Tuesday, December 20, 2005

The IMBroglio Over Tongues and Baptism

Over the past couple of weeks I have followed with great interest the controversy over the adoption of new policies regarding glossolalia and baptism by the Southern Baptist Convention's International Mission Board (IMB) . As far as I can tell, the controversy over these new policies has not received a lot of coverage by Baptist Press or state newspapers, but it is a hot topic in the SBC blogosphere. Before giving you my take on the issue, I want to list a few sites where you can get a more in-depth understanding of the issues involved:

  1. SBC Outpost---Marty Duren has provided the best coverage of this issue; he's the one who first brought it to my attention. In addition to stating his own views, Marty has printed (with permission) statements from some of the IMB trustees. Start with his blog. (To see all the posts and comments, go to the archives for November and December 2005.)
  2. Caught in the Middle---Over the past few days Paul Littleton has posted statements from IMB trustee chairman Tom Hatley and the primary author of the new policies, Dr. John Floyd.
  3. Grace and Truth to You---Wade Burleson is a trustee of the IMB who opposed the adoption of the new policies. He has several posts that list in detail what the new policies are and why he opposes them.
  4. The Road We Travel---Rick Thompson is another IMB trustee who opposes the new policies.

Here is what the IMB article said about the new policies regarding glossolalia:

“In terms of worship practices, the majority of Southern Baptist churches do not practice glossolalia (speaking in tongues),” states the policy approved by trustees as a framework for the Office of Mission Personnel staff to use with new candidates regarding a private prayer language.

The policy also says the New Testament speaks of glossolalia as a gift that “generally is considered to be a legitimate language of some people group,” and adds that “prayer language as commonly expressed by those practitioners is not the same as the biblical use of glossolalia.” Also, the policy says the Apostle “Paul’s clear teaching is that prayer should be made with understanding.”

“In terms of general practice, the majority of Southern Baptists do not accept what is referred to as ‘private prayer language,’” the policy further states. “Therefore, if ‘private prayer language’ is an ongoing part of his or her conviction and practice, the candidate has eliminated himself or herself from being a representative of the IMB of the SBC.”

I would agree that the majority of Southern Baptists do not practice glossolalia in any form, including a "private prayer language." At the same time, we have no way of knowing with 100 percent certainty how speaking in tongues was practiced in churches in New Testament times (with the exception of Acts 2, where the context makes it obvious that it refers to speaking in foreign human languages). Furthermore, I'm not sure that Paul's "clear teaching. . . that prayer should be made with understanding" can be taken as a blanket prohibition of using a private prayer language, especially in light of Paul's statement in Romans 8:26 that "We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express." Also, in the context of 1 Corinthians 14 (especially v. 2-5) "tongue" seems to refer to an unknown language rather than foreign languages as in Acts 2. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 14:2 that "anyone who speaks in a tongue does not speak to men but to God," while in Acts 2 the apostles were speaking to men when they spoke in various tongues. I bring all of this up not to defend the practice of speaking in tongues or using a private prayer language, but simply to point out that there is sufficient uncertainty regarding the Bible's teachings on this issue so that we should exercise extreme caution when drawing doctrinal boundaries regarding tongues.

While I have some misgivings about the new policies regarding tongues, the new baptism guidelines are the primary source of contention both for me and for most opponents of the new policies. Here is what the IMB article said about the new guidelines regarding baptism:

Regarding a candidate’s baptism, trustees voted two to one to establish a guideline that specifies (1) believer’s baptism by immersion; (2) baptism follows salvation; (3) baptism is symbolic, picturing the experience of the believer’s death to sin and resurrection to a new life in Christ; (4) baptism does not regenerate; and (5) baptism is a church ordinance.

The guideline establishes that candidates must have been baptized in a Southern Baptist church or in a church of another denomination that practices believer’s baptism by immersion alone. Also, the baptism must not be viewed as sacramental or regenerative, and the church must embrace the doctrine of the security of the believer.

I would imagine that almost every Southern Baptist would agree completely with points 1 through 4 in the first paragraph cited above. I believe, as do most Southern Baptists, that the Bible clearly teaches these characteristics of baptism. And I would say that most Southern Baptists agree with point #5 as well, although we need to be careful that we don't take this idea too far. Baptism is a symbol of our uniting with Christ, not of our uniting with a church.

The problem I have with the new baptismal guidelines is found in the second paragraph cited above. Baptism is not biblically valid on the basis of what church it was done in or who administered it. Baptism is biblically valid if it is done by immersion following salvation as a symbol of our salvation and not as a means of regeneration. In other words, baptism is valid if it conforms to points 1 through 4 above. There is no biblical basis for rejecting baptism just because the administrator was wrong on certain theological issues. If that were the case, then no baptism would be valid because I guarantee that no pastor or other believer is 100% correct in his or her theology. And I would hope that no one would expect a new convert to hold the right position on all doctrinal issues before he or she could be baptized.

Furthermore, the Bible does not teach that baptism must be done in a church or under the authority of a local church. When Philip went into the desert, whose authority was he operating under? The only authority I see in that passage is the Holy Spirit. What does Philip do when the Ethiopian requests to be baptized? Does he wait until he can present the Ethiopian for membership before the body at FBC Jerusalem? No, he baptizes the man right there, without the sanction of any local church. I guess that the IMB would see this as an invalid baptism, so would they say that the Bible was wrong to include this story?

I believe that if most faithful Southern Baptists knew what was happening that they would be concerned. Not only has the IMB supplanted the rightful role of the local church in determining whether a person's previous baptism was biblically valid, but it has imposed extrabiblical standards on prospective missionaries. If we truly believe that the Bible is the inspired, inerrant, and infallible Word of God, and that the Bible is sufficient as our guide in faith and practice, then any guidelines or policies that our entities adopt should be based solely on clear biblical teachings. Instead, it appears that some of our leaders are elevating their particular interpretations of Scripture to the same level as Scripture itself.


Kiki Cherry said...

Very well said, Tim.

Nick said...


One of the things that bothers/worries me is that the version of the Baptist Press article that the Western Recorder (the Baptist news venue for the state of Kentucky, for any non-Kentucky readers) failed to mention the exclusion relating the the doctrine of eternal security! One of the most controversial parts and it was overlooked.

You can see the article here or read my blog linked in my profile to see my comments.

It looks like they took the Baptist Press article and stripped it down (severely). The article is still attributed to Michael Chute though.

Tim Sweatman said...


I went back and read the WR article. To be honest I'm surprised the WR didn't mention the eternal security issue. Seems like that would have been a good way to paint conservatives in a bad light. I can't believe the WR would miss that chance. (j/k. . . well, maybe not) The thing that struck me about the one "official" (BP/IMB) article I saw is that the new policies are not the main part of the story. They're buried at the end.