Tongues Survey Fuels Baptist Debate

A recent study that found half of Southern Baptist pastors believe in private prayer language stirred debate within the largest Protestant denomination in the nation as some questioned the methodology and the timing of the release.

Tim Rogers, pastor of Yadkin Baptist Church in Statesville, N.C., believes the results of last week's LifeWay Research study are skewed, citing the lack of participants who are Southern Baptist.

"The 20 percent less of SBC (Southern Baptist Convention) Pastors certainly does not seem adequate if this report is, as it reports to be, a survey of the SBC and what they believe about PPL (private prayer language)," Rogers wrote on his latest blog post.

The LifeWay study involved 405 Southern Baptist senior pastors, 600 non-SBC Protestant senior pastors, and 1,004 Protestant laity.

Scott McConnell, associate director of LifeWay Research, however, says all three groups represented were "good sample sizes."

When survey respondents were asked, "Do you believe that the Holy Spirit gives some people the gift of a special language to pray to God privately?" half of SBC pastors said "Yes" and 43 percent said "No" while the rest responded "Don't know."

"We're just reporting facts," said Ed Stetzer, new director of LifeWay Research. "Fifty percent of the people we asked in a well-done, well-crafted survey have answered the question 'Yes, we believe that.'"

Malcolm Yarnell, assistant dean for Theological Studies at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, argued the question is unclear as to its meaning. Among some of the questions he raised, Yarnell posed the greatest problem with the survey question is "its blatant assumption that a 'gift' may be used 'privately.'"

"Paul is quite clear in 1 Corinthians 12:7 that a spiritual gift is for the common good, and he spends much of chapter 14 arguing that speaking gifts must be used only for public edification," stated Yarnell. "Not only is such an equation ('gift' with 'privately') indicative of either an inappropriately constructed or insufficiently educated survey, it suggests an implied contradiction of the Pauline doctrine of spiritual gifts."

LifeWay's Stetzer explained there is a distinction many make between public vs. private prayer language and "as we asked the question in the survey, I think some would make a distinction between the two (public vs. private).

"I think the broad sense of the public vs. private use is an important distinction."

Yarnell further questioned the timing of the study's release just weeks before the Southern Baptist Convention is scheduled to hold its annual meeting in San Antonio, Texas, June 12-13, when representatives of SBC churches vote on resolutions presented from the floor. One of the resolutions that may be presented is on the issue of private prayer language, which has been a popularly debate topic in the denomination in the past year.

Statesville pastor Rogers also raised suspicion over the date of the release. "Would anyone in their right mind not agree that the timing of the release of this report is strange?"

The issue of the gift of tongues or private prayer language, however, has not been as prominent as it is now, Stetzer indicated.

"I don't think anyone's asked this question before (in the SBC) and part of the reason is it never was the issue that it was before," said Stetzer, who hopes the survey will add to the ongoing discussion on the topic.

"LifeWay Research is committed to studying issues and trends that impact churches. This is an issue that is being discussed throughout the Convention, and we wanted to determine the perceptions and opinions of SBC leaders," stated Dr. Brad Waggoner, vice president of research and ministry development at LifeWay.

Controversy over speaking in tongues erupted when the Rev. Dwight McKissic, trustee at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, spoke of experiencing private prayer language during the seminary's chapel service last year. Months later, the seminary adopted a ban on private prayer language or such practices.

Since then, McKissic and other SBC pastors who back him have called for the Southern Baptist Convention to adopt a formal stance on such charismatic practices.

As Southern Baptists prepare for their annual meeting next week, Alan Cross – pastor of Gateway Baptist Church in Montgomery, Ala., who plans to write a book on the Holy Spirit from a Baptist view with McKissic – says he is ready to move on to "bigger issues" and has only participated in the tongues debate defending the continuationist position to show "that those who have a private prayer language are not just making stuff up."

"PPL is not the big deal," Cross wrote on his blog. "The big deal is this: Are we going to be a convention of churches that focuses on Jesus Christ and the participation of all of His saints in proclaiming the gospel to the ends of the earth, or are we only going to create a convention of theological elites who get to participate in God's mission, leaving all of those who see things a bit differently on side issues behind?

"I pray that we will quickly embrace a perspective that says it matters far more what kind of person you are and how much you love Jesus than whether or not you completely agree with every jot and title of every side doctrine in the Bible as advocated by those who happen to be in power at the time."

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