For the first time, trustees of the International Mission Board (IMB), the overseas mission wing of the Southern Baptist Convention, have censured a fellow trustee. Oklahoma pastor Wade Burleson has been suspended from involvement in their next four meetings, starting with the January 28-30 session in Gainesville, Florida.
Burleson plans to travel to the next International Mission Board (IMB) trustees meeting anyway, but at his own expense. He has been at odds with trustees since joining the board in mid-2005 because of a blog (wadeburleson.com) where he reports on board business and conversations.
"Our desire was to bring about reconciliation efforts," trustee chairman John Floyd said after a private session on November 5, when trustees unsuccessfully asked Burleson to apologize for criticizing the board. "It is my great sorrow to report that those efforts have not met with success."
Though rare, the dispute has precedent in convention life. In 1990, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary faculty in Louisville, Kentucky, called for the firing of a trustee who criticized then-president Roy Honeycutt. An apology later diffused the crisis.
Burleson's blog is popular with news media and other SBC bloggers, but entries have stirred heated opposition from other trustees. In a letter prior to November's meeting, California missions director Jerry Corbaley labeled Burleson "an unrepentant slanderer and an unrepentant gossip."
In November, the Georgia Baptist Convention passed an anti-blogging resolution. "The messengers of this convention oppose blogging when it is used to cause division and disharmony among the members of our Southern Baptist family," the resolution read, in part. "We call upon bloggers to cease the critical second-guessing of these elected leaders."
Many trustees were also angered by Burleson's harsh criticism of policies enacted in 2005 that require missionary candidates to be baptized in an SBC church and forbid them from speaking in tongues.
The board first moved to unseat Burleson, then withdrew that motion and moved instead to prohibit public criticism of the board and disclosure of its activities in closed sessions.
Calling the baptism and tongues policies "horrible," Burleson said the tactics used to stifle debate on the decisions compelled him to go public. He believes the dispute revolves around whether the IMB will cooperate with believers from other denominations.
"The issue is narrowness of doctrine," Burleson said. "Basically [the two policies] are saying, 'We'll tell you who a true Baptist is and what [he or she] looks like. That's fundamentalism with a capital F. Fundamentalism must be stopped in the SBC."
However, another trustee who asked to remain anonymous said the blog harms the unified voice of the board and creates mistrust.
"They don't know what's going to end up on his blog," he said. "They feel it impacts their effectiveness."
It remains to be seen whether the move will affect the next presidential election in June, when Frank Page steps down after two one-year terms. SBC bloggers such as Burleson, who encouraged Page to run, are credited with helping propel the South Carolina pastor to an upset victory in 2006.
Burleson, a former president of the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma, has been accused of crafting a bid to replace Page, but he denies any interest in the post. "If I was trying to position myself for president," he said, "I wouldn't be taking a stand on principle."
Meanwhile, IMB trustee chair Floyd continues to hold out an olive branch to Burleson.
"It is my fervent prayer that brother Burleson will make a choice to come back into the tent," he said, "apologize to his fellow trustees and commit to working exclusively within the board's policies."
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Earlier, Sarah Pulliam posted an entry on CT Liveblog about the SBC barring Burleson.
Burleson's comments have appeared in CT articles, including:
Pastor/Blogger Says Hebrew Prof's Gender Cost Her Tenure at Seminary | Southwestern Baptist's board chair calls hiring a "momentary lax of the parameters." (January 23, 2007)
Reasonable Cause | Southern Baptists debate the role of their Message in hiring, firing. (July 23, 2007)
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