Can the Southern Baptist church’s declining membership be due to its resistance to the Holy Spirit?

Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Fort Worth, TX
Credit: Michael-David Bradford, Wikipedia, Public Domain

The Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) finally has some good news, the number of people being water baptized in the famed denomination has nearly returned to pre-pandemic levels, reports.

Last year, over 226,000 people were water baptized, an increase of 26% over the previous year. This is a reason to celebrate in a denomination that includes water baptism as part of its name.

However, there was also some bad news.

For the 17th year in a row, the denomination’s membership declined, sinking below the 13 million mark for the first time since the 70s. Though membership shrunk by 1.8% in 2023, a loss of about a quarter of a million, it was less than in previous years, so there was a hint of good news in the midst of the bad.

A strange thing started happening in 2006, for the first time in its storied history that traces back to the 1800s, the SBC’s membership started declining. From its peak of 16.3 million members, it has declined every year since.

Now, we could blame the secularization of our culture or societal issues for the decline. Perhaps we could even blame Satan? But over this same period, Pentecostal and Charismatic churches saw gains.

But a couple of things happened at the SBC in 2005 and 2006, that suggest there could be a different reason for the start of the denomination’s membership decline.

During those two years, the SBC may have overtly resisted the Holy Spirit.

In 2006, one of the trustees of the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Rev. Dwight McKissic, admitted during a chapel service at the school that he spoke in tongues during his personal prayer time.

Rev. McKissic referred to it as a ‘private prayer language,’ and added that he had been speaking in tongues since 1981.

That admission at the church’s flagship seminary set off a firestorm. In fact, one Baptist Minister stated that “McKissic set off the political equivalent of a nuclear device.”

Rev. McKissic’s sermon was yanked from the school’s library, and two months later, in a 36-1 vote, the trustees banned anyone from publicly promoting speaking in tongues at the school. It also forbade the school from ‘knowingly’ hiring anyone who spoke in tongues. Apparently, the seminary was still allowed to unknowingly hire one.

Even though Paul writes “I want you all to speak in tongues” (1 Corinthians 14:5) and says we are to ‘earnestly desire spiritual gifts’ (1 Corinthians 14:1), I can’t recall the last time I heard a sermon specifically encouraging people to speak in tongues in the charismatic churches I attended over the years.

So the Holy Spirit may have overlooked the trustee’s ruling.

However, what happened the previous year, 2005, may actually be described as the Rubicon for the SBC.

This may have been the year, that the storied denomination crossed the line with the Holy Spirit?

In 2005, the SBC missionary board actually forbade its missionaries from speaking in tongues privately and in fact, as part of its application process, it asked individuals if they spoke in tongues.

It is one thing to limit its use in a church service but to ban, restrict, or throttle the Holy Spirit in a person’s private spiritual life is entirely a different matter.

Paul warned the Corinthians:

39 Therefore, my brethren, desire earnestly to prophesy, and do not forbid to speak in tongues. (1 Corinthians 14:39 NASV)

The Greek word for forbid, ‘kolyo’ means to prevent and stop, but it also refers to hindering or standing in the way. In other words, just making it difficult to do something.

Was the SBC guilty of doing this?

Or was it just a coincidence that the membership decline started in 2006?

Now to be fair, in 2016, the SBC missionary board reversed its 2005 policy that forbids the personal use of tongues. That was certainly good news, and I am glad they did it.

Fundamentally, the Southern Baptists are cessationists. They believe the gifts of the Holy Spirit ended with the Apostolic age.

Some in this camp even suggest that the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD marked the beginning of the end of the apostolic age and the spiritual gifts.

But in his sermon on the Day of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit fell with power which included speaking in tongues, the Apostle Peter said something different.

He told those gathered:

Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 39 For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself. (Acts 2:38-39 ESV)

Notice the progression, Peter says the gift of the Holy Spirit was for, them, their children, and ‘all those who are far off.’ All those who are far off refer to distant descendants.

Then, to make sure there is no doubt about whom the “far off” was referring to, Peters adds the gift of the Holy Spirit is for “everyone whom the Lord our God calls.”

Everyone means no exceptions.

Notice that Peter didn’t footnote this with ‘or until the destruction of the Jewish Temple.’

Many believe we are entering what has been described as the end of the Age, marking the soon return of Christ. During these difficult times, we will need more of the Holy Spirit, not less.

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