Speaking About Speaking in Tongues

Years ago, a van load of teenagers with their youth minister stopped by our church for a Sunday night service. There is a church near us that that was called at the time “Denbigh Church of God.” The similarity in our names and locations caused some confusion, and even now after they changed their name to “World Outreach Center” we still occasionally get calls and mail meant for them. It was obvious that this van load of teens thought they were going to that other church. We were just a little more low-key than the “Spirit-filled” worship they were expecting (our praise band was one guy with a pitch pipe).

I talked for a while with the youth minister after church, and what he wanted to talk about was the view of my church on speaking in tongues. Of course, I felt duty bound to convince him that he couldn't really speak in tongues because the "age of miracles" (good Biblical term) had passed. Of course, he was completely convinced that he could speak in tongues and had witnessed plenty of miracles. I talked about the “that which is perfect” from 1 Corinthians 13 and how tongues would cease after we got the completed Bible (an argument I would no longer make, by the way). He talked about Mark 16 and tongues as the sign that would follow those who believe (leaving out the part about handling snakes and drinking poison). We never really argued, but people could probably tell that we each thought the other guy was an idiot. I cringe when I look back on that conversation. I wish we would have talked more about youth ministry and how to get kids to fall in love with Jesus.

If I was to have a do-over with that conversation on tongues, I would probably want to find out exactly HOW they used tongues in their church. My faith tradition has always acted as if the New Testament clearly regulates how church SINGING is to be done (though nothing very specific mentioned). But Paul regulates speaking in TONGUES about as specifically as the Old Testament regulates the offering of sacrifices. Notice just a portion of our reading today from 1 Corinthians 14—

6 Now, brothers, if I come to you and speak in tongues, what good will I be to you, unless I bring you some revelation or knowledge or prophecy or word of instruction? 7 Even in the case of lifeless things that make sounds, such as the flute or harp, how will anyone know what tune is being played unless there is a distinction in the notes? 8 Again, if the trumpet does not sound a clear call, who will get ready for battle? 9 So it is with you. Unless you speak intelligible words with your tongue, how will anyone know what you are saying? You will just be speaking into the air. 10 Undoubtedly there are all sorts of languages in the world, yet none of them is without meaning. 11 If then I do not grasp the meaning of what someone is saying, I am a foreigner to the speaker, and he is a foreigner to me. 12 So it is with you. Since you are eager to have spiritual gifts, try to excel in gifts that build up the church.

It is obvious from 1 Corinthians 14 that Paul expected everything that was done in church to encourage and build-up the whole church. Because tongues (whatever they were) were by their very nature unintelligible to others, they were not to be used in church. Five words people could understand were better than ten thousand words in a tongue (v. 19). Tongues were flashy and could attract people's attention, but they could not teach. Tongues could encourage the heart of the one who was speaking, but they only confused other people who could not understand, especially those who were new to the church (v. 23). As far as the church was concerned, speaking in tongues was like speaking to the air (v. 9).

If someone today wants to speak in tongues (whatever that is) in their own private devotions at home, they get no argument from me. I no longer feel compelled to argue them out of the notion that God can still do that sort of thing today. As far as I’m concerned, God can do anything He wants to do. Paul accepts tongues (he spoke in tongues more than anyone), but he really did discourage their use in church. And if they are to be used in church at all, then Paul gives some very specific regulations on how they are to be used-- only 2 or 3 tongue-speakers were to soeak at any one service, they were to speak only one at a time, and they were to speak only if someone interpreted what they had said. That is very different from the way that I've seen tongues used in modern churches.

But after all, if you are going to do "Bible things," should you do them in "Bible ways?"