Speaking in Tongues:
Heavenly Gift or Earthly Fad?
It now comes time to answer the major question we have posed: Is speaking in tongues a heavenly gift or a fad of our time?
From the Scriptures we have looked at, speaking in tongues obviously had a limited and restricted use during New Testament times. It was identified by the Apostle Paul as inferior to prophesying (preaching/witnessing). As we noted, Paul said he “would rather speak five intelligible words to instruct others than 10,000 words in a tongue” I Corinthians 14:19.
In view of the clear teaching of the New Testament, why is there so much emphasis on this gift in so many churches? Why are classes conducted to teach people how to speak in tongues? Why are entire congregations being encouraged to “speak in tongues?” Why are people made to feel inferior and incomplete as Christians in these churches because they have not experienced “tongues?”
The simple answer to these and other questions is that “tongues” has become an earthly fad. It is not the gift Paul described and proscribed in his first Corinthian letter. The Apostle Paul uncovered the motivation behind those who were abusing this and other gifts in that church. The motivation had a corrupt center that led the Corinthian church and leads churches today to abuse and mock spiritual gifts and their God-intended use.
Spiritual gifts are given to build up His church, to help us grow as Christians, to have us encourage others in their faith. Instead, what did Paul observe? What would he say today about the abuse of spiritual gifts seen in many churches.
The Abuse of the Lord’s Supper at Corinth
In the eleventh chapter, we see the underlying motivation in the church at Corinth. Remember, the church is supposed to be unified in building people up. We are to help each other become more like the Son of God, “to be conformed to His likeness.” “For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers” (Romans 8:29).
In his second letter to the Corinthian church, he said, “And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit” (II Corinthians 3:18).
The spiritual gifts were distributed by God to bring us into that maturing process, to be “transformed into his likeness.” As with the Lord’s Supper, they were abusing those gifts for their own purposes. Can you locate the primary motivation in the following verses?
“In the following directives I have no praise for you, for your meetings do more harm than good. In the first place, I hear that when you come together as a church, there are divisions among you, and to some extent I believe it. No doubt there have to be differences among you to show which of you have God’s approval. When you come together, it is not the Lord’s Supper you eat, for as you eat, each of you goes ahead without waiting for anybody else. One remains hungry, another gets drunk. Don’t you have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing. What shall I say to you? Shall I praise you for this? Certainly not!” (I Corinthians 11:17-22).
Members of the Corinthian church were using spiritual gifts attempting to “show which of them had God’s approval.” Pride, the sin which caused the downfall of Satan from heaven (Isaiah 14:12-15) and which is the essence of all rebellion against God and His Kingdom, was at the bottom of the abuse of God’s gifts to His Church. These people thought that by “displaying” the spectacular gifts they could prove their spiritual superiority over others. It then spilled over into the Lord’s Supper. In this part of his letter, Paul chastised them for their worldly and un-Christ-like actions and attitude.
The Apostle Paul had already exposed this sin in the church. In the third chapter, he told them, “I could not address you as spiritual but as worldly—mere infants in Christ . . . For since there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not worldly? (3:1-4). In the fourth chapter, he continued, “ ‘Do not go beyond what is written.’ Then you will not take pride in one man over against another. For who makes you different from anyone else? What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as though you did not?” (4:6, 7). “Some of you have become arrogant as if I were not coming to you. But I will come to you very soon . . . and then I will find out not only how these arrogant people are talking, but what power they have” (4:18, 19). Other sections of this letter support the conclusion that pride was the basis for their worldly conduct and abuse of spiritual gifts.
Is it speculation, then, to conclude that the push today in so many places for spectacular gifts has a corrupt center? It may well be that at the core is the lusting after a demonstration of power to “show that we have God’s approval.” We want others to believe we have a direct pipeline into heaven. From what Paul identified about the abuse of gifts, just the opposite is true. They are sinning!
Jesus Himself gave ample warning. “Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them.” Matthew 7:15, 16, 20.
What is the Proof of the Spirit’s Presence?
Perhaps you are a young Christian. You truly desire to be all God wants you to be. Maybe you have been tempted to seek some spectacular spiritual gift to let others know “you have it.” Well, friend, the Scriptures have not left you to your own devices. God does give His gifts to His children. But they are not for personal display. They are for growing and maturing the members of the Body of Christ.
Moreover, God does give us something He wants on display—every day of our lives. Paul talked about it to the church at Galatia. To them, he wrote, “So I say, live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature . . . But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such there is no law (it’s OK to put them on display!). Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other” (Galatians 5:16-26).
The gift of prophesy (preaching/proclaiming/ witnessing) Scripture reveals, is a magnificent gift from God. Paul said they should be eager for that gift, to seek after it. And the fruit of the Spirit (produced in our lives), love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control will enable whatever you say to be far more effective than going after some fad.
The Apostle Peter repeated the same teaching: “The end of all things is near. Therefore be clear minded and self-controlled so that you can pray. Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins. Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling. Each of you should use whatever gift he (she) has received to serve others, faithfully administering God’s grace in its various forms” (I Peter 4:7-10).
The word of caution from all these verses is that we should be apprehensive of any person or group that uses speaking in tongues or other outward “spiritual” manifestation for any other purpose than to serve others and to bring people into Christian maturity. Emotional experiences have always proven to be unstable ground upon which to build our faith in God. The Scriptures must be the basis for our doctrine and conduct.
Using God’s Spiritual Gifts
Having reached this point, we should take one further step. You have come to the edge of the water. You have felt the invigorating freedom that comes from looking to the Scriptures as your guide. Yet, you know there is more. Have you found a place where you can truly use the gift(s) that God has given you? Perhaps at one time you knew God’s gift for you, but over years of disuse, it has withered away in your Christian experience. You just don’t know what to do.
That means you are now ready to move forward into God’s purpose for you life. King Solomon said it so clearly. “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight” (Proverbs 3:5, 6). When you want direction, go to Him. When you want wisdom, go to Him. When you don’t know what to do, God wants to hear from you. When you reach the end of your rope, you will find God waiting for you.
Do as we have done throughout these pages. What has God said about using your gift? Look at chapter four of Ephesians.
1. You have received a call to serve God (4:1)
2. God has given you special grace to do what He has asked you to do (4:7)
3. As you follow through with what God has gifted you to do, the “body of Christ is built up” (4:12)
4. By using your gift, you and others become mature Christians reaching the full measure of what Christ wants for us
5. As we grow in Christ, we gain stability and strength, and become more confident in our Christian walk (4:14)
6. “As each part does its work,” the fellowship of believers grows in love, becoming more Christ-like (4:15, 16)
Yes, you say, that’s what I want! How can I begin?
Start Where You Are
God had a great task He wanted Moses to perform. Moses argued with God telling Him (his Creator) he couldn’t do it. He said, “It’s impossible for me.” God said, “Yes, I know you can’t do it.” But remember God’s great question to Moses? He asked, “What is that in your hand?” Exodus 4:2. All God wants from any of us is to give Him what we have. He never asks us to give Him what we don’t have.
So, to paraphrase God’s question, “What do you have that you can let God use?” Start with the smallest group (fellowship) you are a part of. Is it your family? Perhaps a small group you meet with regularly? Or, even your Sunday School Class. That is where you begin.
Are you sure? Yes. Moses’ staff, an ordinary piece of wood he used in caring for his father-in-law’s sheep, God used to accomplish His will. That common, ordinary piece of wood found itself in the presence of Pharoah, at the dividing of the Red Sea waters, at the bringing of water from a rock and probably on Mt. Sinai in the presence of God Himself at the giving of the Ten Commandments. That common, insignificant piece of wood, given over to God’s service, became an extraordinary instrument in His hand.
Meet with the Master each day, asking Him what use He has for your gift in His hand for that day. As you daily explore God’s Word, the Bible, God the Holy Spirit will show you how you can use the “staff” He has gifted you with. The Word and the Spirit are never in conflict (John 15:26). Like Moses, you will never dream today what God has in store for your gift. When Moses called upon God, He revealed His will for that staff in Moses’ hand. If we fail to exercise His gift, God’s hands are tied.
Let your Christian friends know what you are doing. Encourage them to join with you in prayerful use of their gifts as well. Support them in prayer. Encourage them to be daily into God’s Word. As you grow in God’s grace, you will find others ways to “make the most of every opportunity” God places before you. Ephesians 5:16.
My prayer for you is that found at the conclusion of Paul’s second letter to the church at Corinth. “May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all” (II Corinthians 13:13).