A year ago, the International Mission Board president Jerry Rankin requested that all IMB missionaries work according to the newly revised 2000 Baptist Faith and Message. However, several missionaries have yet to announce their stance on the new doctrines.
Avery Willis, and IMB vice-president for overseas operations has been contacting many of the undecided workers by phone, asking personally about their reasons for delaying or refusing. The phone calls are being made in response of many months of dialogue between missionaries and IMB regional leaders.
Backlash from the missionary contacting has been limited but sharp. One such couple that was contacted by Willis responded with a chiding letter in an anonymous email against the BF&M statements. However, other workers have expressed support for Rankin, asking for overseas personnel to work in accordance of the revised Southern Baptist statement of faith.
Currently, new missionaries are not dispatched overseas until they have affirmed that they will work in accordance with the faith statement of the IMB. Willis has been notifying workers in temporary assignments in America that they will not be returned to overseas work until they have affirmed their positions on the new creed, says Clyde Meador, associate vice president of overseas operations. In addition, missionaries preparing to return to America must also make their decisions regarding the new creed before coming back.
"These calls are not being made to inform people that they are being fired. Avery is seeking to counsel missionaries and persuade them to make the affirmation," Meador said. "Everyone was asked a year ago to decide whether or not they would make this affirmation.
"We want this to be a decision the missionaries make for themselves. We want to give every missionary sufficient time and opportunity to consider their response. If a missionary decides he cannot affirm it and therefore cannot continue serving through the IMB, we regret that but appreciate the integrity of conscience it demonstrates.
"But for IMB missionaries to say they cannot promise to work in harmony with what Southern Baptists believe would undercut the credibility of the IMB. It would be inconsistent with the accountability that has been required of missionaries since a 1965 action of the Southern Baptist Convention and expected of missionaries throughout our 157-year history."
Thirty-two people (16 missionary unites) have already submitted their resignations from the mission field, citing Rankin's request as a factor in their decisions. IMB officials estimate that less that one percent of the 5,400 missionaries still have not announced their decisions.
While one of the phone calls made by Avery Willis has resulted in a sharp rebuke, other workers are expressing support of Rankin's request.
In a separate anonymous email, another couple said that they "would be agreeing to follow what the BF&M said even if we knew the Spirit of God or the Word of God was telling us to do something else."
"I'm not sure what the Holy Spirit or God's Word would tell a missionary to do that would contradict the Baptist Faith and Message," said Larry Cox, IMB vice president for mobilization. "And if making such an affirmation meant missionaries had to give up their priesthood as believers, why did they do that with the 1963 version when they were appointed?
"The IMB is not forcing a creed on any missionary because workers are not being asked to change their beliefs to conform to any document," Cox said. "Differences of interpretation based on Scripture are not an obstacle to service as long as the missionaries promise to conduct their work in harmony with the confession of faith adopted by the churches."
Other missionaries also wrote to affirm Rankin's request after receiving his letter.
"We have had no problem or hesitation," wrote Chris and Eileen Carr, who were appointed for general evangelism in Russia in January 1999. "The newest revision of the BF&M contains nothing that conflicts with historic, evangelical, orthodox Christian doctrine. Everything in the BF&M dovetails with traditional Southern Baptist faith and practice."
"When we first heard we might be asked to [promise to work in accord with the 2000 BF&M], I was against it on principle and on hearsay, and I was glad when the trustees reaffirmed us," wrote Charlotte Acree, who has served as a clinic nurse in Nigeria since 1987. "However, when [Dr. Rankin's request] came out, I followed the suggestion of comparing the three editions of the BF&M and found no cause for any alarm or dissension in any of them."
Another couple also added that they found no reason to believe that the revised statements contradict biblical teachings.
"We support the content of the 2000 Baptist Faith and Message without reservation," wrote Keith and Lisa Wagner, who were appointed to plant churches in the Dominican Republic in May 2000. "We find it to be a document based on solid, biblical theology.
"We are not ashamed to be serving as missionaries with the International Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention. In fact, we feel quite honored to be sent out as missionaries from the churches of the SBC. We believe, as missionaries, we should be held accountable for what we teach on the mission field."
Many of the missionaries serving overseas have taken a more liberal and open approach to Rankin's requests. They understand that their personal beliefs are their own, but they also understand that they are accountable for their ministries and their teachings.
"We appreciate the fact that virtually all our missionaries promised to work in accord with the 2000 BF&M after giving it thoughtful and prayerful consideration," he said. "They understand the importance of conducting their ministries in a way that the churches would approve of.
"Southern Baptist missionaries have always been expected to honor the beliefs of the churches that send and support them. When messengers to the 2000 SBC annual meeting revised the BF&M, it created a need to affirm that we would work in harmony with their beliefs.
"The vast majority of the missionaries had no problem doing that because their beliefs reflect the beliefs of the churches that sent them -- the churches that voted overwhelmingly to adopt the revisions in 2000," Rankin said.
"We would deeply regret losing any missionary, but we are accountable to the churches in this matter. If a missionary's disagreements are so great that he cannot in good conscience promise to work in harmony with the BF&M, we feel he has an obligation to Southern Baptists to tell them so."
By Roy Li