Trustees of the Southern Baptist Convention's international missions agency this week approved more flexibility in its controversial policies on speaking in tongues and private prayer language.
After a year of studying the issues, the ad hoc committee, which was charged in 2006 to revisit the International Mission Board's policy barring tongues and private prayer language, softened the language and recommended "guidelines" rather than "policies" on the charismatic issues, which ultimately allows some wiggle room when screening missionary candidates.
While a policy is "dogmatic," a guideline is flexible in its implementation, Matt Bristol, attorney for the IMB, explained at the trustees meeting in Kansas City on Tuesday.
There is no difference functionally, he added, but "guideline" conveys a spirit of flexibility in its application, according to Wade Burleson, an IMB trustee who backs charismatic practices.
The International Mission Board already had policies in place barring missionary candidates who practice public glossolalia (speaking in tongues). However, a 2005 adopted policy went further to bar missionaries who practice a prayer language in private, sparking wide debate within the nation's largest Protestant denomination.
The controversy led to the appointment of the ad hoc committee in March 2006 to study the approved board policy on speaking in tongues and private prayer language as well as baptism – a policy that was designed to prevent the approval of candidates baptized by a church or denomination with a different understanding of the doctrine of baptism than the views held by most Southern Baptists. The committee has met over the past year to consider material gathered from leaders across the denomination.
"The committee has no desire to create further controversy," Burleson quoted the committee in his blog post on Wednesday. "Rather, our desire is to bring this study to completion and allow the board to maintain its focus upon our world mission task."
Although concluding that there was no indication of a "systemic problem" with charismatic practices among field personnel, the committee stated that "the rapid spread of neo-pentecostalism and its pressure exacted on the new churches in various regions of the world warrants a concern for the clear Baptist identity of our missionary candidates."
"Furthermore," it continued, "the diversity of denominational backgrounds among missionary candidates requires a clear baptism guideline to guide the work of our candidate consultants as they consider the qualifications of candidates."
While trustees adopted a softened language, Burleson argued that it isn't enough.
"I would like to urge my fellow trustees to seriously consider the wisdom of adopting these guidelines," he told the board, according to the Associated Baptist Press. "I would much rather the [full] convention speak on this matter for the board."
Still, Burleson saw the guidelines as "progress" to understanding that there are different viewpoints on the concerned matters in the denomination.
"[F]or us to function as a cooperating convention, we must not exclude anyone from missionary cooperation and participation those who disagree on tertiary doctrines like the authority of the baptizer and the importance of what a person does in his private prayer closet," he wrote in his blog.
Despite a handful of opposition to the recommended guidelines, the guidelines were approved by a majority of the IMB trustees.