In 1 Cor. 12:30 Paul asks a rhetorical question, “Do all speak in tongues?” Remarkably, Pentecostals and non-Pentecostals agree that the answer to that question is “No, they do not”. In the context of Paul’s discussion in I Corinthians 12, where the context is spiritual gifts as they are used in a church setting, everyone agrees that not all speak in tongues. Regardless of your starting point, it’s universally agreed that if everyone speaks in tongues out loud at the same time we have one messy confusing church gathering.
Likewise, as to the context of I Corinthians 12-14, Pentecostals and non-Pentecostals agree: Paul is discussing the use of gifts of the Holy Spirit in a church setting. The areas where people do not agree focus on two major questions: “Did the gifts cease when the canon came into being?” and “Is speaking in tongues in a church setting, the same as speaking in tongues in one’s private prayer life?”
How Important Is This?
Being a planner, I struggled with the issue of tongues and gifts for a long time. Prior to becoming a Pentecostal minister, I struggled with “the initial physical evidence” for a long time. So if you struggle with this, you have company. You have questions that deserve answers and the scriptures have those answers.
Being honest, it takes a lot hermeneutic gymnastics to explain away the gifts of the Spirit. That is extremely inconvenient for those of us who like predictable things. While we love to sing that God is alive, we seem rather shocked that He has this plan to to actively participate in church gatherings. However, the Lord deemed the gifts so important that He devoted a great deal of scripture to instructing His people in the proper use of them. None of us want to lay claim to arrogance, but if the Lord God instructs us in the gifts so that His church might be healthy, who are we to say, “We have no need of them”? We cannot read Galatians 3, Romans 12, or these chapters in 1 Corinthians and escape the fact that a “normal church experience” as Christ intended church to be “normal” was meant to include the use of gifts of the Spirit. I can think of nowhere else in all of the New Testament where Christians are so eager to explain away three chapters of scripture.
Being stuck with the truth that “Gee, there’s a lot in there on gifts”, I had to work through the issues. People often enthusiastically point out that tongues are not that important because if we speak with tongues and have not love, we are like an annoying gong. This leads me to ask, “If we don’t speak in tongues and act like a loveless jerk, are we any less annoying?” Chapter 13 does not exist to belittle the gifts but to remind us they do not trump the fruit of the Spirit. By the time we get to I Cor. 13:10, we have to be grasping at straws to take the Greek word for “mature/perfect” and decide for this time and this time only in scripture, it really means “the authoritative canon of scripture”. It takes more faith to come up with that explanation and ignore three chapters of scripture than to simply read the text for what is says.
Unfortunately when I read the text I realize something that requires change on my part. We are living with far less than Jesus offers His church and we are so comfortable living with so little, we find it easier to justify our ease than to seek what we lack. We find church predictable and boring because we are by nature, predictable and boring. We’ve left so little room for God to move, and are terribly afraid of the consequences if He does. Yet we hold in our hands a very clear New Testament model of what a healthy church should look like.
Putting Tongues in Place
My first hurdle, personally, was to determine if Paul spoke about tongues as “a prayer language” that was distinct from the gift of tongues used to edify the church. In I Cor. 14. Paul explains why speaking in tongues in church without interpretation is counterproductive. He also teaches us the following concerning tongues:
Speaking in tongues is a form of speaking to God, by the power of God and it is a mystery (vs.2) that strengthens the person who is praying (vs. 3) Paul states his strong desires that everyone speak in tongues (vs. 5)* and boasts that he personally speaks in tongues more than everyone (vs.18). Tongues are a sign for “unbelievers” (vs. 22) and an expected part of church gatherings (vs. 26). The only limit he gives is that no more than two or three messages in tongues with interpretation should occur per meeting, so everyone in the church has a chance to contribute using his or her corporate gift. (vs. 27). Even as Paul reminds the Corinthians of the importance of orderly worship, he says clearly “don’t forbid speaking in tongues” (vs. 39).
The Big “But”
My original question was why anyone would think of tongues as “private prayer language” that was not one and the same as the gift listed in Chapter 12. (If Paul could have made paragraph breaks, used HTML and inserted emoticons, a lot of things would be easier to understand. Just saying….) The truth that praying in tongues privately, should not be confused with the gift of tongues spoken in a corporate setting as prompted by the Holy Spirit, is the very reason Paul had to write chapter 14. He spends so much time explaining the difference, that I nearly missed the glaringly obvious “but“. Paul’s boasts how much he spoke in tongues, privately, and the very next phrase is “But in church …”
Right there in front of me Paul made a distinction between speaking in tongues privately and speaking in tongues in church. Oops. In fact, he spent much of the chapter parsing the two that I couldn’t see the forest for the trees. So there I was, willing to consider that “mature/perfect” (I Cor. 13:10) might somehow be contorted to mean “the authoritative canon of scripture” yet I was overlooking a conjunction of contrast with an unmistakable meaning: “but”. Why? Because like most people I am tempted to harmonize my experience with scripture so I am comfortable with my lack. The real problem most of us have with scripture surrounding the gifts is they point out our church experience lacks what scripture says should be normative. That should not cause us to reinterpret scripture. It should cause us to earnestly seek that which we lack.
I had studied myself into a corner: Paul did indeed distinguish between praying in tongues privately and the gift of tongues as a sign to unbelievers. Like it or not, I had to dig deeper and so this series will continue….
Next Time: I Skinned My Shin on a Honda
*(The words “wish” or “could” are not in Greek, so adding them to English sounds like it would really great if people could speak in tongues but it is not actually possible. If Paul wanted to express wishful thinking, he would have used the subjunctive. Instead, Paul used the indicative form. Paul is expressing a strong desire that everyone speak in tongues, not to frustrate people who have not done so, or make them feel bad, but to encourage them to keep seeking.)