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Asia seminary votes partnership with Mercer, cuts ties with IMB

PENANG, Malaysia (BP)–Trustees of the Asia Baptist Graduate Theological Seminary voted Aug. 11 to forge a new partnership with Mercer University of Macon, Ga., terminating a 40-year relationship with the International Mission Board.
Trustees of the seminary — actually a consortium of nine Baptist schools located in Asia — voted for the partnership despite controversy surrounding Mercer President R. Kirby Godsey and warnings from IMB leaders in Asia that the board could not participate in the partnership because of Godsey’s theology.
Because of the vote, the flow of IMB funds will end and missionary personnel will no longer teach graduate-level courses in the consortium, which was founded in 1960 to provide advanced ministerial training in Asia to students who might otherwise have to come to the United States for training and find themselves reluctant to return to Asia.
For its part, Mercer has pledged $660,300 over 15 years to support the ABGTS administrative office and primary meetings. Mercer also will establish a scholarship fund for an ABGTS student to study at Mercer every three years.
The four regional leaders of International Mission Board work in Asia and the Pacific informed ABGTS trustees several weeks before the meeting, held in Penang, Malaysia, that the board could not participate in a theological education partnership with Mercer.
In an Aug. 6 letter to consortium trustees, Don Dent, the board’s regional leader for Southeast Asia and Oceania, expressed the regional leaders’ regret over the prospect of parting ways with the ABGTS.
“You cannot imagine the grief the Mercer proposal has caused in our hearts,” Dent wrote in the letter, which was addressed to ABGTS President Lien Hwa Chow. “We cannot work with Mercer in the area of theological education, but we do not want to give up our relationship with you.
“For many years, ABGTS has been an effective ministry for training the highest levels of theologically prepared Asian leaders,” Dent wrote. “The long-term investment the International Mission Board has made in ABGTS and the leaders who have resulted from this ministry are a source of joy and pride to us.
“We have not taken this stance lightly, but rather after many hours of reflection, prayer and dialogue together.”
The ABGTS board’s vote left the International Mission Board with little choice but to withdraw from the partnership, which currently serves about 250 graduate students from 15 countries, Dent said.
“If we were to officially partner with Mercer, we would either be stating that Dr. Godsey’s theology is of no concern for us or that we believe the president has no influence over an institution,” he said. “We are unable to make either of those affirmations.”
While the International Mission Board has aggressively expanded cooperation with other evangelicals to accelerate the spread of the gospel, great care must be taken in choosing partners in theological education, Dent added.
“The board takes the greatest pains in the area of leadership training to ensure partners have a similar theological stance and will not be undermining Baptist doctrine or the Great Commission,” he said.
Controversy immediately surrounded Godsey’s book, “When We Talk About God … Let’s Be Honest,” when it was published in 1996. Messengers to the Georgia Baptist Convention repudiated the book because in it Godsey advocated views at odds with Baptist theology.
Among Godsey’s views that were criticized: (1) the Bible is not a final authority above spiritual experience and the church; (2) Jesus is not God and should not be worshiped; (3) Jesus did not have to die to save mankind from its sins; (4) man is essentially good and does not need to repent of sin; and (5) ultimately, God will redeem all people universally.
IMB and Asian Baptist leaders had been involved in a 10-year program to phase down the board’s role in ABGTS and allow Asian Baptists to assume responsibility for providing advanced theological education for Asian students in an Asian setting.
Similar drawdowns have been conducted on other mission fields worldwide to encourage Baptists in those countries to develop their own contextualized ministries. The IMB is giving increased priority to training grassroots pastoral leadership needed because of the rapid multiplication of churches worldwide.
The ABGTS phase-down program anticipated election of an Asian in August of this year to the dean’s position occupied by Graham Walker, the IMB missionary who has served as dean of the consortium since 1993. During the Aug. 11 meeting, ABGTS trustees elected Tereso Casino of the Philippine Baptist Theological Seminary to serve as dean.
Walker, who negotiated the partnership with Mercer, expressed regret over the board’s withdrawal.
“Of course, I am very sad to hear of the IMB’s intentions to withdraw active support from the school,” he said. “The IMB had already begun withdrawing funds from a number of our theological education institutions in the region and in at least four of the schools represented by ABGTS there is no continued funding from the IMB and a limited representation of IMB personnel.
“Mercer has no intention of asking the IMB personnel to withdraw from teaching, and my personal desire is that those presently teaching will be allowed to continue their seminars and supervision of students.”
Walker resigned as an International Mission Board missionary and has joined the faculty of Mercer’s McAfee School of Theology in Atlanta as professor of theology. He also will serve as Mercer’s partnership liaison with the consortium. Mercer has similar relationships with 20 other schools worldwide.
Because of the vote, the flow of IMB funds will end and missionary personnel will no longer teach ABGTS graduate-level courses, said Avery Willis, senior vice president of overseas operations. Missionaries will continue to be available to teach bachelors- and masters-level courses in member seminaries in their respective countries.
Eight IMB missionaries have carried doctoral-level teaching loads in ABGTS, while seven more have taught occasionally.
The International Mission Board has been involved in the consortium since its inception, providing missionary faculty and funds for administrative expenses. Grover Tyner Jr., the Southern Baptist missionary who founded ABGTS and served as its president from 1977 to 1987, was a Mercer graduate.
The consortium does not have its own facilities but is based in offices provided by the Philippine Baptist Theological Seminary. Participating schools are independent and governed by their own boards of trustees. The consortium has two officers — a president and dean — but only the dean occupies a full-time, paid position.
Senior IMB administrators agree with the regional leaders’ decision to withdraw from the consortium, Willis said.
“(IMB President) Jerry Rankin and I completely and totally support the decision to withdraw from ABGTS,” said Willis, who himself served on the consortium’s executive committee while he was president of Indonesia Baptist Theological Seminary for six years in the 1970s.
“We regret that what we had hoped would be an Asian solution for contextualized theological education turns out to be continued dependence on American financial support with a partner whose views are not in harmony with the Bible.”

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  • Mark Kelly