A Southern Baptist missionary couple has been asked to resign and expects to be fired for starting a church in West Africa, in partnership with non-Baptist missionaries, that doesn’t use Baptist in its name. It exacerbates controversy between trustees of the Southern Baptist Convention International Mission Board already divided over new policies tightening missionary baptism requirements and restricting speaking in tongues.
Wyman Dobbs is an optometrist. His wife, Michelle, is a CPA. Both sacrificed careers to work in a place not only discouraging for lack of responsiveness to Christianity, but one of the more backward countries in Africa.
Water, electricity and phones often don’t work. Politically things are very unstable, and no one knows how long missionaries will be allowed to remain. The only schooling options are homeschooling–which doesn’t allow children much social interaction–or boarding school, which splits up families. For many reasons, missionaries are not lining up to go to Guinea.
Yet after eight years working with an “unreached” people group there, the couple says if they do not resign by April 15, steps will be taken to terminate their relationship with the IMB. They do not intend to resign, because they believe they are in compliance with IMB policies.
They have been working with Christian and Missionary Alliance missionaries Stephen and Lori Albright to plant a “baptistic” church—one Baptist in belief but not in name. It is one of only six church plants–all struggling and the only one involving IMB personnel–in a population of 2.5 million people who are 99.9 percent Muslim.
They also are about to take center stage in the latest round of an ongoing dispute among IMB trustees over balancing the desire to preach the gospel to as many people as possible with ensuring that churches started on the mission field are doctrinally sound.
The couple went into Guinea under IMB President Jerry Rankin’s “New Directions” plan, implemented in 1999 and renamed “Strategic Directions for the 21st Century” (SD-21) in 2003.
The strategy emphasizes strategic alliances with other “Great Commission Christians,” evangelicals who may differ with Southern Baptists on certain doctrines but agree on establishing viable and culturally relevant indigenous churches.
The number of people groups engaged by IMB personnel doubled during the first five years of the strategy, and the missionary force grew nearly 30 percent, the largest five-year growth in history.
Despite the program’s flexibility, it has in recent years drawn critics who say it lacks mechanisms to guard against “unbiblical” practices on issues like baptism, speaking in tongues and women in ministry.
While acknowledging that missionaries who receive their salaries from Southern Baptists should be expected to espouse views compatible with those who in good faith give money to support their ministries, others say practices of churches in the United States don’t always translate well into another culture.
The people to whom the Dobbses minister, for example, don’t have a word in their language for “Baptist,” their pastor, Jason Helmbacher of Immanuel Baptist Church in Sallisaw, Okla., told EthicsDaily.com.
Helmbacher traveled to the recent IMB meeting in Tampa, Fla., to defend his church members to no avail. The trustee committee he met with told him they could not officially discuss the matter until after an official motion is made for their dismissal.
But Helmbacher said John Floyd, a member of the West Africa Committee who chairs the Personnel Committee, told him, “We do not partner at the church-planting level, and we do not plant baptistic churches.” He believes both statements contradict IMB policy.
Helmbacher said he expects a motion to fire the couple to come before IMB trustees in May. An IMB spokesperson said it is against policy to comment about personnel.
Observers say their firing could affect the work of many other Southern Baptist missionaries who work closely in strategic partnerships with other evangelical Christians overseas.
One blogger said some IMB trustees appear to be more concerned with doctrinal purity than with people going to hell.
At a mission meeting four years ago, Helmbacher said, Wyman and Michelle were held up as a model for church planting in West Africa. “They were help up as the model, now they’re being fired,” he said. The pastor said they are “Baptist to the core” and he sees no reason for them to be dismissed.
They are the latest subjects in a conversation that has been going on for about two years among IMB trustees. It is behind the board’s recent controversial decisions to ban appointment of missionaries who practice a “private prayer language” and requiring missionary candidates to have been baptized in a church that practices only believer’s baptism by immersion and holds to “eternal security” of the believer, or that once saved a person cannot lose his or her salvation.
Last May IMB trustees adopted new guidelines for cooperating with other Great Commission Christian partners overseas. That set up a tier system from Level One, allowing a missionary trying to make inroads to a population segment to network with a wide variety of groups, including secular organizations, to Level Five, programs like theological education aimed at shaping Baptist work and identity, where strategic partnerships, even with Great Commission Christians, are seldom used.
Church planting is rated at Level Four, narrowing doctrinal parameters to working only with partners who align with the definition of a church as spelled out in the 2000 Baptist Faith & Message and additional guidelines spelled out by trustees in January 2005.
Helmbacher said Wyman and Michelle Dobbs did not violate policies in effect when they went to the mission field. Their church is “baptistic,” he said, which the IMB defines as “a community of baptized believers who adhere to Baptist principles and core values yet do not use the name ‘Baptist’ or any other mainline denominational identity in their self-disclosure.”
He said both signed the 2000 Baptist Faith & Message when they were asked to do so and the CMA missionaries they work with have indicated they also agree with the doctrinal statement.
In 2001 Bill Phillips resigned as regional leader for the IMB missionaries in West Africa after refusing to sign a document affirming the Baptist Faith & Message as adopted by the Southern Baptist Convention in 2000. Phillips said he had no disagreement with the content of the statement but as a matter of conscience would not sign what he viewed as a creed.
He was succeeded by Bill Bullington, who retired Sept. 1, 2004, after 38 years service as a missionary and administrator. Bullington was replaced by Randy Arnett, elected to lead the region’s 292 IMB workers in July 2004, who, according to Helmbacher, was notified of “anomalies” on the field, including the Dobbses, which needed to “be taken care of.”
The couple was due for furlough beginning April 15, but when they were asked to resign took leave a month early to avoid distractions on the field.
“We are thankful for this time with the IMB,” they said in a recent prayer newsletter. “Recently however, we have been saddened by the direction the IMB in West Africa has headed by not allowing cooperation and partnering at the church planting level with other Great Commission Christians, even if they are in agreement with the 2000 Baptist Faith & Message.”
The CMA missionaries they have worked with said in an e-mail to a blog called SBC Outpost that when they first started hearing about the conflict about eight months ago while in the United States they didn’t share the news with their children, “thinking it was so far out in left field that there was no need to burden them with it.”
“We couldn’t have been more wrong,” they said.
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.