There is an escalating debate among Southern Baptist churches right now over a recent decision by the International Mission Board placing certain requirements on missionaries in regard to baptism and privately speaking in tongues. These doctrines have been debated for centuries (in the case of the former) and for decades (in the case of the latter). I realize that I will not be able to solve that debate here, so I will not foray into such an endeavor at this time.
What I would like to address in this forum is what I believe to be at the heart of the issue: the rights of churches and individual believers. Many are concerned that in the decision concerning baptism the IMB may have overstepped its bounds and infringed on the autonomy of the local church. That may be true, but I am not here to castigate the IMB trustees. I neither know them nor was I involved in any of their meetings so I will not judge their motives. In the matter of tongues, or more specifically, “private prayer languages,” some have argued that individual Christians have the right to practice any mode of personal worship that they like as long as they don’t try to lead others to do the same. Their point seems to be, “Does it really matter what kind of personal worship a person practices as long as they are reaching souls for the kingdom of God?” This line of thinking has an inherent danger that follows after the code of situation ethics, i.e., the end justifies the means.
Let me state unequivocally at this point that I am a firm believer in both the autonomy of the local church and the priesthood of the believer (specifically the right to interpret the Word of God for oneself). I believe that both of these tenets are both rooted and built up in scripture. But also in the Bible are the principles of cooperation and accountability. Galatians 6:4, II Thessalonians 3:14-15, Titus 3:10-11 all seem to indicate a responsibility of believers to be accountable to one another in matters of doctrine. With the right to personally interpret the Bible comes the responsibility to do so correctly.
The question is, to whom should we be accountable? In the SBC (of which I am very thankful to be a part) churches are self-governing bodies that can take any course of action or any doctrinal position they feel led to take. By virtue of affiliating with the SBC, they enter into several levels of accountability, beginning with the local association, proceeding through the state convention all the way the larger convention body. Each of these bodies share a commonality of faith and practice with only some slight variations (if you look at the big picture). The accountability is not to the hierarchy of these bodies but to the other churches who comprise them. Having said that, the various entities that work together to form the Cooperative Program are set up to administer the mission work of the convention’s member churches. These entities, of course, are run by leaders who are selected and appointed by boards of trustees. These trustees and leaders are given the responsibility and the authority by the churches to exercise good stewardship of mission funds and to promote the doctrine and values of the churches they represent. They are (ideally at least) elected based upon their doctrinal profession and their competency of administration.
Defining those doctrines and values can be difficult. Where there are two Baptists there will be three opinions. Diversity is one aspect of the convention that we should never lose. But in our diversity, there is only so far that we can vary theologically before we reach a point of error. The trustees of the entities of the convention have the responsibility of maintaining doctrinal boundaries when it comes distribution of Cooperative Program resources and sanction of missionaries.
My point is this, our convention operates by a form of government that is reasonably democratic. If reform in the leadership of our entities is needed, it must begin at the associational and state levels where the representatives from each state are appointed. If reform is sought, may it be done so prayerfully and deliberately in a Christian spirit, not as a knee-jerk reaction to one decision.
But the wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle and easy to be entreated, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality, and without hypocrisy. And the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace of them that make peace.