Monday, May 18, 2015

From Tragedy to Triumph: The IMB Reverses Itself

Last week trustees of the International Mission Board (IMB) of the Southern Baptist Convention reversed two decade old doctrinal policies it implemented in 2005. Those two policies  revolved around (a). a prospective SBC missionary's baptism; and (b). a prospective SBC missionary's private prayer life.

A decade ago, over my objections as a trustee of the IMB, my fellow trustees went beyond the Baptist Faith and Message and restricted the appointment of Southern Baptist missionaries to only those who had been baptized in a Southern Baptist Church and to only those who had never "prayed in tongues" in their prayer closet.

The belief that proper authority and doctrinal orthodoxy of the baptizer is necessary for a valid baptism is historically a Landmark position. The Baptist Faith and Message is not a Landmark document, and the Southern Baptist Convention is not a Landmark denomination. In addition, the Baptist Faith and Message is absolutely silent on the subject of a believer praying in tongues.

I discovered that a few of the IMB trustees who were pushing the "new doctrinal policies" were actually attempting to press IMB President Jerry Rankin to resign because it was known he had a "private prayer language." The politics of trustees (and others) forcing Dr. Rankin's removal, using "doctrinal purity" as a cover, disgusted me.

I also learned that a few other IMB trustees were avowed Landmark Baptists (they told me) and they wished to make Southern Baptists into a Landmark convention of churches. It was a matter of 'doctrinal purity" they said. I was of the belief that no agency which represented the entire Southern Baptist Convention (as the IMB does) has the authority or right to change the doctrinal standards by which the agency will operate without the approval of the entire Southern Baptist Convention.

I decided that Southern Baptists needed to hear about the International Mission Board doctrinal policy changes. I started a blog, and used it to make Southern Baptists aware of the impact of the doctrinal changes. Dr. Morris Chapman proofed a couple of the more important blog posts, offering both suggestions and encouragement before his retirement. Both Dr. Chapman and Dr. Rankin understood the "behind-the-scenes" politics taking place, but were unable--because of their denominational positions--to say anything publicly. My writing infuriated IMB trustee leadership. Other trustees, unfamiliar with SBC politics, were told by trustee leadership that I (Wade Burleson) was the problem and I had to be removed from the board.

I'll not rehearse all that happened from 2005 to 2008, but anyone interested can read the book Hard Ball Religion. The IMB trustees failed in their attempt to remove me as a trustee, not realizing at the time that the entire Southern Baptist Convention had to approve my removal. IMB trustee leadership rescinded their recommendation for my removal prior to the vote at the 2006 Southern Baptist Convention. However, IMB trustee leadership later censured me for violating their newly revised trustee "standard of conduct" which stated, "an IMB trustee must publicly affirm board approved policy even if he cannot privately support it."  Of course, I voted against the new trustee standard of conduct and continued to speak out against the new doctrinal policies.

Punishing the person who opposes authoritative rules--rather than allowing respectful and principled dissent--is an axiom of dysfunctional leadership. I was censured for continuing to speak out against the policies. I was often flabbergasted at the tactics used against me, as was my wife (who later told me "Wade, I wouldn't have believed it unless I saw it with my own eyes"), but I persisted in seeking to express my principled dissent. In January 2008, after less than three years of service on the International Mission Board, a position I neither sought nor desired, I resigned as a trustee.

Southern Baptists Are Smarter than Most Think

Before my resignation, two things occurred that seemed to set the stage for what happened last week in the reversal of the IMB polices.

First, in 2006 Frank Page was surprisingly elected President of the Southern Baptist Convention. I promoted him and predicted his election, which shocked the leadership of both the IMB and many in the Southern Baptist Convention. The President of the Southern Baptist Convention holds all the power. He appoints the Committee on Committees that recommends the trustees. The process of replacing trustees who wished to exceed the convention-approved Baptist Faith and Message began.

Second, in the summer of 2007 the Southern Baptist Convention passed the Garner Motion. To say my fellow trustees were upset with the passage of this motion would be an understatement. However, of all the experiences I enjoyed during my tenure at the IMB, the passing of the Garner Motion was by far the most significant.

I will let David Rogers explain the practical effect of the Garner Motion. David's words come from a recent comment at SBC Voices, but they succinctly and accurately portray the meaning behind the Garner Motion, and they are a perfect explanation for understanding why the IMB trustees reversed the 2005 doctrinal policies last week.
"If you are familiar with the regulative and normative principles of worship, perhaps this explanation will make sense. Some take the“regulative” approach to the Baptist Faith and Message. Most Southern Baptists take the “normative” approach. In other words, a person who takes the regulative approach to the BFM believes what is not specifically permitted is inherently forbidden. Most Southern Baptists' take the "normative" perspective of the BFM and believe what is not specifically forbidden is generally permitted. The Baptist Faith and Message, by it's very design, is meant to be applied in a normative, not regulative, way."

The 2005 IMB trustee leadership sought to regulate the doctrinal practices of all Southern Baptist churches who wished to place missionaries on the field by forbidding certain practices (private prayer language, baptism by immersion in churches other than Southern Baptist, etc...), practices that the BFM does not specifically forbid. The IMB trustees last week abided by the will of the Southern Baptist Convention in its passage of the 2007 Garner Motion) and reversed the ill-advised policies of 2005 that exceeded the BFM in forbidding private prayer language and baptisms by immersion in churches other than Southern Baptist.

President David Platt and the Future of the Southern Baptist Convention

By August of 2014, there were enough like-minded normative trustees in place at the International Mission Board to elect David Platt as President. There would have been a greater chance of a snow ball remaining frozen in hell than David Platt being elected President of the IMB in 2005. Leadership has changed during the past ten years.

The Southern Baptist Convention is returning to her normative roots.

I'm as uninterested in the politics of the Southern Baptist Convention in 2015 as I was in 2005. I have recently read that some Southern Baptists are wishing to "pull out" of the Southern Baptist Convention because the recent change of policies at the IMB. I hope they don't. I've stayed a Southern Baptist. We've continued to support missions.  I hope those who don't like the changes from last week take the same approach and support SBC missions.  In addition,  those of you who oppose the action of the IMB trustees last week should voice your dissent. Write and publicize your disapproval. Make known your opinion! That's the Southern Baptist way.

Only the weak stifle dissent.


Bob Cleveland said...

I doubt that the guys who planted the flag on Mount Suribachi on Iwo Jima knew they were taking part in a momentous act, but they were.

I think history may prove that to be analogous to your whole engagement ... including all the folks involved in "planting the pole" ... back in 2005-2006.

Ron said...

I am glad to see you have commented on these policy changes. I stated over at SBC Voices that if the SBC really is serious about revival we must recognize that as Henry Blackaby has said, “if we never recognize our need for repentance of sin, then our call for revival is in vain.“ In a spirit of repentance at this year’s SBC Convention the chairman of the IMB trustees should call you before the convention and offer an apology on behalf of the IMB and express repentance for the carnal political activity that has been so prevalent in the SBC.

These policies had nothing to do with theology but were an attempt to attack our president and staff. They created a problem where none existed. I served with the IMB for over 30 years and knew hundreds of missionaries but cannot name one who practiced a PPL besides Jerry Rankin. If they did, they did not do it openly. Before Jerry Rankin was president we had already been told by Richmond that we were not to practice a PPL openly or promote this practice. The baptism policy of the IMB had always been in line with the BF&M. The trustees created a problem by putting extra restrictions on the appointment process. If someone wants to leave the SBC because of these changes you have to wonder why they didn't leave during the time before 2005. We are just returning to the policies that served us well for many years.

Thank you again for opening up the activities of our trustees who were violating the trust our convention had given them for all to see. Similar political actions took place during Keith Parks tenure with the board but there was no internet or trustees with the courage to challenge those who resort to this type of political activity.

Wade Burleson said...

Col. Ron West,

Your words, as always, are encouraging. I have no expectation of an apology. Nor do I need one, though your reasoning for one is sound. Love covers a multitude of sins for me, and truth be known, I enjoyed my time on the IMB. The guys who sought to ruin me provided more fun than a man should be allowed to enjoy. More experiences, more illustrations, more good memories than I would have ever had in two lifetimes without the IMB.

The apology should be reserved for the SBC employees and missionaries fired because of the ungodly politics that people sought to hide under the name of conservative Christianity.

Debbie Kaufman said...

Wade: I too am glad that the policies were reversed, and remember all the things you have written here. Ten years later, we are where we should have been 10 years ago(if that makes sense).

I read of so many incredible things God did on the field when those like Bertha Smith, Lottie Moon, and others who didn't limit God or the work of the Holy Spirit, and wonder if that is why the SBC is stagnant now.

Now, that the policies are reversed, it's going to be interesting how God will work both at home and on the field.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for fighting the good fight and keeping us informed along the way.
A pendulum can only swing so far. Sooner or later it has to come back.
Off the Cuff (OTC)

Ben said...


As I have mentioned time and time again, the rejection of alien immersion goes back long before J.R. Graves and the Landmark movement.

In 1839, the Pleasant Grove Baptist Church in North Carolina presented the following query to the Sandy Creek Baptist Association:

"Is it consistent with the spirit of the gospel, and according to the Scriptures, for any regular Baptist Church to receive into her fellowship any members or members of another denomination, who have been baptized by immersion, without baptized them again?"

The association responded:
"Answer: We think it is not

Many, many other examples could be given. The vast majority of Baptists before (and after) J.R. Graves rejected alien immersion.

As to the Baptist Faith and Message, I think many have forgotten it declares that baptism is "a church ordinance."

When you look at the men who came up with the 1925 and 1963 Baptist Faith and Message you find they also rejected alien immersion and also believed baptism was rightly administered by a local New Testament Church.

ScottShaver said...

Correcting a 20 year old error now for the sake of "broadening the tent"?

Nothing like SBC denominational integrity.

Debbie Kaufman said...

And Wade, thank you. Thank you for standing alone in your convictions that many years ago. Thank you.

Christiane said...

Sometimes it takes a strong dose of Christian humility for a faith community to right that kind of wrong, and I think that implies a lot more integrity than allowing wrong to continue. May this offer comfort to Southern Baptist people who were discouraged or injured by previous wrongs.

WADE, your stand all those years ago offered reason for people to hope, even though no one knew at the time what would happen. Choosing to do the right thing is always the honorable thing to do, especially when it is difficult.

Congratulations on this deserved good news.

Anonymous said...

Now, if the IBM would drop the policy of requiring missionaries to sign the BFM 2000, that would be good news indeed!
Florence in KY (former FMB missionary)

Nicholas said...

Ben, you are a Landmarkist:

Florence in KY said...

When we were appointed by the old FMB we were not asked to sign ANY BFM. Those were delightful years when we were "trusted and free."
Florence in KY

Ron said...


Speaking of repentance, here is a portion of a letter I have written Ronnie Floyd and also had printed in our Arkansas Baptist Newsmagazine.

A few years ago our convention publically confessed our past sins of racism. Today we again have unconfessed sin in our convention. Leaders in our convention have committed the sins of slander and sowing discord by accusing our missionaries of being controlled by liberals, spreading heresy, and being neo-orthodox. Seminary professors have been labeled as liberal because they would not endorse the conservative resurgence. Thousands of theological conservative pastors and laypersons have been banished from consideration for places of leadership and trustee posts in our convention because they were not deemed politically reliable.

II Chronicles 7:14 is often read when we call for revival. We Southern Baptists have a problem getting past the requirement to humble ourselves. Corporate sin requires corporate repentance. I pray Ronnie Floyd will lead us in a call for repentance for these sins by our leaders.

I have heard anything from Ronnie Floyd but I feel if our convention is serious about revival there needs to be a call for repentance at this year's convention.

Ron said...

I forgot to sign my name. It is Ron West

Anonymous said...

It took too long, but I am happy for you that someone at the IMB and its over-populated board of trustees has seen that the cause of Christ can be furthered by increasing the tent.
As a side note, we on the field were not given access to trustee minutes when the board was being so obstreperous. Time and again I tried, even quoting the Bible that only two things should be secret, prayer and giving. All to no avail. FINALLY, some sanity emerges.
Gerry Milligan

Anonymous said...

And thus are the reasons that I am no longer a Southern Baptist and never will be again. They just can't keep from fighting.

Christiane said...

"The apology should be reserved for the SBC employees and missionaries fired because of the ungodly politics that people sought to hide under the name of conservative Christianity."

you also are included in this great promise, WADE:

"6"Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied."
(St. Matthew's Gospel 5:6)

Ben said...


It is easy to label someone and then dismiss their historical evidence without offering any of your own.

Fob James III said...

Wade, I grieved when I heard what the southern baptist mission board did years ago. And I am not even a southern baptist. But then I also heard about your blog, which I started to read and has been a blessing over these years, especially your articles on authority, baptist history, and american history. Thanks much. Fob

jamie steele said...

Do you believe a person desiring to be a missionary thru the IMB, should be allowed to serve and receive Lottie Moon money if they:
Claim to,
Speak in tongues and teach others to ..
Claim to,
Have the gift of healing, such as, healing people of neck pain and claiming to make a persons short leg grow to the length of the other leg.
Thanks for your ministry and this blog. It has helped me greatly
Jamie Steele

Wade Burleson said...


I believe that any person who claims to have "the gift of healing" is mistaken. God gives the gift of healing, and He needs no medium. So, I would think that the interview committee for the IMB who interviews a prospective candidate who makes such a claim would more than likely 'disqualify' that candidate.

In addition, if a person promotes "the speaking in tongues," they would also be disqualified. My objection was to the question "do you have a PRIVATE prayer language." The IMB already had within the "policy manual" the position that if ANY doctrine or practice was taken to extreme on the mission field, it was cause for disqualification. To demand others speak in tongues and to teach them "how" is an extreme practice in my view, and NO, that SBC missionary should not be appointed.

Anonymous said...

You got it right back then and it resulted in your taking a lot more heat than you deserved. Well, actually, you didn't "deserve" any heat for standing up for what was right, but you shouldn't have got all the grief you did anyway.

It was one of those disappointing times during my 25 years in with the Board. One other very embarrassing and disappointing aspect of those over-doctrine decisions was that they were not applied to those of us who were already on the field but only for the new candidates! Can you imagine?

Someone knew that if they had applied those of us already on the field to meet these qualifications of prayer language and baptism there would likely have been an immediate reduction in Southern Baptist missionaries serving on the field due to walk-offs. Somebody was afraid to do that.

I'm glad it's over but too long in coming.