Wednesday, February 20, 2008

I Don't Know the Definition of 'Fundamentalism,' But I Sure Know Christian Decency When I See It

This post is the one exception to my month long fast on writing about the International Mission Board. It is precipitated by news article set to come out through the Religious News Service.

It has been my position from the beginning of pastoral ministry that the evidence of God's grace in a person's life is Christ's love. As He Himself said, "By this shall all men know if you are my disciples if you have love one for another." One of the difficulties I have in understanding the issues we face in the Southern Baptist Convention is coming to an understanding of the 'philosophy' or 'theology' that is driving some men to devalue, and in some instances, mistreat Southern Baptist women. Addelle Banks with the Religious News Service is an excellent reporter who may be posting a story soon about my resignation from the International Mission Board. In the phone interview she asked me whether or not I would be writing a book about my less than three years of service as an IMB trustee. I told her that I had not yet made that decision. Then she asked what would be the determining factor on whether or not I would write a book. My response:

I would only write a book if I believed that the Southern Baptist Convention, the International Mission Board, and our Southern Baptist agencies would ultimately be helped by a formal discussion of the issues our Convention faces. My goal in writing the book would be to ensure that conservative, evangelical Southern Baptists who have chosen to identify with the Southern Baptist Convention might feel wanted - and not feel like outcasts. I want to prevent any future mistreatment of people like that which has been experienced by Sheri Klouda, Dwight McKissic and Wendy Norvelle.

Addelle knows Wendy. She asked me about her. In the fall of 2005 Wendy was the acting Vice-President for the International Mission Board. I did not know Wendy until I was appointed by the Convention as a trustee in June of 2005. It did not take me long to realize that this woman, who is in her fifties, is delightful, sweet-spirit lady, possessed with a keen mind, outstanding work ethic, and impeccable credentials. In fact, I was told by several people on staff and in IMB administration that Wendy is the most competent (a few used the adjective 'exceptional') employee at the International Mission Board. Dr. Rankin respected her so highly that he wanted to make her the permanent Vice-President and remove the title 'interim.'

It was in January 2006, the night before the recommendation for my removal from the board occurred, that I interrupted a late night meeting in the lobby of the hotel where trustees were being housed. About a dozen trustees were meeting in an 'informal' caucus and were discussing how to remove Wendy from her position and the steps and ultimate motions that would be made to accomplish their goal. The sentiment was expressed that a woman had no place being in her position of authority. I was gracious to the men present, but I let them know, in no uncertain terms, that not only was the meeting a violation of our 'Blue Book' which states that during regularly scheduled IMB trustee meetings, no trustees shall meet in 'caucus' sessions, either formal or informal, to discuss IMB business, but the opinions I overheard expressed in that caucus meeting were also a violation of the Scriptural commands to love one another and speak only those things that were edifying.

One of the struggles I have is writing about all the things that were said and done during the three years I served as a trustee. It is not my desire to embarrass anyone, but if you tell a narrative, you must identify the people involved. I have to weigh my desire not to embarrass people with the higher motive of seeking to protect the Wendy Norvelle's of our convention. The morning after the late night confrontation, I went to both Wendy Norvelle and Dr. Rankin and told them that there might be a motion designed to either publicly humiliate or remove Wendy from her 'acting' Vice-President position. I told them both that if it came in the plenary session, as I heard discussed, to not worry - I would have Wendy's back and would not let her be mistreated.

It was in that particular January trustee meeting in 2006 that the motion came to move into Executive Session (closed doors). I was seated on the front row and asked the Chairman, Tom Hatley, why we were moving into Executive Session. He did not answer me, and so I turned to my friend Rick Thompson, pastor of Council Road Baptist Church in Oklahoma City, and said, 'Rick, get ready, they are going after Wendy. I'm not going to let them. This could get heated.'

Once the doors were closed I heard the motion . . . "I move that Wade Burleson be removed from the International Mission Board for . . ." Rick and I looked at each other in disbelief and shock. It was then I knew that after six months as a trustee that we have a system where trustees are NOT to ask questions of trustee leadership. For months I had asked questions about the new 'doctrinal' polices and had repeatedly requested the anecdotal evidence from the mission field that there were problems that could be corrected by new 'doctrinal' policies. I had often wondered why there was an aversion to 'women' being hired in positions of 'authority' (check out the top administration of the IMB and find ONE female). For months I had wondered why an overwhelming majority of trustees were male. For months I had wondered why there was such an aversion to 'private prayer language' or 'alien' (whatever that means) immersion.

Then I knew. The system established years ago for the appointment of trustees enabled our boards and agencies to be filled with only like-minded Southern Baptists who would elect trustee leaders that had a particular ideology. I don't know if it should be called 'Fundamentalism.' Maybe not. But we must find some way to end our narrowness on certain issues. The Southern Baptist Convention is filled with women like Wendy Norvelle and Sheri Klouda. Until common people like you and me stand up and speak out against whatever ideology that leads to the unjust treatment of our Southern Baptist women, it will be difficult to show the world that we truly are His people who love one another with the love of Christ.

In His Grace,

Wade Burleson


Bob Cleveland said...

Reminds me, frankly, of termites. By the time you see them, a lot of damage has already been done.

The people who lent me money to buy this house insisted that I have the home inspected for termites once a year, at least. Termite inspection is a whole industry in the South.

I see a parallel. Just look at the damage that's been done. Only in this case, the owners mostly seem to deny it's happening.

Well, you know what happens when a homeowner suffers in a house, when it goes on long enough.

Chomp chomp.

Cliff4JC said...

Pastor Wade,

What is your position on women? Do you consider yourself a "complimentarian?" What limits do you see in scripture for the role of women?


Michael Ruffin said...

To write or not to write a book...that is going to be a hard decision for you, I imagine. As you say, you can't really do it without naming names as you tell the story. I'm sure that the decision is going to weigh on your heart.

Perhaps you have to ask yourself if it's worth it. You have been unfailingly positive in your statements about the future of the IMB and the SBC and it may be that things are going to move to a place of greater love, greater compassion, and, frankly, greater sanity. But maybe not.

If you ever really get to feeling like the SBC is a lost cause in terms of keeping the tent broad enough to tolerate folks who don't march in lock-step on non-essentials--then where do you go? What do you do?

Perhaps writing the book would help you to think more--if you can stand to!--about the larger issues involving the kingdom of God and the missiological imperative.

Do you ever wonder if we spend way too much time trying to deal with the kingdom of the SBC (or the CBF or the NBC or whatever) and far too little trying to deal with the way of Christ and the kingdom of God? I do.

Paul said...


I'm glad that God didn't "clean up" the characters of the Bible. We hear all about the failings of Abraham, Moses, David, Peter and others, not so that we can deride them, mock them and despise them, but because God is honest with us about who we are and the extent of grace. Those were all great men.

The people you've dealt with at the IMB may well be great men and women, too, but I don't think that requires that we "clean up" the story. If there is no fall then there can be no grace.

I believe your story needs to be told for historical perspective and to serve as instruction and correction to the path we've been on. If you really believe that sort of thing needs to stop, and I believe you do, then I don't see how you can't write that book.

Todd said...


I am going to echo Paul's comments.

Tim Dahl said...

I don't know whether or not you "should" publish it; but writing it may be of great benefit to you. Who knows, it might be a cathartic experience.

Tim Dahl said...


(1). It is not Wendy's story, it is my story, and yes, I did ask myself permission.

(2). Wendy is still with the IMB in media relations, but not in the Vice-President position she held on an interim basis in in the fall of 2005.

(3). The intent of this post is to express a desire, again, that the SBC build cooperation among each other.

(4). Sign your name. said...


What does your question have to do with my post?

Jack Maddox said...

(1). It is not Wendy's story, it is my story, and yes, I did ask myself permission.

That is to funny!!!!!


Jim Paslay said...


Do you consider the trustees that you overheard discussing their plans to get rid of Wendy an exception to the rule within the SBC or the norm? I would consider them an exception.

Maybe what we have here is some sorry trustees that have been appointed and need to be evaluated. Let's not allow a few trustees to sour the whole picture.

The biblical teaching of Christian love is not practiced by fundamentalists and liberals alike. And since you have admitted by your title that you don't know the definition of "Fundamentalism", let us all be careful about throwing the "F" word around. I consider it as inflammatory as the "L" word is to others. said...


Good question.

I will consider it.


Cliff4JC said...


I am curious of your position on these matters. I am struggling myself with some of these issues. I feel confident of my own position as it relates to the role of men and women inside the church but I am still struggling with how it affects the role relationships outside the church.

Cliff said...

Thanks Cliff4jc,

I will consider writing a post on that subject.

I appreciate your openness.


Anonymous said...

On thing that strikes me about fundamentalists (legalists) is their desperate fear of capable women. It comes across a lot more like insecurity and weakness than being faithful to Scripture.

Would that the fundamentalist bullies who demand homogeneity may all peacefully depart or be ousted from SBC leadership, pulpits, seminaries, boards and the mission field. Better yet perhaps many will awaken to the angry and loveless nature of legalism -- and repent. Then our neighbors who live in darkness might be able to see the marvelous LIGHT in and through SB believers.

female SB employee