Thursday, February 16, 2006

An Open Letter to IMB Trustees

The following is a modified version of an email I sent to Tom Hatley, Chairman of the IMB Board of Trustees. I have modified it as an open letter to all IMB trustees. I don't know that many trustees will read and respond to it, but I wanted to give them an opportunity to present their side of these issues. Feel free to read and respond, even if you are not a trustee.

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,

I am writing to express some concerns about recent actions of the IMB Board of Trustees. One of our strongest characteristics as Southern Baptists is the wonderful work of our missions boards in taking the gospel of Jesus Christ to all peoples. I am truly thankful for those of you who devote considerable time and effort to overseeing the work of our missions boards. However, despite my respect for all the trustees, some of the board's recent actions have led me to have serious concerns about the future of the IMB and the SBC.

My initial concern was with the policies on prayer language and baptism that the IMB trustees adopted in November. These policies seem to elevate particular interpretations of Scripture to a level of authority that is rightly reserved for Scripture alone. I have yet to see any trustee or supporter of the policies offer any solid, irrefutable biblical evidence for either policy. In fact, in the case of the prayer language policy the clearest biblical statement would speak against such a policy (1 Cor. 14:39). Drs. Hershael York and Ergun Caner have appealed to Baptist history to support the baptism policy, but I thought that as Southern Baptists we based our doctrinal policies on the Bible rather than on church history or tradition. Furthermore, it concerns me that as a denomination we have a doctrinal statement (the BFM 2000) that has been approved by the SBC as a whole, but some of our entities take it upon themselves to impose doctrinal requirements that have never been adopted by the convention itself. The result of these policies is that our missions efforts are going to be harmed as we tell God-called Southern Baptists who fully affirm the BFM 2000 that they cannot serve as missionaries within their own denomination. As these men and women either turn to other organizations for support or raise their own support, I fear that some of the resources that are presently being channeled through the Cooperative Program will be redirected to other organizations or directly to these missionaries. I am also concerned that these policies indicate an effort to separate ourselves from other believers who agree with us on the essentials while disagreeing on certain non-essentials or on matters where the biblical principle is not clearly stated.

While the board's decision regarding the new policies is a matter of great concern to me, the board's subsequent actions regarding Wade Burleson have given me even more serious doubts about the SBC's future. Before these events took place, I had never heard of Wade Burleson, so my response has not been colored by any personal bias. The actions related to Burleson have led many rank-and-file SBCers to conclude that there is a great disconnect between our convention's leaders and the rest of us for a number of reasons.

First, these actions seem to be intended as an effort to silence any dissenting voices on the board. Trustee chairman Tom Hatley has said that the board's decision to seek Burleson's removal has nothing to do with his opposition to the new policies, but would such an action have been taken if he had used his blog to support the policies? One of the greatest dangers to the SBC today is the attitude among some of our leaders that disagreement over issues that are not clearly addressed by Scripture is unacceptable. I pray that this attitude has not crept into the IMB Board of Trustees.

Second, these actions seem to indicate that many of the trustees have forgotten that they are accountable to the SBC as a whole. Unlike self-perpetuating boards of trustees, where the board chooses its own members, the IMB Board of Trustees (and all SBC trustee boards) are elected by the messengers of the SBC on behalf of the SBC. Thus, the trustees are accountable first to God, second to the SBC, and then to the board on which they serve. When a trustee reports to the SBC at large on things that happen in public meetings of the board, that trustee is not violating his trust to the board; he is fulfilling his trust to the SBC. In fact, my understanding of the trustee policies is that one of the duties of a trustee is to "take [his or her] interpretations back to the people" after trustee meetings. This is exactly what Burleson did via his blog. He took his interpretation of what happened at the November and January meetings back to his constituency, the entire SBC. In my opinion, this particular policy suggests that all trustees should be encouraged to have their own blogs or other methods where they can take their interpretations to the people of the SBC.

Third, these actions seem to demonstrate that some of the trustees are out of step with the current climate of the SBC. Many SBCers are active in the blogosphere. We use blogs the same way that past generations used pamphlets and letters to the editor. To make any attempt to suppress blogging by trustees would be seen as an attempt to be secretive and to resist accountablility to the convention. Also, the day has passed when the leaders of the SBC could expect members to go along with their actions simply because these leaders were conservatives. When we believe that any of our boards or leaders have made a poor decision, we will speak out against that decision, and we expect any leaders or trustees who oppose the decision to speak out as well. We also are strongly opposed to overtly political practices such as caucusing by trustees and interference by employees of SBC entities in the workings of another entity.

Fourth, the way the board handled this matter seems to contradict basic principles of fairness. According to Burleson, and no one has refuted his claim, no one approached him in an effort to resolve any problems before the board voted to recommend his removal. He also claimed, and again no one has refuted him, that he was not given an opportunity to present his case to the board before the vote. Based on some comments that other trustees have made, it appears that several of the trustees have never examined Burleson's blog for themselves to see what he actually said. Anyone who reads Burleson's blog would see that his overall tone toward the IMB and his fellow trustees is positive and that he has taken great pains not to reveal any confidential information. Finally, the board has not been open with the people of the SBC about why this move was made. Over a month has elapsed since the vote to recommend Burleson's removal, yet the board has presented no evidence to support such a radical move.

Despite my concerns over the board's actions in these matters, I have been greatly encouraged by the efforts that are presently being made to resolve things. May God continue bless each of you in your personal lives and in your service on the IMB trustee board.

I apologize for the length, but these matters are very important to the future of the SBC.

In Christ,
Tim Sweatman
Pastor, Jackson Grove Baptist Church
Bowling Green, Kentucky


Kevin Bussey said...


You have a great way with words. Very well said.

Jeff Richard Young said...

Dear Tim,

Great letter!

Love in Christ,


martyduren said...

Awesome post, Tim.

Honestly, you have passed Drs. York and Caner in this debate, both in your grasp of the issues at hand and in your well reasoned and biblically substantive statements.

Props to you, bro.

art rogers said...

Excellent post.

My only disagreement is that I am not heartened by the removal of the recommendation for Wade's dismissal. I believe that this is a political move to get the issue behind closed doors and away from the SBC at large.

In Greensboro, we will need to focus on the five points mentioned by Wade and linked to here by you in a subsequent post.


Lynn Myers MD said...

Having been a Christian more than 60 years and now a Southern Baptist I have learned that denominations like each of us has their favorite scriptures and parts of the scriptures we like to preach and teach over
and over again.

We also have scriptures that we just as soon God had not put in the
bible. Whenever possible we ignore them.

I have often thought that a good preaching series could be entitled
"ThingsI wish God had not said".

For Baptist preachers they might start with 1 Cor 14:5 Now I wish that you all spoke in tongues. or maybe 1 Cor 14:18 I thank God, I speak in tongues more than you all; or how about.1 Cor 14:39 Therefore, my brethren, desire earnestly to prophesy, and do not forbid to speak in tongues .

Strangely in my many years as a Southern Baptist, I have yet to hear a sermon or read any Baptist Sunday school publications pertaining to the above scriptures.

Finally as we can see the above writer would not qualify to be a
Southern Baptist Missionary.since he says he speaks in tongues, encourages others to do so, and even forbids others to forbid it.

He may be a Christian but he certainly is NOT qualified to be a Southern Baptist Missionary.

Jeff Richard Young said...

Dear Lynn,

I felt like I was preaching that series when I preached through 1 Corinthians on Sunday mornings February-December 2003. Boy, did I get an education! I had to deal with divorce, church discipline, speaking in tongues, prophecy, rules for women's behavior in the church, and other things that I used to "wish God had not said." Thankfully, God gave me the grace to understand and accept it all to some degree, and it was a wonderful growing experience for the church and for me!

When we take God's Word, ALL of it, and submit to it, He can really teach us and change us.

Love in Christ,


Lynn Myers MD said...


Congratulations on your wiliness to preach the complete gospel and not just the parts you are comfortable with.

Lets always remember..

Heb 4:12 "For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword , it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart."

Paul said...

Great job, Tim. I hope they get 100 more just like it.

Tim Sweatman said...

Thanks to everyone for all the encouraging comments.


I also have some reservations about the reasons underlying the decision to rescind the recommendation to remove Wade, but at least with this particular matter probably off the floor at Greensboro we can focus more on the main issues. My sense of encouragement has more to do with the fact that there has been dialogue between Wade and Tom Hatley.


Excellent observations. That would certainly be an interesting series to preach. Your words prove that godly wisdom is not limited to those in the pulpit.


I had a similar experience when I preached through the Sermon on the Mount, especially the part where Jesus taught on divorce.