Land Mass or, Trustees Carelessly Caring for SBC Land

Only a document igniting a fever pitch discussion about Calvinism in the SBC could bury the report by the ERLC Trustees of the SBC.

Suspicions confirmed. Baptist Press released the report from the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission on Dr. Richard Land’s racially charged comments and plagiarism. The ERLC Trustees took more action than I suspected, but much less than most pastors or staff would have received. The typical non-celebrity pastor would have surely been terminated.

The rate of pastoral terminations for his or her own indiscretions or the systemic maladies of the churches served could be considered epidemic. Sitting in a breakfast meeting intended to help place graduates of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in 1988, I remember the statistic of pastoral changes for the State of Oklahoma. Clyde Cain noted, “On any given week there are 12 pastors going to new churches and 12 pastors leaving their church.” Talk about encouraging job security. Not much has changed – anywhere.

Pastors have been terminated for far less than racially charged comments and plagiarism. But, we have a Trustee system that Dr. Land trusts and Dave Miller says we should too. The recent debacle at the ERLC and this report, call the system into question and spur me to wonder, “What do we trust the Trustees to maintain?” Is it loyalty to those on our side of the aisle?

The Aisle. Remember the firing of Dr. Russell Dilday? One day he receives commendation for a job well done. There were no negatives highlighted in his review. The next day he is fired, locked out of his office, and escorted from campus. Welcome to the Trustee system. Dr. Dilday’s fault? He was not on the right side of the aisle. Mind you, he executed his job in an exemplary manner, even drawing praise from those outside of the SBC fold. Southwestern was still in the perceived hands of the “other guys.” Dilday did not speak in racially charged ways. He did not steal another persons’ words. He gets the boot. Dr. Land gets a reprimand.

The architects of the “takeover” understood the politics of the SBC. Winning the Presidency of the SBC for your side of the aisle means getting your people on the Nominating Committee of the SBC. United State politics anyone? In turn you get to place prospects loyal to the “cause,” your cause. Do some research and see how Drs. Jim Henry and Frank Page were treated. They were not the “chosen” ones during the elections held the years they were selected to lead the SBC. Boycott Disney while your sitting President is from Orlando? How may we leverage Calvinist/Non-Calvinist debates when the President of the Executive Committee once wrote a book on the subject? Oh, I know. I am just dipping from the conspiratorial well. Keep telling yourself that story. Where is Benjamin Cole when we need him?

Here’s hoping Pastor Luter fills the Nominating Committee, upon his election as President of the SBC later this month, with diversity of color and vision. And, I don’t mean he should play to the recent kerfuffle over Calvinism/Non-Calvinism for this is most surely more about power politics than theology.

When those leading the way in the Conservative Resurgence had effected their ten year plan – that is how long it takes to see complete Board turnover at SBC entities and agencies – rewards the installation of leaders whose pedigree included being good soldiers in the battle would make the takeover complete. I once had a conversation with a denominational leader about my concerns within the SBC. I was told I should, “do what we did.” He went on, “Get several like-minded people and get yourselves a ten-year plan. Be prepared to get blood on your sword.” One more reason to move to the edge of the inside.

When I entered college as a preacher-boy (1981), I was convinced the whole matter was about the Bible. Thirty years later, not so much.

When I read that Dr. Land trusted the Trustee system I was incredulous. Who would be surprised considering the manner in which we select Trustees? I mean no disrespect to those who serve, but when the stated goal and aim has always been to get “our” people serving so we can install “our” people, who would really expect real reform? And, who could hope for the leveling of a penalty commensurate with what the rest of us face when we make careless mistakes and establish dishonest habits sans a lenient Personnel Committee, Deacons, or Elders so placed for their loyalty? Reprimands? I am not sure that is even a Baptist ecclesiological term.

Many will think this analysis is a bridge too far. Others would contend it is not a hill on which to die. We should just move on. I noted in an earlier post on the subject that the system is the issue not Dr. Land. In fact, I thought about a different title for this piece, Land Locked. Most want to see this event as a singular issue locking in on one person’s errors. Dr. Land and this imbroglio surface the problem. The report confirms it. The rationale the Trustees gave for their two-pronged response demonstrates the matter.

The Reprimand. The “Body of Work” argument won the day. Before the report commenters raced to point out how much Dr. Land had done for the SBC in his work at the ERCL. Was it this body of work argument that led the Trustees to consider that Land simply let his guard down by accepting common radio industry practice? But, to whom or where do you point to make the argument plagiarism is common radio industry practice? Here is the statement,

“We further reprimand Dr. Land for quoting material without giving attribution on the Richard Land Live! (RLL) radio show, thereby unwisely accepting practices that occur in the radio industry, and we acknowledge that instances of plagiarism occurred because of his carelessness and poor judgment. . . . . (italics mine)

How would the argument for an affair, embezzlement, or temperamental anger play when glossed as carelessness and poor judgment? So, stealing is mitigated as not so bad since it was the result of carelessness and poor judgment? Aaron Weaver, who broke the story, put it better than I could in response to this point made by the Trustees,

Well, I told a couple of reporters that I thought Land got a pass on the plagiarism. And he did. The trustees’ characterization of what he did as “carelessness” downplayed the seriousness of the president of an ethics organization plagiarizing. If you look at the transcript that I first posted, how Land meshed his own commentary with the Washington Times column, you can’t come away with the conclusion that he was being careless. It was purposeful.

The trustees made a mistake, in their effort to downplay the plagiarism, to claim that Land “unwisely accept[ed] practices that occur in the radio industry.”

At least a couple major newspaper reporters are jumping on that statement because it simply isn’t true. What Land did is not a common practice in the radio industry.

What are the Trustees in trust of? Dr. Land’s reputation? His body of work? Or, are the Trustees given our, members of SBC Land, proxy to provide oversight ensuring the entity represents Jesus and our commitment to him? If this is the case, then someone needs to apologize to Jonathan Merritt. Scot McKnight offered a clip from Merritt’s, A Faith of Our Own. Merritt recounts,

ERLC leaders prodded me to abandon the efforts, luring me with soft bribes and hard threats. They told me if I turned the project over to them, they would rewrite it. In return, they would pay for the public release and open up doors for speaking engagements. When I rejected the offer, they said they were obligated to contact signatories and dismantle the effort themselves. With the precision of a five-star political machine, ERLC leaders began locating signatories and trying to convince them to remove their names. Falsehoods circulated about my “hidden agendas” and “political ties.” Emails sent with the cadence of machine gun fire became impossible to contain.

Surely we should believe that Dr. Land was careless and exercised poor judgment. And, in like manner we should, in Pollyannaish fashion, assume those who worked against Jonathan Merritt – ERLC leadership – followed the same sort of carelessness and poor judgment. What leadership? Where were the Trustees? System failure. I can only imagine what James Merritt must be enduring to stand by and with his son. Costly I bet.

The Pulled Radio Show. We either learn self-control or we move the cookie jar. The move to strike Richard Land Live is an interesting one. We really don’t need a Limbaugh-esque Southern Baptist Radio program. Or, if you prefer, we do not need a Larry King styled Southern Baptist Radio program. Never have had such a need. But after ten years it is found to be incongruent with the mission of the ERLC. At what point was it congruent?

My grandson learns to leave the television remote on the table. We do not hide it. We help him learn self-control. Christian discipleship is often viewed as hiding the remote. Or, in this case, let’s take away the radio program.

I am not arguing for keeping RLL. I do not know what it cost to produce or what monetary benefit was gained. For me, it cost too much to produce and we did not gain enough in return. One has to think that had this whole event not occurred, would the ERLc have bothered to consider the congruency of RLL. Not likely.

The Apology. The ERLC Trustees reprimanded Dr. Land for his insensitive words. Glacial swiftness. News of his words is out for two months and we cannot get a preliminary repudiation of those words before June 1.

I, like the ERLC Trustees, commend Dr. Land for his May 9 apology. That it took such a meeting to convince him of his hurtful words is to my mind unbelievable. But, I do know how obtuse and stubborn I can be at times. I read the list of attendees and wonder why were in attendance? Dr. Patterson? Was he there to give testimony as to Dr. Land’s teaching habits at Criswell where David Montoya claims something we could call Xerox-gate? Whom did he represent? The offended parties? Was the meeting more negotiation than anything else?

I don’t have any answers. I suspect there is one more possibility. The ERLC Trustees offered these reprimands, withheld harsher words and punishment, in order to allow Dr. Land to retire gracefully in the near future. I applaud the generosity should that be the case. But, few pastors and staff receive such beneficent treatment.

These and other instances illustrate there are matters that lie much deeper than we generally perceive. For me, we are not in need of an OS upgrade. We need a new system. Since we cannot escape politics, we should install and instill a politic beyond the pragmatic that privileges your side of the aisle or mine. We should look to the politics of Jesus announced for those in the Kingdom in the Sermon on the Mount. What we present to the watching world should not look like what they are familiar with but altogether different. We should eschew the politics suffered recently by Jonathan Merritt. In fact, these should be investigated and repudiated. Anything short will leave our heirs to apologize for us. Here’s to hoping it does not take 150 years and a brokered apology.

Photo Credit – Nashville

Photo Credit – Aisle

Photo Credit – Reprimand

Photo Credit – Apology

About the Author
Husband to Patty. Daddy to Kimberly and Tommie. Grandpa Doc to Cohen, Max, Fox, and Marlee. Pastor to Snow Hill Baptist Church. Graduate of Oklahoma Baptist University and Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. Reading. Photography. Golf. Colorado. Jeeping. Friend. The views and opinions expressed here are my own and should not be construed as representing the corporate views of the church I pastor.