Wednesday, March 08, 2006

An Examination of the Position Papers Concerning the IMB Policies on Baptism and Tongues/Prayer Language

As promised, I am now going to offer my analysis of the position papers that were released yesterday to support the new IMB policies on baptism and tongues/prayer language. As a disclaimer, I remind you that I have been strongly opposed to both of these policies since they were adopted in November, but I have always expressed a willingness to change my position should I be provided convincing biblical evidence for the policies. Having read the position papers, I find that both policies rest on weak biblical foundations. Thus, my opposition to the policies remains as strong as ever.

In examining these position papers, I will not go through them point by point. (If I did that then I would be here all day and probably longer.) Instead, I will focus on broad areas where I disagree (and in some cases even agree). I also will not deal very much with the historical justifications given. While I acknowledge the importance of heritage and historical background (I do have a master's degree in history and spent three years working on a Ph.D. in history), I believe that in matters of faith and practice that we must look to the Bible rather than tradition or history. If you are really interested in an analysis of the historical arguments, you should read what Gene Bridges has to say here and here at SBC Outpost.

An Examination of the Position Paper on the Baptism Policy

Before reading any further, make sure you have read the official baptism policy and the position paper itself.

According to the position paper, the baptism policy is based on four points:

  1. "The only biblical mode for baptism is immersion." I agree completely, as does practically every other Southern Baptist. This particular issue is not a point of contention in this discussion, but it seems that some of the supporters of the policies believe that opponents are in favor of accepting various modes of baptism (sprinkling, pouring). Let me be perfectly clear that I, and everyone I know of who opposes the policy, believe that immersion is the ONLY biblically acceptable mode for baptism.
  2. "The only proper candidate for immersion is a regenerate believer in Jesus Christ." Again, there is no disagreement here. Everyone that I know of who opposes the policy is a credobaptist.
  3. "The act is purely symbolic and distinct from salvation itself and has no saving merit." And yet again, we agree completely. None of the opponents of the policy have, to my knowledge, expressed a belief in baptismal regeneration or that baptism is sacramental. In fact, some of the arguments used to support the policy lean toward a sacramental view of baptism.
  4. "Baptism is a church ordinance and therefore the only proper administrator of it is a local New Testament church that holds to a proper view of salvation." Here's where we have some disagreement. Among opponents of the policy there is general, but not universal, agreement with the first part of this statement, but it is the second part where we find the greatest problems. The rest of my analysis will focus on this last statement.
In arriving at an understanding of what baptism is, we have to start with what the Bible says about the subject. Since nearly all of us are in agreement on points 1-3 above, I won't discuss the biblical support for these points. So what does the Bible have to say about point 4? Apparently not much, because in the position paper there is no reference to any passage of Scripture that clearly supports either one of the assertions made in point 4 (whereas there are quite a few citations of Scripture to support each of the first three points). Instead, there are references to each of the three versions of the Baptist Faith & Message, and several passages of Scripture that support the doctrine of eternal security (which is believed by all of the opponents of the baptism policy that I know of) .

The position paper refers to the baptism of Jesus and the account of Paul in Ephesus in Acts 19 in an effort to provide some sort of justification for the policy. But when you read the biblical accounts of the baptism of Jesus, where do you see anything that indicates that the reason Jesus went to John to be baptized was because John had "proper baptismal authority?" The writers of the paper must be using a translation that I'm not familiar with. And the paper's use of Acts 19 is an example of either selectively using Scripture to prove a preconceived point or poor interpretation. The paper implies that the first thing Paul did when he arrived was to ask unto what they had been baptized, but actually Paul's first question was, "Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?" It was only when they said they had never even heard of the Holy Spirit that Paul asked about their baptism. He didn't ask this question to determine what doctrines they had been baptized into, but to find out if they had been baptized into the name of the Lord Jesus.

The new baptism policy reflects an unbiblical view of baptism. When the Bible speaks of believers being baptized, it either says that they simply were baptized or that they were baptized into the name of Jesus (Acts 8:16; 10:48; 19:5). In other words, their baptism is a symbol of their uniting with Christ Himself. Nowhere in the Bible do we see believers being baptized into a local church, nor do we see believers being baptized into a particular set of doctrines. Thus, being baptized in a church that affirms eternal security does not mean you have been baptized into the doctrine of eternal security, nor does being baptized in a church that does not affirm eternal security mean that you have been baptized into the doctrine of falling from grace. If this were the case, then a person baptized in an Arminian Southern Baptist church should be rebaptized upon joining a Calvinistic Southern Baptist church because the two churches have different theologies of salvation. And why limit it to eternal security? Why not require rebaptism for a person baptized in a church that affirms women as pastors? Why not require rebaptism for a person baptized in a church with a different view of inerrancy? Indeed, just to be safe, every church should require rebaptism of everyone who joins, because there will be some point of doctrine where there is a difference between the receiving church and the baptizing church. What the proponents of the policy fail to mention is that there is not one single example in the New Testament of a person who had received Christian baptism ever being rebaptized. (The people in Acts 19 had originally received John's baptism and not Christian baptism.)

And what about the concept that baptism requires a qualified administrator to be valid? Again, there is no direct biblical statement to support such a concept. In fact, the only statement I can find that even remotely touches on the subject is the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20). In the Great Commission Jesus commands His disciples to "go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you." Here we clearly have Jesus commanding His disciples to evangelize, baptize, and disciple people of every nation. So what we see in the plainest reading of the text is that all disciples of Jesus are authorized to evangelize, baptize, and disciple others. Now some claim that the Great Commission was given not to all believers but only to the eleven remaining apostles, and thus only duly ordained and authorized ministers can baptize. If this is the case, then logic would dictate that not only baptism but evangelism and discipleship could only be carried out by duly ordained and authorized ministers. There is no basis for treating baptism differently from the other parts of the Great Commission. Also, notice that in the Great Commission Jesus says nothing about the local church or its authority.

Obviously I have not addressed all the relevant issues related to the baptism policy. What I have attempted to do here is to demonstrate that the new baptism policy does not have any solid biblical support. If you are interested in a more detailed discussion of baptism and the IMB policy, you can read the comments on my earlier post Wade Burleson on "Who Can Baptize?" This is a lengthy, spirited discussion where both sides are expressed.

An Examination of the Position Paper on the Tongues/Prayer Language Policy

Before reading any further, make sure you have read the official tongues/prayer language policy and the position paper itself. Also, let me preface my remarks by stating that I have never spoken in tongues or practiced a private prayer language, I have never desired to do either one, and I have never witnessed either one. A lady in a previous church, one of the most spiritual and godly people I have ever met, did practice a prayer language, and a teacher I had in high school told about a time he witnessed someone speaking in tongues (it was done in a controlled and orderly manner, and someone interpreted).

This position paper has a stronger scriptural basis than the paper on the baptism policy. It does a good job of describing the biblical guidelines for the use of tongues in public worship (primarily found in 1 Corinthians 14). The only significant area where I may disagree with the paper is in its insistence that every single use of glossa definitely refers to a known human language. It is possible that the same word used to describe earthly languages could be used to describe a heavenly language. One could argue that the context of 1 Corinthians 14:2, "For anyone who speaks in a tongue does not speak to men but to God," indicates something different than what took place in Acts 2, where the disciples were definitely speaking to other people. I'm not convinced that we can make a dogmatic claim either way, which is one reason why I am uncomfortable drawing lines on the basis of this issue.

It is evident that in most cases the use of tongues in public worship in American churches today does not strictly adhere to the principles of 1 Corinthians 14. However, the fact that a practice is misused or abused does not mean that the practice itself is invalid. In light of Paul's statement in 1 Corinthians 14:39, "Do not forbid speaking in tongues," I have a difficult time accepting any policy that is a blanket prohibition of the use of tongues in a manner consistent with the biblical guidelines.

What the paper does not demonstrate is that the use of a private prayer language is unbiblical. Paul's statements in 1 Corinthians 14 seem to apply only to public worship. Indeed, when verse 28 says that a person should not speak in a tongue out loud in the church if there is no interpreter present but should speak to himself and to God, it is possible to infer that in private there would be no reason for this person not to speak out loud. Again, we cannot say this is definitely the case, but it would be a reasonable inference. What is clear is that in the Bible there is not a blanket prohibition of using a prayer language in private, nor is there a clear endorsement of the practice. Thus, since there is no definitive scriptural teaching either way we should leave this matter to the individual believer.

In my examination of these position papers I have not tried to prove their interpretations wrong so much as to simply demonstrate that there are other plausible interpretations that have biblical support. I have no problem with drawing doctrinal lines on essential issues where the Bible speaks clearly and definitively. But on issues such as the ones addressed by the policies, which either are nonessentials or are not addressed by the Bible in an absolutely clear and definitive way, we should not draw these lines. Also, keep in mind that both of these policies go well beyond the doctrinal parameters of the Baptist Faith & Message, which is the statement that we as Southern Baptists have adopted as a definition of our core doctrinal beliefs.


David Rogers said...


Excellent summary of the key issues involved! Knowing that the vast majority of SBC folks do not yet read blogs, I could only hope that everyone who received Chairman Hatley's letter could also read what you have written, in order to give a fair hearing to both views.

Keep up the good work!


GuyMuse said...

Very good summary, well written.

I appreciate people like you who can summarize a lot of material into concise words. I plan to link your post to our South American "Church Planting Forum" consisting of around 90 IMB M who regularly post on issues related to our mission work. The baptism issue (point four) is very pertinent to world missions and we need everyone to understand what is at stake. Keep writing, you do us all a service.

Hashman said...

Hey Tim,

Did you see where you won a Wade?


Kevin Bussey said...


As always a great post!

Tim Sweatman said...

David and Guy,

Thanks for the comments. One of the greatest blessings I have received from blogging has been interacting with some of our missionaries. You all have enough challenges without those of us back in the states making things difficult.


Did you read my acceptance speech? It was brief and to the point, with just a dash of sarcastic humor. I've also been cast as Ben Bradlee in the remake of All the President's Men.

Ben Stratton said...

Bro. Tim,

I appreciate you giving the link to our former discussion on the administer of baptism. Since practically all the Southern Baptist blogs on the internet are against the new IMB policies, those wanting to further understand the subject need to know where they can go to get the other side's viewpoint. Those interesting in the historical side of this argument may want to check out my own website.

Tim Sweatman said...


Healthy discussion makes everyone stronger because we have to evaluate our own views as well as those of the other person. The challenge is to keep the discussion from descending into an argument, which we were able to do for the most part. Our convention will be stronger if we can learn to disagree without fighting.

Alan Cross said...

Good analysis, Tim. You said that Ben Cole's was better than your's, but I don't know. I think you did a great job! Thanks for your work.