Optional page text here. The Beast's Lair: Is Christian Dissent Healthy?

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Is Christian Dissent Healthy?

Wade Burleson, an Oklahoma pastor and influential voice in the SBC, has recently posted an article supporting the need for more Christian dissent, resistance, and critical judgment. What are we to make of such a seemingly strange suggestion?

Burleson has recently been censured by the International Mission Board (IMB) for his public opinion on ways the IMB has missed the mark. I do not know much about Burleson save what I have read from his blog. He has, it seems to me, been a gentlemen in his difference of opinion, but has nevertheless been critical of various policies and ideologies within the IMB. There is, of course, much to the board's decision that we don't know, but at its simplest level, if Burleson is not on board with the IMB, regardless of how kind he is with his dissension, he should not be a trustee.

What I think makes me uncomfortable about Burleson's notion of more dissent among laypeople, churches, organizations, etc, is that it seems the ultimate goal stops with dissension for Burleson. A quote he uses from Charles Marsh says this, "We are failing to raise up a generation of Christian critics at a time when dissent should be a vital part of confessing Jesus Christ as Lord." That, for me, is troubling. I believe from a Scriptural standpoint that we must view unity of believers as our ultimate goal in this matter. Now, that is not to say that dissension and difference of opinion, so far as they are used correctly, might not aid in the bringing about of unity. But we should not be satisfied if our congregation is just always disagreeing, never taking steps forward to unity as believers. We will never reach full unity, but that should be our forward march.

There also seems to potentially be an ideological thread in Burleson's suggestion. Perhaps in an ideal world, leaders and followers could disagree and dissent and still operate effectively and with purpose. But the IMB and any other major organization must have consistency and unity to successfully accomplish the massive undertakings they perform. The same thing, I would argue, must be said for the pastoral staff of a church. There are a few things that I do not agree with my pastor on, but our people will never hear me disagree with him from the pulpit or anywhere else. They must know we are one as a staff. Likewise, the early church made sure they were all on the same page theologically as they went out. Acts 15 is all about making sure that happened. And when Peter apparently dropped the ball, Paul was not pleased at all. That is not to suggest that dissension and disagreement did not happen in the early church, because clearly it did, but that it was for the purpose of unity.

Finally, if our goal is to raise up dissenting Christians, then we will ultimately fail at the one goal that we should all have in common, that is, winning people for Jesus Christ. Dissenting and focusing on issues that are of lesser importance, and they all are, can only distract from our missiological mandate. This is where those who are "put out" with the SBC really miss the ball. No one, and I mean no one, can argue against the power and effectiveness of the IMB and the NAMB. Even Burleson, who has been on the receiving end of the IMB board of trustees, still admits that the IMB is the single greatest organization for worldwide evangelism. Forget for one second the SBC's policy concerning the innerrancy card, women in ministry, or the guidelines for an IMB missionary and look at the hundreds of people who are devoting their lives to the cause of Christ and to the unreached people groups who are hearing the Gospel for the first time. Are those other issues important? Absolutely and disagreement is fine, but not to the point where we blindly accuse the IMB and NAMB of being evil or unproductive.

So, Burleson is just not with reality if he thinks he can strongly disagree with the IMB and still function as their trustee. I appreciate his candor and his continued support of the purpose of the IMB, but he needs to find places where his philosophies "fit in" and others need to think twice before condemning the IMB because of their decision.


Blogger Barry said...

Sounds like his disconnect occurs in using the terms "dissent" and "critics". I understand what he's trying to get to, I believe - it's similar to how we as Americans should never be content to let the government run our lives, we have to be prepared to step in and take an active role in determining how we are governed. But what that requires shouldn't be dissent or criticism (at least not initially), but simply questioning and open-mindedness. And that's what the church needs - not people to dissent, but people to question, to challenge, to not sit blindly by and let our leaders make all the decisions simply because they're the leaders. The government represents us, just as the church leadership represents us, the church, the body of Christ.

To immediately call for "dissent" sounds like knee-jerk opposition, a.k.a. the stereotypical "I'm agin' it!!!" What we need are people that take the time to learn scripture, understand the role the leadership plays in the modern church (whatever the denomination) and participate in how the Gospel is taught, preached, and lived by everyone. We can't just sit by and be passive Christians, Christ doesn't want that - we have a duty and responsibility to be active and lead active ministries, not just follow them blindly. But that also means to be sensible, fair, loving, and all the other qualities Christ instructed us to display.

November 15, 2007 12:11 PM  
Blogger Bennett Willis said...

There is a huge difference in being staff and being a trustee who represents the "consensus" of the SBC. It seems to me that the consensus in the SBC has remained about the same but the management of the SBC has gone well beyond that consensus and no longer regards itself accountable to the convention. Trustees are generally supporting the agenda of the management that screened them and placed their names before the convention--as is to be expected.

We had some effort on the part of the SBC to enforce a different consensus in the Garner motion and we will undoubtably find out more in Indianapolis.

Bennett Willis

November 21, 2007 12:23 AM  

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