It is interesting how much of the blogging over the past few days has touched upon the question of freedom in the SBC. On the one hand, some analysts have taken Les Puryear's emails to constitute a threat to the "Academic Freedom" of professors within the SBC. On the other hand, people like me have suggested that the outcry over Les's actions constitute an unwarranted effort to curtail the freedom of pastors to complain about teachings with which they disagree.
Which is it?
I don't think that anyone benefits from a complete lack of accountability. Every sermon that I preach, I preach as someone who is accountable for his own words. On rare occasions, people object to something that I have said. Sometimes I believe that they have misunderstood me. Sometimes I see their point and apologize for my error. Sometimes I believe that they are simply wrong (and occasionally wrongheaded!) and I stand my ground. But even on those occasions, the challenge has brought me to refine my views, to examine my assumptions, and to hold my faith with greater fervor and sincerity.
I don't see any reason why denominational employees, including seminary professors, shouldn't live the same way. Now that I'm a trustee of a seminary, I get complaints about the seminary. I get them from buddies. I get them from people I've never met. I get them from people I love. I get them from people I'm trying to love better.
But I never, ever just dismiss one out-of-hand. Certainly it has never even entered my mind to throw the contents of one up on my blog and try to attack or belittle anyone authoring such a letter. Most of the time I take the time to write an actual reply and send it to the person who complained. Of course, since the seminary is governed by the trustees as a collective unit and not by any individual trustee, I never make promises about what I will or won't do, and I usually don't even express an opinion on the matter (since I ought only to make up my mind after hearing all of the data brought out by the deliberative process), but instead I promise to pay close attention during our trustee meetings and work hard to make prayerful, wise decisions. Those promises are sincere.
Oh, sometimes, at the end of a long day, I confess that I'm tempted to see another piece of mail as a nuisance. Sometimes, when conversing with a friend, I regret that the call is not about friendship, but about seminary business. But those are rare feelings that generally only occur when I'm fatigued, and even then I deliberately set those feelings aside. That's because I truly regard those complaints as something sacred. The represent individual Southern Baptists caring enough about the mission of their entities to become involved in them.
I may disagree with an individual Southern Baptist over the content of a complaint, but I usually try to include in my reply some statement of gratitude toward the individual for caring enough to comment. I believe that the Conservative Resurgence, although it was greatly about denominational employees not being able to ignore the truth of God's word, was also substantially about convention entities and employees not being able to ignore the sentiments of the Southern Baptist people. For years bullying tactics tried to shame or browbeat individual Southern Baptists who dared to question what the entities were doing. Sometimes and in some quarters today these things still happen. I want it to be clear to everyone that I stand against those sorts of tactics.
Most complaints will result in no action whatsoever. That's the way that it ought to be, for no entity can survive being whipped around in a new direction by a new letter every day. Read the letter, give it careful thought, and if it does not warrant action then move past it respectfully. It's OK to do nothing about a complaint made by a single individual. And yet every individual Southern Baptist ought to—must—be able to retain the right to stand up and disagree with what is going on at any entity without being tarred and feathered. Every once in a while, that letter from a concerned pastor or member somewhere is going to be right, and the entity is going to be wrong. And the great hope of our polity (as opposed to, for example, the Episcopalians) is that, when that situation occurs, the concerned pastor or member has a chance to state his case and maybe, with the Lord's help, make a difference.