If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels… (part 1)

Speaking in Tongues?? A few days ago, Marc (@_MarcCortez), Julie (@InciteFaith) and myself got into a little discussion about speaking in tongues. I quickly decided that 140 characters was a bit too limited for my thoughts, so here’s a blog post about it. Strange how that works.

Julie’s original question (which I admit I kind of busted in on… but hey, twitter’s great for over hearing conversations you really want to jump in on) was simple enough,

” Speaking in Tongues. For or against? Why? or Why Not?”

This question however opens a big ol’ can of worms for us theological types. Smart men have discussed, debated, decried, demonstrated and other “d” words the gift of tongues for many years now. To put it mildly, the spiritual gift of tongues is one of those crazy parts of the bible that is really hard to wrap our understanding around. People lots smarter than me have said much more than I will about the topic, but I did want to share my experiences and understanding about this in hopes for some good, open conversation about such a weird topic.

Spiritual Gifts?

Before we go any further, I think that it is highly germane to this discussion to briefly discuss what the heck a spiritual gift is? I mean, are we talking like super powers that we get for believing in Jesus? Are these things everyone experiences? Are they just for the super spiritual/ultra crazy charismatic Christians? This in its self is a large topic worth many words in its own right. In order to not follow the rabbit trail too deep, lets say this for now: Spiritual gifts are a short hand way of talking about various ways that the Holy Spirit empowers all believers to manifest and display the grace of God for the common good of the community and the world. The Spirit of God does something in the person/heart/mind of a believer to creates a perfect storm of personality, abilities, and passion. The Spirit of God then supernaturally empowers and uses all of that to manifest his person and mission to the believer and the people in the believer’s life.

No matter how uncomfortable it makes us or how weird it seems, according to scripture, one of the ways the Spirit manifests the grace of God through some believers is the gift of “various tongues”… but what is the gift of tongues? Right from the get go, we encounter part of the controversy. the gift of tongues is either a) the supernatural ability to speak in an existing language that is currently unknown to the speaker (like if I suddenly busted out some Russian Jesus talk to some Russian dudes) or b) a language that has been divinely granted to the speaker for the sake of prayer, self edification, and possibly (if there is interpretation) teaching/exhortation.

Tongues… weird man.

Like I said, this is a weird topic. I mean, if we have such a hard time defining what this gift is, how can I even say if I think it is still an active gifts in the Church these days? How can I decide if we can’t even nail down what we are talking about?

The primary text for our discussion is 1 Corinthians 12-14. I do want to dive into this text in (relative) depth and find some biblical answers to help shape our thinking… but first, there is a nagging question I have. I really hope no one takes this the wrong way, but why does this even matter? I mean it’s not like we are talking about the nature of Christ or the trust worthiness of the Bible. This passage is relevantly small and obscure, and many churches don’t ever talk about it. Why should we spend time thinking about something that seems to only cause arguments and division, not to mention confusion.

To wrap up my first entry on this topic, I would like to say a few things to address this last question:

This topic, as weird as it is, matters because it involves who we are as the Church of God. If spiritual gifts are (as I mentioned above) given so that the community of believers is built up, and if tongues are a valid spiritual gift, we have to look at the implications for our Churches today. There are also many believers (myself included) who have had personal experiences with this gift. While we never want to build an understanding  solely off experience, experiences do shape how we understand things. Maybe there is a reason people still have these kind of experiences.

On the other hand, it may not matter. Truly, this could be nothing more than a theological exercise in thinking about weird,  things from the Bible… but it is in the Bible. That leads me to believe that there is a reason God has seen fit to record these words and pass them down to us. I think it is also important to remember that these words about tongues and spiritual gifts were not given to us apart from the larger context of God’s self-revelation and his story of redemption. These words are in the Bible. They are part of the Bible, which means they have a proper place in pointing us to Jesus and helping us to become like him and be a part of the Missio Dei.

I hope this conversation ultimately points us to Jesus. If it doesn’t, I have a feeling we are probably doing it wrong.

  • The way I am understanding it and the way I am trying to wrap my head around this topic is that
    speaking in tongues is proof that the Holy Spirit is speaking through someone. Speaking in tongues
    is essentially a “manifestation of the divine.” Speaking in tongues symbolizies *could* to unbelievers
    that God’s power is true but does it signifiy the Gospel? Does it communicate the Gospel? It *should.*

    My experience with speaking in tongues was that it was used in avenue of prayer. The shock
    of and the unfamiliarity I have with speaking in tongues is and was a new experience for me. Is it
    something *I* would personally do? No. Because I don’t feel that God gave me that spiritual gift.

    1 Corinthians 13:8

    “Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will
    be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away.”

    When you read that verse, what does it mean to you? Is it saying that love will inevitably surpass it all
    and all spiritual gifts will “pass away” because the only thing that should be left standing is love?

    I feel that the spiritual gift of tongues will “cease” when their purpose has been fulfilled. While
    we are given a spiritual gift when we become believers, some of us may be rewarded
    with a gift of speaking in tongues and most will not.

    For me, God’s Word is our ultimate source for truth and it is the gift given to us by God to spread
    and build up his Church. No speaking in tongues should be done unless interpreted correctly.
    Speaking in tongues is a gift that is given when the person is filled with the Holy Spirit. I believe
    speaking in tongues will cease when God’s revelation is complete.  More importantly,  God’s
    perfect revelation is found in His Word and no other revelation is needed. (Revelation 22:18)

    • Lots of questions and thoughts here. I do hope that my future posts address these things a bit more fully. For now, I would like to just say that every gift has it’s proper place. No gift, no matter how spectacular  can supplant or add to the message of scripture. I think this is part of Paul’s point at the beginning of chapter 12. As for 1 Cor 13.8, I think Jason nailed it below: there is a time when the purpose of all gifts is going to be fulfilled- the perfect one is coming to set all things right. In that day, all that will remain is love because everything else will have served it’s purpose (ie- pointing us and building us up towards Jesus). 

      As I said, I have more to say about all of this. Appreciate you’re interest.

  • This is one of those topics where it’s easy to get stuck in researching the theological arguments around it, and never understand it. I believe it’s important for us to understand what scripture says about this gift, as it’s important to understand what scripture says about, well, everything, but it is a gift to be experienced, not dissected. It would be like if a loved one gave you a gift at Christmas and you researched everything you could about that gift, but never actually opened it and used it. You would know about the gift, but not the gift itself.

    I do speak in tongues, and it is a great edifying gift for myself, but it seems to get either way over-emphasized or way under-emphasized. It is a gift from God, but it is only the first in a long line of spiritual gifts. Some people get this gift and camp out on it – thinking they are no super holy or super spiritual and misuse it (interrupting services to speak out – think Holy Roller). Unless I told you, you probably wouldn’t know I speak in tongues because it’s not something to flash around. 

    As far as the scripture Julie mentioned about, 1 Corinthians 13:8, the gifts will fade away when we reach perfection – i.e. we receive our resurrected bodies in heaven. Cause we won’t need any spiritual gifts then – tongues, prophecy, words of wisdom or even faith. Until then, the gifts are there to be received if we are willing to take that same step of faith we took for salvation.

    • Jason, I agree that this is a more experiential gift than others, however I am overly cautious in letting our experiences give us our primary understanding about this gift. While I don’t feel right theoligizing about it and explaining it all away, we do need to be critical of all our religious experiences. Do they line up with 1 )what the Bible ways and 2) the point of the Bible (ie the self revelation of God in Jesus and the proclamation of his good news to all men). 

      Some critical, Jesus shaped thinking is needed in talking about this topic so that our experiences can be rightly expressed and understood.

      • Oh, I completely agree with you, and if my comment came off as otherwise it was by mistake. I was involved in a church for years that put experience as the primary understanding of any gift, which caused many people to be very immature in using what God has given them. The gifts were elevated as more valuable than community and practical outreach, which is not what Christ intended. When we don’t understand the gifts, we misuse and in many cases, abuse, the gifts can cause others to shy away from even the possibility of receiving those gifts.

  • Marc Cortez

    Good start to the discussion. I like the definition of spiritual gifts that you gave at the beginning: God powerfully/supernaturally using our “personality, abilities, and passion.” But it’s worth noting that this definition will struggle with the more “miraculous” gifts mentioned in the Bible. It’s hard to see how a miraculous healing can be an extension of any particular ability I might have.

    And I love the way you finished. The fact that this topic tends to get so divisive definitely indicates that we’re doing something wrong. I’ll be interested to see where you go next.

    • I would say that God would only give the gift of healing to someone who is naturally drawn to healing people. You are right in that there is not a way any one can miraculously heal from their own power(s), but that supernatural enabling isn’t (at least from what I have seen experientially and Biblically) going to be something that is foreign to the way they are already wired by God. 

      I would also draw a distinction between a supernatural event of healing and a person gifted with healing. For example, is every event of healing in Acts an example of the gift of healing? I would argue no… especially when we start looking at their relation to the “circles” of the great commission (Jerusalem, Judiea, Sameria, ends of the Earth).

  • We don’t have to speak in tongues; we get to speak in tongues.


    • What about the people that don’t get to speak in tongues? Not every gift is manifest in every believer.

      This topic has been so divisive, caused hurt and bad teaching, and has perpetually come up when ever Christians talk about the Holy Ghost working in his people. It may be simple for some, but it is far from an easy topic. I’m just trying to suggest some better questions and maybe some different answers to help us see Jesus better as we let him work in his people.

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