‘Tongues and More Tips’ - A Response to Andrew Wilson
I’m not a particular fan of blogs (there, I’ve said it!) and I appreciate the irony in responding to a blog with a blog! Andrew writes for a wider audience than Newfrontiers (of which I am a part), but as he writes from within that family I felt that my staying silent on the subjects raised in this particular blog, would imply my agreement with his points. I am in agreement with much of what Andrew says, though I could bring various adjusted positions on much of it. I don’t see, for example, the dynamics of Acts 2 in such a unique a way as Andrew would suggest.
However, I am not in agreement with certain points raised and I wanted to be able to add some thoughts for further consideration. This I believe is an open-hand issue (not closed-hand, major doctrine), meaning it is up to local elders how they apply the views expressed by me or anyone else. This response was written with Andrew’s permission and encouragement, and we both hope it will promote further thinking and discussion on this topic.
My main points of difference with Andrew are on the question of whether or not tongues/languages should ever be used for private worship in a corporate gathering, and whether the gift of tongues is available to all believers.
Andrew’s understanding of the former, as stated in his point 5, is that “The use of the gift in a public meeting is only legitimate if its purpose is to build up the church”. (And I infer, though he never says so explicitly, that he does not consider it possible that “the common Charismatic practice of singing in other languages in public Sunday meetings” could build up the church.) He outlines his reasons for this position in his next couple of points, with reference to Paul’s teachings to the church in Corinth, but here are the reasons I diverge with him on this:
1 Firstly, context is really important in understanding Paul’s writings here. Corinth was in chaos as a church. Paul urging ‘one at a time’, both in use of gifts and in Lord’s table protocols, illustrates people were all doing everything at once – all speaking, shouting, prophesying, speaking in tongues etc. without any reference to each other or to order. It was nothing like a western church context as we might know it. Paul is addressing massive excess and chaos! Imagine something more akin to a market place than a meeting place, or more like 100 juke boxes playing different songs at the same time than like a 100-piece orchestra. Order doesn’t have to mean one person speaking, or one instrument playing, at a time, but it does mean working in harmony together A good orchestra produces far greater music, blessing and edification when playing together than if each instrument played its part in turn.
2 Un-interpreted public languages/tongues, it is said, will cause outsiders to conclude such unintelligible contributions are madness or foolish (1 Cor 14:23).
With reference to my point above, outsiders thought they were mad not because of one tongue brought in a meeting that was not interpreted but because it was a crazy, ecstatic, hyped atmosphere of utter confusion. To assume people would move from ‘I think you’re mad’ to ‘Oh no, you’re not after all’, just because an interpretation was after all given after the tongue is stretching things a bit… context, context, context.
I would maintain that the gospel itself is seen as foolishness to those outside of Christ. Trying to remove the foolishness to outsiders is not possible. When it has been tried we castrate the gospel. Indeed ‘tongues are a sign…for unbelievers’ maybe the confrontation with the fact, ‘I don’t know what this is/I’m not part of this/It’s outside my experience…’ might just work to aid awareness of the need for God. In the 80’s seeker sensitive meetings used the ‘make it accessible’ card to ensure meetings were sanitised for the unsaved. I would suggest that the spiritual environment today in the West is one of intrigue around many kinds of mystical experience. Therefore, spiritual gifts are likely to attract conversation rather than put people off.
3 To follow the logic of intelligibility. Would a prayer in a multi-cultural church context, by someone in their mother tongue, also be deemed as mad by those who don’t speak that language? Sometimes you can’t tell the difference between tongues or a mother tongue.
4 I believe all tongues is prayer/praise and its direction is always man speaking to God ‘he who speaks in a tongue speaks to God not to man’. Prophecy is God speaking to man. Both contain illumination: prophecy a foretelling or insight into things hidden; tongues a revealing or displaying in poetic language and beyond the normal vocabulary the glories of God or an appeal in prayer to his nature and character. When sometimes a tongue is followed by an apparent message worded from God to man, it may be that the revelation of the content of the tongue has been turned round wrongly e.g., ‘Thus says the Lord: I am your shepherd’ (prophetic) instead of, ‘Lord you are my glorious shepherd’ (tongues). Alternatively, it could be that in the meeting someone has prophesied before we have had the interpretation of the tongue. This is not a crime or a sin, it just means we’ve missed a bit out of the flow In talking about interpretation, Paul is aiming at more than simple communication of information. He is looking for the dynamics of revelation in a meeting.
5 I have never in 30 years of pastoral ministry ever seen anyone put off attending church by a public expression of speaking in tongues, interpreted or not, perhaps because when used correctly, they reflect an incredible atmosphere of love whose appeal outweighs the potential awkwardness or confusion.
Paul urged love as the context for corporate church life and therefore spiritual gifts also only work as intended in that environment. Love as an atmosphere is not clinical or sterile, it stirs affection and emotion. Lovers often find it hard to contain emotion and express in a rational way the affection they feel for their beloved. Jonathan Edwards wrote extensively of ‘religious affections’ often accompanying unusually strong seasons of the manifest presence of God. Meetings often featured encounters and contributions that were hard to contain and difficult to make sense of. The Song of Songs has been referred to by many spiritual giants through the years as in part a pictorial encouragement to see that our relationship with Christ is very akin in flavour and emotion to that we might associate more usually with people in love. Paul is not therefore envisioning a meeting that is dry, ordered and analytical. He is arguing for love as the atmosphere. Love that desires Christ with strong affection and love that desires the blessing and upbuilding of one another.
Do these things matter when approaching the use of spiritual gifts in a public setting? I would argue emphatically yes! Context is as important as content. Atmosphere affects the right functioning of all relationships. If you are looking for neat and tidy, don’t fall in love! I would rather stir up than tidy up! Therefore, any guidance on the use of spiritual gifts must have as its backdrop the requirement for engagement of affection in a relationship stirred by love that at times might overflow the banks of what might be seen as usual propriety. All our meetings should be following a flow of the Holy Spirit and a passionate response to him in our hearts. Our lover, not the precise regimenting of contributions, should be our focus.
6 My observations on collective sung languages/tongues would be ‘Let’s build more onto and into it’, rather than saying ‘Don’t do it’. In Acts 4 we have an example of everyone praying out loud all at once (we assume) and a summary of the main content of the collective prayer is then given in the text. Much singing in tongues/languages in public meetings flows during the sung worship. A song will spark a collective expression of worship across the ‘body’ and a wave of praise erupts that is varied and also collective. I would argue that often as we return to worship, another song, learnt or spontaneous, might (or should) flow out of this collective time or a prayer may be given publicly that is a kind of summary of what has been said, much as in Acts 4. I would contend that we should give more credence to this corporate interpretation of the main theme that everyone has been singing etc. In this way, therefore, we build upon the collective dynamic.
If the idea behind Andrew’s argument is that information and understanding are the guiding principles, I think this would be to make a largely ‘western’ mistake. Revelation is key to information having any impact at all or to bringing spiritual life. That is why small fragments of the gospel can bring salvation and issues of age or mental capacity are not ultimately determining factors in having a saving encounter with Christ.
7 I was once in a setting being taught on spiritual gifts and what should not happen was emphasised as much as what should. When, at the end of two days of very good but very cautionary teaching, we had a practical session, no one dared share anything. It was a tumbleweed moment. Such an approach is death by a thousand cuts to existing or desired charismatic life. Would you take the risk? I wouldn’t. I’m with Spurgeon, who said: ‘I would sooner risk the dangers of a tornado of religious excitement than see the air grow stagnant with a dead formality’.1
Do all speak in tongues?
My second point of divergence from Andrew’s understanding is on the question of whether or not tongues is a gift available to all believers.
8 Paul is not known for urging towards the unattainable. So, when he urges all to speak in tongues and all to prophesy this, I believe, is possible. Paul said ‘Eagerly desire the gifts’. It would be very odd to encourage the earnest desiring of something you can’t have. I believe spiritual gifts are situational not possessional: the church acts like a body each time it gathers, but this doesn’t mean that each member of the body necessarily functions in the same way each time the church gathers. Rather each can be a different part in the body in using different spiritual gifts each time – being inspired by the Spirit to speak into that particular situation – there is nothing in the text to suggest otherwise. It is legitimate to observe that most people tend to exercise some gifts more than others. This could be due to comfort or familiarity. However, Paul encourages us to eagerly desire spiritual gifts (plural), implying that we can grow and develop in other aspects that we hitherto may not have used. (We must be careful not to get tangled in reference to apostles, prophets etc. which are not situational gifts but indeed possessional, as the gift is the person themselves not the exercise of a gift by the person – but that would be another blog!)
9 When I was baptised in the Spirit, I did not speak in tongues immediately as I had not heard about it. Once I did find out about it, I returned to God in prayer and I stepped out in faith, trusting by faith that it was the real thing and was a promise to me based on scripture. I also asked for the gift of interpretation and stepped out in a similar faith. If I had wondered ‘Does God want me to have these gifts?’ I would have answered this through my own subjective opinion (and probably have never stepped out in it), rather than stepping out by exercising faith in a biblical promise, irrespective of how I felt internally. Also after 30+ years in pastoral contexts, leading people into the gift of speaking in tongues/languages, I draw the conclusion that if people are not certain of the biblical promise to them, they are less likely to exercise the gift.
10 Andrew’s explanation of Paul’s rhetorical comment ‘Do all speak in tongues?’ is just as easily explained as an observation rather than a restriction. I would suggest all of the gifts for use in gathered church meetings are accessible to us but are not imposed on us.
Overall, my appeal is to avoid a clinical form. Often those resisting the gifts of the Spirit do so not out of biblical conviction, but rather out of fear or reaction to bad experience. The answer to abuse is not non-use but proper use. Andrew’s appeal I applaud, his application at points I question. So I shall happily keep singing in tongues out loud with everyone else as the meetings may flow in that manner. I shall perhaps be looking for the thread of continuity into other parts of the meeting more observantly.
- 1. CH Spurgeon. Autobiography (Banner of Truth, 1962)