Half of Southern Baptist pastors believe God gifts some people with a “private prayer language,” according to poll results released Friday by LifeWay Christian Resources, fueling a minor controversy ongoing on Baptist blogs for a year and a half.

The Southern Baptist Convention’s International Mission Board approved a policy in November 2005 to no longer appoint missionaries who make a practice of privately praying in unintelligible tongues. The act is usually associated with neo-Pentecostal, charismatic or “Third Wave” Christians, but some Baptists, including IMB President Jerry Rankin, acknowledge having a private prayer language.

A position paper in March 2006 defended the IMB policy–reaffirmed just last month as a “guideline” instead of a “policy”–as in keeping with “the practice and expectations of the vast majority of Southern Baptists,” who IMB trustee leaders said “do not endorse speaking in tongues.”

The new study by LifeWay Research–a department of the SBC publishing house launched in February 2006 by LifeWay President Thom Rainer and as of Friday directed by Ed Stetzer, a missiologist and researcher formerly with the North American Mission Board–found that Southern Baptist pastors are slightly less likely than about two-thirds of non-SBC pastors to believe the Holy Spirit gives some people a private prayer language.

Yet 50 percent of Southern Baptist pastors share that view, compared to 43 percent of Southern Baptist pastors who do not. The other 7 percent say they don’t know.

Sixty-two percent of Southern Baptist senior pastors understand “tongues”–mentioned in New Testament passages including the Acts of the Apostles and Paul’s letter to First Corinthians–to refer to the “God-given ability to speak another language you had not previously been able to speak”–opposed to 28 percent viewing it more generally as “special utterances given by the Holy Spirit.”

Forty-one percent of Southern Baptist pastors indicated belief that speaking in tongues in public was a gift given during the days of the apostles that now has ceased, while 50 percent believe the gift is still given today to some believers. A small percentage of Southern Baptist pastors, 5 percent, said the gift of tongues is still given today and is possessed by all true believers.

Stetzer described the findings in a LifeWay podcast as “surprising” and “volatile.”

“Southern Baptists, at least half of them, have become more open to a practice that was not mainstream a hundred years ago,” prior to the modern Pentecostal/charismatic movement, he said.

Stetzer said he doubts large numbers of Southern Baptist pastors actually experience a private prayer language, but many, through interaction with other believers through interdenominational events like Promise Keepers, might have become more accepting of other Christians who do.

One SBC theologian, Malcolm Yarnell of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, questioned both the methodology of the study and its timing, just before the SBC annual meeting later this month, where the issue of private prayer languages is expected to surface.

Southwestern Seminary’s board of trustees nearly removed Texas pastor Dwight McKissic as a member of the board after he confessed in a chapel service at Southwestern Seminary that he uses a private prayer language–which he experienced for the first time while enrolled as a student at Southwestern–and said he saw no reason to make it a litmus test to exclude anyone from serving as a missionary.

More than 700 people registered to attend a recent conference on Baptists and the Holy Spirit at McKissic’s 3,000-member Cornerstone Baptist Church in Arlington, Texas. McKissic plans to submit a resolution on private prayer and tongues when the SBC meets June 12-13 in San Antonio, Texas.

“Continualists,” who believe miraculous spiritual gifts like healing and speaking in tongues mentioned in the New Testament are still valid for today, are regarded a small minority among SBC churches. Their numbers are large enough, however, to support an annual “Fresh Oil New Wine” conference organized by Ron Phillips, pastor of Abba’s House, a self-described “Spirit-filled” Southern Baptist Church in Chattanooga, Tenn.

Other Southern Baptists, like Oklahoma pastor Wade Burleson–nearly removed as an IMB trustee for blogging about his discontent with both the policy banning private prayer language for missionaries and a related policy tightening baptism requirements–don’t pray in tongues themselves but argue that any Southern Baptist who agrees with the Baptist Faith & Message, which doesn’t ban tongues, and believes the Bible, which mentions them, should qualify to be appointed as a missionary.

Brad Waggoner, vice president of research and ministry development, said LifeWay Research studied the issue because it “is being discussed throughout the convention, and we wanted to determine the perceptions and opinions of SBC leaders.”

The study found that recent seminary graduates hold a higher cessationist view than current SBC pastors, and just 6 percent of SBC seminary graduates said they had experienced speaking in tongues.

Stetzer said he was surprised by large percentages on both sides of the issue. “You’ve got a substantially cessationist portion of the Southern Baptist Convention, and then you have a large portion that  believes that God gives some people a private prayer language,” he said, “and the middle ground is not that large.”

Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.

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