A former Southern Baptist missionary fired in 2002 for teaching at a seminary in Brazil that his superiors deemed out of bounds of the 2000 “Baptist Faith & Message” said news that a missionary couple in West Africa may be terminated for working with non-Baptist missionaries to start a church that doesn’t self-identify as Baptist suggests there is “an ongoing witch-hunt among missionaries in the field.”
Harbin, now pastor of Rocks Baptist Church near Pamplin, Va., posted comments to a Web log of Wade Burleson, the International Mission Board trustee whose criticism of policies tightening doctrinal requirements for missionaries cost him censure and nearly led to his removal from the board.
Harbin asked Burleson to comment on Wednesday’s report in EthicsDaily.com naming Wyman and Michelle Dobbs, a couple who say they were asked to resign for working with Christian and Missionary Alliance missionaries to start a ‘baptistic’ church in West Africa.
Burleson said he has spent hours dealing with the situation but as a trustee cannot comment at this time. He explained in a Wednesday blog, however, that if he learns that trustees were inappropriately involved in the incident or there are significant theological or policy issues at stake he may speak out at some point in the future.
Burleson said he has spent hours on the phone regarding the issue and, at their pastor’s request, met personally with the couple, whom he declined to identify either by name or location.
He said the couple began an appeals process of a termination decision by their regional leader on Wednesday. The decision now goes to Gordon Fort, vice president for overseas operations. If he upholds the firing, they can appeal to IMB President Jerry Rankin.
Only after the appeals process is exhausted through administration can the board of trustees become involved, Burleson said, though he added he was spoken to several people involved in the internal process “on many occasions.”
“I have given consideration to the administration, believing personnel issues are matters for administration, not trustees,” Burleson said.
“However, if I find trustees were involved in this decision, or if I discover that there is a philosophical or theological conflict between the [missionaries] and their [regional leader] over board-approved policy, or if I find that the [missionaries] were operating under what they believed to be board-approved policy only to discover that the interpretation of that policy is different than what they were led to believe when appointed, then I will speak publicly. But we are not at that point yet. Everyone is still in the discovery phase.”
Harbin’s message asked Burleson: “Can you comment on the fact that missionaries are under fire related to the policies of constriction under discussion? This couple may not be fired due to tongues or baptism practices, but there appears to be an ongoing witch hunt among missionaries in the field.”
Harbin said Southern Baptists “have lost the point of missions when we spend so much energy and resources trying to root out ‘the liberals’ instead of focusing on sharing the gospel with the entire world.”
“It would seem that our policies are completely out of step with Jesus’ Great Commission, caring more for doctrinal and political agendas than taking the message of grace to the world.”
Harbin said the IMB’s purpose “is not to impose a tight doctrinal vise on the world” but rather “to fulfill Christ’s demand that we take the gospel to all the nations.”
“Falling short of that task is no light matter,” he said. “So what if we miss the mark on a few specific doctrines ‘that we [only] understand in part?’ We are still under obligation with Paul to share the good news of Christ with every people.
“Setting politics aside is not an option if we are to be faithful to Christ? As we continue down this alternate path, we act in opposition to the will of Christ.”
While declining to comment on the specifics of the process, Burleson volunteered: “What I have very little patience for is any stated, or implied, attack on this missionary couples’ character. I’m not saying that has happened, I’m just cautioning anyone involved not to even go there.”
Harbin was dismissed by the IMB in November 2002 from teaching at Baptist Seminary in Porto Alegre in the state of Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil, over 13 passages from a 200-page “Narratological Theology and Homiletics” syllabus that administrators used as evidence he was guilty of “persistent advocating of doctrinal positions inconsistent with the Baptist Faith & Message.”
Harbin said the disputed material was taken out of context and was never an issue until he refused to affirm the 2000 Baptist Faith & Message.
Harbin grew up as a missionary kid in Brazil. He and his wife, Karen, served seven years as career missionaries working in theological education. During their final year, they worked with traditionalist Gauchos, a group of 4.2 million people with little or no evangelical witness.
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.