When I was interviewed for the position of pastor of First Baptist Church, I had to answer one key question: “Do you speak in tongues?” The church had been split by the charismatic controversy. They had to know. My answer then and my answer now is this:”What you need to know is my theology on the matter. That is more critical then whether I have this gift.”
I have not revisited this topic for some time. In the twenty odd years since that interview many of the churches I know have moved beyond that controversy and that divide. There has been a lot of maturing all round. Although different churches still have different views on the subject there is a much higher level of mutual respect and a lot of healthy learning between different traditions. (I am grateful for the many friends I have from Pentecostal and charismatic traditions. I am grateful for their friendship and the opportunities we have for working together.)
But once in a while you get “deja vu all over again” and you get a speaker or a group that pushes the classical Pentecostal position on tongues, tongues here understood asan unknown language, sounds uttered in prayer unintelligible to the one praying and to others (1 Corinthians 14:2).
Usually the agenda is the desire to see the release of God’s supernatural power. This is something seen as happening in a believer’s life separate from conversion, an event often referred to as the baptism of the Spirit. As evidence that this release had taken place, one was given the gift of tongues. Tongues became something very critical because it was identified with spiritual empowerment which is the real goal.
So what is my take on this?
First off I am very grateful to my Pentecostal and charismatic friends for reminding us of the need for the Holy Spirit’s power. Luke summarizes Jesus’s ministry in this way: “…with respect to Jesus from Nazareth, that God anointed him with the Holy Spirit and with power. He went around doing good and healing all who were oppressed by thedevil, because God was with him.” (Acts 10:38 NET)The link between supernatural power, the Holy Spirit andthe ability to do God’s work is clear. And Jesus is the model for His church.
Too often the modern church has put her trust in techniques, technology and good marketing to get God’s job done, basically paying lip service to the need for the Spirit’s anointing. We welcome every reminder that while we should appreciate all tools the Lord gives us, our ultimate trust is in Him and in His empowerment.
But what is the linkage between spiritual anointing and thegift of tongues? Is tongues something that everyone should be seeking as the sign of God’s empowerment?
My starting point is 1 Corinthians 12: 29-30
“Not all are apostles, are they? Not all are prophets, are they? Not all are teachers, are they? Not all perform miracles, do they? Not all have gifts of healing, do they? Not all speak in tongues, do they? Not all interpret, do they?” (NET)
There is no ambiguity in the Greek. Paul is asking a rhetorical question that demands the answer “no”. No, tongues is not for everyone.
Remember that Paul is writing to a church that included a faction that was pushing for more dramatic manifestations of the Spirit including the gift of tongues. This was a group who probably saw themselves as spiritual elites who wanted others to join them and apparently one of the marks that you had reached their level of anointing was the exercise of the gift of tongues. Paul is clear. No, not everyone has this gift. Indeed it is the Lord who decides who gets what gift. (1 Corinthians 12:11).
But Paul is not against the gift of tongues. He admits to exercising the gift frequently in his private prayers. But he is also clear that his preference is that intelligible language be used when the church gathers so that believers can be edified.
“I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you, but in the church I want to speak five words with my mind to instruct others, rather than ten thousand words in a tongue.” (1 Corinthians 14:18-19 NET).
There are those who argue that there is a “sign of tongues”which is to be differentiated from the “gift of tongues.” At Pentecost one of the signs that the Spirit had come was
tongues. And everyone ought to seek this “sign of tongues” as evidence for the Spirit’s anointing though not all will be given the “gift of tongues.”
I do not see this differentiation in Scripture. The word “tongues” is the same both in Acts 2 and in 1 Corinthians. And if one were to push for the signs at Pentecost should we not also push for the sound of a violent wind and the tongues of fire?
Therefore I am not convinced that the gift of tongues is the indispensable sign of God’s empowerment or that all Christians should strive to get it. And I am against any sort of elitism in the church. There are no second class Christians at the Lord’s table.
But I am convinced that we desperately need the empowermentof the Spirit for the life and mission of the church. How then do we appropriate God’s power for His purposes? For my answer I go to Acts 4: 23-31.
Here we find a church totally sold out to God and His purposes. Initial success in mission work had provoked persecution. God’s power was critically needed for a breakthrough.And so the group joined in corporate prayer beseeching the Lord to intervene and work His power with the following results:
“When they had prayed, the place where they were assembled together was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak the word of God courageously.”
Yes there was accompanying physical phenomenon – the place was shaken – and the Lord does that sometimes, but the key words are “prayed,” “filled with the Holy Spirit,” and “began to speak the word of God courageously.”
When we focus on the phenomena of tongues we often get tiedup into all sorts of controversy that take us away from the heart of the issue. Instead of pushing tongues we should be searching our hearts and asking, are we are indeed sold out to God and His
purposes? Are we really aware of our total helplessness to do His work apart from His anointing?
Whatever our stand on the gift of the tongues, and every church needs to define their position, we must major on the majors. Come O Lord and fill us again.