The Gift of Tongues

Part 2: The Gift and Fact of Tongues Today

By Robin Schumacher

In Part 1 of this post, we looked at a couple of important Biblical distinctions that help interpret the fact and gift of speaking in tongues in Scripture, and then we looked at the definition and purpose of tongues as found in the Bible. Let's now continue to answer the question of whether tongues are truly something that should be normative in today's Church.

The Place of Speaking in Tongues

If the gift of tongues is a sign to unbelievers, and more specifically a sign of judgment or warning to Israel, then does it have a place in the modern Church? Some theologians do not believe so—for example, O. Palmer Robertson states: "Today there is no need for a sign to show that God is moving from the single nation of Israel to all the nations. That movement has become an accomplished fact."[1]

Moreover, many Bible teachers point out that, while speaking in tongues appears as a spiritual gift in the list given in the very early 1 Corinthians letter of Paul, later epistles that present gifts given by the Spirit omit tongues. Are these later lists meant to be a summary whereas the list given in 1 Corinthians was meant to be all-inclusive? Or does the exclusion of tongues in later letters by Paul signal that it had already served its purpose and was no longer in operation even back in the first century?

Some also point to Paul's mention that tongues will "cease" (1 Cor. 13:8) as evidence that tongues would definitively stop (the middle voice being used in the Greek indicating the thing in question would stop on its own accord) while other non-miracle gifts would persist. In addition, as was stated earlier, the gift of miracles has shown to be something constrained to very specific periods of history and used for targeted purposes vs. something that perpetually continues on through time.

I would argue that these facts add up to the conclusion that the miracle gift of speaking in tongues ceased with the age of the apostles.

Has the Fact of Speaking in Tongues Ceased?

Understanding that there is a distinction in Scripture between the gift of miracles and the fact of miracles, I would like to ask the question: has the fact of miraculous tongues ceased as well as the gift of tongues?

Two testimonies I am aware cause me to raise this question. A pastor acquaintance and a well-known apologist I know both relayed stories to me that are remarkably similar. Missionaries known to each were engaged in other parts of the world (South America and an Eastern Bloc country). Neither believed they had the gift of speaking in tongues.

In both cases, while doing evangelism in groups, each spontaneously spoke in a language they had never learned—a language that was native to those present who understood what was being said. Each missionary was unaware of what they had done and had to be told by those in attendance what had taken place.

The missionaries have not had a repeat of the experience and appear to be very credible witnesses. Unless explained by other means, these episodes cause me to question if, while the miraculous gift of tongues has ended, whether the fact of tongues can still occur when God desires. In the same way many Christians believe God continues to heal, but that the gift of healing (an individual who can heal at will) is not present today, perhaps the same is true of the fact of tongues vs. the gift of tongues.

A Warning about Speaking in Tongues

Scholars have chronicled the fact that occultic and pagan religions practice ecstatic speech in their rituals. Some theologians point out that the "noisy gong" and "clanging cymbal" mentioned by Paul in 1 Corinthians 13:1 were staples in the worship of the false gods Cybele and Dionysius, along with ecstatic babble.[2]

All Christians need to be careful about seeking supernatural experiences that are outside of God's will. The Christian who continues to push the matter may indeed have a spiritual experience, however the spirit behind that experience may be anything but holy.

In his book What Demons can do to Saints, Merrill Unger recounts a letter he received from a pastor's wife who pursued tongues with strong fervor.[3] Although her husband explained to her the Biblical position on the matter, she sought out a fringe group of tongues-speaking believers who laid hands on her to receive the gift. A physical experience occurred at that time, and the supposed gift of tongues was to come months later.

However, shortly after that, dark and evil thoughts began to fill her mind with the situation worsening by the day. After some time, the woman realized she had indeed receive a spirit, but that it was in reality a demon that was destructively working in her life. Through prayer and work with other believers she was freed from the enemy.

In another case I'm aware of personally, a minister working with a group of other pastors including my own shared an episode in which a member of his church was exercising tongues in a disruptive way. The pastor took the man into his office and explained to him the church's position on tongues. The man immediately began speaking loudly in tongues and refused to stop until the pastor commanded him to in the name of Christ. At that moment the man stopped, swore at the pastor and then continued to speak in tongues. The pastor then commanded the man to tell him what he was saying, at which point the man began stating blasphemous things that I won't mention.

Although some believers think that being saved makes them untouchable by the enemy, Scripture is replete with warnings to Christians about Satan (e.g. Ephesians 4:27, 6:11-18) that would be unnecessary if that were true. This being the case, believers should discipline themselves to avoid seeking spiritual experiences such as tongues that are outside the boundaries set by the Bible.

So What's Really Happening?

A number of years ago, the son of a pastor I knew visited a tongues-speaking church in order to see exactly what they were practicing. Various members of the congregation would stand, supposedly speak in a tongue, followed by another member who would rise and provide an interpretation.

During that time in the service, the pastor's son stood up, recited the Lord's Prayer in Latin, and then sat back down. A person immediately rose and gave an interpretation that had absolutely nothing to do with what the young man had said.

So what was really happening in that church?

It's doubtful that members of the congregation were experiencing anything supernatural either one way or the other, but rather they had simply convinced themselves that they were exercising the gift of speaking in tongues in the manner described in 1 Corinthians 14.

In most of the interactions I've had with those claiming to have tongues, when pressed, they admit it was something that gradually happened. When pushed further and asked how one should go about "getting tongues," a variety of techniques and exercises are suggested to obtain the gift, which doesn't fit the Biblical model of how the Spirit does His work.

In nearly every situation I've encountered, speaking in tongues seems to be a learned behavior where the person has won themselves over to the idea that they have the gift. The tongues never manifest as an actual language such as French or Chinese, but are always something that cannot be verified except by someone claiming to have the gift of interpretation.

Besides the self-deception that occurs in such cases, a sad result is the mental and practical division that comes about between those who think they have tongues and those who don't. Groups form between the haves and the have-nots, the zapped and the unzapped, with many like the young guy mentioned in the outset of this article wondering why he's left out.

This flies in the face of the unity requested by Jesus for His Church: "that they may be one" (John 17:11, 21). While it's natural for Christians who believe they have the gift of tongues to be upset by the charge that their experience isn't genuine, they should ask themselves if division or unity is occurring with their practice, and see if what they are doing is in keeping with God's will as outlined in His Word.

The Bible is unequivocal in its de-emphasis of speaking in tongues as a primary spiritual gift (1 Corinthians 12-14), clearly states that not all Christians were ever to possess the ability (1 Corinthians 12:30), and constrains the giving of individual miraculous sign gifts to specific periods of time in history with the purpose being to confirm God's truth (Hebrews 2:3-4). Those wishing to make tongues an admission slip into the body of Christ, a subsequent experience that signifies a "baptism of the Spirit" (a phrase that never appears in the Bible), or a mark of deeper spirituality should re-examine Scripture and then perform an honest inner assessment of the facts before affirming that tongues are for today.

1. O. Palmer Robertson, "Tongues: Sign of Covenantal Curse and Blessing" (Westminster Theological Journal, 38:53), Bibliotheca Sacra, 122:134.
2. William Barclay, The Letters to the Corinthians (Philadelphia: Westminster Press: 1956), pg. 131.
3. Merrill Unger, What Demons can do to Saints (Chicago: Moody, 1991), pp. 91-94.

Image Credit: Richard Masoner; "Altar Call"; Creative Commons

The Series:
The Gift of Tongues Part 1: Tongues in the Bible
The Gift of Tongues Part 2: The Gift and Fact of Tongues Today

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Published 5-30-13