Month: June 2008

An open letter for a closed case

JACKSONVILLE, Fla.–Attempting to revive a closed, settled debate, an International Mission Board regional leader has resigned his position to publicly challenge certain doctrinal policies adopted by the IMB. Apart from the substance of his arguments, the fact that he remains a missionary while he engaged in a political campaign shortly before the Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting raises serious questions about the propriety of his efforts.

In a nearly 2,000-word “Open Letter to the Southern Baptist Convention,” Rodney Hammer explains his decision to resign as regional leader for Central and Eastern Europe, as well as his objections to doctrinal guidelines adopted by the IMB regarding baptism and tongues/private prayer languages.

Released May 19–only a few weeks before Southern Baptists met in Indianapolis–the letter seemed intended to influence potential actions at the SBC.

Hammer’s open letter is newsworthy. Contrary to his desire, however, I decided against publishing it in full in our print edition.

Hammer revisits the baptism and tongues/private prayer language debate without offering anything new. The arguments against the guidelines are the same ones offered by those who unsuccessfully attempted to repeal the IMB actions, originally adopted in November 2005.

“I am in fundamental disagreement with the current IMB missionary candidates policies concerning baptism and private prayer language, and the unnecessary, extra-biblical narrowing of parameters for Southern Baptist cooperation in the Great Commission they represent,” Hammer says in the open letter. He further argues that the policies are turning away “many” good, otherwise qualified missionary candidates, to the detriment of fulfilling the Great Commission.

The debate about narrowing doctrinal parameters is bewildering to me. I have addressed it several times, most substantially in editorials published in our May 31, 2007, and June 21, 2007, issues. I will not revisit those arguments here, except to note–yet again–the inconsistency of the arguments put forward by critics of the IMB policies, including Hammer.

While Hammer argues that it’s wrong for the IMB to go beyond the Baptist Faith and Message in setting doctrinal policies for missionary candidates, he affirms the IMB’s “robust, sufficient policy” against missionaries advocating tongues or other spiritual gifts as normative or used publicly–even though the BF&M does not address this matter. So, it seems, some policies not addressed in the BF&M are OK.

Therefore, the debate isn’t really about narrowing doctrinal parameters, but about what those policies should be.

I asked Paul Chitwood, newly elected trustee chairman of the International Mission Board and pastor of First Baptist Church in Mt. Washington, Ky., about Hammer’s open letter.

Noting that the policies (technically, called “guidelines”) have been in place for two years and the missionaries had ample opportunity to offer their views, Chitwood cited statistics that suggest the policies have not harmed missionary recruitment or retention. He also noted statistics demonstrating all-time or near all-time highs in overseas baptisms, discipling of new believers, new churches and Southern Baptists’ giving to international missions.

“Dr. Hammer’s letter has not presented any new material that was not already thoroughly considered by the board, so I do not anticipate the board revisiting these issues in response to his open letter,” Chitwood told me.

I admire Hammer and all of our missionaries (here and abroad) for their sacrificial service to our Lord, sometimes in very difficult places. Our missionaries are at the very heart of Southern Baptists’ cooperative efforts and deserve our support, financially and, more importantly, prayerfully.

Further, I admire Hammer for having the courage of his convictions to resign a senior leadership position within the International Mission Board in order to be able to air his conscientious objections to certain IMB policies. Clearly, he has given much prayerful consideration to this course and has counted the cost of leaving a post he loved.

Nevertheless, I do not agree with his objections, and more fundamentally, I question the appropriateness of his actions while still a missionary.

Although Hammer has resigned his leadership position, he remains a missionary with the IMB. It’s troubling to me that as a missionary he would engage in a public relations/political campaign to attempt to get the disputed policies changed.

It’s one thing to resign your leadership position, which in and of itself creates attention (as intended) for the concerns. Hammer’s resignation was reported by Baptist Press, which the Witness ran in our May 22 issue.

It’s a different thing entirely to then write an open letter to the SBC only weeks before the annual meeting and send that letter to all Southern Baptist media outlets, clearly intending to influence potential action at the annual meeting–all while remaining a missionary, an employee, of the board to which you are accountable.

I cannot think of even one organization–business, denominational entity, or church–where such activity would be permitted of an employee. Nor should it.

As a means of analogy, imagine the chaos in the context of a local church in which a senior member of the pastoral staff objected to a church decision and, having failed to convince others of his views, resigned his leadership position but then remained on staff and in the church in order lead a public campaign to convince the membership to change the decision of the church. The conflict would seriously harm the ministry of the church. Clearly, this would be untenable.

It’s no less indefensible for a denominational employee, even including our cherished missionaries.

I asked Chitwood whether Hammer’s open letter was appropriate.

The trustees do not want missionaries to “feel muzzled or unable to express their opinions, disagreement or constructive suggestions,” Chitwood told me. “There are, however, appropriate times and ways to express dissent. Given Dr. Hammer’s conduct, his resignation of his leadership position is appropriate.”

Pressed if it was appropriate for a missionary to engage in such activity, Chitwood declined to comment further.

Several years ago during the controversy over the IMB doctrinal guidelines, Hammer and other IMB employees, including President Jerry Rankin, publicly argued against the policies. While taking those objections into account, the IMB adopted the policies, and a year ago overwhelmingly affirmed refined versions of the policies.

After that action, my May 31, 2007, editorial argued it was time for the IMB and SBC to move on from this debate. The 2007 SBC, in fact, received without controversy notice of the IMB’s action on this matter, although some have attempted to interpret a motion related to the Baptist Faith and Message in a manner that would call into question the IMB’s actions (the subject of my June 21, 2007, editorial).

On June 2, a statement was issued by 37 former IMB trustees and missionaries, as well some pastors opposing the doctrinal guidelines. The statement and list of signatories are available at

“We are dismayed that one of the results of the implementation of these guidelines is the loss of valuable, faithful IMB personnel,” the statement asserts.

“We call on Southern Baptists to hold the entities of the SBC accountable to the direction of the convention’s churches, not the churches to the sentiments of their entities.”

There is nothing new in Hammer’s open letter or the June 2 statement that would warrant a re-examination of these matters by the trustees of the International Mission Board—and it would certainly be wrong for the Southern Baptist Convention to act on this matter, substituting its judgment for the IMB’s extensive study and action on these matters over the last three years.

Beyond the substance of the debate, however, I believe there is a serious question about the appropriateness of Hammer’s actions as a missionary in current service to the International Mission board. This matter has been closed for more than a year and Hammer’s open letter is wrong, both in substance and process.

Southern Baptists take care of business

Our Southern Baptist annual convention continues to represent Southern Baptists as we are. The recent pattern of 7,000-10,000-messenger conventions leads some to think that our 16-million member denomination is wracked with apathy and disengagement. I don’t believe so. We have several thousand people show up each time, with a higher than average representation from the local area, and no matter our setting, we pretty much stay on message.

Our week actually began the week before when hundreds showed up to witness in the Indianapolis area. You’ve probably read of the flooding across Indiana, and the Saturday of the Crossover effort was a day when it rained eight inches in the southern suburbs. I was in that area with a group of Criswell College students and we literally waded into neighborhoods to invite people into the local Baptist church that was converting into a shelter. Several responded when water rose into their homes. For those folks, Southern Baptists were on the scene with just what they needed. The students also saw several people come to Christ through their preaching, witnessing, and relief work that week.

As the convention started on Tuesday, the presidential race was the most notable business item to many. It was actually a pretty short story. No one I know expected any candidate of the six to win a first-ballot victory. Johnny Hunt of Woodstock, Ga., did just that. Our presidential election took no more time than if only two candidates had arisen.

Pastor Hunt will be a good president for us. He is a genuine person and an evangelistic pastor respected by the thousands of people who know him. I’d love to see him begin to model cooperative
giving to a greater degree during his presidency. He could be an example to many of our megachurches if he would.

One headline snorted that Johnny Hunt was the “establishment candidate.” That’s right; and messengers are the establishment. Should our leaders be selected by some smaller group?

Resolutions always attract the attention of the media because they deal with such a broad array of issues. The biggest debate in this year’s resolution process (though it was actually a small and friendly debate) had to do with how strong the language should be in our resolution urging churches to examine their membership more carefully. We strengthened the language of the committee’s report by amending it from the floor. Now, churches should consider God’s leadership in the areas of new member orientation, discipleship, and the discipline and restoration of AWOL church members.

Al Mohler, standing up to make his report for Southern Seminary, made a pertinent observation on the preceding resolutions discussion. He noted that he was happy to be part of a denomination that discusses how best to reach lost church members while other denominations are discussing whether or not to ordain practicing homosexuals.

Ironically, some who hold us in deepest contempt and consider us irrelevant in today’s culture love to glom on to our notoriety. The evil Fred Phelps cult from Topeka (those folks that insult families at the funerals of U.S. servicemen) stood on one side of the street in front of the convention center; animal rights people (“What would Jesus eat?”) stood on the other. Neither group knew anything about us except that they could get their pictures in the paper by hanging out with us. It’s a regular part of the show at the SBC.

Our most foundational items of business went without remark from the visiting press. First, we approved a budget larger than any previous budget. Budget growth is small but it is growth during a time when other denominations are curtailing ministries. We also elected trustees for our SBC agencies. This is the place where the convention exercises supervision of our institutions. Every state convention is represented on the boards. Men and women, young and old, people of all races, and even people of varied theological opinions govern the diverse ministries of our convention. These boards change several members every year.

Billy Kim, former Baptist World Alliance president, was also honored by the convention as a “distinguished Baptist statesman.” Dr. Kim was president of the BWA during the days when the Southern Baptist Convention pulled out of the international body. Although he did not agree with the SBC decision, President Kim understood our concerns and remained friendly with Southern Baptist conservatives. Billy Kim has been a true friend to Southern Baptists during his 50-year ministry. The Korean pastor also had some gracious words for our missionary work and support for persecuted Christians around the world.

Texans, as usual, figured prominently in the proceedings. Our own Jim Richards, in his capacity as first vice president, presided over a portion of two convention sessions. Bruce Schmidt of Lamar Baptist Church in Arlington was elected vice president of the Pastors’ Conference. Four Texans preached during the Pastors’ Conference. Michael Lewis of Great Hills in Austin was reelected vice chairman of the SBC Executive Committee. Domingo Ozuna of Primera Iglesia, Grand Prairie, served on the Committee on Order of Business, one of the busiest committees of the week. Other Texans contributed to the discussion of business from the floor, made reports and contributed behind the scenes.

A touching and unusual highlight for me was the singing debut of President Frank Page. In tribute to his friend Forrest Pollack, who recently died in a plane crash, Dr. Page sang the first verse of “In Christ Alone” solo before his own church choir and orchestra picked up the remainder of the song. It was an unexpectedly personal moment.

The Southern Baptist Convention has no lock on the blessings of God. No one thinks that or even talks that way. Those of us who still support the convention believe that God can use us as we seek to obey him, though. Some of the problems we face puzzle convention leaders just as much now as they did before we met, but we committed together to seek and follow God’s will for the challenges of the future. I suspect next year will have its own good news as well as its own ongoing challenges. I’m pretty sure that several thousand of us will show up, consider the whole thing and commit again to work together until Jesus comes.

Maybe he will find us more useful as we continue to work together in Great Commission ministries. The people who met in Indianapolis (by far, my favorite convention city) still believe that. Amidst the struggles and a certain amount of hyperbole on the part of our critics, Southern Baptists are still doing the main things.

Hunt points SBC to ‘what’s united us’

Johnny Hunt, a pastor from Woodstock, Ga, was elected June 10 as president of the 16.4 million member Southern Baptist Convention in the 151st session of its two-day annual meeting. Hunt, from the nearly 17,000-member First Baptist Church in Woodstock, was elected president when he received 52. 95 percent of the vote over five other nominees at the meeting in the Indiana Convention Center in Indianapolis. Photo by Matt Miller

INDIANAPOLIS–The priorities Johnny Hunt announced for his tenure as president of the Southern Baptist Convention are the same ones that have characterized his 32 years as a local church pastor — evangelism, discipleship and missions.

“I want to see as many people as possible come to embrace Jesus Christ as personal Lord and Savior and then help as many people as possible become fully devoted followers of Jesus Christ and to see churches become personally involved in taking the gospel down the street and around the world,” Hunt said during a news conference after being elected SBC president June 10 on the first ballot among six candidates.

When reporters tried to apply characteristics of Hunt’s ministry to existing political agendas, he kept to his message and refused to be drawn into what he regards as lesser issues. “I’ve not really thought that much through things that have divided us. I believe if we’ll keep the focus off of that and our hearts on what’s united us, it can lead us to the best days in the Southern Baptist Convention.”

Hunt said he would uphold Southern Baptists’ common identity as “a people of the Book,” one of the leading mission-minded denominations of the world, and a body known for its commitment to planting churches. Instead of directly answering questions about “narrowing parameters of participation within the SBC,” Hunt said, “I would hope to unite our hearts around the things we believe Christ was most committed to.”

Issues in the culture such as global warming, homosexuality and abortion, and concerns within the SBC over the funding mechanism known as the Cooperative Program, a decline in baptisms, and disaffected young leaders were offered for his analysis. However, Hunt redirected attention to “inspiring the next generation with a vision for the Southern Baptist Convention.”

Having established a track record of mentoring younger pastors through his Timothy Barnabas conference ministry the last 14 years, Hunt said he sees ministers in that age group as the future of the convention. “If we don’t have someone coming behind us, we don’t have a future. That is why God put fire in my heart to get involved. If our denomination were to become a byword in years to come, I would hate for it to be on my watch when I felt I maybe could have led to a positive change.”

Hunt plans to network with younger pastors to encourage them to be part of what he predicts to be “a winning team” instead of giving them the idea that “we want them to be involved just to keep us alive.” While he called for a “change in radical leadership to turn the tide in our denomination,” Hunt set his sights on “sharing a vision of what’s made our denomination great,” then inspiring others to “step up to the plate.”

“I’m not one who believes we need a whole lot more information about what we need to do. I just believe we need to be inspired.”

Hunt praised efforts at this year’s convention to increase the participation of younger generations. Instead of “constantly saying, ‘Give to the Cooperative Program,'” he said, “We ought to show the generation coming behind us all that the Cooperative Program is doing.” When taking a special offering in his own church, Hunt said he first tells what is happening and then proposes how to respond, whereas in the SBC, “We try to take the offering before we tell the story.” By utilizing “e-mail blasts constantly streaming to make it clear to all who want to know,” Hunt hopes to tell more people what Southern Baptists are doing “so they will want to be a part of it.”

He also called for a realistic assessment of the facts concerning a decline in baptisms. “We ought to be doing more with all the people we have. We have a larger army and ought to be taking in more territory.”

Though he pastors a large church, Hunt said he is not seen as “a large church pastor” by his peers. Asked whether his election silenced the notion that Southern Baptists were no longer electing mega-church pastors, preferring men like the current president, Frank Page, Hunt said, “I can only hope that I can be as good a Christian gentleman in public and private as Frank is.”

Hunt said he “never intended to be pastor of a large church. I just wanted to reach all of the people I could.” He said every church he pastored was smaller than the one he previously served. His current church, First Baptist Church in Woodstock, had 200 in attendance when he began 20 years ago.

“I’ve had an opportunity to lead every church I’ve been in through a transition to be a growing church,” Hunt said. “My heart, through the times I address the denomination and in print, will be to lead them and encourage them to once again embrace God’s heart for the nations and neighbors and hopefully see a turnaround” in declining baptisms.

Believed to be the first Native American president of the Southern Baptist Convention, Hunt was asked about his ethnicity as a Lumbee Indian of North Carolina and involvement with a new fellowship of Native American Southern Baptists. “I’m proud of my heritage and have some of my Indian family here with me. I don’t know that we have enough to take on all of you,” he joked, “but I’m very grateful for their graciousness and commitment to me through the years.”

Having only pastored Anglo churches, Hunt said Lumbee tribe members often appealed to him to return to serve their community, yet later expressed their pride that God had sent to “to help all those white people.” His own congregation supports a Spanish-speaking ministry as well as work in 37 nations this year. “We’re committed to the neighbors and the nations. That’s our prayer.”

Hunt pledged to rely upon “a multitude of counselors” for wisdom in prayerfully making decisions. “I’m certainly not looking to lead as president by consensus, but I really do believe we need to broaden not just who serves, but broaden the area of wisdom.”

When engaging the culture in regard to homosexuality, Hunt said Southern Baptists should “love them where they are and at the same time share what Scripture teaches and how we can help them.”

Oftentimes, Southern Baptists are known for what they’re against instead of “the wonderful things we’re for,” Hunt said, hoping to follow his church’s desire to “love loud” in dealing with the culture. While he plans to become more educated about existing Southern Baptist ministries, Hunt said, “I’d like for this nation to see what we’re doing and for it to be so loud that they see the love of Jesus and say, ‘You know what? I’d like to hear more from you,’ that they see the genuine person of the Lord Jesus Christ.”

Hunt explained, “I can only try to lead the denomination as I do the church. I am a pastor, first and foremost. It is my calling.” In contras