A recent letter from International Mission Board President Jerry Rankin gave a few remaining holdout Southern Baptist Convention missionaries an ultimatum that finally spelled out what most folks have assumed all along. Failure to sign a statement affirming the 2000 Baptist Faith and Message has consequences, and the consequences are spelled t-e-r-m-i-n-a-t-i-o-n.
IMB officials have insisted for more than a year that missionaries who refused to sign were simply choosing to no longer be employed by the IMB, so they weren’t really terminated.
I don’t want to pick on the IMB–the North American Mission Board, the six Southern Baptist seminaries and most other SBC entities also require many of their program workers to affirm the doctrinal statement if they desire continued employment. It’s just that Baptists have such a deep-seated admiration for our veteran “foreign” missionaries that we get misty-eyed when they get the ax.
Employees of the various Baptist bodies have generally been told that their affirmation of the 2000 Baptist Faith and Message is essential for maintaining the integrity of their institutions and their accountability to the churches.
But issues of integrity and accountability go far deeper than ink soaking into the paper at the bottom of a form.
What does it prove to have missionaries and other employees sign on the dotted line? Does it guarantee they really believe or agree to conduct themselves in accord with the doctrinal positions their signature affirms?
Most people who have signed papers for a home mortgage, a hospital stay, or a software license agreement have almost certainly signed documents they didn’t fully read or understand, but they knew the signature was necessary.
Knowing that missionaries and other denominational employees have written their name at the bottom of a form gives me no confidence at all that they are any more accountable or fit for their position.
What I want to know is whether God has called them to the task.
What I want to know is if they love God with all their hearts and love others as themselves.
As Malcolm Tolbert shows eloquently and often in his new book, Shaping the Church, God’s desire from Genesis 1 onward has been to create a community of people who love God with all their being and love their neighbors as themselves.
Our human penchants for sinful rebellion on the one hand and religious rule-making on the other have persistently fostered division rather than community building among those who would serve God.
In a world caught between lawlessness and legalism, Jesus proclaimed love.
The gospels contain accounts of how Jesus gave his own reinterpretation of Old Testament law. They tell us how Jesus spoke of God’s kingdom breaking into the world in ways not previously conceived.
And, they include brief summaries of what Jesus taught.
When Jesus summarizes his teaching, Christians should pay attention.
In Matthew 22:37-40, Jesus summed up God’s expectations of humankind as expressed in the Hebrew scriptures: “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
John’s gospel records Jesus’ summation of what he expected of those who would experience redemption and follow him: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you” (John 15:12).
That’s what I want to know about missionaries, about pastors, about denominational employees and about Christians in general.
I don’t want to know if they affirm a long list of specific doctrinal positions favored by those who currently have the most votes.
I want to know if they are being accountable to the clear and simple teaching of Jesus.
Do they love God with all their hearts?
Do they love one another as Jesus loved them?
Those are the questions that matter, and their answers are written in a person’s life and blood, not on a form for the file.
Tony W. Cartledge is editor of the Biblical Recorder in Raleigh, N.C. This editorial is used with permission.
Professor of Old Testament at Campbell University Divinity School in Buies Creek, North Carolina, and the Contributing Editor and Curriculum Writer at Good Faith Media.