December 17, 2008

Q and A 2.0 Revisited: #22--Speaking in Tongues


What's the truth about speaking in tongues?


The gift of tongues are mentioned in three books of the Bible: Mark 16:17, Acts 2, 10, 19 and 1 Corinthians 12-14.

There are two different gifts of tongues that are described in the New Testament: the gift of language (speaking a different earthly language), and the spiritual gift of tongues (that is an unknown language).

The book of Acts describes the transitional period between the Old Covenant and the New Covenant. The apostles, (Jesus’ disciples) were given instructions and commands, some of which apply to believers today, and some that don’t. Acts 2 speaks of the gift of known tongues. The disciples are speaking in the languages of the people gathered in Jerusalem. Acts 10 and 19 record the spiritual gift of speaking in tongues. You cannot take everything that happened in the book of Acts and consider it normal for believers today. Part of interpreting Scripture involves discovering what is normative and what was a special event in a special time. Because of this, we won't focus on Acts as much in our discussion.

Mark 16:17, if you look in your Bible, is part of a greater section. Mark 9:20 in your Bible, should contain a footnote that says something like “the earliest manuscripts and other ancient witnesses do not have Mark 16:9-20". What that means is that Mark most likely didn’t write this and it wasn’t an original part of his gospel. It was added later by someone else, and it got incorporated into the manuscript. Notice that the ability to handle snakes is included in this passage, too. So we’re not going to take this as normative either.

That leaves us with 1 Corinthians, which is one of the earliest written letters of the New Testament. It was written around 55 A.D., which makes it older than Acts which was written 7-8 years later. Here, Paul discusses spiritual gifts in general. Tongues along with the gift to interpret them are explained.

In two later letters (Romans and Ephesians), Paul again mentions spiritual gifts. In those lists, in letters that were written later than 1 Corinthians, the gifts of tongues is not mentioned.

So what’s the purpose of speaking in tongues?

1 Corinthians 14:22 “Tongues, then are a sign, not for believers but for unbelievers.”

Two purposes are given for the gift of tongues. One of them was as proof to unbelievers that the gospel message was true. In the two instances in Acts where the gift of tongues is used, both times it is Gentiles who speak in tongues. Remember that the first Christians were Jewish, and that the gospel began moving out to the Gentiles.

The fact that Gentiles were speaking in tongues in both instances served to prove to the Jews that Gentiles could in fact be saved and have the gift of the Holy Spirit. Salvation was not just for the Jews, and this proved it. This was a fulfilment of Isaiah 28 where it said that through foreign men who speak in strange tongues, God would speak to his people.

The second purpose was when tongues were used in church services.

1 Corinthians 14:27-28 “If anyone speaks in a tongue, two—or at 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.”

Remember that we said that 1 Corinthians is one of the oldest books in the New Testament. This means that it pre-dates the gospels. That means that there was not a written record, or Scripture, like we have it today.

In certain times, God would provide direct revelation to the church through people speaking in tongues, but only two or three in each service. This is how they got His truth. It required an interpreter to confirm that the message was from God. If there was no interpreter, then tongues should not be used.

Paul downplays the use of the gift of tongues, and he lifts up the importance of “prophecy”. This is not foretelling the future, but the forthtelling of God’s Word. In other words, he means preaching and teaching.

1 Corinthians 14:4-6 “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 the one who speaks in tongues, unless he interprets, so that the church may be edified.”

What's the common theme? The building up of the church. If the church is not being built up, then the gift is useless.

So are tongues still in use today?

1 Corinthians 13:8 “Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, the will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away.”

At some point the gift of tongues will stop or have stopped. The Greek verb there is “pauo” which means to stop oneself. The gift of tongues will be stopped in and of itself. There is a different verb (katargeo) used for prophecies and knowledge. It’s a much more definitive and finite verb which means that once it stops it will not start back up. It’s finished.

So have they stopped?

The early church fathers (those living within a few generations of the apostles) considered tongues obsolete. John Chrysotom and Augustine both writing in the 4th and 5th centuries stated categorically that tongues had stopped by this time. Augustine referred to them as being gifts only for the time of the apostles.

During the first 500 years of the church the only people who claimed to have spoken in tongues were the followers of a man named Montanus who was branded as a heretic by the church. The next time any significant tongue-speaking movement came about was in the late 1600’s with a "not-really Christian" group in France. It started flourishing in the U.S. in the mid-1700’s under the Shakers whose founder, Mother Ann Lee claimed to be the female equivalent of Jesus Christ. From there it began to spread into other denominations and led to the founding of others

The problem with this is that after being dead for 1500 years, the gift suddenly came back and it came back with groups that did many things that were contrary to God’s Word. Paul says that prophecy is a greater gift than tongues, and it appears that with the availability of the Word of God, tongues are unnecessary.

There are languages spoken in the world today where there is not an available translation of the Bible, though. They don’t have access to God’s Word like we do in the Western world. Is it possible that tongues could be used in those parts to receive God’s Word and revelation? Maybe.

But in areas where God’s Word is readily available, especially based on the idea that tongues faded out of the early church with the advent of the New Testament, I wouldn’t encourage anyone to seek this gift.

Someone asked the follow-up question: Why does the Pentecostal church speak in tongues and other denominations do not?

According to the Assemblies of God's General Council's homepage, "God has brought the Pentecostal movement into being in order to help the Church rediscover the doctrine of the baptism in the Holy Spirit and the accompanying gifts of the Spirit. In obedience to that charge, Pentecostals have placed a high priority on this particular doctrine. However, much of the supposed imbalance is more imagined than real."

These gifts include speaking in tongues. Other denominations either see themselves as non-recepients of these gifts or they disagree with the use of tongues as being a Biblical doctrine.

Next, we'll answer a question about womens' roles in the church. (Merry Christmas, Jay!) Check out all of the Q and A series here.

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