Saturday, May 27, 2006

Historical Documents: Baptist-Evangelical Cooperation in World Missions, Part 13

In 2003, Keith Eitel, at that time Professor of Christian Missions at Southeastern Seminary, and presently Dean of the School of Evangelism and Missions at Southwestern, wrote a paper entitled "Vision Assessment: The International Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention." This paper was later distributed, together with a cover letter from Paige Patterson to all of the IMB Trustees. The context of the distribution of this letter was reported here in the North Carolina Baptist Biblical Recorder.

You can read the entire text here. But I would like to highlight a few quotes, especially in the context of our series on Historical Documents: Baptist-Evangelical Cooperation. Normally, perhaps, an "in-house" document like this, addressed to a relatively small group of people, would not merit much discussion when talking about strategically significant Historical Documents spanning such a long period of time. I am discussing it, however, in this series, because I believe that it (or at least the ideas contained therein) has been quite influential in the adoption of recent policies and strategy directions advocated by the IMB Board of Trustees.

First of all, Eitel begins with a quote of Keith Parks, in which he contrasts the theological perspectives of my father, as well as Paige Patterson, and his own, in relation to missions.

Early on I would argue with Adrian Rogers about that [basis for unity in the SBC] and he’d say no, ‘the theme that has held us together is not missions, but doctrine.’ Well, historically I don’t think that’s accurate because historically the SBC is composed of people with varying theological perspectives . . . . My assessment is that they’re [conservatives in the SBC] from an independent Baptist viewpoint where conventions are built around doctrine [sic] than from the heritage that we as Southern Baptists have had that the convention is builtaround missions. And so after arguing with Adrian several times, I finally came to realize that for him and I think for Paige [Patterson] and for others the unifying element ought to be a unifying perspective of theology . . . according to the Scripture, the Living Word is more important than the written word . . . it’s a mistake in my estimation to elevate Scripture above Christ . . .
Eitel later adds the following remarks: In essence, Parks was saying that doctrine or theology divides us but missions unites us. Rodgers (sic), however, was indicating that unless our theological convictions are solidly established squarely on an inerrant Bible, we will have no legitimate or reasonable basis for doing missions.
I certainly do not side with Parks on these points. I agree completely with my father in insisting that, when we dilute our theological underpinnings based on the authority of God’s Word, we lose the basis from which our commitment to world missions flows. However, I believe at the same time that Eitel went a bit overboard, using my father’s name and views as an emotional support to his arguments expressed later in his paper, many of which I am convinced my father would not have completely agreed with.

Next, I would like to comment on the following quote from Eitel’s paper…

The Parks attitude seems pervasive within the day-to-day operations of the International Mission Board [IMB] and represents the greatest future challenge to redirect Biblically the IMB and re-root it firmly in the older theological heritage of the founding fathers and its contemporary conservative commitments.

In the final analysis, the "New Directions" campaign seems to reflect the same theological position inherited from the Parks era. Theological definition is minimized and that which is "new" reveals it’s (sic) roots in the very theological heritage that influenced Parks to conclude that doctrine divides and missions unites.
In my opinion, Jerry Rankin himself has already done an admirable job at answering this accusation. While I have not been able to find the exact text of the response letter, here is an article by Associated Baptist Press writer Mark Wingfield, and posted in the North Carolina Baptist "Biblical Recorder", that gives a good summary.

I would also like to comment briefly on the following paragraph in Eitel’s paper…

While advancing toward the same stated goals in the Bold Mission Thrust campaign, Parks was influenced by trends among other Christian agencies. He advocated the use of strategic planning techniques and invited David B. Barrett, author of the World Christian Encyclopedia, into the Board’s facilities in Richmond. Barrett’s own Anglican theological persuasions are far more ecumenical than those traditionally held by Southern Baptists. Barrett quietly influenced several strategic planners at the Board and his methods were used to analyze the remaining task of global evangelization. It was not until the early 1990’s that Barrett was removed from the Board, yet his influence still lingers in the office of strategic planning and research to this day.
I would generally agree with Eitel that the perspective of Barrett is a good bit more ecumenical than that of most conservative evangelical Southern Baptists. I myself, having worked for the past 16 years in Spain, a country with a spiritual heritage very influenced by Roman Catholicism, have been concerned with how the theological biases of Barrett and others like him, are leading many to de-emphasize the priority of evangelism in Catholic contexts. At the same time, I recognize the positive contribution made by Barrett in objectively analyzing the comparative spiritual need of different areas of the world and people groups, and encouraging evangelicals to work together in order to see the Great Commission fulfilled. It is my contention, that if the influence of Barrett "still lingers in the office of strategic planning and research," this influence is mostly limited to the more positive aspects of Barrett’s contribution. I have never sensed, under Jerry Rankin’s leadership at the IMB, anything insinuating that Roman Catholics were not legitimate "targets" of our evangelistic efforts.

Now, more directly on the subject at hand, I would like to present the following quotes from Eitel’s paper regarding IMB cooperation with "Great Commission Christians"...

Yet, as the Board began to work in and with the broader Neo-Evangelical groups (now called Great Commission Christians), the cross-pollination of ideas without a careful analysis of the biblical and theological soundness of the trends that depicted the end of the last century missions world, began to erode even further the commitments Southern Baptists have historically had to a real need for personal evangelism, church planting, and discipleship of the nations.

I am in agreement regarding partnering with agencies of like theological persuasion for some tasks at home or abroad. However, I sense there’s no real mechanism in place to help missionaries evaluate the theological commitments of the plethora of groups that work around the world and certainly no incentive to guard themselves from unnecessary entanglements with charismatic people or agencies. Incidentally, the first time I heard the term Great Commission Christian was from the mouth of David Barrett as he was explaining to me how, in his opinion, Mormons are GCCs!

Rankin’s "New Directions" campaign drew the Board more directly into the network of GCC’s, again with no mechanisms in place to filter or check the entry of unbiblical practices other than the specific theological preparation of the individual missionary.

It raises serious questions regarding whether the end justifies the means when the types of churches planted increasingly do not reflect a biblical ecclesiology, Baptist values, or in some cases even appear Christian.
Also, from Eitel’s list of recommendations at the end of his paper, the following…

Generate theological definitions and boundaries for partnering with GCC’s, review the nature of the SC/SL position and create alternatives suitable for women that are in line with the sentiments of the BF&M 2000, and create guidelines for church planting that will insure healthy theological development and be reflective of Baptist distinctives.

    First off, Eitel seems to follow Patterson’s lead (as referenced in The Church in the 21st Century) in throwing groups with widely divergent beliefs and practices into the "Great Commission Christian" sack ("Neo-evangelical groups", "charismatic people and agencies", and even "Mormons" and "churches" that do not "even appear Christian"). The impression left is all are "guilty by association."

    I would also question Eitel’s suggestion that more seminary education is the best corrective for missionaries unprepared to deal with the theological subtleties involved in working with the "GCC world". Most assuredly, there is an important place on the mission field for those gifted in missiological and theological reflection. However, in my experience, a seminary degree is far from a guarantee for this. Some of the most gifted and effective workers I know have not completed a seminary degree. It has been my observation that those who have been most successful in North American ecclesiological and training models many times are the ones who later have the most difficulty in "thinking outside of the box" in order to reach people more effectively in other cultural contexts.

    I myself have an M. Div. from Southwestern Seminary, (which includes almost 2 years worth of transfer credits from Mid-America Seminary), and probably read up on missiological and theological issues more than the average IMB missionary. Yet I would not say this has influenced me to be any narrower in my dealings with other GCCs. If anything, I would venture to say, it has pointed me in the contrary direction.

    Now, if what is being advocated is indoctrination and teaching "cookie-cutter" approaches to missions at our seminaries, perhaps with time we would have a more "lock-step" contingent of IMB workers. If, however, we are looking for an effective "incentive to guard [IMB workers] from unnecessary entanglements", I would neither suggest this, nor generating narrower "theological definitions and boundaries for partnering with GCCs", as the solution.

    A better plan, in my opinion, is to open the forum of discussion among those who have the most at stake: the missionaries themselves. Under "New Directions", this is precisely what is already happening. We as missionaries are being encouraged to go back to the Bible (not just denominational tradition) to find our definitions for church and to seriously reflect upon how to best flesh this out in the particular cultural context in which God has led each of us to work.

    As a result of this (and certainly many other factors as well), I believe, we are seeing great breakthroughs in many parts of the world in terms of evangelism and church planting. Yes, perhaps, there are isolated cases of things getting a bit "out of hand" from time to time. But, in my opinion, the dangers of putting a damper on, and encouraging a more restrictive and inquisitorial mindset in regards to "New Directions" and our cooperation with other GCCs, is by far the greater danger. IMB missionaries, as a whole, love God, the Bible, and lost souls as much as anyone. And I believe we, as a result of the unique experiences and calling God has given us (together with the strategic input of all of those God has gifted throughout his entire Body), are the most qualified to determine how best to make disciples of all the peoples of the world.


    GuyMuse said...

    A better plan, in my opinion, is to open the forum of discussion among those who have the most at stake: the missionaries themselves. It is indeed strange that so much of the discussion is taking place amongst people who have no real field experience in global missions. I would welcome outside input from Godly men/women, but your point that M's have the most at stake and need to be involved in this dialogue seems like a "no brainer."

    Under "New Directions", this is precisely what is already happening. We as missionaries are being encouraged to go back to the Bible (not just denominational tradition) to find our definitions for church and to seriously reflect upon how to best flesh this out in the particular cultural context..."

    This has indeed been our own personal experience as IMB M's. As we have had to go back to Scripture and really struggle with understanding just what NT churches looked like in the first century, it has been uncomfortable to realize that our traditions are just that--TRADITIONS. Much of what we are currently living and experiencing in CP and def of church is quite different from that with which we were brought up to understand back home in the USA.

    Ken Sorrell said...

    I agree with Guy that more open discussion on this and other 21st Century mission topics are needed. My concern is the growing chasm of thought and practice between church in the U.S. and the overseas mission field. Although I wholeheartedly agree that a seminary education can provide an invaluable theological underpinning for those of us who serve overseas, it has been my observation that seminary alone is not fully preparing God-called Christians for the type of missionary service being required today, at least by the IMB.

    From a pragmatic standpoint, little if any of the classes I took while in seminary prepared me to understand the difference between being church in a U.S. context as contrasted to what we are experiencing on the mission field. In fact, I have searched Scripture more and feel that the Holy Spirit has revealed and taught me more about evangelism, church and definitely church planting, and making obedient disciples since being a missionary than I ever learned while attending seminary or while serving on a church staff. Add to this our need as missionaries serving cross-culturally and cross-religiously to stand firm on our convictions in the face of multiple voices coming from multiply religious expressions seems to me to make the missionary less likely to deviate from both Biblical and Baptist doctrine than the average U.S. Baptist in the pew. Case in point was when at a recent training conference I was asked if I thought it was possible for a practicing Catholic to be saved. If they are placing their faith in and practicing Catholic doctrine, then the answer is no, but this person was unable to understand this.

    My concern, as I have stated earlier is this growing chasm of what it means to put into practice our foundational beliefs both as Biblical Christians and Baptists. As a trainer of missionaries, National Baptists Partners, and U.S. volunteers, I continue to be amazed at the learning curve required to understand and implement New Testament practices in evangelism, church planting, and discipleship. Our American culture and tradition have so impacted the church that when a pure Biblical model is presented or even expressed, few recognize it as being Biblically based.

    More to the point of cooperating or working with other evangelicals is what appears to me to be an underlying assumption that we as missionaries cannot be “trusted” to discern with whom to cooperate. I do not mind being held accountable to Southern Baptists and SBC leadership for my decisions and actions, but I appreciate the accountability more when it begins from a position of trust.

    Although I enjoy reading your blog, I do not consider myself as having the needed level of knowledge and intelligence to enter into most of your discussions. However, I do feel smart enough to recognize that the light we see approaching at the end of the tunnel is an impending train wreck if we do not find some common ground from which we can discuss legitimate differences in both thought and practice as expressed in the U.S. and the international mission field.

    Anonymous said...

    "New Directions" are not needed when the old directions of Scripture are sufficient.

    David Rogers said...

    Guy & Ken,

    I appreciate both of your comments. They are very insightful.