COLUMBUS, Ohio (TEXAN) -- Southern Baptists have their own version of an October surprise—those last-minute issues that make politicians anxious prior to a November election—only their is in May, preceding their annual meeting.
Topics have ranged from a Muslim student's admission to a Southern Baptist seminary, sale of the gender-neutral NIV translation in SBC-connected bookstores, and the platform given to Mark Driscoll at another SBC seminary. These are only a few of the issues that cause a buzz among messengers at recent annual meetings.
Whatever issue has been in the news the month prior to the Southern Baptist Convention gathering often spawns resolutions, motions submitted by messengers, and often questions asked from the floor.
With tight control of what resolutions make it out of committee, along with the likelihood that a motion will be referred to an SBC entity without further discussion, questioning an SBC entity action during the entity report remains one of the few means by which messengers can seek a direct answer from a trustee chairman or entity head.
As long as concerns are expressed with gracious civility, SBC President Ronnie Floyd is likely to allow time for discussion, based on comments he made to the TEXAN, the official newspaper of the Southern Baptist of Texas Convention.
With more than 15 million members, Southern Baptists are the largest non-Catholic denomination in America and the annual meeting is a combination of business and worship each June in that takes place over a series of days in a large city. This year that meeting is June 16-17 in Columbus, Ohio.
This year's May surprise is apparently the Southern Baptist Convention's International Mission Board's recent decision to retract personnel policy changes enacted nine years ago that told practitioners of a private prayer language they need not apply and asked some immersed apart from SBC congregations to be baptized a second time to be eligible for missionary service.
IMB President David Platt said expectations in line with the Baptist Faith & Message accompany every "pathway" to service, allowing leadership to evaluate and revise the expectations and qualifications "to continually strengthen them."
Other changes give flexibility for appointment of candidates with teenage children and those with a history of divorce by taking into consideration past circumstances and future locations where they might serve.
Platt stated that this new model for evaluating candidates does nothing to lower the standards for IMB missionaries, but functionally serves to raise them. Stringent spiritual qualifications, clear Southern Baptist identity, good physical, emotional and mental health are also cited among expectations, Platt said, along with the need to model a godly family life and/or personal relationships.
Relating to those who have concerns about IMB changes, Floyd said "As a conservative resurgence veteran who helped with the charge toward our commitment to the Word of God and its principles, [questioners should] do so using those same principles in stating those and their questions."
Floyd has placed the focus of the annual meeting on "clear agreement, visible union and extraordinary prayer" in following the theme of Great Awakening. Specifically in regard to those with questions and concerns about the revised IMB policies, he added, "As they [voice these], do so with love and respect for the trustee process," reminding, "We are family."
Former IMB trustee Lonnie Wascom of Louisiana is concerned that, "rather than 'raising the bar' of service," the new policy "implies a 'ya'll come,' lowering-of-the-bar openness." He is calling on those who share his concern to contact IMB or offer a question on the floor in Columbus.
In fact, he's even suggested how the question might be worded, asking, "
Texas trustees who serve on the IMB have received little negative feedback from pastors and other Southern Baptists.
"It's been quiet," stated trustee John Meador of Euless. "I've not had anyone approach me with specific concerns." Jay Gross of Conroe, Byron McWilliams of Odessa, June Richards of Keller, and Robert Welch of Brownsboro related similar experiences of little or no inquiries following the vote.
"I fielded a few questions early on, some negative," McWilliams said. "However, I've also had a very fair amount extend their support for the changes."
Trustee John Mann of Springtown described to the TEXAN a number of inquiries he received from fellow pastors he has known for years. "The questions seem to be ancillary to conversations regarding other, non-IMB related meetings," he said. "I have not received as much personal correspondence as I expected."
"The calls I have received have been more for clarification," stated Nathan Lorick of Fort Worth. "I am in conversations hearing people excited about the changes as well as people concerned."
Trustee Mike Simmons of Midlothian could not attend the May meeting, but has had some requests for clarification—primarily from church members at the Cedar Hill congregation he pastors.
"The expressions that I have received are of disagreement and concern about adopting a policy that has been dealt with extensively in previous years, and especially during the tenure of Dr. Jerry Rankin. The concern is that we are opening a door that will be difficult to close, and very well could create division within the convention, as well as, loss of support for the IMB."
Wascom, who serves as director of missions for North Shore Baptist Association in Hammond, La., said he's been inundated with texts, emails and calls from pastors and former trustees seeking help in framing their response to questions from church members.
"Policies pertaining to the views and life experiences of candidates on believer's baptism, glossolalia and divorce appear to be the 'big three,'" he wrote in an open letter to this association recently.
Having chaired the trustee committee that crafted the policy on glossolalia, Wascom is the first to admit he's not a passive observer.
"My major concerns rest upon soteriology, ecclesiology and missiology," he wrote, adding that the previous policies were established over a period of time with input from all Southern Baptist seminaries and lengthy conversations with field personnel. He fears "disunity and confusion in SBC life" will result, but prays he is incorrect.
Texas trustee Jaye Martin of Cypress missed the recent meeting due to illness, but felt the change was given serious discussion in the months prior to the vote. She has heard nothing but positive feedback to the decision.
--Tammi Reed Ledbetter is managing editor of the Southern Baptist Texan, the official newspaper of the Southern Baptist of Texas Convention. This article appeared online and is used with permission.