If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels… (part 2)

Speak in tongues? I think we often forget that 1 Corinthians 12-14 is part of a larger letter that was addressed to an entire community of believers. We tend to take this passage and apply it (or at least large parts of it) to our personal faith expressions and not see it in its community context. Paul’s words here are to an entire community who had apparently written him with some questions they would like to have addressed (as well as some correction that Paul felt needed to happen). This is important to remember. Too much (I feel) of our talk about the subject of “miraculous” spiritual gifts has begun and centered around personal experiences. While experience should never be ignored, it cannot be the litmus test and compass by which we navigate this topic.

Paul’s first words in this passage steer us away from blindly following experience. The people of Corinth may have been familiar with ecstatic expressions of worship to various idols and gods that created the Roman pantheon.  As real as those experiences might be, there is something distinctly different about spiritual gifts incited by the one true God. No longer are we led about by mute idols. There is an active, living God that is at work in our community of faith, indeed in our very persons. When the Spirit of God is at work in the lives, hearts, and minds of people, he will bring out the confessional proclamation “Jesus is Lord!” This confession is a litmus test of sorts, as well as ties together the individual and the community of faith. So, right from the start, we are faced with the communal nature and purpose of the various gifts the Spirit activates in each of us.

All Together Now

The metaphor of a body made of various parts strengthens this idea, as well as points out an important fact: we are not all the same. Not all are given the same spiritual gifts, and this is ok. In fact this is essential. To use Paul’s metaphor, we can’t all be a hand or an eye. The entire community suffers if we all are seeking the same gifts and functions. This is one of the reasons Paul then admonishes us all to seek love above all. If we are loving each other, there is not going to be a scramble to prove our spiritual prowess with spectacular displays of majestic power. When we love, we are patient, kind, not boastful and full of envy. A community that is in love functions with the harmony of a healthy body. Love is the reason behind the gifts, it is what will last into eternal life, and it is the greatest of the things that make up a believing life.

The community and the way of love: these form the back drop for the expression of spiritual gifts. With this context, are we surprised at Paul’s words:

Since you are eager for manifestations of the Spirit, seek to abound in them in order to strengthen the church. (14.12)

The concept here is spiritual gifts are given by the Spirit for the purpose of building up a community of believers so that the confession “Jesus is Lord” is professed and proclaimed by all. Spiritual gifts are not a spectacular showcase of things to be amazed at. They are not designed to bring glory to an individual. Spiritual gifts have one (two-fold) purpose: to manifest the grace of God in the midst of his people and to grow us all up into the kingdom of God.

Tongues that say “Jesus is Lord”

So then, what about tongues? I mean, how does an ecstatic utterance of prayer or doxology serve that purpose?

While I believe that in the proper expression, the gift of tongues has its place in the body, I think that some “experienced based theology” about the gift that needs to be addressed

First of all, we have to understand that tongues are not some divine seal, proving that the Spirit is working through an individual. Tongues are not proof of some divine authority. Neither are tongues proof of some sort of second blessing, an extra dose of salvation. Paul simply does not treat the gift this way in the passage.

Second, the gift of tongues is not a more intimate or direct communication with God. Every believer has the exact same access to God the Father through God the Son, empowered by God the Spirit. Since we have already seen Paul state quite plainly that not every one is given the same spiritual gifts, it would be wrong of us to assume every believer should have the gift of tongues. Since it is not for every believer, why would God give a more intimate or direct communication to some of his people? That doesn’t add up. Hebrews 9-10 makes it pretty clear that Jesus’ sacrifice alone makes way for our direct access to God.

Third (and perhaps the harshest), an expression of ecstatic utterance doesn’t automatically mean someone has the gift of tongues. A wide variety of religions and spiritual practices have a practice of ecstatic utterances. A miraculous sign (such as tongues) does not prove God is at work. Again, we look back to the litmus test: is the gift bringing out the confessional proclamation, “Jesus is Lord!”?

In the interest of honesty and full disclosure, I want to share my experience with the gift of tongues. I grew up around a strong Charismatic/Pentecostal influence. Speaking in tongues was always understood to be the “baptism of the Holy Spirit” and was thought to be a normative part of the Christian journey. My views on the gift have changed (I no longer equate it with the baptism of the Spirit, nor do I expect every Christian to have this gift), however it is still a part of my life with Jesus. One night in ’89 or so, I woke up at about 2am speaking in tongues. Ever since then, I have used this gift at various  times in my life for prayer, praying for others. In my personal experience, it has led me to praise and proclaim, “Jesus is Lord!”. Every time I have seen it used to build up the body of Christ, it has led to this confession. When I have seen it abused, it has been about personal glory, jockeying for authority, and/or harmful theology.

Yes, I believe the gift of tongues has an important role in the modern (or even post-modern) church… but I believe that every gift should be rightly expressed and lead us to proclaim to the world “Jesus is Lord!”

  • Before I comment any further, I’m curious. You mentioned your personal experience of speaking in tongues one night in ’89. I am going to assume here that you were a child or pre-teen years. What was going on in your life or in your church that would have prompted you to start speaking in tongues that early in life?

    • Julie, honestly I can’t remember. I was 9(ish) at the time. I don’t recall there being anything too special going on in life. I do remember praying to be “baptized in the Spirit” (as I understood it at the time) around that time in my life. Other than that, sorry I don’t have more details.

  • Well you just blew up every reason I had been told that people should speak in tongues. LOL
    I’m curious to see where you find the evidence to support your three points above. I can’t think of it now, but I vaguely remember scripture saying that speaking in tongues is an indication of a baptism in the spirit. I could be wrong, though. Just curious.

    Great post though, man. I speak in tongues quite a bit during my personal prayer time. It is an edifying act and helps me encounter God in a deeper way but, like you, my thoughts on the gifts of the spirit have changed drastically over the years, especially after seeing some people abuse those gifts.

    • Sweet! I like it when I blow up peoples traditional thinking. 😉

      I will address this a bit more in the next post in the series, but I think we get “baptized in the Spirit” and seeing God confirm he is moving in a new people group (in the book of Acts) confused.

      Over all, my backing evidence for my three points about what the gift of tongues is not comes from a study of world religions, reading what the Bible says about it (OT and NT), and seeing an abuse of the gift, as well as an unhealthy response to what I believe to be an active gift. Much of my thinking comes from taking the 1 cor passage at face value though. I mean, Paul lays stuff out pretty clear. If we believe that all scripture points us to Jesus, then we have to see Jesus in this passage as well. I’ll try an pull together the other scriptures I have in mind when talking about this topic, just for reference sake.

      • I look forward to reading it!

        I don’t necessarily disagree, I’m just not one to take what other people say at face value without some kind of reference. I’ve operated in the gifts long enough that this isn’t much of a topic for me anymore. Working with college students, I’m more concerned about helping them grow more mature and deeper in their faith, and seeing them lit with a passion for God, then explaining the baptism in the spirit. I operate in my gifts, and my students see some of it (my main gift is prophecy and words of wisdom/knowledge – not sure which). I pray and speak over them all the time, but avoid the crazy weird feeling of making it seem über spiritual.

  • Marc Cortez

    I really appreciated your point about making sure that we’re reading 1 Cor 12-14 in the context of the rest of the book. You are absolutely right that we tend to isolate these and read through through the lens of our own situations and interests. 

    I also completely agree that we need to reject the notion that speaking in tongues somehow provides “access” to God that is qualitatively different (and more intimate) than that available to people who don’t speak in tongues. We can certainly say that for a particular individual speaking in tongues might provide a more intimate engagement with God than some other practice (e.g. hearing a sermon), in the same way that music often functions that way for me. So we can affirm the intimacy that many experience without suggesting that anyone without tongues lacks that intimacy.

    The biggest push back that you’ll get on the idea that tongues does not constitute evidence of spirit baptism will come from the narratives in Acts. I assume you’ll address that at some point, though.

    Nice post.

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