May 5

By Michael Clingenpeel


I write this on Monday, May 5, the date set by International Mission Board president Jerry Rankin as the deadline for Southern Baptist missionaries to affirm the 2000 Baptist Faith and Message statement or be terminated.  I have a deadline for this column later today and, by the time the Religious Herald [Virginia Baptist state newspaper] rolls off the press and lands in the mail, our missionaries will have met Rankin's. Or not.


Most, apparently, have made up their minds already. Of 5,500 overseas workers only 73 career missionaries have not affirmed the doctrinal statement, says the IMB. Forty-two have resigned or soon plan to. The other 31 received letters from Rankin last month asking them to resign or be fired. Six of these were told they held positions "beyond acceptable parameters," so they have no future with the IMB.


If you try even a little you can empathize with the Missionaries'quandary. God impressed upon them a missionary calling, opened a specific location and channel (the IMB) through which to fulfill it, and blessed them with enough affirmation to keep them on the field for some years. Under a different administration at the then Foreign Mission Board they jumped through a narrow set of hoops designed to weed out all but the most qualified, including an affirmation that their doctrinal beliefs were "in substantial agreement with" the BF&M of 1963, then the denomination's standard.  Then the Southern Baptist Convention changed. The IMB altered its name, administrative structure and missions strategy, and the SBC rewrote its doctrinal parameters.


In 2001 IMB trustees said they would not require missionaries on the field to endorse the BF&M 2000. In February 2002, Rankin wrote and asked missionaries to affirm the BF&M 2000, with assurances that those who didn't would not necessarily be fired. By August he said inaction regarding the doctrinal statement would be like the government knowing about a terrorist plot prior to 9/11 and failing to act. Last month he acted - sign or else. The doctrinal noose, already around their necks, was yanked tight.


The missionaries who refuse to sign are not bad missionaries, but they picked a bad time to be missionaries under the IMB's appointment. Dinosaurs and traditional Baptist missionaries are extinct for the same reason - their climate changed.  Is it fair to set doctrinal or moral parameters for Denominational employees? Of course. Baptists should have a reason to be confident that employees who draw income from gifts to the denomination hold to doctrinal and moral standards that are clear and limited to faith's essentials. That is true for the SBC, Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and Baptist General Association of Virginia.


Accountability to the denomination is nothing new. In his charge to Southern Baptists' first missionaries to China, delivered on June 15, 1846, James B. Taylor reminded them they were to fulfill whatever is "demanded by the sentiment of the churches." Said Taylor: "It is ours to regard the will of the denomination in all plans which may be adopted."


Two aspects of this particular doctrinal parameter, however, are new and galling. The first is the content of the BF&M 2000. Some missionaries, along with most traditional Baptists, find it repugnant, if not heretical. It places a higher value on the Bible than on Jesus, rejects the calling of women to pastoral ministry, creates a hierarchy of authority for family and church relationships, undermines the concept of soul competency and exalts itself as an "instrument of doctrinal accountability."


Second, missionaries and other denominational employees in the past were allowed to acknowledge disagreement with portions of the BF&M so long as they would conduct their work "in accordance with and not contrary to" it. The action of the IMB and other SBC agencies to require rigid endorsement of BF&M 2000 takes enforcement to a new level. Since its passage in June 2000 it has become a requirement to believe every last word of it. The first is not creedal; the second is.  The missionaries who are fired or resign over the BF&M 2000 will survive, just like thousands of laity who lose their jobs due to a change in their employer's management, products or business fortunes. Calling doesn't change just because one's sponsorship does. Lots of people have ideal jobs that dry up. Not everyone gets first choice.  Events like May 5 are, after all, becoming routine after 24 years [of denominational strife]


Michael Clingenpeel is editor and business manager of the Religious Herald, state newspaper of the Baptist General Association of Virginia.


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