The Gift of Tongues in Corporate Worship

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Micah Bales recently posted “Are Quakers Allowed to Speak in Tongues?“, and I have to say this post was another reminder of why I am thankful for the Friends of Jesus Fellowship. Micah does not speak in tongues nor is he seeking this gift, and he actually admitted to having felt nervous in the presence of tongues in our fellowship. He followed this vulnerable admission with something I found incredibly affirming for those like me who do speak in tongues.

I’m proud of my community. Friends of Jesus Fellowship isn’t obsessed with charismatic expressions. We’re not chasing after exotic gifts and wonders. At the same time, we don’t flee from them when they do occur. On the contrary, our 2014 Fall Gathering was edified by the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, expressed in large part through the ecstatic prayer and non-rational utterances by several of our brothers and sisters.

The discussions around this post, on both Micah’s site and facebook, have been incredibly interesting with people from all over the board, including skeptical former Pentecostals to Quakers who discretely practice the gift of tongues. One of the major concerns of those in the middle, perhaps the “open but cautious” types, is how tongues should operate in corporate worship.

Many claim that the use of tongues for prayer and worship in corporate settings is terribly inappropriate and not in line with 1 Corinthians. Others see tongues without interpretation as unable to ever be profitable to the Church and dismiss any use of tongues that has no interpretation. Despite all the arguments and debates on how tongues should be used within a body, I think 1 Corinthians chapters 12 and 14 bring the needed clarity into this topic as they go into great detail about the importance of the charismatic gifts and how they ought to be used properly.

I will preface this post by saying that this is not the official or even the majority view among the Friends of Jesus Fellowship, especially my view that tongues is a gift that all may experience in Christ and not a select few.  That said, I hope that this post can shed some light on the nature of tongues and their use in worship, even if you do not find yourself quite agreeing with what I have to say.

Two kinds of tongues

1 Corinthians 14 goes into most depth about two gifts, that being tongues and prophecy. In this chapter, we see there being two natures to tongues, one of edification for the body of saints (with interpretation, v.5) and the other being for the individual in their prayer-life (v.2). One form of tongues is seen as on the same level as prophecy (v.5), as it may be bring “revelation or knowledge or prophecy or word of instruction” (v.6). According to verse 27, “let it be by two, or at the most by three, and that by course; and let one interpret.” So then, the gift of tongues could operate up to 2 or 3 in succession, then the congregation should allow time for there to be an interpretation before resuming with more tongues (if the Spirit so moves). That way, interpretation is coming forth at regular intervals so the congregation is edified.

The other tongues, though, is for prayer and worship (vs. 14-17). Without interpretation, this use of tongues is still edifying for one’s spirit (v.14). That being true, Paul encouraged tongue-prayers to ask the Lord for the power to interpret their own tongues so they may also understand what they are praying and have their mind be fruitful (v. 13). We see Paul is thankful to speak in tongues more than the rest of the Corinthians (v.18), which is quite incredibly considering how tongue-crazy they were, but in a church he found it more profitable to bring intelligible instruction than display his prayer language before the whole assembly.

I would also argue that only one form of these tongues is the gift listed in 1 Cor. 12. that being the tongues that brings forth prophetic messages. I say this because each “manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good” (1 Cor. 12:7), and the personal use of tongues is not strictly for the common good but most often for the building up of one’s spirit. This may be why later on in 1 Corinthians 12:30, Paul rhetorically asks, “Do all speak in tongues?” The answer of course being “no”, for up to this point he only discussed the gift of tongues and not the prayer language he expands on in chapter 14.

The pentecostal inheritance

Many believe that the tongues at Pentecost were human languages and were for the purpose of evangelism, but as I discussed in a previous post on tongues, the tongues at Pentecost seemed to be more doxological than evangelistic, as the unbelievers heard declarations of “the wonders of God in [their] own tongues” (Acts 2:11).  More importantly than glossolalia, Pentecost brought forth the outpouring of the Spirit on the Church. Pentecost opened the hearts of the early Christians to the revelation of the new covenant: In Christ, we are children of God (Gal. 3:26). As the people and children of God, we need no mediator between us and Christ (Heb. 9:15, 12:24), we have been made the temple of the Spirit as individuals and corporately (1 Cor. 3:16, 6:19-20, 1 Peter 2:5),  and God is within us (Ez. 36:27, Rom. 8:11, 2 Tim. 1:14).

As the prophecy in Joel 2 became fulfilled at Pentecost, as Peter subsequently went on to sermonize about (Acts 2:14-41), the prophetic role of this new covenant people was also revealed. As indicated by Joel and Peter, every believer has the ability to listen to the voice of God and experience direct revelations from God. As Robert Barclay wrote in Apology for the True Christian Divinity, by the Spirit, “God always revealed himself to his children.”

As this reality is uncovered by Peter, all those in Christ seeking the promise of the Father at this point (Acts 1:4), that is the prophetic and charismatic endowment of the Spirit, had been given the ability to utter doxologies in other tongues. Though tongues was not explicitly mentioned in every account of the Spirit-baptism in Acts (Acts 11:15-17), it is most commonly manifested in this spiritual event throughout Acts (Acts 2:11; Acts 10:46; Acts 19:6).

Both tongues and prophecy are closely related, as indicated by both Acts 2 and 1 Corinthians 14, and to some degree are related. The whole Church is set apart as a prophetic people but there is the gifting and anointing of those called to be prophets. Paul indicates the uniqueness of this gift in same 1 Corinthians 12:29 when he asks rhetorically, “Are all prophets?” This prophetic gifting is for one to be set apart to be constantly building up the church with prophecies, as well as weighing prophecies (1 Cor. 14:29). Though prophets are set apart as a unique calling, the call to prophesy is for all believers (Acts 2:17-21, 1 Cor. 14:1, 39), and in the new covenant we are all promised to hear the Shepherd’s voice (Acts 2, John 10). Like the role and grace of being a prophet, there are those who are especially gifted with the gift of tongues for the sake of delivering prophetic messages (1 Cor. 12:30), but it is indicated that the ability to pray and worship in other tongues is normative for all believers. Both prophecy and tongues seem to be the pentecostal inheritance of all believers.

Tongues sung and prayed in church

Early on in Church history there were instances of the corporate use of tongues. One example would be Jubilation, which was a widespread practice of what could very well be labeled worshiping in tongues. It was described by Eddie Ensley in Sounds of Wonder as a point in the 4th to 9th century liturgy when “the people moved into exuberant wordless singing on vowel sounds [which] could last for up to five minutes.” Jubilation was replaced by written music for various reasons, but continued as a private practice and was exercised by St. Francis of Assisi, St. Teresa of Avila, and other mystics.

From experience, I must say, that when tongues is sang corporately, there is a loss of distinction in the individual tongues and a beautiful, almost angelic sound does arise. I have heard several testimonies of men stumbling into charismatic meetings and being drawn by the powerful beauty of the sound of melodies in tongues. Though this argument is not at all part of the exegetical study of the corporate use of tongues, it is definitely worth considering. This is probably why so many of the major fathers of the Church enthusiastically wrote about the practice of jubilation, as Richard Hogue noted in Tongues: A Theological History of Christian Glossalalia:

“Augustine, Jerome, John Cassian, Ambrose, Pter Chrysologus, John Chrysostom, Gregory the Great, Isidore of Seville, and Cassiodorus–wrote of jubilation. Obviously, most of the fathers of the late Roman Empire and Dark Ages believed jubilation was the continuation of a biblical and apostolic tradition. To the fathers, the relationship Christians enjoyed with God was at its best a mystery. For them, praying and singing with God was a way of entering into that mystery, a way of experiencing God that was too great for ordinary words. It was a mean of entering into mystery, of being led into the mystery with body and soil. And it worked. It seems to have been the use of jubilation that kept Augustine open to the supernatural. Later in his life, Augustine, writing his famous work, The City of God, acknowledge his great joy at the miraculous move of the Holy Spirit in his church at Hippo: ‘Even now, miracles are wrought in the name of Christ, whether by sacraments or by prayer or the relics of his saints.'”

The issues with worshiping in tongues

The idea of whole-church participation in speaking in tongues may be concerning to many because of 1 Corinthians 14:22-25:

Tongues, then, are a sign, not for believers but for unbelievers; prophecy, however, is not for unbelievers but for believers. So if the whole church comes together and everyone speaks in tongues, and inquirers or unbelievers come in, will they not say that you are out of your mind? But if an unbeliever or an inquirer comes in while everyone is prophesying, they are convicted of sin and are brought under judgment by all, as the secrets of their hearts are laid bare. So they will fall down and worship God, exclaiming, “God is really among you!”

What does Paul mean when he writes that tongues are a sign for unbelievers?

First off, that tongues and interpretation is described to be for the edification of the Church (v. 5), and that prophecy was also used to expose the unbelievers’ hearts and draw them to Christ (v. 25). Prophecy and tongues are for both the edification of the saints and evangelism to the lost. Perhaps it could be said that tongues is primarily a sign for unbelievers, but also a gift to the Church, and prophecy is primarily a gift to the Church, but also a sign to unbelievers.

Tongues when interpreted is, as noted earlier, a “revelation or knowledge or prophecy or word of instruction.” It is basically a prophetic message, but first coming in an unknown tongue. This tongue could be of any language and there is a possibility that the tongue-speaker could be speaking in the unbeliever’s language (1 Cor. 13:1), or at least they could hear it as their own. In this way, tongues offer a greater sign to the unbeliever.

If the whole Church gathered and allowed all to individually deliver their tongue without any interpretation, this would be chaotic and unedifying. This would be perfect reason for an unbeliever to conclude that Christians are out of their minds (v. 23). This is what seemed to be happening in the Corinthian church.

It could be said that the Corinthians are an example of over-enthusiastic charismatics on the verge of idolizing the signs and wonders. They may have gathered to produce the sign for the sake of producing a sign. He points them to way of love (1 Cor. 13, 14:1), encourages them to keep desiring the manifestations of the Spirit (1 Cor. 12:31, 14:1), and never claims that the gifts and miracles among them were not from God but instead tells them to be wiser in their discernment and to keep the unbeliever in mind.

I think it should also be noted that it would be unfair if a tongue with a message specifically for the unbeliever is left uninterpreted. This profound message from God is instead judged as fanaticism by the one who desperately needs ears to hear.

In verse 28, Paul tells those who are unable to find one gifted in interpretation to “speak to himself and to God.” In this way, uninterpreted tongues is permitted as long as it is not directed to the congregation. There’s a possibility that this tongue was not inspired for the use of corporate edification and that is why no interpreter could be found. Evidence of this would be in the fact that this speaker was able to “speak to himself and to God.”

I write all of this out of my gratitude for what I have experienced with worship and prayer in tongues, in my own devotional life and when practiced in community, as well as my conviction that a revival of the body-building gift of tongues (and not just the ability to pray in other tongues) needs to arise in the Church. I also hope I could address the legitimate concerns of those against the use of uninterpreted tongues for worship, prayer, and personal edification. For those who do not understand praying in tongues and have been uncomfortable with its practice in fellowship, I hope that you would keep in mind the words of my friend Micah:

I don’t have to understand speaking in tongues to know that it felt healthy when others did. I don’t have to pretend I’m comfortable with tongues to welcome these gifts into our community.

May we all be willing to embrace the gifts among our brothers and sisters, no matter how unfamiliar or even quirky, and may we be wise and discerning, truly valuing God’s gifts for all that they are.

Further reading:
Blog: LCMS Post Cessationist Theology: Jubilation & the Gift of Tongues
Article: “The Gift of Tongues & Jubilation” by Terry Donahue
Book: Gift of the Holy Spirit by Paul Ragan
Book: The First Epistle to the Corinthians, Revised Edition by Gordon Fee

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