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SBC missionaries agree to guidelines, will return to the field

RICHMOND, Va. (BP)–Southern Baptist missionaries Wyman and Michelle Dobbs will be allowed to return to their work in West Africa after telling the International Mission Board’s overseas leadership they are committed to following the IMB’s five levels of partnership and planting indigenous Baptist churches.

The couple’s assertion that they were starting a “baptistic” church in partnership with non-SBC missionaries among the Fulbe Fouta people of Guinea became public in mid-April. The Dobbses had signed a church-planting partnership document called the “Tinka Agreement” in 2003, which had not been endorsed by the West Africa regional leadership and did not adequately communicate the five levels of partnership to which IMB trustees had committed.

In addition to the Dobbses, that agreement was signed by mission representatives from the Assemblies of God, Christian Reformed Church, Christian and Missionary Alliance, Pioneer Bible Translators, WEC International, Youth With a Mission and the Swiss Evangelical Alliance Mission.

West Africa mission leadership came to an impasse with the Dobbses in determining their commitment to the appropriate level of partnership and a clear commitment to planting indigenous Baptist churches. They recommended the couple resign or be terminated after the Dobbses refused to follow the guidelines.

The Dobbses appealed the decision in an April 29 meeting with Gordon Fort, IMB vice president for overseas operations. Fort agreed to let them return to the field after he conferred with Randy Arnett, West Africa regional leader. The couple is currently on stateside assignment in Oklahoma and is scheduled to return to Guinea in February 2007.

The Dobbses told Fort they are committed to partnering appropriately within IMB guidelines for levels of mission partnership. In addition, they agreed to plant indigenous Baptist churches and said they would work under the authority of IMB leadership in West Africa and in harmony with leaders’ policy decisions.

While IMB trustees were made aware of the Dobbses’ situation, they were not involved in the decision. Fort’s involvement at the vice presidential level is the first step in the appeals process. Trustees make the final decision on a recommendation to terminate.

The IMB guidelines, adopted in the 1990s and reviewed and reaffirmed by trustees last year, state that missionaries do not enter into strategic relationships randomly with non-SBC mission groups. Partnerships are launched with the intention of supporting church-planting movements and in accordance with the biblical principles of the 2000 Baptist Faith and Message. Because IMB relationships with other Great Commission Christian groups are intentional, they have five different guidelines depending on the purpose of the partnership. The deeper the level of involvement, the greater its significance.

Planting New Testament churches is a level-four guideline and must be done in accordance with the 2000 Baptist Faith and Message definition of a church as well as the IMB’s church guidelines. The highest involvement (level 5), with a guiding principle of doctrinal purity, involves ministerial training, theological training, ordination and deploying missionaries. This guideline seldom, if ever, relates to partnerships with other groups.

The church guidelines document states that in church-planting ministries, missionaries “will seek to lay a foundation of beliefs and practices that are consistent with the Baptist Faith and Message 2000, although local churches overseas may express those beliefs and practices in different ways according to the needs of their cultural settings.”

Fort said he and IMB associate vice president Ron Wilson met with the Dobbses and “were able to work through the issues raised by the [West Africa] region … giving this couple the opportunity to return to the field following their stateside assignment.

“The Dobbses had no part in any information that has been circulated and have not sought to politicize this issue,” Fort said. “They are very supportive of the IMB and the treatment and support they have received by us. It is their desire to publicly support the IMB and its objectives and mission.

“We are thankful to God for His leadership and direction in clearing up any disagreement or misunderstanding that has existed,” Fort added. “The Dobbses regret any trouble or difficulty this situation has created for our trustees or our broader Southern Baptist constituency.”

    About the Author

  • Michael Chute