The following editorial was published in the Feb. 4 issue of Baptist Standard.
Grief and agony laced the words of a father who called last week. His children live half a world away, where they have devoted their lives to spreading the gospel. They traded security of home for solitude of the mission field. They forsook comfort, ambition and fellowship of friends and family for deprivation, disease and loneliness. They committed themselves with joy, following God’s call to missions. They embraced God’s gift of grace in the face of unadorned obedience. They faithfully followed the Lord’s leadership, and they are fulfilled by their heavenly Father’s favor.
Now, they must decide if they will affirm the 2000 Baptist Faith & Message statement. That’s the latest requirement imposed upon them, at least if they wish to continue ministering to people they love, people who have not been reached by the Christian gospel.
Jerry Rankin, president of the Southern Baptist International Mission Board, dropped this requirement on their shoulders and upon all IMB missionaries. Last year, IMB administrators and trustees agreed missionaries would not be required to sign the 2000 Baptist Faith & Message in order to continue to serve on foreign fields. The mission board already had in place an intense missionary-appointment program. The process involves detailed theological reflection and discussion. Prospective missionaries are examined more thoroughly than candidates for any other Baptist ministry. Missionaries already demonstrated their love for Christ, obedience to God, belief in the Bible and faithfulness to Baptist principles, or so the thinking went.
But Rankin received unrelenting pressure to force the missionaries to conform. “This issue has continued to generate controversy through the convention and suspicion regarding some related to Southern Baptist entities who may not be in agreement with what Southern Baptists have identified as the common confession of our faith,” he wrote in a letter to missionaries, which instructed them to sign the faith statement. “There are many who feel strongly that those being supported by the denomination should be willing to pledge affirmation and support for the current BF&M, especially those serving with the mission board. Failure to ask for this affirmation is creating suspicion that there are IMB personnel whose beliefs and practices are inconsistent with those represented by Southern Baptists.” So, Rankin reneged. Missionaries must sign.
That’s what broke the heart of the father who called last week. His children love God supremely. They follow Christ totally. They trust the Holy Spirit unreservedly. They believe the Bible completely. They already have demonstrated their faith and commitment.
Let the SBC fundamentalists who pushed this new requirement travel to the other side of the globe, where young missionaries serve, the father reasons. Let them spend a month alongside the missionaries. Let them endure extremes of climate and living conditions. Let them expose themselves to disease and hunger and injury. Let them experience loneliness and discouragement. Let them watch these young servants faithfully and obediently proclaim the gospel to people who never have heard of Jesus. Let them feel the danger of the mission as well as the joy of service and the peace of God’s presence with these young people. “And then let them come back and tell me my children are not faithful followers of Jesus Christ.”
Some have advised the missionaries to sign the Baptist Faith & Message, whether they agree with all its points, and then go about their ministry. “You were not raised that way,” the father reminded his children. In this family, and in many true Baptist families, honesty and integrity count.
You must understand, this father pleads, that these young missionaries are not “liberals.” They are conservative by any reasonable standard of biblical and theological orthodoxy. They believe about God, the Bible, humanity, sin, the church and missions as their Baptist forebears have believed for centuries.
The father did not elaborate on the specifics of why his children may not sign this new Baptist Faith & Message. If they are like a majority of Texas Baptists who have considered this issue the past couple of years, they have at least three problems with it: First, it defines itself as “an instrument of doctrinal accountability.” That sounds suspiciously like a creed. Early Baptists were drowned and burned at the stake for refusing to affirm creeds. Second, it no longer says Jesus is the “criterion” by which all Scripture is to be judged. Many Baptists, particularly in Texas, believe this puts the Bible on par with Jesus, which is blasphemy. Third, it denies a local church the right to choose whomever it believes God has called to be its pastor. This violates a central tenet of what being Baptist means.
As this father agonizes for his children, missionaries his age and older grieve for their ministries. You see, this isn’t a dilemma for young missionaries alone. Only God knows how many career missionaries who have given decades to the Lord’s service will be called into question if they refuse to violate their consciences in order to affirm a human, fallible, man-made creed.
This is a missions tragedy of unprecedented proportions. For the past two decades, some Baptists in Texas have refused to take a stand in the controversy that has engulfed our convention. “Who will protect the missionaries if we abandon them?” they have asked. Now, they must ask, “Who will protect the missionaries from their bosses?”
Coordinator of Fellowship Southwest, an intentionally ecumenical, multicultural, multiracial Cooperative Baptist Fellowship network, and a member of Good Faith Media’s strategic advisory board for news and opinion.