Thursday, March 01, 2007

Baptist History, Identity, and Charismatic Gifts

In response to an article in the Florida Baptist Witness, I wrote a letter to the editor which he declined to publish saying that, despite my deep Southern Baptist and Florida Baptist roots, seminary education and pastoral experience, it would be inappropriate since I was "not now a Southern Baptist." I thought I would post it here and invite any comments. (BTW, the Background Info below was for the editor's benefit, not for publication.)

20 Feb 2007

Dear Editor,

I’m compelled to write regarding your recent article on Baptist identity and charismatic gifts today. ("Is charismatic theology historically Baptist? The current debate in SBC life concerning ‘private prayer language’ may hinge on whose Baptist history is correct.") I do not believe your question can be satisfactorily answered by an appeal to Baptist history. The beliefs and practices of yesterday’s Baptists should not be determinative of Baptist identity today -- understood and appreciated, yes, but not determinative. Here's why...

Baptists have sporadically experienced revivals and movements of the Spirit, no doubt, but we have not, until modern times, seriously interacted with biblical scholarship on this issue. So, with a nod to Baptist history and historical theology, I believe it's more important to do theology for today. Every generation must understand and apply the Scriptures to its own context. And if our Baptist identity is affected, so be it. We must remain people of the Book, even if today's interpretations challenge yesterday’s identity.

I do not equate private prayer language with Spirit-fulness but I do believe it is a valid gift and sign. Other New Testament gifts and signs are just as valid and even more needed today for ministry today (teaching, prophecy, discernment, healing, casting out demons, etc.) I speak as one serving as a missionary pastor in Malaysia.

Maybe these are the last days in which God is pouring out His Spirit on all flesh, giving dreams and prophecies and other renewed gifts to men and women. I don't want to be one who says, "But we've never allowed that manifestation of the Spirit before!"

I dream of more "Word and power" churches in the SBC. We need a fresh wind of the Spirit blowing through all His churches, including and especially Southern Baptist ones.

Sincerely in Christ,
Todd Nelson

Background Information:
  • Tampa native; former youth pastor at Tampa Baptist Church (1981-83)
  • Former Univ. of Fla. Baptist Campus Ministry summer missionary to Miami Beach
  • Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary MDiv (1986) and PhD (1994)
  • Founding pastor of an international church in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia


Sivin Kit said...

"I wrote a letter to the editor which he declined to publish saying that, despite my deep Southern Baptist and Florida Baptist roots, seminary education and pastoral experience, it would be inappropriate since I was "not now a Southern Baptist.""

The above statement itself ... has much for us to digest. As far as I'm concern, it should have been published. It's moments like these when I say .. thank God for blogging.

And I hope to link you soon ... but after this busy weekend. BTW, need to confirm you for dinner.

Todd Nelson said...

Hey Sivin,

Yes, I replied to the editor and expressed my sadness at his reason for rejecting my letter. I didn't tell him this, but it seems typical of the "us/them" and "in/out" mindset of many religious people, especially conservative Christians--of which I am one and of which I am guilty sometimes, too. :-)

BTW, this week I read Brian's A Generous Orthodoxy--from the Forewords to Ch. 6 and from Ch. 17 to the Epilogue. (I heard that the "juicy" bits begin in Ch. 17! :-)

I commented on another blog about how his approach to evangelism and theology intrigues, inspires, and troubles me, all at the same time.

I've had his first book, Redesigning Your Church (the original edition), for some time, and I'm giving it more interested look now.

So I hope I can listen and converse intelligently this weekend with you guys and gals. Thanks for the privileged invitation to dinner Monday night. I'm happy and available to attend. See you Saturday.

The Lord's peace be upon you in the midst of the stress of the event! Thanks for organizing it.

terry said...

I have two questions...

Is the editor's statement that you are "not now a Southern Baptist" accurate?

And if you " not equate private prayer language with Spirit-fulness but I do believe it is a valid gift and sign...", what exactly is it a sign of?

Todd Nelson said...


Mmm, how does one determine spiritual/denominational identity? Based only on current membership in a local church? What about past affiliation and future plans? Do they count?

I still consider myself a Baptist, but I am not currently a member of a Southern Baptist church in America like I was for 30 years (since age 9) before coming to Malaysia -- and like my ancestors were dating back to around 1800 before the SBC was formed. (BTW, there are no Southern Baptist churches in Malaysia; but there are Malaysian Baptist ones.)

After being turned away by an FMB candidate consultant in 1994, my wife and I served another SBC church for four years, then accepted an invitation to come to Malaysia by a former FMB/IMB missionary to Singapore.

We are supported by four SBC churches in our mission here. And one day, Lord willing, it is likely that we will go back to an SBC church in the States.

The church we started here is an international multi-denominational evangelical church that reaches out to Malaysians and expatriates. You could say "baptistic" in theology and practice, but not Baptist exclusively.

So, how do you think I should answer your first question now? Does a simple "yes" or "no" suffice?

And I would ask you, Terry, do you think my letter should have been rejected based on my being presently "out" instead of "in"?

To answer your second question, the gift of tongues can be a sign of being filled with the Spirit just like it was in Acts. As Gordon Fee says, it's normal but not normative. In other words, it's not the only sign. Bold preaching and praising can be signs as well. In fact, I believe any spiritual gift used under the power and direction of the Holy Spirit may be a sign of His filling.

What do you think, Terry? How do you interpret the Scriptures on this subject?


Heath Powers said...

When I look for charismatic roots for Southern Baptists, I look no further than the oft-quoted desire of Baptists to be a "New Testament Church." Certainly we cannot become all God wants us to be if we remain what we are. Sorry they didn't accept your comments. Just know that I am a SBC pastor, and I figure your are as Southern Baptist as I am. Heath

Todd Nelson said...

Hi Heath,

Thanks for the affirmation. :-) I agree wholeheartedly about being a NT church and being all that the Lord wants us to be. If that is what we all pursue, how can we keep defending the status quo? (or "what Baptists have always believed or observed"?--as if we have been uniform in faith or practice.)

What got me interested in the gifts and power of the Spirit years ago was wanting to be closer to the church we read about in Acts. I looked around me and within me at the dryness and powerlessness of our experience and concluded, "This is not the way it was or the way it should be today." And I began a pursuit of truth AND experience, Word AND Spirit.

If my current beliefs and practices are not shared by the majority of Southern Baptists, then so be it; I'm still willing to cooperate. And there are other Baptists and other believers to work together with, as well. Not to mention our partnership with the Spirit of Jesus to guide us!

Blessings on you, brother, as you lead and serve your church,

terry said...

Wow, so many good points in your post and everyone's comments, that I will have to limit the ones to address.

Regarding the editor's refusal to publish your letter because you are not presently a card-carrying SB, I have to say he was within his rights to do so. It is a Baptist (SB?) newsletter; penned for and by Baptists, and one can therefore argue that only Baptists should be allowed to contribute.

Ah, but you used the verb *should*, and there I have to admit - he *should* have published your letter on its own merits. It seems he decided that you made good points that disagreed with his, so he chose to suppress them based on your church affiliation, rather than try to discuss them. Sad, really sad.

You certainly have a Baptist pedigree, but the question remains - do your doctrines line up with "orthodox Baptist theology" (which of course, is difficult to define)? Can it fit into the mainstream SB mindset?

I think one way to look at it is to determine whether theologically, it would be more accurate to call you an (orthodox) Charismatic.

Let's take the "Charismatic theology" (equally difficult to detail). If you strip out all the "charismatism" in it, what are you left with? Baptist theology? If so, then I would conclude that you are best defined as Charismatic, not SB.

It is similar to examining the group that calls themselves "Jews For Jesus". If you have accepted Jesus Christ as your personal savior, can you still call yourself a Jew? Well, bloodline-wise maybe, but not theologically.

I think the early church wrestled with this issue. They were all born-&-raised Jews, but it became clear quite quickly that trying to remain Jewish (or "trying to take the Jewish religion to the next logical step") was going to be impossible. So in less than a generation, they came to view themselves as Christians, not (enlightened) Jews. Okay, Peter was a little slow to grasp this, but the rest did.

I think somewhere down the road (probably not until you return to the USA), you will have to address this in your own life and calling as a preacher of the Word. It will be interesting to see what you decide.

Todd Nelson said...


Frankly, I don't always feel completely comfortable in either the Baptist or charismatic "camps". And I feel even less comfortable being told that I must choose one or the other. That has happened before! :-)

As far as SBC identity goes, I suppose it's good that if in the future a local SB church wants me and calls me as pastor, I would automatically regain my Baptist identity. But would Baptist journalists or denom. execs then be more inclined to listen to someone who disagrees on theology? Not sure about that. :-(


terry said...

I don't think an interest in Spiritual Gifts precludes one from serving in the SB church. After all, there is a charismatic movement within Roman Catholicism, and I don't think anyone would describe the RC church itself as "charismatic".

I think the opposition to McKissic lies in his attempt to effect an "amendment to the SBC statement of faith". It's one thing to explore a given portion of scripture; its quite another to try to re-define the core beliefs of a denomination.

The fact remains that SB is not historically a charismatic denomination. And despite what the charismatics want you to believe, there are lots of folks who grow tired of tongues, interpretations, prophecies, and swooning taking precedence over things like love, faith, charity, hope, and truth. When such people decide to leave the Pentecostal movement, it is nice to be able to "depend upon" historical theology when looking for a new church. That was true for my wife and I. We found a nice SB church here in Arizona to attend; and for the record, the pastor of that church did on occasion use tongues in his private prayers. He was careful to whom he confided that though.

AS to whether Baptist journalists and denom. execs would be less-inclined to listen to someone who disagreed with their theology, I can't say that isn't true, but I can say it's sad if/when it happens. No one has all the answers to theological questions and issues, and the Christian movement is far stronger because there are differing opinions.

I am curious as to what parts of the Charismatic 'camp' you are uncomfortable with.

Todd Nelson said...

Hey Terry,

Regarding your last paragraph and question... Though I believe we all should grow in faith, parts of the "Word of Faith" theology disturb me (particularly the lack of a theology of suffering). I find the traditional Pentecostal teaching on tongues-as-initial-evidence at odds with my understanding of Scripture. So there are two of the aspects of charismatic/Pentecostal doctrine and practice that I'm not comfortable with. I could probably list a few more, as well as aspects of Southern Baptist theology and practice that I'm not comfortable with. But, "Ah, no need, lah" as we say here in Malaysia.

Regarding your first paragraph about Catholic and Baptist charismatics... I have asked before, why are Southern Baptists the only large denomination that do NOT have a fellowship of charismatics in their midst? (like Catholics, Presbyterians, Anglicans, etc. See my post on Sept 16, 2006.)

Since that post, I have learned of Central Baptist in Hixson, TN. And I do know personally of a few other charismatic Southern Baptist churches and individual authors and teachers. But generally speaking, SBC leaders and state-level leaders have had very low tolerance for any teaching or practice that "smells" or appears charismatic.

I understand their reticence based on the past divisiveness of charismatics. Still I wish for a clean slate and that current discussions over Scripture and spiritual gifts could be carried out with more hermeneutical humility and less denominational dogmatism.

I can also appreciate "burn-out" with charismatic practices that are elevated or emphasized beyond biblical limits. I'm glad you found a good SB church in Arizona.

Thanks for commenting.


Gene Brooks said...

I can see why the FL Baptist paper didn't print your article. It mentioned demons!

Seriously, while it is well within their purview (how do you spell that?) to reject your letter on that grounds that you are no longer a part of the Florida Baptist Convention, your identity issue reminds me of a story that happened in Atlanta in 1864 when the Sherman took the city and prepared it for burning.

Two Federal soldiers accosted an old lady on Peachtree Street one afternoon during the occupation, "Hey old lady! You'se secesh I reckon?"

"No I ain't, honey," came the reply from the three-legged one hobbling along on her cane.

"Oh, you'se union then?" came the surprise from the soldiers.

"No I ain't, honey," came the tart reply.

"Well what in the name of blazes are you then?"

"I'm a Baptist, honey, a Baptist. For 60 years I've been a hard-shell Baptist, and the please the Lord I'll die one!"

So you see, some of us try hard to get into other avenues, but being Baptist born and Baptist bred, when we die there's no way around being Baptist dead.

Yesterday we had a funeral for our oldest member, Alma Lewis. Her sister-in-law, member of Amis Chapel, and a good friend, Marie Currin, leaned over to me and said, "You know, I married a Baptist. I was a Methodist. I swore I'd never be a Baptist, but here I've been one for fifty-two years."

"Doesn't it make you happy, Mrs. Marie?" I asked her.

"Well, I'll tell you," she prepared to make her point, "when I was a child our preacher's sermons lasted no more than twenty minutes."

"Those days are over, Mrs. Marie," I quipped and winked, for I am well-known for preaching 40-45 minutes and going over to 12:05pm regularly, even when there's a called church conference.

"Appears so," she chagrined and walked away.

Gene Brooks