IMB trustees alter policies relating to baptism, tongues and divorce

RICHMOND, Va.—The International Mission Board’s new policy on missionary qualifications—replacing previous restrictions related to baptism, speaking in tongues and divorce among other matters—represents an effort to keep basic requirements from going beyond the Baptist Faith and Message, IMB President David Platt told reporters May 14.

“We want it to be simple and clear that what’s driving us doctrinally is what all these churches [of the Southern Baptist Convention] have agreed on in the Baptist Faith and Message,” Platt said during an hour-long telephone press conference. “… We’re tethering ourselves to the Baptist Faith and Message, and we tethered ourselves to it in such a way that if the Southern Baptist Convention were to edit or adjust the Baptist Faith and Message a year from now or two years from now or whenever, then that would adjust the way we work.”

Approved during a May 12-13 IMB trustee meeting in Louisville, Ky., the new policy is one component of an effort to open “new pathways” of missionary service overseas for students, professionals, retirees and others and establish a single set of preliminary qualifications for all categories of missionaries, Platt said. Trustees and staff will establish additional requirements for specific categories of IMB overseas personnel, he said.

New pathways of missionary service have not been established yet but are expected to be announced in the months ahead, Platt said.

Subsequent to the press conference, IMB spokeswoman Wendy Norvelle told Baptist Press trustees have yet to determine the preferred funding mechanism for new pathways of missionary service. She added, however, that the IMB encourages churches to give through the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering for International Missions and the Cooperative Program, Southern Baptists’ unified method of funding missions and ministries in North America and across the globe.

Previous policies “were put in place at various times for good reasons,” Platt said, but needed revision given the demands of fulfilling the Great Commission today. He commented on several specific changes related to hot-button issues:

“Under [the newly adopted] 200-1, a divorce is not an automatic disqualifier for long-term service with the IMB as it was under the old policy,” Platt said.

The marital history of all missionary candidates still will be examined. However, the circumstances of a divorce will now be considered along with the view of the prospective missionary’s host culture regarding divorce and the candidate’s potential role on a missionary team, Platt said. Requirements regarding divorce may need to differ for lead church planters and support personnel, he said.

Previously, divorced persons were disqualified from service as career and apprentice missionaries.

The only baptism requirements under the new policy are that a missionary be “a baptized member of a Southern Baptist church” and possess a “conviction of truth as expressed in the current Baptist Faith and Message statement of the Southern Baptist Convention.”

The BF&M, Article VII, defines baptism as “the immersion of a believer in water in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. It is an act of obedience symbolizing the believer’s faith in a crucified, buried, and risen Saviour, the believer’s death to sin, the burial of the old life, and the resurrection to walk in newness of life in Christ Jesus.” Article VII adds that baptism is “prerequisite” to church membership and the Lord’s Supper.

IMB missionaries, Platt said, “are going to believe and function and practice and live in accordance with” the BF&M.

Previously, IMB policy 200-16 stated: “Baptism must take place under the authority of a local church that practices believer’s baptism by immersion alone, embraces the doctrine of the security of the believer’s salvation and does not view baptism as sacramental, regenerative or essential to salvation.” The policy applied to all missionaries at all levels of service.

The previous policy on tongues and private prayer languages “went beyond some of the language in the Baptist Faith and Message,” Platt said. The BF&M makes no mention of either issue.

Policy 200-1 also does not mention speaking in tongues or using a private prayer language, but Platt said the IMB Field Personnel Manual allows a missionary to be terminated for disruptive emphasis on any specific spiritual gift as normative for all Christians. He stressed his opposition to excesses of the charismatic movement.

“I have seen and confronted the dangers of the charismatic movement and the error that has in so many ways undercut the authority of God’s Word,” Platt said. “… I want to make sure that we are faithfully representing Southern Baptist churches and convictions at every point.”

Previously, IMB policy defined the gift of tongues as speaking “a legitimate language” and disqualified from service all missionary candidates who used an unintelligible language in worship or practiced glossolalia in worship without following the New Testament guidelines. Using an “ecstatic utterance as a prayer language” disqualified a candidate from service.

Families with teenage children are eligible to serve under policy 200-1 and will be evaluated on a case-by-case basis, Platt said, noting some mission fields are suitable for families with teenagers while others are not.

A previous policy stated that couples with children 12 and older would be eligible for service only after specific criteria were met, including psychological or psychiatric evaluations of the children.

“What we’re trying to do is move away from a one size fits all,” Platt said in response to questions about educational requirements for missionaries. “If somebody is a lead church planter, there will be seminary qualifications for that—absolutely.” However, he added, “It’s not going to be the same bar for the IT (information technology) expert in London who is serving under the leadership of a church planter.”

Platt added, “That doesn’t mean the IT expert in London doesn’t need to know anything about Scripture, theology or missiology. We want to match what he needs to be doing there and do that with different positions and different pathways. Without question we will still have educational requirements for different people in different roles.”

Asked about policies governing alcohol use, Platt said trustee-approved policy did not previously and does not currently disqualify from service candidates who drink alcohol. Yet the Field Personnel Manual requires all missionaries to abstain from alcohol following their appointment. Platt cited policies on alcohol as a model for how other debated issues might be handled in the future.

“The only way to address some of these issues is not a policy that’s a disqualifier on the front end,” Platt said. “People know. It’s not like we’re hiding any of what we believe about these issues. But we are saying, ‘OK, they’re not automatically disqualifiers on the front end, but it’s clear, as an IMB missionary, that we abstain from alcohol.’”

Making adherence to the BF&M the baseline requirement for missionary service represents an attempt to ease initial restrictions on qualified Southern Baptists who feel called to take the gospel to the nations.

Trustees “see that there are some issues we must address as the IMB,” Platt said. “Our pipeline has been small and tough to get through in different ways that we could open up and free [up].”

Regarding prospective missionaries who were prevented from serving under the old policies, Platt said, “The door is open for them to explore serving with the IMB.”

Platt asked Southern Baptists to pray for wisdom among IMB leaders as they seek to increase the number of missionaries despite limited funds.

“Even before this, we were turning away Southern Baptist church members who were qualified to serve as missionaries—even under our old qualifications,” Platt said. “All the more under our new qualifications.

“Some would say, ‘Then why open up the pathway if you’ve already got kind of a backlog?’ Well, I don’t want to continue to say no to qualified members of Southern Baptist churches,” Platt said.

Platt told reporters that trustees “agreed to disagree on some things” related to the changes, while working together with a spirit of unity.

Half of the dozen Texas trustees were present for the meeting, including Geronimo Disla of Bedford, John Meador of Euless, Nathan Lorick of Fort Worth, John Mann of Springtown, Byron McWilliams of Odessa and June Richards of Keller. With IMB administration instructing trustees to refer media inquiries to the Richmond office, most trustees declined any comment, though both Disla and Meador said they voted for the changes.

McWilliams, who chairs the strategy committee, told the TEXAN that the board spent more than seven hours walking through the changes piece by piece with multiple conference calls that allowed questions to be asked of staff.

“I expressed my feelings fully regarding the proposed changes,” he said, adding that he “challenged numerous areas.” Called back at a later date, McWilliams said, “They were receptive to recommendations and sought to present a document that most trustees could readily agree with.”

Ultimately, McWilliams said, “there were certain changes made which some trustees wish had not been made, but when the vote was taken the majority of the board overwhelmingly supported the proposal.”

Meador learned that only 10 of the 66 trustees present voted against the measure, a number he said “was not polarizing.”

“It streamlines the process but leaves trustees as those who can assess the qualifications of missionaries,” he stated, describing the changes as part of a larger package that “elevated the Baptist Faith and Message as the key qualification.”

Calling it “a monumental task,” Mann said the executive administration and the board’s executive committee “committed to find a way to increase missionary presence in an ongoing, financially difficult time.”

“The trustees have been assured that the removal of these policies [on baptism, private prayer language, divorce and teenage children on the field] would open the door to a greater number of candidates while providing a more substantial means of funding, without weakening our ecclesiology or compromising our Baptist identity,” Mann said. “I pray they are correct.”

—Tammi Reed Ledbetter contributed to this report. Visit imb.org to see text of the new policy and further commentary from Platt. 

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