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Colleague disagrees with McKissic, but affirms his trustreeship

FORT WORTH, Texas (BP)–At Eric Redmond’s first meeting as a trustee of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, he sat in a student services committee and listened as a parade of students shared what some might describe as grievances regarding the campus atmosphere. Questions arose from minority students about the sensitivity of professors in the classroom, minority representation in chapel and support of the ethnic fellowship on campus.

“Being the lone African American trustee until this year, I’ve worked to positively affect those within the administration and student services office,” Redmond told Baptist Press. “Those are the sort of things I hope that Reverend [Dwight] McKissic in his tenure here would want to affect on campus for the good of the seminary, for the convention as a whole and for the Kingdom.”

Southwestern’s trustee board now has three African American members, including Redmond, pastor of Hillcrest Hills Baptist Church in Temple Hills, Md.; McKissic, pastor of Cornerstone Baptist Church in Arlington, Texas; and Tony Matthews, pastor of North Garland Baptist Fellowship in Garland, Texas.

Redmond is the District of Columbia Baptist Convention’s representative on Southwestern’s 40-member board. Prior to pastoring for the last five years, he was a professor of biblical studies at Washington Bible College in Lanham, Md., and continues to be involved in the Evangelical Theological Society. He also serves as theology editor for the newsletter of the National African American Fellowship of the Southern Baptist Convention. Redmond earned a master of theology degree from Dallas Theological Seminary in 1997.

Cornerstone Baptist Church, first meeting in the garage of the McKissic home with nine adults and 15 kids in 1983 as a mission of Tate Springs Baptist Church in Arlington, now draws more than 4,500 in attendance. McKissic founded Heritage and Hope Ministries a decade ago to address contemporary ethnic and social issues from a biblical perspective to teach Christian leaders to defend the faith against those who use the Bible to promote racism. In 2004, McKissic presided over the Pastors’ Conference of Southern Baptists of Texas Convention. At the Oct. 16-17 board meeting, he began his first year as a trustee at Southwestern representing Texas.

McKissic, a former SWBTS student, was the lone dissenter to an Oct. 17 trustee statement on charismatic practices, an action he believes makes the seminary a “de facto cessationist school.” Through a collection of letters to trustees and SBC President Frank Page, McKissic characterized the statement as “a narrowing path of confessional latitude on theological matters not included in our statement of faith,” the Baptist Faith and Message. He warned it could cause many students and churches, particularly those that are African-American, to feel unwelcome at the seminary where he first spoke in tongues in private while in his seminary dorm room.

“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 wrote in one of his open letters. “They would certainly not invoke a policy denying freedom of a gifted person to practice a private prayer language,” which would be “extremely alienating,” he wrote.

Redmond does not believe the issue of private prayer language will be “the line in the sand” for black churches in the SBC. “I think my friend Dr. McKissic’s statements about the majority of African American evangelicals being open to private prayer language are statements of conjecture or speculation,” Redmond said.

From his own experience, Redmond has known “a great majority of African American evangelicals who hold to a cessationist position.” While he finds a neo-Pentecostal perspective represented in some African American churches identified as Baptist, evangelical or the broader Christian faith, Redmond said it is not well-represented in Southern Baptist pulpits.

“African Americans have not necessarily considered sighing, groaning and moaning as part of a private prayer language,” Redmond also said, compared to McKissic’s inclusion of those experiences in the same category.

“I don’t think it’s accurate to say that Southwestern has shifted its position. It may be accurate to say the position was ambiguous or assumed by some to be cessationist and by others semi-cessationist or continualist,” Redmond admitted. At the time McKissic was enrolled at Southwestern in 1981, Redmond said Southwestern was a school that would have been in sync with the majority of Southern Baptists who were semi-cessationist or cessationist.

“The New Hampshire Confession from which the Baptist Faith & Message was largely derived was crafted seven decades before the Azusa Street Revival which brought the advent of the Pentecostal movement into America,” Remond told BP. “In 1925 there was a clear distinction between those who were Baptist and those who were charismatic or Pentecostal.” That situation had not changed when the 1963 BF&M revision was approved, he said, adding that writers of the 2000 revision did not find reason to address the matter either.

“It is a modern phenomenon of charismata in Baptist churches that has put the convention in a position where some feel that we may need to revisit the statements on the Holy Spirit,” Redmond said. Regarding McKissic’s call for SBC President Frank Page to begin a process of formally adopting a position sanctioned by the SBC at the 2007 or 2008 SBC annual meeting to be included in the BF&M, Redmond said, “This may not be necessary. But if McKissic is successful, his push may help the convention to be more definite in our beliefs about our statement of beliefs. Ambiguity will be removed.”

Redmond said he does not see any reason for McKissic to feel unwelcome at the trustee table following their statement that disagrees with his viewpoint on a private prayer language. “His trusteeship is larger than this one issue. We’re here to help make the best school for training men and women to preach the Gospel throughout the earth and make disciples strong and healthy in their churches. Private prayer language may only be one small part of that and so if Reverend McKissic can agree to disagree, yet be agreeable in the practice with all other issues pertaining to the seminary, then there is still a great place for him at the table.”

“I would hope that Dwight’s place on the board as an African American would help make African American students more aware about the potential opportunities for African Americans in world missions,” Redmond added, “to the end that many more African American students would leave a school like Southwestern and go to places where Christ’s name is not yet known.”

Following the Oct. 17 plenary session when trustees approved the statement on charismatic practices, McKissic raised the question to reporters whether the seminary would want a trustee who practices a private language if they don’t want professors who hold that view. “The policy speaks loud and clear to me,” McKissic stated. “It clearly excludes anybody who endorses a private prayer life.” Asked if any trustee or administrator had communicated a desire to call for his removal, McKissic declined to answer the question, stating only that it gave him reason to wonder.

Redmond responded, “There has not been informal discussion, dialogue or e-mail or any recommendation of dismissal.” Redmond went on to contrast the right of a pastor to preach as God directs in his pulpit and the responsibility of a Southern Baptist-owned institution to clarify expectations of faculty.

“Even in the informal setting of the forum in which Rev. McKissic was absent for personal reasons unknown to me, there was not one ounce of discussion about Dwight as a person, as a pastor or as a member of this trustee board. The discussion in full was about the school’s position on private prayer language.”

“We’re a free-church [denomination],” Redmond said of the Baptist tradition of church autonomy. “He’s free to preach in his pulpit as he feels led of the Lord.

“As it relates to the membership and practice in individual churches, the statements by the trustee board were not intended to impose the will of the seminary on the will of the churches,” Redmond continued. “It is to set a standard for the seminary to say to all who wish to come to the school or partner with the school this is our standard of teaching. This is what we see as truth on the nature of prayer language and the continual use of sign gifts.”

Redmond added, “A student is still free to believe what he or she wishes to believe and may choose to maintain a private practice other than what is taught in the classroom even upon graduation.”

When Southern Baptist churches send students to a Southern Baptist seminary they expect a certain product, Redmond said. “It should not appear to be tainted with something outside of Baptist heritage. A student can make an individual choice to hold to a private prayer language, but it must be known that the seminary that represents the churches did not teach that to the students as part of their preparation for leading Southern Baptist churches.”

Southwestern’s theology dean, David Allen, confirmed that the new statement will pose no problem for students. “We have lots of students who aren’t Southern Baptists and some are charismatic. We do not expect our students to affirm the Baptist Faith and Message 2000. Under no conditions would any such student be unwelcome here.”

Allen said “the other side of the coin” is that care must be taken in hiring faculty. “We will not hire anyone knowingly who affirms that which the vast majority of Southern Baptists disavow.

“As long as it remains private, it’s not problematic to me because I don’t know,” Southwestern President Paige Patterson agreed. “If it does become known to some people, but it is not a matter that is advocated or advertised and the reputation of the school is not harmed thereby, then it’s not a problem. We don’t forbid tongues. We said what we are going to do in the seminary as a direction.”

A faculty member who privately discloses a sympathetic view toward the practice of a private prayer language won’t be hauled into the dean’s office, Allen said. “It’s not going to restrict in that way. If we have people who do that here, we’re certainly not going to try to move for their dismissal.”

As for the characterization of critics in the online blogosphere that the action taken by Southwestern trustees represents a trend of Southern Baptists becoming more exclusive in their membership, Redmond strongly disagrees. “What it represents is that we are becoming more vocal about the importance of our doctrinal position and our heritage as Southern Baptists. It is most important in a seminary setting to be unambiguous about our doctrinal positions because we are accountable to the churches.”

More troubling to Redmond on a visceral level is the direction this debate has taken in some weblog settings, introducing allegations of racism by administration and even the “lynching” of a trustee.

In the Oct. 17 post on baptistblog.wordpress.com, a site described as “meandering the mangled milieu of the Southern Baptist Convention,” Ben Cole of Arlington, Texas, wrote, “Tonight Dwight McKissic has issued a call for Southern Baptists to stop tightening the doctrinal noose around our own necks. He pleads with us to stop the lynching of those who are open to the continuation of all spiritual gifts or whose private devotional lives are more intense and expressive than our own. He begs us to let brothers and sisters like him ride at the front of our denominational bus. He stands before us and opens his heart for everybody to hear him.”

Redmond responded, “Since 1995, the convention has been taking great strides to become more inclusive at all levels of leadership,” such as the Southwestern trustee board, the faculties of all Southern Baptist seminaries and generally in the convention. “There have been many informal discussions about the need for Southern Baptists to lead the way among churches and African Americans in racial reconciliation, in racial sensitivity and in the de-racialization of society,” Redmond said.

“When a term like lynching is used within the convention to discuss an issue that has been raised by an African American pastor, such a statement is not at all considerate of the efforts being made at all levels of the denomination nor does it see the significance of such an emotive term in the general American culture,” Redmond said.

“Southwestern’s statements have not even attempted to harm Pastor McKissic, let alone denigrate his character. Nor have we attempted to say your position as an African American is not welcome in the convention. The issue is broader than one African American pastor. It is about representative neo-Pentecostalism within the convention as a whole,” Redmond said, calling it happenstance that an African American pastor who was appointed as a trustee is one member of the SBC who has become the most vocal about the matter.

“We’re not responding to Pastor’s McKissic’s statements with objection because he is African American. To even characterize what has been done since Aug. 29 as even virtual lynching is to minimize the significance of many horrible acts that were done to our African American forefathers.”

Reflecting on what he considers a sincerely mutual friendship between McKissic and Patterson as well as cordial interaction between trustees, Redmond said, “We just disagree with his doctrinal position. Those making such statements as lynching should use much more Christian care with their selection of words and how they portray the events that have taken place.”

Redmond recalled Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas’ use of the term “high-tech lynching” during hearings before the U.S. Senate. “When such terms are used, they are employed to evoke the most visceral emotions among people and to deceptively garner support from African Americans who still feel the pains and terrors associated with slavery and the civil rights movement.”

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  • Tammi Reed Ledbetter