Are Tongues Always For Evangelism?

Pentecost Icon

An often divisive topic among Christians is the practice of “speaking in tongues.” The number of tongues-speakers has exploded since the Pentecostal revivals of the early twentieth century and many from non-Pentecostal backgrounds, such as Lutherans, Presbyterians, Baptists, etc., have come pray and praise in what they believe to be the New Testament gift of tongues. A major reason why the modern-day practice of speaking in tongues rallies so much opposition is that many Evangelicals believe this is a gift solely used for evangelistic purposes. Cessationists believe that all the “charismatic gifts” have ceased since the death of the apostles, and so this gift has no relevance whatsoever. Some simply think this isn’t worth exploring since this gift is only mentioned in Acts and 1 Corinthians. That said, it seems that this gift played a prominent role in both personal devotion and corporate during the early Church. When it comes down to it, this gift could benefit the body of Christ, and the church’s healthy and well-being is enough reason to look deeper into the issue of tongues.

Tongues in Acts

When the fire of the Holy Spirit fell on the 120 disciples during Pentecost, the gift of speaking in tongues was first manifested. Jews from afar were gathered in Jerusalem during this time for Passover and heard the disciples speaking in their languages. These Jews were perplexed that these disciples could be speaking the languages of the Romans, Cretans, Arabs, etc. Many claim that this is the first appearance of tongues used as evangelism, for these unbelievers heard declarations of “the wonders of God in [their] own tongues” (Acts 2:11).

What they heard, though, did not exactly seem evangelistic but rather doxological. The tongues heard were of Christians worshipping and praising God. If anything, the sermon delivered by Peter was evangelistic (Acts 2:17-41). Some theologians have proposed that the miracle was in the hearing (interpretation of tongues) rather than the disciples speaking in the languages of those outside the upper room, citing Acts 2:8, “And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language?” Also, there were 120 people speaking in tongues, and for one to be able to spot and hear their individual language being spoken from outside would be a whole other miracle in itself. All that to say that the tongues spoken could have very well been the same kind of gift Paul talks about in 1 Corinthians, that are “mysteries in the Spirit” and need one with the gift of interpretation to understand these tongues. Nevertheless, it is hard to create a dogmatic theology on tongues out of the verses on Pentecost.

There are two other mentions of speaking in tongues in Acts and that would be in chapter 10 and 19. In chapter 10, the Spirit falls on gentiles who were heard “speaking in tongues and praising God” (v. 46). They spoke in tongues after hearing the Gospel and there is no indication that they went out to evangelize in tongues. The correlation between speaking in tongues and praising God should be noted, as this sheds light on the nature of tongues. In chapter 19, Paul presents the fullness of the Gospel to twelve Ephesians who were baptized by John the Baptist, and they were baptized and were then prayed on to receive the Holy Spirit. As they were being prayed on ”they spoke in tongues and prophesied” (v.6). Again, there is no indication that this gift was manifested for evangelism’s sake.

Tongues in 1 Corinthians 

1 Corinthians 12-14 are the “gifts” chapters, where the nine charismatic gifts are explained thoroughly, as well as how they ought to be used. As tongues is mentioned to be a gift that serves “the common good” and is to be used in the body, tongues seems unlikely to be primarily, let alone solely, a gift for evangelism. These chapters raise a few questions for those who hold to the evangelistic-view:

  1. If tongues was a gift used to deliver a message to a foreign people and were therefore always human languages and evangelistic, why would tongues be spoken in the meetings of believers and why would there need to be an interpreter? Paul makes it clear that tongues with interpretation edify the body and, like all the gifts mentioned in 1 Corinthians 12, serve the “common good”. 
  2. For those who hold to the belief that tongues was to be used as a sign of judgment (1 Corinthians 14:22) to the Jewish people who rejected Christ, why would interpretation be used at all? This sign of judgment would be a language they are unable to understand. Some argue that this would shock the Jewish people and therefore bring conversion. If tongues were just a sign to unbelievers, and were not supposed to be understood, then the gift of interpretation would not be necessary and Paul would not have advised against speaking in tongues without interpretation among unbelievers (1 Corinthians 14:23). 
  3. If this is a sign against the Jews, why is tongues practiced in Corinth? That is not to say that there were no Jews in Corinth but it was much more likely for an unbeliever or inquirer who would make his or her way into these meetings to be a gentile.

It seems that Paul does not actually want believers to practice uninterpreted tongues to unbelievers because it was a sign of judgment. These unbelievers will not be shocked into regeneration but instead confused, likely judging Christians as out of their minds (1 Corinthians 14:23). 

I will not completely rule out the possibility of God granting tongues to somebody so they may speak a language they do not know, especially in the mission field. There are many claims that this occurs, even among non-charismatic groups like the Southern Baptists. Nevertheless, the tongues presented in Acts and 1 Corinthians do not indicate that the gift of tongues is primarily for such a service. 

So what is the gift of tongues?

  • Paul makes it clear that tongues is primarily not for speaking to people but to God (1 Corinthians 14:2). Those who cannot provide an interpretation to their tongues are not to deliver a message in tongues but is to “speak to himself and to God” (v. 28).
  • Tongues is linked to praise in Acts (2:11, 10:46) and is used for praise and thanksgiving in 1 Corinthians 14:10.
  • Paul says that uninterpreted tongues edifies individuals (v.4), though he encourages tongues-speakers to pray for the power to interpret (v.13). He says this so that those who pray in tongues would not only be fruitful in their spirit but also in their mind (v.14). 
  • Paul asks the Corinthians to limit those delivering tongues to two or three  at a time (v.27), which seems to imply that people with the ability to speak in tongues can do so at their own will. If God desired no more than three tongues-speakers to deliver messages in tongues, then he would not manifest this gift in more than three people. This gift, though, is one that could manifest as one pleases.

The idea of tongues being used for personal prayer is not as ridiculous as many cessationists make it seems. Though it is a powerful personal practice, tongues is also seen as something to be exercised in the body (1 Corinthians 12:10, 14:26). When tongues is interpreted, one can possibly receive some revelation or knowledge or prophecy or word of instruction (v.6) or be used for corporate prayer (v.16-17). It is arguable that tongues with interpretation is on the same footing as prophecy (v.5), which is a gift that Paul encourages Christians to most earnestly desire (v. 1). All over the world, millions pray in tongues, and know what seems nonsensical to the world is truly divine.

A Reflection on the Inner-Light

“But the one who joins himself to the Lord is one spirit with Him.”
— 1 Corinthians 6:17 (NASB)

Through everything, I always come back to that brewing I feel in my center, which I consider God’s presence, the holy of holies, and the groaning intercession of the Spirit within.

You see, I doubt quite a lot, and sometimes I lean a bit too much on keeping my mind clear and my life whole and I forget why I am doing all of this. I want to be well, yes, and I want to see humankind open their eyes to their connectedness, and I find this all to be a part of Christ’s gospel, but I also am called to do all things for the glory of God. But time after time I have found that something in me, and I think this is despite me, wants to serve the Lord. I want to surrender to that Light within me.

Teresa of Ávila, Roman Catholic saint and mystic, wrote extensively on mystical union, once writing, "If Christ Jesus dwells in a man as his friend and noble leader, that man can endure all things, for Christ helps and strengthens us and never abandons us. He is a true friend."

Teresa of Ávila, Roman Catholic saint and mystic, wrote extensively on mystical union, once writing, “If Christ Jesus dwells in a man as his friend and noble leader, that man can endure all things, for Christ helps and strengthens us and never abandons us. He is a true friend.”

This Light is not me. I am confident that it is fully God’s. In fact, I know this is Christ because it is good. It saves me daily, it refines me and exposes me before my own eyes, it speaks sharper than my ego, and seeks righteousness when I want to give myself up to convenience and greed.

I feel as if I have stumbled into union with the God of the universe, and I may at times find myself trying to get out of it, or not quite understanding or believing it, but I always trip up and land right in my center and encounter Christ within.

Believe it or not, there is always rest there. A fountain of hope, peace, and life. And even when I am weary and feeling completely scattered or lifeless, I find myself still caught up in this Love. I find myself held together, though not always put together, and I find myself thoroughly embraced, though never unhealthily enabled. And the the truth is, through all my failures and all of my unbelief, I remain unable to deny the power of this Light. This Light is not a concept to me; it is the actual presence of a person, a friend, and my God.

Paul’s Encouragement to Heretical Nymphomaniacs

On my post “What to do with Tradition?”, I briefly mentioned the Church in Corinth and how kindly Paul treated them, in comparison to the Church of Galatia, who he rebuked and called “fools”. I proposed that this was because the mixing of grace with the law that he noticed among Galatian Christians was deeply offensive to him and was completely contrary to the message of the Cross he preached.

I have been thinking about the grace and love he showed the Corinthians a lot recently and what that means for leaders of Christian communities.

Corinth was pretty excessive when it came to sinning, and they were a diverse bunch with their sins of choice. Paul makes it clear that the Church in Corinth was:

  • sectarian, divided, and sporting early ‘denominationalism’ (1 Cor. 1:10-17, 3:1-23, 6:1-11),
  • prone to heresy and may have flirted with some form of gnosticism or at least was mildly syncretistic (13:1, 15:29),
  • packed with sin, most infamously sexual sin (5:1-13, 7:1-2, 10:14, 20),
  • and lacked much spiritual discernment and misused the gifts of the Spirit (14:20-32, 40),

Yet Paul was somehow incredibly graceful, loving, and was still confident that these misguided Corinthians were children of God.

Alessandro Turchi (L'Orbetto) - "Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery"

Alessandro Turchi (L’Orbetto) – “Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery”

He was still willing to recognize how God was moving among the Corinthians and grateful for the gifts of the Spirit that were manifesting in their meetings (1:4-9).
He was still willing to call them his brothers and sisters and even friends, despite their obvious sins and errors (1:10, 10:14).
He was still willing to bless them with ‘grace and peace’ (1:3).
He was still willing to encourage them, even admitting that they lacked no spiritual gifts and going as far as pushing them to continue to pursue these gifts, despite their obvious mishandling of them (1:7, 13:31, 14:1).
He was still willing to exercise his apostleship over them and thoroughly teach and correct them, even if much of the Church would have seen them as a hopeless case of nymphomaniacal heretics.

Paul’s approach to rebuking the sins of the Corinthians was not simply pointing out their wrongs. His correction was rooted in and led by love, and his words were not used to condemn the Corinthians, but to encourage them to move forward. I wonder how often Paul’s methods that reflect the restorative nature of the gospel are implemented in today’s churches and faith communities?

  • Do we truly strive to value that of God in everyone, even those whose beliefs are unorthodox or whose actions are unhealthy and sinful?
  • Do we as Christians invest into others because they’re doing a “good job” or because we see God in and among them?
  • Are we able to see what God is doing in our lives despite and even through our own messes?

What To Do With Tradition?

"Church Fathers Order", Mosaic, 11th c.

“Church Fathers Order”, Mosaic, 11th c.

A growing number of Evangelicals have been finding themselves attracted to more ‘ancient’ traditions, accommodating the Early Church Fathers to their Evangelicalism and even pushing their churches to implement liturgical practices into their services. Many have left the Evangelical tradition completely behind and have become either Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, or Anglican, in the pursuit of a persisting apostolic theology and tradition. This desire has not just been in non-charismatic Evangelicals, but has also very much affected both Pentecostals and charismatics. The in-depth pneumatology of the saints of the past has drawn many to such traditions, as well as the the appreciation of the Holy Spirit in the sacraments.

As a flaming charismatic who adores the Holy Spirit, I can recognize why one with charismatic beliefs would make such a jump, but I personally have not received a push from the Spirit to pursue a new communion and even feel more convinced to go in a different direction. I find that both the ‘ancient paths’ and the Charismatic Movement insufficient in their ecclesiastical and charismatic practice, as well as in their understanding of the gospel.

The past two years, I have felt an increasing call to investigate Quakerism, a not-so-ancient tradition that emerged in the mid-17th century. I first came into fellowship with the Friends of Jesus Fellowship and within the past year have also come to experience both the Liberal and Evangelical traditions. Very quickly I discovered the gifts of Quaker practice and have continually been blessed by the Quaker understanding of the Gospel, especially as I have read through the writings of early Friends. That is not to say that I believe the answer to all problems in Evangelicalism and Pentecostalism is a Quaker revival, especially since there are very different branches, but much can be learned from this continually-progressing tradition, especially in regards to their reliance on the Spirit, their communal approaches towards ministry and discernment, and their articulation and expression of the gospel of Jesus Christ. I cannot help but think that Quakerism has many answers for those recovering from Fundamentalism.

One question that many raise for those with restorationist tendencies, whether that be Protestants, Evangelicals, Adventists, Pentecostals, or Quakers, is where is the history to back up these theological nuances? Such a question is not baseless. Why do not always agree with the early Christians? Why does the Church need something new?

I find it arrogant to disregard all of Church history and claim certain new beliefs and practices as biblical while other beliefs and practices are disowned and chastised as without merit or basis, as though they had not been practiced throughout the centuries by many treasured and well-loved saints.

Almost nearly offensive to me, though, is the notion that some tradition was able to completely preserve very specific rituals and doctrines handed down by Jesus himself, and the early Church, on a widespread scale, looked exactly like them minus, maybe, the architecture.

Now, I do think such a question is necessary to help the Church stay humble and balanced. We need to take the Tradition of the Church seriously, learning from it, holding on to what reflects the gospel of Jesus Christ, but I also think we ought to be willing to let go of what is inconsistent with this gospel. I have recently heard somebody remark that “the lessons of our forebears were meant to be way markers, not resting places.”

We need to keep in mind that the early Church may have had many witnesses of Christ, but they were also very human who quarreled and had some beliefs that were inconsistent with the gospel.

Christ taught that the Kingdom of Heaven is like a seed that grows and consumes (Matthew 13). The reign of God in one’s life often starts with a glimpse of Christ’s nature, but once that seed finds its home in fertile soil, it grows and transforms how the Christian thinks and acts more and more. The Christian life has much to do with the process of having one’s mind renewed (Romans 12:2, Ephesians 4:23), and all believers are at different places in understanding the implications of the work of Christ and his Kingdom. I find no reason to believe this doesn’t include the apostles.

For example, Paul encouraged and recognized the good things being done among the Corinthians, which was a church full of hypersexual, borderline-gnostic, charismatics misusing the gifts. Despite their abuse of the gifts, he still was consistently encouraging, even on the matters of the gifts they abused, exhorting them to continue to pursue the spiritual gifts (1 Corinthians 14:1). When speaking to the Galatians, though, he calls them fools and is particularly harsh because of their mixing of the law and grace, which he blames on his fellow apostle Peter (Galatians 2:11-21). The mixing of law and grace is false grace, and is anti-gospel, which offended Paul even more than the promiscuity and charismania of the Corinthians. It seems that many in the early Church had a difficult time shedding their former ideas on the Law and in some ways mimicked the temple worship Christ came to do away with. This is one major aspect, in my opinion, of a loss of revelation in the early Church, and an example of the humanity, fallibility, and the needed spiritual growth and revelation among the apostles.

When it comes down to it, I cannot claim I know exactly what the early Church looked like or believed, and I also don’t think anybody else can make such a claim. Tradition still has its place, though. I believe we ought to honor those who came before us, recognizing that much intellectual and spiritual wrestling was done for the sake of developing the Church’s Tradition. I believe the voices of the Fathers and early Christians need to remain in our conversations today. What I also recognize is that much of how the Church has acted and much of what she has believed has been contrary to the character of God as revealed in Jesus Christ, and his gospel. Because of that, there needs to be change, there needs to be progress, and the Church, as Christ’s Bride, needs to be refined and readied for her Bridegroom’s return.

How and Why I am [Still] Charismatic / Pentecostal

I consider myself a fairly experienced charismatic despite the fact that I have never been grounded in a single charismatic culture. I’ve had many brief dippings in different charismatic streams, but I have remained fairly nomadic and apprehensive of finding a home in any of these movements. I have tasted and seen a bit of the Charismatic Renewal in the Catholic Church/Mainline churches, the Vineyard, the ecumenical ‘Sword of the Spirit’ association, the ‘houses of prayer’, the ‘New Mystics’, and the ‘Apostolic-Prophetic’ movement. All these renewal movements were a blessing in my life in one way or another, some much more than others, but I also witnessed a ton of unhealthy things in this world, especially among the younger movements. I have had multiple people inform me that God wanted me to marry them, I have had too many friends make unhealthy and reckless decisions because of a personal revelation, I have seen the young and on-fire force their friends with a physical disability out of a wheelchair, and I have often come away from these sorts of places losing faith and growing bitter.

But still, I find myself believing that the Holy Spirit is still working like he did 2,000 years ago. Still, I find myself pursuing and seeking the powerful graces of the Holy Spirit, including the ‘wild’ ones. Still, I find myself both reminiscing about and encountering those holy moments of inebriation and ecstasy.

Despite the abuses and counterfeits I have encountered, I know I have also met God in a very real way through charismatic experiences and I know I need to pursue the charismatic gifts because of that. I think about the Corinthians and how their worship was marked by excess and the mishandling of the spiritual gifts. In 1 Corinthians, Paul corrects the Corinthian Church for various sins, including their borderline gnosticism and hypersexuality, and dedicates a good amount of this letter to correct their charismania… but still encourages them to continue to “earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, especially prophecy.” (1 Cor. 14:1)

Slain in the Spirit and resting under a 'modesty cloth'

Slain in the Spirit and resting under a ‘modesty cloth’

Why Charismatic-ism Matters To Me

I had my first pentecostal experience the day I put my faith in Christ and surrendered to an overwhelming urge to receive His grace. I didn’t exactly know what that meant, but I knew it had to happen; I fell on my knees in my bedroom and tried my best to pray. I began to feel this warmth in my heart that kept growing and growing until it eventually felt like a spring of love bursting out of my chest. I began shaking and trembling. I didn’t have words for what was happening, but I believed then and now that I encountered the Holy Spirit, the same Inward Teacher the disciples experienced on the day of Pentecost. I fall back on that moment frequently; It is why I am following Jesus and it is why I keep going.

Seven months after I decided to follow Christ, I had an experience that Pentecostals label the ‘Spirit-baptism’, where I began praying in tongues. Following this baptism, I sought out the Spirit by diving into every charismatic meeting I heard about. I began identifying as charismatic, though I was wary of some pop-charismatic ideas, such as blindly supporting the state of Israel. During my years of seeking out the Spirit in the Charismatic world, I saw God move powerfully in healing power, through the gift of prophecy, and through other encounters, namely individuals receiving baptisms in the Spirit, with tongues, laughter, weeping, trembling, etc. Though I do not doubt that some of this phenomena was fueled by things other than the Spirit, much of it was fruitful, authentic, and these are moments I fondly remember and thank God for.

I have gone through seasons of glory where I often saw people healed and received powerful prophetic words and was moved by God on an ecstatic level, and seasons that I considered dry because they lacked these things. Now, I realize that it’s all glory, because I recognize God’s closeness in all of these moments and how I am meant to seek him in all of this, even when things don’t look the way I want. Ultimately, I think I can see things this way because I am charismatic, for I believe that Spirit is always available and present and works in innumerable ways.

The Implications of Pentecost

Posing with a friend at a 'Miracles, Signs, and Wonders' conference

Posing with my friend Joshua at a ‘Miracles, Signs, and Wonders’ conference

Pentecost was truly a Trinitarian wonder given as a grace to the Church of God because the work of Christ. Although some make this event merely pneumacentric, Pentecost glorifies all Three in the Godhead, for it was the Father’s promise (Acts 1:4) that Christ would baptize with the Holy Spirit (Matt. 3:11). This event is meant to drive believers back to the very events the Gospel stands on: the death and resurrection of Christ. The gift of the Spirit for the believer, the grace of walking under the Spirit’s influence and sanctifying power, is only available because of the shed blood of Jesus and his victory over death.

That being said, Pentecost and the pentecostal experience of the Spirit-baptism described in Acts shapes my theology and my practice of the faith in two major ways:

  • The egalitarian work of the Spirit: Pentecost and the outpouring of the Spirit did not take gender or race into account, but was to be poured out on to “all flesh.” Joel prophetically promised that the Spirit would cause both men and women to prophesy and to receive revelations (Acts 2:17-19). The Holy Spirit was, and is, a gift for all who called upon the name of the Lord and equality in the Church, as all were called by Paul to earnestly desire the spiritual gifts for the edification of the Church (1 Cor. 12:39, 14:1), including women, who were expected to pray and prophesy in the meeting (1 Cor. 11:3-16). Many women were ordained after the Azusa Street Revival, which birthed the Pentecostal movement, and were sent out as evangelists and missionaries, and some were even counted as ‘apostles’. A woman by the name of Aimee Semple McPherson even founded a Pentecostal denomination, the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel.
  • The Spirit of God being the Spirit of love: As William Seymour believed, as well as many (if not most) of the early Pentecostals believed, the experience of the Spirit-baptism primarily brings love. This experience was seen as more than empowerment for preaching the Gospel but as an experience where the love of God touches the believer so deeply that a love for mankind naturally overflows. After Pentecost, the Church came alive, not just in power, but in genuine love for each other. They experienced an unprecedented unity, as they shared all things in common and were constantly gathering to pray, worship, and celebrate at the Lord’s table (Acts 2:44-47). The Pentecostal writer, evangelist, and missionary Frank Bartleman who was present at Azusa noted that “the ‘color line’ was washed away in the blood.” The experience of the Spirit-baptism famously broke down the walls of racism among early Pentecostals, as the fire of the Azusa Street Revival brought black and white believers to worship together. This same fire also fueled their respect of the image of God in all men and their embrace of non-violent gospel. Most Pentecostal denominations that formed in the early 1900s had formally expressed a pacifistic view. Sadly, as ‘love’ was replaced by ‘tongues’ in doctrinal statements, racial division crept back in and Pentecostals eventually became less passionate about pacifism.

The distinctive doctrines of western Pentecostalism are not always things I can endorse in good conscience, such as pre-tribulational premillenialism, the rapture, and tongues as necessary evidence of the Spirit-baptism, but the distinctives of early Pentecostalism—pacifism, love as the primary sign of the Spirit-baptism, racial reconciliation, and egalitarian ministry—reveal, at least to me, the glorious finished-work of Christ on the cross. Though I may not culturally or theologically fit into much of the Pentecostalism around me, the history of the Pentecostal movement inspires me, and the event of Pentecost (both 2000 years ago, and my personal pentecostal experience) has powerfully shaped me and has drawn me closer to my Savior. This conviction and inspiration has led me to Quakerism, where I see that egalitarian ministry manifest week by week in meeting for worship and where I see that testimony of peace brought into action. I do long for more expectant fellowship where all the gifts of the Spirit (Rom. 12:6-8; 1 Cor. 12:4-11, 28.) are both appreciated and experienced, but I see such a desire as completely compatible with Quakerism, and even more fitting with Quakerism, with its discernment processes and the posture of ‘waiting’ in worship.