For more than a decade, the Southern Baptist Convention’s International Mission Board (IMB) disqualified candidates who spoke in tongues or who had been baptized in churches that disagreed with the convention’s view of baptism.
Similar rules barred divorced people or those with teenagers from being missionaries.
That changed Wednesday, when the IMB’s trustees, at the prompting of their new president David Platt, approved a new, simplified set of rules for the agency’s more than 4,800 missionaries.
Missionary candidates must affirm the doctrines found in the Baptist Faith and Message statement of beliefs, be baptized by immersion, be a member of a SBC church, and demonstrate an “intimate, growing relationship with Christ.”
Previous rules required would-be missionaries to have been baptized in an SBC church, or in a church that held SBC-like beliefs about baptism. Candidates baptized in a church that did not believe in eternal security—the idea that true Christians can’t lose their salvation even if they sin—or a church that views baptism is a sacrament were rejected.
The new rules allows those who were baptized by immersion and who are members of an SBC church to be candidates.
The changes also address the question of charismatic worship and prayer practices, which have been controversial for Southern Baptists. Under the previous rules, candidates who spoke in tongues or had a “private prayer language” were barred.
Under the new rules, speaking in tongues does not disqualify missionary candidates. Too much emphasis on charismatic gifts, like speaking in tongues, could still lead to discipline.
“IMB may still end employment for any missionary who places ‘persistent emphasis on any specific gift of the Spirit as normative for all or to the extent such emphasis becomes disruptive’ to Southern Baptist missions work,” according to a FAQ about the new rules posted by IMB.
Divorced candidates have been allowed to serve in short missions. Now they will be eligible to serve as long-term missionaries, depending on the circumstances of their divorce and other factors, such as the culture they will work in.
Parents of teenagers will also be potential candidates. The IMB had previously disqualified them out of concerns for the challenges that teenagers would face by being uprooted and having to move overseas. Now IMB leaders will decided on a case-by-cases basis whether or not to allow parents with teenagers.
“For example, a family considering serving long-term in an isolated African village may be different than a family considering a one-year term in London,” says the FAQ.
The changes in rules on baptism and speaking in tongues will likely get the most attention. They made national headlines when first adopted.
IMB leaders said the baptism and tongues rules, adopted in 2005, were needed to safeguard the Baptist identity of missionaries at a time when charismatic and Pentecostal practices were growing.
Tom Hatley, former IMB board chair, told CT in 2006 that some missionary candidates who spoke in tongues—a practice also known by the New Testament term glossolalia—claimed to be getting direct revelation from God.
“That's one reason that Southern Baptists have been suspicious of glossolalia," Hatley told CT in 2006. "If somebody believes they're getting direct divine revelation from God, obviously that's claiming an equality with Scripture that we would not allow."
Those rules proved controversial and were seen by critics as part of a power struggle between some trustees and former IMB president Jerry Rankin. Rankin had used a private prayer language for years at the time the policy—which was not retroactive—was passed.
Rankin told CT in 2006 that he did not see any personal intent in the policy.
“I am assuming that this does not have anything to do with me, because it was stated that it doesn’t,” he said.
Other Baptist leaders, like Frank Page, now president of the SBC’s executive committee, worried that the speaking in tongues rule went too far.
“I just think in that one area there is a possible interpretation of a private prayer language [in Scripture] that we need to be very careful about saying, no,” he told Baptist Press in 2006. “If there is some scriptural possibility there, [a policy forbidding it for missionaries] makes me nervous.”
Former IMB trustee Wade Burleson, pastor of Emmanuel Baptist Church in Enid, Oklahoma, clashed with other trustees over the policies. In 2006, a group of trustees tried to oust him from the IMB board, but that attempt failed.
Burleson praised the changes in policy, in a phone interview.
“This is what I was asking for 10 years ago,” he said.
Platt says the IMB will still have a rigorous process for choosing missionaries.
“This is no lowering of the bar for potential IMB missionaries,” he told trustees, according to Baptist Press. “This is a raising of the bar in all the areas that matter most. ... We will continue to train our missionaries and work as missionaries in ways that faithfully represent Southern Baptist churches and Southern Baptist conviction.”
The policy changes come at a time when the IMB faces financial and staff constraints.
The number of missionaries is shrinking and there’s not enough money to send out more full-time replacements for all the people who retire.
In 2009, there were about 5,600 IMB missionaries. Today, there are 4,734, a drop of 15 percent.
“We are pretty fast on the way to 4,200 missionaries,” said Platt.
He hopes that more missionaries will be self-funded in the future. That could include retirees, people who have jobs overseas, or students studying aboard.
Having a simplified list of requirements will allow more people, from different backgrounds, to officially partner with the IMB, said Platt.
All the requirements are based on the Baptist Faith and Message.
“We are tethered to the BFM,” he said.
Platt also addressed several specific policy changes. He said that divorce should not automatically bar someone from missionary service, especially in a support role. At the same time, he said, IMB officials will not overlook someone's marital history.
Platt also addressed the question of speaking in tongues. He remains wary of some charismatic practices, which he says may introduce errors that contradict Scripture.
"I have seen and confronted the dangers of the charismatic movement," he said.
Still, Platt said, the IMB has policies that will protect Baptist principles while allowing missionaries who do speak in tongues and have a private prayer language.
Not all the trustees agreed with the policy changes, Platt said. He declined to release the results of the votes on the changes but said there had been a long process of working through the changes that allowed for open debate.
Overall, he was optimistic about the IMB's future.
"(The trustees) see the urgency of the mission," he said
Wednesday marked at least the second time the trustees have amended their missionary guidelines in the last decade.
In 2007, the IMB board revised some of the language in the baptism and speaking in tongues rules, making them guidelines rather than policies.
The IMB decision mirrors changes made at the SBC’s North American Mission Board. That board used to ask candidates if they spoke in tongues and barred those that did.
That changed a few years ago, said Mike Ebert, a NAMB spokesman, since the issue of speaking in tongues is not addressed in the Baptist Faith and Message.
Ebert said that if a NAMB missionary’s views on speaking in tongues became disruptive—if, for example, they claimed it was necessary for all Christians—that would be an issue. Otherwise, the board tries to stick with the beliefs approved by the SBC.
“When we are interviewing a missionary candidate, our primary goal is to make sure that they are in harmony with the Baptist Faith and Message,” he said.
Editor's note: This story was updated to include Platt's comments from the conference call.
[Image courtesy of the IMB]