Therefore, brethren, desire earnestly to prophesy, and do not forbid to speak with tongues. Let all things be done decently and in order. 1 Corinthians 14:39-40

If there is an inherent spiritual danger in searching after an experience rather than after God, there is also a danger of seeking to forbid what we cannot clearly identify.

To me the argument that tongues was only a pagan practice that had infiltrated the church fails at this point. If tongues were entirely the ungodly pagan practice some identify them as then they surely would have been condemned and forbidden. Rather we have the command, “Do not forbid to speak with tongues.”

There are certainly some obvious counterfeit efforts that we can identify and discourage, as well as some abuses in practice and in doctrine. We find some clear instructions in the First Century of their use. (1) There should be an interpreter for their public use: “If there is no interpreter, let him keep silent in church” (1 Cor. 14:28).  (2) The persons who speak in tongues can control themselves: they are able to wait their turn when others are speaking (1 Cor. 14:30), or even not to speak at all if there is no interpreter, because “the spirits of the prophets are subject to the prophets” (1 Cor. 14:32). (3) We need to also guard against people who would use any spiritual gift in the church to excuse immoral or wrong behavior. This was the issue behind Paul’s instructions in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16, that some sought to prophesy in church when they acted wrongly toward their spouses at home. Peter also taught on this matter, that both husbands and wives should treat each other properly if they would be effective in witness (1 Peter 3:1) and if their prayers would not be hindered (1 Peter 3:7).

We can also identify unbiblical teachings about tongues, such as that they are a much desired spiritual gift, one that is given to the exceptionally spiritual. Or that they are a sign of the baptism or filling of the Spirit, or any number of other false teachings that are associated with the practice. According to Scripture: repentance and faith in Christ is all that is needed to receive the Spirit (Acts 2:38; Ephesians 1:13-14); every believer receives the Spirit at salvation (Romans 8:9); not all receive the gift of tongues (1 Cor. 12:28-30); tongues are one of the lesser gifts, not one of the greater ones (1 Cor. 12:31).

I believe we are well within the proper boundaries when a church says that it will not practice tongues in its corporate worship. In the First Century it was problematic enough to do so – and we have only the record of Corinth that it happened in churches at all even then – and after 2,000 years of church experience we can see the division and problems the public exercise of tongues has caused. And tongues can be so easily pretended, as can the interpretation, that there is practically no assurance that what is called “tongues” today is a true spiritual or biblical experience. So if only for the sake of protecting the church from divisions and abuse by deceivers, we are not in error to forbid it in our public worship. But, to forbid it in private practice is another matter, and this is what I am cautioning against.  We should go as far as Scripture and no farther. Here are my concerns:

To forbid what we cannot identify will cause us to judge others too harshly. We will tend to judge each other, looking with disdain and spiritual superiority on those that perhaps we should admire and learn from.

To focus on stamping out tongues will cause us to focus on fear rather than faith. If there is no clear way to identify what tongues were, then we will surely cut too large a swathe in enforcing in the community of faith their non-use. Like a doctor who amputates an entire limb when all he needed to do was remove a small tumor, we will act too sternly. We will discourage people not to do things that are perfectly spiritually healthy. We will fear emotions, discourage any show of joy, and set up limits on how much freedom people should have in personal prayer. We will sow seeds of fear of our disapproval rather than seeds of faith in God.

To forbid what we cannot identify will motivate people to seek a lesser experience of God’s grace out of fear. In my private study on this matter once, God led me to the experience of Abraham in offering Isaac as a sacrifice. The story is told in Genesis 22:1-19 and in this event Abraham’s faith was tested. God commanded him to offer Isaac as a sacrifice, and that command was contrary to all that Abraham knew about God. The pagan people around them often indulged in child sacrifice, but not the people of God. Abraham may have had many reasons that he would have rejected God’s command, saying, “Well, I know God would never ask me to do such a thing!”

But Abraham obeyed, even though he did not understand, and did what the Lord asked him to do. Abraham was a man of faith and his faith serves as an example for us. I believe when we draw near to God in prayer and in faith, we should come with an attitude of complete trust and surrender. If we come to Him setting some limitations, saying to ourselves, “Well, I know God would never ask me to speak in tongues,” then we are acting in a contrary attitude to faith and surrender. (The same would be true if we come seeking tongues.) We should come to God in complete surrender to Him and trust Him entirely with the experience.

An honest prayer would be: “Lord, I do not believe that You give the gift of tongues today, but between You and me, I leave all these matters in Your hand. If I am wrong and if You desire me to speak in tongues, then I will obey You fully.” It is not that we need to speak in tongues, but we do need to come to God in a spirit of total surrender. It is essential that we do so, that come to God with trust and confidence in Him. We never need to fear Him or what He calls us to be or commands us to do.

I have heard enough missionary testimonies that began, “I told God I would go as a missionary anywhere but _____” – and you can fill in the blank – “but that was exactly where God called me.” Until we say that we will go anywhere, then we are not ready to go somewhere. And likewise, until we come to God willing to receive whatever He deems to give us, then we are not ready to receive the gifts and experiences He determines.

And this leads to the final concern: To forbid what we cannot identify will cause us not to trust the Spirit of God and thereby limit the freedom we should have in His presence. 2 Corinthians 3:17 says, “Now the Lord is the Spirit; and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty.” The one who teaches a non-biblical doctrine on tongues – whether to enforce their non-use or to encourage their use – has moved away from the freedom of the Spirit. We should pursue God fully in our hearts, knowing that His Spirit brings freedom and life. His Spirit will never lead us to disobey His Word.

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