News Articles

IMB president speaks plainly with state editors about private prayer language

BANFF, Alberta, Canada (BP)–International Mission Board President Jerry Rankin answered questions about recent IMB trustee actions regarding a private prayer language and local church baptism practices in a Feb. 17 question-and-answer session with Baptist state paper editors.

Rankin’s comments were made at a breakfast meeting hosted by the IMB for editors attending the annual meeting of the Association of State Baptist Papers in Banff, Alberta, Canada.

The following Q&A transcription was preceded by Rankin’s overview of the IMB’s work.

RANKIN: What would you like to ask about? Go in any direction you want. You know I’ve been here before. I know you guys. We’ll try to help out in whatever you’d like to talk about.

Trennis Henderson (Western Recorder, Ky.) — Jerry, just to jump right into it I suppose — you referenced issues that are distractions. It seems like one of those distractions of recent has been the discussion of policies related to private prayer language. Private prayer language certainly sounds like something that you don’t discuss publicly, but [laughter from editors]

RANKIN — I’m impressed, you’re coming along. [more laughter]

Henderson — However, however, it seems that your practice of private prayer language has become a public issue. I know there was the discussion at the time of your election as well some discussion of what your current practice remains today. And just interested in a clarification from you to the extent that you’re comfortable, just about what your current practices are related to that area.

RANKIN — Well, I would really prefer to be very guarded in what I share. You know in our discussion with our board, just sharing — I do have a private prayer language, have for more than 30 years. I don’t consider myself to have a gift of tongues. I’ve never been led to practice glossolalia, you know, publicly, and I think the spiritual gifts clearly in the didactic passage of the Scriptures are talking about the public uses, edification and gifts in the church. I’m certainly not a cessationist and because I believe in the inerrancy of the Scripture, that the Scripture’s eternally relevant, that, you know as long as the Holy Spirit is operable in our lives and in the church and in the world, you know, what the Bible tells about the work and functioning of the Holy Spirit is applicable. Now that may change historically, but I certainly don’t think we have the latitude to just disregard it, you know.

Of course, others take issue with that. I made comment that I just don’t see how you can be an inerrantist and be a cessationist. I was talking with a person — ‘well, I don’t see how you can be an inerrantist and not be a cessationist.’ So you know, those have different interpretations — you don’t even need to try to go there, but I’ve never.

You know, really, there may be similarities and a gifting of Spirit, but I’ve never viewed personally my intimacy with the Lord and the way His Spirit guides me in my prayer time as being the same as glossolalia and subjected to that criteria. And yet there are those who do see it as one and the same and because of how they position themselves doctrinally and what they believe the Scripture teaches, you know, then they have difficulty in reconciling it and dealing with it, but like you said, I mean, I’ve been very open with the board. I don’t talk about it. I don’t advocate it. I don’t see it as normal or that I should propose that anyone ought to pray in tongues. It’s just what God had chosen to do in my life and maybe it’s, mine is just psychological make-up or my needs, but goodness, my morning devotional time — [it’s] not frequent, but I just want God to have freedom to do everything that He wants to do in my life and I’m going to be obedient to that. I don’t see it as a public issue or something I should talk about. You know, it was all out there when I was elected. I mean, just go back and read your files, and some of you have. I mean it was headlines in all your papers — Baptists selecting a charismatic [some laughter]. Well, how do you define a charismatic? I don’t consider myself a charismatic. I know what neopentecostalism charismatics believe and I preach against that. But anyway — people where they’re coming from.

But even in [the] recent thing, whatever motivated the board to move in this direction, you know, I can’t control that. I’m under their authority. They have the prerogative of doing what they feel is in the best interest of our board and our missionary work. They’re very conscientious about their sense of accountability to the Southern Baptist Convention and it’s not the first time, in fact, quite frequently; I mean, I clearly recognize if God has put me in this position to lead the international mission efforts of Southern Baptists, I do serve under the authority and submission to our board and to Southern Baptists and I have to recognize that that’s going to have an expression and parameters that I have to accept. I would never compromise or violate personal integrity and convictions. But every leader sometimes has to do things that they wouldn’t necessarily prefer to do or even be in agreement with. But there’s an accountability to implementing the policies of our board and carrying them out and I’m going to do that to enable us to fulfill our mission task.

Yeah, we’ve shared my personal perspective openly, and as one trustee said, Trennis, said, ‘well, you’ve just told us you have a private prayer language so it’s not private any more.’ Well, I think it is because no one’s ever heard me pray in anything other than English so I think it is still very private and it will remain so, but it’s nothing to deny. You may have been asking more than that.

Alright, having gotten that out, that pretty much opened the door anywhere you want to go.

Bob Terry (The Alabama Baptist) — Jerry, yesterday, I was told that the discussion of, uh, behind the new policy that the board has adopted concerning private prayer language was really advocated by board members who favored using a private prayer language and they were hoping to get it approved so there could be a broader use of a private prayer language. Do you have any feeling as the president of the organization that that scenario is founded in reality?

RANKIN — Uh, that could be, Bob, uh, it has been, I mean, well, it’s been divisive. It’s been controversial. I was very surprised at many of the trustees who voted for it. I was surprised by some who voted against it. You know, so it’s not unlikely that that was kind of maybe the motivation of some who encouraged it to go through the process in anticipating we can put this to bed and it not be an additional restrictive policy on the missionaries we’ve processed. If that was, you know, a motive of any who had a part in it, they were very much in a minority and not outspoken so that that was noticeable. But maybe in retrospect saying well I’d really hoped this would really be the outcome, but it wasn’t and so. But it’s been, in fact I think a lot of the questions and suspicions have risen because I can’t remember in my tenure when the board pushed forward to actually adopt something that was as divisive and controversial and questionable in terms of the compelling, you know, why do we need to do this? I mean, always in the past it seemed to back off you know if it wasn’t just a consensus and obvious something to advantage that needed to be done, a compelling reason, they back off, but it didn’t happen this time, so it’s kind of generated other, a climate that we hope we can resolve and get over.

Jim Smith (Florida Baptist Witness) — To follow up on Bob’s question. Actually, what I’ve understood and perhaps you can correct the record here and tell me my misunderstanding was wrong — but my understanding was that you pressed the question; that a committee had acted on this, and had created guidelines, that it was you who believed that it was necessary for the full board to act on this. And, so, therefore it was you who really put it before the full board.

RANKIN — Well, I did insist it come before the full board because I think you have to be very circumspect in your processes. And, you know it was just a matter of bylaws and process. No committee of the board has the empowerment to act on behalf of the board. In fact, there is no board action apart from full board in plenary session, you know of the full board. And yet the personnel committee had adopted this as a guideline. And yet it was drafted in a way there wasn’t really any wiggle room. I mean it was pretty explicit — anyone who had a private prayer language, practiced it, was disqualified from serving. But more than half of our board didn’t have a voice in saying that’s where we want to go and what we want to do.

So, I said, if we’re going to be expected to carry this out, our personnel staff and implement this, then the full board needs to act on it, so that’s why, yeah, it was at my insistence that the full board act on it rather than it just being a committee that puts this in place.

Greg Warner (Associated Baptist Press) — A couple of your trustees and some other observers have speculated part of motivation was directed at you. That the policy was intended to scare you or force you out or in some way directed to embarrass you. Are you aware of any of that being true and if so or if not, what do you think about that? Is that —

RANKIN — I would just refer to the comment earlier, that I think one of the reasons that that allegation or at least suspicion was there is that it was so difficult to identify any compelling reason why we needed to do this. Certainly biblically it goes beyond the doctrinal parameters of the Baptist Faith and Message. It was restrictive in appointing missionaries; so whether or not that was a motivation, you know, I think it did create suspicion, you know, with that regard because of an awareness of my personal practice. But no one on the board has admitted to that. And uh, folks you always got to be guarded about judging anyone’s motives. I mean, you can see they do something, that’s clear. But why they do it, you just can’t go there. And so, it’s certainly not in my interest to go there. [some laughter] And, uh, in fact they’re now being confronted with that and saying, no, this isn’t an effort to get at Jerry. I kind of consider it as having assured my tenure for as long as I want to serve. [more laughter] I mean who’s going to stick their neck out and say it really was now you know and we want to use this against you. So, I think, I don’t think it’s a dead issue. I think there’s a lot of reaction momentum, uh, to the publicity and the reaction that’s been generated across the convention to revisit it and look at it. Is it really advisable? Do we need it? I don’t know, you know, they may choose to live with it, but I kinda sense that we’re going to continue to be dealing with this.

Jim White (Religious Herald, Va.): Just to clarify what Jim had asked — If I understand your response correctly, the personnel committee of board had said this is what we will — these are the parameters we will use and your feeling was that needs to be acted on by the full board before those parameters are set in concrete?

RANKIN — Right

White — So your taking it to board then was not because you wanted to get this out in the open for the board to act, so much as you wanted to see if the full board supported this narrow interpretation?

RANKIN — Well you know, you’d just seen two years of work in a committee that had kind of generated this, and I, along with others just wasn’t confident that that represented the conviction and consensus of the full board and we shouldn’t have to implement what is in essence a policy, even if they call it a guideline, you know, and then deprive most of the board members from being able to even speak to this. So, whichever way it went, you know, it just needed to be affirmed, voted up or down by the full board.

White — So, if board members were to say, ‘well, the only reason we acted on this was because Dr Rankin insisted on it,’ that would be a little misleading wouldn’t it?

RANKIN — Well, yes, in fact, if that was actually said, you know, well, the only reason we’re doing this is our president wanted this adopted as a policy, not a guideline — I said, ‘excuse me [laughter] — it was not that I wanted it as a policy, but I just wanted the full board to vote on it.’

White — Well, I was one of those editors and I’m sure there were others, who was told that very thing?

David Williams (Minnesota-Wisconsin) — Are there others? This became public because it was pressed to a board vote, so what are the guidelines?

RANKIN — Well, until further action is taken the guideline is that any candidate who acknowledges practicing a private prayer language disqualifies himself from being, moving forward in the appointment process.

Williams — I mean in other areas, are there other guidelines that we would not be aware of that maybe people need to know before they pursue an appointment with the IMB.

RANKIN — Oh yeah, well the qualifications and criteria — I mean you can go to our webpage [or go inside] and find that, and our contact, our initial contacts in personnel and can get further expansion, clarification. Yeah, they’re extensive — the criteria and qualifications — always have been. In fact, I’ve gotten some interesting letters. You know this is outside, so you’ve got all kind of public, you know. But those who said, you know, ‘Dr. Rankin, you really need to step down. I mean, since you wouldn’t even qualify in being a missionary for the board.’ I said, ‘Listen, I was disqualified by my body mass index a long time ago.’ Our health department said, ‘we’ve got a problem because none of our administrators could qualify for appointment because of their weight ratio or whatever.’ [laughter]

Smith — Correct me if I’m wrong here. It sounds as if you hold out some hope or perhaps desire that this policy will be reversed. If it is not reversed, does that create a crisis of conscience for you so you that you would not be able to serve?

RANKIN — Uh, no it doesn’t, Jim, and I’m not confident it will be reversed. I mean, as much as there’s been reaction against it, there’s been a lot of support for it as well. And I think even controversy strengthens the resolve of our board, you know, to kind of justify or defend what they’ve done.

If it is reversed — you know, I may be surprised. I mean, they may come to our March board meeting with their guns loaded and just shoot that out of the water. I’d be surprised if they did. I think if it is, I think we’re going to be looking at a year or two down the road to allow this to subside, and you know, with the rotation of trustee, you know, you get a different makeup every year and they may deal with it differently, but maybe not.

I will be very candid that, yeah, it was a personal struggle. You know, but they very, I think, graciously and deliberately said this is grandfathered. It doesn’t have anything to do with people on the field. We’re not going to start a witch hunt. How many of our missionaries have a private prayer language? It doesn’t apply to our president or to staff, but we just feel like we need to be guarded and our future missionaries, you know, draw the line as we bring them in. Guard what some feel is a tendency toward charismatic influences and tolerance that’s unacceptable, that here’s a way we can draw the line. And for them to at least be gracious and respectful to say, ‘this doesn’t apply to you,’ I have to accept it doesn’t apply to me. And it may grieve me that we have to implement something that I feel comfortable with and feel is [of] the Lord, as a restrictive policy, but if that’s what our board and the accountability as Southern Baptists feel like we ought to do, my role is to lead the organization, stay focused on the vision and, you know, keep us moving forward in that context.

Smith — May I follow up on that? At what point does action of the board in your mind become final enough that you are no longer publicly arguing against it, as you are here?

RANKIN — Well, I hope you don’t hear me arguing against it. I’m just being very candid that my personal practice and convictions, you know, are not necessarily congruent. But I understand and accept the rationale and the arguments and the authority of those who implemented it. And it’s, to me, it’s no violation of my integrity and my responsibility to be accountable to them to implement it. I’ve never made any public statements or press conferences with missionaries at these annual meetings, you know, to say otherwise, other than ‘we will support the policy. This is what it means and this is what we’ll support.’ I’ve tried to be very guarded about speaking against it. I’m just being candid as far as my personal practice and some of the background in process here.

Warner — When you put this with the other policy that was adopted about baptisms, proper mode and place of baptism, there are some people that are interpreting those two as indicating a narrowing within the mindset of IMB and the larger convention. Is that valid, and are you concerned about the larger narrowing of the scope of the convention?

RANKIN — I think that is indicative of that and I will say that that does concern me. My position is that as a denominational entity we’re charged with serving our denomination. In fact, every ministry assignment begins we are to assist the churches in sending forth missionaries to plant churches overseas. Uh, I don’t think we can fulfill that assignment and say we’re going to only assist certain churches or an element of our convention. You know, we’re not the ones to determine, you know, the criteria by which a denominational entity serves them. If they’re cooperating members of the Southern Baptist Convention, we have an opportunity to serve them.

And my main concern, avoiding speaking to the policy of the baptism and issue itself is again, that it does go beyond what Southern Baptists have defined in our confession of faith which should be our doctrinal guidelines and we operate within that. And it does alienate and offend a large segment of our churches. So that’s where I’m concerned about the inconsistency is, uh, you know some would say we’ve even imposed a sacerdotal role over churches who we all recognize baptism is an ordinance of the church. It’s the local church’s prerogative to authenticate what is a valid baptism and for us to pass judgment on that and alienate and offend churches, I think there is a disconnect there that’s unfortunate. And whether it signals a direction of the convention, a trend, I’m fearful that may be so, but I’m continuing to advocate very strongly as a denominational entity accountable to the convention, we’re accountable to the whole convention and to serve and assist our churches. If the convention wants to deal with it, if associations want to deal with it, you know, alienate them, you know, draw the line, that’s where it ought to be done, not at the International Mission Board.

John Loudat (Baptist New Mexican; President, Association of State Baptist Papers) — Let me say, we’re going to go ’til about 10 after, if that’s OK, because we do have some other stuff, so.

Terry — Jerry, you’ve made the — I’m going in a different direction. You’ve made the observation that many in the Bible started well, but not many of them finished well. As you view your ministry, what will be necessary for you to finish well as the president of the IMB?

RANKIN — Umm, well, that’s interesting, Bob, I’m not thinking in terms of finishing [laughter]. Get that down. You can quote me on that.

Terry — You referenced five years a while ago.

RANKIN — Yeah, very valid question. You know we’ve had visionary goals — a few years ago we were projecting 8,000, 10,000, you know, missionaries. Certainly, we have the potential of that in our candidate pool. We could open up the short-term flow and send a thousand a year of just ISC, journeymen, masters. I mean the interest and commitment is just phenomenal and I think we just have to accept the reality it’s unlikely that the financial support is going to multiply at a rate to enable us to do that. I think just with growth comes challenges that these kinds of distractions and so forth. And you know, for three years now we’ve kinda plateaued. We haven’t kept the momentum of growth.

I’m pleased with the level that giving has maintained. As you’re aware, Lottie Moon Christmas Offering last year, we were really concerned it would be maintained and phenomenal increase of the year before and we’re encouraged, even with all the hurricane and tsunami relief, at this point — and we’ll be able to get [a] report after the first of March — the Lottie Moon offering is running way ahead of last year.

So, I’m just encouraging. Southern Baptists are going, ‘this is who we are’ and is going to keep the priority. What that’s going to be reflected in growth? You know, we’re having to say OK, do we need to look at strategies of how to use 5,000 missionaries rather than projecting we can complete the task if we have 8,000 missionaries when we won’t have 8,000 missionaries.

I don’t link my effectiveness finishing well with statistical numbers. You know, I’ve always, we never projected those kinds of goals and objectives. I’ve told our staff we want to be obedient to whatever God chooses to do through us in any given year and we’ll rejoice and celebrate. But to set arbitrary goals and numbers, I think you know the criteria of — well, two things I want to say in that. I learned very early, whatever I’m able to accomplish in my tenure of leadership is because of some innovative new directions and approaches that Keith Parks led our board to take — CSI, non-residential missionaries, seeing the whole world. That was set and in place. If we had had to start over and generate that we wouldn’t be near where we were. He was able to do what he did because of 25 years of Baker James Cauthen and a global vision.

And I realize when I finish, yes, you can look at my tenure, statistically or whatever, here’s what was accomplished there, but that’s not what it’s all about. My success in finishing well will be determined — what we’re positioned to do by my successor and his leadership. And that’s why, very conscientiously, I think it’s a real mark of leadership and something I’m very conscious of, I don’t want to feed and generate controversy that would disrupt the credibility of our board and the momentum even with, you know, things that we may not be in agreement with or are happy with, to the detriment of our board just to win some arguments or points. You want to position the board to keep the momentum moving forward. There will come a time, whether because of all of this or later, you know, it’s time for me to step down. What have I positioned us to continue doing at that time? If somebody has to put together the pieces and reconstruct, you know, a disintegrating organization, [then] I’ve failed, no matter what we’ve done.

So, I think to maintain the leadership, to stay focused on the vision, to keep the passion and ethos of our missionaries and our staff, and in mobilizing Southern Baptists to come alongside us in partnership — whatever else is going on – just keep that on track for whatever God wants to do with it.

Now if there’s one measure of pride I’d like to see as representing my tenure is to be able to say there are no more people groups in the world that don’t have access to the Gospel. Man, what an awesome level of missions advance to be able to say, ‘we were faithful to push to the edge and we can no longer identify a people group that doesn’t have access to the Gospel.’ So, I don’t know if that answers your question or not.

Alright, maybe one more?

Cameron Crabtree (Northwest Baptist Witness) — Jerry, you spent some time at the last board meeting I think it was, I don’t know if defending is the right word, but you addressed the issue of the board’s commitment to theological education. What I lacked in reading through that, however, was where did that necessity of that defense come from? I don’t have the background so could you elaborate on what led you to spend that kind of time talking about that in your report?

RANKIN — Well, where it’s coming from — you must be new — but editors who have been around realize there is always an issue. Where it’s coming from, I mean I have my suspicions, but I’m not going there. Where it’s coming from and why, but you know when we launched New Directions at the end of the ’90s we were abandoning the harvest fields. Well, we were doing nothing of the kind. You know, still, a majority of our missionaries are going where churches are established, the harvest and so forth, just because we were giving a priority to pushing the edge of lostness.

Then we came, you know, our missionaries weren’t aligned with the new Baptist Faith and Message and, were, you know, we were doing a cover-up and all of that and you know what we had to go through to affirm, ‘yes we are aligned with the Baptist Faith and Message.’

And then that’s followed with, well with all of this church growth we’re not planting Baptist churches, you know, the issue of the role of women, missionary assignments, and recently I think that kind of gave rise to this policy as the perception and just stirring out there that we have a lot of missionaries practicing glossolalia and endorsing charismatic practices. You know, my response is we’ve got a policy against this. We have terminated people who have advocated, you know, spiritual gifts, and you know, and created problems. I mean, we’ll deal with it.

Tell us where we’re not starting a Baptist church. Tell us where a woman missionary is fulfilling an inappropriate role; identify missionaries in glossolalia. And no one’s ever come up with anything like that. But the issue — whatever it is about, the grapevine, rumor mongering, our convention, it just gets out there.

And the current issue is we’re abandoning theological education which is, uh, you know kind of preposterous because more than ever the contemporary missionary role is not what the missionary does, but what he trains and equips others to do. Last year we reported, I mean, 150,000 people engaged in theological education that we were related to, over 250 Bible schools and seminaries that we’re supporting and have teachers in and relating to. And so, where’s it coming from? Well I think the perception’s coming from the fact that a lot of our historic seminaries and institutions on mission fields have been nationalized. They have national staff, national administrators, they are self supporting. They’ve always belonged to the churches. You know, they weren’t ours to abandon. We were just partnering with local churches and conventions.

And so many who go overseas see us no longer present and involved in self-supporting, nationalized, indigenous seminaries and feel like that we’ve just abandoned that. And we have changed a lot of our methodology. You know, the effectiveness is not the western model, classic, institutionalized theological education. But by no means have we abandoned it. So that’s the latest issue that we’re responding to — so we just try to stay out in front of those issues and clarifying them.

Thank you very much for [the] opportunity to share with you. As always, I hope you do recognize and appreciate, I trust you guys. I try to be candid and open. I just have to trust you to be respectful of my position and the issues and tensions we deal with so that whatever information. You know, we hadn’t said this is background rules, but I hope you will respect, you know, how critical it is — our mission task, the credibility of the IMB, and I just trust you not to do anything to bring harm or just, you know, especially to me and my leadership and we can maintain this kind of relationship. And you can call me any time and be assured of absolute candor. I mean there will be sensitive issues that you just have to be guarded in your comments and what you say, but I appreciate the opportunity to share with you this morning.
James A. Smith Sr., executive editor, Florida Baptist Witness, and Art Toalston, editor, Baptist Press, contributed to this report.

    About the Author

  • Staff