Christopher B. Harbin
Rocks Baptist Church
RR1 Box 80A
Pamplin, VA 23958
06 February 2004
Dr. Morris Chapman
Executive Committee, SBC
901 Commerce Street, Suite 700
Nashville, TN 37203
Grace to you in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, our Redeemer, the only and sufficient Savior of all who would draw near to the heavenly throne of Grace.
As the pastor of a Southern Baptist church, I am dismayed by the action suggested by the SBC’s Baptist World Alliance study committee, and the implications of plans for withdrawal from the BWA in light of comments made by officials of SBC agencies, including your own.
The committee report levels five basic charges against the BWA: 1) heresy, 2) anti-American tone, 3) criticism of the International Mission Board, 4) refusal to allow open discussion of issues, and 5) funding questionable enterprises. In your letter to Miles Wesner (Tom Baptist Church), you indicate that there has been much prayer and thoughtful consideration by the committee in leveling these strong charges against the Baptist World Alliance. As I continue to await your publishing further information on www.baptist2baptist.net, I would call to mind several issues that demand consideration and response by responsible convention leadership.
1) As to the allegations of organizationally supported heresy on the part of the BWA, Ian Chapman and Erich Geldbach have gone on record to deny the committee’s allegations of disbelief in the existence of the Great Commission or its origination in Jesus. I find it amazing that the committee would ignore this response and pretend to have made its case by declaring the BWA guilty on the basis of false witness. The Spanish Inquisitors had more grace and integrity than to accuse someone of heresy without allowing and accepting a response from the accused. They even allowed for a change of heart on behalf of those accused of taking positions contrary to those of the Church.
On the other hand, the report’s undefined accusations of heresy seem to revolve around issues of SBC doctrine as specifically articulated in the Baptist Faith and Message 2000, not historic Baptist doctrines, nor by fidelity to the Bible. The committee seems happy to ignore that the BF&M 2000 is one interpretation of Scripture and only a summary statement of what some Baptists believe. (I assume you are aware that the statement was not adopted by a unanimous vote). If the issue is that Baptists around the world have not adopted the BF&M 2000 as their definitive statement of faith, you ought to have the courage to state that openly. Baptists around the world have not adopted the doctrines of SBC fundamentalism. Not accepting the theological and doctrinal opinions of SBC leadership as infallible doctrinal statements does not make them heretics. Baptists have long held to the sole lordship of Christ Jesus, not to a Sanhedrin, Pope, or other ecclesiastical body. An individual or group has every right to declare their beliefs openly. Declaring all other interpretations as heresy, however, is to place oneself above Paul’s warning limitation that “now we see indistinctly, as in a mirror.” The finite cannot comprehend the infinite.
2) With regard to an anti-American tone, I can only guess at the underlying issues. I would wonder how much of the committee’s perception of said tone is the rejection of fundamentalism by Baptists around the world. In recent years, it would seem that the only issues of worth for SBC leadership have been their own issues. The rest of the world does not care so much for waving the banner of fundamentalism and demanding that cooperation depend upon narrowly defined doctrinal pronouncements. Paul writes very clearly that anyone who sponsors division and dissension is to be reproved twice, then shunned. He deems quarrels about interpretations of Scripture as essentially worthless.
In over twenty years of living overseas, I have noted very little anti-American tone apart from the repudiation of paternalistic attitudes. What I have encountered is a pervasive sense that American political policy couples imperialistic tendencies with a paternalistic sense of superiority. Among Baptists, any negative tone has always been tempered with expressions of thankfulness for the way Baptists in the US have shared faith through our missionary efforts across the years. Unfortunately, current SBC leadership is seen as pushing ideology and theological perspective from a standpoint of superiority. The gospel demands humility in its presentation, for we are called to be servants of God, not masters of mankind.
If your concerns are with criticism of the policies of the United States government, there is no valid Biblical reason for concern on this issue. As an American citizen, I value democracy and many of the safeguards of a constitutional government. There is big difference, however, between submission to the Lordship of Christ Jesus and the blanket acceptance of the current policies of any state. We must bear in mind that political policies are subject to change and are never definitive answers to the needs of the world. There is no Biblical mandate to value governmental policies over the unity of the body of Christ. The Revelation to John would declares exactly the opposite. The United States government is not John’s “Babylon,” but neither is it God.
3) As to criticism of the International Mission Board, I can speak directly, as I have been related to the Foreign Mission Board and International Mission Board, as an MK, BSU summer missionary, church planter apprentice, and career missionary. I have heard criticism of the IMB both in the US and overseas. I have heard criticism from Baptists who support missions, and from missionary colleagues. I have heard criticism from Christians and non-Christians alike. I have heard little other than praise for missionaries giving their time, talents, efforts, and lives in service. I have heard great disappointment from Baptists around the globe as to organizational and directional changes at the IMB. Baptists overseas historically viewed the missionaries as partners in the gospel. In recent years, the IMB has become much less of a partner, developing its own plans and strategies with less and less room for external input. Again, imposition through a position of superiority finds reflection in the work of the IMB under fundamentalist direction.
None of us is above criticism, regardless of John Yeats’ comments Oklahoma Baptist Messenger. “For by the grace given to me, I tell everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he should think. Instead, think sensibly, as God has distributed a measure of faith to each one.” Sober judgement requires the grace of humility.
If criticism of an SBC institution is sufficient grounds for severing ties, when will the SBC cut off those state conventions and churches who have dared to criticize demands that denominational employees sign a man-made document as the only, sufficient definition of orthodoxy? As a pastor and professor, I have always found criticism to be an ally. It allows me to review my words, thoughts, actions, beliefs, and direction. It provides the balance of perspective. I have also found that it is the immature and those with a shaky faith that cannot abide criticism. I do not expect a denomination’s leaders to be so insecure in their faith and its application.
4) As to the charge that the BWA does not allow for open discussion of issues, what issues did SBC representatives ever bring to the appropriate BWA committees for discussion? BWA officials insist there were no proposals brought to discuss the issues cited by the report. Have we really come to the place that integrity means so little in denominational life? I clearly remember an IMB regional leader saying, “Integrity means different things to different people.” Apparently, it does not mean that SBC leadership should be truthful, forthright, and honest. Does it simply mean that SBC leaders should be true to “the cause” of fundamentalism? As a Baptist, a pastor, and a Christian, such a definition is completely unacceptable. Integrity is to have the courage to stand openly and truthfully behind one’s convictions.
5) The committee’s report declares that Baptist World Aid funds “questionable enterprises,” and yet not a single example was set forth. On the basis of your report, I would call this an unfounded accusation.
Your comments as to a better use of SBC funds currently earmarked for the Baptist World Alliance raise their own questions. In developing a new program for relationship with “like-minded Christians,” you seem to propose developing a new forum through which to respond to requests for seminars or clinics on doctrine, church growth, missions, and evangelism. The fact that the IMB already has structures and processes in place to accomplish these objectives in a more contextualized manner raises the question: can the International Mission Board not fulfill its task, or does the SBC Executive Committee not trust the IMB’s fidelity to fundamentalist indoctrination? It is most interesting to note that one of the members of the BWA study committee recently released Southeastern Seminary professor Keith Eitel’s paper criticizing the IMB for not being sufficiently stringent in enforcing the doctrinal parameters of extreme fundamentalism.
Your stated desire for “Southern Baptists to press their convictions upon others” is out of line with Biblical mandates for teaching, preaching, discipling, and witnessing. It falls in line with the aims of the Crusades and the Inquisition—evangelization and indoctrination at the point of the sword. That serves the interests of human political power structures, not the extension of God’s rule in human lives.
The Great Commission is to disciple the nations, not to indoctrinate them and fashion them in our image. To disciple the nations, we must walk together and impart the full range of Jesus’ teaching, including the mandates for love, unity, and receiving the downtrodden as the most important in the reign of God. Would that Southern Baptists could once again learn surrender to the lordship of Jesus Christ and lay aside agendas for power, comfort, and self-protection. We seem to have forgotten that to accept Christ as Lord means stepping out of our personal comfort zones and trusting God to change the hearts of others. We share our convictions, but we allow others to walk away, even as we strive “diligently keeping the unity of the Spirit with the peace that binds [us].”
Unity is not one of the peripheral optional enhancements of the gospel. It is a requirement. It may be difficult to achieve. It may be “uncomfortable for Southern Baptists,” as Jerry Rankin has noted. We were not called to live in our comfort zones, however, but to follow Christ to the discomfort of the cross.
“It is expected of managers that each one be found faithful.” We are entrusted with the precious commodity of the gospel of Jesus Christ. May you have the courage to stand for Christ Jesus and defend the good news of God’s grace and love. “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope at your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.”
The committee report accuses the BWA of harboring positions contrary to the New Testament. As I have outlined here briefly, the committee’s stance clearly falls short of repeated Biblical injunctions to unity in purpose and mission. Such unity demands voluntary cooperation. We (all who accept faith in Christ Jesus) are jointly the body of Christ, whether we like it or not. It is the world of Baptists and other Christians that are that nebulous “universal church” or body of Christ. We should not lay aside our convictions and ignore differences of opinion, interpretation, and tradition, but we must place those issues in submission to the gospel demands of unity.
The Bible does not demand unity in doctrinal understanding. It demands unity in love and action. Jesus did not say, “By this shall all men know that you are my disciples: if you subscribe to the same statements of doctrine.” Jesus called us to love that expresses itself “in word and in deed,” seeking to edify one another. Withdrawal from the fellowship of the BWA is not edifying to the body of Christ. The committee’s report bears false witness to the actions and integrity of BWA leaders and officials. The report completely ignores the fact that the member bodies of the BWA are the very Baptist bodies with whom Southern Baptist missionaries and volunteers work overseas. Your proposal to withdraw from the BWA, says that you no longer wish to work alongside Baptists from around the world. You are severing the SBC (and, consequently, the IMB) from its partnership with members of its own body—the diverse membership of the body of Christ.
“United, we stand; divided, we fall,” failing to measure up to the demands of unity in the gospel. Will we surrender all to be the presence and body of Christ, or will we be the cause of another’s stumbling? If we are to cause others to stumble by promoting division, confusion, conflict, and working against unity and fellowship among the body of Christ, we have failed the gospel. Jesus said that it is better to be drowned in the sea than to become a stumbling block. He suggested that forgiveness is not based on the measure of repentance, just as unity in the body requires sacrificial efforts to regain unity. “Where two or three are joined in my name, there am I in their midst.”
In final analysis, the gospel is about surrendering self to the lordship of Christ and growing together as the one body we become. Christians are the body of Christ—the bride being prepared to join with Him. If we decide that unity among Baptists is too much trouble, how will we participate in the larger body of Christ? The demands of the gospel may not be comfortable, but we were not called to comfort. We were called to follow the example of Christ, take up our cross and give our very lives in love to others.
“For we too were once foolish,
disobedient, deceived, captives of various passions and pleasures, living in
malice and envy, hateful, detesting one another. But when the goodness and love
for man appeared from God our Savior, He saved us—not by works of righteousness
that we had done, but according to His mercy, through the washing of
regeneration and renewal by the Holy Spirit.
May the grace and peace of Christ Jesus strengthen you for every good work, giving you the courage to work for the unity of the body of Christ to which we were called. Reconciliation is often hard to achieve, but it is a requirement of our Lord. If we do not strive for unity in Christ, we deny His lordship, His word, and the demands of discipleship. Leaders of Baptist unions and conventions around the world have called on Southern Baptists to lay aside differences and work together with the larger world body of Baptists. It is my prayer that you would heed their cry and obey the demand of Christ Jesus.
What good is it to hold fast to the inerrancy of the Bible while ignoring its teaching and commands? What is the use of claiming the Lordship of Christ and refusing to live under it? Indeed, Jesus came to testify to the truth, and we must heed that truth if we claim to belong to Him.
In His service,
Christopher B. Harbin
Pastor, Rocks Baptist Church, est. 1772
Cc: Jerry Rankin, IMB
Paige Patterson, SWBTS
Keith Eitel, SEBTS
John Yeats, Baptist Messenger
Denton Lotz, BWA
 HCSB, 1st Corinthians 13:12.
 Titus 3:6-11.
 HCSB, Romans 12:3.
 Galatians 2:11-14.
 Morris Chapman, letter to Miles Wesner.
 HCSB, Ephesians 4:3.
 HCSB, 1st Corinthians 4:2.
 HCSB, Ephesians 4:4-6.
 Matthew 18:6-20; John 17:11; Acts 2:43-47; Romans 12:4-5; 1st Corinthians 12:12-27; Ephesians 2:14-19; 5:29-30; Philippians 1:15-27; Colossians 3:12-16; 1st Peter 3:8-9; 1st John 3:11-24; Revelation 7:13-17.
 1st John 3:18; Romans 12:9; 2nd Corinthians 6:3-13.; 1st John 4:21-5:4.
 Matthew 18:20.
 Luke 9:23.
 John 10:11-17; 13:36-38; 15:12-14; 21:18-23.
 HCSB, Titus 3:3-7.
 John 18:37.
Chris and his wife Karen, are former IMB missionaries to Brazil who were victims of the purges in the Southern Baptist Convention related to the 2000 Baptist Faith and Message.
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