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Should all Christians speak in tongues?

I recently preached on Acts 2 in church (listen here). Knowing the controversial nature of the passage, I expected to be harangued as I left church. Surprisingly, I only got positive feedback from both charismatic and conservative minded people alike. However, I am aware that not all in the wider Christian community would be so appreciative. Particularly controversial I’m sure is my assertion that tongues is not the only and definitive evidence of the Baptism of the Holy Spirit. I thought I would post this article explaining why I believe that is the case, to give some support for what I said in church. Afterwards, I quickly cover why I think that regardless of our difference on that one issue, why the Charismatic revival has been a blessing on the Lord’s church. So, these are 12 reasons why I don’t think tongues is ­­the evidence of receiving the Holy Spirit.

  1. The emphasis of Acts 2 is on the message not the method. They do indeed speak in tongues, but Luke draws attention that it was to “declare the wonders of God” (Acts 2:11). This is clearly in line with the emphasis in the first chapter as to why the needed the Spirit, to be empowered to witness (1:8). Drawing attention away from the message to focus on the tongues goes against the essential meaning of the passage.
  2. The reception of the Holy Spirit is tied to salvation. We see that in Romans 8:9 that “if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, they do not belong to Christ.” The New Testament is also clear on what brings salvation: Faith alone. To insist on another step, such as speaking in tongues, is to go to dangerous territory.
  3. Only 3 conversion stories in Acts explicitly include the note of speaking in tongues (2:2-4, 10:44-46 and 19:6). The salvation of the Samaritans in chapter 8 doesn’t explicitly include it, but safe to say it probably happened there too. There are at least 9 occasions of conversion where it isn’t included (8:36; 9:17–19; 13:12, 48; 14:1; 16:14; 17:4, 34). Saying it did because all Christians speak in tongues is circular reasoning. I’m not saying it didn’t happen in any of these cases, at least one went on to speak in tongues (Paul), but we no nothing of the others. 4 of the 13 conversion stories in Acts is simply not enough to determine a precedent.
  4. The specific circumstance of those 4 stories have alternative reasons why the speaking of tongues makes sense. They all are the first time a people group have received the Spirit, and thus are evidence that they have received the Spirit in the same way as the first Christians. The point is that Jew, Samaritan, gentile and converts of John are all accepted by God and should thus be accepted by the church.
  5. Paul writes the only connection between the term “all” and “speaking in tongues”, and his point is that ­not­ all speak in tongues (1 Cor 12:31). It takes a certain amount of mental gymnastics to explain around that.
  6. Later in 1 Corinthians 14, when Paul says he wishes his readers could all speak in tongues (14:5), it suggests that they can’t. He doesn’t rebuke them for that and suggest they need to work on it, rather he directs their focus elsewhere.
  7. When Paul tells us to desire the greater gifts in 1 Corinthians 12:31, he has just finished listing gifts, starting with “first…, second…, third…, and then…” This suggests and order of pre-eminence or importance. He puts tongues at the end of the list. When Paul says desire the greater gifts, he is clearly trying to draw their attention away from tongues to more useful gifts for the life of the church. If Paul doesn’t consider tongues a ‘greater’ gift, it hardly can be considered the foundational, evidential gift many assume.
  8. When we are told to judge as to someone’s faith and hence salvation, the focus is not on gifts but on fruit. Hence the way to tell if someone has the spirit is not whether they have any particular gift, but whether they manifest love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. (Gal 5:22-23)
  9. It is important not to jump to the conclusion that narrative portions of scripture are prescriptive and not just descriptive. Unless we have solid reasons for believing otherwise, narrative in the bible is telling us what happened, not telling us what we should do. Otherwise, we could look at the book of Joshua and justify genocide, or at Isaiah 20 and justify public nudity.
  10. If Acts 2 is taken as prescriptive, (i.e. what must always happen in the life of the church), we should also expect wind and fire and our language to be a known, understandable human language. That is not to deny there might be other form of tongues, but to say those other forms of tongues are the evidence of the Holy Spirit is not ignore the example in Acts 2. One could argue that only known languages are the evidence of the Holy Spirit, and this would line up more closely with what happens in the four tongue events of Acts. However, the sceptic in me thinks this can’t be the measurement because it is harder to fake.
  11. It is not taught anywhere in the New Testament. If indeed tongues is the evidence of the Holy Spirit, you would expect that to be clearly taught in any of the epistles, or even foreshadowed in the gospels.
  12. It has not been the history of the church. It’s dangerous to base arguments purely on tradition or church history, however when you are saying that tongues are for all Christians, you would expect the Holy Spirit to maintain that witness across history

 

Now I know not everyone will agree with my reasoning above, and that’s ok. Feel free to email or leave a comment on the church facebook page leaving (constructive) feedback. But even if I’m correct about tongues, we would be wrong to reject everything that has come out of the Pentecostal/charismatic movement. They bring a healthy and much needs emphasis on the following things:
  1. The power of Worship. Until the Charismatic renewal, worship tended to be a reserved, reverent affair. While trying not to lose the reverence, Charismatics have brought a much need vigour and excitement to our music in particular. David sung with instruments and percussion, and even danced before the Lord. With our deeper understanding of God’s love for us in Christ, we surely should not be less enthusiastic.
  2. The power of the Holy Spirit. It is a life changing power. In Acts we witness lives being turned upside down, and we read of the power, and the boldness that accompanies those who received the Spirit. Many evangelicals think the Holy Spirit is merely a doctrine and forget that He brings power!
  3. The power of experience. Christianity is not simply about agreeing to a set of propositions, it is about experiencing the risen Christ. The Holy Spirit didn’t subtly sneak in to the first Christians, He filled them!
  4. The power of community. My personal (and indeed subjective experience) is that Pentecostal churches tend to be places where the marginalised, the single mums, the low socio-economic and the outsiders feel welcome. It was in a Pentecostal church I gave my life back to God and the biggest reason was because it was there where I first felt like I had a church family.

 

We need to learn from each other, encourage each other and keep our focus on the gospel. I think it’s a real pity that the Holy Spirit has been so divisive over the last century, as where the Spirit appears in Acts, we see unity, loving witness, and power. Our understanding of the Holy Spirit and tongues will not save us nor doom us. Faithful Christians indeed sit on both sides of the fence. It is up to us to love and learn despite those differences.

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