BANFF, Alberta, Canada (ABP) — Acknowledging he has practiced a private prayer language “for more than 30 years,” Jerry Rankin candidly shared his views Feb. 17 about the Southern Baptist International Mission Board trustees' recent action on the issue.
Rankin, president of the IMB since 1993, addressed the topic during a question-and-answer session with Baptist editors meeting in Banff, Alberta, Canada, for the 2006 Association of State Baptist Papers annual meeting.
“I do have a private prayer language,” Rankin told the editors. However, “I don't consider myself to have a gift of tongues. I've never been led to practice glossolalia publicly.
“I've never viewed personally my intimacy with the Lord and the way His Spirit guides me in prayer time as being the same as glossolalia,” he added. “I just want God to have freedom to do everything that He wants to do in my life and I'm going to be obedient to that.”
The issue of a private prayer language, generally considered a form of glossolalia or speaking in tongues, came to a head in November when IMB trustees adopted a policy banning the future appointment of missionaries who practice a private prayer language. IMB policy already excludes people who speak in tongues in public worship from serving as missionaries.
Although the new policy specifies it is not retroactive, some trustees expressed concern that the action is a slap at Rankin's leadership. He confirmed prior to his 1993 election that his private prayer life included occasional experiences of “praying in the Spirit.”
Rankin said the board action “did create suspicion” among some of his supporters “because of an awareness of my personal practices.”
One of his concerns, Rankin added, is that “it was so difficult to identify any compelling reason” for trustees to adopt the policy.
“Certainly biblically it goes beyond the doctrinal parameters of the Baptist Faith and Message,” he emphasized. “I can't remember in my tenure when the board pushed forward to actually adopt something that was as divisive and controversial in terms of ‘why do we need to do this?'
“It does go beyond what Southern Baptists have defined in our confession of faith which should be our doctrinal guidelines,” he added. “It does alienate and offend a large segment of our churches.”
Despite his concerns, Rankin said his responsibility is “to lead the organization, stay focused on the vision and keep us moving forward in that context.”
“I understand and accept the rationale and the arguments and the authority of those who implemented it,” he told the editors. “To me, it's no violation of my integrity and my responsibility to be accountable to them to implement it.
“I would never compromise or violate personal integrity and convictions,” he insisted.
“But every leader sometimes has to do things that they wouldn't necessarily prefer to do or even be in agreement with. There's an accountability to implementing the policies of our board and carrying them out and I'm going to do that to enable us to fulfill our mission task.”
Detailing his personal views on the issue, Rankin said, “I'm certainly not a cessationist” (someone who believes certain spiritual gifts recorded in Scripture, such as speaking in tongues, no longer function).
“I believe … as long as the Holy Spirit is operable in our lives and in the church and in the world, what the Bible tells about the work and functioning of the Holy Spirit is applicable,” he noted. “Now that may change historically, but I certainly don't think we have the latitude to just disregard it.
“I just don't see how you can be an inerrantist and be a cessationist,” Rankin said. But he acknowledged others hold the view that someone can't be an inerrantist without being a cessationist.
Insisting that “I don't consider myself a charismatic,” Rankin said his private prayer language remains just that — private.
“No one's ever heard me pray in anything other than English so I think it is still very private and it will remain so,” he said, “but it's nothing to deny.
“I've been very open with the board” about his personal prayer life, Rankin added. “I don't advocate it. I don't see it as normal or that I should propose that anyone ought to pray in tongues. It's just what God has chosen to do in my life.”
Concerning the trustees' November action, Rankin said the board's personnel committee initially adopted a guideline that “was drafted in a way there wasn't really any wiggle room. It was pretty explicit — anyone who had a private prayer language, practiced it, was disqualified from serving” as a future IMB missionary.
“I did insist it come before the full board because I think you have to be very circumspect in your processes,” he explained. “It was at my insistence that the full board act on it rather than it just being a committee that puts this in place. … It just needed to be affirmed, voted up or down, by the full board.”
Describing debate over the recent trustee action as “divisive” and “controversial,” Rankin added, “I don't think it's a dead issue. I think there's a lot of reaction … that's been generated across the convention to revisit it.”
However, “I'm not confident it will be reversed,” he said. “As much as there's been reaction against it, there's been a lot of support for it as well. I think even controversy strengthens the resolve of our board to kind of justify or defend what they've done.”
Looking ahead, Rankin said the IMB's assignment “to assist the churches in sending forth missionaries to plant churches overseas” can't be fully achieved if IMB leaders “say we're going to only assist certain churches or an element of our convention.”
“If they're cooperating members of the Southern Baptist Convention,” Rankin said, “we have an opportunity to serve them.”