K Neill Foster

Tongues - True and False?


Is speaking in tongues a badge of spiritual accomplishment? Can I be a totally dedicated Christian without this gift? Is it the evidence of the fullness of the Holy Spirit? Are nonó Christians ever tongues-speakers? Did the need for this gift pass with the apostles? Can Satan counterfeit tongues? Should I seek tongues?

More than ever people today keep posing such questions. Since the news media publicized Episcopalian Dennis Bennett's resignation from his California pastorate in 1960 because of criticism of his tongues-speaking, the charismatic movement has flourished, attracting a host of disciples from vastly different denominations ranging from Baptists to Roman Catholics. Gifts such as healing and the interpretation of tongues have also been revived.

Two extreme views on tongues are being propagated. One equates the baptism in the Holy Spirit with tongues. Neo-Pentecostalism often asserts that the gift of tongues is the unique, decisive evidence that a person has been filled with the Holy Spirit. In the Book of Acts, however, the gift of tongues is mentioned in only three instances, though many were filled with the Spirit.

A second extreme, hyperdispensationalism, claims that tongues passed with the apostolic age. Many traditional denominationalists agree. Most or all gifts of the Spirit have allegedly been withdrawn because they are no longer needful, they say.

The tongues phenomenon in Acts 2:4 ff. was clearly associated with the mighty outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost. Here was a public manifestation unquestionably involving known languages (Acts 2:6, 8-11I). In his penetrating sermon that day Peter urged upon his listeners repentance unto conversion (Acts 2:38, 40-41). He promised converts the gift of the Holy Ghost (Acts 2:38), asserting that the promise of the Spirit's outpouring was not merely for the 120, but for "as many as the Lord our God shall call" (Acts 2:39).

Note that Peter did not promise everyone would receive a manifestation of tongues. His quotation from Joel referred instead to the gift of prophecy, along with supernatural visions and dreams, for the recipients of the outpouring.

But certain others after Pentecost did acquire the gift of tongues. Peter was astounded when Gentiles burst out in tongues while he preached to the household of Cornelius (Acts 10:45-46). Although Scripture never portrays tongues as the essential evidence of the Spirit's baptism, yet here the manifestation of tongues was one evidence to Peter of this fact.

We conclude that tongues were not a once-for-all gift at Pentecost. And Gentile believers could share that gift. Later, when Paul had laid hands on some converts at Ephesus, two gifts of the Spirit were demonstrated-- tongues and prophecy (Acts 19:6).

Elsewhere the Book of Acts is silent about tongues. Many were filled with the Holy Spirit as an impressive array of passages demonstrates: Acts 4:8,31; 5:32; 6:3, 5; 7:55; 8:14-17; 9:17; 11:24; 13:9, 52. The supposition that Simon the sorcerer was bartering for the ability to transmit the gift of tongues cannot be proven.

Although Luke's Gospel mentions individuals becoming filled with the Holy Spirit prior to Pentecost (Luke 1:15, 41, 67), tongues-speaking is not mentioned, it is certain that Jesus Christ was filled with the Holy Spirit (Acts 10:38; John 1:32-33; 3:34; Matthew 3:16; Luke 4:1). Despite some fanciful contemporary explanations of Mark 14:36 and John 12:28-30, sober exegesis fails to unearth any evidence that Jesus ever spoke in tongues.

Similarly, although most of the great evangelists and soulwinners of church history testified to experiencing the Spirit's fullness, very few of them claimed to have spoken in tongues. An authoritative book about the world's largest Pentecostal denomination concedes that no one throughout the church age prior to 1900 taught speaking with tongues as evidence of the Spirit's fullness.

Must every Christian speak with tongues as proof of the fullness of the Holy Spirit? No. The Holy Spirit distributes the gifts individually in accord with His will (I Corinthians 12:11). It is revolting to read how some renowned contemporary charismatics instruct their converts to induce babbling by artificial manipulations and imitations. How foreign are such exercises to the spirit of Acts 2, 10 and 19! Paul's rhetorical question to the Corinthians (I Corinthians 12:30 NASB) clearly anticipates a negative response, as evidenced by both the context and the wording in the original language:

"All do not speak with tongues, do they?"

But were all spiritual gifts intended to pass away with the apostles, as hyperdispensationalists claim? The Biblical evidence speaks for itself. Three chapters in the Pauline Epistles specify the gifts. Romans l2:6- Ephesians 4:7-11, and First Corinthians 12 enumerate gifts. The latter chapter itself includes three lists (verses 8-l0, 28-30). Certain gifts are also mentioned in the two following chapters.

Instead of deciding the question of the permanence or transitoriness on the basis of dispensational presuppositions or other external considerations, why not allow the contexts of the aforementioned passages to settle the issue? Amazingly enough, all three chapters listing the gifts discuss the church as Christ's body, with church members compared to body parts (Romans 12:4ó5; Ephesians 4:4, 7. 13, 16; 1 Corinthians 12:12-27). I here is one body (Ephesians 4:4; cp. 1 Corinthians 12:13, 20; Romans 12:5).

Are twentieth-century Christians members of the church? The gifts are endowments from God for the entire church! Indeed the gifts are to be operative 'till we all come ... unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ" (Ephesians 4:13).

Dispensationalists often point to First Corinthians 13:8 as evidence that there are no valid tongues today. This verse reads: "Charity never faileth: but whether there be prophecies, they shall fail; whether there he tongues, they shall cease; whether there he knowledge, it shall vanish away." This verse certainly affirms that certain gifts will cease. The context settles the problem of when.

Verse 10 explains, "When that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away." in verse 12 Paul contrasts present imperfect apprehension with the golden future:

"For now we see through a glass, darkly; but [when Christ returns] then face to lace: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known." Even the illustration of child hood versus adulthood does not portray a gradual lessening of gifts until one arrives at maturity. Instead, two uses of the Greek perfect tense demonstrate a contrast of states: when I was a child in contrast to when I have become a man and have permanently put away childish things.

Does the interpretation that gifts of the Spirit are for the entire church age accord with Christ's mention of speaking "with new tongues" in Mark 16:17? The context of Mark 16:17 provides confirmation of this. Speaking with new tongues is called a sign in verse 17: "These signs shall follow them that believe." The word "believe" is lifted from the preceding verse: "He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned."

These are the options in the present century-- not merely in the apostolic age. What is believed? Verse 15 shows the object of belief to be that gospel which is to he preached to every creature throughout the present age. Hence the signs are for the same period as the Great Commission, the gospel and the opportunity of salvation. Admittedly many exclude the final verses of Mark from Scripture because of lack of manuscript evidence, but if this passage is validly Scripture it confirms the conclusion already reached from the Epistles.

If God gave tongues-speaking to His church it apparently is worthwhile, for God is noted for good gifts (Matthew 7:11; James 1:17). If the gift was intended for the entire church age it is properly used today. The distinction which contemporary charismatics often draw between tongues as an initial manifestation of Holy Spirit baptism and tongues as a gift of the Spirit cannot be supported. All tongues-speaking that is of God is a gift of the Holy Spirit. Yet First Corinthians 14 does differentiate between public and private use.

Tongues may be used for self-edification in private prayer (I Corinthians 14:2, 4). Paul does not prohibit public use and, in fact, all spiritual gifts are normally intended to edify the body of believers. Thus within the limitations set down in Scripture tongues can enrich both an individual's devotional life and a group's worship experiences.

Since First Corinthians 12-14 places stress on love's supremacy and on the unity within Christ's body, it is safe to say that proper private and public use of tongues ought not to create disharmony, divisiveness or spiritual pride.

Is it scriptural to promote tongues- speaking? Did Paul not assert that he wished all Corinthian believers were tongues-speakers, although apparently all were not (I Corinthians 14:5)? Did not Paul declare the rightness of desiring and coveting earnestly the best gifts (12:31; 14:1) and the wrongness of forbidding tongues-speaking (14:39)? Did not Paul profess to have spoken with tongues even more than the Corinthians (14:18)?

Although several statements from this section of First Corinthians seem to urge the use of tongues, the unprejudiced expositor must admit that Paul is curbing abuses rather than urging believers to seek tongues.

Paul wished all Corinthians to speak with tongues, but preferably to prophesy. Covet the best gifts, he said, but love is a more excellent way than any of the gifts. Desire spiritual gifts, but especially prophecy. Covet to prophesy, and forbid not to speak with tongues. The emphasis is both sustained and unavoidable. The contemporary promotion of tongues as a norm for every Christian is not substantiated by Scripture.

Multitudes have been attracted to the charismatic movement because of intense spiritual hunger which has been unsatisfied by the stubble offered in traditional worship settings. People have longed to know God better, to enjoy New Testament fellowship and to explore that supernatural spiritual dimension outlawed by our contemporary materialistic philosophy. They have sought to have a richer prayer life and to be endued with the Holy Spirit's power. Many assert that the charismatic movement is where the action is. Thousands of sincere Christians have committed their allegiance to this one gift of God.

Has the charismatic movement pitfalls? Besides the aforementioned doctrinal danger, viz., the insistence that every believer must manifest tongues as the evidence of the Spirit's fullness, notice three experiential perils:

First is the danger of seeking the gift more than the Giver. Human nature fastens on the spectacular. Supernatural manifestations fascinate the carnal nature. Mysterious ecstasies flatter the flesh (2 Corinthians 12:2, 4, 7). Simon the sorcerer wished to buy power to bestow the Spirit's fullness through the laying on of his hands (Acts 8:18-19).

Some covet tongues as an assurance of salvation. Yet this gift is no proof of salvation: adherents of pre-Christian religions, erratic heretics on the fringes of Christianity, drunken Tibetan priests, unscriptural Christ-denying Mormons and spiritist mediums have all spoken in supernatural tongues.

There is dreadful danger in centering on any gift the attention Jesus Christ deserves. In all things He must have the preeminence (Colossians I :18). In the hymn "Himself" A. B. Simpson wrote:

Once His gift I wanted, now the Giver own;
Once I sought for healing, now Himself alone.

Second is the danger of ignoring clear Biblical regulations. Already in Paul's day Corinthians had allowed such excesses in the use of tongues that the apostle needed to curb improprieties. Spectacular gifts often in cline people toward unwarranted emotionalism. Although Paul professed to have spoken in tongues more than the Corinthians he insisted that restraints bridle the tongues-speaker. The major thrust of First Corinthians 14 is the preference of the gift of prophecy over tongues in all meetings.

Contemporary charismatics find excuses to dodge clear Biblical directives. Some claim that although rules of this chapter are valid in Sunday services in a church edifice, they may safely be ignored in a prayer meeting in a home. But that phrase "in the church" (verses 19, 28. 35) originally meant simply in the assembly of believers in a private home, as First Corinthians 16:19 implies. No separate "church" buildings existed in the first century.

When confronted with chapter 14 one charismatic enthusiast asked me, "Do you suppose the Holy Spirit would ever make an exception to His rules?" No, the Spirit of God inspired the composition of this chapter and directed Paul to write therein, "If any man think himself to be a prophet, or spiritual, let him acknowledge that the things that I write unto you are the commandments of the Lord" (verse 37). Men falter, but the Holy Spirit keeps His own rules!

Several unequivocal regulations are given to tongues-speakers as the very commandments of the Lord: Let the goal of public worship be edification of others (verse 26). Let no more than two or three speak in tongues in any service (verse 27). Let them speak one at a time (verse 27). Let there be no tongues-speaking in a group of believers if there is no interpreter (verses 27-28). Let women take the silent, subordinate roles (verses 34-35). Let orderliness prevail always (verses 33, 40).

The third danger to consider is failure to test the spirits. It is naïve to suppose that all supernatural manifestations are divine. Satan has always been the archdeceiver (2 Corinthians 11:3, 13-15). And satanic activity is to be multiplied in the last days (I Timothy 4:1).

In intensely emotional experiences the possibility of deception tends to be greatest. If I permit some supernatural power to control my tongue, can I be automatically assured that my gift of tongues comes from the Holy Spirit? Even if I have prayed to God about tongues, can I be certain of the source of the gift? My Heavenly Father will not give a stone instead of bread (Luke 11:11-13), but if I ask amiss can I be assured that Satan will not give a stone?

Does an exhilarating, uplifting feeling guarantee that God is speaking through me? Many have been deceived.

Furthermore, if I seek in desperation for tongues, if I virtually demand this gift to prove I am Spirit-filled, if I begin to repeat rapidly certain English words or phrases as my charismatic tutors suggest, in all such instances I throw my personality open to any sort of spiritual power that wishes to invade me and grant the desired tongue.

Alliance Witness, May 22, 1974, reprinted by permission of the author.

A second article by Mr. McGraw, scheduled for the June 5 issue, will take up in depth the testing of tongues to ascertain their source.

Mr. McGraw graduated from Nyack, Houghton and Wheaton colleges and the Chicago Graduate School of Theology. He is a doctoral candidate at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.