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Openness to private prayer language echoed at meeting

ARLINGTON, Texas (BP)–The coming together of 112 people of assorted ages, races, doctrinal interpretations and worship practices gave host pastors Dwight McKissic of Texas and Wade Burleson of Oklahoma reason to be encouraged after a year in which both have been the center of controversy on denominational trustee boards.

McKissic welcomed participants to the church he pastors, Cornerstone Baptist in Arlington, for what he called the “Sandy Creek-Charlestonian Convergence” (SCCC), recalling two distinct traditions from which Southern Baptists arose in the Carolinas during the 1700s.

Any life that the SCCC has beyond the Dec. 5 roundtable would be for the purpose of networking to “encourage spiritual renewal, theological and ecclesiastic dialogue, fellowship and mentoring in an environment where diverse viewpoints are welcome,” McKissic said. He quickly dismissed any speculation that a new convention-like entity would be formed.

“I don’t believe everyone is gifted to speak in tongues. That’s not the issue,” said McKissic whose defense of private prayer language in an Aug. 29 chapel sermon at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary thrust him into controversy as one of its new trustees. Burleson objected to an International Mission Board guideline passed a year ago that disqualifies missionary candidates who practice a private prayer language.

McKissic said their love of Jesus Christ is the common area of agreement for those who met together while Burleson focused on treasuring their Baptist heritage as a people of dissent. “Any attempts by Southern Baptist agencies or denominational leaders to exclude fellow evangelical, Bible-believing Baptists from Southern Baptist leadership or cooperative ministry because of differences on secondary issues must be vigorously resisted,” Burleson said.

Burleson, pastor of Emmanuel Baptist Church in Enid, Okla., also encouraged working “within the system” to seek change. Before ever becoming a part of forming an alliance for missionaries who have been rejected by the IMB, Burleson said he would have to resign his position as a trustee for the sake of his own integrity. He told of a couple recently appointed to a dangerous location who initially were rejected after the wife acknowledged having a private prayer language to the surprise of her husband. Rather than reject a candidate who demonstrated personal integrity through her truthfulness, Burleson said IMB trustees were persuaded to recommend their appointment.

“We have met in Arlington today in order to model what it means to put aside our differences on secondary issues for the sake of cooperative Gospel ministry,” Burleson said. “We desire unity in the essentials, liberty in the non-essentials and charity in all things. I intend to send to the world and our evangelical brethren a sure and certain message: It is the Gospel that unites Southern Baptists and what unites us is greater than anything that might potentially divide us.”

While not personally possessing nor seeking a private prayer language, Burleson pledged to stand beside McKissic as well as any Southern Baptists who exercise such a gift and to “unashamedly cooperate” with them. He encouraged young pastors “who may be feeling disenfranchised by what seems to be continuing narrowing of parameters” to be patient. “Stand strong against those who seek to exclude and marginalize” others, Burleson said, in spite of disagreement on “fine points of doctrine.”

While most of those present were from Texas, registrants came in from various other states, including Virginia, North and South Carolina, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Missouri, Oklahoma, Kansas, California and Maryland.

McKissic announced plans for Cornerstone Baptist to host a Baptist Conference on the Holy Spirit April 27-29 of next year to address three views on sign gifts:

— cessationist: sign gifts, including speaking in tongues, ceased with the death of the apostles

— semi-cessationist: regarding speaking in tongues, the event is rare and in a known language

— continualist: sign gifts, including speaking in tongues, continue today as in the times of the apostles

While holding to a continualist perspective, McKissic said, “We’ll look at it from all sides.”

A second SCCC roundtable meeting will take place in connection with the conference since the Dec. 5 meeting was attended by more people than had been anticipated, prompting an interest in further dialogue.

Joining Burleson and McKissic on the platform at Cornerstone were Benjamin Cole, pastor of Parkview Baptist Church in Arlington, and Art Rogers, pastor of Skelly Drive Baptist Church in Tulsa, Okla.

Cole explained the purpose of two letters distributed to roundtable participants, inviting their feedback and the opportunity to endorse the messages directed at trustees of the International Mission Board, North American Mission Board and Southwestern Seminary and a separate request of LifeWay Christian Resources. Following discussion of both letters, participants were invited to add their signature to the letters. At press time, the number of signatories was unavailable.

The first letter, jointly written over the signatures of McKissic, Burleson, Cole and Rogers, asked the mission boards and seminary to reconsider policies and/or statements regarding the use of a private prayer language and provide a response at the June 12-13 annual meeting of the SBC in San Antonio.

Concerned that “restrictive policies and statements have now introduced conflict and disharmony within a convention that has labored diligently to preserve our common bond of missions and evangelism within the Baptist Faith & Message,” the men said that task is too great to begin excluding people from service based on “interpretive variances and disciplines of personal devotion.”

The letter to LifeWay President Thom Rainer requests research and education in the area of spiritual gifts, specifically the gift of tongues and the proper use of these gifts in the context of public and private worship. “It is our belief that diversity rather than uniformity characterizes Southern Baptists on this issue, and we would welcome in our churches any assistance that LifeWay can give us to better teach these issues of biblical interpretation to our congregations,” the letter states.

LifeWay recently launched its research arm, LifeWay Research, with a survey to gauge how many SBC pastors describe themselves as five-point Calvinists.

The SCCC letter asks LifeWay similarly to find out “where Southern Baptists are on the issue of tongues, private prayer languages, and the acceptability of their use within our denomination.” The men requested Rainer to consider a series of doctrinal studies for Southern Baptist churches to aid in understanding “these complicated issues of biblical interpretation.”

During about 20 minutes of discussion on the letters, Paul Littleton, pastor of Faith Baptist Church in Sapulpa, Okla., asked whether they might also address the IMB’s new baptism guideline specifying the mode and administration of baptism for prospective missionaries, which has been the subject of controversy since its adoption about a year ago.

“I share your concern,” Cole told the man while hesitating to incorporate the subject into the letter under consideration since “the greater issue for this gathering would be this issue of spiritual gifts.”

Bob Cleveland, a layman from Alabama, said the matter of baptism has a remedy. “If a couple really is called by God, they may have to humble themselves and be rebaptized.” The attitude of doing “whatever it takes” could be adopted by missionary candidates, he said, adding that no such remedy is available to one who believes “God has given the gift of unknown tongues.”

Burleson encouraged Cole to write a second letter on the matter of baptism to allow individuals concerned about that issue to ask the IMB to revisit the matter.

Texas pastor Gregg Simmons of Grapevine questioned a reference to “policies regarding the gift of tongues” as well as private prayer language in the proposed letter. Recalling McKissic’s contention that “two different things” are represented by Acts 2 and 1 Corinthians 14, Simmons asked whether the intention was to remove all limitations on the exercise of the gift of tongues to allow any type of expression.

“We’re talking about private devotions — however you classify or define it,” McKissic answered. “That should not be an issue of whether or not you serve,” he said, calling it “taxation without representation” by expecting financial support for the SBC from those disqualified for service.

“I don’t have a problem with regulating tongues in public worship, but [in regard to] private worship, to me, [it] is very unbaptistic,” he said.

Simmons told Baptist Press he attended the meeting more out of curiosity than conviction, wanting to hear the concerns of Burleson, a longtime friend, and McKissic, whose stance on moral issues he respected.

To the group, the Texas pastor said inclusion of a reference in the letter to what he called “charismatic abuses of the gift of tongues” would have “painted with too broad a brush.” Simmons said he supports the call for research by LifeWay and looks forward to the conference next April but chose not to advocate or support the positions of conference leaders “though sympathetic with some of them.” He said he finds debate over the private practice of tongues a “potentially divisive and damaging issue” for the convention, but noted, “Since revival is a sovereign work of he Spirit of God, I think a healthy, biblically sound emphasis on His person and work will be good for us.”

Cole agreed to strike the reference Simmons addressed and the change was approved without opposition.

“It’s no secret if these policies had been in place 30 years ago the current president of our IMB, Jerry Rankin, would not have been appointed,” Cole added. “It’s our contention we don’t need fewer men like Jerry Rankin. We need more like Jerry Rankin.”

In discussion of the letter to LifeWay, a Dallas pastor questioned whether new curriculum might lean toward a particular interpretation of the gift of tongues, especially in favor of a cessationist position. “There is no reason to fear there will be an intentional effort at LifeWay under [Rainer’s] leadership to marginalize or misrepresent the scope of biblical positions acceptable in a Southern Baptist context,” Cole said, commending Rainer’s career of “fair and balanced” scholarship.

Participants considered, discussed and approved a “Resolution on Partnership and Free Religious Expression” to be submitted by an unnamed individual for consideration at next year’s SBC annual meeting in San Antonio. The proposed resolution recounts the historical affirmation of religious freedom by Baptists for themselves and others, asserting that the SBC has refrained from adopting “any restrictive parameters on expressions of public or private worship and has preferred to recognize confessional and experiential latitude among member churches as an intentional effort to maintain a commitment to religious liberty and ensure peace and harmony among member churches.”

Evangelism and church planting are described in the proposed resolution as more important than “a prolonged discussion among Baptists about acceptable and unacceptable worship practices,” whether through public or private expressions.

In addition to affirming “free expression” in public and private worship and opposing “any attempt to narrow the parameters of cooperation” among SBC churches to limit their “full recognition, participation, and partnership” based on worship styles or acceptance of spiritual practices, the proposal affirms freedom of the individual conscience under the Holy Spirit’s guidance and Word of God in such matters for the sake of the Great Commission.

The proposal also recognizes the full partnership of all SBC churches in global mission endeavors through Cooperative Program giving, prayer and witness.

David Morgan of LaPorte, Texas, asked the body to remove a reference to oppose any limitation of participation of churches because of their “acceptance of spiritual practices not forbidden in Holy Scriptures.” Morgan said for those holding to a cessationist view, the statement is “gasoline for your fire” while removing the phrase “doesn’t give anyone a dog in a fight either way.”

Cole, author of the proposed resolution, said the original wording was made in reference to 1 Corinthians 14, but added, “The language is not important to me. It’s the spirit of the resolution that is greatest concern.”

Participants agreed, without opposition, to amend the resolution to oppose limitation of participation of churches based on “acceptance of spiritual practices consistent with the teachings of Holy Scripture.”

While Tim Cowan of St. Louis expressed concern that the proposed resolution is too vague while another written by Morgan and distributed to the participants directly addressed the variety of views regarding tongues, Rogers said the proposed statement was “intentionally broad” so as to represent the root of disagreement in SBC life. He encouraged all who had concerns to write proposals for consideration by the Resolutions Committee to be appointed by SBC President Frank Page for the upcoming annual meeting.

“Our feeling is this resolution which is intentionally vague has a greater chance of coming to the floor than David Morgan’s,” Burleson said, while adding that the four conveners “liked” that statement and encouraged Morgan to offer it to the San Antonio convention.

“The best way to send a message to the committee is to send multiple resolutions,” Morgan said. “Whatever camp you represent should not dictate whether or not you’re chosen to sit on a committee of the convention that we support and send money to. If you’re a cessationist, you have as much right to sit on a committee as a non-cessationist.”

Texas pastor David Dykes of Tyler agreed, having served on a Resolutions Committee in the past. “There is attention given to the preponderance of resolutions,” he said, adding, “The key is having Frank Page appoint the right people on that Resolutions Committee. That will determine whether these make it.”

In the final half-hour of the meeting, Burleson invited those present to offer suggestions for the future direction of the group.

Cleveland called for the group to have an ongoing identity beyond the letters to the four SBC entities and the proposed resolution lest they be added to “a growing list of people who have signed stuff and published it.”

Micah Fries of Missouri said he was “somewhat fearful” of a more formal organization, feeling the group’s effectiveness had come from a sense of individual identity and voice. “I’m not opposed to the idea of some sort of affiliation and partnership, but it needs to be loosely defined.”

Ralph Emerson of Fort Worth, Texas, said he is looking forward to the April conference as a time when laypeople will get answers to questions about the Holy Spirit. “Where we’re going from here is to another level to learn,” he said.

While Art Rogers credited McKissic with intentionally representing a variety of viewpoints, Wade Burleson drew laughter when he said a conference that leans toward a continualist position would be welcome since “we’ve heard the other side all our lives.”

“This is a very personal issue for me,” Scott Camp of Arlington, Texas, said. “On more than one occasion I have been asked to resign a position or cancel a speaking engagement based solely on my experience with the Holy Spirit as it relates to the practice of tongues speech.”

Comparing the efforts of the group to “pouring new wine into old wineskins,” Camp encouraged them to be proactive and visionary by associating with some existing network, fellowship or denomination. “I can make some suggestions if you’d like me to,” Camp said.

Camp said he didn’t want a conference featuring a cessationist position. “It’s too late for that with me,” he said, prompting scattered applause. “It took us 25 years to battle over the Bible. How long would this battle take over cessationist or continualist? Be apostolic, visionary,” he urged, describing Ezekiel’s prophecy of the dry bones as the establishment of a new Israel — the body of Christ.

Burton Purvis of Fort Worth agreed, noting that shifting a 25-year precedent toward a “creedal position” in SBC life is similar to turning a tide around. He called for a leadership team to formulate a strategy reminiscent of the Fullness Movement of the 1970s and ’80s that focused on the Holy Spirit’s indwelling but did not advocate speaking in tongues.

Insisting his concern was not meant as a threat, Alan Cross of Alabama said, “If we’re ignored continually, over time, at some point, we won’t continue to participate.”

An Oklahoma pastor who described himself as a cessationist encouraged participants to show that the issue can be debated while still loving one another. “I know everyone kind of whooped and hollered over that,” he said, referring to the reaction to Camp’s remarks, “but I hope we can still act respectful of one another.”

Jeff Sanders of Fort Worth warned against formalizing the group, noting “great movements of the Holy Spirit are not brought about by resolutions, but by prayer and seeking the Lord.” He encouraged prayer for spiritual revival and transformation in cities and the nation.

“When we go home to our own churches, that’s when decision time comes,” said Donald Morrison, another Texas participant. “It’s easy to yell as a group, but as individuals we have to let God show us” what to do, he said, encouraged by the “energy and power” expressed in the meeting.

“No divorce,” stated Will Langstaff of Lewisville, Texas, the final person to comment from the floor. “We can work it out. When I started to plant our church and I was not in the cookie cutter mold of the SBC, somebody told me to go see pastor Dwight McKissic.” Langstaff told the group, “There’s a seed somewhere that needs the water you have,” encouraging all that they do be for the glory of God.
James A. Smith Sr. contributed to this report.

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  • Tammi Reed Ledbetter