Tongues and Other Sign Gifts
“I believe that all the gifts of the Spirit are alive and well in the world today. I’m also not a charismatic – that is I’m not aware that I possess any of the sign gifts.”
There, I said it!
For some of you, I just crossed over to the other side. Others of you may be confused because in the past I've identified myself as a member of a dispensational church. Dispensationalists generally view the sign gifts (speaking in tongues, miracles, healing, etc.) as having ended when the apostolic age ended. (When the original apostles died.)
While I’m very grateful for the biblical worldview of dispensationalists, and take seriously most of their theology, a theological system can never be allowed to trump the Bible. And, in my opinion, on this issue, I believe the weight of scripture is on the side of those who believe that there’s no clear biblical evidence that the sign gifts have ended.
You may be asking yourself, “who cares”? With Pentecost coming up in the next few weeks I think we should all reflect on the Holy Spirit and how he works in our lives. A few years ago I was asked by our 15 year old grandson if I believed in speaking in tongues and I was able to tell him my thoughts and also explain why other Christians who also love God, and also have a high view of scripture, who I respect deeply, don’t believe in them.
George Barna, in his wonderful book Revolutionary Parenting says that exposing your children to ideas held by other good Christians, even if you disagree with them raises their confidence in your willingness to “trust them” to choose for themselves. Better that you guide this discussion yourself than simply telling them what you believe and hoping they never consider another biblical viewpoint.
The following are excerpts that I sent to the elders of my church twenty-five years ago, when I was first nominated to serve as an elder. I wanted no ambiguity regarding what I believe on this issue and I wanted to give them an opportunity to "vote me off the island," before I became an elder. (I’ve been an elder four times since.)
Dear Fellow Elders,
Let me preface my comments with this statement. I am not charismatic, I have no interest in defending the charismatic movement or specific individuals who claim to have these gifts. In fact much of the public charismatic movement is an embarrassment to me as a believer. That may be reason for caution and discernment, but not for dismissal. My only concern is what does the Bible teach?
While there are many respected theologians on both sides of this issue, I believe the overwhelming biblical evidence is on the side of those who believe that there is little or no evidence in the Bible of the passing of the sign gifts at the end of the New Testament era. Therefore, I believe are believers today who possess sign gifts, given by the Holy Spirit, for the same reasons he gave them in the New Testament church, to validate the authority of the gospel message, to aid in the proclamation of the gospel, and to demonstrate the power of God. The fact that tongues or other sign gifts have not been a part of our church’s experience or have not been as evident for the majority of church history, as they were in the New Testament, does not prove they do not exist today. We look only to the Bible – not our experience for our evidence.
What does the Bible say?
The following texts are the ones most commonly used as proof texts that the sign gifts have ended. Following each quote are my comments on those verses.
“And in the church God has appointed first of all Apostles, second Prophets, third teachers, then workers of miracles, also those having gifts of healing, those able to help others, those with gifts of administration, and those speaking in 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? But eagerly desire the greater gifts.” I Corinthians 12:28-31
My Comments: There is no hint of the gifts passing in these verses. In fact it states just the opposite, namely that God apparently appointed others, who were not Apostles and presumably outlived the Apostles with one or more of the apostolic gifts. And the idea that the "sign gifts" were "lesser" gifts, Paul doesn't actually say which gifts were greater, or lesser. That idea only comes from the order in which they appear In these verses.
“Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears.” I Corinthians 13:8-10
My Comments: If this is a list of the things that passed away with the last Apostles, then today we must have no knowledge. That's obviously not true. It’s obvious that the “disappearing” refers to something which will happen either at Christ’s return ("when perfection comes"), or his revelation to us as believers in heaven following our death.
“Follow the way of love and eagerly desire spiritual gifts, especially the gift of prophecy. For anyone who speaks in a tongue does not speak to men but to God. Indeed, no one understands him; he utters mysteries with his spirit. But everyone who prophesies speaks to men for their strengthening, encouragement and comfort. He who speaks in a tongue edifies himself, but he who prophesies edifies the church. I would like every one of you to speak in tongues, but I would rather have you prophesy. He who prophesies is greater than one who speaks in tongues, unless he interprets, so that the church may be edified.
Now, brothers, if I come to you and speak in tongues, what good will I be to you, unless I bring you some revelation or knowledge or prophecy or word of instruction? Even in the case of lifeless things that make sounds, such as the flute or harp, how will anyone know that tune is being played unless there is a distinction in the notes? Again, if the trumpet does not sound a clear call, who will get ready for battle? So it is with you. Unless you speak intelligible words with your tongue, how will anyone know what you are saying? You will just be speaking into the air. Undoubtedly there are all sorts of languages in the world, yet none of them is without meaning. If then I do not grasp the meaning of what someone is saying, I am a foreigner to the speaker, and he is a foreigner to me. So it is with you. Since you are eager to have spiritual gifts, try to excel in gifts that build up the church.
For this reason anyone who speaks in a tongue should pray that he may interpret what he says. For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays, but my mind us unfruitful. So what shall I do? I will pray with my spirit, but I will pray with my mind; I will sing with my spirit, but I will also sing with my mind. If you are praising God with your spirit, how can one who finds himself among those who do not understand say Amen to your thanksgiving, since he does not know what you are saying? You may be giving thanks well enough, but the other man is not edified.
I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you. But on the church I would rather speak five intelligible words to instruct others than ten thousand words in a tongue.
Brothers, stop thinking like children. In regard to evil be infants, but in your thinking be adults. In the Law it is written:
“Through men of strange tongues and through the lips of foreigners I will speak to this people, but even then they will not listen to me, says the Lord.”
Tongues, then, are a sign, not for believers but for unbelievers; prophecy, however, is for believers, not for unbelievers. So if the whole church comes together and everyone speaks in tongues, and some who do not understand or some unbelievers come in, will they not say that you are out of your mind? But if an unbeliever or someone who does not understand comes in while everybody is prophesying, he will be convinced by all that he is a sinner and will be judged by all, and the secrets of his heart will be laid bare. So he will fall down and worship God, exclaiming, “God is really among you!”
When then shall we say, brothers? When you come together, everyone has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. All of these must be done for the strengthening of the church. If anyone speaks in a tongue, two – or at the most three – should speak, one at time, and someone must interpret. If there is no interpreter, the speaker should keep quiet in the church and speak to himself and God.” I Corinthians 14:1-28
My Comments: Opponents almost always fail to quote the last two important verses from I Corinthians 12:39-40 which summarizes Paul teaching in this chapter:
“Therefore, my brothers be eager to prophecy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues (emphasis mine). But everything should be done in a fitting and orderly way.”
Is there anything about this command which is ambiguous? Is there any hint of these gifts passing? There is no question Paul values prophecy above speaking in tongues, but the fact that it may be a lesser gift does not prove its passing. In any case it appears to be a sin to ever grieve the Holy Spirit by forbidding speaking in tongues.
Is Paul’s teaching valid for today?
I can’t imagine that the Holy Spirit would write, through Paul, almost an entire chapter in I Corinthians, on the proper and improper use of tongues, even going to the point of stating, “do not forbid speaking in tongues,” for a gift that was about to cease in a few decades.
And, if these instructions were written only to the Corinthian church, then what other things taught in I Corinthians are only written to the Corinthian church or are no longer valid in the present church age? Do we believe Paul’s instructions in I Corinthians 5, regarding church discipline was only for the Corinthian church or for the apostolic age, and is no longer applicable for today? Do we believe Paul’s teaching in I Corinthians 7 on divorce and marriage, or on communion was only meant for them and not for today? We are on dangerous ground if we take a cafeteria approach to scripture that was written, not by Paul, but the Holy Spirit, to all people, of all ages, unless it’s clearly stated otherwise.
For instance, there are times the Bible will introduce some new teaching that replaces older commandments and ideas. In Galatians, Paul makes it very clear that believers no longer live under the legalism of the law, but by faith alone in Christ and in the freedom of the Holy Spirit. The same can be said when Jesus clearly predicted the coming of the Holy Spirit who ushered in the church age. However, any major shift in how God works was always clearly predicted in scripture. No clear teaching exists for the passing of these gifts, or any spiritual gift.
But, I’ve heard the argument made, “The sign gifts are no longer needed for today.” Says who? Does the Bible say that? That’s an argument of reason not from scripture. There’s also an argument that the New Testament records only the apostles or those under their authority exercising these gifts, so since we no longer have apostles these sign gifts have passed. But, that’s an argument from silence. It’s not proof that the gifts were only exercised by the apostles.
It’s true that the sign gifts can be divisive. I’ve heard stories of those with certain gifts acting as though they were more spiritual than others who didn’t have them. But then, that’s a sin issue and not a theological one and should be dealt with as such. I don’t assume that everyone who claims to have a gift, any spiritual gift for that matter, actually does. The power of suggestion can be tricky to discern. I “tried” to speak in tongues years ago because I wanted to so badly. I made strange sounds, but that’s all it was- I think. I’ve come to the conclusion that if it’s truly a gift from God, I don’t have to learn how to, or make it happen. He’ll give it to me.
I’ve personally prayed this prayer many times: Lord, please give me any spiritual gift that will accrue to your glory. But, please withhold any gift that will cause me to be prideful or sinful. I want only your glory Lord.
I also believe each church has the right to govern how and when the gift of tongues or any of the gifts are exercised in the church, particularly in worship, to avoid confusion. That’s clear from I Corinthians 14. But denying the existence of these gifts or what one does in the privacy of their own worship experience is wrong. In fact, denying the power of the Holy Spirit - a sin! I also have no evidence that the sign gifts are as prevalent today as they once were in the early church, but that’s simply my personal observation.
In conclusion, I have great respect for Christians who believe differently and I’m proud to call them my brothers and sisters in Christ. However, we’ve always prided ourselves in being a Bible-based church. If that’s the case, we have to let the Bible speak for itself even if we don’t fully understand why it may not fit neatly into our theological framework. I’ve personally found God difficult to organize. When that happens. Sola Scriptura, (the Bible alone).” (This ends my letter to our elders.)
By the way; if you hold to the dispensationalist view on this issue, then please take the time to prepare yourself to teach your children, what you believe and why, but above all prove it from the Bible, not your experience. But for their sake, also expose them to some of what I’ve described. They’ll find out from someone eventually, anyway.
I apologize that I’ve not taken the time to present a more balanced viewpoint. This blog simply got too long.You may want to go to precepts.wordpress.com then click on Speaking in Tongues, for a thoughtful defense of the dispensationalist view. With Pentecost coming up in two weeks, we would do well to be more in awe of the power and work of the Holy Spirit.
Questions: Do you believe the Bible clearly teaches something else and can you help me find that in scripture and not in apologetics?