After a bit of a break from our consideration of Grudem’s article Why, When, and For What Should We Draw New Boundaries?, we now come to the third point under the last section on For What Doctrinal and Ethical Matters Should Christian Organizations Draw New Boundaries? Up to now, I have been talking about various doctrinal issues being debated in Southern Baptist life in our discussion of Grudem. But, in this post, I will limit discussion to the issue of “private prayer language.” Perhaps there will be opportunity to discuss other issues as they relate to Grudem’s point here at a later time.
3. EFFECT ON PERSONAL AND CHURCH LIFE: Will this false teaching bring significant harm to people’s Christian lives, or to the work of the church?
If indeed PPL were a “false teaching,” I think you would be hard-pressed to demonstrate that either allowing it or practicing it brings “significant harm to people’s Christian lives, or to the work of the church.” My personal experience has been just the opposite. In general, where PPL is freely allowed and practiced, the church seems to be experiencing vibrant growth and spiritual vitality. Indeed, the most significant numerical growth in the evangelical movement around the world has unquestionably been in the Pentecostal and Charismatic sector.
Some may argue that an openness to PPL tends to go along with an openness to unhealthy spiritual extremes. While I would agree that many who advocate and practice certain forms of extreme doctrine also happen to be advocates of PPL, to lump everyone together is, in my opinion, unfair “guilt by association.” There are plenty of extremists associated with any number of doctrines and practices accepted pretty much across the board as being within the bounds of orthodoxy. A belief in a holy lifestyle, for instance, does not necessarily make you a legalist. Though the majority of legalists would give at least lip-service to the importance of a holy lifestyle.
Others may want to point out the moral failures of several high profile leaders who are known advocates of PPL. Honesty, however, obligates us to admit that moral failure does not seem to play favorites among those of different doctrinal persuasions. My personal observation has been that the presence of both moral shortcomings and moral excellence is pretty much evenly apportioned between advocates of PPL and those who do not advocate PPL.
Others would point towards the high degree of church division that has often been associated with the presence of charismatic practices. A very interesting answer to this line of thinking comes from D.A. Carson, in his excellent book Showing the Spirit: A Theological Exposition of 1 Corinthians 12-14. In general,
For many young clergy from noncharismatic traditions, one of their first major crises will develop when some strong voices in the church call for freedom to speak in tongues in public services, or start to proselytize members in home Bible studies. Precisely this situation has generated the polarizations that have split countless churches. What should be done?
In some instances, of course, the split may be unavoidable. But as I faced precisely this situation, in a fairly mild form, when I was in pastoral ministry sixteen years ago, perhaps I can pass on some lessons I learned at that time.
Our church was divided between a few procharismatics and several anticharismatics, with the majority fairly confused between the two, and asking for leadership. Neither of the extremes was virulent, but it was obvious the situation could have rapidly degenerated. I asked for prayer and time: prayer to hold us together and do what was right, and time to survey in weekly meetings what the Bible had to say about the Holy Spirit. I asked for six months, and the last two months or so of that Wednesday night series were devoted to much the same sort of material here put together in more sophisticated fashion. I have changed my mind on a number of minor points since then, and on several issues where I was less clear about what the Scripture said, I acknowledged my confusion and ignorance and tried to convey what I thought was being said, while still surveying other interpretative options.
Toward the end of the series, I tried to summarize what I judged to be true points that fair, biblical exegesis could affirm with confidence. The first and most important of these was that tongues cannot possibly serve as a criterion of anything; the second was that I could not find any unequivocal criterion for ruling out all contemporary tongues-speaking, even though I thought much of what I had seen was suspect or was manifested outside the stipulations Paul had laid down. I think everyone in the church came to accept these two points, and as a result, 80 percent of our problem was solved. So much of the divisiveness of tongues-speaking turns very little on the tongues phenomenon itself, but on what it allegedly attests. It so easily promotes pride in those who think that it confirms they have a measure of the Spirit not enjoyed by others; and for the same reason it evokes resentment, jealousy, and defensiveness among many noncharismatics who feel they are being relegated to second-class status in the church. Moreover, because we did not conclude that all contemporary tongues must automatically be dismissed as illegitimate, the few who were practicing tongues in private did not feel threatened or begin to hurl accusations that the leadership did not really believe the Bible and was not open to the Spirit.
We then took two more steps. The first was to invite anyone who had attended the series of addresses to testify as to his or her experience on these matters, and to seek to evaluate that experience on the basis of what had been learned from the series. This proved fascinating. In the mercy of God, enough trust had been established to allow us to listen to remarkably diverse points of view, and without rancor. A few testified how they felt they had been helped by their gift of tongues, but were quite willing to admit that they had unwittingly elevated it to the level of criterion, a step they were prepared to abandon. One person, a highly respected deacon, told of his own experiences in the charismatic movement, and how he had left it because he had come to think that its claims were commonly false. Another deacon who, I knew, had been converted in Pentecostal circles, at first said nothing. I did not know what he would say, but I elicited from him his own testimony, not wanting anything to be bottled up. He cheerfully acknowledged, with gratitude to God, the context of his conversion as a young patrolman in the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. In the long watches of the night, when he sat in his car by the hour in a fairly remote part of the Rocky Mountains, he used some of his time praying in tongues, and he felt that the experience had made him profoundly aware of God’s presence and had helped to ground is fledgling faith. I asked him if he still, twenty years later, spoke in tongues, and he replied, “No, I don’t.” I asked him why not; and he answered, with innocent candor, “I guess it’s because I don’t need it now. I think that was for when I was a baby Christian.”
That judgment, of course, needed to be assessed against the testimony of Paul, who, certainly no baby Christian, could testify that he spoke in tongues more than any of the Corinthians. But the direction of the discussion, including the witness of that police officer, was profoundly right in another sense; without suggesting that all experiences of tongues-speaking are spurious, the general effect was to downplay the importance of the phenomenon. That is surely in line with one of Paul’s aims in 1 Corinthians 12-14, and the effect in our church was to draw the sting out of further discussion.
I took one more step. I asked for another week to survey New Testament teaching on church discipline before offering any recommendation; and the congregation kindly agreed. At that last Wednesday evening, I tried to outline the three areas that could lead to the supreme sanction, excommunication: flagrantly immoral life, major doctrinal aberration, and a loveless, fundamentally divisive spirit. It was the last one, of course, that was so important in our context: “Warn a divisive person once, and then warn him a second time. After that, have nothing to do with him” (Titus ). This strong response is a reflection of the New Testament’s profound commitment to the unity of the church. The question, then, was this: In the light of what we had learned of tongues and related gifts in the New Testament, and in the light of the emphasis on loving unity in the body, what stance should we as a church adopt?
The conclusion was that we would not foster tongues-speaking in public meetings, but we would not oppose them if they occurred, provided they fell within the Pauline stipulations. However, those who felt they had the gift were encouraged to practice it in private, rather than in the public assembly where those who were still suspicious of all instances of the phenomenon would have been more than a little uncomfortable. We also agreed in the strongest terms that is a charismatic began to use his or her gift to proselytize, or if a noncharismatic began to agitate to squeeze the charismatics out, action would immediately be taken by the church leaders to warn against the divisiveness bound up with such conduct.
In the Lord’s mercy, we did not lose anyone, and in six months, the issue was dead. In retrospect, it is clearer to me now than it was then that many things could have gone much worse than they did, if we had not enjoyed the mix of people who were there. Doubtless in a slightly different mix, or in a different ecclesiastical tradition, exactly the same sorts of arguments might have led to occasional use of tongues in public assembly. But of the thrust of the steps taken, and of the relative valuation of church unity and the place of tongues-speaking, I would not change one iota if placed in a similar situation today.
In short, the church must hunger for personal and corporate submission to the lordship of Christ. We must desire to know more of God’s presence in our lives, and pray for a display of unleashed, reforming, revivifying power among us, dreading all steps that aim to domesticate God. But such power and hunger must always be tempered with joyful submission to the constraints of biblical discipline.
*D.A. Carson, Showing the Spirit: A Theological Exposition of 1 Corinthians 12-14, Baker Books, 1987, pp. 185-88.