Southern Baptists Talk Tongues

If the Southern Baptists forbid speaking in tongues in order to talk to God, we did find this handy book.

More than 100 Southern Baptist leaders gathered today at Cornerstone Baptist Church in Arlington to talk about their denomination's sharpening opposition to speaking in tongues--specifically, whether members should be allowed the liberty of communicating privately with God in an unknown tongue. "Today's meeting was nothing less than historic," Cornerstone Pastor W. Dwight McKissic noted afterward. Southern Baptist pastors from several states--as well as other evangelical leaders, including some Pentecostals--met to share their views on speaking in tongues and other "gifts" of the Holy Spirit mentioned in the New Testament. They called their gathering the "Sandy Creek-Charlestonian Roundtable," so named for two early American Baptist traditions that incorporated exuberant worship.

The leaders adopted a resolution that will be sent to the Southern Baptist Convention's Annual Meeting of delegates in June expressing their opposition to any narrowing of the denomination's tolerance of "spiritual practices consistent with the teachings of Scripture." While the resolution was kept intentionally vague, it is designed to spur debate about speaking in tongues and other gifts of the Spirit.

The meeting was remarkable for its racial diversity. The Southern Baptist Convention is overwhelmingly white, but McKissic was one of about two dozen black pastors at the roundtable.

"I'm grateful we can come together across racial lines," McKissic said. "I love this."

McKissic, who's on the board of trustees at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, a leading Southern Baptist institution, cast the only dissenting vote in the school's recent decision to harden its stance against speaking in tongues. McKissic practices his own "private prayer language," a form of speaking in tongues described in 1 Corinthians 14, and has revealed that many of his church members do as well. Such a practice should be protected by the SBC's traditional policy of religious liberty, McKissic says. Yet the denomination's International Missions Board (IMB) last year adopted a policy of excluding candidates for missions who admit they speak in tongues.

Why so much fuss about speaking in tongues? Well, it's the defining trait of the Pentecostal Movement, which is growing rapidly throughout the world and exerting pressure on those evangelical traditions that don't accept speaking in tongues and other gifts of the Holy Spirit as valid practices for our age (a school of thought known as cessationism). The majority of Southern Baptists don't speak in tongues. But for a long time, the denomination left it at that and resisted codifying any particular stance. That has changed in the last 25 years, McKissic noted.

One Southern Baptist pastor, Wade Burleson of Enid, Oklahoma, told the symposium about a married couple who applied to the IMB to become missionaries in an unidentified country where "they could lose their heads on the spot if discovered."

Even though they were willing to jeopardize their lives to spread the gospel, the couple's application was initially turned down because the wife answered "yes" when asked if she had a private prayer language. The decision was overturned when Burleson argued that the couple had been rejected essentially because the wife was a person of integrity and had told the truth.

The roundtable participants agreed that one thing they all had in common was a desire to share the gospel of Jesus Christ. That should be the SBC's focus, they said, not a practice--controversial as it may be--that is mentioned numerous times in the Bible. "Most of the people I know are lost," one man said. "They're not continualists, they're not cessationists."

Will Southern Baptists such as McKissic remain within the SBC if it travels farther down the cessationist road? One pastor at the symposium publicly called for Baptists who believe in the gifts of the Holy Spirit to form their own fellowship. "The Southern Baptist Convention is dying for a lack of spirituality," another said. Others urged the attendees to work within the system for change. McKissic admitted, though, that he'll have to "cross some bridges" to remain within the SBC. "I cannot square inerrancy with cessationism," McKissic said. And the controversy continues. --Julie Lyons