BEIRUT, Lebanon–European Baptist leaders voiced intense dissatisfaction with the Southern Baptist Convention’s International Mission Board at the general council meeting of the European Baptist Federation last week in Beirut, Lebanon.
In interviews and discussions, EBF leaders shared negative experiences with the IMB from their own Baptist conventions or unions, feelings aggravated by the SBC’s withdrawal from the Baptist World Alliance–partly on charges of European liberalism–and by the IMB’s increasingly unilateral approach.
Yanis Smits, bishop of the Baptist Union of Latvia, told EthicsDaily.com that many European Baptists love Southern Baptists but “are deeply saddened and hurt by the separation issue.”
Smits characterized the IMB like this: “They are sometimes not honest and have a hidden agenda.”
Teodor Oprenov, general secretary of the Baptist Union of Bulgaria, viewed the Southern Baptist mission board as having “a lot of hidden agendas” and compared its approach to that of the Communist Party.
The pastor of the largest Baptist church in Spain said the IMB has 20 couples in his country, but the national Baptists do not know the nature of their assignments.
We “don’t know who they are,” said Jorge Pastor, pastor of Trinity Baptist Church in Denia, adding there were “no communications” between the IMB and the Baptist Union of Spain about placing the missionaries.
“For 50 years we worked strongly together in a very good way,” he said. “The new philosophy is working alone without the nationals, doing their own work, their own strategy.”
Smits told EthicsDaily.com that Latvian Baptists were surprised that without any invitation a few months ago a missionary entered the country as a tourist and prolonged his visa as a student. Smits said he was informed the “IMB missionary was named to coordinate the work in Latvia” and “without any discussion of partnership.”
“Our view is that missionaries should come according to our invitation when and where help is needed, not to do their church planting when their fruit will be no result,” the Latvian Baptist leader said.
Smits said he would prefer that foreign missionaries “interested in church planting should work with our own indigenous church planter as a team. In that case, that would be a good tandem.”
Oprenov said in an interview that IMB missionaries in his country developed a new mission strategy but have not shared it with Bulgarian Baptists.
“They have their own meetings,” he said. “We feel ignored. Only one time in my life have I felt this way, and that was [when] the Communist Party [ruled Bulgaria].”
Oprenov said he told IMB representatives attending the meeting in Beirut that “the level of communications between the local unions and the mission has been rapidly deteriorating.”
Pastor went even further, charging that the IMB had violated the Bible.
“It’s biblical that we work through the churches,” he told EthicsDaily.com. The “IMB doesn’t work through churches—who’s going to disciple the unreached people, the new believers?”
In the partners’ report time at the general council meeting, IMB representative Sam James pledged to participants, “I want to tell you that we have heard you.” He promised to share the feelings of the Europeans with the IMB at its next leadership meeting in November.
Another IMB representative, Tom Williams, said that “disunity brings dishonor to God.”
“I know that there has been a lot of hurt,” he said. “I am deeply sorry for the hurt you have felt.”
Having heard similar commitments over the past 15 years, however, a number of Europeans told EthicsDaily.com they were skeptical that the IMB would change its practices.
Retired Baptist missionary John Merritt chaired a meeting in 1991 in Hamburg, Germany, where IMB representatives appeared contrite after trustees defunded the International Baptist Theological Seminary in Ruschlikon, Switzerland, breaking a pledge to gradually phase out funding and turn control of the school over to European Baptists in an orderly fashion.
Merritt, who was general secretary of European Baptist Convention, a union of English-speaking churches, describes the meeting between two IMB administrators, three IMB trustees and seven representatives from EBF in a new book, The Betrayal of Southern Baptist Missionaries by Southern Baptist Leaders: 1979-2004.
According to Merritt’s account, Skip Smith, chairman of the IMB’s Europe committee, said: “I am sorry. We were wrong. All we can do is to ask for forgiveness.”
Following the apologies of the other IMB representatives–Sam James, Don Kammendiner, Bill Blanchard and John Jackson–Merritt led the group in prayer. The group then drew up the Hamburg Accord, a partnership agreement.
When the IMB representatives reported on the meeting to their full board, however, they denied that they offered an apology, although they did admit that they acknowledged to the Europeans that mistakes were made.
In remarks to the full council, new EBF General Secretary Tony Peck discussed the rift between the SBC and BWA. “It’s tragic that Baptists are divided,” Peck said. “European Baptists are quite hurt.”
Peck said the EBF wants “to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the BWA” and that the EBF executive committee would monitor IMB activity and review the situation in March.
“We have a window of opportunity to try to rebuild a true partnership, working with one another and not independent from one another,” Peck said. “This window will not last forever.”
“We hope we can rebuild this partnership,” Peck said, but, “It has to be a partnership.”
The three IMB representatives attending the council meeting were not seen the next day at the Badaro Baptist Church, where the Sunday morning worship involved Peck’s commissioning.
Robert Parham is the executive editor of EthicsDaily.com.