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<p class="subtitle">The IMB doctrinal guidelines deserve SBC support</p>
<p class="byline">By JAMES A. SMITH SR.<br>Executive Editor</p>
<p class="dateline">Published: May 31, 2007</p></div>
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<p class="BodyCopy">It's time to move on.</p>
<p class="BodyCopy">That was the clear sentiment of the overwhelming majority of International Mission Board trustees May 8 in Kansas City after they convincingly adopted revised guidelines on baptism and on tongues and private prayer language used when considering prospective missionaries. The IMB vote came after a year-long study by an ad hoc committee of the board's Mission Personnel Committee, prompted by the controversy that had arisen after the initial action of the IMB in November 2005.
<p class="BodyCopy">Having had the opportunity to personally attend four IMB trustee meetings during the period of the controversy over these matters, I emphatically believe it's time for the IMB—and the Southern Baptist Convention—to move on. Critics of the new guidelines, claiming that even in their revised form it is wrong for the IMB to establish doctrinal policies that are not addressed by the Baptist Faith and Message and who wish for an intervention by the SBC, are wrong on both counts.
<p class="BodyCopy">(For further background on the IMB trustee actions, see the May 17 issue of the <i>Witness</i>. The revised guidelines are available on the <i>Witness</i> Web site, www.FloridaBaptistWitness.com.) </p>
<p class="BodyCopy">I could not express the appropriate response to the IMB's action any better than Ken Whitten, IMB trustee from Florida and senior pastor of Idlewild Baptist Church in Lutz. In an interview after the board adopted the revised guidelines, Whitten told me the "spirit of unity" on the board did not require "unanimity" among trustees, adding, "I don't believe that we have to see eye-to-eye to walk hand-in-hand." Although the issues addressed by the board are "very important," Whitten said, "I believe the spirit of the meeting was such that we're ready to move on and talk about lost peoples of the world and reach them and not have to go back and revisit some of these issues."
<p class="BodyCopy">John Russell, vice chairman of the board, trustee from Florida, and missions pastor at First Baptist Church at the Mall in Lakeland, told me as a "missions practitioner"—he leads his church's Global Reach Foundation which is currently working on 21 church plants—he supported the revised guidelines, although he opposed the baptism guideline in its original form. His amendment to the baptism guideline, accepted by the ad hoc committee, clarified the guideline so that pastors of missionary candidates would have an opportunity to work with the IMB to address any deficiency in the candidate's baptism experience.
<p class="BodyCopy">Russell told me, "Now the local church gets the reasoning for the deferral or the delay and they can help work through it, pray through it, and seek the Lord on it." Russell added that he believes that there is a significant problem "greater than any of us realize" of churches failing to adequately examine prospective church members on the matter of baptism. "I'm not casting a stone or pointing a finger at somebody else. I think I have probably done that in churches I've been the pastor of or on staff with," Russell said. The decision to change the baptism measure from a "policy" to a "guideline" was also important to Russell because it allows for "case-by-case flexibility."
<p class="BodyCopy">Kentucky trustee Paul Chitwood, chairman of the ad hoc committee and Mission Personnel Committee, explained the rationale for the guidelines in his presentation to the trustees May 8. Although the committee found no "systemic problem with charismatic practices" on the field, "the rapid spread of neo-pentecostalism and its pressure exacted on new churches in various regions of the world warrants a concern for the clear Baptist identity of our missionary candidates. Furthermore, the diversity of denominational backgrounds among missionary candidates requires a clear baptism guideline to guide the work of our candidate consultants as they consider the qualifications of candidates."
<p class="BodyCopy">Critics of the baptism and tongues/private prayer language guidelines have insisted that it's wrong for the International Mission Board to establish doctrinal qualifications that are not explicitly addressed in Southern Baptist Convention's confessional statement, the Baptist Faith and Message. But these critics—and I have interviewed all of the leading ones—have no answer for their own inconsistent application of this criticism. Although they claim that it is wrong to stipulate a doctrinal position on the matter of private prayer language since the BFM is silent on this matter, they have all told me that it's appropriate for the IMB to decline missionary candidates who believe in and practice public tongues. And yet, the BFM is also silent on that matter—as it is on many of the doctrinal issues raised by charismatic theology.
<p class="BodyCopy">To illustrate the inconsistency in the argument, I have asked several critics of the private prayer language guideline whether it would be wrong for the IMB to reject a missionary candidate who believes snake handling is a legitimate spiritual practice, even if it is a private one. The critics agreed with me that it would be appropriate for the IMB to reject such a missionary candidate—and yet, the BFM is silent on snake handling.
<p class="BodyCopy">The IMB baptism and tongues/private prayer language guidelines have ignited a broader debate in Southern Baptist life and played a prominent role in deliberations at the annual meeting last year and may this year. The rallying cry of critics is that Southern Baptists must stop narrowing the parameters of doctrinal cooperation, oftentimes suggesting that Southern Baptists should not stipulate positions for denominational employees on "secondary and tertiary issues."
<p class="BodyCopy">The implication of such calls for our entities and especially our seminaries is dangerous. If, for example, seminaries may not go beyond the BFM 2000 in evaluating the doctrinal fitness of prospective faculty members what do we do about the myriad of crucial matters of biblical and theological importance that are not addressed (and could never be) in the BFM, but are certainly relevant when carefully selecting the right kind of professors in our schools?
<p class="BodyCopy">As a former administrator and current trustee of Southern Seminary, I know how seriously trustees fulfill their duty of faculty election. Restricting trustees to evaluate faculty only within the BFM would severely undermine them and do great harm to our institutions. Consider, for example, just issues that arise from charismatic theology—it would be wrong to forbid inquiry of prospective professors' views on tongues, faith healing, "being slain in the spirit" or the "laughing revival," to cite a few issues not addressed by the BFM but are nevertheless unquestionably germane for teachers in our schools.
<p class="BodyCopy">Although not quite as extensive as the seminaries, the range of appropriate doctrinal issues not covered by the Baptist Faith and Message to consider when evaluating prospective missionaries is nevertheless significant. There very well may be a good theological and exegetical argument against the private prayer language policy, but it certainly cannot be that the BFM is silent on the matter. As to the baptism guideline, the critics have no grounds of objection as it regards the Baptist Faith and Message since the issues raised in the guidelines are clearly addressed in the BFM.
<p class="BodyCopy">The bottom line is that the International Mission Board trustees—after an exhaustive study of the issues—have acted in a manner that is consistent with their responsibilities and, if asked, messengers to the Southern Baptist Convention should not substitute their judgment on these matters. The trustees have come to a reasonable compromise on important issues. A compromise, I would add, that will not find total satisfaction from those of us who are very concerned about charismatic theology and would have wished for an even stronger statement on the matter. Such is the nature of compromise—and cooperation—in SBC life.
<p class="BodyCopy">Ken Whitten told me, "I do believe that Southern Baptists at the end of the day trust each other. They trust their boards. They trust their denomination. They trust the leadership." </p>
<p class="BodyCopy">I hope he's correct and if the SBC does address these matters next month in San Antonio that it will affirm the decisions of the IMB. It's time to move on.</p></div></div>
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