Thursday, October 09, 2008

Why We Resigned from the IMB

There has been an interesting discussion going on at Wade Burleson's blog in his post entitled "Fundamentalism's Fury Needs One Who Needles." In the comment string, one writer suggests as many have before that those missionaries who refused to sign the BF&M 2000 were somehow guilty of holding false doctrine and thus didn't deserve to serve as IMB missionaries. I'd like to take exception to that viewpoint. That writer states that all of the BF&M 2000 is based upon clear biblical teaching. I'd suggest that there are many conservative Southern Baptists who would reject that assertion, offering as evidence the fact that several Baptist state conventions have refused to adopt the latest version of the BF&M because of objections with some of the changes that were introduced in it. I would like to share with you the letter I wrote to Phil Templin, regional leader of the IMB over Central America, explaining the reasons why I in good faith and conscience could not sign the document. I hope that it will offer some insight into the struggles that many of us wrestled with as we made the decision to leave an organization that we had felt called to serve with when the encroaching spread of fundamentalism drowned out any possibility of peaceful dissent and cooperation around the essentials of the faith.

April 3, 2002
Mexico City

Dear Phil:

Please allow me to begin this note by expressing my gratitude to you for the approval of our transfer to Mexico City from Buenos Aires. I have thoroughly enjoyed the teaching at the seminary here and have established excellent relationships with the other faculty, the students, and the members of the staff and administration. I am thrilled to have the opportunity to be in the classroom four days a week and to have a part in the formation of future pastors and leaders here in Mexico. We have also been extremely impressed with the fellowship of the missionary family here in Mexico City. They have welcomed us warmly and shared the love of Christ with us in their words and actions. We are members of the Mexico City Middle Class Strategy Group and on a church planting team that is working in the area of Benito Juarez. We are excited about the prospects for beginning a new work in that colonia. We have established several excellent contacts there already and will be showing the Jesus film this coming Saturday evening on a basketball court in the neighborhood.

Although we received your letter almost 2 months ago regarding the signing of the BF&M 2000, to this point I have put off responding to the note. In all honesty, I guess that I was hoping that Dr. Rankin would backtrack from his decision to require missionaries to sign the document, especially given the fact that just a year ago he had said that this would not be required of missionaries already under appointment. As one who has been teaching Baptist history in various capacities since the time of my doctoral studies at Southwestern Seminary in the early 1980s, I have also been keenly interested in the latest revisions to the Baptist Faith & Message. I find certain aspects of these revisions troublesome and after much prayerful consideration, I do not feel that I in good conscience can sign the document as it stands.

One of my greatest objections, which I’m certain at this point you’ve heard expressed by other missionaries, is the departure of both the 1998 and 2000 documents from being a consensus of generally held Baptist beliefs to an instrument of doctrinal accountability. Both the language of the 1925 and 1963 BF&M statements are clear regarding the roles of Baptist confessions of faith.

(1) That they constitute a consensus of opinion of some Baptist body, large or small, for the general instruction and guidance of our own people and others concerning those articles of the Christian faith which are most surely held among us. They are not intended to add anything to the simple conditions of salvation revealed in the New Testament, viz., repentance toward God and faith in Jesus Christ as Saviour and Lord.
(2)That we do not regard them as complete statements of our faith, having any quality of finality or infallibility. As in the past so in the future Baptists should hold themselves free to revise their statements of faith as may seem to them wise and expedient at any time.
(3)That any group of Baptists, large or small have the inherent right to draw up for themselves and publish to the world a confession of their faith whenever they may think it advisable to do so.
(4)That the sole authority for faith and practice among Baptists is the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments. Confessions are only guides in interpretation, having no authority over the conscience.
(5)That they are statements of religious convictions, drawn from the Scriptures, and are not to be used to hamper freedom of thought or investigation in other realms of life.

The very tentative nature with which these confessions are written—-claiming no authority over the conscience of individual believers and as “guidelines in interpretation”—-is a far cry from an “instrument of doctrinal accountability” in the language of the 2000 document. Baptists have historically resisted any creed apart from the Bible itself. Now, despite all the disclaimers to the contrary, that is exactly what the framers of the 2000 document have put in place. One can deny with all vehemence that the current BF&M is a creed, but its use as an instrument of doctrinal accountability clearly testifies to the fact that it has become such. While the preceding five numbered paragraphs do appear in the 2000 document, the following 2 paragraphs effectively strip away those tentative affirmations of the role of confessions of faith.

Baptists cherish and defend religious liberty, and deny the right of any secular or religious authority to impose a confession of faith upon a church or body of churches. We honor the principles of soul competency and the priesthood of believers, affirming together both our liberty in Christ and our accountability to each other under the Word of God.

Baptist churches, associations, and general bodies have adopted confessions of faith as a witness to the world, and as instruments of doctrinal accountability. We are not embarrassed to state before the world that these are doctrines we hold precious and as essential to the Baptist tradition of faith and practice.

By omitting individuals and including only churches and bodies of churches as those who require protection from secular or religious bodies who might seek to impose a confession of faith on them, the 2000 document leaves the door open to exactly what has occurred in Southern Baptist life since the adoption of this latest BF&M. Individuals have no freedom or protection to exercise their freedom of conscience and express their differences in interpretation of scriptural passages from that set forth as authoritative and binding for all SBC employees in any agency whatsoever without risking loss of employment, or in the words of Rankin’s letter, being accused of heresy. As one who has studied and taught church history for many years, the reference to being accused of heresy in Rankin’s letter struck me as a very unfortunate and ill-chosen word. Charges of heresy historically have been applied to those who denied the deity of Christ or the inspiration of the Scriptures or some equally fundamental Christian doctrine. The changes that are reflected in the 1998 and 2000 BF&M that I have problems with do not even remotely approach those kind of basic beliefs.

A second serious objection I have to the document are the changes it has introduced with regard to that historic Baptist principle of the priesthood of the believer. It is common knowledge that the phrase that was added to supposedly ensure respect for this historic principle was begrudgingly included just an hour before the committee responsible for drafting the newest BF&M presented its report to the convention floor. That in itself should suggest something about the lack of importance of this historic Baptist principle in the minds of the framers of the document. Coupled with this near omission of reference to the principle is the rewording of the principle to now affirm belief in the “priesthood of believers” (plural) instead of priesthood of the believer (singular). I suggest that this change is in keeping with the Reformed (Calvinist) theology of the framers of the document, but is not consistent with our Baptist, free church heritage which we inherited from the English separatists with influence from such Anabaptist thinkers and writers as Menno Simons and Balthasar Hubmaier. Later Baptist writers who championed religious liberty and the separation of church and state based their arguments principally upon the uncoerced nature of religious faith. They argued persuasively and biblically that a faith that is imposed from without by a religious society or church is not a genuine faith at all. For faith to be genuine, it must express itself voluntarily. The use of the BF&M 2000 to enforce doctrinal uniformity and conformity with a particular line of interpretation of selected passages which equally committed and conservative Biblical scholars from other faith traditions have chosen to interpret in other ways is a sad testimony to a departure from this valued historic Baptist principle of the priesthood of the believer.

The mention of these controversial passages brings me to my third and fourth objections to the BF&M 2000. The third deals with the family article and its interpretation of wifely submission as the only appropriate and possible interpretation of Ephesians 5. Such an interpretation is not the only possible one that can be given to this passage. Ephesians 5:21, which serves as an introduction to the entire section which follows on the relationship of husband and wife, clearly enjoins the principle of mutual submission. “Submit one to another out of reverence for Christ,” Eph. 5:21.

Many conservative Biblical scholars would question that the Ephesians passage teaches one-sided submission on the part of the wife to the husband’s authority. Paul’s admonition to the husband to love his wife even as Christ loved the church certainly suggests a selfless, giving love that puts the interests of his wife ahead of his own. This teaching in no way contradicts the idea of mutual submission, but rather is an illustration of the practical application of this principle in action.

The fourth area of disagreement I have with the BF&M 2000 is with regard to its article on the church in which it affirms that the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture. While my own conservative upbringing certainly predisposes me to feel more comfortable with a man as pastor, my feelings at this point are secondary to the biblical testimony. Once again, there is no clear-cut consensus among conservative, evangelical scholars that the New Testament unequivocally teaches that the office of pastor is limited to men. The requirements that elders and bishops (which I do take as synonymous with the office of pastor) be the husbands of one wife could well be interpreted as a requirement that they be living in a monogamous relationship rather than in bigamy or polygamy. The essential teaching then would be that of marital fidelity and not a strict gender requirement for fulfilling the conditions of the office. The fact that there are many references in the New Testament to women in positions of influence and leadership in the churches (e.g. Lydia, Priscilla, the four daughters of Phillip who were prophetesses, Euodia and Syntyche who contended at Paul’s side in the cause of the gospel, and the extensive list of women that Paul recognizes in Romans 16 as hard workers and co-laborers in the gospel) suggests strongly that these women were exercising leadership roles, possibly even serving as pastors, in the New Testament churches.

My final objection to the wording of the new BF&M 2000 has to do with the deletion of the reference to Jesus Christ as the criterion by which the scripture is to be interpreted. That change, coupled with the deletion of the reference to the Bible itself as the “record of” God’s revelation of Himself to man in order to now read simply that the Bible is God’s revelation of Himself to man, is troublesome. These subtle changes in wording have the combined effect of minimizing the importance of the Christ-event and His incarnation while at the same time exalting the written record of God’s revelation above the person of Christ Himself. John writes in his gospel in 1:14 that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and that we beheld His glory, the glory of the One and Only, full of grace and truth. He later adds in verse 18 that while no one has seen God, He (Christ) has made him known. The writer of Hebrews in his introduction to the letter also clearly states that God, after having spoken at many times and in many ways through the prophets, has in these last days spoken to us a definitive word in the person of His Son—the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of His likeness. The supreme revelation of God has been given to us and that revelation is in the person of His Son. The Scriptures certainly are a testimony to Christ as the BF&M 2000 affirms, but they are not to be a substitute for a personal relationship with Christ and a living experience with Him. The pietists of the 17th and 18th centuries were correct in their insistence that the formalism of the dogmatic theologians among both the Lutherans and the Calvinists had produced a generation of Christians who knew the intellectual contents of the creeds and doctrines of the church and could recite them, but who were bereft of spiritual vitality and of a living faith in Christ.

In conclusion, let me say that I was born and raised a Southern Baptist and have a deep appreciation for our denominational heritage. I consider myself to be thoroughly Southern Baptist in every sense of the term. It is out of this sense of commitment to our historic Baptist principles that I have come to the decision to not sign the BF&M 2000. I feel that in the areas I have mentioned above, this document represents a significant departure from those principles which our Baptist forefathers so capably defended, many at the cost of their very lives.

I am very grateful to be here in Mexico City. I believe that God has directed our paths to be here at this time. I gives me great joy to use what I believe are the areas in which the Lord has most gifted me (theological education) to train a new generation of pastors and church leaders here in Mexico. My calling to missions was and continues to be a clear one from the Lord. I only trust that the Southern Baptist Convention, conceived to foster and elicit the combined efforts of Baptists towards fulfilling the Great Commission, will return to that basic focus. I further hope and trust that they will affirm our historic Baptist beliefs in the priesthood of the believer and liberty of conscience in the interpretation of Biblical passages over which there is no clear consensus of belief among Baptists and other conservative evangelical scholars.

I’m grateful for the privilege to be able to serve the Lord as a missionary of the Southern Baptist Convention here in Mexico City. I appreciate very much the opportunity of expressing my convictions in these areas of concern. I pray that they will be read and heard in the spirit with which I have shared them. I pray God’s richest blessings on you and Peggy as you lead our region.

In His service,

Gary Snowden


Joel said...

At the end of the day, what was the real purpose they were pushing that document so hard on missionaries? Was it a funding issue? Was it a power play by SBC members?

I guess I've never been all that clear on why that became a required pledge for IMB missionaries, particularly in light of how controversial and inflammatory portions of it obviously were.

Certainly, the church leaders realized the controversy would be possible to ignore the amount of backlash that ensued. So why did they continue pressing the issue? Why did they not attempt to remove or edit out those portions of the text and reach a compromise?

I wonder if the SBC leadership looks back on that hardline stance with at least some degree of regret. This one document led many missionaries to quit the IMB, and drove a schism in the denomination here in the US. And for what? What was gained?

If the Southern Baptist Church wanted to exemplify the qualities that has driven my generation away from religion, they succeeded admirably. You have to imagine that Satan loves when we get wrapped around the axle on these issues instead of what really matters.

Gary Snowden said...

It really wasn't a funding issue, Joel, as much as a part of the ongoing quest for political control of the SBC by a very vociferous and well-organized Fundamentalist faction. Many of them would object to the descriptor "fundamentalist" to describe them, preferring to call themselves conservatives. The truth is that those who were ousted were very conservative theologically as well--just not as rigid or unbending as this group in their insistence that their interpretation of certain biblical passages was the only acceptable one.

The BF&M 2000 was approved at an annual SBC gathering as all such changes would be, but unlike the previous 1963 version, it was the product of a hand-picked committee by these same leaders described above, rather than having been worked on and reviewed by leadership from many state conventions, seminaries, etc.

It is sad that many in the generation of the 20-somethings have witnessed these kind of power plays by SBC leadership and decided that this kind of denomination isn't a viable home for them.

GuyMuse said...

Thanks for sharing this letter with us. I remember those days well and our own struggle with some of the same issues you so eloquently put forth in writing. It seems like only yesterday, and yet your letter is dated April 2002--more than six years ago--how time flies! And now we are faced once again with changes at the IMB. It will be interesting to see how these pan out over the coming months.

Gary Snowden said...

Time has indeed flown by these past 6 years, Guy. I'm grateful to have landed well in a wonderful church where I absolutely love the ministry with senior adults and the missions emphasis that we're able to promote. I trust that the upcoming changes will be positive ones for the IMB, and hopefully they will somehow achieve one of the announced objectives of New Directions that I feel was never accomplished. I'm referring to the idea of strategy being generated from the field rather than imposed from the top downward through the organization. I actually feel that with regard to that matter, the FMB of pre-IMB days did a much better job of relating to national Christians and formulating strategy in conjunction with them rather than taking a Lone Ranger approach.

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