The “Speaking In Tongues” Controversy: The Dark Side of Neo-Pentecostalism

I was raised in the classical Pentecostal tradition, and I saw all sides of the movement. I saw real men interested in authentic Christianity, and I also saw really bad things (things that I prefer not speaking about). I can recall asking my mother what the syllables were that a random lady uttered, and I was told “the Holy Spirit is speaking through her.” Now, I still consider myself a continuationist, and part of a church family where the common consensus is that the spiritual gifts still continue. However, over the years  I have come to witness some of the darker sides in both the charismatic and Pentecostal church.


I would like to deal head-on with the doctrine concerning speaking in tongues. The issue I am addressing in this post is not so much, “have the gifts cease?” but rather something else–”what does the Bible teach concerning this?” Let me be more specific–it is common in charismatic circles for them to encourage people to “speak in tongues.” I remember being in a youth meeting where two or three girls were encouraged as they wept, that God was filling them with his Spirit, and that they simply needed to speak, but not in English (I am not sure how that would work). So, they did exactly that. There was a hype in this youth movement, but sadly after all of the supposed manifestations of the Spirit–many of those who experienced God, are not serving God in any capacity today, turning back however to the topic was the issue of speaking in tongues. Many charismatics would be emphatic of the view that “speaking in tongues” is for all Christians, and that we should seek for it, now that sounds extremely great but is it biblical? I have found it unfortunate that much of the charismatic movement have focused so much on this gift. I have seen much of this theology covering the Pentecostal and Charismatic world. So is it true? Is speaking in tongues meant for all? I do not believe that this is the case, and I believe Scripture gives us direct verses which implies with the clear answer, “no.” I do not mean to be provocative or condescending in this, but I do believe this doctrine has hurt many in the church, many leaving charismaticism because they would be socially shunned because of their spiritual inferiority of not being able to speak in tongues. However let me appeal to what the Scripture says:

  • The gift of speaking in tongues is given as the Spirit wills:

“All these are empowered by one and the same Spirit, who apportions to each one individually as he wills (καθως βουλεται).” (1 Corinthians 12:11, ESV, brackets are my own additions)

This text speaks of “the spiritual,” by implication “the spiritual [gifts].” It lists some of the specific gifts that Paul deals with throughout, one of them being tongues (v. 8-9). It is interesting however that it speaks of the Spirit’s sovereignty in the giving of the gifts, which lines up elsewhere with the Ephesians 4:11-12 gifts given by Christ. This emphasizes that all gifts are given sovereignty by God.

Paul continues sayings:

”For as the body is one, and has many members, and all the members of the body, being many, are one body; so also is Christ. 13. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether bond or free; and were all given to drink into one Spirit. 14. For the body is not one member, but many. 15. If the foot would say, “Because I’m not the hand, I’m not part of the body,” it is not therefore not part of the body. 6. If the ear would say, “Because I’m not the eye, I’m not part of the body,” it’s not therefore not part of the body. 17. If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole were hearing, where would the smelling be? 18. But now God has set the members, each one of them, in the body, just as he desired. 19. If they were all one member, where would the body be? 20. But now they are many members, but one body.” (1 Corinthians 12:12-20)

The emphatic premise of the texts of 1 Corinthians 12 tells us that the working of the Spirit in everyone’s lives are different, and by implication not all have the same function (gifting/manifestation). Speaking in tongues, is a manifestation of the Spirit, by the flow of Paul’s argument–we cannot have the same gifting, thus meaning speaking in tongues is not given to all (he even implies this directly, but I will return to this point soon–v.27-31).

  • Outside of 1 Corinthians 12-14 and Acts, speaking in tongues is not mentioned:

Outside of the occurences in Acts, and 1 Corinthians 12:14 we are not really given indication that speaking in tongues is even given much thought. It is not legitimate to claim “praying in the Spirit” mentioned in Jude 20, and Ephesians 6:18. Why? Let me demonstrate:

“Praying in my spirit” “Praying in the Spirit”

 

For if I pray in another language, my spirit prays, but my understanding is unfruitful (1 Corinthians 14:14)

 

English: But you, beloved, keep building up yourselves on your most holy faith, praying in the Holy Spirit (Jude 20)

 

 

with all prayer and requests, praying at all times in the Spirit, and being watchful to this end in all perseverance and requests for all the saints (Ephesians 6:18)

The difference between these two is that with speaking in tongues, even though it is a Holy Spirit manifestation, it is the person’s spirit praying. In these other instances, it is simply praying by influence of the Spirit. It is integral that with tongues it is specifically with our spirits that we pray, the other instances states that we are simply praying in sync with God’s Holy Spirit.

Praying in tongues may be a way of praying in the Spirit, but to equate the two are exegetically indefensible since in these other non-1 Corinthians instances tongues is nowhere mentioned. When reading Ephesians 6:18 in context we read,

”with all prayer and requests, praying at all times in the Spirit.” How will we be praying in tongues, if this applies to all our prayer and requests? Praying in tongues is not done with understanding (1 Corinthians 14:2), so the “all speaks in tongues” audience are forcing things into God’s word. This verse means, “to be joined with “praying.” It is he in us, as the Spirit of adoption, who prays, and enables us to pray.” It does not mean speaking in tongues, it simply means to pray in sync with God’s Spirit.

  • The teaching that all speak in tongues is denied by explicit Scripture

We will return to 1 Corinthians 12, where the gifts are given according to the Spirit’s distribution and giving. It is interesting that this chapter ends with this,

“28. God has set some in the assembly: first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracle workers, then gifts of healings, helps, governments, and various kinds of languages. 29. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Are all miracle workers? 30. Do all have gifts of healings? Do all speak with various languages? Do all interpret? 31. But earnestly desire the best gifts. Moreover, I show a most excellent way to you.” (12:28-31)

The argumentation that Paul is presenting here is simple: the Spirit gives according to what He desires. It goes further, God has not made us to function the same way. He goes on asking rhetorical questions, starting with whether or not all are apostles. In Greek the question’s rhetorical nature is seen by the word μη, meaning “no” or “not.” The implied answer is not all are apostles, prophets, teachers, miracle workers. He goes further, not all have the gift of healing, not all have the gift of speaking in tongues, and not all have the gift of the interpretation of tongues.

Some charismatics have tried arguing, “yeah because there is a difference between public and private tongues.” Wait a second, that is not found in the line of argumentation, nowhere in this text does Paul imply this, if this were the case it becomes their burden to prove that this is referring to public tongues. It is indefensible hermeneutics that would lead anyone to argue this. It is interesting that Paul states we should rather desire prophecy more than we do the gift of speaking in tongues (1 Corinthians 14:2).

Conclusion

The claim that speaking in tongues are for all Christians is a teaching entirely absent from the Scripture, and I would suggest we stay clear from forcing others to speak in tongues. By all means, let us encourage that they seek spiritual gifts (of which tongues are one, and only one), but let us not force an unnecessary standard or demand on them.

 

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