PAMPLIN — If you live in Appomattox County, you might
see Chris Harbin walking around in his bombachas — baggy trousers with a large
belt. His full red beard and Brazilian garb cause him to stand out from other
Though he’s happy to be the new pastor of Pamplin’s River Rocks Baptist
Church, just months ago he and his wife, Karen, were sharing the gospel with
Brazilian traditionalist Gauchos, a culture that shuns organized religion but
encourages morals and values.
The Harbins are among former Southern Baptist Convention missionaries who
disagree with the denomination’s “Baptist Faith & Message 2000.”
The trustees of the International Mission Board of the 16 million-member
denomination fired 13 missionaries last week because they refused to endorse
the faith statement.
According to the group, 77 of 5,500 missionaries overseas refused to sign the
document. Those 77 have either been fired, resigned or retired.
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In September 2002, the Harbins were fired after seven years of service in
Porto Alegre, Brazil.
They take issue with several parts of the 2000 version of the Baptist Faith
It is an update of a document of the same name, written in 1963. All
missionaries appointed since 1970 have been required to affirm the Baptist
Faith & Message, though they were allowed to write their minor disagreements
with it, as long as they agreed to work “in accordance with and not contrary
“Most anyone who called themselves Baptist could agree,” Harbin said. “It was
When the Baptist Faith & Message was updated in 2000, it was expanded and
changed in several ways. The revised document calls for a wife to “submit
herself graciously” to her husband, and added statements against homosexuality
But that’s not Harbin’s beef with the document.
“The original statement said it was a guide for interpreting the Bible,”
Harbin said. “The new language adds that it is a document for doctrinal
accountability. When you add the two together … you hold people accountable
to the document and not to the Bible. That gives it priority over the biblical
“I could sign the Bible but I won’t sign a creed.”
The 2000 statement also adds this sentence: “While both men and women are
gifted for service in the church, the office of pastor is limited to men as
qualified by scripture.”
Harbin disagrees. He cited the story where Mary is sitting at Jesus’ feet, and
he calls her sister, Martha, to do the same.
“If women were not to be in the position of ministers and leaders he would not
have invited them to be at his feet,” Harbin said. “He is placing them on an
equal level with disciples in terms of access to learning and responsibility
He thinks few Baptists have read the statement and understood its
“Most haven’t read it with a fine-toothed comb,” Harbin said. “If you look at
it with a surface glance it says one thing, but if you look at it in detail it
Robert O’Brien, a former International Mission Board employee who edits the
Mainstream Baptist Journal, agrees.
“It goes against Baptist history and Baptist beliefs to take a man-made
document and take what these few people said and superimpose it on the whole,”
said O’Brien, who lives in Richmond. “ … It’s not a matter of whether you
think the Bible is the word of God.
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Though the Harbins had decided not to sign the Baptist Faith & Message 2000,
that was not the reason they were given for being fired.
When they announced that they were not signing the document, they were called
to a meeting.
But instead of talking about their reasons for disagreement with the Baptist
Faith and Message 2000, they were called to question about notes from a
seminary class Chris Harbin taught.
According to Harbin, his regional supervisor said there had been complaints
from students related to his teaching on biblical authority. Harbin says those
students have never been named.
Eventually, 13 passages were taken from Harbin’s 200 pages of reading material
and identified as contrary to the Baptist Faith & Message.
Harbin wrote an appeal to his termination stating that the passages did not
reflect his beliefs because they were either taken out of context, poorly
worded or stating positions he was refuting.
There has been no change in their situation.
Karen Harbin winces when she thinks about telling their Brazilian friends that
they had to leave.
“What do you tell not only your Christian friends, but your non-Christian
friends?” she asked. “If you try to explain what’s going on, you’d leave a bad
Chris Harbin has spent most of his 35 years in Brazil. He grew up there,
living with his parents, who served as Southern Baptist missionaries for 28
It’s also where the couple’s children — Jonathan, 5 and Joshua, 3 — were
The kids both spoke Portuguese, but now they are losing their grasp of the
Their home is in rural Pamplin, where trees are thick. Chris Harbin began
working as River Rock’s pastor in January.
“It’s a slower pace of life. We’re still getting acclimated to it,” said
Karen Harbin, reminiscing about living in the city of 3.5 million, where
grocery stores and restaurants were within walking distance.
“Our heart is to go back to Brazil, but I don’t know when or how,” she said.
“But this is where we need to be right now.”
ä Contact Michelle Brummitt at
firstname.lastname@example.org or (434) 385-5489.