Speaking in Tongues–
The Spiritual Gift.
We now come to another area of controversy in the Christian church–the spiritual gift of speaking on tongues. Only one New Testament writer addressed the subject of speaking in tongues as a spiritual gift: The Apostle Paul in his first letter to the Corinthian church. As you read Paul’s letter, it is apparent that there were many problems in that church. If only on that basis, it could fit right into our own century. The Corinthian church was not unusual.
In I Corinthians 1:11, Paul wrote, “My brothers, some from Chloe’s household have informed me that there are quarrels among you.” From 7:1, 8:1, 12:1 and other indicators, the church had written Paul a letter asking him for specific teaching in various areas. For example, 7:1 starts: “Now for the matters you wrote about.” However, his most extensive response to them was about spiritual gifts, primarily about the priority between “speaking in tongues” and “prophecy” (preaching/witnessing). So while we are saddened at the church’s condition, the letter gives us some of Paul’s most important teaching such as that on love (13) and the resurrection (15).
As one reads the twelfth chapter of I Corinthians, it soon becomes evident that there were also abuses in the use of the spiritual gifts. Beginning with chapter fourteen, Paul focused on the gift of speaking in tongues. Looking ahead into II Corinthians, we note the Apostle does not again return to the subject of the gift of tongues. It could be that he believed the topic was already sufficiently dealt with or that the problem existing in the church at Corinth had been corrected. In his first letter, Paul explained spiritual gifts and their use as intended by the Lord of the Church. Let’s return to spiritual gifts in general before we examine “speaking in tongues.”
Spiritual Gifts–God’s Gifts to the Church
First, as we already discovered, God determines, assigns and works through spiritual gifts for the common good of the church (I Corinthians 12:4-7, 11). These are God’s gifts, given only at His discretion: “To one there is given through the Spirit the message of wisdom, to another the message of knowledge by means of the same Spirit, to another the gift of faith by the same Spirit” (I Corinthians 12:8-10).
Paul then developed an analogy between the Church of the Firstborn (the Body of Christ) and the human body. He made several comparisons:
1. The body is a unit—many parts, but one body. (12:12)
2. A body by its very nature functions because of the variety of parts that cannot be excluded. All are essential to form a body.
“If they were all one part, where would the body be?” (12:14- 20)
3. Since each part of the body relies on other parts, there must be mutual, supportive respect among the parts.
“The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I don’t need you!’ ” The parts “that seem to be weaker are indispensable.” (12:21-26)
Paul then coupled the analogy of the human body to the Church, the Body of Christ: “So it is with Christ. For we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body—whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free . . . Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it” (I Corinthians 12:12, 27).
In 12:28, the Apostle classified some parts that are present in the human body. Extending the analogy into the Body of Christ, he asked a number of rhetorical questions, “Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all have gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret?” (I Corinthians 12:29, 30).
Why these questions? It seems obvious from the overall context that a serious problem regarding spiritual gifts existed within the Corinthian church. Its members were trying to achieve the spectacular gifts, or, as we might say today, the “charismatic” gifts, and demeaning the less impressive gifts (sound familiar?).
Paul had just convincingly argued that the human body cannot function (or even be a body) if certain less desirable appearing parts were omitted. In addition, just as all body parts didn’t have the same function, neither did members within the Body of Christ. With this and other statements, he underscored two additional foundational principles regarding spiritual gifts: (1) Spiritual gifts are varied within a church; (2) Not everyone has the same gift.
Now, let’s recap the four general principles that govern spiritual gifts within a church:
1. Spiritual gifts are God’s gifts to give.
2. Spiritual gifts are for the benefit of others, not the gifted individual.
3. Spiritual gifts are varied within a church.
4. Not every person has the same gift within a church.
The Corinthian Church
This would be a good place to return to the earlier chapters of Paul’s letter to remind ourselves what he knew about this church. Corinth was a quarreling church (1:11). They were an immature church (3: 1). They were worldly (3:2, 3), and there was more (5:1, 2; 6:1-6). Here in chapter 12, Paul indicated that their interest in the gifts of the Holy Spirit was not so much a display of concern about the health of the church as an obsession to feed their own egos and pride.
But just as he was getting to the heart of the matter, Paul interrupted his discourse on spiritual gifts. To help end the squabbling and fighting and back stabbing that had been going on, Paul, in one of the most quoted chapters of the Bible, wrote his treatise on love that he described as “the most excellent way.”
In effect, he was saying, “You have lost your way. You have forgotten the basics. You have elevated the gift above the Giver, methods above the Message, love of power over the power of Love, your self over your Savior.” Even in the middle of his magnificent manifesto on love, he digressed momentarily to place a tombstone on top of what was at the core of their quarrel: “But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away” (I Corinthians 13:8).
The squabbling over the more remarkable gifts at the church in Corinth had a corrupt motivation. Their desire had been to increase their own status rather than to express Christ’s love from their hearts. Faith, hope and love, Paul wrote, are the eternally enduring qualities of Christian character and belief. But what were they spending their energies on? Does any of this sound familiar in today’s church environment?
Which gift seemed to be the one causing the most problems? In chapter 14, Paul identified “speaking in tongues” as the primary problem gift. He spent virtually the entire chapter in setting down guidelines for the use of tongues within the church. Notice how he opened this chapter. “Follow the way of love (chapter 13) and eagerly desire spiritual gifts, especially the gift of prophecy.” (14:1) If we see chapter 13 as a directed insertion into the teaching on the general subject here (spiritual gifts), the current of the Apostle’s statements about the body of Christ in chapter 12 flow into the chapter that follows, the fourteenth chapter.
In chapter 14, Paul created a list comparing the impact on the church between the gift of tongues and the gift of prophecy:
1. Preaching strengthens and encourages people; tongues do not (14:2, 3)
2. Preaching edifies the church; tongues edify one individual (14:4)
3. Preaching is the preferred gift over tongues (14:5)
4. Tongues must have interpretation to benefit the church (14:5)
5. The use of tongues without revelation or knowledge or instruction is meaningless; be believers should try to excel in the gifts that build the church (14:6-12)
6. Praying in tongues without interpretation doesn’t edify others in the church (14:13- 17)
7. Paul said,“In the church I would rather speak five intelligible words to instruct others than ten thousand words in a
tongue” (14:18, 19)
8. Paul admonished those in the Corinthian church to “be adults” (grow up) (14:20; 3:1)
9. Tongues are a sign to those who do not believe while preaching is for believers (14:22)
10. The use of tongues in the presence of the unsaved will drive them away (14:23)
11. Preaching brings unbelievers into conviction of sin and commitment to God
Paul then underlined his concluding remarks on the subject of tongues and preaching: “What then shall we say, brothers?” (14:26). What stronger evidence could he produce supporting the primacy of prophecy (preaching/proclaiming) over speaking in tongues? How is it in your church?
The Apostle then wrote down rules to govern both the use of tongues and preaching in the church; all were to be done to strengthen the church (14:26-33).
Speaking in Tongues Preaching in Church
1. No more than two or three 1. Two or three to speak,
may so speak others listen 2. They must speak in order 2. If others sitting down have a revelation, each
may speak in turn so all
are instructed and
3. Without an interpreter, the 3. The “spirits” of prophets speaker is to remain silent are subject to the prophets
Often lost in the debate over the gift of tongues is Paul’s declaration about God’s provision for control over the church service. “The spirits of the prophets are subject to the control of the prophets. For God is not a God of disorder but of peace” (I Corinthians 14:32, 33). Again, how is it in your church?
As already noted, no other New Testament writer discussed the subject of the gift of tongues in any other book. The Apostle Paul explicitly confirmed the primacy of preaching over tongues. Further, to declare that he would rather speak five words in a known language rather than 10,000 in an unknown language is a forceful guide of what should be important to us. That provides ample Scriptural basis for readers to examine their own life and church to determine how we measure up to God’s Word.
Another point to consider is that when Paul and the other Apostles and writers of the New Testament were alive, the church did not have a “New Testament.” Even the gospels, in written form, were unavailable to most people. Spiritual gifts were given by God for the benefit of the church so that believers would mature.
To anyone today who makes a “big deal” of speaking in tongues—either pro or con—we pose a question: How much time are you spending daily in the Word of God? Isn’t it hypocritical to claim certain “gifts” from the God of the Bible and then ignore God’s Book? Likewise, can we boast we have the gifts of the Spirit while never exhibiting the fruit of the Spirit? Scripture declares that those who claim to be Christ’s followers ought to live like it.
“Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the sinful nature with its passions and desires. 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 5:22-26; see 4:6, 7).