Nathan Finn at his finest…

Nathan Finn, Southeastern Seminary’s archivist and a doctoral candidate in church history, has posted recently on his blog an assessment of what ails the SBC with which my soul resonates. Over the next several days, Finn will be addressing his observational critiques in greater detail. Be sure to check out his blog. Southern Baptists have a better shot at intellectual honesty and ecclesial integrity with men like Finn warming up in the seminary bullpen.

Crack me up…

I called Wade Burleson this afternoon to read to him a post by some guy who calls himself “Evangelical Orthodoxy.”  Wade, he claims, is the “pope” of a movement within the SBC.  I am, he insists, a Baptist version of Cardinal Ratzinger.  While not everything he says is flattering — if anything — we both laughed our guts out while reading what he said about us.

I love people with a good sense of humor…even if they disagree.

Evangelical Orthodoxy, whoever you are, thanks for the laugh.  You crack me up.

Church Planting Movements and the Crisis of Power in the Southern Baptist Convention, Pt. 7.

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

Part 5

Part 6

In the Winter of 2004, I received an email from one of Paige Patterson’s personal assistants asking that I call the office at my convenience. I phoned him that afternoon, and was informed that Patterson wished to “hire” me and “pay” me to listen to audio-recordings of Jerry Rankin to cull them for suspicious doctrine. Essentially, the proposal was for me to listen to several hours of Rankin’s public and private comments regarding spiritual warfare – in sermons and in training sessions – in order to substantiate Patterson’s allegations that Rankin was inextricably charismatic in his theology. If it could be proven that Rankin was, indeed, too open to such theology, then a stronger case could be made for his removal.

It took me less than a minute to refuse Patterson’s offer. Earlier that month, Patterson had placed me under disciplinary probation at the school for use of the word “crap” on my personal weblog. The word, Patterson alleged in his sanction, constituted a violation of the school’s code of student conduct. I called Patterson as soon as I discovered his action – well after an email had been sent to numerous seminary faculty and staff – and challenged him about his hypocrisy. Patterson has demonstrated over the years a penchant for partiality in judgment, as well as the universal sins of the tongue against which James’ epistle so boldly denounces. Patterson has preached about “fingering the rosaries” in a sermon about sex and worship in Florence, SC; or he made jokes in his seminary classes about Adam’s genitals by reciting the phrase “glow little glow worm” when referencing prelapse nakedness; or he can tell chapel audiences of students year after year that lessons from his wife on “intimate matters” will make them “rise and call him blessed.” Yet the word “crap” was too much for Patterson’s sense of propriety. Since that time, of course, I have enjoyed hearing thirdhand about my “moral failure,” which is Patterson’s preferred way of referencing my use of the slang term “crap.”

As soon as he heard, a professor and dean at the seminary uncovered and mentioned to me the provisions of the seminary handbook that Patterson had sidestepped or overlooked in his unilateral sanction, thus jeopardizing the school’s accreditation. I quickly notified the proper seminary personnel of my intention to appeal Patterson’s sanction, thus exercising my student prerogative of administrative review. I requested a hearing by a faculty committee authorized to reverse Patterson’s decision. I wrote a 15-page brief on the situation, and met with Patterson the next day to ask that he rescind his action and save us both a lengthy and embarrassing ordeal. The next day, less than 72 hours after his imposition of disciplinary probation, Patterson reversed course. To date, I am told that my “discipline,” which had no stated term or direction, constitutes the shortest of its kind in seminary history. And to be perfectly honest, I would not change a thing about the events if I could. I have had great fun regaling fellow pastors and students with the silly story of Pattersonian paranoia.

Admittedly, I was frustrated with Patterson, and I could finally foresee the end of our long relationship. What remained of it, I am sure recent months have severed completely. Truth, however, is a far more reliable mentor, and to it I shall remain loyal should Patterson raise every manner accusation against me in the days to come. I confess this detail of my personal history only to beat to the punch those who would challenge some of my claims. Any way I slice it, I will be charged with axe-grinding. So, I figure, I will acknowledge that I indeed have a few axes to grind.

I do not wish to burden Patterson’s administration with petty accusations, but neither do I wish to sit idly by while he seeks to burden Rankin and others. Rankin deserves public confirmation that Patterson has intentionally and systematically undermined his administration and coached trustees at the IMB. Patterson, too, deserves the confirmation of his criticisms of church planting methodologies that were taught until 2003 at IMB.

Much has been written and spoken recently that serves only to escalate the tensions between Patterson and Rankin and their respective camps. I have been informed by one former trustee, the Rev. Bob Pearle, that Patterson told him in no uncertain terms that he wished to remain “uninvolved” in the fight playing out at the IMB over Rankin’s leadership. Yet as recently as December, Patterson emailed another trustee, Wade Burleson, and expressed his belief that the IMB would be better off with a retirement “at the top.” Keeping Patterson away from the gears of the denominational machine, however, will prove more difficult than keeping Baptists away from buffet lines at the Golden Corral. For too long Patterson has carefully networked, paid out favors, and injected his loyalists into the denominational bureaucracy. At times, this has been more blatant than others. One such attempt was thwarted in recent years when Patterson’s brother-in-law – a man under federal indictment at the time – was put on the board of trustees to serve as a stalking horse at the IMB during Patterson’s reign as convention president. His term was cut short, however, when federal marshals came knocking on his south Dallas door, though his short tenure was marked by repeated attempts to undermine Rankin’s administration and to hire Keith Eitel away from Southeastern Seminary. I have copies of some very interesting emails in this regard, and I will publish them at an appropriate time.

There is little doubt that Patterson’s counsel is sought by several influential IMB trustees, a fact that is not denied by any of them with whom I have spoken, including former Chairman Tom Hatley. The strange irony from my perspective, however, is that Patterson is quite unwilling to accept it when his own trustees at Southwestern Seminary seek advice and counsel from sources outside his approval. Trustee tinkering can cut both ways, a reality that Patterson seems unable to recognize either because he cannot see the hypocrisy or because he absolves by fiat any wrongdoing of his own through some contortion of utilitarian hierarchical ethics. If heads must be severed, Patterson’s axes are always sharp. Like an Henrician ecclesial figure, if Patterson can’t go through the normal means of redressing his grievances, he’s more than willing to go around them.

I must stress, therefore, that the real source of conflict between Patterson and Rankin is neither ideological nor doctrinal. The real source is an obstinate impasse of personality and the scars of territorial conflict. I must also stress that in my experience, I have not seen or heard Jerry Rankin make any statement that endorses or affirms the use of signs and wonders, or the use of tongues or their interpretation, or anything that contradicts a single article of the Baptist Faith & Message. I have read countless manuscripts of his sermons, heard multiplied hours of him teaching in various settings, and scoured every word he’s written for Baptist Press and The Commission magazine. Recent developments at the IMB lead me to believe that Patterson is either directly or indirectly involved in attempts to pressure Rankin’s resignation, and Patterson’s track record is informative in this regard. If you’re in doubt, I suggest you ask some of his institutional predecessors.

Moreover, Rankin has never behaved rudely to me, nor have I been given evidence to the contrary. At all times, even when I have disagreed with him in public sessions, he has been kind and courteous. I wish I could say as much for Patterson, but sadly, I cannot. There is a place for rigorous, even angry disputation in theology. There is no place, however, for underhanded political tactics such as those to which I have been both a party and a witness during my time at Southeastern and Southwestern seminaries.

Perhaps this paper does nothing to foster the former and everything to increase the latter. Time will tell. And while I cannot agree with Patterson’s tactics or his busybody denominational manipulations, it might be possible that Rankin is so vested in the church planting methodology that this paper has examined that he cannot possibly be expected to scale back its implementation at the IMB. Rankin has, however, elevated replacements to top board posts that bring balance and a more careful doctrinal eye. By the hiring of Gordon Fort to replace Avery Willis as Vice President of Overseas Operations, and by the selection of Oklahoma pastor Tom Elliff to be responsible for the doctrinal training of missionaries when it comes to Baptist ecclesiology, Rankin has at least demonstrated an openness for which I would not have given him credit three years ago. He seems to be making strides. Rankin is not, however, the only denominational executive that can be replaced through outside interference with his board – a fact that Patterson would do well to remember. Whatever the outcome of the political conflict, Southwestern’s president should memorize the wise proverb of Solomon: whoever rolls a stone, it will roll back upon him.

One final thought seems appropriate given the brouhaha boiling over about Rankin’s presidency at the IMB and the leaky faucet that keeps dripping out new information about secret trustee meetings and moves to start the bloodletting in Richmond. If Patterson has even an ounce of the political weight that I have alleged, or if he is completely uninvolved and wishes public perception to reflect such uninvolvement, then he should try using his network and influence for something more noble and call off the dogs he’s appointed to nip at Rankin’s heels. And I do not mean some conference call or private communication. I mean a public, open, and sincere appeal for the nonsense to stop, today. I doubt, however, that such a proclamation has been drafted, most probably because it could not honestly be given. In all likelihood, both men will survive the conflict, as will the denomination. What profit, if any, the exposure and analysis I have offered will have toward calming the waters of conflict, I do not know.

Before disseminating this paper, I have allowed one field missionary and close personal friend to read it, one likeminded pastor, and Jerry Rankin himself. All have provided me with clarification and objectivity. I did offer to let my friend and former teacher, Keith Eitel, read the paper, though after expressing initial interest, Eitel emailed me and asked that I not forward the paper to him. Anything that might be critical of Patterson poses a problem for Eitel, and it is regrettable that our friendship has become strained in recent days due to Eitel’s insistence on absolute loyalty to his boss and my absolute commitment to exposing some of the nonsense that Patterson’s manipulations have wrought. Eitel suggested that I allow Patterson to preview the paper, but such courtesies are one-way streets with Patterson. He is owed no such courtesy. I wonder if Rankin was given the chance to read Eitel’s critique before it was disseminated to every IMB trustee under Patterson’s cover letter? I think not. Moreover, Patterson is a seasoned veteran, an artful dodger, when it comes to deflecting any hint of wrongdoing. If my intuitions are even partially correct, Patterson will not respond at all. If he does, he will most likely deny much of what I have written concerning him and mine the paper for anything that substantiates his crusade against Rankin. He will also move to undercut my credibility through more innuendo and whispering, a process that is, to some degree, already underway.

More than anything, this paper was written to meet the requirements of a seminar in sociology of religion at Baylor University, where I am currently pursuing a Ph.D. in Religion, Politics, and Society. If my thoughts serve no other purpose than to meet the requirements of that degree, then so be it. Time enough will be afforded once I complete the degree to write more critical histories of denominational conflict in the Southern Baptist Convention. When that times comes, perhaps the concerns I have raised in this paper will have been addressed, and the final chapter of any biography or history of the men and institutions examined herein will strike a note of peace and resolution rather than the sad story of good intentions corrupted by the ruthless acquisition of absolute power in a denomination of men who should have known better. I continue to wrestle with my own degree of involvement in this matter. The Southern Baptist Convention has not elected me to serve as a trustee of either the IMB or Southwestern Seminary. I do not wish to work for either institution. I continue to have friends who are employed or studying at either the IMB or Southwestern who routinely ask for my read on the things they hear about through the Baptist grapevine or read in Baptist Press. Together we hope for an end to the tightening, narrowing trend of the empowered elites in the convention. Fundamentalism has a long, checkered history when it comes to such shortsightedness. Southern Baptists might yet be able to survive the threat posed by men who forget such lessons of history. To that end, I will watch and pray.