When I was in Bible college in Colorado, I distinctly remember one day in our class, “Survey of the Old Testament,” the instructor told us that we would not be having normal class. He said he was fed up with always talking about God, or talking about worshiping God, and that we never end up actually doing what we talk about. So, on this one special day he said, “We are just going to worship and be with God for a while before we start class today, ok? We are just going to put Him first and worship Him together”.
And that’s exactly what we did.
Standing at the pulpit, the teacher encouraged us to just thank God for who He is, to raise our hands together and tell God how lovely He was. All of us joined in and expressed our praise to God out loud individually. We spoke our personal thanksgiving and prayers up to God all at the same time in the same room. All of us were doing it intentionally and in agreement with one another. It wasn’t out of control, it wasn’t out of order.
As all of us joined in together with one another in our own unique verbal thanksgiving and praise to God, many of us switched over to worshiping God in the heavenly gift of tongues, including the teacher. We would all individually move between tongues and English as one would freely turn the steering wheel of a automobile around the gentle curves of a county road, freely expressing our love for God as we discerned the Spirit of God leading us. Some folks worshiped in silence, some laid themselves on the floor outstretched, others were on their knees or just sitting comfortably in their chairs. It was a beautiful sight: everyone pouring their heart out to God in their own way, all together, all spontaneously, and all in their own individual prayers. It wasn’t out of control. It wasn’t out of order.
Our corporate expression of worship organically petered out after 20 minutes. We then moved on to our lesson for the day. It was the first time I had experienced a church-like setting where everyone was in agreement, freely worshiping God—very memorable!
Many church leaders would say that the corporate worship that we engaged in that day was wrong, out of order, and a blatant violation of the Apostle Paul’s instructions for the corporate use of the gift of tongues as laid out in 1 Corinthians 14.
They would quote from that chapter:
- only 2 or 3 people can share in tongues (v. 27)
- they have to share one-at-a-time, not all together at once (v. 27)
- when tongues are shared, there must be an interpreter present that can translate and make sense of the tongues (v. 27)
- if no one can interpret, the tongue-talker must remain silent (v.28)
- if everyone in the congregation is speaking in tongues, then outsiders and unbelievers who might wander into the meeting will think they are crazy (v. 23)
- people cannot worship out loud all together at the same time. It needs to be done in order (v.39-40)
But would that be a true assessment of the Bible College experience I shared? Should Christians never pray in tongues together, out loud, in a group setting?
For people who oppose the usage of the gift of tongues in corporate settings as I just described, what follows could very well be the most shocking, and undisputable fact to learn. There are only three places in the entire Bible where there are incidents of people speaking in tongues. They all occur in the book of Acts (2:1-18, 10:44-48, 19:1-4). And when one reads them, what do all three of these incidences have in common? When the believers spoke in tongues together, on their own, it was in a corporate setting!
One could make the argument that these corporate expressions of tongues were only isolated occurrences that only accompanied the initial reception of the gift. However, if that were the explanation, then the question would still remain: if speaking in tongues all together, at once is so terribly wrong, out of order, and inappropriate, then why would God have given them all inspiration and utterance in the Spirit to speak in tongues, all together and out loud?
This would seem to be an irrational and contradictory decision on God’s part—and not an isolated one, but a decision that occurred on three distinct occasions as recorded in scripture!
Cleary then, speaking in tongues in a group setting is not unlawful or inappropriate. Yet we also need to balance the apostle Paul’s instructions in I Corinthians 14 about using the gifts with discretion. Let’s take the scriptural precedent of the three occurrences of corporate speaking in tongues, as as a valid expression, and then look at I Corinthians 14 to see what context Paul is speaking about.
ONWARD TO I CORINTHIANS 14
The Corinthian church were eager to receive charismatic gifts of the Spirit (I Cor. 14:12) and were walking in the manifestations of the them strongly. The apostle Paul did not see their eagerness as something to be criticized. He saw that as something good and to be encouraged. He did, however, have to reign in some of their practices and bring some clarity on how the gifts should be used in their specific situation.
At the beginning of the letter to the Corinthians, it is clear that Paul believed everything revolved around knowing the crucified Christ (I Cor. 2:1-5). Paul viewed the crucified Christ as our example to follow. Even though Jesus had all authority given to Him (John 13:3), Jesus did not choose to use His almighty power over others to exploit (Philippians 2:1-11) but rather to serve and exalt others’ interests and well-being above His own. Paul gives his perhaps most famous teaching on this concept in the previous chapter in I Corinthians 13. It is from the context of other-orientated love that Paul writes the 14th chapter in an effort to teach the Corinthians to use the gifts with other-orientated love in mind.
The Corinthians had lots of problems, including that some of the members were intentionally getting drunk during their meetings (I Cor. 11:20-22). We know from our three examples in scripture that the corporate expression of praise and thanksgiving to God via tongues was normal and not something to be banned. But from Paul’s words in chapter 14, it is clear that the Corinthians were manifesting corporate tongues in a manner that became disorderly and inconsiderate of others. It doesn’t take a genius to deduce that the Corinthians were doing some drunk tongue-talking—yes, drunk tongue-talking! This seems so sacrilegious to us that upon hearing such a notion appears to be unbelievable. But this is exactly what was happening! No wonder why their meetings were getting out of hand!
I can imagine the little rooms of the Corinthians’ house church where some of the stronger extroverted personalities were drinking too much alcohol, getting buzzed, showing off, spouting off nonsense, dominating the meeting, and speaking in tongues over the other attendees, while blatantly overlooking the other gifts and needs of the weaker personalities. I can imagine word getting back to Paul that a church member brought their next-door, non-Christian neighbor to the meeting to hear the good news of Jesus only to experience a meeting that was altogether dysfunctional, not others-oriented, and looking like a bunch of drunken nut jobs who jibber-jabbered in unknown languages.
Paul’s remedy was to treat the Corinthians like little children and bring them back to the basics of the simple lessons that us modern folks often learn in pre-school/kindergarten: be nice, be considerate, put others ahead of you, don’t address the room and talk over people, you can hold it in and wait your turn/raise your hand, and you will be held accountable for what you say.
To paraphrase Paul in I Corinthians 14 in the context of tongues, he tries to bring correction by saying that:
- If you praise and bless God with tongues, either translate it into the native language yourself or let someone else translate it so that the rest of the members can participate in your thanksgiving. If you are going to address the meeting using a spiritual gift, use only the gifts that will bless others and not the gifts that bless you. (v.6-12)
- If there are visitors present, serve and consider their needs first. Don’t speak in nonsense words when a visitor does not even have a relationship with God, or an understanding of tongues, or know Jesus. (v. 13-25)
- And, if you feel you MUST speak in tongues while the meeting is going on, then don’t interrupt the rest of the folks! Just talk to God quietly with yourself at a volume that is not disruptive. (v. 26-28)
Yes, Paul had to do some handholding and scolding to help the Corinthians stop acting like children (drunk children that is), and to get them back to the center of operating from a Jesus style of love toward one another. They were abusing tongues and talking over one another to the point where they neglected loving one another. They were speaking in tongues not to bring edification or instruction to the body, but for their own selfish purposes. The correction Paul gives against the usage of corporate tongues in the Corinthian church is because tongues were not being practiced in love toward others, not because there was a blanket rule against it.
Imagine you are in the crowd at the final championship game of the World Cup. Fans have poured in from multiple nations to experience the game together in person. The game is tied up and your team is running down the field with only seconds left in the final period. In a last ditch effect, a long kick is launched toward the goal from just past center field. It sails past the defenders, but everyone can see that it will easily be deflected away by the goalie. Just as the goalie steps out a little more in front of the net, his left foot gets tangled in his right and he is momentarily off balance. When the ball lands it takes an unusual bounce to the right and with perfect timing it flies just out of reach from the goalies hands. The ball takes another little short bounce and to everyone’s astonishment drifts into the goal just as time runs out on the clock.
It is a stunning unexpected finish. Your team wins!
The crowd erupts into jubilant excitement. People are shouting and lifting their hands in the air in disbelief and joy. It’s so loud that you feel the pressure in your eardrums. In some parts of the bleachers, people break out into singing. Others dance. People are hugging one another randomly and shouting cheers.
Notice: there is no leader or coordination to this joyous celebration. Even though everyone is independent of one another, they are completely unified and focused on the same life-giving experience. Due to the international nature of the event, there are so many different languages being spoken that there is no way to make any of it out. But it doesn’t matter. They are celebrating the joy of a victory and are coming together as one united people.
Would you consider this moment to be out of order? Should everyone in the stadium instead have sat in silence and waited for an interpreter to come by so that their celebrations could be translated for everyone else? Should they have remained silent and just celebrated silently to themselves?
Of course not! In fact, the multiple languages is the beauty of it all—everyone could experience a great moment together despite their individual/cultural differences of expression. And if we are to draw anything from the nature of God by looking at His wonderful creation, then clearly, He must LOVE diversity and variety!
In the same way, when everyone in the church worships God with their own supernatural gift of tongues, at an appropriate or specific time together in unity, it should not be considered something unusual. The meeting will not go off its rails. In fact, it might be the only time of the service when everyone is in total unity of Spirit. It might be the only time when people are actually opening themselves up to allowing Jesus to direct the meeting instead of it being directed by a pre-written plan put together by the church leadership days before. The Spirit of God could show up and shake the place just like it did in the early church when people engaged in free worship (Acts 4:31, 16:25-26).
Imagine if we had a crowd of people from different nations together, perhaps for a large international ministry conference, and the leader got up and said, “We are all going to pray out loud together to God and worship God. Oh, but you can only do it in English because if you did it in your own individual language, it would be out of order.” Would we limit the corporate expression of worship to only one language? Or, imagine that at the same meeting a woman who was crippled while young received prayer and was miraculously healed. Imagine her getting up from her wheelchair and running across the room shouting praises of God. Could you imagine the eruption of joy in the room? It would be unstoppable! Can you imagine the great, unrestrained worship, adoration, and thanksgiving that would organically pour out as each person started expressing their love to God in their own individual languages? It would be organized chaos in multiple languages—but it would be the right thing to do!
A SCARY FRONTIER
There are heavy-handed leaders out there who can’t imagine a gathering of church folks at which they themselves are not in total control. From their view, unless a leader is actively presiding over a meeting, they see the meeting as unofficial and invalid (echoing the opinion from the church father St. Ignatius). People who are or view themselves as leaders can often fall prey to a false of system power that flourishes in hierarchical authority (something I deconstructed in a past blog). It is an earthly, addictive system of leadership that can create rigid, stale, closed, and even abusive environment.
Then there are leaders who are not hung up on power, but just honestly fear that if a group of believers are left to themselves, they won’t know what to do and the meeting will go off track, or maybe even dissolve into chaos and disorder. There is perhaps some reason for these kinds of concerns. But I think the reason for worry is self-inflicted.
Church-goes have long been stuck in a hierarchical system that puts the parishioner in a purely spectatorial role. We let the ministers run the service and meetings. They present everything to us. We are never given space to freely operate in a meeting. Everything is planned out, and every aspect is directed. Because of this, if they were to then be put in a room together and told to worship God on their own without a program or a leader to follow many wouldn’t even know where to start. We have been silently indoctrinated to believe that the role of hearing from God and giving group direction is solely the responsibility of the ministers. But as I’ve mentioned in another blog, that is not how the church originally functioned. Simply put, we just haven’t been trained to allow ourselves to listen to the Spirit of God and allow Him to lead freely the assembly as He wills.
And this is the problem that some people have with the corporate expression of tongues. Church leaders are not rising up and encouraging people to step out in their giftings. Church meetings have been a place where leaders use their gifts, and everyone else receives. But the model I envision is one where leadership works more subtly. Rather than dominating the meeting with their teachings and giftings, leaders would function to help others draw out the gifts in themselves. Leaders would move aside to help others step out and practice their gifts, and they would encourage those who need a little nudging out of the nest. Yes, if you let the rest of the congregation share in their gifts, there will be some awkwardness, some learning, and some mistakes. But if we can get to a place of maturity where we can all truly hear God together and graciously yield to whoever in the meeting may be led of the Spirit to share, then we can enter into a situation where we are truly letting God run the meeting rather than just having the pastors and preachers present something pre-planned to us. The leadership and more mature brothers and sisters in Christ can help us stay on track if we falter, but they do not need to take control and direct the meeting in every aspect.
Therefore, there is no reason why there cannot be special periods of time when we can all pray in the Spirit together for a time of worship. As we do that, perhaps God will even give us an inspired word through one of the quiet, weaker personalities in the room. Maybe someone else seeking God aside from the pastor will step out and share spontaneously. Or, maybe nothing will happen except that we come together in unity to adore and love on God. But there is no reason to think that the meeting will inevitably go off the rails, And I’m sure that if it did, the leaders would be more than happy to step in and help redirect—because that is what they are there. If we are never given an opportunity to use our gifts publicly, why would anyone expect that we will ever grow in them?
When we speak in tongues together, we are all in perfect unity. We are speaking from our born-again perfected human spirit along with the abiding presence of the Holy Spirit. Tongues are Holy Spirit-directed, and when we share in them together it may very well be one of the few times we are actually worshipping God in “Spirit and truth” (John 4:24) —a method the brings about such unity that only God could accomplish in the Spirit.
CORPORATE TONGUES TODAY
As good as my premise of having group unity though sharing in the gift of tongues all together may sound wonderful, I’ve also been subject to some meetings where corporate tongues were being expressed and it wasn’t so great at all.
I remember a time in secular college where my newlywed wife and I were subtly tricked by one of my guitar students to go to a special event at his church. As someone who supports ecumenical Christian relations I thought, “Why not!” Only thing was that when my wife and I got to the meeting, and the pastor said he wanted the special visitors to raise their hands, my wife and I looked around and we were the ONLY visitors. It was another memorable experience.
This church meeting was like any other traditionally church meeting with the pastor running the show. But, a few times during the service he would tell the members to pray together. And they would—but in something that mimicked tongues. They would all start up together an cue as if someone shot a starting gun pistol. This seemed to be more like a trained response, or ritual, instead of a natural outflowing of Holy Spirit led inspiration. The sounds I heard were some of the strangest noises: whooping, hollering, the same syllable being repeated over and over again, and so on. It was truly strange. It would last for less than 30 seconds, and then just a quickly as it started they stopped, and the pastor would go on with his message. This is not the kind of corporate lounges I am recommending.
But now as a forty-one-year-old adult, I have had, and continue to have, plenty of experiences with believers where we pray in tongues openly in worship with each other at the same time. When we do, it’s free flowing. It’s not out of obligation, on cue, or for show. It’s mutually edifying, since we know we are being transparent and vulnerable as we intimately share heavenly praise with each other. It’s just another way to express one’s worship of God in a group setting, but in a unique way that surpasses what our limited brains would be able to do naturally.
Hearing multiple languages all at once is most likely what we will experience at the throne of God at the resurrection. Unless God gives us all the same language when we receive our heavenly body, which I suppose is possible, it’s also just as possible that we will be singing and praising God in the New Kingdom in the language we normally use today. In the vision from the book of Revelation we see a setting where every creature in heaven and on earth praises God together saying, “To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever“. We might all be saying this praise to God in our own indigenous languages. Tongues from nations from all around the world, singing and praising God in unity and with one accord, all with their own cultural uniqueness. At that time, we will all be one in spirit, not because God zaps us all and we just respond in unison like robots or drones, but because we all will see Him in His holiness and beauty and respond from the heart.
BACK TO BIBLE COLLEGE
College, we were all in agreement and in accord. There wasn’t any unbelievers or visitors in the room. This wasn’t a time for teaching or instruction, where speaking in tongues would be inappropriate (I Cor. 14:18-19). Rather, this was a sacred, consecrated time set apart to simply express love, devotion, and admiration to God, using our own individual, God-given spiritual languages to express worship in a way that allowed us to enter into and commune with the Divine.
When there is group unity and other-centered love, the corporate use of worshiping God together in tongues is a God-sanctioned and powerfully expressive tool to share in oneness with each other and our Creator.
*As always, I’d love to hear what’s on your mind so please drop your thoughts in the comment section below!