Q – I have a question for you. I have been tempted to visit this fairly large (actually huge) Church of God. I bet there at least 1,000 or 2,000 (if not more) members – which I think is too large, people get lost in the crowd. In any event, my problem with the Church of God is the speaking in tongues thing. What are your thoughts on the subject? I’m sure you must have addressed this at some point. Any guidance or thoughts? I would like to know your perspective on this.
Jim – So, speaking in tongues, eh? I do have an opinion (as you might expect). I’ve been asked about it frequently because there’s plenty of confusion out there. But, there doesn’t need to be.
The Greek word that is translated “tongues” is “glossa” – from which we get the English word “glossary.” It should have been translated “language,” but during the days of King James (1611) the word “tongue” was synonymous with “language.” For instance, we still talk about people who speak a “foreign tongue.” And, that’s the way the word is used in the Bible. It means, “spoken language.”
Now, the first place where the phenomenon of men speaking in languages they didn’t naturally speak was on the day of Pentecost, at the inception of the Church. Peter stood up to speak, but his audience was filled with Jews from all over the middle Asia area, who spoke a variety of languages and dialects.
“And, they (the apostles) were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance. And there were dwelling at Jerusalem Jews, devout men, out of every nation under heaven. Now when this was noised abroad, the multitude came together, and were confounded, because that every man heard them speak in his own language.” (Acts 2:4-6)
What should be instantly obvious from that passage was that the apostles spoke actual foreign languages in order that the multitude could all understand. That’s what “tongues” was all about and what the purpose was. Without the methods and means of mass communication that we have available today, every area developed languages and dialects unique to themselves. But, when the time came for the Gospel of Christ to be spread abroad, the message was carried by fishermen, tax collectors, zealots and the like who spoke Greek and some Aramaic.
“And they (the men from every nation) were amazed and marvelled, saying one to another, Behold, are not all these which speak Galilaeans? And how hear we every man in our own tongue, wherein we were born? Parthians, and Medes, and Elamites, and the dwellers in Mesopotamia, and in Judaea, and Cappodocia, in Pontus, and Asia, Phrygia, and Pamphylia, in Egypt, and in the parts of Libya about Cyrene, and strangers of Rome, Jews and proselytes, Cretes and Arabians, we do hear them speak in our tongues the wonderful works of God. And, they were all amazed, and were in doubt, saying one to another, What meaneth this?” (Acts 2:7-12)
So, God miraculously caused the Apostles to speak languages that were unknown to them and caused the listeners to hear in their own language. And, the gospel of grace spread. But again, it’s obvious that the “tongues” spoken by the Apostles were known, definable languages, not babble or gibberish.
As Paul journeyed through his ministry, he encountered many languages and preached nonetheless. As the Church grew, the gifts of the Spirit spread in order to promote the message of grace. But, some began to abuse the gifts and Paul had to correct them –
“I thank my God, I speak with tongues more than ye all; yet in the church I had rather speak five words with my understanding, that by my voice I might teach others also, than ten thousand words in an unknown tongue.” (1 Cor.14:19-20)
Paul went on to instruct the Corinthian church that tongues were not to be exercised in the church meetings. The gift of tongues was a method for preaching and evangelizing among the lost. But, the church was to gather for the purpose of reading, studying, preaching and exhorting through the Word.
“Wherefore tongues are for a sign, not to them that believe, but to them that believe not; but prophesying [preaching the word] serveth not for them that believe not, but for them which believe. If therefore the whole church be come together into one place, and all speak with tongues, and there come in those that are unlearned, or unbelievers, will they not say that ye are mad?” (1 Cor. 14:22-23)
So, Paul was quite clear that speaking with tongues – other known, spoken, extant languages of the day – was for a sign to unbelievers and not something to be exhibited in the church. In the church, preaching and teaching are the priority.
Now, when most people think of “speaking in tongues” they mean the sort of ecstatic utterances that we see on TBN or in Assembly of God churches. The people who exercise that sort of activity call themselves “Pentecostal” to connect themselves with the gifts that appeared at the first Pentecost. Or, they are known as “Charismatic” from the Greek word for gifts of the Spirit – “charis.” That word is also translated “grace” in many passages.
There is no evidence in Scripture that any of the apostles or early church members ever broke into fits of uncontrolled verbiage and noises. When the Spirit spoke through the Apostles, it spoke a language known by the hearers for the purpose of advancing the gospel message.
The primary verse that the proponents of ecstatic utterance use is from 1 Corinthians 13:1. It’s the beginning of Paul’s great treatise on love and charity. From the context it’s clear that Paul is speaking in hyperbole, overstating his case, in order to prove that charitable love is the greatest Christian virtue. It reads –
“Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal. And, though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing. And, though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor and though I give my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing.” (1 Cor. 1-3)
Obviously, Paul was saying that even if he had every spiritual gift to the maximum but failed in charity, it was all pointless. But, at the top of his list he used the term “the tongues…of angels.” And, that did it. People have grabbed hold of that phrase and claim that their verbal recitations of noises and unknown, unrecognizable words are “the tongues of angels.” But, any honest reader of Paul’s words can see that Paul was not promoting the idea that angelic languages were suddenly available to mankind. He was saying that even if he spoke every language known among men and angels – a clear case of hyperbole – without Christian charity the sounds he made would sound like horns and cymbals.
Lastly, there’s considerable debate in the church-at-large about whether the gifts of the Spirit that are in evidence in the New Testament are available to us today. But, since we haven’t seen any people raised from the dead, blind eyes opened, or lepers completely healed, I think it’s hard to make the favorable case. Likewise, the ability to speak fluently in languages you’ve never studied was a necessary gift to get the Church of the ground and begin spreading the Good News. But, there is practically no language or corner of the known world where the message has not been spread. And, Bibles are printed daily in new languages and dialects. So, the necessity of “speaking in tongues” has waned.
Now, can God make men speak other languages if He wants to? Sure. But, it’s up to Him. Even at Pentecost, the Apostles were not going through the gyrations and techniques advocated by modern Pentecostals in order to stimulate tongue-talking. In fact, they weren’t expecting it at all. God simply spoke through them by His Spirit and they spoke languages that were unknown to them, but known to their listeners. And, they all glorified God as a result.
As far large churches uniting around tongue-talking, it does happen. Nothing unites people faster than a common experience. Like veterans getting together years after a war, they have a lasting bond because of the experience they shared. So, in order to build large congregations, many Pentecostal denominations insist that the only proof of the Spirit being in you – proof positive of your salvation – is that you talk in tongues. To be fair, many of them have backed off that position, seeing that it’s unscriptural, but there is still an undue emphasis on tongues in those churches.
There’s more to say, and Paul instructed the Corinthian church about how to keep from letting tongue-talking get out of control in their meetings, but I think this is a fair overview. As for me, I’m just a stickler for the Word and I try to adjust our theology and our worship accordingly.
Hope it helps.
Yours for His sake,