This week, the IMB Board of Trustees will receive and consider the report of the Ad Hoc Committees named earlier this year to study the new policies on “private prayer language” and baptism of missionary candidates. I, along with many others, am anxiously and prayerfully awaiting the soon to be announced outcome.
The other day, on Bart Barber’s blog, in a discussion related to this topic, I posed the following question: Why, from the point of view of those who favor the new policy, is the issue of PPL so important as to exclude people who agree on other points of doctrine from missionary service and leadership in the convention? The answer that was given to me (in the words of Bart Barber) was as follows: “I suspect that the IMB has enacted the PPL restrictions as a part of an ongoing effort to protect Baptist missions against Pentecostal/Charismatic encroachment around the world;” and “a rather large, rather diverse board of trustees has enacted this policy. I am not privy to all of their reasons for doing so…We have the trustees' word that these policies were needed. For now and until I have good reason to do otherwise, I believe them.”
It is not my intention to pick on Bart in this post. Actually, I have a great deal of respect for Bart and for his opinions in general. That is not to say that I am convinced of the validity of Bart’s answer to my question here, and I let him know as much in my answer to him on the same post. But I write all of this now rather because it serves as background information for another point I wish to make, which is the inverse of what I asked on Bart’s blog: Why do I think it is so important that we not exclude people who agree on other points of doctrine from missionary service and leadership in the convention, merely because they admit to having a PPL?
Actually, to tell you the truth, I am not all that concerned whether or not my future teammates in the IMB have a PPL or not. If none of my future teammates ever has a PPL, I am perfectly fine with that. What concerns me most of all, as a logical consequence of this new policy, is the possibility that we might evolve into a mission force around the world rife with what I call “a priori skepticism.”
By the term “a priori skepticism,” I am referring to the same thing I called “default-mode skepticism” on the comment string on this other post on Bart Barber’s blog. In order to make a point, I am also holding the position of “a priori skepticism” up alongside that of “a posteriori cessationism,” which is the position Bart defended on an earlier post on his blog, and, from what I understand, in the recent Baptist Conference on the Holy Spirit in Arlington, Texas. The idea behind “a posteriori cessationism,” as I understand it, is that, although God is still able to use people in supernatural ways today like He did in the New Testament, the circumstantial evidence doesn’t seem to authenticate the claims of those who say God is doing so, and, as a result, these claims should not be accepted as legitimate.
What I am calling “a priori skepticism,” however, is a bit different. It is the position that anything that “smacks” of supposed Pentecostal or Charismatic practices, and is often associated (whether mistakenly or not) with the Pentecostal/Charismatic world or with the modern-day practice of the so-called “sign gifts,” is automatically suspect, more than likely fraudulent and/or heretical, and should be rejected on the front end, without the need of further investigation to see if it is legitimate or not.
I want to make very clear here that I am not saying that all those without a PPL are necessarily “a priori skeptics.” Nor, as I understand it, are all “a posteriori cessationists” necessarily “a priori skeptics.” But, in my opinion, the de facto import of the new policy at the IMB, and a natural consequence thereof, is a move towards a general organizational stance of “a priori skepticism.”
I have been in situations, in which it was assumed that I was in agreement with what was being said, in which Pentecostals and Charismatics were made fun of, and claims of supernatural manifestations routinely ridiculed. If you are from a Southern Baptist background, I imagine you have, at one time or another, been in these situations as well. I have even seen this on the mission field among colleagues, in response to what they have observed among national believers and people from other Great Commission Christian groups.
I do not believe personally that everything that purports to be the supernatural working or gifting of the Holy Spirit is necessarily legitimate or authentic. The Word of God clearly states: “For false Christs and false prophets will appear and perform great signs and miracles to deceive even the elect—if that were possible” (Matthew 24:24). Whenever I hear, therefore, of some supposed miracle or supernatural manifestation of the Holy Spirit, I normally seek to hold it up to the light of the following considerations:
- Does the doctrine of the person claiming to perform the miracle or exhibit the supernatural manifestation square with sound biblical teaching? On this point, I do not demand 100% conformity to my own understanding and interpretation. I recognize there are others who may deviate on minor doctrinal issues whose ministry in other areas I do not necessarily reject as a result. But, when the doctrine of someone claiming to do miracles is significantly heretical, I view with corresponding skepticism the spiritual legitimacy of those supernatural manifestations they are claiming as well, whether they be regarded as fraudulent, demonic, or inspired by the “latent power of the soul.”
- Does the lifestyle and moral character of the person claiming to perform the miracle or exhibit the supernatural manifestation meet up to the standards that one might expect from someone making such a claim? On this point, I am not looking for moral perfection. There is none perfect but the Lord. But I am looking for someone who is not a hypocrite, purporting to be something in public that doesn’t square with what they really are in private. I am looking for fruit of the Spirit to correspond with their supposed gifts of the Spirit.
- Does the ministry of the person claiming to perform the miracle or exhibit the supernatural manifestation take advantage of innocent people in order to exercise some sort of psychological power over their lives, or for dishonest financial gain? It causes me great sorrow to see innocent people taken advantage of through the practice of so-called “faith ministries” or “prosperity gospel” hucksters. Our Lord had no qualms in driving the money-changers out of the temple, and I believe some of His harshest judgment and eventual eternal condemnation is reserved for those who make merchandise of the gifts of the Holy Spirit.
- Does the ministry of the person claiming to perform the miracle or exhibit the supernatural manifestation tend towards the manipulation of gullible, easily-led people? I have been in meetings where the atmosphere was so emotionally charged and laden with human manipulation that I have compared it to Elijah, in his contest with the prophets of Baal, dowsing the altar with gasoline instead of with water. If God wants to work miracles and show His mighty power in an awe-inspiring way, He doesn’t need our help in setting the stage beforehand, working the audience into an emotional frenzy, in order for Him to do what He chooses to do in the way He chooses to do it.
However, whenever I find no convincing reason to conclude that the supposed miracle or claim of a supernatural manifestation fails the test on any of the above accounts, my first response is to accept as legitimate the testimony of the one who makes the claim, praising God for His mighty deeds in the lives of men. I make as my goal, in regards to claims of the supernatural, to be as much as possible like the Bereans, who “received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true” (Acts 17:11). It is not enough, however, just to “examine the Scriptures” to see if what people are saying is true, if you do so out of an attitude of “a priori skepticism.” A balanced view, as I understand it, is one of both openness and expectation in regard to the supernatural work of the Holy Spirit, coupled with caution and discernment in order to confirm that what is going on is truly in conformance to the revelation of God’s will in Scripture.
As I have heard reports of miracles and supernatural manifestations, I have sought to evaluate them in light of these considerations. Some of them, to the best of my ability to discern, have not passed the test. However, others, in the light of my admittedly limited skills of observation and spiritual discernment, have not failed the test.
Actually, from my perspective, many of the most effective and godly spiritual workers I have observed on the mission field, among both national believers and foreign missionaries, as well as among Baptists and those of other denominations, have been those who would admit to having a “private prayer language,” and/or to being used of God through other supernatural workings of the Holy Spirit. In those places around the world in which spiritual revival is taking place, multitudes are coming to Christ, and church planting movements are sprouting forth, the norm, from what I understand, are frequent reports of supernatural manifestations and the free-flowing operation of the gifts of the Holy Spirit.
I do not believe this gives us warrant to let down our guard in regard to evaluating and discerning spiritual manifestations on the basis of considerations like those I reference above. I believe it is God’s will that we “no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming” (Ephesians 4:14). At the same time, though, I believe we must enter into the
I am concerned that the natural tendency of a missionary force that has been intentionally “weeded” of those with a “private prayer language” may well be one of “a priori skepticism.” I am also concerned about a corresponding backlash of distancing ourselves as Southern Baptists from other believers and movements of God around the world in which He is manifesting Himself through signs and wonders, and supernatural manifestations of the Holy Spirit.
Jesus did not do many miracles in His hometown of