The spiritual gift of tongues is something that can, and has been, easily misunderstood. While speaking in an unknown language to God (I Cor. 14:2) has many benefits, I believe that the main purpose behind this gift is to experience deeper intimacy with Him. As we give ourselves over to God, yield our voices to Him, and begin to speak from our own initiation, this mysterious unknown heavenly language bubbles out. It flows out from the oneness that our human spirit shares with the Holy Spirit when they merged together during our conversion. When we speak with this heavenly language, our spirits speak to God with words that give Him praise, thanksgiving, and worship in declaring His wonderful nature and works (I Cor. 14:16-17, Acts 2:11). Via the gift tongues, our words transcend the limitations of our limited, carnal minds, allowing us to verbally extend into eternal heavenly realms that are above all that we could even imagine or think of. The language is so transcendent that only the Father Himself understands what our born-again, perfected spirit is speaking. The supernatural gift of tongues is a mystery, but when our speech is freely released in adoration toward God the speaker knows that they have entered into a supernatural prayer language that is unique, special, and shared between them and God alone. The practice of praying in the Spirit is truly a wonderful gift that results in our being personally edified and built up in the love of God (I Cor. 14:4, Jude 20).
Why wouldn’t God want everyone to have this incredible spiritual gift of closeness with Him?
I believe that God does, and there are many Christians who feel the same.
Back in 2008, a George Barna survey concluded that 80 million Americans identify as charismatic and endorse spiritual gifts, such as tongues and supernatural healing. In 2011 the Pew Research Center’s study concluded that nearly 600 million believers worldwide identify as Pentecostal and charismatic. Those of us who believe in the gifts of the Spirit have been cited as one of the faster growing, or perhaps even the number one fastest growing, branch of the Christian faith.
We are many.
However, there are some branches of Christianity that believe that this wonderful gift is NOT for every Christian.
Some are on the side of cessationism, which takes the position that all of the supernatural spiritual gifts that the early church experienced have ceased and have since died out. For cessationists, God no longer gives these spiritual gifts. The gifts were only given to the first century church to help get Christianity started and/or to serve as a temporary guide until the New Testament was fully written and completed.
Then there are other Christians who will concede that the gifts of the Spirit exist in today’s world, but just that God does not bestow them on every person. These folks do not deny that God sometimes sovereignly gives the gift of tongues to some church leaders, some mystics, some hardcore devotees, or maybe to some of their overly religious friends, but they hold that God only does this for some people, not all.
Therefore, the following will offer up a few responses that speak to the most common objections that some have lobbed against those who advocate for the ubiquity of the gift of tongues (I address cessationism in a separate blog Did the Gifts of the Sprit die away? A brief response to CESSATIONISM.
DOESN’T THE BIBLE UNEQUIVOCALLY SAY THAT NOT EVERYONE SPEAKS IN TONGUES?
“And God has placed in the church first of all apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, of helping, of guidance, and of different kinds of tongues. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all have gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret?… ” NIV – I Corinthians 12:28-30
For people who object to the notion that everyone can speak in tongues, this is the most commonly cited verse. In asking the question, the apostle Paul in I Corinthians 12:28-30 clearly leads the reader to respond to his question with a resounding “NO”—there is really no other way to understand this passage. And I agree.
Well, I guess there you have it—case closed! The Bible says that not everyone speaks in tongues—right?
Hold you horses buck-o. There’s more to the story.
Now, let’s also read what the apostle Paul says in the same book, just a few pages over, two chapters later:
“I would like every one of you to speak in tongues, but I would rather have you prophesy. ” (I Corinthians 14:5 NIV)
In this verse Paul says flat out that he wants EVERYONE to speak in tongues. Prophesy might be better, but Paul’s desire is for everyone to receive in the gift of tongues.
But wait a minute, didn’t Paul just explicitly say in chapter twelve that not everyone speaks in tongues? And now he’s saying that he wants everyone to speak in tongues? What the heck Paul–what exactly do you mean by this double talk??
Well, one thing we can say is that while those folks who love to tout that the Bible unequivocally says that everyone does not speak in tongues from I Corinthians 12, those same people fail to add in that the Bible ALSO unequivocally says that God’s desire is for everyone to speak in tongues!
How do we make sense of this? How do we reconcile these two seemingly contradictory verses?
I believe both statements are true in each of their respective contexts.
For many folks who have never spoken in tongues, or have heard teachings from the pulpit arguing against the phenomenon, it is far too easy to just stop at 1 Corinthians 12, and then explain away anything else that follows simply by holding up that one verse—and sadly this is exactly what some folks do. But, I wonder if we were to hold each statement with equal merit, and search for another explanation, would it be possible to arrive at a different conclusion?
I think so!
To do this, let’s see what happens when we start with the second verse, “I would like every one of you to speak in tongues...” from I Corinthians 14, and try to see if that verse can shed light on the proceeding excerpt from I Corinthians 12.
CONTEXT, BUT IN REVERSE
In reading through I Corinthians 14 we see Paul giving very specific recommendations for how the manifest gifts of the Spirit should be exercised during a church assembly. But before doing so, in chapter 13, Paul first lays down a foundation about church meeting behavior: regardless of exactly what happens in a meeting, or whatever we find ourselves doing in any particular situation, everything that we do must be done from a heart-motive of love.
This could be no truer than when the church expresses the charismatic gifts during a meeting—both for the first century church and today.
The gifts of the Spirit were getting out of hand at the church in Corinth: people were talking out of turn, multiple people were addressing the church at once, people were blabbing nonsense words in tongues to God only to personally boast or edify themselves, consideration of others was neglected, and prophecies and other inspired words were being shared without them being weighed and discerned by the rest of the group. This was not the love-centered, other-orientated meeting that Paul was after. He needed to bring correction.
It is in this context that Paul adds, “I would like every one of you to speak in tongues…” (I Cor, 14:5). Paul genuinely wanted everyone to speak in tongues. He knew that tongues benefited individuals and that exercising them would edify them greatly. Paul boasted that he spoke in tongues more than them all and he earnestly wanted everyone to share in the benefits of the gift. Even with all of the problems that the usage of the gifts was causing, he further encouraged them to continue to speak in tongues during meetings. But only that they be done so in a more orderly fashion. His correction was for the Corinthians to not use gifts for personal edification alone, but to use tongues to build up the rest of the church (I Cor. 14: 39). Paul wanted everyone to speak in tongues, but just in a way that reflected other-focused love. And if certain members could not do that in a way that put others first, Paul told them to instead be silent (not silent entirely, just silent enough that their tongues wouldn’t distract from the rest of the meeting, i.e., not addressing the assembly in tongues, praying in tongues quietly or to oneself (I Cor, 14:28).
Along with using the spiritual gifts to manifest God’s great love to one another, Paul’s idea of a church meeting was quite different than ours. His meetings did not have one pastor standing at a pulpit for 45 minutes preaching to an audience that was only there to passively listen to a sermon and then go home. Rather, his meetings were marked by having multiple people share what God had placed on their hearts as the Spirit inspired them. Paul writes,
“What then shall we say, brothers and sisters? When you come together, each of you has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. Everything must be done so that the church may be built up.” – I Corinthians 14:26.
Paul’s meetings were intended to be open so that space was given for everyone to share in their spiritual gifts.
What we see then in I Corinthians 14 is that Paul was not correcting people in saying that tongues are only for some people, or that tongues shouldn’t be allowed in church. He was trying to tell them that when someone interrupted and addressed the church via the gift of tongues, unless it was followed up by an interpretation, it didn’t follow the way of love because in sharing something with the group via tongues without an interpretation, the benefits would only be self-serving. “Yes, speak in tongues!”, Paul would have said. “But just don’t do that in a meeting in a way that draw attention to yourself, unless it is done in a way that benefits EVERYONE“.
From this we see that I Corinthians 14 addresses the individual usage of tongues as they fit into church gatherings. For Paul, anyone could speak in tongues, and everyone should desire to speak in tongues. Just be careful when you do so it in the assembly so that it reflects other-centered love.
With that, we can now ask this question—is this the same context to which Paul wrote I Corinthians 12:28-30 and rhetorically asked, “Do all speak in tongues?“
No, upon closer examination it is not.
In I Corinthians 12, Paul is not speaking about the individual/personal usage of tongues. His rhetorical question was framed around the context of special/specialized endowments of the gifts of the Spirit that God gave to certain individuals to further build up the body. These special endowments would allow these individuals to function as specialists, much like specialists do on a basketball team. Everyone on a basketball team can shoot and make baskets. In fact, each team member is expected to be VERY good as making baskets. But some are 3-point specialists, some are rebound specialists, and some are specialists with great speed that can drive it to the basket.
So it is with the church. Everyone is equal on “team God”, but some have specialized gifts that further help the body of Christ in unique ways.
I CORINTHIANS 12: DON’T GLORIFY THOSE WITH SPECIALIZED MINISTRY GIFTS—THEY AIN’T ALL THAT
We humans love to put people with special gifts on a pedestal. When we talk about our church, we will talk about how great of a speaker our pastor is. We will boast about how good our worship leader’s music is. We humans seem to love to talk about great things performed by great people. We put specialists in the spotlight. Specialists are usually the ones whose works everyone can see and recognize. They are in the spotlight. We want to invite the pastor to dinner, or corner the worship leader after church to tell them how great the music was. Glorifying people whose gifts are more visual, or those whose gifts are more prominent, seems to be inside of our human nature.
But, if there is anything that goes against the natural tendencies of human nature, it is the kingdom of God, with Christ at its head. Everything is upside down in the Kingdom of God. Compared to the world’s standards, the kingdom of God is inverted: the first are last; the last are first (Matthew 20:16); the God of creation comes to serve, not to be served (Matthew 20:20-28); if you save your life you’ll lose it, and if you lose it, you will find it (Matthew 16:24-25).
And likeso with I Corinthians 12, Paul also turns something on its head – the incorrect practice of placing a higher value on those with special ministry endowments of the Spirit.
In the gospel of Jesus everyone has the same relationship with God. There are no higher-ups or those whom God considers greater. Everyone knows God from the least to the greatest (Hebrews 8:6-12). Yet our human propensity to set those people with more recognizable giftings is at odds with how God’s kingdom works.
In God’s family, every person in the church is equally valuable for the church as a whole. Each person is integral to the other. Not one person is expendable, nor is any one or any spiritual gift less significant. In fact, Paul says that the members of the body who we would consider to be less valuable on a surface level are actually the ones who deserve the higher regard and place of honor (I Cor. 14:21-23). That means that we should be asking the person with special needs at the church over for dinner, and telling the janitor, not the pastor, how good of a job they are doing.
It takes every member to make up the full body of Christ. Yet each one of them has special unique gifting(s) that benefits the whole body. It is unique to them. Paul mentions a few of these specialized giftings starting in verse 28 where he says that God appoints apostles, prophets, teachers and so on. These are specialized gifts that are not for individual use nor limited to the use of immediate family/friends. These are special endowments given to certain individuals to help the global family of God. Paul mentions these giftings again in Ephesians 4:11:
“So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. ”
Some have argued that what Paul was referring to in I Cor. 12:28-30 and Ephesians 4:11 were in regard to all spiritual gifts, not just special endowments as I have proposed. This explanation works especially well for those people who want to retain power over people in the churches. They will say, “God has appointed me to be the pastor of the church, and I am the only teacher. You are not the teacher. For I Corinthians 12:28-30 says, ‘Are all teachers?’, so, let me do the teaching and you can do the listening. God doesn’t give the gift of teaching to everyone!”
But listen to what the Bible says about teaching. In Deuteronomy 6:6-7 God tells the Israelites:
“These words I am commanding you today are to be upon your hearts. And you shall teach them diligently to your children and speak of them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up.“
The pastors and church leaders aren’t doing the teaching of God’s law, it is EVERY parent teaching THIER OWN children as they casually sit at home or walk along the road. In the New Testament we find the same thing where the apostle Paul encourages us to:
“Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.”
Again, we don’t see one pastor, or a handful of teaches who are solely ordained with the role of teaching. Teaching is something for EVERYONE to do, one to another. It is an expectation for all.
Therefore, to come to I Corinthians 12:28-30 and use that to say that God only appoints some to teach would be ridiculous. Everyone can teach one another. But, yes, God DOES enable some people with special spiritual teaching gifts through the Holy Spirit who are set apart from others for the specific role of teaching which God gives for the benefit of the whole body and family of God.
This concept is the same then for any of the gifts mentioned in I Corinthians 12:28-30. Anyone can function as an apostle (one who is sent by God), but there are certain folks are endowed with a specialized gifting to work as an apostle and have that specific calling on their life. Anyone can prophesize (that is to speak the mind, will and intent of the Lord via divine inspiration), but there are certain folks are endowed with a specialized gifting in prophecy. Anyone can flow in the workings of miracles since everyone has been impregnated with the same Spirit that raised Jesus from the dead, yet there are certain folks who flow exceptionally well with the workings of miracles.
Paul’s two statements, “Do all speak in tongues?”, and “I would like every one of you to speak in tongues“, which seems contradictory at first glance, turns out not to be contradictory at all. They are just speaking to two different contexts: the first is talking about a specialized endowment/enhancement of a gift that has specifically been placed upon a person by God for service to the church, and the other speaks to a general gifting that one uses personally or when they share generally among the body during a meeting.
Everyone can and should pursue speaking in tongues, just as Paul said in I Corinthians 14:5, but not everyone is going to be highly specialized in that gift. And there will be a few people whom God sets in the body with specialized giftings.
I WOULD BE SPEAKING IN TONGUES ALREADY IF GOD WANTED ME TO HAVE THAT GIFT
Now that we have affirmed that anyone can speak tongues we now come to the issue whether someone will speak in tongues.
Many people come from a theological teaching tradition that God does whatever He wants at any time over any person. Many of the same people also espouse that history is unfolding now before us exactly as God wants it to be happening. Armed with those two ideas, they may say, “Sure, I’m open to tongues, but God is going to have to make it happen.” They are not putting any effort into seeking it out because they believe that if God wants them to speak in tongues it will happen sovereignly, and they won’t have a choice in the matter. And to complicate the issue further, they believe that if they do end up speaking in tongues, that God is going to take control of their mouth and do the speaking for them as a sovereign act— as though the gift of tongues will come upon on you like a seizure that you can neither prevent it or make happen on your own.
First off, the New Testament gives two examples where people received Christ into their hearts, yet were not baptized in/received the Spirit and did not speak in tongues at the same time (Acts 8:5-19, Acts 19:1-4). The manifestations of the Spirit came later and had to come through the laying on of hands. Saying that if God wants you to speak in tongues, you will just “do it” by a wave of His magic hand goes against what these two verses show. In both cases, the absence of the gift of the Spirit wasn’t something that the Apostles saw as something God-ordained. It was an issue that needed to be resolved. Waiting for God to just “do” something is not how the Holy Spirit was ministered in the early church. It was something that came by intent. Even Jesus said it was something He gives, but to those who ask and press into it (Luke 11:13).
It’s doesn’t happen automatically.
Secondly, note what Acts 19:6 says,
“And when Paul had laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they began speaking in tongues and prophesying.“
Who did the speaking? THEY did. The Holy Spirit didn’t jump up on them and force them to speak. The Spirit didn’t take control of their mouths. The gift of tongues and prophesy wasn’t uncontrollable. The act of speaking in tongues was something they directed and initiated as the Spirit gave them the ability.
Some overzealous tongue talkers claim that something/some feeling comes upon them, and when it does, they can’t control it. But this goes against Paul’s words in I Corinthians 14:31-33:
“For you can all prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and all be encouraged, and the spirits of prophets are subject to prophets. For God is not a God of confusion but of peace.”
Paul says that the spirits of the prophets are subject to the prophets—meaning that even though you may have an urging desire to share your gifts during a meeting, you can hold it back for the sake of others. You can take turns. You can resist the urge to speak out and wait your turn!
No, the Spirit of God is not going to suddenly take control of your mouth and force it to speak. The Spirit gives you the ability and utterance, but YOU get to determine the outflow of your mouth by YOUR initiation of the speaking. It is not going to happen sovereignly by a solo act of God. The inspirations of the Holy Spirit are subject to your spirit.
You are in control. God does not rape your mouth and take control of your vocal cords.
Everyone has the potential to enter into deep fellowship with God via speaking in tongues. It’s a gift that enhances intimacy with God which enables you to experience praise, worship, and adoration that surpasses our natural human ability. But, just as the apostle Paul said, we need to seek the gifts out and press into them (I Corinthians 14:1)—including tongues. It’s not something to be afraid of, although many times it hasn’t been represented well or represented very accurately on television/YouTube. It is something that will bring you into a closer relationship with God that will lead you to a greater personal edification. And if you use it correctly, other believers you share it with will be greatly edified as well.
*As always, I’d love to hear what’s on your mind so please drop your thoughts in the comment section below!