Recommendations and observations on the attempt to remove a conservative IMB trustee

Both Baptist Press and Associated Baptist Press have released reports about the effort of some International Mission Board trustees to get rid of one of their fellow trustees by asking the convention messengers meeting in Greensboro, NC this summer to vote him out. Wade Burleson has raised concerns from his fellow trustees by questioning the wisdom of recent policy changes for appointing missionaries. The policies involve tighter restrictions on where and by whom a candidate was baptized and on the practice of tongues as a “private prayer language.” I have only seen excerpts of the actual new policies, as reported in various press releases and on the blogosphere, so I have been unwilling to comment on them.

People whom I trust and who have read the new policies have expressed concerns about them. These concerns stem from two fears, as far as I can tell. First is the fear of a creeping landmarkism. Landmarkism is a particular view of baptist origins that requires a certain kind of historical succession in order for present baptist expressions of church to be valid. In the case of baptism it would argue that only those are properly baptized who have been baptized by a proper administrator, who himself has been baptized by a proper administrator, who himself…(you get the picture). Some are concerned that this is what the new policy tends toward.

A second fear is that the tongues issue has been raised not primarily for theological reasons but for political reasons, in order to embarass or actually get rid of IMB President, Jerry Rankin, who is on record of using a “private prayer language.”

Wade Burleson has written about these things in his blog. He also makes references to having other information that incriminates the actions of certain IMB trustees who have privately planned strategies in violation of board policies.

All of this, as you would imagine, has created quite a fuss. It is hard for those of us on the outside of the trustee meetings to know what to believe. The official statement from IMB trustee chairman, Tom Hatley, about the disciplinary action against Burleson is very vague. Here it is in total:

The trustees of the International Mission Board voted to recommend to the Southern Baptist Convention that Wade Burleson of Oklahoma, be removed by the convention as a trustee of the International Mission Board.

This difficult measure was not taken without due deliberation and exploration of other ways to handle an impasse between Wade Burleson and the Board. In taking this action, trustees addressed issues involving broken trust and resistance to accountability, not Burleson’s opposition to policies recently enacted by the board.

The trustees consider this a rare and grievous action but one that was absolutely necessary for the board to move forward in its duties as prescribed by the SBC.

Burleson issued a statement that says, in part:

I am greatly saddened by the action taken by the IMB board of trustees. I have yet to be presented with specific allegations but I am willing to respond to the particulars of these allegations should they materialize.

In recent days I have expressed deep concern with a precedent set by certain IMB Board members who voted to establish IMB missionary policies that reach beyond the guidelines of the Baptist Faith and Message 2000.

Secondly, I have also questioned and brought to the attention of the full board the inappropriateness of certain IMB board members, who in violation of IMB board guidelines, have held private caucuses to develop and craft IMB motions and policy.

Here are my recommendations on this matter:

The IMB should state their specific allegations against Burleson in writing. He should do the same with his allegations against the trustees who allegedly violated board policy. There should be a full hearing of these charges by the whole board, perhaps with selected disinterested parties who are people of known integrity within the SBC. If this effort does not result in some genuine resolution, then let the documents become public so that the SBC churches for whom the trustees work can have full access to the information.

Here are my observations:

1. This further highlights what I have stated before about the crumbling trust at strategic levels of SBC life. No amount of political posturing can cover it up. No amount of wishful thinking can make it disappear.

2. Wade Burleson may well be on his way to becoming the highest profile example to date of what happens to those who refuse to go along with questionable practices of conservative leaders “for the sake of the cause.” Time will tell. If he is guilty of conduct unbecoming a trustee, then the board ought to spell it out and not simply make vague accusations against him, with the implied declaration, “trust us; we are good guys!”

3. If this recommendation makes it to the floor of the SBC in Greensboro without further clarification, and if the procedure by which it is dealt with is not rigged, then it will be defeated, maybe resoundingly. Why? Because the truth of the matter is that a growing number of churches and church leaders are becoming increasingly suspicious of certain sectors of denominational leadership. In other words, as I have written before, there is a fractured trust that only grows deeper when things like this happen and are handled the way that this one has been so far.

The IMB trustee chairman should not think that he can simply stand before the SBC and say, “trust us,” and receive a sympathetic hearing. Those days are over. Trust will return when honesty, openness and integrity are put on prominent display. We could use some huge doses of these virtues at the present hour.

Tom Ascol has served as a Pastor of Grace Baptist Church in Cape Coral, FL since 1986. Prior to moving to Florida he served as pastor and associate pastor of churches in Texas. He has a BS degree in sociology from Texas A&M University (1979) and has also earned the MDiv and PhD degrees from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Ft. Worth, Texas. He has served as an adjunct professor of theology for various colleges and seminaries, including Reformed Theological Seminary, the Covenant Baptist Theological Seminary, African Christian University, Copperbelt Ministerial College, and Reformed Baptist Seminary. He has also served as Visiting Professor at the Nicole Institute for Baptist Studies at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, Florida. Tom serves as the President of Founders Ministries and The Institute of Public Theology. He has edited the Founders Journal, a quarterly theological publication of Founders Ministries, and has written hundreds of articles for various journals and magazines. He has been a regular contributor to TableTalk, the monthly magazine of Ligonier Ministries. He has also edited and contributed to several books, including Dear Timothy: Letters on Pastoral Ministry, The Truth and Grace Memory Books for children and  Recovering the Gospel and Reformation of Churches. He is also the author of From the Protestant Reformation to the Southern Baptist ConventionTraditional Theology and the SBC and Strong and Courageous. Tom regularly preaches and lectures at various conferences throughout the United States and other countries. In addition he regularly contributes articles to the Founders website and hosts a weekly podcast called The Sword & The Trowel. He and his wife Donna have six children along with four sons-in-law and a daughter-in-law. They have sixteen grandchildren.
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