How Private is a "Private Prayer Language"?

The trustees of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary (SWBTS) voted convincingly to go on record as opposing all kinds of charismatic practices, including the much publicized “private prayer language.” They will not knowingly hire someone who practices such behavior. The lone dissenting vote on the board came from Dwight McKissic, who preached a sermon in the SWBTS chapel recently acknowledging biblical support for speaking in tongues. He himself admitted to practicing such a prayer language, but acknowledged not everyone has the gift, need, or desire to do the same. Apparently, SBC churches who allow or affirm this spiritual gift were finding that their members were being overlooked or rejected as missionary candidates. His sermon created a firestorm within the SBC, and no doubt this vote is a response to it.

In a related matter, the International Mission Board (IMB) came down with a similar ruling some time ago, which is somewhat ironic in that their president, Dr. Jerry Rankin, admitted to some kind of private prayer language years ago while interviewing for the presidency. The trustees’ decision appeared to be an attempt to embarrass Rankin, as the board is now on record as opposing a discipline that their president practices.

All this debate wouldn’t ordinarily be that interesting except that there are those in the SBC who side with McKissic rather than Dr. Paige Patterson and SWBTS trustees. The heart of the matter seems to be to what extent does the 2000 Baptist Faith & Message establish doctrinal parameters for those serving on boards, agencies, committees, faculty of seminaries, and missionaries on the field. The 2000 BFM makes no mention of speaking in tongues and offers no specific prohibition concerning the matter. Thus lies the problem. Those who oppose the charismatic practice have wielded the BFM as a club in the past to exile those who weren’t in agreement with it. Now, however, these folks can’t use the document to prohibit private prayer language sympathizers. There is no 2000 BFM basis to exclude persons from serving as missionaries and as other leaders in the convention for this reason. Here is where private prayer language sympathizers hang their doctrinal hat. Since the BFM is THE standard of “doctrinal accountability” for the SBC, it cannot be used to prohibit those areas in which it is silent. As such, the prayer language issue should not be a test of fellowship or participation.

What is amazing to me is that the SWBTS trustees have gone on record in opposition not only to a prayer language but a PRIVATE prayer language. The last time I could recall, something done in private was not intended for anyone else to see or know about. The only way you could know about such a matter would be to ask someone directly in an interview or overhear this person admit it in casual conversation. It’s not enough that these folks guard against public behavior that they deem unacceptable, they are setting themself up to keep the private lives of SBC folks in check.

At the last convention, messengers passed a resolution against drinking alcoholic beverages even though the Bible doesn’t specifically state “thou shalt not drink.” Several passages say otherwise, as Paul mentioned “taking a little wine for the stomach” and even Jesus turned water into wine at a wedding for his first miracle. This tendecy to “go beyond” what the Bible says about faith and practice is precisely what the Pharisees did Jesus day. Apparently, SBC folks are afraid of turning their constituency loose to their own good judgment and have to create rules to keep them in check (no resolutions on obesity, however).

I don’t speak in tongues, and probably would be uncomfortable in a church where this practice was accepted. What is now viewed as “speaking in tongues” appears more like chaos to me. The Apostle Paul laid out some specific guidelines in Corinthians that are violated pretty routinely in many charismatic churches. As a Baptist, I can understand wanting some kind of clarification on this public demonstation. But, “private” prayer language? Is this really anybody’s business except the individual’s and the Lord’s? It isn’t like the person is going out in public and bringing shame on a local congregation. There would seem to be many other more sinister things done in private that could be problematic. I mean, what’s wrong with prayer?

There are several observations I’d like to make about this discussion on private prayer language. First, the focus of SBC will shift (once again) to clarifying its doctrinal position. The BFM will either be revised to speak to the charismatic practice issue or rigidly enforced as it is without excluding private prayer language sympathizers. I believe a serious attempt will be made to do the former and then rigidly enforced.

Second, it’s ironic that what was once used to establish doctrinal peace and harmony has become a focal point for division. Either the 2000 BFM is the standard, or it isn’t. If it is, then those with charismatic leanings cannot be excluded from being missionaries or participating in other leadership areas. Otherwise, the convention will have to violate its own doctrinal stance to prohibit prayer language sympathizers. The BFM is inadequate to handle this new theological development. Proponents of the 2000 BFM are finding it used against them in a way they couldn’t have imagined. The “letter of the law” cuts both ways.

Third, there will be another “controversy” within the SBC. This “tongues” issue is going to be the next battleground within the SBC. A number of African-American congregations with SBC ties will be interested in this one. There are also a number of younger SBC ministers whose opinions are getting out there via blogs who don’t care for this persistant redefining of what it means to be Southern Baptist. Their influence got Dr. Frank Page elected. Even so, the old guard will not relinquish power easily and things are going to get messy. These guys know how to play the game and will do what it takes to win. It’s too early to tell the outcome, but we’ll be able to keep score a lot more easily with the internet.

Fourth, it’s wonderful not to be personally or emotionally connected to this dispute. I am fascinated, however, at the contours of thinking that are emerging in the SBC. It didn’t occur to me that a younger generation of leaders could come in and potentially upset the status quo, but it is happening. The influx of younger leaders isn’t going to change the doctrinal landscape, but there might be a “kinder, gentler” attitude towards those with differing opinions.

Finally, the Bible is the ultimate (and only) standard for faith and practice. Yes, confessions have their place but when they become “statements of doctrinal accountability” their usefulness wanes. There have been Pharisees in every century who have spoken where the Bible is silent or placed theological burdens on people that weren’t substantiated by the Word of God. There are those who aren’t comfortable with paradox and must have every theological mooring tied down. The private prayer language issue in the SBC demonstrates that this is not always possible. Let’s stick with the Bible, celebrate our freedom as Baptists, and the privilege of living in a dynamic relationship with Jesus Christ.


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