On the evening of Jan. 10 it was announced that the People’s Choice Award for best movie was “Star Wars: Episode III–Revenge of the Sith.” The following morning, the trustees of the Southern Baptist Convention’s International Mission Board voted to remove fellow trustee Wade Burleson because of comments he made on his blog.
While the timing of the two events was purely coincidental, the stories are not completely dissimilar. The movie is about how a democracy can be transformed into a dictatorship as the leader creates a phony war so that he can assume absolute power.
Tragically, it seems that Baptist democracy may also be endangered. Historically Baptists were more democratic and grassroots-led than the traditional hierarchical denominational structure.
Before the meeting Burleson explained why he would be blogging: “There is a generation of young pastors who are feeling disenfranchised from the Southern Baptist Convention…. I want these young pastors to see that at the heart of the polity and practice of the Southern Baptist Convention is the tremendous privilege of disagreeing, yet cooperating.”
Apparently, Burleson was wrong as the IMB trustees do not allow disagreement. During the 1980s and 1990s many faithful Baptists were removed from boards or their positions at institutions because of disagreements over various issues. Many of these actions were preceded by secret meetings, similar to one that Burleson was upset about.
As expected, Baptist bloggers have been quick to pick up on the Burleson story. Some have linked the action to the previous SBC interdenominational fighting. Bruce Prescott of the Mainstream Baptist blog wrote:
“There’s nothing Christ-like about the incessant purges that have taken place in the SBC over the last 25 years. No matter how conservative the values being defended, conscientious dissent from the policies of authoritarian leaders will never be accepted as ‘conservative.’ The purges will continue as long as Southern Baptists keep competing with each other for the title ‘conservative.'”
David Flick, Baptist pastor and Cooperative Baptist Fellowship leader in Oklahoma, compared Burleson’s situation to the treatment of CBF by Burleson and other SBC leaders:
“He is now facing the wrath of those who will tolerate nothing short of absolute conformity. I feel Wade’s pain. I experienced it myself. I understand what he’s going through. For all practical purposes, Wade is now persona non grata to the very people he supported when the SBC attempted to silence the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. It’s a crying shame. I can’t say, however, that I’m surprised at the way he is being treated.”
Even bloggers supportive of the SBC are upset at the treatment of Burleson. Marty Duren attended the IMB trustee meeting as a guest to blog about it. Following the removal of Burleson he quoted Proverbs 10:9, which he dedicated the first part to Burleson and the latter to other trustees: “Whoever walks in integrity walks securely, but he who makes his ways crooked will be found out.”
Jason Sampler, a Ph.D. student at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary urged Southern Baptists to contact the IMB trustees to voice opposition to Burleson’s removal. He also argued:
“What does this have to do with me/you/us? Well, if you are a Southern Baptist, you most likely sat by and watched others be blackballed from our convention in the past. Maybe you felt they deserved it because they were moderates and had no place in our convention. I’ve felt that way.
The tables turn, though, when it is one of your own that is being attacked. Burleson is no moderate.”
This will likely remain a key issue among bloggers until the SBC annual meeting in June. Though the IMB trustees wanted to stop the public discussion of their decisions, they have ironically opened the floodgates. Maybe, like Dan Rather, they misjudged the influence and power of bloggers.
In “Revenge of the Sith” only a few express concerns about what is happening to the Republic. At one point Senator Amidala asks, “What if the democracy we thought we were serving no longer exists, and the Republic has become the very evil we’ve been fighting to destroy?”
To remove Burleson seems to be the next step in destroying Baptist democracy, assuming it even exists anymore. Will it die completely? Not if Baptist bloggers have anything to say about it—and they usually do have something say!
Brian Kaylor is editor and president of Word&Way, associate director of Churchnet, and a contributing editor for EthicsDaily.com.