Southern Baptists Losing Credibility in China

by Britt Towery

Much of 1989 I was away from my Hong Kong office traveling in north China. A week before the Tiananmen Massacre I was in Beijing getting the heart-beat of Protestant church leaders and students. It was like festival time with Chinese students demonstrating for an end to corruption in government and more freedoms for the people of the People's Republic of China. The students would go from time to time through the streets of the city and the people came out from the stores to cheer them on. There were long scroll-like signs from the high rise office buildings that once would have said "Long Live Chairman Mao," but now read "Long Live the Students."

The Chinese, young and old, were not in 1989 trying to overthrow the government. They were struggling with the traumas of becoming a more open society, literally facing death for their beliefs, and had the backing of the Protestant Three-Self Movement which had led in the re-opening of the churches in 1979 after the "cultural revolution" years of 1966-1976. The Three-Self Movement stresses the churches be self-supporting, self-administrating and self propagating, not depending upon foreign money or personnel. The growth of the churches since 1979 has been amazing.

Some leaders of the Southern Baptist Foreign Mission Board (As of June, 1997 it is called the International Mission Board, IMB) told me at the time they saw the student demonstrations as a prelude to the end of Communist rule in China. Some went so far as to hope and pray the Tiananmen Incident would backfire on the government, end Communist Party rule and with it the Three-Self Movement. Thus opening the door for the sending of foreign missionaries and taking up where the missionaries left off 35 years before. This with little regard for how Christianity had suffered and changed during those years.

To this end, I learned much later, the FMB began preparing for the day they could send Baptist denominational missionaries back into China. As the China Liaison Director for the FMB's newly created Cooperative Services International (CSI) my primary responsibility to build bridges of understanding and trust between Southern Baptists and the China Christian Council. Yet I was not informed that the FMB already had a plan in motion to work independently of me and the CCC and was already sending missionaries from other Asian countries to make survey trips to different areas of China.

The reason this was so disturbing and eventually led to my wife and I taking early retirement from the FMB was integrity. In 1985-86 I personally introduced the president, most of the vice presidents and other officers of the FMB to the national and local leaders of the CCC. The spirit of the meetings were cordial and the CCC put no restraints on the FMB as to personnel in China. The only thing clearly agreed upon was to keep the CCC informed of ministries as had been the custom of CSI to that point.

This was reported to be the case in the 1985 June-July issue of The Commission Magazine when Charles Bryan, then FMB vice-president said regarding China relationships: "...the board would not be initiating anything but responding to needs as they were identified by the Chinese." This was important enough for William R. Estep, Jr., Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary history professor in Fort Worth, Texas, to include it in his history of the FMB, Whole Gospel Whole World (Broadman, 1994, page 352)

For the past decade the FMB has carried on at least two mission programs in China. One, that I was originally involved in, to work openly with the CCC and the Amity Foundation in Nanjing, and one that was of a clandestine nature. Gradually the covert program gained the upper hand. Since July 1, 1997 the situation has become even more pronounced with the reorganization of the FMB into the International Mission Board. The East Asia Mission director, Faye Pearson, a former Taiwan missionary with long experience among Chinese peoples and who worked openly with the Chinese, was dismissed in favor of Bill Fudge, a South Korea missionary who does not speak Chinese, and was one of the early "scouts," along with Thailand missionary Bill Smith, who refused to work with the CCC in the manner the CCC had been led to believe the SBC would.

Faye Pearson was offered another job with the IMB but in a report to the Japan Baptist Mission she said: "I felt I could not [take the] position offered me. When I come to the end of the journey and look in the mirror, I want to know that I have lived true to my convictions." UPDATE: Faye has taken a new position with the Amity Foundation to help with building of a much needed hospice center in Nanjing. The Virginia Baptist Convention is funding her salary.

Once I saw there was nothing I could do to change the mind of the board to share the load in China with the Chinese and not to go it alone with the denominational agenda that made us look like spies, I took early retirement in 1992, teaching one year at Southwestern Baptist Seminary as National Guest Professor and five years with the Asian Studies Program at Baylor University.

The IMB has an image problem in China which is very short on integrity. I have been told this by the Chinese themselves. The Chinese cannot understand why the FMB has two policies regarding China. One that is open and helpful and one that is covert and without integrity. And the covert one gets all the attention from Richmond. Such evangelism under the guise of being English teachers or businessmen only makes the Communist mistrust the local Christians even more. Many fine Christians have taught in China universities and had an effective ministry -- because they worked openly and not with a hidden agenda to promote "underground churches" or destroy the Communist Party.

China Christians are grateful for their missionary heritage and want foreign Christian friends but they do not need foreign missionaries or their money. But they do not want to return to the western denominational type churches of the nineteenth century. They are looking to the 21st century and attempting to do as Jesus prayed for the first disciples: "that they may all be one ... that the world may believe that thou didst send me." (John 17:21). The world will be WON, when Christians become ONE. (Written August 18, 1997)

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