Charismatic Confessions, pt. 2: Tongues Don’t Have to be Weird

peter-preaching-statue{abstract: The Bible talks about two types of tongues that take place among the Church: speaking in human languages that get translated, and speaking a “heavenly language” that sounds like non-sense and an interpretation is given. The apostle Paul encouraged people to prefer speaking in regular human words rather than tongues, and this practice turned into the later historical practice of rooting authoritative Church speaking in Bible-based sermon preaching. Paul then encourages, and I have embraced, that we move speaking in tongues away from a corporate church usage and a private, prayer one. The next post will talk about praying in tongues.}

UPDATE: Part 3 is up, where I talk about the what, why, and how of individual praying in tongues.

Yesterday, I got thinking about my charismatic past. I mentioned an Op-Ed piece in the New York Times about recent research on the phenomenon of speaking in tongues. This got me thinking about my own charismatic past and experience of these sort of things, and reflecting on how little a part of my life those things are now. Except, that is, for personal praying in tongues.

A couple of nights ago, I raided my bookshelf and pulled down every theologian that may have said anything about this phenomenon and looked through all of them. Every person said something different. There are so many different opinions about tongues. I don’t write this post to sort out this issue or give a definitive account or defense of where I land. I just want to introduce some people to this idea who might otherwise be weirded out, strongly against it, or don’t really know what to think about it.

typing tongues

I know I said I would be talking about individually “praying” in tongues today, but you can’t talk about that without first talking about the more corporate use of tongues. Tomorrow (or Monday) we’ll get into actually praying in tongues. Most theologians agree that the Bible talks about two types of tongues:

(1) Empowering by the Spirit to speak a different language when you don’t know it, in order to communicate the Gospel to others who speak a different language than you. There are still frequent accounts of this happening today around the world as missionaries go into various areas. This isn’t really controversial.

(2) Where someone speaks a “heavenly language” that resembles no known human language. It really sounds like nonsensical gibberish. This is the controversial one. Most agree that, in the biblical account, this was supposed to be done in front of the whole gathered church group, and then an interpretation was offered, empowered by the Spirit, by those with the “gift” of tongues interpretation. This seems to be what 1 Corinthians 14 is talking about.

I’ll be honest with you. Exegetically and theologically, I can’t articulate or understand quite how this “edifies” a group of people that could otherwise understand the message in everyone’s normal language. Paul says as much:

Pursue love and strive for the spiritual gifts, and especially that you may prophesy. For those who speak in a tongue do not speak to other people but to God; for nobody understands them, since they are speaking mysteries in the Spirit. On the other hand, those who prophesy speak to other people for their upbuilding and encouragement and consolation. Those who speak in a tongue build up themselves, but those who prophesy build up the church. Now I would like all of you to speak in tongues, but even more to prophesy. One who prophesies is greater than one who speaks in tongues, unless someone interprets, so that the church may be built up. (vv.1-5)

Paul is clear that, on a corporate level, tongues is a tough thing. You need the sovereign God to move among multiple people in a way to give both tongues and an interpretation, and then they need to be motivated and obedient to use that gift. A lot can get messed up in that series of steps.

That’s why Paul tells people that he wants them all to speak in tongues, he really does, but he thinks it is of a greater, more immediate benefit that people prophesy. Now, “prophecy” is not talking about the future. Being a prophet simply means being an authoritative mouthpiece for God.

so…what happened to tongues?

In my opinion, tongues fell away from common use because people took Paul at his word: they cultivated prophecy over and above public, corporate tongues. This seems to have happened in the 4th-century, the same time the Church was becoming a more “public” institution, coming out of homes and being introduced to the wider world. This was a time of a lot of changes in the Church (that I’ve written about before), and it seems that a strong preference for prophecy over tongues was one of them.

And so, this was not a “cessation” of tongues, but rather a missional decision to fashion the corporate church’s culture around prophecy, or, as (in my opinion) it’s known today: sermon preaching. Over time, the Church found that the healthiest way to speak authoritatively for God (prophesy) was to anchor oneself in Scripture, hence the prominence of Bible-based preaching. This is why communal, corporate prophecy seems to have declined in usage around this fateful 4th-century, and there was a move, preferring a more institutionalized prophetic voice (pastors, preachers, bishops, etc.).

Admittedly, though, I have seen this corporate church service-type of tongues speaking take place a few times, and each time, there was both an interpretation offered (one even rhymed!) and it was a very positive experience. Seriously, it wasn’t weird, strange, and the Presence of God seemed so strong in the room. It seems that when the Spirit is actually present, things that are otherwise, according to our usual intuitions, really weird and incomprehensibly uncomfortable are actually so normal, peaceful, and seem absolutely at home in Body of Christ.

And so, I feel I’m absolutely with Paul in saying, “So, my friends, be eager to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues; but all things should be done decently and in order” (vv.39-40). I think that even today, we should prefer God-inspired speech that is spoken in human languages people know. I think there is an allowance and freedom to use corporate tongues, but it should not be primary or as frequent as some more Pentecostal or highly-charismatic churches do it. It is not the end-all-be-all of manifestations of the Holy Spirit among us.

the shift to tongue prayers

But I’m also with Paul when he says, “I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you; nevertheless, in church I would rather speak five words with my mind, in order to instruct others also, than ten thousand words in a tongue.” (vv.18-19) And later, he writes, “If anyone speaks in a tongue…let one interpret. But if there is no one to interpret, let them be silent in church and speak to themselves and to God.” (vv.27-28)

This is important. Paul seems to be encouraging a shift of emphasis not really away from tongues altogether and towards prophecy, but a shift of where tongues should be emphasized. He’s encouraging a shift in using tongues in a corporate context to using tongues in a private one. This is also called praying in tongues, and it’s when someone uses this “heavenly language” babble on their own and privately in their relating to God.

This is what we’ll talk about in my last post on this stuff.

I’ll end with these summarizing words from the amazingly helpful entry for “Tongues” in the IVP Dictionary of Paul and His Letters:

If an interpreter is not present, but a person believes that he or she has been inspired to speak in a tongue, that individual has two legitimate alternatives which will benefit the church:

(1) The person can take responsibility to ask God for the ability to interpret (1 Cor 14:13). Requesting the charism [spiritual gift] which would render the utterance in tongues intelligible to the community does not necessarily mean that the gift will be given. The Spirit who distributes such charisms is, after all, sovereign over their bestowal (1 Cor 12:11), but if the need is genuine and the Spirit chooses to intervene, there is clearly no harm in asking. For one to do so is not to be guilty of presumption. The congregation might be edified (1 Cor 14:5).

(2) The speaker can silently pray to God (1 Cor 14:28) a prayer which brings edification to the speaker and addresses God, but does not contribute to disorder and confusion in the congregation. The fact that Paul mentions such an option has led some to regard speaking in tongues as having a legitimate role as a private “prayer language”.

The latter use of this gift, expressed without the need for interpretation because it does not intrude into the life of the community in the same way as would a loud vocal expression, may well be Paul’s intent. Paul’s own speaking in tongues may in fact have been expressed most frequently in precisely this silent manner. He celebrated the fact that he spoke frequently in a tongue (1 Cor 14:18), but his personal preference was not to do so within the context of a community meeting (1 Cor 14:19). This clearly suggests that when Paul spoke in tongues it was in a nondisruptive manner when he was in a community setting or in private as part of his personal devotional life.

The one exercise of tongues that Paul clearly condems [sic] as illegitimate is the very thing the Corinthian Christians seem to have embraced–speaking in tongues for the sake of speaking in tongues, without interpretation and without regard for the life and participation in the community.

Amen. I hope that’s helpful.


2 thoughts on “Charismatic Confessions, pt. 2: Tongues Don’t Have to be Weird

  1. Pingback: Charismatic Confessions, pt. 3: Praying in Tongues for Everyone! | the long way home | Prodigal Paul

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