The International Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention announced Wednesday (Sept. 8) it will require “IMB missionaries and their children ages 16 and older to be vaccinated against COVID-19.” The move by the international mission arm of the nation’s largest Protestant denomination represents one of the most significant COVID-19 vaccination mandates among Christian groups. But it could also spark pushback in a denomination where some were already fighting against the vaccines.
“We must make every wise decision, even when a decision is exceptionally difficult, that maintains our team members’ access to the growing number of unreached peoples and places around the world where vaccines are required for entry,” IMB President Paul Chitwood said in announcing the new policy. “We also want to do all we can to undergird our team members’ spiritual and physical health to maximize our effectiveness as we serve Southern Baptists in our global gospel endeavors.”
Some other Christian groups have previously announced vaccination mandates, such as the Episcopal Diocese of Maine that announced its mandate for all clergy and diocese staff on Aug. 23. Bishop Thomas J. Brown explained in a letter to the more than 250 individuals impacted by the mandate, “It’s clear that vaccination of our population is the best path to the pandemic’s end, and as spiritual leaders, we have a moral obligation both to protect others and to set a Christlike example to the larger world.”
The IMB has more than 3,600 field personnel serving, though the IMB statement acknowledged that “the policy may result in some field personnel and staff members choosing not to join the IMB; to take a leave of absence; or to discontinue their employment with the IMB because of the requirement.”
Even before the new policy, some Southern Baptists were already arguing against requiring a COVID-19 or other vaccines.
The question of vaccination came up during the SBC’s annual meeting in June. After Chitwood gave the IMB’s report on June 15 in Nashville, Tennessee, the first messenger at a microphone complained about the IMB’s vaccine requirements already in place, which did not yet include COVID-19. John Jones, pastor of Cadet Baptist Church in Cadet, Missouri, explained he did not want his children to receive other vaccines already required of missionary families and asked Chitwood to investigate changing the policy.
Chitwood said in response that the topic of vaccination is one “we have wrestled with as an organization” but noted that they send people “to places where vaccines are literally a matter of life and death.”
Additionally, at least one state Southern Baptist convention went on record last year against some vaccinations. Messengers to the Missouri Baptist Convention approved a resolution rejecting any vaccines derived from “fetal tissue research,” which the resolution claimed included “certain vaccines on the CDC schedule, certain potential SARS-CoV-2 vaccines.” Despite the claim of the resolution, many Christian leaders — including prominent Southern Baptists — insist Christians can in good conscience get a COVID-19 vaccine since the connection to abortion is remote and indirect.
The topic of vaccine requirements for missionaries emerged during the debate over the MBC resolution, with one messenger raising concerns the resolution would lead missionaries to not serve in countries that required the targeted vaccines. But messengers approved the resolution with nearly 58% support.
The IMB noted in its release about the new mandate that many countries where IMB field personnel serve already require proof of COVID-19 vaccination. The new mandate does not extend to IMB volunteers — unless vaccination is required by the country where someone will serve — but the IMB is encouraging all volunteers to also get vaccinated.
The IMB stressed that “vaccination requirements are not new for the IMB” with various vaccines required since the 1980s. Justifying such mandates, the IMB added in its release: “Vaccines prevent unnecessary sickness, suffering, and even death for field personnel and their families; vaccines protect national partners and those who missionaries minister to from contracting illnesses from IMB personnel and their families; vaccines help ensure better health for field personnel so they can focus on the missionary task; and vaccines lower medical expenses, which fosters good stewardship of the funds that have been entrusted to IMB.”