A letter home by a Southern Baptist missionary denouncing a fellow missionary's beliefs has led to the latter's dismissal after an unusual intercontinental investigation.
The case in the nation's largest Protestant denomination had some peculiar wrinkles, almost like an intelligence service ferreting out an overseas agent accused of defecting.It began with the condemning letter, sent to a hometown preacher. Copies were circulated. Talk spread.
Eventually it came before the denomination's Foreign Mission Board in Richmond, Va. Investigators were sent abroad.
They interrogated the accused missionary, quizzed associates. The charges were scattergun. He admitted one - favoring women's ordination - challenged others.
He was summoned to Richmond, questioned, sent back, then fired.
The process reflected the stiffened doctrinal grip of fundamentalists on the 14.7 million-member denomination, although officials denied partisan pressures, and insisted no purge of missionaries was going on.
It upset friends of the missionary, the Rev. Michael E. Willett, dismissed for "doctrinal ambiguity." He holds a doctorate from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., where he once taught.
"He's an excellent New Testament scholar," said the Rev. William Link, pastor emeritus of Willett's home church in Liberty, Mo., who sought in vain to intervene in his behalf.
"He's absolutely doctrinally sound. He's being made a scapegoat."
Defending the dismissal, however, the widely respected Rev. R. Keith Parks, head of the Foreign Mission Board, said the decision accorded "with convictions of those of us who had to make it."
The board fields about 3,800 foreign missionaries, the largest professional mission force of any denomination. They're answerable to the board, on which fundamentalists, or biblical "inerrantists," now hold a majority.
Parks "was put in an impossible situation," said the Rev. Harold Songer, veteran New Testament scholar at the Louisville seminary. "He was Custer in Indian country.
"He couldn't let a great missionary enterprise be crucified on a toothpick."
The initial letter attacking Willetts' beliefs was written by a fellow missionary in Costa Rica, the Rev. Mike McGinnis, to a minister in Birmingham, Ala. As copies circulated, one soon reached the board.
Parks sent investigators, including J. Bryan Brasington, to Costa Rica where both McGinness and Willett were taking Spanish courses before assignments in Venezuela. Willett was questioned extensively.
He agreed to resign because of objections to his support for women's ordination, which was discussed. But he refused when Brasington later wrote that the main charge was Willett's lack of clarity about Jesus' deity, miracles and physical resurrection.
Summoned to Richmond, Willett was questioned in a closed session, from which Link and another supporter were excluded. Then, with him back in Costa Rica, the board at a July 2l meeting in Glorieta, N.M., fired him.
Now, "no missionary will feel safe" from attack, Willett says.
In a statement summarizing his beliefs, he affirmed the historic Christian belief that "Jesus is God and man, divine and human. . . . In Jesus of Nazareth, God has reached out to creation to the fullest extent, as a human being. . . .
"Jesus performed miracles through the power of the Holy Spirit, proclaimed the kingdom of God, died for our sins and was raised by the power of God. The risen Christ is still present in the world today, offering salvation to those who place their trust in him."
Willett says that Jesus, in his resurrection, "was transformed into a new level of existence with God. To say that (Jesus') spiritual body has flesh and bones like you and I have is to reduce the resurrection to a resuscitation."