding the public airing of grievances by IMB Trustees.

So, after an unsuccessful attempt to censure Burleson a couple of years ago (squelched by the mediating influence of Convention leadership who, to hear Burleson tell it, slapped the hands of over-reaching, power-hungry IMB Trustee leaders), the Board finally succeeded in censuring Burleson who consequently resigned so as not to be a distraction to the work of missions in the SBC.

A book like this raises a whole host of ethical questions.  First of all, there’s the question of the ethics of writing a book like this in the first place.  Is it right to do so?  Similar questions were asked about Joel Gregory’s book from some years back.

On the one hand, I would argue that denominational abuses should indeed be made known to the people who comprise the Southern Baptist Convention.  Woe be to us if we allow the leaders of various entities to operate in the dark outside of the eyes of the very people they are to be working for.  And so, in a fundamental sense, no, a book like this is not inherently unethical.  I might make the case that covering over abuses is what is unethical.

On the other hand, parts of Burleson’s account troubled me.  For instance,consider the very odd story of the IMB Trustee ominously brandishing a knife when Burleson busted up one of their caucuses in a hotel lobby (he takes a knife out of his pocket, Burleson comments on it, then the guy goes on to clean his teeth with it or something like that).  Now, this was a highly inappropriate thing for the Trustee to do, and he apparently realizes this because Burleson tells us that he later apologized for it.  But here’s the rub:  he apologized to Burleson for doing it…then Burleson includes the story in a published work.

I am sympathetic to Burleson’s overall efforts, but, for some reason, this bothered me.  You do not dig up the sins of others after they have apologized for them and broadcast them to the world.  It appears that there are more than enough genuine abuses in the IMB BOT that have not been apologized for, much less remedied, to provide Burleson with enough material for a book.

Furthermore, I’m still chewing on the fact that Burleson continued to blog about his concerns after the BOT passed a rule about Trustees publicly criticizing board actions.  This, as I understand it, is what earned him a censure, regardless of the undeniable motives of those who simply wanted a censure to shut him up.

What is more, I must confess to some irritation at hearing yet another Southern Baptist claim the mantle of Luther:  “Here I stand.”  I don’t deny that Burleson is seeking reform, and that he’s shown courage in doing so, but can somebody please bring a resolution to the floor banning all SBC efforts to co-opt Luther’s famous statement?  (I know that Burleson does not think he’s Luther, but this phrase really should be retired unless somebody other than the modern “reformer” wants to apply Luther imagery, say, 150 years from now.)

Now for the bigger ethical issue:  the ethics of what is actually happening in the SBC.  Wade Burleson, in my opinion, is to be commended for doggedly insisting that the IMB BOT follow the rules.  He is to be commended for pointing out what is to me the most alarming revelation of the book:  that the head of one SBC entity is trying to undermine the leadership and position of another SBC entity head.  This, to me, is inexcusable, and I am glad that Burleson has put it in print.  Furthermore, I am glad that Burleson blows the whistle on the encroaching Landmarkism that is undeniably present in the SBC.  And, finally, I think that Burleson has defined “fundamentalism” precisely.

A fascinating, if troubling, read, that I hope will find a wide readership.

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