Where do you stand on the gift of tongues? Many committed Christians believe one of two views, cessationism or continuationism. Others aren’t exactly sure what to believe about this oft-debated gift. Is there a way to bring the two views together while at the same time explaining New Testament tongues simply and convincingly? I believe there is, and to get there all we need is take a fresh look at the gift as described in 1 Corinthians 14.
What do cessationists believe? Cessationists are convinced the gift of tongues is no longer available to believers today. To support their case they often assert that tongues were for the most part unhelpful if not downright dangerous in the First Century Church. To support their case, cessationists typically disparage the gift and even claim that Paul’s expresses his own discomfort and frustration with it in 1 Corinthians 14.1 Such denunciations only drive a further wedge between them and the other camp in the body of Christ, continuationists. Continuationists are impressed with the gift of tongues described in 1 Corinthians 14 and defend it as an important gift that God is still giving to Christians today. For many continuationists the negative claims of the cessationist camp are seriously out of touch with both the Scripture and the Spirit as He expresses Himself among the majority of believers and churches today.
Where do I stand? You’ll have to read to the end to find that out, but I hope to show you that neither camp takes tongues seriously enough. Cessationists are wrong because they all too often disparage the tongues they read about in Scripture. Fact is the gift is so prominent that Paul mentions its activity more than any other spiritual gift in 1 Corinthians. Average every-day Christians just like you and me spoke God’s word in languages unknown to them. It was a miracle every time it happened, and it happened a lot. That’s why cessationists need to rethink their entire approach to their position.
On the other hand, if you are a continuationist and are grateful for the tongues in use today, I’d like you to read this article because, well, you too have a problem. Your continuationist brethren who write and speak favorably about tongues today are claiming far too little about it. As I’ll explain, people in your camp are disparaging tongues and discounting its spectacular powers from those Paul ascribed to it in 1 Corinthians 14.
So both camps would benefit by some reconsideration of tongues’ dynamism in 1 Corinthians 14, and could even come together in doctrine and worship. A fresh analysis of the power of tongues would also benefit any who are unsure of what to think about this glorious gift. And while 1 Corinthians 14 describes many excelling powers of tongues, we’ll consider just three: revelation, mystery, and authority.
Paul said, “brothers, if I come to you speaking in tongues, how will I benefit you unless I bring you some revelation”? (ESV, 1 Cor. 14:6. C.f. 14:27-30). Here Paul looks forward to a future day when he will be with the Corinthians and participate in their passionate worship of Christ. He longs to be with them and benefit them by speaking God’s very own words to them, in tongues—words he identifies as revelation. Earlier in his letter Paul referred to Scripture when he said “these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit” (NASB, 1 Cor. 2:10). “Revelation” is a word used by biblical writers to describe a miracle of communication. Whenever God communicates to man it is called revelation, and as the word implies, is a disclosing of truth that could not be received apart from God taking the initiative to give it. This miracle of revelation, this self-disclosure from God, was the greatest power in the gift of tongues.
Revelation was God-initiated and God-breathed communication whether written or spoken, which means tongues, like Scripture, were infallible. So when a continuationist says that tongues bring forth both truth and error, we have a problem.2 Unwittingly, they are showing contempt for God’s revelation that He robed so beautifully in this glorious gift.
Here’s another point like the last one. Tongues-messages also communicated mysteries, as Paul says, “one who speaks in a tongue…utters mysteries in the Spirit” (1 Cor. 14:2). At first that might sound mystical and other-worldly, but it isn’t. It just means that when a person spoke tongues they spoke truth that hadn’t been revealed previously in the Old Testament. A mystery was hidden truth that God was now revealing to the First Century Church. Many such mysteries are recorded in the New Testament: the church (Eph. 3:3-9), Israel’s future salvation (Romans 11:25), the indwelling of Christ in the believer (Col. 1:27) and the instantaneous catching up of believers at Christ’s return (1 Cor. 15:51).
Nobody could make up a “hidden-in-God” mystery and speak it in a tongue because a tongues-message still had to be translated for anyone to know the mystery. That in part is why we never see a false tongues-speaker in the New Testament. Instead, once a tongues-message was received and interpreted the church received a mystery from God. And since it came from God, the tongue-message was immediately useful for the believers and instructed them on essential Christian doctrines that promoted godly living. As a result tongues-messages were vitally important to the church, and in the right situation a church service would stop in order to hear the message being spoken by the tongues-speaker. He had the floor because his message spoke mysteries that God was now revealing for the whole church. So anybody who wants to claim that their tongues are just private affairs between them and God, or that tongues can contain errors, are not speaking about New Testament tongues. They are speaking about something different.
The Authority of Prophecy
Because every tongues-message was revelation and every tongues-speaker spoke mysteries,” every instance of tongues came with God’s authority. Scripture assures us that a tongues-message was equal in power and authority to prophecy: “The one who prophesies is greater than the one who speaks in tongues, unless someone interprets” (1 Cor. 14:5). Once a tongues-message was translated it was Christ Himself speaking in prophecy. That’s why Paul wanted the Christians speaking and hearing tongues-messages: “do not forbid speaking in tongues” and “I want you all to speak in tongues.” (1 Cor. 14:39, 5). So it’s hard to understand why continuationist leaders forbid Christians to speak in tongues and prophecy on such matters as “dates, mates, correction and direction.”3 On one hand they say that the gift of tongues is available and important, but on the other hand they say its use needs to be hindered. Tongues-messages weren’t an embarrassment to first century pastors. They respected tongues too much to make up rules about who could say what and when they could say it, like continuationist churches do today.4
Tongues-messages never gave out errors because the speaker wasn’t in control of the act—his mind was “unfruitful” (1 Cor. 14:14). A tongues-speaker simply didn’t know what he or she was speaking and couldn’t unless there was a Christian nearby to translate the tongue into the known language of the listeners. That special ability is called the gift of “interpretation of tongues” in 1 Corinthians 12:10. So, because the tongues-speaker didn’t know what he or she was speaking until the interpreter spoke, he or she couldn’t mess it up. That’s why there’s no such thing as a tongues-message or prophecy-message with errors, as continuationists claim.5 It would be an oxymoron, like a square circle or a holy sin.
Every tongues-message was inerrant because the tongues-speaker didn’t understand the tongues-language he was speaking and, therefore, couldn’t inject his own errant thoughts into it. Instead tongues always delivered error-free, holy, and authoritative truth from God. To protect against prophetic phonies, other gifted people sat in judgment of tongues and prophecy speakers in a church service: “Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others judge” (KJV, 1 Cor. 14:29). They passed judgment on the person, not just the message. If the tongue or prophecy was even potentially mixed with error, it wasn’t just the errant words of a tongues-prophecy that was sifted out. Everything the tongues-speaker said was rejected because “the spirit of prophets are subject to prophets” (1 Cor. 14:32; c.f. 2 Thess. 2:2; 1 John 4:1-3, not “the words of prophets”).
Tongues’ authority illustrated
Paul illustrates the importance of translated tongues several ways in 1 Corinthians 14, and all the illustrations have significance. One of them is borrowed from the first century battle field: “If the bugle gives an indistinct sound, who will get ready for battle?” (1 Cor. 14:8).
Picture a Roman battalion getting ready for battle. They are on an open plain, exposed and vulnerable. Just over the hill crouches an enemy of great cunning. As the tension mounts the Roman battalion waits for their next order from the general, who uses a bugler to sound out his commands. But instead of clearly sounding out the proper calls, the bugler sends out mixed-up and indecipherable sounds. The soldiers are confused and dispirited. Should they move forward and engage the enemy, or should they retreat? Life and death are on the line.
No general would be satisfied with such communication from his messengers. Nor is Jesus Christ, the “General” of the Church, satisfied to have His holy words revealed in an indistinct sound. That’s why He crafted and gave gifts like tongues and prophecy—so His Church would have a distinct sound of clear authority from Him. It prepared them for spiritual battle. When translated tongues or prophecy rang out in the assembly of the Corinthian Christians, they heard their General’s instructions.
But this presents a problem for continuationists. Given tongues’ true authority, why shouldn’t they be spoken in church? When continuationist leaders hinder prophesy and tongues in worship they set themselves above not only the bugler but the church’s General, Jesus Christ.6 Again, they show contempt for this spectacular gift, and show by their decisions, if not by their words, a deep-set distrust of modern tongues and prophecy.
Paul’s bugle analogy illustrates the authority in tongues. When a tongues-message was understandable—meaning it was translated so all could understand—it communicated military orders from the church’s General, Jesus Christ. Translated tongues-messages brought clear and distinct orders so all could do the General’s will. Why would anyone hinder that unless they didn’t believe the tongues-speaking was from Christ?
What about the rest of us?
Because the gift of tongues was authoritative, anyone claiming to have it was rightly granted a place of honor in the church. Therefore Paul would have been extremely dismayed with anyone who claimed they had the gift of tongues yet also claimed they could mix it with personal error. He would have sternly rebuked Christians who demeaned the gift by claiming they had it when they actually didn’t. Since tongues were always authoritative and brought infallible revelation, a false claim to the gift was sinful and dangerous to every church. The person making such a claim was either misguided or mistaken—or worse, a false prophet. Equally dangerous was any church leader who didn’t allow tongues in a church service. Christ’s own command was, “do not forbid speaking in tongues” (1 Cor. 14:39).
If you claim to speak in tongues or prophecy, are you willing to claim the powers of 1 Corinthians 14 and argue that your gift must be obeyed by your church because it brings them “hidden-in-God” mysteries as well as infallible and inerrant revelation? If not, relax. You are just like me—an average Christian who never has possessed such spectacular gifts. You see, once you’ve caught Paul’s passion for this gift, cessationism makes a lot more sense than a censorious, one-foot-in, one-foot-out continuationism. And that’s a good thing, right? When God speaks, He doesn’t need us sifting through His words to discover the parts we do and don’t approve. With that burden lifted, we can thank God for just how spectacular He is, how great discipleship is, and faithfully employ the good gifts He actually has given us to use for His glory.
To my cessationist brethren: isn’t the “tongues were spectacular” theology a lot more satisfying than the “tongues were a problem” position that has typified our discussion for years? Isn’t it good to know that whether you are explaining yourself to your continuationist brethren or just trying to protect your flock from dangerous spiritual experiences, 1 Corinthians 14 is your strongest ally? After all, Paul really did like the gift (1 Cor. 14:5, 18). Shouldn’t we?
1 Cessationist writings in this regard have been unconvincing to date. Edgar writes, “First Corinthians 14:2 is not a description of the gift of tongues, exalting it as a means of communication with God” ((Thomas Edgar, Satisfied by the Promise of the Spirit, Kregel, 1996, 174). But Paul writes, “one who speaks in a tongue speaks not to men but to God” (1 Cor. 14:2) . Another cessationist writes: “We have no indication in Scripture that he (Paul) ever prayed in tongues…” (Herbert Vander Lugt, Are Tongues for Today? Radio Bible Class, 1979, 36) yet Paul writes, “if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays but my mind is unfruitful” (1 Cor. 14:14). Cessationists also tend to be critical of tongues: “Paul sees little value in the gift of tongues per se.” (Robert Gromacki, The Modern Tongues Movement, P & R, 1975, 130). Further examples can be found on the Internet: “Paul’s positive commendation of tongues (if such it is) is sarcastic” (Mark Snoeberger, “Are Tongues for Today? Part 4,” http://sharperiron.org/article/are-tongues-for-today-part-4, accessed May 30, 2011). “Tongues-speaking, though we consider it last, is the gift of the Spirit par excellence, in the minds of both Pentecostals and Charismatics” (Ron Hanko, “Signs of the Apostles, The Temporary Gifts of the Holy Spirit,” http://cessationism.com/#articles, accessed May 30, 2011, emphasis added). See also Philip R. Bryan, “Paul and Tongue-Speaking,” http://www.geocities.com/Athens/Delphi/8297/ptg.htm, accessed May 31, 2011.
2 See “Creating a New Category in Our Thinking” at http://www.desiringgod.org/resource-library/sermons/the-authority-and-nature-of-the-gift-of-prophecy, accessed May 21, 2011.
3 That’s something of a stock phrase in continuationist circles. Sam Storms gives confusing warnings about tongues and prophecy such as “resist the temptation to speak when God is silent.” But since tongues and prophecy are by definition “God speaking,” one is left wondering what Storms means. Sam Storms, [i]The Beginner’s Guide to Spiritual Gifts, Gospel Light, 2002, 102.
4 In spite of Paul’s command to speak tongues in the worship service (1 Cor. 14:39), a typical statement from a continuationist church is, “Grace Community Fellowship does not practice the speaking of tongues in our corporate worship services.” Accessed May 30, 2011 at http://www.gcfweb.org/institute/1corinthians/week9.php.
5 Christian leaders such as Wayne Grudem, Mark Driscoll, Adrian Warnock, D. A. Carson, and John Piper say that tongues and prophecy contains human errors and mistakes. Grudem’s scholarship provided the seminal impetus for this view by claiming the phrase “apostles and prophets” in Eph. 2:20 and Eph. 3:5 should be translated “the apostles who are also prophets.” For Grudem and many others this translation has created a new category of “uninspired prophets.” Cessationists view that as an oxymoron and point out its inherent flaws. Among those is its violation of the “Granville Sharp Rule” in Koiné Greek. This rule requires that Eph. 2:20 and Eph. 3:5 be translated “apostles and prophets,” since the words “apostles” and “prophets” are plurals, not singulars. See F. David Farnell, “Does the New Testament Teach Two Prophetic Gifts?” Bibliotheca Sacra 150 (January-March 1993): 75.
6 For another example, http://parksidecampverde.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=41:-what-do-you-believe-regarding-speaking-in-tongues&catid=5:faq&Itemid=10. Continuationists also claim that preaching/teaching in the worship service is more important in church than prophecy, but Paul is clear that prophecy is the far more important gift (1 Cor. 12:28; 14:1).
Ted Bigelow earned the MDiv and ThM at The Master’s Seminary and has a doctorate in expository preaching from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He pastors Grace Church in Hartford, CT and has been married to Deena since 1987. They are blessed with 4 children who, by God’s mercy, love the Lord: Katie (20), Karryn (18), Daniel (15) and David (13).