Southern Baptists lift ban on missionaries speaking in tongues

Worshippers at Singapore's City Harvest Church, one of the many megachurches where speaking in tongues is practised.Reuters

The Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) has signalled an end to years of hostility towards the practice of speaking in tongues in new guidelines for missionary candidates.

The SBC's International Mission Board (IMB) has introduced standard qualifications for its missionaries, replacing different criteria for different "pathways" of service.

Among other changes, the IMB has also relaxed its rules on baptism. Previously, missionary candidates who transferred from another denomination must have been baptised by a Southern Baptist minister; but that will no longer be the case. In another shift, divorced people – who have previously been accepted for short-term assignments – will no longer be automatically disqualified from long-term missionary service.

The lifting of the prohibition on speaking in tongues represents a reversal of a policy agreed 10 years ago. A question on the IMB application form asked whether a candidate used a "private prayer language" and an affirmative answer meant automatic disqualification. While the question remains, the IMB says that a candidate could still be accepted.

The shift marks both an acknowledgment that speaking in tongues is widely accepted and practised in Southern Baptist churches and an accommodation with the huge growth of evangelicalism in Latin America, Asia and Africa, where it is accepted as normal.

However, in a Baptist Press article about the changes, IMB president David Platt said that "replacing the policy that addresses tongues and private prayer language does not mean that the issue of tongues is unimportant to IMB work around the world" and stressed that missionaries who placed "persistent emphasis on any specific gift of the Spirit as normative for all or to the extent such emphasis becomes disruptive" could be fired.

He also said that the policy shift did not mean that standards were being lowered: "One might imagine a man or woman with multiple divorces who is also engaged in harmful charismatic practices and wonder if this policy revision now opens the possibility for that person to serve as an IMB missionary. But this is most definitely not what this policy means."

Platt said that the changes would align IMB policy more closely with the SBC's Baptist Faith and Message doctrinal statement and would enable more SBC members to serve on the mission field.