I recently (and lamentably) read two resignation letters from missionaries who were severing ties with their mission agencies – both because of disagreements in the area of personnel convictions. Historically, mission agencies of the independent Baptist persuasion have required certain standards of personal separation for the missionaries who seek affiliation with them. The sending churches used these mission agencies, in part, because of this “separatist” identity. Times, however, are changing, and many sending churches no longer desire to see their missionaries branded with such distinction.
Personal convictions, I believe, are still necessary for at least three solid reasons. First, personal convictions prevent erosion. The psalmist asks that the word of truth not be taken entirely out of our mouth (Psalm 119:43). When an institution is known for drawing no lines, how is erosion prevented? We recently have seen in the news where significant evangelical schools are now allowing their teachers to dance, smoke, and drink alcohol. The course of these eroding standards was produced decades previously when any line drawn in the sand was branded as “legalism.” There has to be a point when we classify a certain style of dress as immodest or a certain song as worldly. If there are no objective criteria in place whereby these determinations can be made, there is no telling where the madness will end. We may disagree from institution to institution as to where this wall will be built, but we should all be in favor of building walls in order to prevent erosion.
Second, personal convictions provide emancipation. The psalmist said that he would walk at liberty because he sought God’s precepts (Psalm 119:45). In our desire to provide our students, faculty, staff, and members with greater “freedom,” have we in essence helped them become further enslaved? How does the freedom to consume alcohol as a beverage prevent someone from experiencing the bondage of booze? How does the freedom to smoke keep one from the slavery of nicotine? Walls of separation are there for the purpose of carving out freedom in a world of enslaving enticements.
And finally, personal convictions promote evangelism. The psalmist is clear that we should be able to speak God’s Word to dignitaries without embarrassment (Psalm 119:46). A church that lives just like the world it is called to reach is not offering that world any viable alternative to decadent living. It is merely putting a religious label on carnality. Separation, biblically derived and lovingly practiced, is an enhancement, not a deterrent, to evangelism.
Because these personal convictions stop erosion within our institutions, provide freedom for our constituents, and enhance evangelism within our mission, they are not nearly as “personal” as we have been told. To be sure, Romans 14 is clear that there must be some latitude among God’s people in these areas, but I am also told in I Corinthians 8 that love for my brother regulates my determinations.
Many years ago, for example, while I was a student at Tennessee Temple, there was a rule necessitating that if a college student desired to have a mustache, he must have grown it ten years prior to enrollment. This meant that a student coming out of high school must have had his mustache since he was eight. Personally, I do not believe that mustaches are a moral issue, but Dr. Roberson believed (and I heard this from his own mouth) that mustaches caused students to be cocky. Therefore, the rule was in place. The big question for me, then, was not how I felt about mustaches, but rather was Tennessee Temple God’s will for my life. If God wanted me at TTU, I was more than willing to give up the mustache to stay in His will rather than to abandon the will of God for facial hair.
The same should be could be said for a missionary who likes a particular genre of music that is outside the pale of his board’s acceptability or of a missionary wife who is pressuring her husband to leave a board because she loves her britches so much she is willing to abandon friendships over it. Why do I tenaciously hold on to this “meat offered to an idol” at expense of a meaningful relationship with good brothers? Instead of fighting over screens, britches, and music styles, why don’t we sacrifice our liberty in “such a time as this” and get back to commission work?