FRAMINGHAM, Mass.–The Southern Baptist Convention’s International Mission Board has terminated 13 missionaries who refused to affirm the 2000 Baptist Faith & Message. It is thought to be the largest group of SBC missionaries ever fired at once.
Meeting May 5-7 in Framingham, Mass., IMB trustees also accepted the resignations of another 20 missionaries and early retirements by 10 missionaries who likewise refused to affirm the SBC’s newly revised, and more conservative, faith statement.
The 43 missionaries parting ways with the IMB Wednesday joined ranks with at least 34 others who have resigned or retired rather than sign the document. Most said it was a matter of principle against signing a creed, a practice which they viewed as un-Baptist.
In addition to these 77 missionaries, others who have resigned or retired within the last year are believed to have done so–at least in part–to protest the faith statement, even though they didn’t state it explicitly as a reason in their letters of resignation.
Among criticism leveled at the revised faith statement is its blanket prohibition against woman pastors and that it weakens doctrines of the autonomy of the local church and priesthood of the believer. Some critics also charge the statement idolizes the Bible by removing a reference in the earlier version identifying Jesus as a guide to biblical interpretation.
But the conflict most cited by the missionaries is a feeling that being required to sign any faith statement amounts to imposing a creed–something that Baptists down through history have strongly opposed.
The missionary terminations reportedly were carried out without public opposition within the trustee board, according to an IMB spokesman.
While IMB trustees accepted the resignations and retirements and approved the firings, the board had never formally said missionaries must affirm the 2000 Baptist Faith & Message in order to continue to serve. That mandate came instead from President Jerry Rankin as an administrative action in January 2002.
Trustees did, however, affirm Rankin’s leadership, according to a news release from the IMB.
“This is not a one-man decision,” trustee chairman Bob Claytor said. “The SBC family has been in strong agreement concerning our statement of faith. Our board reflects that agreement, and 99 percent of our missionaries are also in strong agreement.”
At the May board meeting, Rankin reiterated his oft-stated position that signing the faith statement was necessary to hold missionaries accountable to the SBC.
“These missionaries are supported by Southern Baptist churches and should at least be willing to conduct their work in basic agreement with what Southern Baptists confess they believe,” Rankin said. “Although we regret that any missionary would choose to resign rather than affirm the faith statement, we feel it is time to move forward and keep our focus on sharing Christ with a lost world.”
Missionaries who have gone public with their refusal to sign the required affirmation see the situation differently, however. A recurring theme of written statements circulated by some of those missionaries is exemplified in a letter written April 28 by Don and Angie Finley of Brazil.
After Rankin issued a final “sign or resign” ultimatum to holdout missionaries in April, the Finleys determined to resign. In a letter explaining their decision to a regional IMB leader, they declared they were “not resigning because we have a problem with grassroots Southern Baptists” or “because we have done anything wrong or have something to hide.”
Rather, they asserted, “When a Baptist missionary-sending agency demands doctrinal accountability on the basis of a manmade document rather than on the basis of Scripture, something is wrong.”
“When unnamed critics are taken seriously when they make vague, generalized and unsubstantiated accusations against doctrinally sound and spiritually committed missionaries,” they continued, “…something is wrong.
“When denominational politics takes precedence over mission priorities, and missionaries themselves are made pawns in a denominational political game, something is wrong.”
A subcommittee chairman of the Baptist General Convention of Texas Missions Review & Initiatives Committee expressed sadness at news of the terminations. Dan Malone, an El Paso attorney, chaired the panel that studied the state convention’s relationship to the IMB last year.
“Of the many disappointments and frustrations since the so-called ‘conservative resurgence,’ the firing of God-called missionaries is far and away the saddest day of all,” Malone said. “I am particularly alarmed that it was President Rankin’s request to his IMB trustees to take this action, because he had previously promised that missionaries would never be obligated to sign a doctrinal statement as long as he was president. The pressure placed on him and other IMB leaders must be intense.”
Names of the missionaries who were fired or who resigned or retired rather than sign the statement were not released by the IMB.
Going into the trustee meeting, 31 missionaries faced possible termination. Twenty-five had been given a May 5 “sign or resign” ultimatum. Six were given no option but to resign or be fired.
Those six–Ron Hankins and Lydia Barrow-Hankins of Japan, Rick and Nancy Dill of Germany and Leon and Kathy Johnson of Mozambique–told reporters prior to the meeting that they would not resign. Each of these couples has more than 20 years service with the IMB.
The IMB employs about 5,500 missionaries, including career and short-term appointees.
The revised SBC doctrinal statement was the sole public issue surrounding the May 7 firings. The IMB offered no criticism of the ministries of the dismissed missionaries, and no allegation of immoral or unethical behavior.
Mark Wingfield is managing editor of the Baptist Standard. This story is used with permission.