Skip to site content

Seminary President Plays Role in IMB Debate

A majority of International Mission Board trustees–who succeeded last fall in passing controversial personnel policy changes against use of private “prayer language” and tightening baptism requirements for missionaries–may have been aided by an outside hand: Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary President Paige Patterson.

Patterson sent IMB trustees a “white paper” citing concerns about the potential for unbiblical practices on the mission field–including but not limited to women functioning in pastoral roles outside limits defined in the 2000 Baptist Faith & Message.<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office” />
 
In 2003 Keith Eitel, then a missions professor at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary but now dean of the school of evangelism and missions at Southwestern, wrote a “vision assessment” warning that theological moorings established in the “conservative resurgence” of the 1980s and 1990s were not being fully embraced inside the IMB.
 
Eitel said the institutional culture was essentially unchanged since before the resurgence. He said Rankin’s predecessor Keith Parks believed that missions holds Southern Baptists together, while doctrine divides. Eitel called for a program of “biblical renewal” within the IMB, to ensure that biblical views embraced by the convention at large not be minimized on the mission field.
 
In November IMB trustees voted to change personnel policies to ban appointment of missionaries who use “private prayer language” and to require missionary candidates to be baptized in a church that “practices believer’s baptism by immersion alone.”
 
<?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags” />Wade Burleson, a trustee who opposed the change, criticized the new policy in a Web log, while also decrying internal politicking on the board between factions he labeled “crusading” and “cooperating” conservatives.
 
Trustees responded in January by voting to ask the Southern Baptist Convention to remove Burleson as a trustee this summer in Greensboro, N.C., claiming he broke trust by discussing board business in public. Burleson denies he did anything wrong, saying once the trustees establish policy it becomes a matter for discussion by the convention as a whole.
 
Eitel’s paper outlines underlying concerns of the “crusading” crowd. They fear that a move away from requiring missionaries to have seminary training and cooperating with non-Baptist “Great Commission” Christians might result in watering-down of doctrine to the point that churches started with funds donated by Southern Baptists aren’t really Baptist churches.
 
Patterson’s role in distributing the paper, meanwhile, helped to galvanize the “cooperating” trustees. They view the problem as manipulation of the process to appoint trustees and elect leaders, along with caucusing and hidden trustee agendas, aimed at embarrassing and eventually removing Jerry Rankin as president of the IMB. Unless the trend is reversed, they say, the SBC will continue to narrow doctrinal requirements to the point that Southern Baptists become hopelessly divided and culturally irrelevant.
 
Patterson, a pioneer in the resurgence movement that aimed to rescue the nation’s second-largest denomination from “liberalism,” addressed missiological concerns in a pamphlet he wrote titled “The Church in the 21st Century.”
 
“What level of cooperation with others who name the name of Christ is appropriate for Baptist missionaries?” he asked. “Is it sufficient for a church to be merely ‘baptistic’ or must it be ‘Baptist?'”
 
For Patterson, the answer is obvious: “If we do not establish distinctively Baptist churches, then our distinctive Baptist witness will gradually die.”
 
“The people paying the bills deserve to know exactly what the missionary practice is,” Patterson wrote. “If the mission personnel are out of step with the position of the sending body, they are compelled by integrity to seek employment elsewhere.”
 
“The threat of a worldwide ecumenism based on the least-common denominator is more real and more potentially devastating than it was in the days of the old liberal ecumenism, which spawned the World Council of Churches,” he continued. “The new ecumenism, tied heavily to the neo-charismatic movement, is not where Southern Baptists and their missionaries belong.”
 
“Except in the most exceptional and remote cases,” Patterson concluded, “Southern Baptists should establish Baptist churches and not cooperate with other groups when it comes to ecclesiological matters.”
 
In his paper, which was not written with the specific audience of IMB trustees in mind, Eitel criticized Rankin’s “New Directions” mission strategy, which focuses on church planting movements among “unreached” people groups. He said it lacks mechanisms “to filter or check the entry of unbiblical practices” and places evangelism, church planting and discipleship “in the hands of theological novices.”
 
Eitel said the campaign is flexible, which is its strength, but includes very little structure to regulate theology. For example, he wrote: “Women, while certainly capable in numerous ways to do ministry, should not be placed in doctrinal or ethical authority over men.” Yet, he said, the practice of enrolling women as “strategy coordinators” on the mission field “often causes this to happen.”
 
“In the final analysis, the ‘New Directions’ campaign seems to reflect the same theological position inherited from the Parks era,” Eitel wrote. “Theological definition is minimized and that which is ‘new’ reveals its roots in the very theological heritage that influenced Parks to conclude that doctrine divides and missions unites.”
 
“In order to synchronize the IMB with the theological convictions of the SBC, consistently expressed since 1979, and to set the board’s course directly back into the evangelical roots that were the convictions of the founders of the convention,” Eitel called for a system to be set in place “whereby biblical and theological inquiry is not minimized in importance.”
 
Patterson said in his article that the IMB should change its policy to “make it clear that its female missionaries are not and will not be pastors.”
 
“And in whatever role played, women need to be characterized by the attitude of ‘a meek and quiet spirit’ (I Peter 3:4). Furthermore, future missionary candidates–male or female–who do not endorse these aspects of the 2000 Baptist Faith & Message ought not be appointed.”
 
Patterson said to accept money from Southern Baptist churches and then depart from what that constituency believes “is no different than the actions of the mid-20th century liberal and neo-orthodox leadership, who deliberately misled the convention.”
 
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.