Position Paper Concerning the IMB Policy on Glossolalia
Mar 7, 2006

Note: This paper has not been adopted by the board of trustees and is primarily the work of several experienced trustees with the final edit being made by the chairman of the board. It contains many of the points considered by many trustees as they worked through this issue over the last several years.

The International Mission Board’s policy on glossolalia (adopted November 2005) represents the historic Baptist understanding and, more importantly, the scriptural teaching regarding this practice.

Scriptural Teaching Regarding this Practice

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Definition of a church

While an exhaustive treatment of even the few biblical passages that make any mention of tongues is not practical for this rationale, dealing with those passages in context is extremely helpful and important. To that end, the context of tongues in Acts 2:8-11 was within a Jewish population who had resided throughout the Hellenistic empire. They heard the wonderful works of God “in their own language in which they were born” (v.8). This experience was a fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy (Isa. 28:11). The same term (glossa, from which we receive our word glossary) is used in 1 Corinthians as was used in Acts. Different kinds of tongues (1 Cor. 12:10) are mentioned, but never unknown tongues. The references to tongues in 1 Corinthians 14:2, 19, 21, 26, 27, and 39 all use the same root word (glossa). All major Greek lexicons use the word to refer to a known language. There is no linguistic or historical or contextual justification for the idea that the glossolalia of Acts and Corinth are different.

Corinth was a center for the mystery religions. The members had come from a polluted society (1 Cor. 6:9-11). They tolerated immorality (1 Cor. 5:1); they were immature (1 Cor. 5:1); they had doctrinal heresy (1 Cor. 15:12; 2 Cor. 11:3), and were selfish (1 Cor. 6:7). Yet the Corinthian Christians believed they had arrived at a spiritual pinnacle evidenced by the presence of spiritual gifts (mainly tongues) which placed them, in their estimation, above the other churches and even Paul himself.

Paul wrote the Corinthian letters to correct a problem, not to encourage or promote a particular experience as a means by which to have a superior intimate relation to God. He wrote to solve the problems created in Corinth by the abuse of the speaking gifts.

Tongues were given for a sign (1 Cor. 14:22). “This people” of Isaiah’s prophecy (Isa. 28:11) limits tongues as a sign for Jews. The Jews requested a sign (1 Cor. 1:22). In every instance of tongues in Acts there were Jews present and at least one Apostle was present. Two things characterized tongues in the New Testament: Jews and evangelism. Tongues were given to be addressed to men (Israel), not to God. The carnal Christians at Corinth, with their envy of each other’s gifts were using the gift as a badge of “spirituality.” They were able to follow a practice brought over from the mystery religions of “speaking mysteries to the Eternal”, thus elevating themselves. Paul sharply contrasted this act of 1 Corinthians 14:2 in the following verses (3-5, 9).

The work of the Holy Spirit is to exalt Christ, not Himself (John 14:26, 15:26). Any teacher, teaching, or movement which exalts oneself rather than Christ is not from the Holy Spirit. The religious culture of Corinth put a high premium on ecstatic speech as the mark of achievement in the mystery religions. The Corinthian Christians were misusing the gift of tongues as an attention-getting gift for individuals.

Consider the guidelines declared by Paul concerning this gift:

  1. Paul’s primary goal in I Corinthians 14 is to stress that Christians must focus on the clear communication of the Gospel, a goal that was inhibited by the Corinthian practice of “tongues.”
  2. It is a known language (glossa), not an ecstatic speech (I Cor. 14: 21). In fact if you read I Corinthians and properly translate “tongues” or “unknown tongues” as “languages” then the natural sense of the passages becomes clear and obvious.
  3. Its main use is in evangelism (I Cor. 14:22a).
  4. Its secondary use is in the church with restrictions:
    1. No more than two or three in any one service (I Cor. 14:27).
    2. Speak one at a time (This is the meaning of “by course”) (I Cor. 14:28).
    3. If they can hold the utterance in order to speak one at a time then they are in control of the gift (many today claim the utterances are so strong as to be beyond their control. Paul would disagree) (I. Cor. 14:32).
    4. There must be an interpreter (someone who knows that language).
  5. A third usage, if there is no interpreter in the church, is to speak privately to God (I Cor. 14:28). However, some Baptists argue that the Corinthian practice is not, strictly speaking, an actual spiritual gift, because Paul defined a spiritual gift as “for the common good” (I Cor. 12:7).
  6. Women are forbidden to partake of the revelatory speaking gifts (I Cor. 14:34).
  7. All is to be done “decently and in order” (I Cor. 14:40). “For God is not the author of confusion but of peace, as in all the churches of the saints” (I Cor. 14:33).

Passages sometimes used to justify a belief in tongues or a private prayer language can more logically be taken in context to speak of prayer of which all may partake. For example, Romans 8:26 is sometimes cited as referring to ecstatic utterance. This interpretation is not feasible because the text states the groans were “unutterable” (literally “without sound”). Thus, this verse explains prayer so intense that no words or even sounds can be used to express it.

The Historic Baptist Understanding

The policy purposely stays within the historical practice of Southern Baptist churches.

The modern practice of speaking tongues began with Charles Parham in Topeka, Kansas, and the so-called Azusa Street revival in Los Angeles, California, in 1901 and 1906. Prior to this, the subject raised little concern among Christians.

The June 9, 1958, issue of Life magazine featured an article that described what was being called the third force in Christendom, Neo-Pentecostalism. The movement had spread rapidly among Protestant groups as well as Roman Catholics. The article noted, however, that the movement had made relatively small inroads into Southern Baptists.

Claude L. Howe, Jr., then a professor of Church History and chairman of the Theological and Historical Studies Division of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, observed in a 1981 publication: “Seminary professors, editors, and other denominational leaders have uniformly dissociated themselves from charismatics, even when they encourage understanding fellowship, and cooperation.” Howe further commented: “The charismatic experience is foreign to Southern Baptist life, stressing a second blessing where Baptists prize the first. Charismatic experience tends to establish a spiritual elite by distinguishing between Christians who have had the experience and those who have not; Baptists stress the equality of all believers in Christ.”

Dr. Herschel Hobbs published a series of articles on “Baptists Beliefs” which were carried in state papers. He argued that tongues at Pentecost and in Corinth were the same, in each case involving language spoken on earth rather than heavenly language known only to God.

In her book entitled How the Holy Spirit Filled My Life, Bertha Smith devoted her entire tenth chapter to this controversy. After making it quite clear she had never spoken in tongues she told the story of when a man attempted to recruit her into having a “tongues” experience. She recalled:

“…that man tried to persuade me that I should speak in tongues.

The only reason I got from him was that it had revived a useless man (himself) who had been baptized into a country church when he was a boy, meaning nothing to the church, or to the Lord, or to anyone.

A woman went to his law office early in his career and told him that what he needed was to speak in tongues. He said that he does it now for ‘personal edification.’ He surely did not appear edified! What does ’edify’ mean? To build up. Certainly feeding his soul on the Word and communing with his Father in prayer edifies. Sharing the Lord and his riches with others edifies. I cannot understand how producing some sounds with the vocal organs which one does not understand can build up the spiritual life.

Of the people whom I have known personally who spoke in tongues, only a very few have gone on higher with the Lord. Some have gone off on tangents in beliefs or Christian practices, and others have become depressed or upset nervously.” (pp. 114, 115)

W.A. Criswell, well-known pastor of the First Baptist Church of Dallas and President of the Southern Baptist Convention, wrote, “The gift of tongues was not nearly so prominent in the early churches as those who advocate it would have us believe. At the most, it was a rare phenomenon found only in a few places, and, as far as we know, in only one church, and that not a spiritual church but a carnal one filled with every problem and disorder…. The Apostle is not encouraging the Corinthians to exercise the gift but to refrain from its use” (The Holy Spirit in Today’s World, pp. 211-212). Dr. Criswell believed that speaking in tongues was one of the four sign gifts intended to authenticate the preaching of the Apostles. Once the apostolic preaching was written into Scripture, there was no more need for the sign gifts (cf. Hebrews 2:1-4).

The mid-seventies would mark the peak of the attempts of the charismatic movement to infiltrate churches aligned with the Southern Baptist Convention. Several associations in Texas, Oklahoma, Florida, Ohio, Louisiana, California, Maryland, among others, took action to exclude charismatic churches in those years.

Most pastors and theologians among Southern Baptists of recent decades and of today regard the charismatic movement as divisive, encouraging spiritual pride, and stressing minor gifts out of proportion to biblical evidence. Although there remain some charismatic churches excluded by associations that consider themselves as still belonging to state conventions and the Southern Baptist Convention, their number has declined over the years since the mid-seventies.

Recently, Kenneth S. Hemphill, former President of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, wrote, “The gifts were given for the common good, and it is in the life of the [church] body that the gifts can be used most effectively to minister to others.” He also wrote, “Paul viewed ecstatic experiences as a very personal occurrence which were of value to the individual, but not for the church as a whole” (Spiritual Gifts: Empowering the New Testament Church, pp. 93, 211). Paige Patterson, current President of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and former President of the Southern Baptist Convention, agreed and wrote that the “tongues” in practice in Corinth were “the fleshly imitation of the spiritual gift” of Acts 2, which was speaking in a foreign language, not an unknown language (The Troubled Triumphant Church: An Exposition of First Corinthians, p. 245). The 2003 January Bible Study expository notes on 1 Corinthians stated, “If a so-called gift is not ‘for the common good,’ it is either an abuse or an imitation of the real spiritual gift” (Malcolm Yarnell, Helping Your Church Stay on Course, 65).

Further Clarification

The need to address the issue of tongues has been raised from time to time for more than a decade. The policy on glossolalia adopted by the IMB was the result of over two and one-half years of discussion and study. The guidelines used before the adoption of this policy were generated by the staff and though they were not as detailed or restrictive they were used as the foundation for the current policy.

Though some would hold that a private prayer language is a different spiritual gift from tongues, there seems to be no way to separate the two with policy, and such experiences are so varied that it was considered best to let the policy cover both. It is considered best to state the rule and then to provide possible flexibility through an exception statement.

The individual experience of an emotional and ecstatic state in which occurs the uttering of nonsensical syllables is well documented within many religions and cults. That was true in Corinth and in the world today. Paul’s admonitions clearly indicate that that which is from the Holy Spirit is able to be understood, interpreted, and applied to the work of evangelism. Not all of the trustees who voted for this policy are strict cessationists (those who believe the revelation producing gifts ended with the death of the Apostles). Yet, when the practice of something that may or may not be biblical is creating confusion in the ministry then trustees have acted to do what is best for the work. We would not forbid to speak in “languages” in a supernatural fashion (I Cor. 14:39). If such is permitted, then the experience must match all the guidelines in the passage. Thus, we included an exception statement for any possible use that can be clearly understood as being in harmony with Paul’s guidelines, as stated above.

Because of the divisiveness of the practice of tongues, the vast majority of Southern Baptist churches do not endorse speaking in tongues, especially in its ministry leaders. The policy adopted by the IMB trustees in November is in keeping with the practice and expectations of the vast majority of Southern Baptists. This policy was not retroactive to missionaries on the field or to stateside staff. There is included in the policy a provision for exceptions. Such possible exceptions are to be reviewed by the Process Review Committee and staff, and are assumed to be rare.

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