Tongues tied


In recent days, we’ve visited with several former IMB trustees who supported the now-repealed policies on tongues and baptism. In those wide-ranging conversations, we’ve asked why they sensed the policies were needed in the first place. A few, oft-repeated answers came back:

“The IMB needed to prevent ‘spiritual elitism’ among missionary candidates, because the practice of ‘private prayer languages’ is an issue of “spiritual pride” for the persons claiming to speak in them.”

Another rationale: “There are real threats of charismatic-creep in the developing world and the SBC needs to hold the line against charismatic theology in the harvest fields.”

And this one: “SBC-supported church plants must be “Baptist” and not just “baptistic,” a distinction that falls apart with the gentlest of scrutiny.

A few of our interlocutors admitted that the policies would likely never have been enacted without the backchannel meddlings of Paige Patterson and his chief anti-Rankin polemicist.

But for us, the policies were never an issue of theological or spiritual concern. In fact, you could pile every “private prayer language” advocate in the SBC into a single minivan, run it off the cliff, and you’d still have a problem with spiritual pride in the convention. What concerned us more was the ongoing effort — spearheaded out of Wake Forest, NC and then Fort Worth, TX — to continually redraw the boundaries of the SBC’s confessional identity to implement an eccentric, pseudo-Anabaptist framework for cooperation and missions.

And history informs us, interesting enough, that the only way to get rid of Anabaptist radicalism requires the swift use of a short sword and about a half dozen steeple cages. But we digress.

There were numerous reasons the policies were wrong-headed then and now.

For starters, it is arguable that the most intimate vocalization a man or woman ever expresses occurs in the privacy of his or her private prayer life. There, in a believer priest’s prayer closet, can be found the Holy of Holies, the place where a sinner meets the Savior face-to-face. In fact, more intimate, sacred, and unsearchably private than the marriage bed is that place where a Christian enters into spiritual communion with the Triune God.

Put another way:  The IMB has every right to examine the stability, health, and experience of a couple’s marriage vows, just as it does their prayer life. It is completely proper to ask the couple — together and separately — how they speak to one another, serve one another, treat one another, etc. It is even appropriate to ask general questions about the frequency of the most intimate aspects of their sexual expression. But what is NOT acceptable is to suppose that the mission board, its trustees, or its leadership may examine the sounds a couple makes when engaged in private acts of marital passion. Or that certain ecstatic utterances are prohibited.

Asking a man or woman to describe the vocalizations of human sexual experience is both prurient and deviant. Even more appalling is the intrusive nature of asking a man or woman to explain every sound made, utterance vocalized, or breath taken in the context of a private prayer life. It is not only invasive, it is perverse. The height of arrogance in Southern Baptist missions is more likely to be found in a trustee who assumes he is competent to examine such matters than in the heart of a missionary candidate whose private prayer life has — at any point — involved ecstatic speech.

Even more than our concerns about the presumptuous arrogance of the policies’ chief advocates is the tremendous foolishness the board leaders demonstrated in their determination to impose such policies.  Was it worth — in the end — the disruption, disunity, and conflict that emerged in the wake of the policies? Was it worth arresting the attention and distracting the focus of 5,000 career missionaries or sending the SBC annual meeting into ongoing turmoil to satisfy only a handful of never-satisfied denominationalists whose diminishing circle of influence ended at Southwestern Seminary this past summer?


So that is why the policies were contemptible to begin with. It’s why they had to be opposed and repealed. And it’s why they have to be continually opposed lest any similar policy threaten to ignite the torches again.

Any man or woman who supported those policies — and who has not publicly acknowledged their error in judgment — deserves the opportunity to demonstrate a commitment never to walk down that path again. We all learn from our mistakes. We all grow, or at least we have the opportunity to grow.

But we also realize that the fundamentalist, narrowing impulse that drove Southwestern to the brink is not eradicated. There remain entrenched proponents of hare-brained missiological eccentricities, and because fighting is all these men have ever known or want to know, they must be fought until the last of them — in God’s good time — no longer has access to convention resources to pursue idiosyncratic, un-Baptist agendas for the SBC and its mission board.