A Battle of Baptists


Pastor Wade Burleson delivers a sermon to his congregation at Emmanuel Baptist Church in Enid, Okla. Burleson has accused fellow traditionalists of demanding ideological conformity that goes beyond the essentials of Scripture. As a result of his complaints, Burleson faces ouster from the board of the church's international missionary agency.

The Associated Press
Published: Saturday, January 21, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 20, 2006 at 11:15 p.m.
After purging liberals from their ranks, Southern Baptist conservatives who won control of their denomination are now taking aim at each other.
The Rev. Wade Burleson, a Baptist leader from Oklahoma, says fellow conservatives who crusaded to only elect leaders who believe the Bible is literally true are carrying their campaign too far, targeting Southern Baptists who disagree with them on other issues.
These leaders, he wrote on his blog, are ''following the same battle plan conservatives used to defeat liberalism,'' and have started a ''war'' for the future of the SBC.
Burleson's postings may have already cost him a leadership role in the denomination. Trustees of the Southern Baptist international missionary agency took the first step this month toward ousting him from their board, accusing him of ''broken trust'' for writing about a meeting on his Web site.
The seemingly minor conflict has broader significance.
Southern Baptists are trying to reverse several years of stagnation in membership growth, partly through an ad campaign called ''Caring People'' that is meant to soften their image. Complaints of hardball church politics would undermine that effort.
''Conservatives who loved the battles of decades past have fallen victim to a crusading mentality of bloodthirst,'' Burleson wrote. ''Since all the liberals are gone, conservative crusaders are now killing fellow conservatives.''
Burleson first rankled the board over an obscure policy change: Trustees of the International Mission Board voted in November to bar future missionaries, from using a ''private prayer language,'' or speaking in tongues in private. Previously, missionaries were discouraged from speaking in tongues publicly, but their private prayed was not monitored.
The practice is common among Pentecostals, whose spirited brand of Christianity is spreading rapidly throughout countries where Southern Baptist missionaries work, and in the United States. Many conservative Protestants, however, reject the practice.
Still, Burleson opposed the ban on speaking in tongues privately. He viewed the move as a dangerous effort to vet conservatives for purity, and said so on his blog.
''Sadly, the Southern Baptist Convention is now moving toward a time when everyone must look the same, talk the same, act the same, believe the same on the nonessentials of the faith, or else you will be removed as 'not one of us,''' he wrote in a Dec. 10 entry.
About a month later, trustees voted him out. Delegates to the annual Southern Baptist gathering in June will decide whether to approve his removal from the board, which guides the work of more than 5,000 missionaries worldwide.
Just two years earlier, a leading Baptist conservative had warned about the very infighting that Burleson is describing. The Rev. Morris Chapman, president of the Southern Baptist Executive Committee, said conservatives must realize they have won the battle with liberals over biblical inerrancy and should now stop fighting.
''I am concerned now that we have affirmed by vigorous endeavor that Southern Baptists are people of the Book, that we will develop a censorious, exclusivistic, intolerant spirit,'' he said, in a speech to the denomination's annual meeting. ''If this occurs, we will be the poorer for it.''
Asked recently to comment on Burleson's allegations, Chapman said in a phone interview that the convention was in transition. ''It is not uncommon for some who are accustomed to being in a crusade to have difficulty deciding when that period of time has concluded,'' he said.
The Rev. Bill Leonard, dean of Wake Forest Divinity School in North Carolina and a critic of the conservative takeover, said the Southern Baptists are burdened by competing goals: attracting new members, while creating strict boundaries between the convention and other Christians that end up making them appear ''mean.''
''The Southern Baptist leadership is so ideologically driven that it's almost impossible for them not to continually draw lines and narrow the boundaries,'' he said. ''In the early stages, this was publicly evident with the moderates and liberals. Now, when the convention meets annually in June, you wonder who they're going to throw out this year. There's always somebody.''
Burleson said he has received hundreds of e-mails and letters from around the world in response to his blog postings and that ''99 percent of them are very positive.'' He said he was ''deeply hurt'' by the trustees' actions, but, as a matter of conscience, will continue to warn about what he sees as a dangerous trend throughout the 16.4 million-member denomination.
''If the crusaders sheath their sword, I promise, I will sheath mine. I do not want to fight my fellow conservatives,'' Burleson wrote on his blog. ''However, the stakes of this war are too great to roll over without a fight. This war is about the future of our convention.''

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