Divorce & glossolalia no longer bar Southern Baptists from career missions

by Staff, |
David Platt teaches in 2013 about "speaking in tongues" as part of his "Secret Church" ministry at the Church at Brook Hills in Birmingham. Alabama, in a series on "Exploring the Holy Spirit." | VIMEO/screen capture

RICHMOND, Va. (Christian Examiner) – The Southern Baptist Convention's International Mission Board, which selects and trains missionaries for the denomination and has more than 4,700 field personnel under appointment, has changed its personnel qualifications to allow "new pathways" for service to those who previously could not be assigned to long-term overseas posts, Baptist Press, the convention's news agency, has reported.

David Platt, elected IMB president in August 2014, told the mission board's trustees earlier this week that the organization's changes to its appointment policy represent a new "unified statement of qualifications" that will apply to all new applicants.

"We're talking about limitless possibilities that God has providentially arranged for His people to go around the world with the gospel. And as the IMB, we want to send Southern Baptists through as many pathways as possible, which necessitates that we open up the pipeline for people to come through those pathways," Platt said, according to Baptist Press.

Under the new qualifications, the IMB will no longer consider a past divorce as a prohibition to career appointment, nor will it make an issue of those who practice a "private prayer language," or speaking in tongues while alone in prayer.

Allowing individuals with such backgrounds to serve is not "lowering the bar for potential IMB missionaries," Platt said.

"This is a raising of the bar in all the areas that matter most. ... We will continue to train our missionaries and work as missionaries in ways that faithfully represent Southern Baptist churches and Southern Baptist conviction."

According to a statement summarizing the changes on the IMB's website, applicants with a divorce in their background have been eligible for short-term service for some time. The new guidelines mean an applicant may now receive appointment as a career missionary in spite of a divorce.

"In all categories of missionary service, individuals who have been divorced may be able to serve. However, a person's role on a missionary team, the circumstances surrounding his or her divorce, and the suitability of the culture where he or she will serve will all be considered by the IMB in cooperation with the person's local church," the statement said.

Private prayer language also will no longer disqualify a person from missionary service, the statement said, in spite of the fact Southern Baptists have historically rejected speaking in tongues, even in private.

In 2005, IMB trustees voted 50-15 to set in place a policy that prohibited people who practice a private prayer language from appointment for any type of mission service. At the time, the board made no distinction between speaking in tongues privately and glossolalia – known to most pastors and theologians as a public, ecstatic babbling that is incomprehensible to all but the speaker.

Glossolalia commonly is regarded as a "gift of the Spirit" and evidence of salvation in Pentecostal circles.

Most Southern Baptists reject the Pentecostal practice and interpret Scripture to say speaking in tongues is communicating in a "legitimate language of some people group," according to the former IMB policy. This guideline also stated that the New Testament defined "specific uses and conditions" for speaking in tongues in public worship and cautioned that "if glossolalia is a public 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." Similar convictions were expressed about private prayer language.

Opinions on the acceptance of private prayer language began to change almost immediately following the election of Frank Page as SBC president in 2006.

According to Timothy George, dean of the Beeson Divinity School of Samford University, Page pulled together a coalition to strike a tone of unity in the SBC. Charismatics who practiced private prayer language were one group brought into the fold.

"Occasionally congregations have been ousted from Baptist associations over charismatic issues. But recent efforts to exclude from missionary appointment all who have a 'private prayer language' seemed to many ordinary Baptists both intrusive and unnecessary," George wrote in First Things shortly after Page's election to the SBC presidency.

In 2006, Dwight McKissic, a Dallas-area pastor who also served as a trustee at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, started a broader discussion when he offered a defense of private prayer language in a chapel service at the seminary. His subsequent defense of the sermon and the practice led to a larger discussion and a greater degree of acceptance of the practice, according to multiple sources.

The newest policy of the IMB is that an individual with a private prayer language is "not automatically disqualified for missionary service."

However, according to the statement from the IMB, the organization may "still end employment for any missionary who places 'persistent emphasis on any specific gift of the Spirit as normative for all or to the extent such emphasis becomes disruptive' to Southern Baptist missions work."

The change also does not mean they will appoint missionaries who openly practice tongue-speaking. The organization said its appointment, training, and supervisory process would make certain missionary appointees working to plant churches will "faithfully represent Southern Baptist theology, missiology, ecclesiology, and practice."

In addition to the changes in policy on divorce and private prayer language, IMB trustees also voted to look more carefully in the method of baptism experienced by all future appointees. The statement said the IMB wanted to ensure, in line with the Baptist Faith & Message 2000, that all missionary appointees had been baptized by immersion, as Scripture teaches.

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