Bloggers roundly criticized Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary’s decision to limit Internet access to Tuesday’s chapel service, the latest salvo in on ongoing debate over openness and dissent in the Southern Baptist Convention.
After his election to the SBC International Mission Board last year, Oklahoma trustee Wade Burleson began blogging about his disagreement with new policies governing missionary appointments on baptism and against praying in tongues. He also reported coordinated efforts by some trustees to undermine leadership of the board’s president, Jerry Rankin.
IMB trustees responded by seeking to throw Burleson off the board, a move thought to be unprecedented. The board later backed off, but Burleson still isn’t allowed to serve on a committee. Burleson made a motion at this summer’s SBC annual meeting calling for an independent investigation into sources of controversy at the IMB, but it was instead referred back to the board of trustees.
A number of Baptist bloggers have followed the conflict, viewing it as symptomatic of larger problems of attempts by the denomination’s power elites to suppress dissent and censorship of the denominational press. The bloggers are viewed as one factor in the election of a political outsider, Frank Page, as SBC president in June.
The Baptist blogosphere had fallen relatively silent since the flurry leading up to the June 13-14 SBC annual meeting in Greensboro, N.C. But it exploded Tuesday afternoon with word that a popular African-American pastor and newly elected trustee said in chapel that he experienced a “private prayer language” while a student at Southwestern and that he sees no reason for Southern Baptists to have a policy forbidding the private use of praying in tongues.
The chapel service was Webcast live but not archived. The seminary released a statement saying it did not want to be perceived as criticizing another SBC entity and that Pastor Dwight McKissic’s minority view could harm churches by creating the false impression that the seminary endorses speaking in tongues.
Bloggers immediately accused Southwestern’s president of censorship.
“We feel that Paige Patterson’s statement on Dr. McKissic’s chapel sermon is alarming,” said the Arkansas Razorbaptist. “He has either forgotten his place or forsaken his responsibility.”
“His decision to censor a trustee’s sermon because he has deemed that it could be potentially harmful to SBC churches should not go unpunished,” the blog continued. “We call on the Southwestern trustees to take the official action of censuring Patterson for his careless insubordination.”
“I just don’t understand the need for silence that seems to pervade the SBC,” added Dorcas Hawker, a woman in Arlington, Texas, who writes from At the City Gates. “From trying to stop people from serving who have a private prayer language, to trying to shut down Wade’s blog, to trying to stop bloggers in general, to this latest episode of not putting a link to Dwight McKissic’s chapel sermon, it is a snowball effect of information control that is totally out of control. When are some people going to figure this out? The more you censor something … the more press it gets. I am just baffled as to why anyone can get this far into this whole mess and not realize that no one is going silently into the night.”
Blogger Micah Fries said the seminary has the right to withhold information if it wants to but objected to Patterson’s statement that views of one of his trustees are “harmful to churches.”
That, he said, “is to arrogantly assume that both his understanding of Scripture and the understanding of SBC churches is so limited that we need someone else to provide biblical commentary for us. It seems to me that this comment was unnecessary and unhelpful when promoting the exercise of biblical exegesis.
“While it certainly may be true that McKissic’s position is not that which is held by a majority of Southern Baptists, it is also not an absent position within SBC life. There are a number of SBC’ers who find truth in his statements. Therefore, to make claims like the ones mentioned above seems both theologically irresponsible and careless at best.”
Not all bloggers criticized the decision, however. WesKenney.net called it an “entirely reasonable decision … based on a desire to not be seen as endorsing Rev. McKissic’s criticism of the trustees at the IMB, the situation being further complicated by the fact that Rev. McKissic is a newly elected trustee of SWBTS.”
But Marty Duren at SBC Outpost said Southwestern’s statement about not wanting to appear critical of action by trustees of a sister agency “rings as hollow as a rotting log.”
Patterson was instrumental in distributing a paper criticizing IMB church-planting policies in 2003, prompting debate among IMB trustees that eventually led to the agency tightening doctrinal requirements for new missionaries last November.
Benjamin S. Cole, a former aide to Patterson and now a leading critic of what he says are efforts by the powerful conservative leader to interfere in internal affairs of the IMB, issued a statement calling attempts to censor a trustee and limit access to recordings of a public event “beyond the pale of acceptable conduct.”
“Neither Southwestern Seminary nor the Southern Baptist Convention is well served by Patterson’s continued efforts to control the minds, silence the mouths and manipulate the polity of the denomination who has afforded him a lifetime of salary and benefits,” said Cole, pastor of Parkview Baptist Church in Arlington, Texas.
While the seminary isn’t posting McKissic’s message on the Internet where it can be accessed for free, it can be ordered on DVD from Roberts Library, according to the statement.
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.