ARLINGTON, Texas (BP)–The theological and political debate within the Southern Baptist Convention about private prayer languages came to the fore April 27-29 at the “Baptist Conference on the Holy Spirit” at Cornerstone Baptist Church in Arlington, Texas.
Pastor Dwight McKissic repeatedly affirmed at the conference his conviction that he has been gifted with a private prayer language.
“God just showed up in my prayer closet,” McKissic said April 28 during a panel discussion. “I’ve asked the Lord to explain what I am saying, but as of yet I cannot understand it.”
McKissic went on to say that his understanding of private prayer languages was that they were for personal edification and not for public display unless there are interpreters, and then no more than two or three.
Bart Barber of First Baptist Church of Farmersville, Texas presented a case for semi-cessationism, or the belief that some of the gifts (including speaking in tongues) ceased with the early church.
Specifically regarding the use of tongues or a private prayer language, Barber said, “Exegesis cannot answer this question” of its current-day validity. “Two people using the same methods of interpretation can look at the same text and come to completely opposite conclusions. When someone says, ‘I’m speaking in tongues and it is from the Holy Spirit,’ some people believe them and other people don’t, and there’s the difference.” Barber said he is in the “skeptic” category.
Barber went on to deny the accusation that Southern Baptist mission boards have wronged people who practice private prayer languages by not funding their missions.
“In the process of reviewing a candidate’s background, they can come to the conclusion, ‘That’s not Baptist missions but Pentecostal,'” Barber said. “If they choose not to fund that, they have not denied anyone’s liberty.”
During the panel discussion, Oklahoma pastor Wade Burleson did not directly address the issue of private prayer languages, but criticized International Mission Board policies he regards as too restrictive.
“Denominationally, all I’m asking for is that we let people be free to be who God created them to be,” he said. “We are turning a ship…. One of these days, Dwight McKissic will be president of the Southern Baptist Convention.”
During a discussion time, Burleson challenged Barber as to whether conference host McKissic should be barred from serving on nomination boards because of his view of tongues. Barber replied that he should not be barred from such appointment, because there should be no such litmus tests for volunteers. Barber went on to say that the denomination has every right to set up litmus tests for paid employees.
“So you think [IMB President Jerry] Rankin should be fired?” Burleson asked pointedly.
Barber replied that he merely meant that laypeople have the right to set whatever litmus test they like for paid employees without getting into specifics.
During the morning session April 29, McKissic had a special offering taken up for pastor Jason Epps’ church outside Salt Lake City. Epps graduated from Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary and planted a church in the Watts district of Los Angeles but said he was denied North American Mission Board funding because he acknowledged having a private prayer language.
“They didn’t ask these kinds of questions when we were starting Cornerstone,” McKissic said. “We received $47,000 from the SBC when we were getting started. Had I been asked that question and answered it honestly, we wouldn’t have gotten funding.”
McKissic also took exception to the way in which the question is posed to Epps and other NAMB applicants. Epps said the question about having a private prayer language came after a series of questions about whether he had a problem with alcohol, drugs or Internet pornography.
“A lot of you know something about being discriminated against,” McKissic said. “You put tongues on that list -– this man was discriminated against because of his personal, private prayer life.”
McKissic, a trustee at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, had previously discussed the existence of private prayer languages in a chapel sermon last fall. The sermon, and the seminary administration’s decision not to make it available on the school’s website, provoked a fresh round of controversy within the convention on the issue of private prayer languages.
Several hundred participants from Ohio to Utah heard a variety of perspectives on the working of the Holy Spirit from a long list of speakers.
McKissic said several times throughout the conference that the point of the conference was not to “get everyone on the same page” but to foster understanding between people with different opinions.