Speaking in Tongues: The Gift Not Everyone Wants
Introduction: There are many different opinions and a great deal of mistrust between Christians who speak in tongues and those who do not. My hope is that this article might help us get over some of that mistrust so we can grow in our love and respect for each other.
Bible scholars have been debating for years what Paul means when he refers to the gift of tongues. In simplest terms, speaking in tongues occurs when someone is able to speak a language that he or she has not learned. It may be a real human language (that’s certainly what it is in Acts 2), or it may be a prayer language that a person uses to communicate with God (that’s seems to be what it is in 1 Corinthians 14). Frankly, both may be legitimate ways to speak in tongues, though the vast majority of tongues-speaking we observe in the church today is the prayer-language type.
There are two kinds of people who are probably not going to like what I have to say in this treatise: those who are convinced that every Christian should speak in tongues and those who think no one should. But if you are in one of those two categories, I invite you to look at the Biblical evidence objectively. I think an honest study of just one chapter in the New Testament, 1 Corinthians 14, will force us to conclude that speaking in tongues is a genuine spiritual gift for the good of the Body of Christ, but it is not for everyone.
Ironically, this passage is sandwiched between the sublime truths of the Great Love Chapter (1 Cor. 13) and the equally profound truths of the Great Resurrection Chapter (1 Cor. 15). As a consequence, some are tempted to skip over chapter 14. But despite the fact this chapter lacks the inspirational impact of chapters 13 and 15, it contains a lot of straight talk that the Church vitally needs today.
I want you to know in advance that I have no conscious theological axes to grind here, no prejudices to support. I will simply attempt to tell it like I see it in Scripture. Admittedly, I speak as one who does not personally have the gift of tongues, but I will nevertheless try my best to be objective, truthful, and respectful.
The gift of tongues in historical perspective
There is hardly a branch of Christianity, and very few local churches, which have not felt the impact of the modern charismatic movement. But we need to recognize that there is little evidence of speaking in tongues from the first century until the dawn of the twentieth century, other than a few isolated incidents, usually in heretical or marginal groups. For example, Montanus, a man who claimed to be the Paraclete, a name given by Jesus to the Holy Spirit, advocated tongues in the 2ndcentury. In 1855 tongues-speaking cropped up among the Mormons in Nauvoo, Illinois. Tongues was also occasionally reported among the Waldensians, Jansenists, the Quakers, and the Shakers. In addition, ecstatic speech was known among those who practiced the mystery religions.
None of these phenomena was widespread or lasting, and none contributed to any significant revival in the Church. You can check it out historically and you will discover that none of the great spiritual movements that did occur, like the Protestant Reformation or the First and Second Great Awakenings, involved tongues-speaking or other charismatic phenomena. But when dawn broke on the 20th century, the modern tongues movement was born, and the Church has never been the same since.
It all started in Topeka, Kansas on January 1, 1901. On that day Agnes Ozman, a student at Charles F. Parham’s Bethel Bible School, sought the baptism of the Holy Spirit and spoke in tongues. Sister Lucy Farrow, a black preacher, carried the new experience to Houston, while Brother W. J. Seymour took it to Los Angeles. Seymour established the Azuza Street Mission in L.A. in 1906, from which the entire modern Pentecostal movement was born. Many denominations have their spiritual roots in what has come to be known as “the Azuza Street Revival,” including the Church of God in Christ, the Assemblies of God, the Pentecostal Holiness Church, the Church of God (Cleveland, Tenn.), the United Pentecostal Church, and the International Church of the Four-Square Gospel.
While these Pentecostal movements grew steadily and rapidly over the decades, it was not until 1960 that tongues-speaking gained its current respectability. On April 3, 1960 Rector Dennis J. Bennett of the 2,500 member St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Van Nuys, CA, announced to his congregation that he was a closet charismatic and that he intended to come out of the closet. Soon tongues began to crop up among Anglicans, Catholics, Greek Orthodox, Presbyterians, Methodists, indeed, in nearly every branch of Christendom.
It is evident today that the charismatic movement is stronger than it has ever been, and it is having a huge impact on American Christianity, as well as in Africa and South America. In fact, I would hate to see where the Church would be today, particularly in numbers, without the charismatic movement!
Please understand that none of the historical information I have given you so far proves anything, in and of itself, about the theological legitimacy of the movement. Truth can be squelched for long periods of time, and it is possible, as Charismatics often suggest, that the supernatural gifts were largely dormant for 18 centuries but have been revived by the Holy Spirit to bring about world-wide revival just before the Second Coming. On the other hand, it is also true that error can be followed by vast numbers of people, and thus it is also possible, as many non-Charismatics suggest, that many charismatic churches have been hijacked by those more committed to emotional experience than sound biblical teaching.
The gift of tongues in biblical perspective
More important than the historical data is the biblical data on tongues. Let me begin by simply laying out the range and extent of biblical teaching on the topic. It may well surprise many of you. Tongues is mentioned in only four places in the Bible–three times in Acts and in 1 Corinthians:
1. Acts 2, where a form of tongues was spoken by the disciples on the Day of Pentecost.
2. Acts 10, where tongues were spoken at the conversion of Cornelius, a Gentile.
3. Acts 19, where tongues were spoken at the baptism of twelve believers who had not yet heard of the baptism of the Holy Spirit.
4. 1 Corinthians 12-14, where the Apostle Paul teaches extensively on the purpose, value, and comparative usefulness of the various spiritual gifts.
A fifth possible mention is Mark 16:17-18, where Jesus predicted that tongues would be spoken, but it is highly questionable whether Mark 16:9-20 was in the original New Testament. Nearly every version of the Bible footnotes this section as questionable because the best Greek manuscripts exclude these verses.
Tongues are not mentioned in the Old Testament (unless in the strange account of Joshua and the two elders, Eldad and Medad in Numbers 11, but the Spirit’s ministry in their lives is identified as “prophesying,” not ecstatic speech) or in the Gospels, or in Jesus’ extensive teaching about the Holy Spirit (John 14-16), or in connection with any of the many conversion or baptism experiences in the NT other than the ones already mentioned in the book of Acts, or in any of the epistles written by Paul, (besides 1 Corinthians), or in any of the general epistles, or in the book of Revelation. Of course, something only has to be mentioned once to be valid, but I think it’s important that we realize how limited the data on tongues really is in the Bible, especially when one considers the tremendous emphasis that is given to it in many churches.
Not only is the biblical data on tongues quite limited; it is also, for the most part, quite negative. In 1 Corinthians 14 two fundamental propositions are discussed regarding tongues:
1. The gift of tongues is not an effective way to edify believers (1-19).
2. The gift of tongues is not an effective way to evangelize unbelievers
The primary purpose of this chapter seems to be to correct an undue focus on tongues that had caused the church at Corinth to become imbalanced. Some very positive statements are made about tongues in 1 Corinthians 14, but the Apostle Paul’s overall emphasis is clearly corrective and restrictive.
The gift of tongues is not an effective way to edify believers (1-19).
1 Corinthians 14:1-5:
Follow the way of love and eagerly desire spiritual gifts, especially the gift of prophecy. For anyone who speaks in a tongue does not speak to men but to God. Indeed, no one understands him; he utters mysteries with his spirit. But everyone who prophesies speaks to men for their strengthening, encouragement and comfort. He who speaks in a tongue edifies himself, but he who prophesies edifies the church. I would like every one of you to speak in tongues, but I would rather have you prophesy. He who prophesies is greater than one who speaks in tongues, unless he interprets, so that the church may be edified.
Notice how often “edification” is mentioned in these verses: the term is found twice in verse 4, once in verse 5, again in verse 12 and 17, and it is implied a number of other times in the chapter. One of the chief tasks of the church gathered in worship is edification, i.e., building each other up in the Faith. To demonstrate that tongues is not an effective gift for this purpose, Paul contrasts it with the gift of prophecy, which, he claims, is much more effective. He wants believers to eagerly desire spiritual gifts, especially the gift of prophecy.
In NT times prophecy undoubtedly involved speaking God’s unwritten revelation to the Church. In our day, when God’s revelation has already been put into Scripture form, the gift of prophecy seems to parallel the preaching or proclaiming of God’s written Word. I don’t mean to say that every preacher or teacher has the gift of prophecy, for preaching and teaching are listed separately from prophecy in the lists of gifts. Rather the gift of prophecy seems to involve the ability to apply God’s truth to the culture in a uniquely authoritative way that brings about conviction. However, the gift of prophecy is clearly content-oriented, thus I have taken the liberty of referring to it as “proclaiming God’s Word.” I think it might be even better to speak of “proclaiming God’s truth,” allowing for the fact that some truth from God might not come right out of Scripture, so long as it doesn’t contradict Scripture.
Tongues is inferior to the proclamation of God’s truth (1-5a). Of course, it is not intrinsically inferior, for both gifts are from God. But it is inferior when it comes to edification. This is explained in three ways:
1. Tongues is addressed to God, who doesn’t need to be edified, while proclamation is addressed to people, who do need to be edified. Proclamation results in strengthening, encouragement, and comfort for the Church. (2)
2. Tongues is not understandable to most people, while proclamation is. (2b,3)
3. Tongues edifies self, while proclamation edifies the Church. (4)
The Apostle concludes this point, interestingly, by saying he wishes everyone had the gift of tongues. This statement should not be ignored because it totally undermines the cessationist position (the view that tongues ceased in the first century). How could Paul want everyone in the church to have a gift that God has determined to remove from the Church? If Paul wishes that every believer had the gift of tongues, there can be nothing wrong with this gift; it must be good and profitable, or the Apostle would never say such a thing.
In addition, Paul expresses an even greater wish–that everyone would proclaim God’s truth. Paul seems to be employing a figure of speech here. He knows quite well that none of the gifts of the Spirit is possessed by everyone, because he himself said so in 12:29-30. In essence I think he is means to communicate, “If the gifts were mine to bestow, I’d give all of you the gift of tongues, because it’s a good gift, but even before I did that, I’d give everyone the gift of prophecy, because it is more useful for building up the church.”
Then Paul advances his argument by pointing out the basic reason for this inferiority of tongues to prophecy in the task of edification:
Tongues is useless to listeners unless interpreted. (5b-13) “He who prophesies is greater than one who speaks in tongues, unless he interprets, so that the church may be edified.” Paul seems to be speaking here of the Church at worship. Tongues may be profitable for an individual Christian in his private prayer life, even when no interpretation is given. But when believers are gathered in worship, no edification comes from hearing someone else speak in a language he can’t understand. He asks in verse 6, “If I come to you and speak in tongues, what good will I be to you (obviously a rhetorical question expecting the answer, “none”), unless I bring you some revelation or knowledge or prophecy or word of instruction” (in other words, unless I say something you can understand in plain English, or Greek).
Apparently, the church at Corinth had the same problem we have today–there are many more people who claim the gift of tongues than who claim the gift of interpretation of tongues. I don’t know why this is. If both gifts are from God, I wonder why there isn’t a balance between the gift of tongues and the gift of interpretation of tongues. Is the Holy Spirit remiss in not providing enough people with the gift of interpretation?[i] Whatever the cause for the evident imbalance, Paul implies that if one speaks in tongues in public and no one interprets what is said, there is no profit to the church. Later in verse 28 he will flatly say it shouldn’t be done without an interpretation.
To press this point home he employs two analogies, one musical and the other military. 1 Corinthians 14:7‑8: “Even in the case of lifeless things that make sounds, such as the flute or harp, how will anyone know what tune is being played unless there is a distinction in the notes? Again, if the trumpet does not sound a clear call, who will get ready for battle?” When musical instruments are played, they just make noise unless the notes are combined by means of rhythm, structure, and harmony. There’s nothing more grating on one’s nerves than hearing a child “play” a violin or a piano if they’ve never had lessons, unless, of course, the child is our own and we think she’s cute. The military analogy goes a step further. Not only does enjoyment depend upon distinctions in sound, but so does action. If random notes are played on a bugle, the soldiers will not know it’s time to charge.
If noise is of no value in musical enjoyment or in military action, what makes us think it’s of any value in the Church? Verse 9: “So it is with you. Unless you speak intelligible words with your tongue, how will anyone know what you are saying? You will just be speaking into the air.” If the goal is to edify brothers and sisters in Christ, speaking in tongues is not the way to do it. Instead speak intelligibly!
He makes the same point in verse 12: “Since you are eager to have spiritual gifts, try to excel in gifts that build up the church.” As we eagerly pursue spiritual gifts, we should go for the ones that build up the Church, not just oneself! Clearly Paul does not consider tongues to be a gift that builds up the Church, unless, of course, it is interpreted. That is why he says in the very next verse: “For this reason anyone who speaks in a tongue should pray that he may interpret what he says.” He shouldn’t just hope that someone else with the gift of interpretation is present; he should pray that he himself can interpret what he has just said in tongues. The assumption is that if that prayer is answered, the tongues speaking (along with the subsequent interpretation) can produce value and profit to the church in the same way that proclamation does.
Now in verse 14 Paul first mentions praying in tongues. Up to this point he has talked only of speaking in tongues. This raises an issue that was apparently argued in Corinth and is a quite common argument today, namely, “I don’t use tongues for the purpose of edifying others; instead I use it as a prayer language. God knows what I’m saying, and that’s all that matters.” This argument, according to Paul, also has a weakness:
Tongues is not even a profitable way to pray in public. Listen carefully to verse 14: “For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays, but my mind is unfruitful.” The problem with praying in tongues, according to Paul, is that it doesn’t employ all the faculties God has given us. He has given us emotions, but He has also given us intellect. Paul believed it was a waste to put the mind in neutral while trying to develop the spirit. (Of course, it’s just as much a waste to neglect the spirit while developing the mind, and Lord knows many do that!).
So, what’s the solution? He asks in verse 15: “So what shall I do? I will pray with my spirit, but I will also pray with my mind.” Is Paul saying that when he prays in public, he will sometimes pray in tongues and at other times pray with his mind? Or is he saying that whenever he prays in public, he wants to use both his spirit and his mind? I think the latter is his point.
In verse 15 Paul may be addressing still another way of using tongues–singing in tongues. He continues, “I will sing with my spirit, but I will also sing with my mind.” When singing in the church, Paul prefers to use both his head and his heart, not just his heart, which is what he’d be doing if he was singing in tongues. It seems that when Paul either prays or sings in tongues, he does so privately rather than publicly.
Verses 16 & 17 reiterate the point that tongues are not a profitable way to pray or sing in public. “If you are praising God with your spirit, how can one who finds himself among those who do not understand say ‘Amen’ to your thanksgiving, since he does not know what you are saying? You may be giving thanks well enough, but the other man is not edified.” I attended a community prayer meeting several years ago, and a woman in our group whom I didn’t know began to pray in tongues–quite long and quite passionately. I had no idea what she was saying because neither she nor anyone else interpreted for us. I couldn’t say “amen,” because amen means “so be it,” and I had no idea if I agreed with what she was saying or not. Her rather lengthy prayer was a distraction in the middle of an otherwise edifying time of prayer. I think Paul would say to her that she should interpret her own prayer, or provide an interpreter, or refrain from speaking in tongues when praying publicly.
But then the Apostle makes a startling statement in verse 18: “I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you.” Has Paul gone schizo here? How can he speak so negatively about tongues and then express gratitude that he speaks in tongues more than anyone in the church at Corinth, a church that has apparently gone bananas with tongues speaking? I think the answer is found in the next four words: “But in the church I would rather speak five intelligible words to instruct others than ten thousand words in a tongue.” Paul speaks in tongues a lot, but he doesn’t to it in the church. Please understand that he doesn’t mean “in the church building,” for there weren’t any buildings in his day. Churches met in people’s homes. Rather he means “in the assembly of believers.”
For Paul the gift of tongues is either a missionary tool (the ability to speak in foreign languages never learned while on his missionary journeys), or it is a private prayer language, a way of communing intimately with his heavenly Father in private. So, this is how I would summarize Paul’s teaching in the first half of this chapter:
Summary: Tongues is a gift for which the recipient should be very thankful, and he should use the gift in his private devotions (or if his gift is to speak foreign languages without learning them, he should use the gift as a missionary), but when the Church is gathered in worship, it is better to speak, pray, or sing in the language of the people who are in attendance. (18-19)
That is why we are not a charismatic church. We have charismatic individuals in our church, and we value them highly. I wouldn’t want to lose one of them. But we do not think this gift is one that should be a regular part of our public worship, because tongues are clearly not the most effective way to edify believers.
Surprisingly, Paul goes on to say that . . .
The gift of tongues is also not an effective way to evangelize unbelievers. (21-25)
If you’re familiar with Acts 2, this statement may surprise you. After all, weren’t there 3,000 converts the first time tongues was spoken? Yes, but…. A careful reading of that chapter indicates that the 3,000 people who were saved responded to Peter’s sermon, which was apparently preached in plain Aramaic, not in tongues. But at the very least, the fact that these people, traveling to Jerusalem from all over the world, heard their native languages spoken fluently by Galileans must have gotten their attention big-time and made them more receptive than they would otherwise have been to Peter’s sermon. So that kind of tongues–real foreign languages spoken supernaturally–certainly can be effective in evangelizing unbelievers. But in 1 Cor. 14 Paul seems to be talking about tongues as a prayer language, and that is not an effective evangelistic tool.
The Apostle introduces this section by calling upon us to abandon childish thinking and to think like adults. There is a place for naivete–it is in regard to evil (the less you know about it, the better)–but there’s no place for naivete in regard to spiritual gifts. He calls upon the Corinthians to abandon their childish fascination with tongues, but at the same time he calls upon us to abandon our childish fear of tongues. Immediately we are immersed in some hard adult thinking as the Apostle presents his first argument:
Tongues were intended as a sign of judgment on unbelievers (21-22). In verse 21 we are given an obscure quotation from Isaiah 28:11-12:
Through men of strange tongues
and through the lips of foreigners
I will speak to this people,
but even then they will not listen to me,” says the Lord.
Paul provides this editorial comment: “Tongues, then, are a sign, not for believers but for unbelievers.” Please note that tongues are not a sign for believers–i.e., they are not a sign of the baptism of the Spirit, or a sign of the filling of the Spirit, or a sign of super-spirituality. The sign value of tongues, whatever it may be, is designed for the unbeliever.
But, if it’s a sign for the unbeliever, wouldn’t that automatically make it a great evangelistic tool? Not necessarily. One might hope that the prospect of coming judgment would turn unbelieving hearts to God, but rarely is that actually the case. Just consider the ancient Israelites. The prophet Isaiah predicted that God would speak to Israel through the Assyrians. The Assyrians didn’t speak in tongues; they spoke Assyrian, but they might as well have been speaking in tongues because the Israelites didn’t understand Assyrian.
Mind you, God had sent his prophets, many of them, to speak to the Israelites in Hebrew. But even though the people understood Hebrew, they refused to repent. So, God decided to speak to them through foreigners. When the Israelites were invaded and began hearing a language they couldn’t understand, they would know that God’s judgment was upon them.
Now why does Paul quote this passage? His point is that just as God spoke judgment to OT unbelievers through a language unknown to them, so He would speak to NT unbelievers through a language unknown to them. In other words, when those who have heard the Gospel and have rejected it begin to hear strange languages, namely the gift of tongues, they will know that the judgment of the Lord cannot be far off–personal judgment or maybe even the end-times judgment. Unfortunately, just as the ancient Israelites refused to believe even when foreigners invaded, so many today refuse to believe even though they are exposed to the supernatural gift of tongues.
In point of fact, far from serving as an effective evangelistic tool,…
Tongues can easily discredit believers in the eyes of unbelievers. (23‑25) Verse 23: “So if the whole church comes together and everyone speaks in tongues, and some who do not understand or some unbelievers come in, will they not say that you are out of your mind?” It’s hard enough to get most unbelievers into church in the first place. If you succeed to get them there, and they encounter the chaos of everyone speaking in what sounds to them like gibberish, they’re going to think the church is full of kooks. In fact, the unbeliever is not the only one who is going to think so. So will the believer who doesn’t have the gift of tongues (referred to in this verse as “some who do not understand”).
I’ll vouch for that. The very first time I heard tongues spoken was at the Sheffield Assembly of God in Kansas City. I was 18 at the time, and one of my friends said he knew where we could go on Sunday night for some wild entertainment. At Sheffield that night we heard dozens of people speaking in tongues all at the same time. My friend thought it was humorous, but I was scared. I thought church was full of crazies. That’s what Paul says is the natural reaction of those who don’t have the gift, whether believers or unbelievers, when they see it used that way in a church service.
On the other hand, the results are very different if the gift of prophesy is employed. Look at verse 24: “But if an unbeliever or someone who does not understand comes in while everybody is prophesying, he will be convinced by all that he is a sinner and will be judged by all, and the secrets of his heart will be laid bare. So he will fall down and worship God, exclaiming, ‘God is really among you!’” If instead of a bunch of people speaking in tongues, he encounters people proclaiming truth in a language he can understand, the results are much more likely to be positive in his life.
Apparently in the early church, instead of having one pastor do most of the preaching, as is the case in most churches today, they often had what we might call “body life services,” in which exhortations and revelations were delivered by various members of the congregation. Most of these small house churches didn’t have full-time pastors. When Paul or one of the apostles was in town, they would preach–sometimes for hours on end. But when there was no authoritative apostle or bishop available, the congregation tended to share the ministry among the spiritually mature individuals present. It was a very participative kind of worship.
Here’s Paul’s contention: if an unbeliever walks into that kind of service and hears several people sharing truth, four things could be expected to happen:
1. He will be convicted of sin. When truth is proclaimed, people are convicted, for “the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double‑edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart”(Hebrews 4:12).
2. He will be brought under judgment. To this point the person may have lived his whole life with no thought of its conclusion. But when he hears truth being spoken in the church, he realizes that a judgment lies ahead.
3. He will have the secrets of his own heart disclosed. The last thing we want to face is our own hearts. The proclamation of truth compels a person to a searing, humiliating honesty about his own true motives and attitudes.
4. Finally, he will be brought to his knees before God. When a person has faced God and faced himself, all that is left for him to do is to kneel and pray, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” I don’t think Paul means that all four of these results will occur every time the unbeliever is confronted by truth, for clearly that is not the case, but these are the possible results when the gift of prophecy is appropriately exercised in the church. But they are decidedly not the results of a sensational display of the gift of tongues.
Isn’t it intriguing that while prophecy or proclamation of God’s truth is designed for believers, it also has a positive effect on unbelievers. On the other hand, tongues, which is intended as a sign for unbelievers, fails even to have a positive effect on them when used carelessly in the church.
Now everything in this chapter up to this point has been essentially doctrinal or theological. In verse 26 Paul begins to make specific application to the Corinthian church. He asks the question, “What action should you take in regard to the tongues problem there in your church in Corinth?”
The gift of tongues is placed under tight restrictions in the Church. (26‑38)
Look at verses 26‑28:
What then shall we say, brothers? When you come together, everyone has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. All of these must be done for the strengthening of the church. If anyone speaks in a tongue, two–or at the most three–should speak, one at a time, and someone must interpret. If there is no interpreter, the speaker should keep quiet in the church and speak to himself and God.
When the house churches in Corinth met for worship, it was apparently normal for everyone to come ready to participate. Some would come with a new hymn they had written, others with an exhortation, still others with a revelation (“God impressed on my heart this week that we should do such-and-such . . .”), and some came with a tongue or an interpretation. “All of these,” he says, “must be done for the strengthening of the church.” This is not a time for self-edification or showing off or entertainment–this is a time for edification or strengthening of the Body.
Then he turns to the tongues-speakers and puts restrictions on them:
1. No more than three individuals, preferably two, should speak in tongues in a given service.
2. Only one person should speak in tongues at a time.
3. No one should speak unless an interpreter is present and identified.
Now the reason I add that the interpreter must be identified is that v. 28 says, “If there is no interpreter, let him keep silent in the church.” Before one speaks in a tongue he must know there is an interpreter, not just hope there is one. Of course, if there is no interpreter present, the tongues speaker doesn’t have to stifle his gift–he simply must use it silently: “let him speak to himself and to God.”
Paul also offers some restrictions on prophets as well, verses 29-33:
Two or three prophets should speak, and the others should weigh carefully what is said. And if a revelation comes to someone who is sitting down, the first speaker should stop. For you can all prophesy in turn so that everyone may be instructed and encouraged. The spirits of prophets are subject to the control of prophets. For God is not a God of disorder but of peace.
The bottom line for Paul seems to be that believers, if they are really speaking from the Holy Spirit, are under control–self-control and Spirit-control. Chaos, frenzy, confusion, and noise have no place in the church at worship. Therefore, I would suggest that the phenomenon that swept through many charismatic churches during the 1990’s known as the Brownsville Revival, including holy laughter and holy barking, was not of the Holy Spirit. It clearly violated the Word of God, and the Holy Spirit never does that.
An additional restriction is offered in verse 34: women should remain silent in the church services. I do not think verses 34-35 are a blanket denial to women of any public ministry in the church, for in chapter 11 he clearly acknowledges that under certain situations a woman may pray or prophesy. But in this context women are at least singled out as forbidden to create confusion and chaos in the church through speaking inappropriately, especially by abusing the gift of tongues or prophecy. This is interesting, because my own experience is that women are far more inclined to speak in tongues publicly than are men.
Please note how Paul wraps up this section on restrictions. He doesn’t say, “These are some suggested guidelines, but you make up your own minds. Let the Spirit have freedom in your midst.” No, he says, “Did the Word of God originate with you? Or are you the only people it has reached? If anybody thinks he is a prophet or spiritually gifted, let him acknowledge that what I am writing to you is the Lord’s command. If he ignores this, he himself will be ignored.”
In essence he is asking, “Who do you think you are? You’re not an island to yourself; you aren’t the only or even the first Christian church. Therefore, don’t assume you can set your own rules.” Friends, this may sound dogmatic and judgmental in a day when tolerance is the highest of virtues, but that’s what Paul says. A church which ignores the restrictions laid down here, allows many to speak in tongues at the same time in a worship service, fails to provide interpretation following each exercise of tongues, and is dominated by women tongues-speakers, is violating these guidelines and it functions in that fashion at its own peril. With that we come to the conclusion of our chapter.
But the gift of tongues is not to be forbidden, even in public worship. (39‑40)
There are many in evangelical circles who are completely intolerant of the gift of tongues. Having been convinced by some preacher or teacher that tongues was a gift that ceased in the first century (such people are called “cessationists”), they have written off all expressions of this gift in our day as, at best, psychological hysteria and, at worst, demonic.
I agree that some of what we see in the church today probably is psychological hysteria. When people take classes on how to speak in tongues and are trained to close their eyes, put their minds in neutral, and start making certain sounds, and as a result of this exercise they begin to speak in tongues (and then, on top of that, violate all the guidelines in this passage), I seriously question whether that is a gift from the Holy Spirit. I even think it is possible for Satan to generate tongues-speaking; after all, he is the great imitator.
But I cannot accept that all speaking in tongues is bogus. I was taught the cessationist view at the seminary I first attended, but I am not a cessationist for several reasons. First, I see nothing at all in the Bible to indicate that tongues was a temporary gift. Second, experience tells me that it is a genuine gift of the Spirit–not my own experience, because I have never spoken in tongues, but rather the experience of many sincere brothers and sisters in Christ I have known. Some of the most godly, Spirit‑filled and loving Christians I know have the gift of tongues, including some of my most cherished friends and even leaders in my own church. On the other hand, some of the most godly, Spirit‑filled, and loving Christians I know don’t have this gift, which is exactly what I would expect when the Holy Spirit is the one sovereignly dispensing the gifts.
Third, if Paul had wanted to eliminate tongues from the Corinthian church or from the church today, he could have done so very easily. Instead of writing this long and sometimes difficult chapter, he could have simply said in verse 1, “Pursue love, desire earnestly spiritual gifts, but quit speaking in tongues, period.” Instead, we read in v. 39 of our chapter, “Therefore, my brothers, be eager to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues.” A lot of churches and a lot of Christian organizations plainly violate this statement in God’s Word when they forbid their members to speak in tongues.
I was teaching at a certain Bible College when a new President, a man with strong legalistic tendencies, came on board. The first thing this man did was to circulate a statement on tongues that every staff member was asked to sign. In fact, we were given the clear choice: sign or resign. I still have that statement in my files. Let me read a few paragraphs:
We believe that the speaking in tongues produced by the Holy Spirit ceased with the Apostles who ministered during the first century of the Christian era….
We believe that this modern phenomenon is a psychological experience expressed through the human spirit,… which according to many testimonials, meets emotional needs of people who are reacting to dead orthodoxy and empty ritualism in the churches, and who are longing, perhaps unwittingly, for an existential religion of feeling rather than of faith.
While we genuinely respect another point of view, we cannot allow this so-called speaking in tongues on our campus…. We cannot enroll students who are committed to this charismatic teaching either in principle or practice.
So, because we believe that the Biblical purpose of speaking in tongues has been fulfilled, because we view it as a substitute for the genuine Biblical experience of the filling of the Spirit, and because, historically, it has divided local churches, mission fields, and college campuses–lovingly and graciously we affirm our position.
I always found that “lovingly and graciously” statement to be particularly interesting. I lost my job when I refused to sign that statement. Now mark you, we didn’t have a tongues problem of any sorton that campus. There wasn’t a single faculty member or staff member or student who spoke in tongues or tried to get anyone else to speak in tongues. This statement was developed simply to prevent any possible occurrence of tongues on that campus. I think that’s tragic. In an effort to prevent something he didn’t understand and couldn’t cope with, that man violated a clear teaching of the Word of God: “Do not forbid to speak in tongues.”
We welcome those who speak in tongues in our congregation. Our church is built on the strong foundation of biblical teaching, and I personally believe that is an unshakeable foundation. Those who speak in tongues and accept the Bible as their authority have not been and will not be a threat to us. At the same time, we should not be a threat to them.
Our chapter ends with verse 40: “But everything should be done in a fitting and orderly way.” That’s really what the Apostle is after–decency and order in the church. Not dead orthodoxy. Not boring predictability. But decency and good order. These are core values that ought to undergird every biblical church, and they are foundational here at ours.
Where does this leave us in our attitude and response toward the modern charismatic movement?
There are some major charismatic churches here in our community. Many of you have close friends in those churches and some of you have attended them. These churches are not our enemy. Pentecostal churches are not our enemy. These believers are our brothers and sisters in Christ. Nevertheless, it is appropriate for us to question whether they may have diverged from biblical teaching on this particular issue. If I may, I want to offer advice in three areas:
We should continue to maintain a high priority on the teaching of the Bible and on decency and order in our worship services. The only church we can control is our own. The only one we’re responsible for is our own. To me, continuing to maintain a high priority on God’s Word means that the use of tongues should be discouraged in the worship services of the church–not forbidden, but certainly not standard fare. The whole focus of this chapter, I believe, has been to discourage the public use of tongues. In fact, the three principal positive statements in the chapter are each followed by the word “but.”
Verse 5: “I wish you all spoke in tongues, but….”
Verse 18: “I thank God, I speak in tongues more than you all; but….”
Verse 39: “Do not forbid to speak in tongues, but….”
And in each case the “but” introduces concerns for the church at worship. Our worship will focus on the Word of God, will be decent and orderly, and will follow the biblical guidelines on tongues.
We should be aware and wary of some of the errors and dangers in the charismatic movement as a whole. In no way am I accusing all tongues-speakers of these. Nevertheless, these errors are common in the charismatic movement:
1. The teaching that the baptism “of,” “with,” “in,” or “by” the Holy Spirit is an experience subsequent to salvation and always accompanied by speaking in tongues. This is a common but serious error. I believe Spirit baptism is simultaneous with salvation and is the possession of every born‑again Christian (1 Cor. 12:13).[ii] The filling of the Spirit, on the other hand, is an experience subsequent to salvation, can be repeated, and may be an ongoing process in the life of the mature believer. It may or may not be accompanied by tongues.
2. The failure to observe the strict rules Paul has laid down in this chapter. These rules are violated wholesale in church after church.
3. The teaching that tongues is an inevitable mark of spirituality. There is no biblical basis for this. On the contrary, the only New Testament church known for its tongues-speaking, the Church at Corinth, was chided over and over for its childishness and superficiality.
4. The promotion of tongues as a spiritual commodity that everyone should have rather than the recognition that it is a gift which the Spirit sovereignly bestows. I see absolutely no basis for expecting all Christians or even most Christians, to have this gift. We don’t expect most Christians to have the gift of mercy or exhortation or teaching. Why tongues?
While discouraging tongues in our worship services and while being aware of the errors and dangers in the charismatic movement as a whole, we must not quench the Spirit. In a context dealing with the gift of prophecy, 1 Thessalonians 5:19 warns us, “Do not quench the Holy Spirit of God.” We should thank God for the evidence of a renewed devotion to Christ, a new steadfastness in faith, an expanded prayer life, and above all, a fresh exuberance in walking daily with God that some with the gift of tongues have experienced. I say, “Praise the Lord.”
I received a letter from a lady in my former church who confessed to being a closet charismatic. What was most meaningful to me was her explanation of why she spoke in tongues, on occasion, in private devotion to her Lord:
“When there are no words to express what is in my heart, when there is no way to say how much I love my Lord, when there is an anguish in my soul that cannot be relieved in any human way… in this gift I find a ‘pouring forth’ from the depths of my soul that relieves the angst; an expression of worship and a connection to Him that I cannot explain or understand but that brings peace and strength to endure even the most unspeakable challenges.”
That’s what the true gift of tongues is all about, friends–not wild demonstrations of super-spirituality, not chaos in public worship, not spiritual pride and self-edification, but quiet, private communion and intimacy with the Father. While I see nothing in the Scripture which would urge any of us to go out of our way to seek this gift, neither should we resist it or be ashamed of it if the Holy Spirit gives it to us.
Conclusion: You may not see the gift of tongues in a particular Christian’s life, but you should always see the fruit of the Spirit. And what is that fruit? Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. (Gal. 5:22)
Did you notice what is the first of the fruit of the Spirit? Love. And do you remember the opening statement of 1 Cor. 14? “Follow the way of love.” Love is to be the basic, biblical reason for exercising any spiritual gift. When you see a life marked steadily and continuously by love and the companion fruit of the Spirit, then you have seen a true follower of the Lord Jesus Christ, one who is truly filled with the Holy Spirit. And that is true even though he doesn’t or even though he may speak in tongues.
[i]. Could it be that many have sought the gift of tongues because it is more attractive and more exciting than other gifts? And if so, do they have a genuine gift of the Spirit? I don’t know, but I do know individuals who have spoken in tongues in the past, but today they seriously doubt that their experience was a gift from the Holy Spirit. Generally, these are individuals who were “coached” to speak in tongues.
[ii]. The only Scripture that appears contrary is Acts 19, and in that case a new group of people is being introduced to the indwelling of the Holy Spirit for the first time (as in Acts 2 and Acts 10). I see the baptism of the Spirit as a positional truth, not an experiential one, so people have to be informed about it. I suggest that the Spirit caused tongues to be spoken on those occasions to convince the believers that this new ministry of indwelling was real and important. Once the whole church learned of it, the truth could be passed along in the normal way–through teaching.