Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Post-Takeover SBC Missions (Part 1): A Tragic History

In this series, I will take us through a story documenting the conservative resurgence/fundamentalist takeover of SBC missions. As a story these posts are not intended to stand alone, so I hope you will stick with me this week and follow along.

In 2002, then-president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s International Mission Board (IMB) Jerry Rankin sent a letter to all IMB missionaries worldwide (some 5,100 individuals at that time) “requesting” they sign a document. What was this document and to what did it ask missionaries to commit? Why were missionaries being asked to sign it? Was it really a request? What would the consequences be of signing it or not signing it? And what do these decade-old events have to do with OBU now in 2012?

  In the next several posts we’re going to look at the history of this event and its consequences. During my research, I’ve discovered these events to be yet another tragic chapter in the development of the fundamentalist takeover of the SBC. I hope you’ll bear with me through these next posts through which we will see what the actions taken in January 2002 and forward by Rankin and the IMB have to do with our effort to Save OBU.

Having been involved in multiple opportunities to volunteer with and work alongside of dozens of Southern Baptist-affiliated missionaries, both overseas and here in the US, I can attest that these are in general courageous and devoted people. Many risk their lives on a daily basis to serve others around the world in places that are hostile or dangerous. All choose to forsake a “normal” American life near to family and friends and a familiar culture. In my experience, my friends who are missionaries, even those who may have doctrinally fundamentalist leanings, seem freer often than Southern Baptists at home from the embattlements of SBC politics – it’s my personal thought that they are more focused on the real center of Christianity, and not as much on peripherals or non-essentials. However, unfortunately they have not been unaffected by these political games nor by the fundamentalist take-over of the SBC, as we will see.

The SBC does not - well, cannot - require autonomous individual churches, associations, or state conventions to adopt the BFM as their statement of faith. Nor do all congregations agree with the statement in its entirety themselves.

Nevertheless, administrators of Southern Baptist missions organizations, specifically the IMB, now require their personnel to sign a document which affirms the 2000 BF&M [1]. But what of traditional Baptist beliefs such as freedom of conscience before God and the priesthood of all believers?

In January of 2002, then IMB president Jerry Rankin wrote a letter “requesting” that all IMB missionaries sign a document affirming the 2000 BF&M. Such a move was unprecedented in IMB policy, as we will explore in the next post. Missionaries were allowed to note points of disagreement with the 2000 BF&M, but were still expected to sign the document. If a missionary noted disagreements, according to Rankin they would be “counseled” by regional IMB leaders. Mark Wingfield (Baptist Standard) summarized the situation concisely in March of 2002:
Rankin recently wrote to IMB missionaries around the world, asking them to sign a statement indicating their agreement with the controversial 2000 Baptist Faith & Message crafted by SBC leadership but rejected by the [Baptist General Convention of Texas] as an un-Baptist creed. Missionaries who do not agree with every part of the SBC's faith statement will be allowed to note areas of disagreement and then will be ‘counseled’ by regional leadership, Rankin has said. While Rankin has not publicly said what will happen to missionaries who do not sign, numerous reports from missionaries on the field indicate they perceive the mandate as threatening their employment (emphasis added).

A month after this new policy’s implementation, Rankin told the press that it was “pure speculation” that those missionaries who do not sign will be fired. The Baptist Standard paraphrased IMB trustee, Rev. Tim McCoy, who said, ‘“employee policies also forbid missionaries from repeatedly advocating views that are contrary to those outlined in the Baptist Faith & Message’” (emphasis added). So, ostensibly, if an IMB missionary believes that women can be ordained ministers and admits as much on multiple occasions, s/he will face consequences. Or, if an IMB missionary simply cannot sign the document to begin with, s/he will also face consequences. However, Rankin and the trustees had not yet publically declared what these consequences would be, even after the policy was implemented. Rankin admitted as of February 2002 that, “‘We haven't talked about the consequences,’ [Rankin] said. ‘We may have to deal with that in the future.’”

Surely they must have something in mind? It is difficult to believe that Rankin and his board never collectively thought through what they will do to missionaries who cannot sign the document before implementing this policy in January.

Rankin further commented that he "hopes no ‘minor detail of disagreement’ would prevent someone called by God from fulfilling his or her missionary assignment…‘To me [Rankin], it is untenable that a person would be disobedient to their call.’”

Rankin’s comments highlight an interesting picture. For Rankin it is “untenable” that missionaries would be “disobedient to their call” to missions, but it is not untenable that they would be disobedient to their God-given conscience and spirit freedom in signing the document. Such is the nature of militant fundamentalism. It’s obvious that Rankin’s comments blatantly demonstrate his hope that some missionaries’ commitment to their divine call to ministry will override their individual consciences and concerns with the 2000 BF&M, in strapping them in their work with a document many will not be able to agree with either in principal or in particular. They were trapped because if they refused to sign, they no longer have the organizational apparatus or funding to support their ministry overseas, effectively grounding them stateside and ending their overseas ministry.

But extreme consequences were just “pure speculation,” right? These missionaries wouldn’t really be terminated from the IMB for conscientiously refusing to sign this document? To do so would be an un-Baptist violation of freedom of conscience, right?

Many missionaries did not feel comforted by Rankin’s words. To Rankin’s and the IMB board of trustees’ chagrin, the Baptist General Convention of Texas was already forming a safety net for missionaries they anticipated would be terminated for not signing or who would resign early rather than violate conscience:
 “More than 60 IMB missionary couples already have indicated to a BGCT missions study committee that they will not sign the faith statement and fear for their jobs. Excerpts from some of their comments were read to [BGCT] Executive Board members [on] Feb. 26 [2002],” Wingfield further reported in February.

Tomorrow, we continue the sad story of how politics and fundamentalism won out over mission priorities and engagement.
[1] The IMB’s domestic counterpart, the North American Mission Board, also now requires all missionaries who receive 100% of their support through NAMB to sign in affirmation of the 2000 BF&M. However, this amounted to only 50 or so personnel, since most NAMB missionaries are also funded through state conventions and local associations who freely affiliate with the SBC. The documentation and journalism mainly covered the events surrounding the IMB, so that’s where we will focus for these posts.