More on private prayer language of the IMB
hfsclpp at gmail.com
Thu May 31 15:32:21 UTC 2007
The IMB doctrinal guidelines deserve SBC support
By JAMES A. SMITH SR.
Published: May 31, 2007
It's time to move on.
That was the clear sentiment of the overwhelming majority of International
Mission Board trustees May 8 in Kansas City after they convincingly adopted
revised guidelines on baptism and on tongues and private prayer language
used when considering prospective missionaries. The IMB vote came after a
year-long study by an ad hoc committee of the board's Mission Personnel
Committee, prompted by the controversy that had arisen after the initial
action of the IMB in November 2005.
Having had the opportunity to personally attend four IMB trustee meetings
during the period of the controversy over these matters, I emphatically
believe it's time for the IMB—and the Southern Baptist Convention—to move
on. Critics of the new guidelines, claiming that even in their revised form
it is wrong for the IMB to establish doctrinal policies that are not
addressed by the Baptist Faith and Message and who wish for an intervention
by the SBC, are wrong on both counts.
(For further background on the IMB trustee actions, see the May 17 issue of
the *Witness*. The revised guidelines are available on the *Witness* Web
I could not express the appropriate response to the IMB's action any better
than Ken Whitten, IMB trustee from Florida and senior pastor of Idlewild
Baptist Church in Lutz. In an interview after the board adopted the revised
guidelines, Whitten told me the "spirit of unity" on the board did not
require "unanimity" among trustees, adding, "I don't believe that we have to
see eye-to-eye to walk hand-in-hand." Although the issues addressed by the
board are "very important," Whitten said, "I believe the spirit of the
meeting was such that we're ready to move on and talk about lost peoples of
the world and reach them and not have to go back and revisit some of these
John Russell, vice chairman of the board, trustee from Florida, and missions
pastor at First Baptist Church at the Mall in Lakeland, told me as a
"missions practitioner"—he leads his church's Global Reach Foundation which
is currently working on 21 church plants—he supported the revised
guidelines, although he opposed the baptism guideline in its original form.
His amendment to the baptism guideline, accepted by the ad hoc committee,
clarified the guideline so that pastors of missionary candidates would have
an opportunity to work with the IMB to address any deficiency in the
candidate's baptism experience.
Russell told me, "Now the local church gets the reasoning for the deferral
or the delay and they can help work through it, pray through it, and seek
the Lord on it." Russell added that he believes that there is a significant
problem "greater than any of us realize" of churches failing to adequately
examine prospective church members on the matter of baptism. "I'm not
casting a stone or pointing a finger at somebody else. I think I have
probably done that in churches I've been the pastor of or on staff with,"
Russell said. The decision to change the baptism measure from a "policy" to
a "guideline" was also important to Russell because it allows for
Kentucky trustee Paul Chitwood, chairman of the ad hoc committee and Mission
Personnel Committee, explained the rationale for the guidelines in his
presentation to the trustees May 8. Although the committee found no
"systemic problem with charismatic practices" on the field, "the rapid
spread of neo-pentecostalism and its pressure exacted on new churches in
various regions of the world warrants a concern for the clear Baptist
identity of our missionary candidates. Furthermore, the diversity of
denominational backgrounds among missionary candidates requires a clear
baptism guideline to guide the work of our candidate consultants as they
consider the qualifications of candidates."
Critics of the baptism and tongues/private prayer language guidelines have
insisted that it's wrong for the International Mission Board to establish
doctrinal qualifications that are not explicitly addressed in Southern
Baptist Convention's confessional statement, the Baptist Faith and Message.
But these critics—and I have interviewed all of the leading ones—have no
answer for their own inconsistent application of this criticism. Although
they claim that it is wrong to stipulate a doctrinal position on the matter
of private prayer language since the BFM is silent on this matter, they have
all told me that it's appropriate for the IMB to decline missionary
candidates who believe in and practice public tongues. And yet, the BFM is
also silent on that matter—as it is on many of the doctrinal issues raised
by charismatic theology.
To illustrate the inconsistency in the argument, I have asked several
critics of the private prayer language guideline whether it would be wrong
for the IMB to reject a missionary candidate who believes snake handling is
a legitimate spiritual practice, even if it is a private one. The critics
agreed with me that it would be appropriate for the IMB to reject such a
missionary candidate—and yet, the BFM is silent on snake handling.
The IMB baptism and tongues/private prayer language guidelines have ignited
a broader debate in Southern Baptist life and played a prominent role in
deliberations at the annual meeting last year and may this year. The
rallying cry of critics is that Southern Baptists must stop narrowing the
parameters of doctrinal cooperation, oftentimes suggesting that Southern
Baptists should not stipulate positions for denominational employees on
"secondary and tertiary issues."
The implication of such calls for our entities and especially our seminaries
is dangerous. If, for example, seminaries may not go beyond the BFM 2000 in
evaluating the doctrinal fitness of prospective faculty members what do we
do about the myriad of crucial matters of biblical and theological
importance that are not addressed (and could never be) in the BFM, but are
certainly relevant when carefully selecting the right kind of professors in
As a former administrator and current trustee of Southern Seminary, I know
how seriously trustees fulfill their duty of faculty election. Restricting
trustees to evaluate faculty only within the BFM would severely undermine
them and do great harm to our institutions. Consider, for example, just
issues that arise from charismatic theology—it would be wrong to forbid
inquiry of prospective professors' views on tongues, faith healing, "being
slain in the spirit" or the "laughing revival," to cite a few issues not
addressed by the BFM but are nevertheless unquestionably germane for
teachers in our schools.
Although not quite as extensive as the seminaries, the range of appropriate
doctrinal issues not covered by the Baptist Faith and Message to consider
when evaluating prospective missionaries is nevertheless significant. There
very well may be a good theological and exegetical argument against the
private prayer language policy, but it certainly cannot be that the BFM is
silent on the matter. As to the baptism guideline, the critics have no
grounds of objection as it regards the Baptist Faith and Message since the
issues raised in the guidelines are clearly addressed in the BFM.
The bottom line is that the International Mission Board trustees—after an
exhaustive study of the issues—have acted in a manner that is consistent
with their responsibilities and, if asked, messengers to the Southern
Baptist Convention should not substitute their judgment on these matters.
The trustees have come to a reasonable compromise on important issues. A
compromise, I would add, that will not find total satisfaction from those of
us who are very concerned about charismatic theology and would have wished
for an even stronger statement on the matter. Such is the nature of
compromise—and cooperation—in SBC life.
Ken Whitten told me, "I do believe that Southern Baptists at the end of the
day trust each other. They trust their boards. They trust their
denomination. They trust the leadership."
I hope he's correct and if the SBC does address these matters next month in
San Antonio that it will affirm the decisions of the IMB. It's time to move
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