One Gift the SBC Doesn’t Want

It has all the makings of another denomational battle. This time it isn’t about the inerrancy of Scripture, women in ministry, homosexuality, or any other tried and true Baptist battlegrounds. It’s not even about Calvinism, although I see this one coming too. This go around it will be about the issue of speaking in tongues, or at least the matter of “private prayer language.”

About 150 pastors from around the country gathered at Cornerstone Baptist Church in Arlington, TX to discuss the subject. Host pastor, Dwight McKissic, heightened debate after a chapel sermon delivered at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. McKissic, a prominent African-American pastor who serves as a trustee for SWBTS, garnered much attention after stating that the 2000 Baptist Faith & Message is silent on the issue of tongues and missionary candidates should not be rejected because they may have a private prayer language.

McKissic insisted that the meeting was not the beginning of another denomination or denomination-like organization. He and Oklahoma pastor Wade Burleson are taking this debate to the SBC and are preparing resolutions to be presented at the next national meeting. They are also asking for a study group to be given the assignment of determining how Southern Baptists feel about the issue of speaking in tongues. Regardless of what the SBC does, McKissic and company are planning for a “Baptist Conference on the Holy Spirit” in April 2007. Still, there is a sense that some pastors may be growing impatient with the Convention’s attitude toward this issue. Rev. Allan Cross, pastor of Gateway Baptist Church in Montgomery, AL said that if the convention continues to ignore concerns, then his church “won’t continue to participate.”

This is becoming a big deal. Thank the IMB for mishandling the entire issue by trying to control what current president Jerry Rankin already admitted to practicing. This put the IMB trustee board in the interesting position of condemning a practice that their president believes in. I don’t think McKissic’s supporters would be making such a fuss over this matter if the IMB had not attempted to prohibit a private prayer language. These 150 pastors and participants can’t be accused of “not believing the Bible” or not complying with the BFM. Again, the BFM is silent on the matter. This, of course, does not keep the SBC from pontificating on the subject (even if the Bible is silent on an issue too, for that matter).

What this means is that there will be an increased attendance at the SBC is San Antonio in 2007. Burleson and the bloggers will be in full force with laptops humming leading up to the event. While only an observer from a distance, I can see a few scenarios unfolding deep in the heart of Texas.

First, there could be an amendment to the BFM that prohibits speaking in tongues or any kind of private prayer language remotely connected to the practice. There is already some discussion of this possibility, and would be an immediate and final resolution on McKissic’s opinions. The irony of this option is that those who favor tongue-speaking or at least are open to the idea have biblical grounds for their position, whereas other Southern Baptists would go more with traditional grounds in that they don’t want to be “charismatic” or be seen as Pentecostal. A consequence of this decision would be putting “bapti-costal” SBC churches on the outside of the BFM. There would be no representation from the churches on the boards, agencies, or committees of the convention and their members would not be considered as missionaries.

Second, the resolution on tongues will be rejected outright with some discussion from the floor of the convention but the vote will be closer than expected. It is difficult to say what those pastors and churches who affirm a strict interpretation of the BFM would do, especially if their influence in the SBC is limited It really is amazing that this scenario would, from a practical standpoint, allow McKissic to argue against the Convention using its own statement of faith.

Third, the convention will table the matter and form a study committee to look at the situation. They could take a year to sort it out. A compromise could be reached which would allow “private” prayer language while rejecting public tongue-speaking. This could be a denominational version of “don’t ask, don’t tell.” A dialogue would be a sensible option and but would require talking to one another and admitting that there is room for interpretation. For this reason it would be rejected by the denominational leadership.

Fourth, there may very well be the beginnings of another Baptist organization in reaction to the SBC’s liberal interpretation of the BFM (silent on tongues, remember?). Even though many in Arlington dispute this possibility, they might look at it more seriously depending on how the convention treats them. You’ve also got those folks at the Joshua Convergence to consider. History has a way of sorting things out. I doubt if moderate Southern Baptists in 1991 knew what they were doing when 3,000 of them met in Atlanta after another defeat at the SBC. It turned out to be the formation of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.

I can relate to the nervousness denomational leaders are feeling about this tongue-speaking issue. I’m sure they wish the whole thing would go away before the convention next year. This isn’t going to happen, because there are new kids on the denominational block who will be heard. And they are quoting their copies of the 2000 BFM. Add to this SBC 2nd Vice President Wiley Drake’s sympathy with the cause and things are going to get interesting. The Convention would like this California small-church pastor to be nice and quiet but he’s going to use his 15 minutes of fame for all its worth.

It’s the Advent season, and Christmas is only a few weeks away. There will be a lot of gifts to be opened, but one that is only now starting to get wrapped. It’s the “gift of tongues, Baptist style” with compliments from McKissic, Burleson, and SBC bloggers. We’ll see whether it stays under their theological tree or gets delivered to San Antonio this summer.

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