A review of Hardball Religion: Feeling the Fury of Fundamentalism by Wade Burleson (2009, Smyth & Helwys Publishing)

By John Pierce
Executive Editor
Baptists Today

Conservative Southern Baptist pastor and popular blogger Wade Burleson details his recent three-year battle with fundamentalist forces within the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) in Hardball Religion: Feeling the Fury of Fundamentalism. He gives both play-by-play coverage and color commentary.

The playing field for most of the action is the trustee board of the SBC’s International Mission Board (IMB) — where the independent-minded Burleson caught the wrath of denominational power-brokers carrying out a well-orchestrated effort to further restrict missionary qualifications (according to strict Landmark Baptist doctrine) and to undermine the leadership of IMB president Jerry Rankin.

Burleson’s vocal opposition to these efforts — along with his public revelations via his blog about what he witnessed in and out of trustee meetings — led to his eventual censure in November 2007 and his resignation from the board in January 2008.

Although an earlier call to have him removed from the board was rescinded, he became the first trustee in convention history to be formally targeted for removal before his term expired.

Burleson, pastor of Emmanuel Baptist Church in Enid, Okla., and former two-term president of the ultraconservative Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma, chronicles the power ploys he encountered as an IMB trustee from 2005 until early 2008. He also notes other recent actions within the SBC — such as the removal of Hebrew professor Sheri Klouda from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary because of her gender — to reveal an aggressive fundamentalist agenda at work.

Repeatedly, Burleson points to SBC kingpin Paige Patterson, the president of Southwestern Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, who ousted Klouda, as the powerful operative directing influential IMB trustees as part of a larger effort to narrow the doctrinal parameters for participation within the SBC.

Patterson, who previously served as president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C., is widely regarded — along with Judge Paul Pressler of Houston, Texas — as a chief architect of what proponents call “the conservative resurgence” and critics call “the fundamentalist takeover” of the SBC that begin in 1979.

Burleson describes efforts by IMB trustees loyal to Patterson to embarrass Rankin and other IMB administrators and to impose Landmark doctrine on the Southern Baptist mission enterprise through new requirements that disqualify missionary candidates who have “a private prayer language” or have been baptized in settings other than a Southern Baptist church or another congregation that teaches the doctrine of perseverance of the saints.

Burleson claims that, early on, he was recruited by this coalition of trustees set on removing Rankin — who has previously admitted to practicing a private form of glossolalia (speaking in tongues).

“Even before my first IMB meeting, I was invited by the trustees who thought they were in charge to join their select group and meet secretly at a hotel or restaurant during the trustee meeting, skipping the missionary appointment service, to plan their next attack against Jerry Rankin’s leadership. …,” Burleson wrote. “[Some] told me that the trustees were three votes short of removing Rankin, and they were counting on me, a new trustee, to be one of those three.”

Burleson’s refusal to support their pre-meeting caucuses (which he noted were in violation of board policy) and his willingness to expose these efforts publicly did not set well with the trustee leaders John Floyd from Tennessee, a disgruntled former IMB employee, and Tom Hatley from Arkansas.

“They had an agenda,” wrote Burleson. “I stood in the way. I asked too many questions, and I was too persistent, particularly for a ‘rookie’ trustee.”

Burleson said his harsh treatment by fellow trustees followed his stand against the private caucuses which were filled with “gossip, innuendo, and in some cases outright slander … as they spoke of Rankin.”

Giving wide exposure to his fellow trustees’ political activities and making public his own case against the narrow doctrinal requirements for missionary candidates — via his blog — infuriated trustee leaders.

Burleson justified bringing such issues into the public arena by emphasizing the role of dissent in Baptist polity.

“[O]nce the majority of trustees voted to approve the new doctrinal policies, and I was shown officially to be on the minority side, the forum for dissent became the convention as a whole,” said Burleson. “Trustees have accountability to the entire convention. … I agree that the trustee on the losing side of a vote should acquiesce to the majority, except if the dissent is based upon a violation of conscience or Scripture.”

Burleson’s Dec. 10, 2005 blog titled “Crusading Conservatives vs. Cooperating Conservatives: The Battle for the Future of the Southern Baptist Convention” shed a broader light on the new doctrinal requirements for missionaries as well as trustees’ efforts to undermine Rankin.

Strong reaction to the blog from fellow Southern Baptists — some in support of and others in opposition to Burleson’s efforts — revealed a deep divide in Southern Baptist politics between those who think the revised Baptist Faith and Message doctrinal statement of 2000 is a strong enough guideline for determining participation in SBC life and those who feel that agencies — such as the IMB — should be free to add further requirements of belief and practice.

Several missionaries — including David Rogers, whose late father Adrian Rogers was elected SBC president in 1979 — expressed appreciation for Burleson’s stand against narrowing doctrinal parameters.

Trustee leadership responded to Burleson’s persistent blogging by charging him with “gossip and slander” — and urging him to resign. Burleson refused — knowing that SBC messengers meeting in June 2006 in Greensboro, N.C., would have to hear his case in the large arena and then vote to remove or retain him as an IMB trustee.

Burleson humorously described one effort to get him to bow out quietly and quickly:

“[A]s I walked down the hall toward the building’s exit, IMB trustee Bill Sutton, Paige Patterson’s close friend and confidante, came running up behind me. ‘Wade, Wade, stop! Listen to me. Please. What do I have to do to get you to resign? I’ll wash your feet; I’ll kiss your butt. Please, just tell me, what can I do to get you to step down for the good of everyone involved?’”

Burleson said he responded: “Bill, you still don’t understand. This is a matter of principle for me. I can’t resign. I’ll see you in Greensboro.”

Fear of Burleson speaking to the convention — and the urging of top SBC leadership at a hastily called meeting — led IMB trustee leaders to pull their recommendation for Burleson’s removal from the board. However, the chairman stripped him of influence by not giving him a customary committee assignment.

Blogging among Southern Baptists grew stronger leading up to the 2006 SBC annual meeting in Greensboro — with seve
ral media reports crediting Burleson, Marty Duren and other electronic critics of the IMB trustee actions with influencing the SBC presidential election. Lesser-known South Carolina pastor Frank Page was elected president of the SBC over two other candidates more closely associated with the convention’s power structure.

However, in the book, Burleson seems to overestimate the impact of Page’s election as a kinder, gentler supporter of the rightward SBC as well as that of the so-called “Garner motion” that messengers approved at the 2007 SBC meeting calling the 2000 Baptist Faith and Message a sufficient doctrinal guideline.

For Page’s two terms in office were followed by the election of Johnny Hunt, a solid player in the fundamentalist-shaped SBC. And Garner’s motion was followed by quick responses from SBC agency heads arguing that their boards can and will add doctrinal parameters as they choose.

Yet Burleson seems optimistic about somehow stemming the growing tide of fundamentalism in the SBC. And, with so many vocal opponents of fundamentalism gone en mass from the SBC already, it takes significant optimism to make such a claim.

Throughout his book, Burleson reveals what many already know about the well-entrenched fundamentalism of the SBC, such as:

1. Some of the most hostile, unscrupulous people one can ever encounter are driven by religiously-masked political power.
2. Church leaders who espouse love and unity — and claim a higher commitment to biblical authority — can be very unloving and divisive people.
3. Fundamentalism has no room for dissent. Asking honest questions and challenging the ethics of those carrying out a fundamentalist agenda are considered signs of disloyalty.
4. Fundamentalists are punitive toward those who disagree with them or stand in the way of their goals.
5. Otherwise good people can become complicit in fundamentalist efforts out of fear, ignorance or opportunism.
6. Fundamentalists like to do their deeds in darkness. Secret meetings, false rumors, and stifled or controlled information are strangely excused in the name of biblical fidelity. Ends justify ungodly means.
7. Ultimately, fundamentalism is about gaining or retaining power rather than about theology, spirituality or anything else.
8. Fundamentalists can’t stop. The circle is always narrowing; the noose is always tightening. When original “enemies” are gone, enemies are created out of one another.

In Hardball Religion, Burleson gives example-after-example of these realities of fundamentalism that he has seen up close.

Burleson’s insight into the obviously strained relationships between IMB trustees and administrators is sadly interesting. He tells how communications leader Wendy Norville was treated disrespectfully when her vote count on a controversial matter did not match that of the chairman.

And he recounts how Rankin would grovel before the trustee leaders and apologize for things he had not done. One must wonder if Rankin expected Burleson to do likewise — and what role Rankin played in Burleson’s decision to toss in the towel.

While Burleson is a welcomed and needed voice in warning Baptists and others about the destructive nature of religious fundamentalism, he seems narrowly focused.

For example, he is rightfully outraged that a competent female professor at Southwestern Seminary would lose her position over gender. Yet, Burleson — and Klouda, for that matter — should have known about Patterson’s fossilized position on female subordination and not been surprised.

And did Burleson completely miss the 1994 firing of Southwestern Seminary President Russell Dilday? Or does he consider that action to be justified or somehow something other than the same fundamentalism at work that he has witnessed in recent years?

Likewise, Burleson’s concern that many good Southern Baptist missionary candidates are now being excluded from service by non-essential doctrinal restrictions is laudable. But where was his voice in 2002 when these same agenda-driven IMB trustees — with Rankin’s wimpy compliance — required the entire overseas mission force to affirm the 2000 Baptist Faith and Message?

Dozens of committed Southern Baptist missionaries (as addressed in the book, Stand with Christ: Why Missionaries can’t sign the 2000 Baptist Faith and Message, 2002, Smyth & Helwys) were terminated or forced to retire by the imposition of these new doctrinal requirements on their consciences. Yet Burleson affirms this narrow doctrinal statement as “sufficient” although it violates the historic Baptist principle of congregational autonomy and handcuffs missionaries working in settings where women routinely lead churches.

Ironically, Burleson has spoken out in defense of women ministers. In his book he writes: “The focus on keeping women from church leadership makes no sense in China and other places where house churches are mainly composed of women.”

That is precisely why Burleson’s defense of the 2000 Baptist Faith and Message — that states “…the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture” — and his outrage over the removal of a female theology professor and the addition of a couple of more narrow doctrinal requirements for screening new missionaries are hard to reconcile.

Burleson’s courage to stand toe-to-toe with abusive power-brokers, to expose the misuse of denominational authority and resources, and to defend those harmed by heavy-handed tactics is commendable.

Yet, for so many of us, his recent “discovery” of fundamentalism in the Southern Baptist Convention is not breaking news. It shows just how late Burleson is getting to the game.

He writes: “I began to realize in 2005, to my horror, that the issue causing such pain in the Southern Baptist Convention was not a battle for a belief in the inspired, inerrant word of God.”

Burleson is right. It is about something else — something very destructive.

The rough-and-tumble hardball he describes in this book has been going on in the SBC’s power structures for more than a quarter-century now. What Burleson is experiencing is just extra innings.

[Hardball Religion by Wade Burleson (ISBN 978-1-57312-527-7) is scheduled for release sometime in March 2009. Pre-orders can be placed at helwys.com.]

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