SBC Restriction on Tongues: Hypocrisy?

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Adrian Warnock has a post about the Southern Baptist Convention's recent decision not to hire any missionaries who practice speaking in tongues and to require current missionaries to refrain from doing so in public. This decision seems to be getting a lot of bad press, and I think the reasons for criticism are almost all faulty. I don't agree with the details of their decision, but I think the charges of hypocrisy, inconsistency, and disobedience to the scriptures are false charges.

First is the charge of disobedience to a direct command in I Corinthians 14:40. "Do not forbid speaking in tongues" (ESV). If the SBC has told their missionaries not to speak in tongues, doesn't that amount to forbidding speaking in tongues? It does seem as if it violates a direct scriptural mandate. However, if cessationists have the correct hermeneutic, then not following the command not to forbid tongues is like most evangelicals' not following the command that women wear head coverings and like everyone's not following Paul's command to Timothy to bring him his cloak. Given cessationism, it's simply wrong to expect this command to apply today, and thus what the SBC did is not a deliberate violation of scripture. I'm no cessationist, but the SBC is. Challenge their cessationist view, but don't pretend they're deliberately violating scripture unless you can show that they see this command as applicable today. As far as I've ever known, their hermeneutic doesn't take it to apply today. Maybe theiur hermeneutic is wrong, but charging them with disobeying a direct command doesn't, in their interpretive system, making any more sense than complaining that you're not sacrificing goats or calves, which violates numerous direct commands in Leviticus.

The second charge is hypocrisy. I'm not sure at all that this is hypocrisy, even leaving aside the issue of disobeying scripture. Hypocrisy means preaching something and not doing it yourself. Is there anything like that here? I don't see it, but perhaps those who think they see it can put something together in exactly that form if they think this is hypocrisy. I see no statement of what the SBC is saying to do that they aren't doing, and I see no statement of what the SBC says not to do that they are doing. It doesn't seem to be hypocrisy, then.

Maybe these critics mean it's an inconsistency. That's a very different charge. Hypocrisy charges get thrown around all the time nowadays, and I think it's a terrible moral error to call something hypocrisy when it's not. Hypocrisy is a great sin. Simple moral failings that one acknowledges as errors and repents of are not hypocrisy. Repeated sin in an area where one does not repent but constantly tells others to do so is hypocrisy. Simple intellectual inconsistency is also not hypocrisy. In a world without clear moral standards, hyocrisy becomes the favorite charge of those who don't want to see something wrong in itself but wants to paint those with such standards as bad. It may be the only charge left to make by someone who doesn't believe in objective morality. But intellectual inconsistency is not hypocrisy. It's not preaching one thing and consistently and unrepentantly doing another. It's simply holding two inconsistent views. But this isn't even holding two inconsistent views.

Practical inconsistency is also not hypocrisy. This is probably the closest of all of these to what the SBC has done, but I don't think this is practical inconsistency. This is supposed to be a double standard, i.e. treating two groups of people differently. Technically speaking, two groups are treated differently, but it's not a double standard unless you can't come up with a moral justification for rightly treating those two groups differently. If there's a justification for differing treatment, then it's not a double standard. It's a single standard, and one group meets it while the other doesn't.

They're cessationists. They believe those who claim to have the gifts of tongues do not. That means they believe tongues-speakers are either deceptive or unintentionaly mislead people to think that they're using a spiritual gift. Whether they are correct is not the issue. This is about consistency, not correctness, given the particular charges I'm seeing in Adrian's post and his comments (I haven't looked at the posts he links to). So they're preventing people from doing what they see as masquerading as manifesting the Holy Spirit through tongues. So they've banned their missionaries from doing it. So far so good, given their assumptions.

Now the claim is that it's inconsistent to allow those who already their missionaries to continue practicing this gift (which they don't see as a gift) privately, due to their not knowing about this rule when they signed on. I don't see how this is inconsistent. You have two moral principles at work. One is that they don't want their missionaries doing something that's at least view as questionable (and they officially question), so they've banned the public practice of it among all their missionaries. The other principle is that they don't want to hold their current employees (who have made commitments to them) to standards that they're just starting now, even though some of them have been working for them for decades and never had a chance to sign up voluntarily knowing these restrictions. So they're giving a concession to those already working for them that they continue the practice privately. Given that Southern Baptists aren't likely to be speaking in tongues publicly anyway, this should minimize the negative effects related to the second consideration. If these are two important but not absolute principles, then both ought to be accounted for somehow, and that's what they've done. So there's no inconsistency.

Now some in the comments are giving a different argument. They're saying the "don't ask, don't tell" nature of this policy is immoral and oppressive. I simply can't see that. Campus Crusade for Christ has exactly that policy, and it seems to me to be exactly the policy that group morally ought to have. Their reason for the policy is that they are an interdenominational group. The leadership of the group includes people who believe that the gift of tongues is genuine, and they don't want to forbid tongues because Paul says not to. But others within the group, because it is interdenominational, are cessationists. They believe they are following Romans 14-15 by instituting a policy that will minimize offense to cessationists over an issue that tends to divide, for the sake of building the body. This is an entirely Pauline concern. A "don't ask, don't tell" policy is exactly what Paul institutes among other divisive issues in that passage and in I Cor 8-10 (though there it's not about offense but about encouraging those with higher standards from violating those standards, which isn't an issue for this case).

Now the SBC isn't interdenominational, but it's clear given that they felt a need to issue this policy that there's diversity among their ranks, and the same issues must be arising. They're trying to follow Paul's strategy for dealing with such situations. I disagree with not taking missionaries who won't voluntarily abstain (as I do with Campus Crusade's policy about student missionaries wanting people to voluntarily abstain for their brief tenure as a missionary, which I find odd given their normal view for full-time staff). But that is not forbidding tongues. It's asking people who want to do a special service for a specific time to abstain during that time. It's asking a voluntary choice of those who want to work for them. It's not forbidding it, because someone unwilling to surrender such "rights" need not be a missionary with them. Paul voluntarily surrendered a number of things that he thought he had a right to do but wouldn't do for the sake of ministry, including receiving compensation from the church he was ministering to, taking a (or perhaps another) wife, and following or not following the details of the Hebrew Torah. The SBC is asking their missionaries to do the same sort of thing. Even if I disagree with the exact nature of how they've done it, the general sort of stance they're taking here seems to be for the right reasons, and I don't think the hypocrisy or inconsistency charges will stand.

9 Comments

From my perspective, one of the chief goals of a missionary is to plant a church. A charismatic would presumably want to plant a charismatic church, and a cessationist a cessationist church. Thus I think it is reasonable that a denomination would expect their missionaries to have a desire to plant churches that reflect the values of that denomination, particularly if they are providing financial support.

There might be some tongues-speakers serving as missionaries, who feel such a strong tie to SBC that they are willing to downplay their views on the matter and just use the gift privately (i.e. promising not to "rock the boat"). This is essentially the request many "open but cautious" churches make of their charismatic members. And if they are happy to do this, then it shows an admirable commitment to unity.

In Acts 15:39 Paul and Barnabas had to split up due to a severe difference of opinion, and God actually was able to use both of them in their separate ways. If SBC insist on cessationism, and potential missionaries insist on tongues speaking, then it is hard so see how it is in either of their interests to work closely together.

I have a cessationist friend who was offered financial support to go as a missionary by a charismatic group of churches. He turned the offer down, as he felt in good conscience that he could not plant a church that he did not want to be part of the sending denomination.

Paul himself tells those who speak in tongues to keep quiet unless they have an interpreter; so if the SBC thinks there are no interpreters of tongues, it's entirely reasonable for them to tell people to keep any purported speaking in tongues private. Also, if they see the point of missions work as instruction, then even if they conceded that there are tongues, it could still be reasonable for them not to hire new missionaries who do, because it could call into question whether the speaker in tongues has the right spiritual gift for that particular work (since Paul is clear that the gift of tongues does not instruct); whereas those missionaries in the field have (one presumes) already shown that they have some gift for instruction of others.

Brandon, I'm having trouble with your second argument. Doesn't it assume that no one could have both the gift of tongues and teaching gifts? Why would anyone assume that, especially because Paul had both?

I have responded to your critique of my post over on my blog. Good to be interacting with you again!

Jeremy, I don't think the argument necessarily assumes that (although someone who did would accept it more easily); rather, what it does is raise the question of whether those alleged to have the gifts of tongues (whatever their other gifts) are called by the Spirit to actual mission-work, rather than some other role in the church. If, for instance, the idea is that the gift of tongues is not edifying for mission-work, then it's reasonable to think that even those who have other gifts are probably called to do something else, or else are called to exercise the gift entirely in private. (Since the Spirit would presumably not be distributing gifts useless for people's real vocations.)

So are you saying that someone with the gift of teaching should never spend a period of time not teaching or that someone with the gift of administration should never take a short-term missions opportunity that wouldn't take advantage of their administrative skills? I don't understand why the mere having of a gift requires one to have a position in which one is using that gift for that job.

My point is that in determining how they are going to support missions, the SBC will effectively be deciding how they will determine what's a plausible sort of profile for good missions-work. It's not a point about whether people with tongues can teach; its an argument about whether people with tongues, assuming that they really do have the gift, are (from the perspective of the SBC) better situated in the Southern Baptist missions field or elsewhere. This is, I suggest, an entirely reasonable question to ask, and someone could argue that any purported gift of tongues, if it is really a gift of tongues, is something that will probably not be adequately put to public use in the sort of missions-work the SBC wants to support, and might potentially interfere with it. This doesn't mean that there wouldn't be another type of situation outside of this missions-work that would allow for someone with gifts both for teaching and for tongues; all it means is that, even if the SBC concedes as a possibility that there might be genuine gifts of tongue, they can doubt whether missions of the sort the SBC wants to support are the best place for someone who has such a gift.

In other words, the argument doesn't imply anything (directly) about the use of gifts; it just points out that the conclusion - that people with a certain sort of gift, who think they need to use it a certain way, are called to something different from the type of activity the SBC thinks should be the focus of missions-work - can be an entirely reasonable basis for a missions policy. Since all we're talking about is the grounds for a policy, there need be no commitment to this conclusion as certainly true (it can just establish a probable, and at least potentially defeasible, presumption), and there need be no commitment to its being universally applicable. In fact, there's no good sense in demanding that the SBC make policy only on principles that are certain and exceptionless. (I think this demand is implicit in a lot of the criticisms.) All it needs are practical principles; e.g., they can say, "We've allowed people who claim to have the gift of tongues to do missions before. Sometimes it has worked out well, which is why we aren't making a big deal about those already in the field, as long as they are keeping it private. But on further reflection we suspect that the gift of tongues doesn't generally mix well enough with the sort of fieldwork we like to support, so having such people in the missions field is not usually the best thing for them or for us. Thus our new policy."

In other words, while I think you are right about Southern Baptist cessationism, I don't think the SBC needs even to take a strong line on that -- it's a matter of practical policy, so they only need a reason to think the new policy is better for their practical purposes than the old policy. They don't need a theoretical justification of the policy itself; all they need is for the policy to be an improvement in light of the relevant practical ends.

The underlying truth is this people want to plant churches that are lead by men and not by the Spirit.

When someone has a faulty interpretation of scripture, an inconsistent view, or a bad policy in terms of its practical effects, it's worth saying so and trying to get them to change their view, policy, or interpretation. It's quite another matter to accuse someone that the bad policy, faulty interpretation, or inconsistent belief comes from an evil motivation when you have no evidence for such a motivation. I have no doubt in my mind that the leadership of the SBC seeks to be led by the Spirit, and I have no doubt that they want congregations they're planting to be led by Spirit-led people.

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