What the IMB controversy is not

It is helpful to keep clear just exactly what the controversy at the International Mission Board entails and, more specifically, what it does and does not involve. Some people seem to have a penchant for misconstruing these types of matters and wind up terribly confusing matters. I want to spell out several negative assertions that I hope will clarify my own perspective on the issue.

1. It is not controversy between conservatives and liberals. Everyone involved on the board, as far as I know, is an inerrantist. No one is accusing anyone of not believing the Bible or not regarding it as absolutely authoritative. In this regard the controversy is completely unlike those associated with the conservative resurgence in the SBC. The battle then was over the inerrancy and infallibility of Scripture. The IMB controversy is over board policies and procedures.

2. It is not a controversy between continuationists and cessationists. Speaking in tongues was made an issue by the board while it is not an issue in the Baptist Faith and Message (BF&M). The rationale behind selecting this point of theology rather than others has not been explained. This lack of explanation raises great concern in the minds of many Southern Baptists. All IMB missionary appointees have been required to subscribe to the BF&M. Now they are being required to affirm a point of doctrine (or renounce a specific practice) that goes beyond the BF&M. Why? It is reasonable to expect an answer to this question from the trustees. I am one cessationist who wants an explanation.

3. It is not a controversy between those who have a high view of believers’ baptism and those who have a low view of believers’ baptism. Everyone involved is a credobaptist. The question is whether or not the board should accept a local church’s recommendation of a candidate as one who has been properly baptized as a believer. Again, the BF&M spells out what constitutes believers’ baptism. But the board has added to that statement the further requirement that such baptism “must take place in a church that practices believer’s baptism by immersion alone, does not view baptism as sacramental or regenerative, and a church that embraces the doctrine of the security of the believer.” Furthermore, “A candidate who has not been baptized in a Southern Baptist church or in a church which meets the standards listed above is expected to request baptism in his/her Southern Baptist church as a testimony of identification with the system of belief held by Southern Baptist churches.”

Why has the eternal security been singled out as a doctrine that the baptizing church must teach in order for the baptism to be counted as valid? What about the deity of Christ? Or the Trinity of God? Or justification by faith? Or cessationism?

Do you see the problem with the board’s approach? They leave unanswered the question of why they have done what they have done. Thinking Southern Baptists will want an answer to that question.

4. It is not a controversy between loyal Southern Baptists and disaffected Southern Baptists. Those in positions of denominational leadership must get over the kind of hyper-defensiveness that judges any kind of criticism or questioning of actions as disloyalty. It is not lack of loyalty that motivates one to raise the questions I have raised above. Nor is it disloyal to argue plainly that a certain course of action is unwise. To question the actions or recommendations of SBC leaders does not mean that one is therefore “in bed with the CBF crowd.” Good men can have honest disagreements. Handled rightly, those disagreements can actually strengthen the common cause rather than undermine it. The early indications are that some trustees of the IMB do not understand this.

So, if all these things identify what the controversy is not, then what is it? Here is my take: it is a controversy about the kind of practices and procedures that will characterize Southern Baptist denominational actions in the future. Will dissent be squelched with a heavy hand? Will selected doctrinal concerns that go beyond the BF&M be elevated to points of importance such that those who disagree with denominational powerbrokers are not allowed opportunities of service in the SBC?

These are some of the questions that need to be brought into sharp focus. What the controversy is not about should not be allowed to cloud the issue.

Tom Ascol has served as a Pastor of Grace Baptist Church in Cape Coral, FL since 1986. Prior to moving to Florida he served as pastor and associate pastor of churches in Texas. He has a BS degree in sociology from Texas A&M University (1979) and has also earned the MDiv and PhD degrees from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Ft. Worth, Texas. He has served as an adjunct professor of theology for various colleges and seminaries, including Reformed Theological Seminary, the Covenant Baptist Theological Seminary, African Christian University, Copperbelt Ministerial College, and Reformed Baptist Seminary. He has also served as Visiting Professor at the Nicole Institute for Baptist Studies at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, Florida. Tom serves as the President of Founders Ministries and The Institute of Public Theology. He has edited the Founders Journal, a quarterly theological publication of Founders Ministries, and has written hundreds of articles for various journals and magazines. He has been a regular contributor to TableTalk, the monthly magazine of Ligonier Ministries. He has also edited and contributed to several books, including Dear Timothy: Letters on Pastoral Ministry, The Truth and Grace Memory Books for children and  Recovering the Gospel and Reformation of Churches. He is also the author of From the Protestant Reformation to the Southern Baptist ConventionTraditional Theology and the SBC and Strong and Courageous. Tom regularly preaches and lectures at various conferences throughout the United States and other countries. In addition he regularly contributes articles to the Founders website and hosts a weekly podcast called The Sword & The Trowel. He and his wife Donna have six children along with four sons-in-law and a daughter-in-law. They have sixteen grandchildren.
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