The Case for Discouraging Tongues in Meetings: A Conversation with a Pastor
Here’s a conversation I’ve been having with a friend of mine over the last few days. He’s a pastor in a Newfrontiers church, and he’s got a number of questions about how – and whether! – the gift of languages (often called “tongues”, in order to make it as inaccessible and confusing as possible) should function within a church. With his permission, I’m reproducing it, because I think he makes some outstanding points which strike at the heart of the way we use the gifts in our meetings (for those of us who do). We are both hoping that your feedback on the discussion in the comments will help us (and others) clarify our thinking.
In 1 Corinthians 12-14, it seems clear to me that Paul is saying that worship should be (1) edifying for believers and (2) intelligible for unbelievers. Paul even seems to introduce a principle that he would rather speak with his mind than in tongues, so outsiders can say “amen”. Intelligibility, then, is prized over the use of gift (14:19). Isn’t it? Paul’s application of this is that there must be an interpretation, and there must be just two or three in turn (14:26). If done well, tongues are a sign for the unbeliever (14:22; cf. Isa 28:11).
So here’s the question. In my opinion and experience, even when tongues are accompanied by an interpretation, they (a) make outsiders think that we are mad, (b) put them off the Christian faith (or prompt them to go to a different church to continue exploring Christ, where people are a bit more “normal’), and (c) make the worship not only unintelligible but deeply uncomfortable. Do you think Paul is saying: “use the gifts, and make them intelligible”? Or is he saying, “be intelligible, and use appropriate gifts for outsiders”? What trumps what? For me, this has big implications. I don’t mind doing stuff that is countercultural if I have a firm conviction and can apply some wisdom. However, I feel like by applying Paul’s practice (using tongues) I am violating his principles for worship (making it comprehensible and winsome to others). What do you think?
My initial response would be (in rabbinic fashion) to ask a question. It seems to me that, as church leaders, we have a range of options when it comes to the use of languages (or, for that matter, any other spiritual gift). (a) We can ban them. We can make public statements to the effect that we are asking everyone in the church not to speak in languages in our meetings. (b) We can allow them officially, but discourage them. This is what we do with, say, Christian jargon: we don’t enforce a ban on it, but we do try and talk people out of using it. (c) We can allow them, without discouraging or encouraging them. Over time, this will probably mean that they don’t happen very often, but when they do, we’re OK with that. (d) We can actively encourage them, by including our expectation for them in our biblical teaching and in our leadership of meetings. (e) We can insist upon them, by asking everyone in the congregation to speak and/or sing in languages at particular moments in the meeting. This may or may not be accompanied by a theological conviction that someone’s baptism in the Spirit is demonstrated by the gift of languages. My question is: which options are you currently talking about?
Charismatic churches have done all five. I’ve personally attended churches that have gone for each option. For my part, I would rule out (a) as unbiblical, on the grounds of 1 Cor 14:39, and (e) as unbiblical, on the grounds of 1 Cor 12:30, and I assume you would, too. But when you talk about the incomprehensibility of languages and the possible tension between Paul’s principle and his practice (in our culture), which options are you talking about?
Thanks for picking up this conversation. Currently, we are going for position (d) and actively encouraging tongues, and my whole team (and probably you?!) believe this means we are being faithful to the Bible. I have personally pursued, and modelled, bringing and singing tongues, and then explaining the gift and interpretation, at our Sunday gatherings. I even like to think we do it pretty well…! But in taking this position I feel like we end up with exactly what Paul wants us to avoid. Firstly, we are not preferring gifts based on being intelligible for all (14:19); secondly, we still make people feel like foreigners (14:11); and thirdly, people dismiss us as mad (14:23). Does that make things clearer?
So yes, I guess I have always understood Paul is saying that two or three tongues in turn, interpreted, and properly explained and applied, will be intelligible for unbelievers and will not put people off the gospel. But my experience in the church I lead is that two or three tongues in turn, interpreted and properly explained and applied is still thoroughly unintelligible for unbelievers, and repeatedly puts people off the gospel. So because my mission field is not Corinth, I find myself thinking that given Paul’s desire for worship to be edifying and intelligible, he would tell me, in trying to reach my city, to go for (b). Any thoughts?
Well, at an exegetical level, I think any of (b), (c) or (d) would fit with Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians, although I get the sense from his very positive view of the gift as a whole that he’d be considerably less happy with (b) than with the other two. But that’s as far as exegesis can take us, I’m afraid! The question you’re asking is more about the philosophy of ministry, mission and church life you have than about any direct instructions of Paul’s, isn’t it? I think 1 Cor 12-14 shows that churches which insist on all people speaking in languages are unbiblical, and churches which ban people from speaking in languages are unbiblical. But beyond that, I don’t think we can appeal to the passage in definitive support of one view over another.
It would be worth thinking through your reasons for saying that it makes people think you’re mad, though. Do they think that because the way you’re using the gifts in meetings is alienating? Do they think that because life in the Spirit in all its wonder - prophesying, healing, speaking in the languages of men and of angels, casting out demons, etc (not to mention the message of a man who healed people and rose again) - is alienating in itself, no matter how you package it? Or something else?
You say, “considerably less happy with (b)”, but surely, given 14:19, he’d be considerably less happy with (d), given the impact on our people? Wouldn’t he? So here are some reasons I think people find tongues weird. (1) Visitors cannot understand the words. It’s strange to speak in a language that people don’t understand or recognise in any context. In most contexts, that’s just rude. (2) It can appear like the person is not making sense, or in control of themselves, and therefore it makes them look like literally a mad person. (3) It happens in a moment, and therefore is hard to explain well enough to make the practice comprehensible and credible. (4) It feels a bit cultish, it appears like people have been brainwashed, and it conjures images of crazy Americans. [Apologies to all our American readers!] (5) To speak in a language that you don’t understand yourself never happens in life! It seems quite bonkers, to most people.
I think this clearly differs from prophecy, because there, the words are understandable, it is more controlled, and you can point people to scripture to ‘test it’ for themselves. I think it differs from healing, because the words are understandable, and prayer seems more normal (and even non-Christians pray for help when they are struggling!). With demons, obviously, I’m not so keen to give them the microphone on a Sunday morning, but I’m locked and loaded just in case! And anyway: Jesus, the man who healed people and rose again, took on flesh, spoke words, used illustrations that humans could understand, met people where they were at, and did not insist that you had to speak in tongues if you wanted to meet your maker. So in my head, I lean towards (b), even though we’re still practising (d). What do you think?
At this point, I stop the conversation and ask if I can crowdsource some theology and some application from my friends at ThinkTheology – and my pastor friend says yes. So: over to you! How do you process this issue?