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 imbchange.info.

“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.

Southwestern Seminary
James A. Smith Sr.
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