By Dan Wooding, Founder of ASSIST Ministries and the ASSIST News Service
LOUISVILLE, KY (ANS – May 25, 2015) – In a surprise move, the Southern Baptist Convention says it will now admit candidates who speak in tongues, a practice associated with Pentecostal and charismatic churches, reversing a 10-year-old policy.
The new rules also loosen restrictions on baptism, divorce, and parents of teenagers and came about on Wednesday, May 13, 2015, when the Southern Baptists’ International Mission Board’s (IMB) trustees, at the prompting of their new president David Platt, approved a new, simplified set of rules for the agency’s more than 4,800 missionaries.
According to a story by Greg Horton and Yonat Shimron and carried by the Religious News Service (http://www.religionnews.com/), “Speaking in tongues is an ancient Christian practice recorded in the New Testament in which people pray in a language they do not know, understand or control.
“The practice died out until Pentecostalism emerged around the turn of the 20th century. In Pentecostal churches it is considered one of many ‘gifts’ of the Holy Spirit, including healing and the ability to prophesize.
“Allowing Southern Baptist missionaries to speak in tongues, or have what some SBC leaders call a ‘private prayer language,’ speaks to the growing strength of Pentecostal churches in Africa, Asia and South America, where Southern Baptists are competing for converts and where energized new Christians are enthusiastically embracing the practice.”
On hearing the news, Bill Leonard, professor of church history at Wake Forest Divinity School, said, “In so many parts of the world, these charismatic experiences are normative. Religious groups that oppose them get left behind evangelistically.”
RNS stated that the change does not mean that Southern Baptists will commission missionaries who speak in tongues. But Wendy Norvelle, a spokeswoman for the IMB, said an affirmative answer regarding the practice would no longer lead to automatic disqualification.
“Southern Baptists have long prided themselves as among the world’s most ambitious missionaries — reaching countries and regions few dared to go — but they are increasingly finding competition from fast-growing Pentecostal Christianity, which now has an estimated 300 million followers worldwide,” said the RNS story.
“In 2005, the International Mission Board created guidelines that specifically disqualified all missionary candidates who spoke in tongues. For Southern Baptists, the practice, also known as glossolalia, ended after the death of Jesus’ apostles. The ban on speaking in tongues became a way to distinguish the denomination from others.
“These days, it can no longer afford that distinction.”
Leonard went on to say, “Southern Baptists are experiencing such demographic trauma of membership and baptism they need new constituencies among nonwhite population.”
The tongues issue became such a “lightning rod for Southern Baptists that it got top billing on the application form”, said the RNS story.
“If someone said they did pray in tongues, they were automatically disqualified, essentially for being honest,” said Wade Burleson, an Enid, Okla., pastor who opposed the ban.
The policy changes will leave the question of tongues in the application.
And the IMB said it will still end employment for any missionary who places “persistent emphasis on any specific gift of the Spirit as normative for all or to the extent such emphasis becomes disruptive,” an FAQ on the IMB website explained.
Tongues, however, wasn’t the only policy changes addressed at the gathering, as they also said that they would now allow divorced missionaries to serve in more positions, including long-term missions assignments.
“And the IMB will recognize baptisms performed by other Christian denominations so long as they involved full-body immersion. Previously, a Southern Baptist minister must have baptized missionary candidates who transferred from another denomination,” concluded the RNS story.
Bob Smietana, writing in Christianity Today (www.christianitytoday.com), said, “Missionary candidates must affirm the doctrines found in the Baptist Faith and Message statement of beliefs, be baptized by immersion, be a member of a SBC church, and demonstrate an ‘intimate, growing relationship with Christ.’
“Previous rules required would-be missionaries to have been baptized in an SBC church, or in a church that held SBC-like beliefs about baptism. Candidates baptized in a church that did not believe in eternal security—the idea that true Christians can’t lose their salvation even if they sin—or a church that views baptism is a sacrament were rejected.
“The new rules allows those who were baptized by immersion and who are members of an SBC church to be candidates.
“The changes,” the story added, “also address the question of charismatic worship and prayer practices, which have been controversial for Southern Baptists. Under the previous rules, candidates who spoke in tongues or had a ‘private prayer language’ were barred.
“Under the new rules, speaking in tongues does not disqualify missionary candidates. Too much emphasis on charismatic gifts, like speaking in tongues, could still lead to discipline.”
Smietana went on to say, “IMB leaders said the baptism and tongues rules, adopted in 2005, were needed to safeguard the Baptist identity of missionaries at a time when charismatic and Pentecostal practices were growing.”
Tom Hatley, former IMB board chair, told Christianity Today (CT) in 2006 that some missionary candidates who spoke in tongues—a practice also known by the New Testament term glossolalia—claimed to be getting direct revelation from God.
“That’s one reason that Southern Baptists have been suspicious of glossolalia,” Hatley told CT in 2006. “If somebody believes they’re getting direct divine revelation from God, obviously that’s claiming an equality with Scripture that we would not allow.”
But now, it seems, all has changed!
Photo captions: 1) Man praising God. 2) Worshipping the Lord. 3) Woman at a Pentecostal church in the Congo. (Photo: Evelyn Hockstein/Polaris).. 4) Dan Wooding recoring a Front Page Radio show (Photo: OC Register).
About the writer: Dan Wooding, 74, is an award-winning journalist who was born in Nigeria of British missionary parents, now living in Southern California with his wife Norma, to whom he has been married for nearly 52 years. They have two sons, Andrew and Peter, and six grandchildren who all live in the UK. He is the founder and international director of ASSIST (Aid to Special Saints in Strategic Times) and the ASSIST News Service (ANS) and he hosts the weekly “Front Page Radio” show on the KWVE Radio Network in Southern California and which is also carried throughout the United States and around the world, and also “His Channel Live,” a TV show beamed to 192 countries.
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