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The Danger of Forbidding What We Cannot Identify

July 3rd, 2015

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.

Glossalalia or Tongues, Spiritual Gifts ,

Tongues or No Tongues?

June 26th, 2015

Therefore, brethren, desire earnestly to prophesy, and do not forbid to speak with tongues.

1 Corinthians 14:39

There are many issues centered around the issue of the gift of tongues. The most difficult to deal with, perhaps, is the fact that we are not sure what they were. There are various interpretations by Bible scholars, from known languages, to an angelic unknown language, to ecstatic utterances, to the original language of the human race before Babel. We have no recordings, no videos of the first century experience. Only two, maybe three, books in the New Testament mention believers speaking in tongues – Acts and 1 Corinthians and a dubious statement in Mark 16:17 – and the remainder of the New Testament is silent on it.

I believe the wisdom of the command above, “Do not forbid the speaking in tongues,” is seen in the fact of our ignorance as to what they were. If we cannot know what they were, then we cannot enforce either their observance or their non-observance. We may have our own theories or our own understandings, and our own experiences with the phenomena, both positive and negative perhaps, but, as in every doctrine, we need to be sure that we go as far as Scripture allows us but no farther than it allows. There is an inherent danger to the body of Christ if we enthusiastically seek to eradicate tongues or to promote their use.

But that does not mean we have nothing from God on this matter, for He insured in His Word that we would have what we need. We certainly have a clear biblical teaching on the residing presence of the Holy Spirit in all believers (Eph. 1:13-14), and the equally clear teaching that not all believers receive the gift of tongues (1 Cor. 12:29). We also have the clear emphasis in Scripture that tongues is a lesser gift of the Spirit and not a greater one (1 Cor. 12:28-31 and 14:18-19 and 14:39).

We also have the statement by Paul, “Where there are tongues, they will cease” (1 Cor. 13:8). A common observation is that in 1 Corinthians 13:8 we also read that prophecies and knowledge shall likewise pass away, so surely this is a statement about the end times. However, the verbs are different from one another, and for tongues the middle voice is understood, which carries a reflexive meaning, meaning that tongues shall cease by themselves. Prophecies and Knowledge, however, are in the passive voice, meaning that they shall be made to cease.

In fact, the traditional understanding of this matter was that tongues ceased during the first century, which is why we do not hear of it after Acts 19 and in any of the other epistles, or by 200 A.D. at the latest. 1 Corinthians was one of the earlier epistles of Paul, if not his first, so the usual understanding was that tongues had ceased as the church matured in knowledge and faith and love. Scottish Bible expositor Robert Jamieson (died 1871) wrote the following on 1 Corinthians 13:8:

Translate, “Shall be done away with,” that is, shall be dispensed with at the Lord’s coming, being superseded by their more perfect heavenly analogues; for instance, knowledge by intuition. Of “tongues,” which are still more temporary, the verb is “shall cease.” A primary fulfilment of Paul’s statement took place when the Church attained its maturity; then “tongues” entirely “ceased,” and “prophesyings” and “knowledge,” so far as they were supernatural gifts of the Spirit, were superseded as no longer required when the ordinary preaching of the word, and the Scriptures of the New Testament collected together, had become established institutions.

John Chrysostom (died 407 A.D.) was an important church father and bishop at Constantinople. He was known especially for his preaching and his Bible exposition. He stated that the charisma gifts mentioned in the New Testament had long ceased by his age, that only the token ones remain. In his homilies he wrote:

This whole phenomenon [of speaking in tongues] is very obscure, but the obscurity is produced by our ignorance of the facts referred to and by their cessation, being such then as used to occur but now no longer take place. And why do they not happen now? Why look now, the cause too of the obscurity hath produced us again another question: namely, why did they then happen, and now do so no more?

So for centuries the matter of tongues troubled the church very little. They looked upon the matter as having been part of the early days of the church and then ceasing some time around 200 A.D. or earlier.

The divisions they can cause is also a matter we should be aware of: The modern use of tongues by Christians must be linked to the Azusa Street revival of April, 1906, in Los Angeles, California. From this event came the modern Pentecostal movement. Many Baptists were originally connected to the movement but they split from it due to the false interpretation of Pentecostals of the receiving of the Holy Spirit. The Pentecostals said that people receive the Holy Spirit later in their Christian life, and the Baptists stood with the biblical teachings that the Spirit of God came into the believer at salvation.

But wherever the practice of tongues has spread there has been a temptation to see those who speak in tongues as more holy than those who do not. It is not unusual for those who speak in tongues to encourage others to join in the practice. And the practice of today is normally ecstatic utterances.

Let us remember that we cannot verify from Scripture what the early gift of tongues was. It is conjecture to say that what we are seeing today that claims to be tongues is actually tongues. We have no means of objectively verifying them as either authentic or as false. This fact is true for the church and it is equally true for the one who thinks he is speaking in tongues.

Over the next few days I will be examining this topic from the clear biblical teachings. We need to know what the Bible teaches and take our stand there.

But why did God command us not to forbid the speaking in tongues? My own thoughts on this matter as a pastor and one who ministers to people’s souls, is that in trying to forbid that which we cannot identify more harm will be done than good will be accomplished. Many people come to Christ carrying deep personal wounds, with sensitive personalities, and in the redemptive and soul-healing work of the Spirit we should exercise the utmost trust in His work. He takes His Word and He leads the believer in Christ into spiritual and inner wholeness, and we should let Him do His work unimpeded by us.

We can and should warn against false teachings – this is what I will be doing – and we should also note the misunderstandings and false claims of many today who try to promote tongues and the divisiveness it causes among Christians. But we should also fully trust the Holy Spirit and His work in our souls.

I have known many who sought the experience of speaking in tongues simply because their denominations denied them the right. They saw it as something mystical, alluring, and exotic, even romantic and exciting. Legalistic practices always seem to backfire in some way or another – either by robbing us of joy or by, as Paul said, putting temptation in our way: “But sin, taking opportunity by the commandment, produced in me all manner of evil desire” (Rom. 7:8). So we should be careful in what we forbid, for in so doing we may make the very thing more attractive, not less. “And the commandment, which was to bring life, I found to bring death. For sin, taking occasion by the commandment, deceived me, and by it killed me” (Rom. 7:10-11).

God the Holy Spirit is at work in our lives through His Word and by His presence. We should not seek after experiences but after knowledge and especially after Him.

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