FORT WORTH–Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary will not knowingly endorse contemporary charismatic practices such as a private prayer language nor hire professors who advocate the practice, according to a statement issued by trustees Oct. 17 during their regularly scheduled meeting on the Fort Worth campus.
In what was described as a “trajectory for the future,” the statement said the school would fix “its focus on historic New Testament and Baptist doctrine to guide students in the tasks of world missions and evangelism.”
The statement was a response to controversy stemming from a chapel sermon Aug. 29 in which trustee and Arlington pastor Dwight McKissic Sr. noted his practice of a private prayer language. In the sermon McKissic said that tongues “is a valid [spiritual] gift for today” and took issue with the International Mission Board policy refusing missionary candidates who engage in the contemporary neo-charismatic practice.
Amid what he told the Southern Baptist TEXAN would be a report on “exciting evidence of the blessings of the hand of God” on the school, SWBTS President Paige Patterson expressed as “unfortunate” the need to address an action that was “ill-timed, inappropriate, unhelpful, unnecessarily divisive, and contrary to the generally accepted understandings and practices of Southern Baptists.”
Consequently, at the president’s encouragement in the Oct. 16 forum, trustees adopted a statement unanimously recommended by the board’s executive committee clarifying the school’s perspective on private prayer language by a vote of 36-1, McKissic being the only trustee voting in opposition.
The statement referenced the school’s affiliation with the Southern Baptist Convention for the sole purpose of “training men and women to understand the Bible in all its ramifications in order to facilitate the assignment of Christ as provided in the Great Commission,” citing Matthew 28:18-20.
“We wish to remain faithful to the biblical witness and its emphases, taking into careful account the historic positions of Baptists in general and Southern Baptists in particular,” he insisted.
The statement reads: “As it concerns private practices of devotion, these practices, if genuinely private, remain unknown to the general public and are, therefore, beyond the purview of Southwestern Seminary. Southwestern will not knowingly endorse in any way, advertise, or commend the conclusions of the contemporary charismatic movement including ‘private prayer language.’ Neither will Southwestern knowingly employ professors or administrators who promote such practices.”
Southwestern’s board expressed a resolve to devote the school’s energies to “the twin tasks of world missions and evangelism,” emphases which “were characteristic of our founders, B. H. Carroll, L. R. Scarborough, and George W. Truett.”
Patterson told the TEXAN he expressed in the trustee’s closed session forum Oct. 16 a desire to be “true to biblical instruction as understood by our best efforts to interpret the message of the Bible, while taking into account the positions of Baptists from the past.”
Most Southern Baptists both acknowledge and advocate the practice of spiritual gifts as described in the New Testament, he explained. However, faithfulness to the entirety of the New Testament requires the need to “test the spirits” to see if they are of God, he insisted.
Patterson said “sincere misunderstandings and misreadings of Scripture, excesses, and sometimes apparent deliberate deception” sometimes occur. He pledged that the school would resist such errors in an effort to be both a lighthouse for the gospel and a stronghold for biblical theology.
“Southern Baptists have always recognized true brothers and sisters in Christ within various charismatic groups and denominations,” Patterson told the TEXAN. “In keeping with our historic Baptist convictions, we affirm the right of all to believe and to promote the convictions of their hearts.” Based on “best efforts” to interpret Scripture, Patterson added, “Neither in the past nor in the present have many Baptists believed that the Pentecostal or charismatic movements represented an accurate representation of New Testament doctrine and practice.”
Patterson said he told trustees the issue is not about the president of Southwestern Seminary nor “a much esteemed and greatly loved pastor and newly elected trustee,” an allusion to McKissic.
Instead, it concerns “Southwestern’s trajectory for the future—whether we shall be clearly identified as Baptist or only baptistic.” He described the choice as “whether we will remain distinctive in our convictions or whether we will succumb to the neo-ecumenism of the time, embracing as it certainly does, many of the doctrines and emphases of charismatic theology.”
For example, while statements of faith from Assemblies of God reveal they are “baptistic” based on their advocacy of believer’s baptism by immersion, Patterson insisted they are not Baptist.
“We can favor the unity of God’s born-again saints, which does not involve compromise, but we connot countenance any ecumenical movement, whether it be the National Council of Churches or the pressure of the contemporary neo-charismatic perspectives.”
Trustee chairman Van McClain indicated no further statement would be made regarding the subject. “I believe the board has addressed the issue of the Aug. 29 chapel service by this statement. I believe Dr. Patterson handled the matter in an appropriate manner and there is no need for the board to make any other statement at this time.”
McKissis appeals to Baptist theologians
The trustee statement followed a series of letters and e-mail exchanges that began with McKissic’s explanation of his Aug. 29 chapel sermon in a Sept. 7 e-mail he sent. Two other trustee officers weighed in on the comments, then McKissic wrote a Sept. 12 letter to all three, answering their questions, then posting the 11-page response on his church’s website.
McKissic explained that his continualist viewpoint differs from a classical Pentecostal view—he doesn’t believe tongues is a sign of Holy Spirit baptism or that tongues is for everyone—turning to Southern Baptist professors and scholars to assert that those with his conviction should not be excluded in Southern Baptist life even if a majority of Southern Baptists are cessationist or semi-cessationist regarding the charismatic gifts.
He quotes at length the writings of SWBTS New Testament professor Siegfried Schatzmann, and emeritus theology professor James Leo Garrett as being among those who seem to argue for the possibility of tongues in a modern context. From Schatzmann’s book, “A Pauline Theology of Charismata,” the professor wrote, “There exists no reasonable exegetical warrant for denying that the same gifts which equipped the church for service then should fulfill the same purpose today.”
From Garrett’s Systematic Theology he quotes, “[Non-tongue speakers] should refrain from efforts to exclude or disfellowship those who exercise tongues-speaking with the Pauline parameters.”
After trustees discussed whether to adopt a statement on private prayer language during the informal, closed-door forum, Oct. 16, McKissic released another open letter to trustees and the SBC, concerned that the statement makes the seminary a “de facto cessationist school.”
McKissic also took issue with the seminary president’s statement that private prayer language, if truly private, would not be a point of discussion.
“I fail to understand this logic. Many practices of a believer occur in private, but are discussed in public. Whether a man is praying in a known language, or in words or sounds that cannot be translated into another language, we all discuss what happens in times of private prayer. Jesus went deep into the Garden of Gethsemane alone. When he was there, he prayed. While he prayed, he groaned,” McKissic wrote, a point made in support of private prayer language.
In a chapel sermon last April, Patterson said that groanings such as Paul described in Romans 8:26 are not examples of private prayer language.
In his letter, McKissic contended: “The souce of division in Southern Baptist life is not from those of us who want more of God’s empowering presence in our lives, and are willing to seek his power earnestly. The source of division seems to come from those who wish to silence and deny us the freedom to serve in a convention that has never in its history spoken definitively on this matter.”
Whether he continues to feel welcome in the Southern Baptist Convention depends, McKissic said, on the response of SBC President Frank Page or the Executive Committee to McKissic’s challenge that the SBC formally adopt a position on spiritual gifts, private prayer language and speaking in tongues.
Line in sand for black churches?
Southwestern Seminary trustee Eric Redmond, who pastors the predominantly African-American Hillcrest Baptist Church in Temple Hills, Md., does not believe the issue of private prayer language will be “the lin the the sand” for black churches in the SBC.
“I think my friend Dr. McKissic’s statements about the majority of African-American evangelicals being open to private prayer language are statements of conjecture or speculation.”
From his own experience as a minister, Bible college professor and theology editor, Redmond has known “a great majority of African-American evangelicals who hold to a cessationist position.” While he said he finds a neo-Pentecostal perspective represented in African-American churches identified as Baptist, evangelical or the broader Christian faith, Redmond said it is not well represented in Southern Baptist pulpits.
Furthermore, Redmond said, “African –Americans have not necessarily considered sighing, groaning and moaning as part of a private prayer language,” responding to McKissic’s inclusion of those experiences in the same category.
Redmond said he sees no reason for McKissic to feel unwelcome at the trustee table following their statement that disagrees with the Texas pastor’s viewpoint.
“His trusteeship is larger than this one issue,” Redmond said. “We’re here to help make the best school for training men and women to preach the gospel throughout the earth and make disciples strong and healthy in their churches. Private prayer language many only be one small part of that and so if Reverend McKissic can agree to disagree, yet be agreeable in the practice with all the other issues pertaining to the seminary, then there is still a great place for him at the table.”
In his first year as a trustee, Redmond fielded questions from minority students about the sensitivity of professors in the classroom, participation of minorities in chapel and support for ethnic fellowships.
“Being the lone African-American trustee until this year I’ve worked with administration, student services, admissions and even at the level of the president’s office to positively affect those areas.”
Redmond added, “Those are the sorts of things I hope Reverend McKissic in his tenure here would want to affect on campus for the good of the seminary, for the convention as a whole and for the kingdom.”
McKissic stated in the letter that he intends to maintain his friendship with Patterson, expressing ongoing appreciation for the Southern Baptist Convention’s conservative resurgence of which Patterson was a part.
But, he asserted, the stance recommended by Patterson and the trustees’ executive committee would tell “potential faculty, administrators, students, donors, and the entire Southern Baptist family—that Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary is not a place where a diversity of views about the work of the Holy Spirit within the history and theology of Baptists is tolerated.”
McKissic’s Oct. 16 letter followed a 10-page letter he wrote Oct. 13 to the trustee chairman, Van McClain of New York, and to two other trustees, with copies sent to the entire trustee board, answering various questions they had raised.
“I have been told that because the majority of Southern Baptists hold to the cessasionist or semi-cessasionist viewpoint, my [chapel] message was out of line with the majority of Southern Baptists,” McKissis wrote in the Oct. 13 letter. “Since when did majority opinion dictate theological interpretation in SBC life beyond the Baptist Faith and Message?”
McKissic noted that a majority of Southern Baptists once upheld slavery and segregation and that the SBC was on record as affirming the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade abortion decision during the 970s. “To put it simply, popular opinion doesn’t always validate a theological position,” McKissic wrote.