By Bill Webb
The International Mission Board has been embroiled in controversy for several months over a policy banning the appointment of future missionaries who practice a form of glossalalia — or speaking in tongues — even if they do it alone in the privacy of their prayer closets.
Several issues have caused this matter to fester, not the least of which is a growing number of affiliated churches whose practices include glossalalia. Some IMB trustees have wondered aloud if a power group within the board has it out for Jerry Rankin, the agency's president. His "private prayer practice" became a subject for board discussion back when he interviewed for the job 13 years ago. Still others believe other high-ranking Southern Baptists have been trying to undermine Rankin, too.
Not every trustee believes this private-prayer-language policy is needed. Some feel strongly that it is not. The IMB already has a policy that prohibits missionaries from engaging in charismatic practices in the course of their overseas ministry. Besides, they say, the 2000 Baptist Faith and Message, the denomination's doctrinal guide, doesn't address the matter.
That brings us to one trustee in particular, an Oklahoma pastor named Wade Burleson, who has made himself a thorn in the flesh of sorts by continuing to question the wisdom of the policy. His complaints have hardly been private. Indeed, Burleson has taken his case behond the IMB's board chambers and all the way into cyberspace.
The Oklahoma pastor has his own blog, which (I'm told) makes him a blogger, someone whose opinions and comments can be read by anyone who can access the Internet and cares to read them. No doubt, his blog has been visited a bunch lately.
(One can only imagine how successfully Lottie Moon could have lobbied for missions support had she been equipped with a computer and her own blog instead of a ream of paper, pen and ink, and a slow mail boat from China. But that's another editorial!)
Many on the IMB board don't care for Wade Burleson's blogging. In fact, they are incensed by it. They reason that the policy was adopted, he lost and he should simply accept it, be quiet and go along with the majority. But because the techno-savvy trustee wouldn't shut up, a majority of trustees voted in executive session to ask messengers to the Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting in North Carolina in June to remove him from the board. The stated reason was that he has violated board confidences and has created dissension, although he says no one has told him what he did wrong exactly.
The board's decision to ask the convention to give the pesky trustee the boot — it would be the first time in the 161-year history of the Southern Baptist Convention — hasn't played well out in Baptist land. So the trustee leadership is changing its mind.
They probably won't bring up the matter in June, but the hornet's nest that they — and Rev. Burlseon — have stirred up will come to the attention of messengers.
One suggestion has been to ask the messengers to fire and replace the entire board. Messengers on various sides of this issue will undoubtedly have other ideas for remedying the conflict. It might be standing room only around the floor microphones in Greensboro three months from now. Ironically, it will be because Baptists feel they have a right to say their piece.
That's the most disturbing aspect of this whole matter. For some, differing opinions are something to be squelched or perhaps drowned out. There is little room for dissent in some corners of Baptist life. I don't know Rev. Burleson personally; maybe he is a pain in the neck. But if he is, he would not be the first of that ilk to serve on the IMB board, and some have been of higher profile than he in recent years.
Efforts to silence any Baptist who attempts to express his (or her) concerns with the broader Baptist constituency should be viewed as anathema by the rank and file. Trustee protocol notwithstanding, healthy debate and free expression — void of any attempt at intimidation — have served Baptists well for hundreds of years.
God forbid that any Baptist would settle for less.