“Since you are eager for spiritual gifts, strive to excel in them for building up the church.” -1 Corinthians 14:12
This past weekend I got to hang out with an old friend from college. We had a lot of good conversations about the Bible and God and the Church and grace. It was a lot of fun to talk with someone who is becoming just as passionate about these things as I am, even though he has taken and is taking a much different path than me. One thing we talked a lot about was speaking in tongues. Now, let me start out by saying that while I have never spoken in tongues, I do believe that this is a gift of the Spirit that still exists today. I don’t believe that I have been given this gift, and I am satisfied with the things that God has given me. Throughout my whole life I have gone to churches where no one ever speaks in tongues. But I have grown up in the shadow of Oral Roberts University, Rhema Bible College, and Happy Hill Church, and so I’ve been hearing about people who speak in tongues for quite a while. My friend, on the other hand, says he does have the gift of speaking in tongues. He goes to a church where speaking in tongues is encouraged. And so the two of us had a pretty lively discussion about what happened at Pentecost, how tongues were viewed in the early church, what Paul thinks about tongues in places like 1 Corinthians 12-14, and what tongues are for today.
I am convinced that that the gift of tongues are not given to each believer, just as the other Spiritual gifts are given to some believers and not others. As Paul writes in 1 Cor. 12:14-18, “Indeed the body does not consist of one member, but of many. If the foot would say, ‘Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,’ that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear would say, ‘Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,’ that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose.” It seems pretty clear that God gives responsibilities and giftings to some believers that he does not give to others. This doesn’t make any of us better or worse than our brothers and sisters. It simply means that in love we must work together to be the whole body of Christ.
When we read about the early church in Acts, it does seem like almost every time someone is filled with the Holy Spirit, they immediately begin speaking in tongues. This certainly happens to Peter and the Apostles at Pentecost, as well as to Cornelius and his household when they receive the Spirit. However, there are other cases where the infilling of the Holy Spirit is not accompanied by tongues, as in the case of Paul in Acts 9, who receives the Holy Spirit, regains his sight, gets baptized, and then sits down to eat dinner. Paul was a Spirit-filled man who testifies to speaking in tongues in his letters, but it doesn’t seem like he showed evidences of this gift immediately. Speaking in tongues definitely can be a sign of a Spirit-filled life, but it is not the only sign. Spiritual gifts of evangelism or teaching or helping or healing are also signs that a person has been filled with the Spirit of God and are being empowered to do things they never could without the Spirit. Going back to the end of 1 Corinthians 12, Paul writes a list of rhetorical questions, asking whether or not all believers have been given the gifts of apostleship, prophecy, teaching, healing, tongues, etc. People from various Christian traditions may be tempted to answer ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to these questions based on what their denomination teaches, but when we take a look at the Greek text, the answer Paul is hinting at is more clear. Paul forms these rhetorical questions with the negative particle me, which always indicates a negative. (It is best translated as ‘No way, Jose!’). Paul is more closely saying, “Not all are apostles, not all are prophets, not all are teachers…not all are speaking in tongues.” Rather, we are all parts of one body that are dependent on each other to be complete.
And that is what I have really been wanting to get at in this post. I don’t want to spend all my time attacking the position that is different than my own, although I did want to share a little of my research and set out what seems to be a pretty Biblical interpretation of the issue. What I really want to do here is start bringing the two sides back together. How can we be a functioning body if half of us decide we want nothing to do with one of our parts? And how can we be a functioning body if one of our parts is trying to impose itself on all the others? The abuses of the gift of tongues really come from both sides and both traditions. It is no good to keep going on with finger pointing and arguments because that is not the point of the gifts. That is not what Paul wanted when he wrote his analogy about the Body of Christ.
As I said, I think that the abuses on this gift have come from both sides. I have attended churches all my life where no one speaks in tongues, and if the Spirit were to actually come on someone and lead them to speak in tongues in a way described in the Bible, they probably wouldn’t be too welcome back at church the next Sunday. In all honesty, the churches I have grown up in probably are guilty of stifling the Spirit, refusing to let the Spirit work through all its gifts and abilities. We have not welcomed speaking in tongues, and tongues have kindly left us alone. The other side is no less guilty, though. Although I have little experience in charismatic or Pentecostal churches, what I understand is that most of these churches encourage all their members to seek to speak in tongues. While some of these people probably do have the gift of tongues, other people are probably faced with hungering after a gift they were never meant to have. Churches with this philosophy seem prone to being carried away with speaking in tongues, to the point that it goes past the orderly speaking that Paul describes in 1 Cor 14:26-28, becoming a tongue-speaking free for all. I don’t believe that every person who attends a charismatic church has or will ever have the gift of tongues, and I think that the overemphasis of tongues in the charismatic church has caused the other denominations to react against it by shutting it out completely. One over-reaction has led to an equal and opposite over-reaction in the other direction. Where is the unity of Christ in all this?
I think there has to be a better, more Biblical way to balance this issue out and find the unity that the Church was meant to have. I definitely have no big picture solution, but I think I have an idea of what could make things a little better. If we were to get to go back and visit the early churches in Corinth or Ephesus or Rome, we would probably find a small church, a small body who was dependent on one another and their gifts. While they also had a problem figuring out how to use those gifts, as is evident in 1 Corinthians, they were still all together in one church. Teachers, helpers, evangelists, and tongues-speakers were all in the same place. They had not yet broken up into the cliques of people who have the gift of tongues and people who don’t have it and aren’t comfortable with it. But today we have the luxury of many congregations and denominations in one city, and the people with the gift of tongues can go to one church building on Sunday while the people without the gift meet at a different building. It turns out that opposites don’t always attract. Sometimes it’s just easier to hang out with the people who are just like us. Probably every person in a city who actually has the gift of tongues will go to a charismatic service, because that is where they are welcome. The two sides don’t have to worship together, and they remain suspicious of the other side all week long. Maybe, just maybe, if both types of people would come together at the same place of worship, some of the wrinkles on this issue would be ironed out. Maybe then the Spirit of God could freely work through all of the gifts it brings to the body. Maybe the people who don’t have this gift would be edified by its proper use under the guidance of the Spirit, and maybe the people who don’t have the gift but have been forcing themselves to appear as they do would finally be comfortable with the gifts they have been given. Maybe this is just a silly idea, and maybe it could never become a reality. But, maybe it’s the way things really should be.
I’m still not really sure what the gift of tongues is for or what its place should be in the church today. I’ve heard several incredible stories about modern day missionaries who were given this gift to communicate the Gospel to a foreign people group. Based on Acts 2, I think that these situations are the most Biblical examples we have today of the gift. I don’t really understand it, and right now I am just trying to sort out what the Bible says on the issue. I do think it’s pretty clear from 1 Corinthians 14 that Paul preferred prophecy for edifying that church rather than tongues, but I also think it’s clear that he never meant tongues to just be dropped completely. I just pray that God would begin to heal the old wounds in the church that have been caused by inner turmoil, and that we would be unified as we reach out to the world outside. Who cares who started this problem or who has exacerbated the issue? It’s time we figure out what the Bible really says so the Spirit is free to move in our churches everywhere.