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It took 10 years, but Southern Baptists will now accept missionaries who speak in tongues


Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, KY Photo: wbchan/Foter/CC BY-NC-SA

Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, KY Photo: wbchan/Foter/CC BY-NC-SA

[by Dean Smith] It took nearly ten years, but on May 13th, 2015, the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) announced it will now allow missionaries into its organization who speak in tongues. In 2005, SBC’s missionary arm passed rules stating it would no longer accept any who spoke in tongues to serve in its organization.

Speaking in Tongues is a practice commonly found among Charismatic and Pentecostal churches. Many believe it is a sign of being filled with the Holy Spirit and is considered one of the spiritual gifts.

The gift was prominent in the early church as it was one of the main gifts manifested on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2). As the first century closed the gift and filling of the Holy Spirit began to wane and for centuries speaking in tongues was relegated to groups the Catholic Church often considered heretical.

However, the Azusa street revival that took place in Los Angeles, California in 1906, thrust the gift into main stream Christianity.

The Southern Baptist church took a cessationist view on the gift, believing though prominent in the early church, God ended the practice with the death of the apostles. As as result, it took a strong position against the gift particularly among those holding leadership positions. It initially forbid the public use of the gift, though allowing the prayer language to be used privately.

In 2005, the SBC mission board tightened its grip on speaking in tongues when it ruled in December that missionaries were now forbidden from even speaking in tongues privately. The application form asked potential missionary candidates if they spoke in tongues, if they were honest and said yes, the person was rejected.

The 2006 controversy

However, that decision became a lightening rod of controversy in fall 2006 when Rev Dwight McKissic, — a trustee with the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary — confessed in a seminary chapel service he spoke in tongues.

In the uproar that followed, the seminary came out strongly against tongues. It stated in a public release, it would no longer allow anyone to promote speaking in tongues on campus or hire anyone who knowingly spoke in tongues. The seminary even refused to release McKissic’s sermon on the internet, which it traditionally does for all chapel speakers.

McKissic who is also a pastor with SBC warned such hard lined moves could disenfranchise many SBC pastors who spoke in tongues.

LifeWay Survey

Due in part to Southern Baptist controversy, in 2007 LifeWay Research conducted a survey on Christian attitudes towards speaking in tongues. The survey showed that 50% of Southern Baptist senior pastors believed tongues was for today.

In the survey conducted in April-May 2007, LifeWay contacted 405 SBC senior pastors, 600 non-SBC protestant pastors and 1,004 protestant laity. In addition, they asked similar questions of the 1984-2004 members of the graduating classes of selected seminaries associated with SBC.

The question posed was: “Do you believe that the Holy Spirit gives some people the gift of a special language to pray to God privately? Some people refer to this as a Private Prayer Language or private use of tongues.”

Southern Baptist Convention pastors 

Of the 405 SBC pastors queried, 50% said they believed tongues is for today, 43% said it wasn’t and 7% had no answer. The results were a bit disturbing as it showed two distinct camps developing within the denomination with little middle ground.

However, recent graduates from SBC seminaries took a much harder line against tongues. Of those surveyed, 55% did not believe tongues is for today. In fact, of the four different groups asked the question, LifeWay said this was the only one where a majority believed tongues ended with the apostolic age..

Though 50% of SBC pastors said tongues was for today, this did not mean they all spoke in tongues. However, McKissic’s statement at the time suggested many did.

Non SBC protestant pastors

When non SBC pastors were asked the same question they were more open to the gift of tongues. Sixty-six percent said they believed tongues is for today while only 32% believed it ceased as a legitimate gift with the end of the apostolic age.

Protestant laity opinions

When LifeWay directed the same question to the protestant laity, it did not differentiate between SBC laity and non SBC laity. In this group, 53% believed the gift of tongues was for today, 20% believed it wasn’t and 25% had no opinion.

Of those who agreed the gift of tongues is for today, just over half (51%) believe it was a gift available to “all true believers” while the remainder believed it was only available to some Christians.

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