My own cessationist convictions notwithstanding, this essay does not intend to discuss the wisdom of the new policies adopted by the International Mission Board relative to a private prayer language. Furthermore, I am not concerned in this essay with the impossibility of a private spiritual gift, in light of the fact that the spiritual gifts were all given for the edification of the entire Body of Christ and not merely for one’s own personal edification. Let us also put aside, for the moment, whether or not the Scriptures speak of known languages or ecstatic utterances, and our debate concerning the precise meaning of Paul’s statement that “tongues will cease.” (1 Corinthians 13:8)
Although these are all important questions, none of them are germane to the thesis of this essay, the purpose of which is to disabuse Southern Baptists of the notion that a private prayer language practiced by a missionary (or anyone else, for that matter) is somehow protected from becoming a public prayer language at a moment’s notice, in the twinkling of an eye or at the snap of a finger, with some sort of instantaneous, uncontrollably ecstatic utterance in a public worship service.
Some have argued that a private prayer language should not be considered a charismatic practice at all, strictly on the basis of its private nature. Their logic is apparently rooted in the notion that what people do in the privacy of their own prayer closet is simply nobody else’s business. Because they are not engaging in a public prayer language, but rather in a private prayer language, no one ever needs to know about their uncontrollable, ecstatic utterances. I see in this notion a glaring flaw.
I would argue that what is done in secret often becomes exposed to the light. Paul makes a similar argument in Ephesians 5:12-13 in the context of sin. Exactly what type of barrier exists capable of keeping private glossolalia private? On Wall Street it is common for companies to “go public” with their stock offerings. Homosexuals celebrate a National “Coming Out” Day when their previously private practices become openly displayed to the world. The separation between private and public is not exactly a steel fortress. It is a grain of sand, a bowl of jello, a feather or a piece of string.
This is especially true when one considers the uncontrollable nature of these ecstatic utterances. By all accounts, a person who speaks in an ecstatic language, regardless of its source, possesses almost no capacity to control it, to stop it from happening, to turn off the faucet. It is a phenomenon that “comes upon them.” How, then, can we be certain that it will remain private? The only thing necessary for a private prayer language to become a public prayer language is for the ecstatic utterance to visit the individual in a public setting. Whenever SBC missionaries practicing a private prayer language go out in public, it is possible that private glossolalia will become public. When that happens, the openly charismatic practices displayed will render false our private glossolalia security.