An Editorial by Dr. Jerry Rankin
President, International Mission Board
Sent to Baptist state papers Feb. 14, 2001
Does it matter what missionaries believe? Should missionaries sent out by a denominational agency have any accountability to the churches that support them?
Since the New Hampshire Baptist Confession of 1833, Baptists have drafted documents of belief that distinguish them from other Christians. The Baptist Faith and Message, like other confessions of faith, imposes no theological creed on individuals and churches. It does represent the common faith shared by Southern Baptists who choose to affiliate in associations and conventions.
Some people are predisposed against the Southern Baptist Convention's adherence to historic fundamentals of faith based on the authority of God's infallible Word. They have criticized the International Mission Board for asking missionaries to reassure Southern Baptists that they affirm the Baptist Faith and Message. They seem to view the request as something unprecedented in Southern Baptist missions history.
Even in the 19th century, before the BF&M was written, trustees of the Foreign Mission Board required missionary candidates to affirm a doctrinal statement to assure Southern Baptists their beliefs were consistent with the generally held doctrines that distinguished the convention. Since 1970, under the leadership of Dr. Baker James Cauthen, and later under Dr. Keith Parks, every Southern Baptist missionary appointed by what was then the Foreign Mission Board signed a statement that he or she had read and was in agreement with the Baptist Faith and Message. Since the 2000 BF&M was adopted, more than 1,500 new missionaries have been approved and sent out. These missionaries have gone to the uttermost parts of the world without expressing problems with the appropriateness of this requirement or stating that signing this statement of affirmation was imposing a creed.
Critics are implying that missionaries are being coerced into doctrinal conformity and that creedal beliefs are being imposed. On the contrary, missionaries are being asked to sign a statement that their own beliefs are consistent with the current BF&M and that they will carry out their work in accordance with it.
Some overseas personnel may not fully agree with or understand the need for the revisions to the BF&M made in 2000 or for the family article in 1998. The fact that they have the freedom to state their disagreements creates an opportunity to discuss the cultural and societal changes in American churches that made those changes appropriate.
IMB administration and trustees have the utmost confidence in Southern Baptists' overseas missionaries. We know their passion for reaching a lost world and their willingness to sacrifice and devote their lives to God's call. That passion and willingness doesn't come from theological relativism, but out of a conviction based on the authority of God's Word and obedience to the Lordship of Jesus Christ.
All Southern Baptist missionaries on the field have already affirmed their agreement with the Baptist Faith and Message that was current when they were appointed. The reason I have asked them to reaffirm their beliefs in regard to the 2000 BF&M is to remove suspicions that their beliefs and practices could be inconsistent with our common confession of faith and move us forward in reaching a lost world. Southern Baptists rightly expect the missionaries they send out and support to represent the confession of faith our churches have adopted. The administration of our mission entities should provide that assurance.
Some have charged that the Southern Baptist Convention has changed to the point that the highest priority is not missions but doctrinal conformity. We have not changed our priority. During the last five years we have seen record missionary appointments. In 1997, 628 new missionaries were sent overseas. Last year our Southern Baptist churches commissioned and appointed 1,150 new missionaries. The number of baptisms per year overseas has grown 40 percent. More than a thousand new believers a day are being baptized. In that same five years the number of new churches started has increased 250 percent, with nearly 6,000 new churches started last year alone. The number of unreached people groups being touched with the gospel by your missionaries has nearly doubled in the last five years.
Reaching a lost world is what missions is all about. This is what Southern Baptists want their missionaries to be doing -- witnessing to the lost, starting new churches, spreading the gospel to the Last Frontier of the Great Commission. That isn't done by those who water down the authority of God's Word, believe whatever they choose and are batted about by every wind of doctrine.
The almost 5,200 Southern Baptist missionaries who have been approved for appointment by the International Mission Board and dispersed to the uttermost ends of the earth are solid in their faith, thoroughly Southern Baptist and doctrinally sound. These are missionaries God will use to win the world, and they are worthy of your support. I am confident they will welcome the opportunity to affirm that to Southern Baptists.