Ripping Pages Right Out of the Bible

Back in the days when the Southern Baptist Convention controversy was raging I was told that it was a “battle for the Bible.”  There were rumors that “liberal” seminary professors were ripping pages right out of the Bible, and otherwise dismissing or ignoring the parts they didn’t care for. 

I was a student at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in those days, a school that was once described to me as “a bastion of liberalism,” but I never saw a professor rip a page from the Bible.  In fact, my experience was just the opposite.  I had never met people who treated the Bible with such reverence, who helped us dig down into its truth as if it really mattered, as if it really could change the world.  Their prayers before each class were humble and holy, thanking God for the high privilege of studying his Word.

But that’s not what Southern Baptists were hearing.  In their imaginations, at least, they were hearing the sound of pages being ripped from the Bible.  And so they came to those annual conventions (by the busloads!) and voted for the conservative candidate for president, who appointed the Committee on Committees, who made sure that the “conservative resurgence” spread to every part of the Southern Baptist Convention.  By 1990 their work was completed—the “Battle for the Bible” had been won.

You might assume, then, that the boards and agencies of the Southern Baptist Convention would be especially careful to honor the clear teaching of Scripture, and to ensure that their policies are consistent with what the Bible says.  But not long ago I learned that one of the guidelines for hiring at the North American Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention has to do with “glossolalia.” 

Glossolalia is a good Greek word.  Literally, it means “tongue speaking,” or “speaking in tongues.”  It comes from the 2nd chapter of Acts, where the believers who were gathered on the Day of Pentecost began to speak “with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance” (vs. 4, KJV).  But it wasn’t only on the Day of Pentecost that believers spoke in other tongues.  Apparently it was a regular feature in the worship of the early church.  Paul said, “I would like every one of you to speak in tongues” (1 Cor. 14:5), and names glossolalia as one of the spiritual gifts in 1 Corinthians 12:10.  But look at what the North American Mission Board says about it:

“Glossolalia:  No person who actively participates in or promotes glossolalia shall be employed by NAMB in an exempt staff position. This includes having a private prayer language. A representative of NAMB shall counsel any exempt staff member who becomes involved in glossolalia. Continued participation will result in termination” (from the “Employment Guidelines” page of the North American Mission Board web site).

I’m not trying to pick a fight with the North American Mission Board, and Paul himself would warn that speaking in tongues can lead to trouble in the church (as he explains in 1 Corinthians 14), but he ends his teaching on the subject by saying, “Do not forbid speaking in tongues” (1 Cor. 14:39), and that’s exactly what the North American Mission Board has done.  I take offense because I’ve spent some time with Pentecostals—dear brothers and sisters in Christ who cherish the spiritual gift of “tongues.”  For them it is an edifying personal prayer language, a way of talking to God without words getting in the way.  And as a boy in West Virginia I was deeply impressed by the fact that God would shower this gift on people who had almost nothing else in the world (cf. Matt. 11:25).  It made me think of him as a God who was surprisingly generous and kind, even if he did show it in a rather strange way.

So it irks me to think that some of the same people who launched the “Battle for the Bible” and denounced those “liberal seminary professors” could so easily dismiss the troublesome parts of Scripture—rip them right out of the Bible, really.  It makes me wonder what they might do with the truly troublesome parts, like the ones about loving your enemies.