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TULSA, Okla.–“We are at a crossroads as a convention,” Wade Burleson told about 80 persons gathered for a Tulsa Metro Association luncheon Jan. 16 at the Radisson Inn.

Burleson, pastor of Emmanuel Baptist Church in Enid, Okla., and president of the Baptist General Convention from 2002 to 2004, is the central figure amid a growing controversy among Southern Baptists.

While he was elected by messengers at the Southern Baptist Convention last June in Nashville to serve a four-year term as a trustee of the International Mission Board, Burleson now finds himself virtually a pariah on the board after he spoke up concerning new guidelines for the appointment of IMB missionaries.

On Jan. 10, the IMB board voted to recommend that Burleson be removed as a trustee at this year’s SBC convention in Greensboro, N.C., June 13-14.

Passage of that recommendation will require approval by a two-thirds majority of SBC messengers. The missionary personnel policies Burleson objects to involve baptism and a “private prayer language.” Under the new policies, missionary candidates who admitted to using a private prayer language or missionaries not baptized in a Southern Baptist church or one which teaches “eternal security” would not be approved for appointment.

“The issue I am attempting to address is an issue that is not personal, but I believe is an issue that will determine the direction we will go; it will chart our course for decades to come as the Southern Baptist Convention,” Burleson said. “The issue is not tongues. The issue is not a new policy on baptism. It is not Wade Burleson.

“The issue is, when will we as a convention cease narrowing the parameters of cooperation for evangelism and missions?”

He explained further.

“What I mean by that is this. We as Southern Baptists are all conservative, we’re evangelical; we’re Bible-believing Christians, but many of us disagree on interpretation of minor, non-essential doctrines,” he said.

“When can we come to the place of realizing that we are all conservative, evangelical people who love the Lord Jesus Christ and are concerned about winning the world for Christ, and when will we stop saying, ‘You must interpret Scripture the way I do in order for you to cooperate with me on the mission field?’

“The Baptist Faith & Message is a great fleshing out of those essential doctrines that we hold to, and I support it. I am afraid that we are now moving beyond the Baptist Faith & Message, and these new policies on tongues and baptism are just an illustration.

“I am fighting for us as a convention to cooperate even though we disagree on the minor, non-essential doctrines of Scripture.”

Burleson said he feels there is a small group of IMB trustees trying to control the entire board.
“I believe there is a subset of trustees attempting to set direction,” he said. “I believe with all my heart that is happening at the IMB. And that direction is contrary to the leadership of (IMB) President Jerry Rankin and staff, who are doing, I believe, a fine job in leading our convention in the area of missions.

“I asked them if they were aware that Miss Bertha Smith, the greatest missionary we have ever had, a missionary to China who lived to be 100 years old, died in 1988 and led thousands of people to Christ, had a private prayer language. Are you aware that Rankin, before he was hired, told the board and search committee that he had a private prayer language?

“The old policy stated if you spoke publicly in tongues on the mission field, you would be fired because the missions agency is determined to make sure the gospel is shared with clarity. That’s a policy I can live with.”

Burleson told the Tulsa-area audience that attempts were made by IMB trustees to keep him silent on the issue.

“I believe because I was new they felt like I should be silent,” he said. “As a result, I was squelched in ways I’m not yet free to tell you about at this time. I went to those who squelched me, which is always my policy, to see if it could be worked out. It could not be worked out.”

As for the issue of tongues, or a private prayer language, Burleson said: “I don’t have a private prayer language. My mission as a pastor is to preach the Word of God. But, what you do in your prayer closet is your business.”

He said he especially disagreed with the new policy on baptism.

“The one policy that really bothered me was the new policy on baptism, which essentially said this, ‘you can not serve unless you were baptized in a Southern Baptist church or a church that teaches eternal security,'” Burleson said.

“There are three things that bothered me about the new policy on baptism. First, it goes way beyond what Scripture and the Baptist Faith & Message teach concerning baptism. Second, it places emphasis on baptism identifying you with a certain church or doctrinal teaching rather than baptism identifying the convert with Jesus as a follower of the Christ. Third, the IMB is now telling local Southern Baptist churches that a baptism good enough for them is not good enough for the IMB. This violates the autonomy of the local church.

“I am shocked that the IMB is now telling me that a baptism—good enough for our church—is not good enough for them.

“I think they see me as a troublemaker. But, this is a matter of conviction; it is a matter of policy.

“For weeks, I spoke out, and I was not alone. Others did, too. What we were trying to do was to convince the trustees that this was going way beyond the parameters of Scripture and the BF&M.

“I was not even trying to convince them that I was right. I don’t care if they believe that way. I just don’t want them telling me that I can’t cooperate with them on the mission field because I don’t believe like them. That’s the bigger issue.”

IMB trustees reportedly were upset when Burleson eventually took his concerns beyond the board room and began a Web log (blog) or online diary.

“So, persistently, passionately, graciously to people, I spoke up,” he said. “And I think they saw me as a person who was rocking the boat.

“They ended up voting for the new policy in November and here’s where the rub comes … since my accountability is not to my fellow trustees, but to the Southern Baptist Convention; since my responsibility is invested in me not by my fellow trustees but by the SBC, I have the privilege to take this issue to the SBC.

“I did, through a blog–every day for several months, never using names, never attacking people. It’s all been (a matter of) principle; we have to see where we are headed, draw a line in the sand and say ‘no more.’

Burleson said he knew going public would not be well received by fellow IMB trustees.

“I knew there would be some discomfort over me going public, but I believe I have a responsibility to the convention, so I continued,” he stressed.”

Burleson expressed dismay that the board’s new policy put Rankin in an awkward position.

“This put Rankin in a very difficult position,” he pointed out. “You now have the president of an organization not qualified to be a missionary within the very organization over which he presides!

“I believe if I just let this thing slide, I’m afraid 10 years from now, it will be the death knell of our convention.”

On his Jan. 11 blog, Burleson said: “I have consistently maintained that a growing problem within our convention is the removal from leadership and service those who do not conform to specific interpretations of the Bible…. My desire has been to capture the interest and commitment of what I believe is a critical mass of conservative SBC members in general, and a younger generation of SBC pastors in particular, who are increasingly feeling disenfranchised because of attempts to demand conformity to interpretations of the Bible with which even reasonable, conservative inerrantists may disagree.”

Bob Nigh is managing editor of the Baptist Messenger, state paper of Oklahoma Baptists, where this story originally appeared. It is used here with permission.

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