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Seminary Bites Back on Dispute Over Speaking in Tongues

The president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary took exception to a newspaper’s reference to his decision to censor a chapel sermon that included a reference to speaking on tongues as a “rebuke” of a seminary trustee.

At the same time, the seminary in <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags” />Fort Worth, Texas, issued a “white paper” warning that “errant and heretical” Bible interpretations about spiritual gifts “may lead to unhealthy churches at best or false Christianity at worse.”<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office” />
 
Seminary President Paige Patterson broke several days of silence after deciding Aug. 29 that a sermon by Dwight McKissic, a prominent African-American pastor and newly elected Southwestern trustee, would not be available on a new Web page offering archived streaming video and audio recordings of seminary chapel services.
 
“I did not rebuke Pastor Dwight McKissic in any way, but rather received him warmly in every conceivable way as a brother and as a trustee,” Patterson wrote in a letter to the editor of the Fort WorthStar-Telegram. He accused the paper of reporting “untruths” that “can only mislead the public and run the risk of hurting genuine long-standing friendships.”
 
A Friday story described Patterson’s order to pull the chapel message as an “unusual rebuke” of McKissic, pastor of CornerstoneBaptistChurch in Arlington, Texas. The story, by long-time religion writer Jim Jones, said Patterson was contacted for comment but declined to say anything beyond his original statement in a seminary news release. Jones told EthicsDaily.com on Thursday he had no comment about Patterson’s complaint.
 
The seminary statement said Patterson chose not to post McKissic’s chapel sermon online because it might harm churches or be perceived as criticizing another entity of the Southern Baptist Convention.
 
The message included an admission by McKissic that while a student at Southwestern Seminary in 1981 he first prayed in a “private prayer language” and continues the practice today.
 
McKissic went on to criticize a recent policy change by trustees of the SBC International Mission Board banning future appointment of missionaries who use a private prayer language in their devotional life.
 
“I think it’s tragic in Baptist life when we take a valid, vital gift that the Bible talks about and come up with a policy that says people who pray in tongues in their private prayer lives cannot work in certain positions,” McKissic said. “That to me is contrary to what many of our foremost Baptist thinkers and leaders think.”
 
Patterson reportedly opted to pull the Webcast “lest uninformed people believe that Pastor McKissic’s view on the gift of tongues as ‘ecstatic utterance’ is the view of the majority of our people at Southwestern.”
 
“While Southwestern does not instruct its chapel speakers about what they can or cannot say, neither do we feel that there is wisdom in posting materials online which could place us in a position of appearing to be critical of actions of the board of trustees of a sister agency,” the statement said. “Any trustee or faculty member is free to communicate his concerns to the boards of sister agencies, but it is difficult to imagine a circumstance that would merit public criticism of the actions of a sister board.”

Critics of Patterson questioned the sincerity of that part of the statement. Three years ago Patterson circulated among IMB trustees a lengthy paper alleging that a trustee-approved “New Directions” mission strategy lacked safeguards against “unbiblical practices” like women pastors and introduction of charismatic tendencies.
 
“Dr. Keith Eitel, one of the cutting edge missiologists of our day, … has written a white paper which focuses on one of the current major discussions,” Patterson wrote in a cover letter on seminary letterhead. “The critical importance of his paper, especially in light of the conservative movement within the Southern Baptist Convention, will be apparent as you read it. Because of your strategic position as a trustee of the International Mission Board, I wanted you to have the benefit of his thinking.”
 
Last November IMB trustees added baptism restrictions for future missionaries and determined they would no longer appoint missionaries with an ongoing practice of praying in tongues. The move was met with controversy, mainly because under the policy the board’s current president, Jerry Rankin, might not qualify as a missionary.
 
An emerging corps of Baptist bloggers criticizing the change soon turned attention to Patterson, an architect of the “conservative resurgence,” accusing him of improperly meddling in the affairs of a sister agency.  
 
Earlier, while serving as president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, Patterson published a pamphlet questioning the mission strategy of cooperating with other Christians to plant churches that are “baptistic” but not explicitly Baptist. “If we do not establish distinctively Baptist churches, then our distinctive Baptist witness will gradually die,” Patterson wrote.
 
In April an IMB administrator recommended dismissal of a missionary couple working alongside Christian and Missionary Alliance missionaries to plant a “baptistic” congregation in West Africa. Amid publicity about the possible firing, superiors reversed the decision, after the couple reaffirmed IMB guidelines for cooperation with non-Baptist groups.
 
The couple, Wyman and Michelle Dobbs, accepted the decision in order to return to their work in Guinea. But they complained that reporting by Baptist Press made it appear they had done something wrong. They insisted they never violated IMB policy in the first place.
 
“Charismatic” or “Neo-Pentecostal” practices like praying or worshipping in tongues are at best marginal among the nearly 44,000 churches claimed by the SBC, but they have long been controversial.
 
Prior to his election as IMB president in 1993, Rankin acknowledged that he prayed “in the Spirit” during private devotions and said he once interpreted tongues in public worship service in Singapore, where he served as an area director. That prompted opposition to his nomination. After defending himself in a three-and-a-half-hour executive session, Rankin won election to the post by a vote of 59-14.
 
In 1995 the IMB fired a missionary, also in Singapore, for promoting practices, including being “slain in the Spirit,” viewed as being outside of practices accepted by Southern Baptists.
 
The issue isn’t addressed in the Baptist Faith & Message, the denomination’s official guideline for hiring and firing, last amended in 2000, but some fundamentalist leaders fear the movement–fueled by worship styles emphasizing praise and worship while downplaying doctrinal preaching–may be gaining ground.
 
For the last eight years Ron Phillips, pastor of Abba’s House in Hixson, Tenn., has sponsored a “Fresh Oil & New Wine” conference for pastors and lay persons “seeking God’s personal and passionate touch in their lives.”
 
In his Aug. 29 chapel address, McKissic said his own first experience with private prayer language in a Southwestern dorm room, sparked by reading and discussion in a spiritual formation class, was unexpected.
 
“I wasn’t seeking the baptism of the Holy Ghost with the evidence of speaking in tongues,” McKissic said. “I didn’t even believe in speaking in tongues. I was just going through my regular prayer time.”
 
The seminary followed McKissic’s message with a new white paper on its recently launched BaptistTheology.org Web site titled “Speaking of Tongues: What Does the Bible Teach?”
 
Malcolm Yarnell, assistant dean and director of the Center for Theological Research, argued that tongues described in the Bible as a spiritual gift involved a Christian using an existing spoken language he or she had not learned, and not unintelligible speech. Yarnell said when the Bible speaks of unintelligible tongues rather meaningful communication it isn’t a sign of blessing but rather “indicates divine wrath.”
 
Yarnell presented an “open but cautious” view on tongues that “allows for the continuation of many spiritual gifts into the modern churches, but is unwilling to make a one-to-one correlation between modern practices and the biblical witness.”
 
“Unfortunately,” he said, “the ‘Third Wave’ and ‘Pentecostal/Charismatic’ positions too often begin from the vantage of personal experience or tradition.”
 
McKissic said in an open letter to Patterson posted on the CornerstoneBaptistChurchWeb site he was sorry for any unintentional breach of protocol but disagreed his views were harmful.
 
“Just as you suspect that most of the faculty and trustees at SWBTS do not believe the Bible affirms a private prayer language, the leading evangelical African-American churches in America including black Southern Baptists, would affirm the practice of a private prayer language by those who are so gifted by the Holy Spirit,” McKissic said. “They would certainly not invoke a policy denying freedom of a gifted person to practice a private prayer language.
 
“The practical effect of the IMB policy is treating adults as if you have authority over their private lives and personal relationship with Jesus Christ, beyond the boundary of Scripture. For those of us who believe in the inerrancy of Scripture, I find it difficult to understand how we can hold that view and at the same time disregard or deny tongues or a private prayer language as a valid spiritual gift.”
 
While declining to post McKissic’s message on the Internet for free, Southwestern officials said it will remain in the Roberts Library archives and is available for purchased on DVD.
 
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.
 
Previous related stories:
Seminary Pulls Plug on Webcast of Chapel Sermon
Bloggers Accuse Seminary of Censorship
Seminary President Plays Role in IMB Debate
Pastor Alleges Interference Into IMB Affairs
Missionary Couple Faces Firing for Starting ‘Baptistic’ Church
 
 
Suggested resource for group discussion:
Talk Right: A Christian’s Guide for Decent Speech