THE ADAM SIMNOWITZ CASE: ABOUT HARMING THE DEBATE

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Introduction

In September 2016, the Rev. Adam Simnowitz was banned from attending the Evangelical Missiological Society (EMS) annual conference in Dallas, TX. The reason given by Dr. Priest who was the president of EMS was that Simnowitz had violated widely shared scholarly standards that the EMS is deeply committed to.” 1 Although the leaders of EMS have the right to deny attendance to anyone, this issue was complicated because they took the position that Simnowitz had acted unethically in disseminating some public information.

In this article I want to rehearse this event so that we can review the meaning of “unethical” and consider some ways to act more biblically so that we don’t harm individuals or the Church’s theological and missiological debate. The Rev. Simnowitz originally was invited to present at the conference but was subsequently disinvited and then banned from attending the conference. With these decisions, the opportunity for discussion of his research was prevented.

 

How Harming the Debate Developed

When this decision came to my attention, I contacted Dr. Scott Moreau who is the National Vice President Finance & Membership and with whom I was acquainted. On Feb. 16, 2017, I wrote the following: “I am conflicted about EMS that you boycott people like Adam Simnowitz whose thesis was accepted by Columbia International University. I fear your organization is being hijacked by extremists who want speech control
and mind control.”

Dr. Moreau answered that the reason given was as follows.

In this thesis, now posted online, Adam “outed” several missionaries and even a daughter of a missionary family. Bob rightly deemed this as completely unethical (researchers putting the lives of their subjects at risk), and decided that Adam posed a risk to EMS members who work in sensitive situations and that his presence at the conference would stifle the free-exchange of ideas and thinking by participants. 2

In a subsequent email, Dr. Moreau explained as follows:

As a researcher Adam put his subjects’ lives at risk. The decision to remove him from registration had nothing to do with his position on the topic—it had to do with his unethical research behavior. Again, the Columbia people at the conference agreed with this decision—not because of his stance but because of the specific name/country information he made globally available. 3

Next, I questioned Rev. Simnowitz about the process which resulted in his being disinvited from presenting at the EMS conference and then banned from attending. Following this I inquired with Rev. Simnowitz concerning the process by which this was accomplished. Was he questioned as to his research method, his developmental research sequence, how he came to discover the public information he included in his thesis and his motives, if any, for doing so. He has allowed me to include the following sections of his correspondence with Dr. Priest who is the president of EMS for this period. Here is the time line:

  1. On September 21, 2016, he was asked for the title of his presentation which was “Are “Father” and “Son” Metaphors? A Brief Look at the Standpoints of the Bible, Muslim Idiom Translation, and the Theory of Dynamic Equivalence.”
  2. A September 26 email indicated that Dr. Priest had reconsidered Simnowitz’ presentation and decided that he was not qualified to present on his chosen subject. Dr. Priest listed 16 books of authors who he thought disagreed with Simnowitz. Without question, Simnowitz’ thesis contradicts much of the status quo models of Bible translation.
  3. In a later e-mail on September 26, Dr. Priest explains his view: “But it violates the deepest ethical codes of academic life to do research and publicize, without permission, the personal names of vulnerable individuals that your research has uncovered.” And also adds this: “As I’ve reviewed your MA thesis (and other writings), it is clear that you have violated widely shared scholarly standards that the EMS is deeply committed to.” 4

This latter assumption is what is most disturbing. As we see in Dr. Moreau’s correspondence, the general view at EMS was that Simnowitz had been unethical in his research and as a consequence he was not going to be allowed to participate in the general theological and missiological debate about bible translation.

 

What is the Ethical Issue?

As Dr. Moreau states above, EMS felt that Adam “outed” several missionaries. I researched that comment and found that a footnote in his thesis revealed some public information that exposed the name of a worker in Pakistan. As one of my family members describes it, Adam operated like the fictional detective Hercule Poirot and pulled together miscellaneous information that others would not relate and included it in a footnote in his thesis. He used a reference to an article, a reference from a church bulletin, and another from a university publication. Mature adults had posted all of this information. Contrary to some reports, Simnowitz did not mention an under aged person  although the adult child of a missionary was named.

  1. Was this a security issue? Did Adam go too far? Some think so, others do not. In my opinion, the likelihood is remote of anyone in Pakistan or elsewhere seeing a reference buried in an extensive footnote in a master’s thesis. It is also certain that national security in Pakistan has the names and personal information of every foreign worker in the country. It is not like Simnowitz posted this information in an Op-ed, or on Facebook or other social media.
  2. Was this an ethical issue? Obviously, the leadership of EMS thinks so. Some agree with them; others do not.
    1. What is the meaning of unethical? The online Free Dictionary describes this adjective as “lacking scruples or principles.” But does the Rev. Simnowitz lack scruples or principles? How did Dr. Priest determine this and why did Dr. Moreau agree with this?
    2. How does one determine that actions are unethical? A mistake or a failure to anticipate the outcome of one’s action, a lack of judgment, or just being wrong about something is not unethical behavior.
    3. The use of “unethical” involves defamation of character unless one can prove that “unethical” behavior has occurred. Portraying someone as unethical requires proof.

Is there proof that Simnowitz deliberately exposed someone to harm them or was his act just a lack of judgment? Being publicly labeled as “unethical” is a serious charge and some would call it defamation of character.

 

Harming the Debate

Finally, this kind of charge and administrative action harms the theological and missiological debate about Bible translation, the Insider Movement, security issues, the use of pseudonyms in public discourse, and other issues.

  1. Do we ostracize everyone from the fellowship who we think has done something wrong or maybe made a mistake? Another minister reminded me of Paul’s and Peter’s confrontation that is recorded in chapter 2 of Galatians. Paul attacked him publicly and even recorded it in a public letter. But Paul did not suggest barring Peter from the “conference.”
  2. This has been Church tradition from early times. The idea of discussion between two pseudonyms is ridiculous on the face of it. The conflict between the John Wesley and George Whitfield over Arminian and Calvinist theology and practice is part of our history. The Fundamentalist–Modernist Controversy was a major schism that originated in the 1920s and ’30s within the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America. A more modern example of controversy was that of Cornelius Van Til about Karl Barth and his theology. Theologians have always been public figures and have both attacked and defended one another publicly.

Conclusion

My conclusions are drawn above but I close this article by appealing to all missiologists to give one another the benefit of a personal defense. Blackening the name of a respected colleague without giving him or her the opportunity to explain his or her position or possibly the opportunity to reconsider the wisdom of their actions is not biblical. Somehow, the assumption of guilt seems to flow more easily than the assumption of innocence. We need to correct this in the body of believers.

I believe that the Rev. Simnowitz deserves a public apology sent to all members of the EMS indicating that the assertions about his being unethical were unfounded.

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Notes:

  1. Sept. 26, 2016 email to Adam Simnowitz
  2. Dr. Moreau granted me permission to use this information from a personal email from March 27, 2017
  3. Dr. Moreau granted me permission to use this information from a personal email from March 27, 2017
  4. These quotes from Simnowitz’ files are used with permission
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About Author

Roger Dixon has been directly or vicariously in some way involved in cross-cultural church planting for nearly 50 years. He and his wife lived in Indonesia for over 30 years and raised 3 children while working among the Sundanese Muslim peoples. Roger has achieved a MDiv at Drew University, a Th.M at Fuller School of World Mission and a Ph.D at Biola School of Intercultural Studies. He was ordained in the Methodist Church in 1963.

3 Comments

  1. Mike Tisdell on

    Most everyone involved with missiology understands that making sure we do nothing to compromise the safety of our missionaries is of primary importance. It is precisely because everyone recognizes that this is very important that it has, sadly, become a ploy used by unscrupulous missionaries to keep western donors from becoming aware of what the missionaries they support are actually doing. I know of several similar false accusations where it was claimed that “revealing names” placed a missionary in “danger,” and none actually revealed anything that was not already public. For example, when a major newspaper had published an article in the national language of the country where the missionary worked and after it was picked up by over 200 other sources [all in the national language of that country], a translation into English of that news story was posted and the missionary objected. This missionary claimed that publishing that story IN ENGLISH would endanger his life in the country where he worked. When asked to explain, no explanation was ever provided by the missionary making the accusation. While it is difficult to understand how an English translation of an article well published in the country where he worked could increase his danger, it is absolutely clear is that his donors in the west could not read any of the 200+ copies of that article in the national language, but they could definitely read an English translation and potentially learn about ministry practices of which they were unaware. Too often it appears that the real threat that these accusers seek to thwart is a threat to their funding and not their life. It is time we start taking seriously the unethical behavior of those making false accusations rather than allowing false accusations to damage the reputation of those who have done nothing unethical.

  2. Adam Simnowitz on

    With regard to Fred’s comment, neither Patrick Krayer nor Interserve are mentioned in my thesis. His name was not mentioned by Dr. Robert Priest, then president of EMS in his communications to me. Krayer, however, did contact Dr. David Cashin of Columbia International University (CIU) regarding my thesis (Cashin is the person who oversaw my thesis) on Sep. 23, 2016, the day before Priest informed me that I could not attend the conference.

    Krayer objected to my naming someone in a footnote (in spite of the fact that I used public information including the CIU website). He then wrote, “Not only is he at risk, but also all those Pakistanis who work with him are at risk. Also, this can have broader implications as it can gender bad feelings against all Christian workers in both countries, putting everyone at risk. ”

    I provide some comments and objections in response to Krayer’s email:

    1. I was seeking to identify the author of a PowerPoint presentation as a member of Wycliffe Bible Translators-SIL (WBT-SIL) based on the name and specific content given in the PowerPoint. The reason for doing this was to show that “Muslim Idiom Translation” (MIT) is a subset of a broader idea, namely, “Religious Idiom Translation” (RIT) and that this is a belief that is held and taught by various people within WBT-SIL. The PowerPoint file was sent to me by someone who was part of WBT-SIL at the time that I received it. There is nothing in the file, however, that specifically states that the author was with WBT-SIL. For the sake of integrity I intentionally used qualified language to alert the reader that I believed that the name mentioned in the PowerPoint was indeed with WBT-SIL and then provided some reasons in the footnote. In order to do this I simply searched the internet with key terms in the PowerPoint along with the author’s first name (which is given in the file). The author’s first and last name, location of service, and specific details about his work are easily discoverable. To blame me for referring to public and publicly-accessible information is contrary to many things, not least of which is sound scholarship..

    2. Krayer’s email confirms that my hunch about the author’s real identity is correct.

    3. To the best of my knowledge, the person named in said footnote has neither contacted EMS nor CIU.

    4. To the best of my knowledge, the person named in said footnote has no connection to Krayer nor to Interserve. This begs the question as to the real reason(s) Krayer felt compelled to write.

    5. If the roles were reversed, I am confident that Krayer would rightly object to such unfair (and unwarranted) conclusions as he made in his email to Cashin. He has not followed the Second Greatest Command and the Golden Rule in his assertions and implications in this matter.

    6. CIU has never given me the chance to defend myself against any of the “concerns” and accusations made against me. They assumed the validity of these complaints and have repeatedly tried to force me to change a thesis that they approved with the highest possible grade that they allow. In addition to this, Cashin repeatedly urged me to find someone to publish my thesis and wrote to me that I was free to distribute it in December 2015.

    7. The main point of my thesis is being ignored through all of this, namely that Scripture has been willfully mistranslated for Muslims by a number of professing evangelical missionaries and Bible translators. This deprives Muslims the message of the Gospel that they can be saved from their sin by putting their faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, the eternal Son of God who became the Son of Man, who died on the cross for our sins and rose again from the dead, who ascended to Heaven, and sits at the right hand of God the Father, ever interceding for those who believe in Him.

  3. Fred Farrokh on

    Dear Roger,

    Thanks for taking the time to provide this helpful narrative. I would also state that before we go too far down the road of asking whether or not Rev. Simnowitz’ thesis endangered anyone, we should look at two points:

    1. The thesis has been posted online for well over a year now. No one has been harmed by it.

    2. Patrick Krayer of Interserve, who raised the “security” issue, was not an unbiased observer in this discussion. In fact, Rev. Krayer presented a paper on Muslim Idiom Translations (MITs) at the EMS National Conference in 2015! I also served with Rev. Krayer on a panel regarding MITs at that same conference. (All the details and names were posted publicly on the EMS website.) If Rev. Krayer has a problem with Rev. Simnowitz’ research, he should address the research on the merits, not do a “bait and switch” by saying Simnowitz is threatening people’s safety. I can only conclude this “security” concern was deception. Simnowitz was gagged to keep his vital research from a wider audience.

    Sincerely,
    Rev. Dr. Fred Farrokh

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