What’s up with Tongues?

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In your Christian life you may have encountered people that hold to various views on the gift of tongues. The following is my two cents on tongues and how we should approach each other on such a topic.

I Corinthians 12-14 is considered a foundational section of the Bible for the description, use, practice, and understanding of tongues. However, as you might study this section of the Bible you will find that Tongues is not the primary focus. The primary focus of this section of Scripture is Unity in the body of Christ (1st Corinthians 12:12-14). In this passage of Scripture, Paul brings up the topic of spiritual gifts as a way God has given us the ability to serve and unify the body of Christ. When we understand the primary purpose of 1st Corinthians 12-14, it helps us better understand how to approach subjects like tongues. People have so many varying opinions on this subject. During your study of such a passage it is important to keep in mind that whatever position you hold, unity in Christ is most important. I do think that there is a biblically accurate stand on tongues, but I do not feel as if any theology on tongues gives a Christian the excuse to react hatefully toward another Christian. If someone has an inaccurate view of scripture our approach should be the same as the apostle Paul. Note: Paul is writing 1 Corinthians 12-14 because he wants the church to recognize how important unity is among the church. He then moves to the secondary topic of tongues because the early church is abusing the practice of tongues. He wants them to work for the unity that is important and to stop the abuse. Finally, Paul gives specific detail on how the practice of tongues should be conducted in the 1st Century church. Therefore, when we disagree over a secondary theology like “tongues” I think it is important to remind ourselves of God’s desire for Unity among the body. #2 It is important to clearly articulate theology in an attitude of love toward one another. #3 Recognize that none of these differences give us the ability to hate one another but rather challenge ourselves to share truth and love each other.

Remember 1 Corinthians 12-14 does discuss tongues, but the primary point is unity as we practice spiritual gifts. The topic of tongues is a very sensitive subject for some people. Regardless if someone does or does not claim to speak in “tongues”, if they have faith in Christ alone for their salvation, they are my brother or sister in Christ. I love them and I appreciate them though I may not embrace the same belief they have. When I disagree with someone’s belief, I see this as an opportunity God has given me to be an example on how I can love someone without agreeing with them. If you love someone, it does not mean you also have to believe as they believe. Jesus loves me even in my sin (Romans 5:8), but this does not mean Jesus agrees with my sin.

We should all desire to walk in truth. When it comes to the topic of tongues, I feel that it is a secondary issue in the Christian life. The main point should always be about glorifying God by growing in Him and encouraging others. However, knowing that some people make tongues a primary issue it is important to comment on the topic and biblically educate God’s believers on the subject.

Before I begin discussing the theology of tongues, I do want to address one poor teaching among a few churches that is unbiblical. I have seen some church groups require “Speaking in tongues” to prove salvation. However there is no biblical reason to support such a teaching. In fact the Bible clearly teaches that not everyone in the New Testament had this gift and therefore it is impossible for every believer in the New Testament to validate their salvation with the use of tongues (1st Cor 12:7-11) . Therefore such a teaching in any church today is unbiblical.

To better understand Tongues, it is good to familiarize yourself with the passages of 1 Corinthians 12-14. This section of the Bible tends to be viewed as the center piece for teachings on tongues.

Here are a few thoughts I have had as I have studied the topic of Tongues:

#1 The Greek word for Tongues means languages. (γλῶσσα glōssa). When someone used the word Tongues in the New Testament they were talking about other languages. When you see tongues spoken in the New Testament, people of other languages heard their native language.

Acts 2:4-6 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them. Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven.  When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard their own language being spoken

Some have asked is it possible that tongues could be a heavenly language? It is true that Paul does say “If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.” (1 Corinthians 13:1). However, Paul isn’t claiming men and women can speak an angelic language. What Paul is emphasizing is that it doesn’t matter how heavenly your words sound, if you do not display love, your words are meaningless. The reason God gave the early church tongues was so that they could speak to others in their native language so other people groups could hear Gods message (The Gospel). The Nation of Rome had conquered several people groups that spoke various languages. For the disciples to reach them, they needed to be able to speak their language. To speak in a language no one can understand is to defeat the very purpose of speaking. God uses language for us to communicate to the heart of another with the truth of God’s word.

#2 Paul helps put the gift of tongues in perspective, with two simple Bible verses.

1 Corinthians 14:19 But in the church I would rather speak fiveintelligible words to instruct others than ten thousand words in a tongue.

The number 10,000 was the highest number in the Greek language. In English we can count to infinity. In Greek they stopped at 10,000. It is as if Paul is saying, I would rather speak a few words in English than a million words in a language you can’t understand. Why? Because Paul knows the reason we speak is to bless others and not confuse them.

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

Paul is defining the purpose of tongues as a way to speak God’s truth in a language for those who do not believe in Christ and need to hear his message. It is not for those who have already embraced Christ. If you want to hear those words as a believer, read the bible or listen to someone share biblical truth in your language.

#3 The two books of the New Testament that speak about tongues are the books of Acts and Corinthians. If tongues were to be a central part of our faith, you would expect to find the subject in other Biblical books. The unfortunate part about using Acts, and Corinthians to validate tongues as a practice is that Acts is a historical book and Corinthians is a book or rebuke toward Christians.

Acts– It is not good theological practice to develop theological beliefs off of History books, but rather we should use history books to identify how God chose to work in a particular time. Example 1: Just because God caused Joseph to rule in Egypt in Genesis 50, doesn’t mean God is going to allow every believer to rule a country. Example 2: Just because God used a whale and a donkey to discipline two men does not mean God will use a donkey and a whale every time we are disobedient (Jonah, Numbers 22). History books are not always proof of a way God will repeatedly work. Rather they tend to be the opposite. They are unique ways God chose to work so that we could easily identify His hand in history. Acts is primarily a history book.

Corinthians– In addition, the book of Corinthians represents the Corinthian church. This church was considered the worst church in the New Testament. They were not faithful to the Lord. Therefore, if you want an example on what not to do as a believer, Corinth is it. The Corinthian example is not a good example to duplicate in your practices as a Christian. In fact, when Paul is writes to them about the subject of because of their abuse of the gift of tongues.

#4 Corinthians were blamed for abusing tongues, not the healthy practice of tongues. Exercising tongues was a known pagan practice in Corinth. They adopted a pagan practice into the Corinthians Christian Church based on their former religion. In some of the Corinthians temples of false gods, it was a common practice to let your body go into a trans like state until you became out of control of your body and started to utter strange tongues. This was considered worship. When they became a part of the Christian church, it seems such practices were still sought after. I would hesitate building my belief on practicing tongues from a group Paul is chastising for incorrectly practicing tongues. (See the Corinthians Catastrophe written by George E. Gardiner)

#5 If Tongues were important you would expect Paul to write about them or teach on them in other New Testament letters. However, Paul doesn’t acknowledge tongues in any other New Testament book. After Paul discusses the Subject of Tongues in Corinth it seems the topic falls off the map. This leaves one to wonder “where did it go”? You see the theology of salvation, Jesus, Scripture, God, Humanity, Etc. discussed repeatedly throughout the New Testament, but not tongues. If Tongues is a central practice for the Christian life, why are they not discussed in any other Pauline book?

#6 If you follow the Bible as it is written in chronological order, the gift of tongues is no longer discussed after 70 A.D (although people continue speaking in multiple languages)….. Example: Acts and Corinthians come before 70. A.D. and all of John’s writings (5 books) come after 70 A.D. None of them mention tongues.

#7 If Tongues are important you should find them historically practiced in the Christian church. John MacArthur claims that tongues were not historically practiced by the Christian church. In fact in his book “Strange Fire” He says we don’t see tongues emerging until the 17th century when a group of French “Christians” claimed to speak in tongues.

#8 Tongues is any easy gift to say you possess. Therefore if a Christian group claims to have it I would also look for other gifts such as instant miraculous healings, signs and wonders. When you see tongues discussed in the Bible, it is accompanied by other gifts that are also miraculous (1 Corinthians 12:7-11, 28-30). The other gifts include gifts of healing, which are much more difficult to pretend to possess. One thing that has always shocked me about those who claim to be able to heal others is their lack visits to hospitals. If I knew I had the ability to heal, I would go to the hospital every day. During Jesus’s earthly ministry, there was no such thing as a hospital like we have today, but you do see Jesus going directly to those who are sick and healing them. Why would a faith healer not run to the hospital beds of the sick and heal them? It seems like millions of people claim to have “tongues” but far less claim to be able to heal, and out of those who claim to heal, the evidence of hospital healings seem lacking.

One final note about the future of tongues: In Acts 2:17-21, when tongues appear, Paul quotes Joel 2:28-32 to describe that moment. I see what is happening in Acts 2:17-21 as a small event of a greater event that will take place in the future according to Joel 2. I believe Joel 2 is talking about the tribulation yet to come. Therefore what happened in Acts 2 is just a small picture of what God will do in the future. However, I do not believe the events of Acts 2 continued on from the first century to today. I look forward to Joel 2 being fulfilled in the future.

Those are my thoughts on tongues. If you do or don’t agree with me, I still love you.