FAL2011: Theological Essay — IMB Policy on Private Prayer Languages

PF copy of the essay: THE6120 Theological Essay – IMB and Private Prayer Languages



Leonard O Goenaga


Theology II

Dr. Whitfield

It is undeniable that among Christian theology and missions, few things have been as influential and powerful as the modern Pentecostal movement. Besides stirring within nearly every theological camp discussions on the nature of the Spiritual gifts, Pentecostalism has more importantly grown from 0 adherents in the 19th century to well over 500,000,000 today. Any movement that manages to grow to such numbers within merely 100 years is worthy of serious examination. In addition to their rapid missional growth, Pentecostalism has benefited the Church by reinvigorating worship and how we approach the third Person of the Trinity. What once was a quickly passed over subject, or a stale and solemn worship ceremony, the church now actively seeks to be filled by the Spirit during worship (in and out of the church). However, such benefits in theology and missions have not arrived without problems. The Pentecostal movement itself is riddled with a degree of pluralism and schism beyond what was normally found within other Protestant grounds. Two Pentecostal churches could disagree ecclesiology, soteriology, Christology, hamartiology, and eschatology, yet still call themselves Pentecostal. In addition to this great degree of splintering, the movement has little theological vigor. Whereas it has a rich empowerment in the realm of missions and worship, it has visibly lacked in the academics and theology department. Besides these weaknesses and divisions within Pentecostal camps, the 20th century brought about battled waged across traditional denominations. Whether Catholics, Methodists, or Baptists, churches were split apart by disagreements over the spiritual gifts. This produces much anguish on the part of divisionary tendencies, and as such certain denominational establishments have sought to buffer their systems in the hope of preventing such escalations.  One of great importance within Southern Baptist Life is the International Missions Board (IMB). With the likely goal of preventing such schisms, the IMB has forwarded a policy that prevents individuals from qualifying as IMB missionary representatives on the basis of whether or not individuals have a private prayer life. With the history of conflict in mind, a question remains: Is this policy legitimate in light of the conflict, or is it an excessive condition for otherwise well qualified missionaries? The argument of this paper will side with the latter, arguing that the IMB overreaches in its attempt to prevent divisionary conditions as evident on the basis of Scriptural, Theological, and Missional reasoning.

The IMB’s policy itself comes in the form of an explanation of (1) Glossolalia, (2) Prayer Language, and (3) Application. Regarding glossolalia (‘tongue’), the IMB first makes the point that (1A) the New Testament speaks of it as an actual known language. This first point is understandable, and it is even to be noted that among antiquities, ‘tongues’ lacked the definition of spirit-driven groaning. Rather, when glossolalia was used, it was always in reference to an actually known language. After this first point, the IMB policy then rightly states that (1B) glossolalia is a gift to be used to advance a purpose in worship, such as the edification and mission of the body. Although these two points are somewhat agreeable, the third point is where problems arise (1C): “In terms of worship practices, if glossolalia is a public part of the candidate’s current practice and it does not fall within the definitions of Parts 1 and 2 above, the candidate has eliminated himself or herself from being a representative of the IMB of the SBC.” The problem arises with a hidden premise crucial to the argument, namely, that private prayer language does not have a function in the exercise of public worship.

In addition to this treatment of glossolalia, the IMB policy then expands on (2) Prayer Language). The first premise of this understanding is that (2A) spiritual experiences are to be tested by the Scriptures. This is an acceptable premise. Second, the IMB policy states that (2B) the New Testament teaching is made to be understood. Although this is debatable (what is meant by understood? By someone else, or by God? What is the standard of understanding?), we will proceed for the sake of simply highlighting the problem of the policy. The third point is that (2C) the Board rejects ecstatic utterance as a prayer language. The fourth point is thus (2D) if such an ecstatic utterance is part of the prayer life of a person, they are disqualified.

As mentioned earlier, there is a problem with their treatment of glossolalia, namely that there exists a hidden premise to their second point. Namely, it is assumed there exists no specific benefit to the public of a private prayer life. This hidden premise however may be put into great speculation by the example of Paul. As evidenced through his life, Paul received various visions and revelations that were specifically targeted to him and only for his immediate benefit (2 Cor. 12:1-10). However, incidents such as the thorn in his flesh were surely beneficial to the church at large, as such visions and experiences further produced within Paul great piety and practice. The church thus indirectly benefited from Paul’s direct experience/communication.

Although this evidences that the personal practices do indirectly affect the worship of the church, are there any additional evidences in Scripture to buttress the point and thus expose the error of the IMB’s hidden premise? The answer is that there are, as found in the treatment by Paul of marriage and singleness. It is first to be noted that both are mentioned in Paul’s Corinthian epistle to be gifts of the nature of charismata. This sets them alongside the other grace-given gifts listed by Paul to advance the “common good” of the life of the church (2 Co 12:7). However a problem then arises. We can see how exhortation and other such gifts publically benefit, but how do individuals gifts of singleness and marriage advance the church’s worship and mission? It would appear to be along the same lines of a private prayer language. All three seem to be gifts given to individual persons within the domain of charismata. As has been hinted earlier with the example of Paul, all three meet the requirement of gifts being given to serve the church and not simply the self. Gifts may be individually given and experienced, yet still benefit and edify the church body. This would be seen in healthy marriages, or prudent singleness, or even private prayer languages. Since marriage, singleness, and prayer languages exist within the same domain of being gifts individually experienced but indirectly beneficial, it would seem that, having exposed the IMB’s hidden premise, they should also prevent individuals gifted with marriage or singleness from serving on the mission field, given “a gift had specific uses and conditions for its exercise in public worship”. The ad-absurdum of the hidden premise, and thus the policy, lies exposed.

Both Paul’s example and parallel gifts that are experienced individually but beneficial indirectly make the IMB’s policy disagreeable. There is nothing within a private prayer life that can prevent someone from being a good Southern Baptist, and a good missionary. Such a position does not alter any notable Baptist distinctive, and it serves at best as a third level doctrine. Hardly does it warrant the prevention of missional service. Given the strains already placed upon the church, as well as a desire to see a Great Commission Resurgence, it is difficult to see how this proves beneficial. If anything, it seems a bit more problematic, given the additional Scriptural difficulties it presents. Given one can serve as a missionary who holds to Baptist distinctive while still maintaining a private prayer life, the IMB’s policy seems excessive and hard-placed. Although the spirit behind such a policy is commendable, given historical precedent, the policy is overreaching and unbiblical, and thus worthy of being reformed to allow individuals who hold to private prayer languages to serve as IMB missionaries.


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