In 1845, the Southern Baptist Convention began in Augusta, Georgia for the purpose of creating two mission boards – one to serve on foreign mission fields and the other to serve in the frontier regions of the United States. One year later, the Foreign Mission Board(3) was commissioned and began the process of assisting churches in the deployment of foreign missionaries, the first of whom were sent into China and other regions of East Asia. National stresses related to the Civil War and Reconstruction slowed the pace of expansion at the Richmond-based mission agency for many years, though the post-World War II boom birthed a reemphasis and renewed strategic focus on foreign missions for the Southern Baptist Convention. Under the leaderships of M. Theron Rankin and Baker James Cauthen, who together served for a combined thirty-three years, the Foreign Mission Board grew to over 3,000 missionaries in 94 countries.
Owing in no small part to awakened premillenial eschatology, the Southern Baptist Convention adopted a new mission emphasis in 1976, entitled “Bold Mission Thrust,” with the goal of evangelizing the world by the year 2000. Three years into Bold Mission Thrust, the convention would be tossed into a twenty-five year battle over the inspiration of Scripture between theological moderates and conservatives. Up to that point, a “grand compromise”(4) had kept the denomination tethered together around missions, but an increased concern about doctrinal compromise expressed by conservative pastors and theologians redefined the basis of denominational cooperation. In time, inerrancy – the view that the original manuscripts of biblical texts are without historical, scientific, or theological error – would become the litmus test for participation in denominational agencies and institutions. For a time, those who wrested control of the convention from their moderate forbears were satisfied to leave the mission agencies alone and focus on the seminaries and denominational publishing house as the hotspots of their reforming zeal.
During the height of the controversy, Keith Parks led the Foreign Mission Board to implement new strategic initiatives and update its missionary paradigms. Among the new strategic initiatives Parks employed were the mission-planning techniques and theological innovations of David Barrett, the author/editor of the World Christian Encyclopedia who came to the board with an Anglican background.(5) With a new openness to ecumenical partnering in foreign missions, the mission board was “cross-pollinated” with ideas that some Southern Baptist missiologists found problematic. Among the concerns expressed by missiologists and theologians unsympathetic with the Parks’ administration were an apparent allowance of charismatic practices, particularly in the form of Third Wave Pentecostalism(6), a de-emphasis on distinctively Baptist ecclesiological models, and a reduced appreciation for traditional modes of theological training for Southern Baptists. The degree to which these influences were diffused throughout the agency is unclear, though it is certain that some key leaders of the Foreign Mission Board had, at least privately, practiced the sign gifts of tongues and their interpretation.(7) By and large, however, most Southern Baptist missionaries had continued going about their church-planting work without embracing components of charismatic theology and ecumenism. At times, this commitment strained relationships with other Christian missionary groups working in similar areas, and the tension concerning how and when transdenominational cooperation is appropriate continued.
Keith Parks chose to take an early retirement once it became apparent that the trustees of the Foreign Mission Board would tolerate almost no doctrinal differences within the agency on matters of Scripture authority and interpretation. In 1993, trustees elected Jerry Rankin to lead the mission board, and Rankin began a strategic reevaluation of the paradigms for foreign mission work and the strategies used to foster church planting movements among unreached people groups. In 1997, Rankin unveiled a strategic administrative, methodological, and organizational shift for the Foreign Mission Board – a plan appropriately entitled, “New Directions.”
(3) Before 1997, the agency was known as the Foreign Mission Board. During the denominational reorganization, the name International Mission Board was adopted. I will use FMB or IMB depending on the time frame under consideration.
(4)Bill Leonard, dean of Wake Forest Divinity School in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, is responsible for coining the phrase “grand compromise” to characterize the nature of denominational cohesion around missionary enterprise during earlier days of doctrinal tension. Essentially, the notion on the part of most denominational leaders was that differences in doctrine should not inhibit the shared desire to see the world evangelized with the Christian gospel.
(5) For a more critical analysis of the influences of David Barrett on the Foreign Mission Board, see “Vision Assessment” by Keith E. Eitel, referenced later in this paper, or the book by Eitel, “Paradigm Wars.”
(6) “Third Wave” is a phrase that refers loosely to the renewed emphasis on the sign gifts of tongues, and prophecy, as well as the casting out of demonic spirits, for the purposes of attesting to the power of the Gospel in unevangelized, pagan contexts.
(7) At the election of Jerry Rankin as president of the Foreign Mission Board, concerns that he had a “private prayer language” and had, on occasion, interpreted the public use of tongues nearly doomed his candidacy. Rankin was able, however, to assure the board’s trustees that his openness to charismatic practices was limited and that he would not endorse or encourage Southern Baptist missionaries to employ the sign gifts. Within two years of his election, Rankin put muscle to his promise and terminated his former colleagues in Asia, Charles and Sharon Carroll, for “going too far” in their openness to Third Wave Pentecostalism. See “Southern Baptist agency nixes controversial charismatic practices for new missionaries,” in Associated Baptist Press, Nov. 30, 2005. The entire story can be found at http://www.abpnews.com/700.article. Recently, Rankin has given more detailed interviews with Baptist editors about his own view on tongues. For more information, see articles at http://www.floridabaptistwitness.com/5826.article and http://www.mbcpathway.com/2006archives/article-1999906135.htm.