An Open Letter to Southern Baptist Leaders
January 18, 2007
The recent actions by the SBC International Mission Board and the trustees of my alma mater in issuing statements against the practice of a private prayer language do not bode well for the influence of this great denomination in coming years.
In the late 1970s, when I could not have afforded an education at other evangelical seminaries, the generosity of Southern Baptists through their Cooperative Program made it possible for me to sit under the teaching of some of the finest, most gifted men of God I have ever known. I remain deeply grateful for the magnanimity of Southern Baptists, both in allowing a Pentecostal to attend one of their seminaries and in making that education financially feasible.
Embracing and Restricting
When I was a young pastor the great preachers were Southern Baptists – John Bisagno, W. A. Criswell and, of course, Billy Graham. Wishing to leave what appeared to me the cloistered little world of my early Pentecostalism (but not leaving my charismatic encounter with the Holy Spirit) I wanted to realign with those who were serious about evangelism and missions. In the 1970s, that led me straight to Southern Baptists. Yet in comparison to the recent phobic edicts of the International Mission Board and the trustees of Southwestern my early Pentecostalism doesn’t seem so cloistered, after all.
Apparently we have come full circle. Just as it is now, thirty years ago the charismatic movement was causing convulsions among Southern Baptists. But at Southwestern in the seventies, there was a higher agenda. The focus was on reaching people for Christ. Roy Fish was imparting evangelistic passion that helped inspire students like Rick Warren to impact millions with the gospel. My missions professor, Cal Guy, was espousing innovative missions methodologies and assigning us to read missiologists ranging from Assemblies of God to Anglican. The atmosphere at Southwestern exuded a warm, broad evangelicalism.
But thirty miles away from the Fort Worth campus, Beverly Hills Baptist Church and Shady Grove Baptist Church were being “disfellowshipped” from the Dallas Baptist Association for charismatic practices that were deemed unscriptural by the association and not in keeping with standard Baptist practice. Little by little, the outward-looking, evangelistic giant – the Southern Baptist Convention – began to be inverted and, at times, petty.
With a few encouraging exceptions – like the highly effective Prestonwood Baptist Church – a legion of Southern Baptist churches in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex have declined in numbers and influence since that unfortunate earlier posture against charismatic phenomena. Is there a correlation? It may at least be worth considering by those who have taken recent similar positions.
When G. Campbell Morgan was asked if he was a fundamentalist he replied, “In doctrine, yes, but I abominate their spirit.” If he were still alive, might even the venerable English expositor “abominate the spirit” of the recent statements by two Southern Baptist boards against charismatic practices?
The statement by the International Mission Board was an evident slap at its current president, Jerry Rankin, who has acknowledged a private prayer language. This hints at deep fault lines within the denomination on this issue. Yet, following the lead of the IMB in rejecting practice of a private prayer language by Southern Baptist missionaries and missionary candidates, the trustees of Southwestern Seminary issued a similar resolution:
“Southwestern will not knowingly endorse in any way, advertise, or commend the conclusions of the contemporary charismatic movement including ‘private prayer language.’ Neither will Southwestern knowingly employ professors or administrators who promote such practices.”
This edict harkens back to the days of a threatened fundamentalism. Yes, trustees have the right and responsibility to set policies within their purview. But it’s a bit of a reach for them to monitor personal encounters with God and pronounce what is kosher and what isn’t. Such a statement, especially by a graduate school, seems unnecessary and out of place. It is not, as the Southwestern trustees purport, a defense of historic Baptist practice. Rather, it is a departure from it. Historic Baptist practice endorsed tolerance of differing views regarding non-essential doctrines.
Historically Broad Baptists
These two recent resolutions are completely out of sync with a long-standing record of Baptist altruism. Roger Williams, renowned Baptist leader in early America, championed the priesthood of all believers and freedom to worship according to the dictates of one’s conscience. Based on his wide yet firmly evangelical faith, Williams helped Baptists become known as “people of the Book.” They had “no creed but Christ.” The deeply cherished priesthood of all believers protected and welcomed individual interpretation of Scripture.
Eventually, with the encroachments of liberalism, Southern Baptists understandably felt the need of an agreed-upon statement of faith. The Baptist Faith and Message became a general framework that held unequivocally to evangelical tenets but allowed for breadth of interpretation on secondary matters. The Baptist Faith and Message 2000, while more stringent than the original document, is still wisely silent on the issue of charismatic practices and a private prayer language. But a few current board members evidently feel compelled to interpret what is acceptable Baptist practice regarding glossolalia for the rest of the sixteen million Southern Baptists. These recent statements by the IMB and Southwestern trustees smack of being very “creedal” for a denomination that prides itself in being non-creedal.
This irony was not lost on Joyce Rogers, widow of Adrian Rogers, former SBC president and long-time pastor of Bellevue Baptist Church in Memphis. In a tribute to her late husband last June 12 at the Southern Baptist Convention she expressed concern at the shrinking parameters of Southern Baptist life. To sustained applause she noted that her husband “would not have been a part of what is going on in some parts of our convention today, getting narrower and narrower about very highly interpretive issues.”
In a trenchant statement clearly targeting the IMB resolution she continued, “He would try to convince you of his view, but not to exclude you from service and fellowship, or to prevent you from going around the world with Southern Baptists to share the gospel if you disagreed on these controversial issues.”
Most Pentecostals and charismatics rejoiced when biblical conservatives repelled a widening liberalism and returned Southern Baptist institutions and agencies to the standard of the Bible as God’s infallible Word. But now, in some parts of Southern Baptist life we are witnessing conservatism gone amuck.
Hoping to follow in Roger Williams’ train, I readily acknowledge the right of cessationists to believe as they do. At the same time, they have thrown down the gauntlet on this issue and these recent resolutions beg a response.
It seems an anomaly that some of those who most vociferously support inerrancy (which I too endorse) are also cessationists. When it comes to a rationale for cessationism, these otherwise conservative scholars can sound quite liberal. After all, the essence of liberal biblical interpretation is to either downplay or disregard the obvious intent of Scripture. This is what cessationism does.
Most cessationists will always consider both charismatic doctrine and experience somehow “sub-biblical.” But it is cessationism that has constructed a convoluted hermeneutic. At Southwestern I was often reminded that we show honor to the Bible by careful exegesis. Yet to interpret Paul’s 1 Corinthians 13 phrase “when the perfect has come” to mean “when the Canon is closed,” as many cessationists do, is to rely on weak, even embarrassing eisegesis.
It is unfair and untrue to caricature Pentecostals and charismatics as biblically illiterate. We disagree with Baptist cessationists (and they may not now be even the majority of Baptists) regarding the practice of a private prayer language. But this is an issue of interpretation, not authority. With conservative Baptists we affirm that the Bible is completely true, without any mixture of error, and the final arbiter in all matters of faith and practice.
A Plea to Southern Baptist Leaders
So, where do we go from here?
First, I would urge my Baptist brothers and sisters to return to their greatest strength as their greatest priority – evangelism and missions. Paige Patterson, Southwestern’s current president, has expressed his hope that this will indeed be Southwestern’s emphasis and ongoing legacy. I fully concur with him in this hope. However, I do not believe the future of evangelism and missions among Southern Baptists is in any way helped by denouncing charismatic practices.
Second, where the Baptist Faith and Message is silent trustees should be silent. Baptists do not necessarily have to embrace charismatic practices, but officially opposing these invites a continued decline in their evangelistic effectiveness. Some trustees need to wake up to twenty-first century realities. Baptist seminary students today almost certainly represent the last generation of denominational loyalists. Pentecostal and charismatic churches continue to burgeon worldwide while many Baptist churches are flat-lined. Trustees of Southern Baptist institutions do not have to like these realities, but they do have to deal with them.
One would think that directors of agencies or institutions of a denomination that has nosedived in numbers of baptisms over the last decade would be doubly concerned not to grieve or quench the Spirit. Evidently, however, protecting what they perceive as standard denominational practice trumps any concern that they just might be grieving the one called along side to help, fill and empower us.
Third, I encourage Baptist leaders in large numbers to boldly speak out and call for reconsideration and even rescinding of these damaging resolutions. Let’s take a cue from the ancient church motto: “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.”