Leaders at Texas conference join McKissic's call for more freedom

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    http://www.abpnews.com/www/1553.article

    Leaders at Texas conference join McKissic's call for more freedom
    By Hannah Elliott
    Published: December 6, 2006

    ARLINGTON, Texas (ABP) -- Pastors and other Baptist leaders at a Dec. 5 roundtable discussion voted unanimously to request Southern Baptist Convention officials to reconsider restrictive policies regarding speaking in tongues.

    The more than 80 pastors and laypeople who attended the half-day event at Dwight McKissic's Cornerstone Baptist Church in Arlington, Texas, also agreed to submit a resolution on "partnership and free religious expression" at the next SBC annual convention, to be held June 12-13 in San Antonio.

    McKissic, pastor of one of the SBC's largest predominantly African-American churches, convened the meeting in light of controversy over charismatic worship practices in Southern Baptist life.

    Billed as a discussion on "Baptists and the Holy Spirit," much of the discussion focused on some Southern Baptists' use of a "private prayer language," or utterances in personal prayer that are a form of speaking in tongues.

    McKissic moderated the discussion along with fellow Arlington pastor Benjamin Cole; Enid, Okla., pastor Wade Burleson; and Art Rogers, a pastor in Tulsa, Okla. The group included several black Southern Baptist pastors, many of whom echoed the concerns of the organizers.

    Glossolalia -- the biblical term for tongues-speaking -- has been a touchy subject for Southern Baptists for many years, in part because it has led to discord within many churches. More recently that concern has shifted to include private prayer languages.

    Last year, trustees of the SBC's International Mission Board voted to disqualify missionary candidates who admit to using a private prayer language.

    Burleson, an IMB trustee, opposed the new restriction despite the fact that he does not practice any form of glossolalia. His outspoken opposition to the policy, fueled by his popular weblog, caused a national stir among Southern Baptist leaders.

    "We Southern Baptist pastors and leaders have met in Arlington 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."

    Opponents say the prayer-language restriction goes too far in dictating personal worship practices, excludes worthy Southern Baptists from denominational service, and represents an unnecessary and unbiblical narrowing of parameters for cooperation.

    In the resolution, the group affirmed their "fundamental Baptist distinctive as advocates of religious liberty, especially as it relates to free expression in the public and private worship of followers of Jesus Christ."

    "We are opposed to any attempt to narrow the parameters of cooperation among Southern Baptist churches to limit the full recognition, participation and partnership among member churches on account of preference for worship styles or acceptance of spiritual practices consistent with the teaching of Holy Scripture," the document said.

    Resolution writers said they deliberately did not mention "tongues" or "private prayer language" in the text in an effort to "get to the root" of the prayer-language debate.

    The controversy escalated after McKissic mentioned private prayer language and criticized the IMB policy in an Aug. 29 chapel sermon he delivered at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in nearby Fort Worth.

    That day, McKissic noted that he has used a private prayer language since his seminary days at Southwestern in the early 1980s.

    After the comments, Southwestern President Paige Patterson decided that an electronic version of McKissic's sermon would not be placed on the seminary's website, even though doing so is the usual procedure for chapel messages. Patterson has said his rationale for the decision was that most Southern Baptists would not agree with McKissic's opinions on ecstatic utterances.

    For Burleson and his colleagues, though, the issue isn't about speaking in tongues -- it's spiritual freedom.

    "It's not about the public use of speaking in tongues," Burleson said. "Our concern is that policies about these private prayer languages have been enacted without a clear rationale. It is no secret that if these polices had been in place over 30 years ago, the current president of the International Mission Board, Jerry Rankin, would not be in place. We don't need fewer missionaries like Jerry Rankin. We need more missionaries like Jerry Rankin."

    Rankin has said he has used a private prayer language.

    McKissic went so far as to say he would not disagree if SBC boards instituted policies opposed to public glossolalia. It's the private stuff he's worried about.

    "We're talking about private devotion," he said. "We're talking about private worship. Honestly, I have no problem if the board wants to prohibit public speaking in tongues… but to forbid private speaking [in tongues] is a problem."

    Burleson said although he does not personally speak in a private prayer language, he stands beside McKissic as an "evangelical brother, Southern Baptist leader, and [someone] with whom I and my church will unashamedly cooperate with in ministry for years to come."

    And while many Baptists associate the practice of tongues with Pentecostals and other charismatic groups, a Pentecostal church and a charismatic church are two different things, Burleson said. That's one reason why Southern Baptist churches that espouse private prayer languages can and should remain just that -- Southern Baptist.

    "I think the term 'charismatic' is relative," he said. "The word 'charismatic' means 'grace-gifted.' By that definition, every church in the Southern Baptist Convention is charismatic. … But none of us sitting at this table are Pentecostal," who believe tongues-speaking should be normative for all Christians.

    In other business during the event, pastors voted to request LifeWay Christian Resources, the SBC's publishing house, survey Southern Baptists to discover "where Southern Baptists are on the issue of tongues, private prayer languages, and the acceptability of their use within our denomination."

    According to Cole, 85 to 90 percent of the people who attended McKissic's roundtable are actively engaged in Southern Baptist ministry. He declined to guess whether or not the meeting reflected the opinions of many Southern Baptists, calling instead for the LifeWay survey to produce specific numbers.

    Cole did say, however, "the tide is turning. … There are Southern Baptists who feel disenfranchised by the church apparatus."

    And while the Dec. 5 group has no plans to become an organized body, it includes members who are "affiliated by our common concern for the convention," Cole said.

    Cole warned that policies narrowing the parameters of cooperation beyond clear biblical teaching is damaging the SBC.

    Such constraints cause the denomination to lose its common mission and evangelistic edge, he said. "We're trying to do triage on the Southern Baptist Convention."

    The conference was officially called the "Sandy Creek-Charlestonian Baptist Roundtable," a reference to two early worship traditions that emerged in Baptist life in the American South during the 1700s. Baptists in and around Sandy Creek, N.C., were known for an emotional and demonstrative worship style. Meanwhile, the tradition that developed out of the First Baptist Church of Charleston, S.C., encouraged a much more formal and cerebral approach to worship.
     

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