I argued in my previous post that the speaking tongues in Acts was not the norm for all Christians, but the very specific and unique plan of God to demonstrate that there was to be only one church. Not a separate Gentile Church. Not a separate Samaritan church. One church made up of converted Jews, Samaritans and Gentiles. The pouring out of the Holy Spirit on all these groups demonstrated by the speaking of foreign languages (like at Pentecost, Acts 2) was evidence of this.
1 Corinthians 12-14 is the only other place in the New Testament that mentions speaking in tongues. (If speaking in tongues was and is the distinctive evidence of being filled by the Spirit, as is alleged by some, one would have thought it would be mentioned more?)
For those who hold the position that every Christian should speak in tongues as evidence of being filled with the Holy Spirit, here is some food for thought:
1. The same word for tongues “glossolalia” in both Acts and 1 Corinthians 12-14
There is no doubt that the speaking in tongues in Acts was the speaking of a known, unlearned foreign language. In Acts 2:8 foreigners are amazed to hear the “mighty works of God” in their own language. Paul in writing 1 Corinthians deliberately chooses to use the same word.
Even though 1 Corinthians was written before Acts, Paul chose the word that was being used for the phenomena at Pentecost. In fact, Luke writing Acts after Paul used the word “glossolalia” in 1 Corinthians strengthens the argument that “tongues” originally referred to the supernatural speaking of foreign languages.
2. The Corinthian church was not a model church
Often we hear of churches wanting to go back to basics and become “like the New Testament Church”. The New Testament church is understood to be the purist, godliest, and most authentic form of church that we should rediscover. While some aspects of that early church are no doubt good to imitate, other aspects are certainly not – if 1 Corinthians is anything to go by! In the church in Corinth there was schisms (1:12), sexual immorality worse than unbelievers (5:1), lawsuits (6:1), ascetism (7:1), idolatry (10:7), ignorance of spiritual gifts (12:1) and a denial of the resurrection of the dead (15:12). And you thought your church had problems!? The letter of 1 Corinthians should not be read as an encouraging letter to a model church, but as a rebuking and correcting letter to a sinning church. Chapter 12-14 should be read in this way too.
3. The Spirit gives as He determines
1 Corinthians 12:8 is the thorn in the flesh for those who argue that all Christians should speaking in tongues. After listing the various gifts that include “various kinds of tongues” and the “interpretation of tongues”(v10), Paul then adds, “All these are empowered by one and the same Spirit, who apportions to each one individually as he wills.” (v11). We don’t get to determine who gets what gift; the Spirit apportions as he wills. To make any one gift the distinctive evidence of being filled with the Spirit is clearly undermining (or at least trying to undermine) the Spirit’s role of determining who gets what gift.
4. Don’t confuse sarcasm with straight forward teaching
Benny Hinn will maintains that tongues is not a human language, but an angelic language (that the Devil does not understand) for the purposes of deep communication with God. He uses 1 Corinthians 31:1 as his proof text: “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging symbol.” But in 13:1-3 Paul is using highly sarcastic and exaggerated language to make the point that anything done without love is worthless.
Paul is not positively teaching what tongues is, as much as he is not saying that every Christian needs to give away all their possessions (v3)! Paul is saying even if one could hypothetically speak in even some angelic language – that would be futile without love!
The Corinthians, for all their alleged “spirituality”, had little love. The same sarcasm is true for 14:2 which reads, “For one who speaks in a tongue speaks not to men but to God; for no one understands him, but he utters mysteries in the Spirit.” Paul is not commending them or teaching on the nature of tongues. He is being sarcastic: No one understands (also v9)! Only God can! He is only edifying himself (v4)! He is speaking “into the air” (v9)!
5. Ecstatic, unintelligible speech is not particularly “Christian”
Paul Barnett makes the point in his commentary1 that the cults of Dionysius and Cybele were also known in the 1st Century for their ecstatic, unintelligible speech (p 258). This is one of the reasons Paul promotes intelligible speech (prophecy) cf. 14:20-25. In fact Paul says that if outsiders visit the church as you’re speaking in tongues they will think you’re “out of your minds” (v23). I think the Corinthians were misusing the gifts of tongues. They were not speaking in known foreign languages, but were speaking in ecstatic, unintelligible syllables – just like in their former pagan days – and claiming this made them spiritually superior to others. 1 Corinthians 14 should be read as Paul rebuking the church. If the church was going to continue with this practice, Paul sets out the strict, proper criteria:
- There must be interpretation/ translation (14:13)
- Everything in the gathering must be for the common good (14:26)
- The service must be orderly, with three tongue-speakers at the most – with interpretation (14:27)
6. “Do not forbid speaking in tongues” (14:39)
If the Corinthians were misusing this gift, why does Paul not forbid the Corinthians “speaking in tongues”? I think that Paul was careful not to forbid what was truly a gift of the Holy Spirit, in spite of the Corinthian excesses. If the Corinthians could indeed follow Paul’s criteria, the gift would function in its proper way and its excesses would be largely curtailed.
What about today?
My view is that the gift of tongues was given for a very specific purpose in the establishment of the church. The church has been established and the foundation has been laid (Ephesians 2:20, 3:5). God may choose to give this gift to pioneer missionaries as they encounter unreached people groups with foreign languages, but this is not the norm.
What happens in some churches today under the banner of “speaking in tongues” is not the biblical gift we see in Acts. Ecstatic, unintelligible speech is not unique to Christianity. It may make you feel good and more in tune with God, but so can a good cycle or possibly even doing hand stands. If a good bicycle ride or hand-stands help you in your relationship with God, Paul will not forbid it, as long as you do it according to the biblical criteria. But says Paul, don’t focus on tongues or cycling or hand-stands, focus on that which builds up entire church.
As my friend Johann Coetzer has reminded me: Christians were never commanded to speak in tongues, but we are commanded to speak the gospel in a language understandable to our hearers in order to make disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:18-20).
1. 1 Corinthians: Holiness and Hope of a Rescued People by Paul Barnett (Focus on the Bible)