Here We Go

Settle in.  It's a doozy.

During their meeting up in Huntsville, AL held Nov. 14-17, the trustees of the International Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention approved a guideline and a policy.  The guideline was on baptism.  The policy was on tongues and prayer language.  I wish to discuss the policy.  You can view both at the IMB website, but I will reproduce the policy on tongues and prayer language below.

Policy on tongues and prayer language
DATE:  November 15, 2005
That the following policy regarding tongues and prayer language of missionary candidates be adopted:
1.  The New Testament speaks of a gift of glossolalia that generally is considered to be a legitimate language of some people group.
2.  The New Testament expression of glossolalia as a gift had specific uses and conditions for its exercise in public worship.
3.  In term of worship practices, the majority of Southern Baptist churches do not practice glossolalia.  Therefore, if glossolalia is a public part of his or her conviction and practice, the candidate has eliminated himself or herself from being a representative of the IMB of the SBC.
1.  Prayer language as commonly expressed by those practitioners is not the same as the biblical use of glossolalia.
2.  Paul's clear teaching is that prayer is to be made with understanding.
3.  Any spiritual experience must be tested by the Scriptures.
4.  In terms of general practice, the majority of Southern Baptists do not accept what is referred to as "private prayer language."  Therefore, if "private prayer language" is an ongoing part of his or her conviction and practice, the candidate has eliminated himself or herself from being a representative of the IMB of the SBC.
1.  This policy is not retroactive.
2.  Any exceptions to the above policy must be reviewed by the staff and the Process Review Committee.

This has caused quite an uproar among some Southern Baptists (probably mostly made up of the minority that do practice and accept) for a number of reasons.  Chief among them being that Jerry Rankin, the IMB President, has publicly stated that he has practiced a private prayer language "for more than 30 years."  Under this new policy, if the IMB President left his position under the calling of God to serve as a missionary and desired to do so through the help and support of the organization that he leads, he would be denied.  Well, technically he would have "eliminated himself...from being a representative..."  The IMB wouldn't deny him for something that isn't covered doctrinally in the Baptist Faith and Message.  This is quite a conundrum since it is Rankin himself who has come under fire numerous times, most critically for requiring that all missionaries on the field that were approved before 2000 sign an approval and adoption document of the BF&M 2000.  This was seen as forcing doctrinal beliefs on missionaries in a creedal fashion (you won't find creeds, Apostle or otherwise, cited or recited in most SBC churches), which Baptists have historically avoided citing the autonomy of the local church, who, in the case of Southern Baptist life, are technically the sending agents of any missionaries.

I first became aware of this issue in a recent edition of Christianity Today of which I am a subscriber (interestingly, Dean George of Beeson is one of the executive editors of this fine publication along with J.I. Packer and Thomas C. Oden [perhaps you've heard of them as well]).  It was reported as a news story with none of the bias that I'm sure I'm displaying here.  However, it piqued my interest and I began researching all I could about it.  By the time I did so, position papers on both the tongues policy and the baptism guideline had been published (though conveniently not formally adopted) and Tom Hatley, Chairman of the IMB trustees, had written a letter to Baptists in general and then one to Baptist pastors in particular.  All of these documents can be found on the IMB website, which I have linked above.

Hatley clearly states that the decision of the trustees to adopt this policy has little to do with Rankin other than the fact that the IMB President and others within the organization asked the full board to approve or disapprove the policy after it had been only adopted by the Personnel Committee.  He's also kind enough to give a decent explanation of a candidates approval process and how holes in the approval process helped make it necessary to adopt this particular policy.  Other reasons for doing so asserted by Hatley are that 1. "some of our ministries in some of our regions were facing doctrinal challenges" 2. "we were receiving concerns from...pastors and others returning from mission trips..." that included "charismatic problems that would intrude into some of our mission work" and 3. "our doctrinal resolve needed to be affirmed."  However, notice under the "application" section of the policy that the policy is not retroactive.  So, in no way does it address those concerns and doctrinal challenges that have already been on the field.  Hatley acknowledges this in saying that "no one on the board thinks we should terminate a missionary for believing something we allowed at the time of their appointment" because "we already have policies in place to address these issues when they become problematic."  There's already a process in place and the issue isn't serious enough to result in termination of present missionaries but is serious enough to prevent any in the future from causing these dreaded charismatic problems.

Notice that in neither the policy nor Hatley's letters (if you read them) are Scripture references given.  But don't worry.  That's what the Position Paper (that "has not been adopted by the board of trustees") is for.

This paper begins by saying "while an exhaustive treatment of even the few biblical passages that make any mention of tongues is not practical for this rationale, dealing with those passages in context is extremely helpful and important."  I will deal with some of their context in a moment.  But to begin with I want to say that they are certainly correct that passages should be dealt with in their context, but while they assert that an exhaustive treatment is not practical I should point out that they devote more of the paper to the "Historic Baptist Understanding" than they do to the passages of Scripture.  Interesting.  Let me address a few of this paper's points.

They begin with the first instance of the gift of glossolalia that followed the coming of the Holy Spirit at the celebration of Pentecost recorded in Acts 2.  Here those followers of Christ present were "filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance."  We then find that the people present could understand at least some of those speaking through hearing their own native language.  The first argument made by the position paper is that the glossa (tongues) referred to were actual known languages.  And because this same term is used in the passages in 1 Corinthians (where the issue of tongues is dealt with most directly) the conclusion is that when Paul writes of different kinds of tongues in 1 Cor. 12:10 he just means different languages (though it's still quite amazing that it's not languages the speakers have learned).  At any rate this is all well and good, but since we are taking Scripture in context, then you must deal with Paul's teachings on tongues in full context as well.  This occurs primarily in 1 Corinthians 12-14. That's right, over the course of three chapters.  Including chapter 13.  The love chapter.  In the context of Paul's letter, chapter 13 does address love and the lack of it in the lives of many in the Corinthian church.  They were dealing with a multitude of sins, one being the abuse of Spiritual gifts, especially tongues.  It had been elevated to even above the supremacy of Christ.  They were holding it over people's heads as a measure of superiority.  They were acting without love.  Thus Paul begins the love chapter (that wasn't a chapter in his letter; that was added later, obviously) "If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels..."  Glossa is used here as well and refers to languages of men and languages of angels.  It stands to reason that we don't know what the language of angels is, or if there is more than one.  Thus it seems appropriate to deem this an "unknown" language, though the position paper argues that such a thing doesn't exist.

They also argue that tongues are a sign, which is supported by 1 Cor. 14:22, but they then move on to assert that it is only a sign for Jews, though Paul makes no distinction about that in chapter 14.  He does say that Jews requested a sign in chapter 1 as well as that Gentiles requested wisdom, which is also a gift of the Spirit.  At any rate they draw their support for this from Isaiah's prophecy where he refers to "this people."  Though, this prophecy certainly was given to Jews and held a fulfillment for the Jews, those who study prophecy also know that it can carry on further meaning and fulfillment.  For instance, messianic prophecies were not always understood as such.  They had their own fulfillment at the time they were given and than had a future fulfillment that didn't just apply to their initial audience.  But at any rate, the position paper says that "in every instance of tongues in Acts there were Jews present and at least one apostle.  It is true about the apostles.  However, in order to make the argument for the Jews one has to consider Acts 19 where Paul visits Ephesus.  Here he meets a group of people only referred to as disciples who had received the baptism of John.  Paul baptizes them in Christ and they are filled with the Spirit and speak in tongues.  In order to argue that they are Jews, one has to do so from silence because Scripture doesn't say.  This is faulty hermeneutics.  Also, tongues was obviously being experienced in Corinth (abused or not) and there was not an apostle present, hence the need for Paul's letter.

The writers of the position paper say that Paul wrote to Corinth "to correct a problem, not to encourage or promote a particular experience as a means by which to have a superior intimate relation to God."  This is true, but that sentence should be examined carefully because Paul does encourage and promote tongues here just not as a means to have a superior relation to God.  He writes in 14:5, "Now I want you all to speak in tongues, but even more to prophesy.  The one who prophesies is greater than the one who speaks in tongues, unless someone interprets, so that the church may be built up."  Paul doesn't require interpretation except for in public gatherings of worship where he places further restrictions on the use of tongues, though he does encourage all tongues-speakers to pray for interpretation (1 Cor. 14:13).

They also admit that a usage of tongues according to 1 Cor. 14:28 is to speak to God, though "some Baptists argue that the Corinthian practice is not, strictly speaking, an actual spiritual gift, because Paul defined a spiritual gift as "for the common good" (1 Cor. 12:7).  True, but he also says in 14:4 that the one who speaks tongues builds up himself though in chapter 12 he obviously considers tongues a spiritual gift.

They argue that the work of the Spirit is to exalt Christ.  True.  Read John 14-16.  Knowing this truth, they say that any teacher, teaching, or movement that exalts oneself rather than Christ is not from the Holy Spirit.  I think this might imply that the tongues in Corinth weren't from the Spirit since they were being used partially for this purpose, though also for the correct purposes as well.  But then they say that the Corinthian Christians were just misusing the gift of tongues.  So, I'm not sure what they're trying to say.

At any rate they completely skip the parts of 1 Corinthians 14 where Paul does mention tongues being used in prayer other than that one instance in verse 28 that they write off because of the argument of "some Baptists."  Like verses 13-16 that say, "Therefore, one who speaks in a tongue should pray for the power to interpret.  For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays but my mind is unfruitful."  So, should I not pray in tongues then?  No.  "What am I to do?  I will pray with my spirit, but I will pray with my mind also; I will sing praise with my spirit, but I will sing with my mind also.  Otherwise, if you give thanks with your spirit, how can anyone in the position of an outsider say 'Amen' to your thanksgiving when he does not know what you are saying?"  The argument against this is that it implies prayer in a corporate setting and not in private.  But elsewhere we are told to "pray in the Spirit" (Jude 20,21; Ephesians 6:18).  Though tongues aren't mentioned in those passages directly Paul does use the same language in 14:2 when he writes, "For one who speaks in a tongue speaks not to men but to God; for no one understands him, but he utters mysteries in the Spirit" (emphasis mine).

At any rate the writers of the position paper and the board of trustees if nothing else did ignore 1 Corinthians 14:39-40: "So, my brothers, earnestly desire to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues.  But all things should be done decent and in order"  (emphasis mine, again).

I won't even discuss the whole "the majority of Southern Baptists do not practice/accept" statements.  After all, we made it a democracy and not a theocracy (though I'm not really trying to make a point about church leadership and organization; an extensive discussion of that here is not practical).

Seems like maybe they should have worked on addressing those abuses, like Paul did, and not forbidden what he taught not to.

But what do I know?