If prophecy is one of the most controversial of the spiritual gifts, tongues is not too far behind. The gift of tongues is often claimed to be the identifying mark of a “true believer,” the ultimate experience of God’s presence, or the most important of the spiritual gifts. Others, believe the gift has ceased and what is often manifested today as the “gift of tongues” is not only complete nonsense, but actually heretical. Then, there are those of us in the middle. In reality, and according to Scripture, the gift of tongues is neither the ultimate gift nor a useless one.
1 Corinthians 12-14 is the primary place in Scripture where the gift of tongues is unpacked. In a coming post I will delve more into the actual nature of the gift, but we ought to start by clarifying just how significant is this gift. Paul speaks to tongues but his words actually undercut the argument for the superiority of tongues in the Christian life. Paul begins his instructions on spiritual gifts by noting the unity within diversity of the church. He states:
Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who empowers them all in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. (v. 4-7)
Division was a major issue in the Corinthian church, and here Paul seeks to undercut divisions in the body of Christ. There are different gifts, but there is one and the same Spirit. This is a significant point which undermines the poor theology of many charismatics. Tongues is just one gift among many, and, as Paul goes on to say, not everyone has this gift (1 Cor. 12:30). We can no more hold tongues up as the ultimate gift than we can hold up healing, interpretation, or prophecy. God intentionally gives a diversity of gifts to the church for the mutual edification of the body of Christ. We all need one another, because each has a gift that serves the other (1 Cor. 12:15-25).
In many ways 1 Corinthians 12 is written as a response to our own modern-day debates on the Spiritual gifts. There were those among the Corinthians who were elevating their gift, specifically tongues, and cultivating a hierarchy and division in the church. Paul writes to put an end to this division. As D.A. Carson explains:
These latter verses insist on the diversity of the gifts but the oneness of the source. This suggests that Paul’s correspondents were at least partly made up of Charismatics (in the modern sense of the term) who wanted to elevate their gifts to the place where they could give exclusive authentication for spiritual life and who wanted Paul to approve this judgment; and partly they were made up of non-Charismatics (again in the modern sense) who were profoundly skeptical of claims of the charismatics, and wanted Paul to correct them.
But, as Carson goes on to explain, Paul intended to correct both parties. Carson writes:
To both parties, Paul offers a telling rebuttal: your horizons are too narrow, he says, for a participation in the things of the Holy Spirit is attested by all who truly confess Jesus as Lord. Both parties must expand their horizons: the charismatics should not feel they have some exclusive claim on the Spirit, and the non-charismatics should not be writing them off. (Showing the Spirit, 26-27)
No gift is greater than any other. In fact, Paul goes so far as to say that without love speaking in tongues is just noise (1 Cor. 13:1), and in chapter 14 Paul says that prophesy is actually of more value to the church than tongues (14:1-4). No one who reads Paul should claim, then, that tongues are of more value or make one a superior Christian. Not only is that not consistent with what Scripture actually says, but it is the exact opposite of Paul’s primary point in 1 Corinthians 12-14.
On the other hand, however, Paul still encourages believers to speak in tongues. In 1 Corinthians 14 he plainly says, “Now I want you all to speak in tongues” (v. 5a). Paul is not against the use of tongues. He does emphasize that uninterpreted tongues don’t benefit the church, but interpreted tongues certainly do (v. 5b, 12-13). He also emphasizes the speaking in tongues benefits the individual, it is “self-edifying” (v. 4). Particularly, verse 2 points out that in the use of tongues we are speaking to God. We can worship and pray through this gift. There is good, then, that comes from the practice and it should not be disparaged.
In general we ought to be slow to mock and ridicule the gifts of God. As Sam Storms has wisely written:
We must never forget that the gift of tongues was God’s idea, not man’s. He gave this gift to the church no less than the gifts of teaching, mercy, exhortation, and evangelism. Let’s resolve from the outset not to spurn or ridicule something precious in God’s sight, graciously bestowed by a loving heavenly Father who gives only good gifts to his children. (The Beginner’s Guide to Spiritual Gifts, 120)
This does not mean that everything called “tongues” in the modern church qualifies as the real thing. There is much abuse of the gift that occurs today, and much of what is called ” the gift of tongues” does not operate according to the strict Biblical standards and limitations outlined by Paul in 1 Corinthians 14 (more on that in future posts). Yet, at a bare minimum, we should be slow to mock and ridicule the gifts of God in general. If the bath water is sometimes dirty, there is still a precious baby in the tub. Let’s be cautious.
According to Scripture, then, we can neither elevate tongues nor disregard them. The Bible often paints a more nuanced and careful picture than Christians do. Tongues are not the supreme spiritual gift, nor the evidence of conversion. They are one gift among many. Yet tongues do play a role in the early church and may play a role in the contemporary church. When interpreted they build up the church. When uninterpreted they bless and edify the speaker. Careful attention to Scripture means a careful understanding of the role and importance of tongues.