So far, we’ve learned that the english word “tongue” used in relevant passages was translated from the Hebrew word “lashown” and the Greek word “glossa,” both of which were used to mean 1) language; 2) people who speak a common language; as well as 3) the organ in the mouth human beings use to speak. We’ve reviewed that Jesus promised His disciples the Holy Spirit (John14:26) and said the signs that accompany His believers will include speaking in new languages (Mark16:17). And at Pentecost, the disciples were filled with the Holy Spirit, as promised, and also spoke in new languages so that people from all over the world understood them in their own native tongues (Acts 2:1-12).
Pentecostal (I use the term generically, not denominationally) and charismatic believers purport that the gift of tongues actually means speaking in a “Heavenly Language,” which is usually not understood by other human beings. I’ll come back to address this concept in a future installment. For now I’ll allow that 1 Corinthians 13:1 and 14:2 arguably give evidence that this concept is legitimate. So with that issue tabled, lets compare the modernday practice of tongues with what the Bible says about it.
Although tongues is only one of the spiritual gifts listed in 1 Corinthians 12 (and it is obvious from the text that different gifts are given to different people); and is not as important as prophecy according to 1 Corinthians 14, it is likely the only spiritual gift you’ll witness in a Pentecostal/charismatic service. (Occasionally I’ve witnessed “healing,” but not the obvious, miraculous kind our Lord performed–after which the crippled walk and the blind see. I’ve also witnessed alleged prophesying, though it offered no significant revelation, as God did via His prophets, recorded in scripture.)
During such a service, it is not uncommon to have several people–congregants and ministerial staff–speaking in their “Heavenly Languages” simultaneously, especially during corporate prayer. Rarely is any interpretation offered. When it is, it is almost always by the same person who spoke in the tongue and is a generic message like, “This worship service has my annointing, saith the Lord,” or, “There’s someone in here who’s been hurt.” Often the preacher or a minister, when leading prayer, will alternate between repetitive phrases in the vernacular or something like, “Yes, Lord. Yes, yes, yes, yes, Lord…”, with digression into tongues, usually with no interpretation at all, but sometimes an interpretation they themselves offer. Sometimes behind the pulpit, a preacher, while teaching about tongues, will depart from the vernacular and demonstrate with a sentence or two in a tongue, then revert to the vernacular in a smooth transition back to the lesson, but never actually reveal the meaning of what was just spoken (if there was one).
Guidelines for orderly worship are laid out in 1 Corinthians 14. Verse 27 says that three people are the maximum that should be speaking in tongues, and they should do so one-at-a-time. Verse 28 specifies that without an interpreter, the speaker should keep quiet. Obviously, this is not happening in many of the charismatic churches.
We must also ask ourselves an honest question: if the person who spoke in a tongue knows the interpretation, why did they not just speak it plainly in the first place? Is God inefficient? If the Lord gives someone a message to be shared with others, what purpose is served by having them first speak unintelligibly? Chapter 14 makes it clear that prophecy is better for the body of Christ, so why not just prophesy, if the Lord has given you the interpretation?
In the charismatic services I’ve attended, when scripture on tongues is referenced, only the first half of 1 Corinthians 14 verse 4; verse 5 and verse 14 are read aloud. In fact, most of the chapter will be ignored. Verse 18 is a favorite, but it is doubtful that verse 19 will ever be read aloud. In like manner, Acts Chapter 2 is a popular passage to quote, but only up to verse 4.
Here is what is said in some verses, and parts of verses, which are skipped over:
Speaking in tongues builds yourself up, but it is prophecy that edifies the Church (verse 4).
(Paul) would like everyone to operate in the gift of tongues, but would rather we prophesy (verse 5).
When you pray in a tongue, your spirit prays but your mind is unfruitful (verse 14).
It is better to speak 5 intelligible words of instruction in the Church than 10,000 words in a tongue (verse 19).
That’s what the Bible says on the subject, for those who believe the Bible. However, nowhere is the gift of tongues condemned, forbidden, or delegitimized. It is a valid gift, as is interpretation of tongues. It simply appears, judging by Paul’s letters, that the gift was misused or malpracticed in the early Church. That misuse was/is not limited to the First Century.
To be continued.