SPEAKING IN TONGUES
HISTORICAL NARRATIVE AND DOCTRINE
We must be wary of formulating doctrines from historical narratives, such as the book of Acts. Historical narrative is descriptive rather than proscriptive, and we should be wary of using that kind of literature as the basis of doctrinal formulation and didactic instruction. For example, Rick Walston, in his book, “The Speaking in Tongues Controversy”, states;
“The fact that Luke [in Acts] gives three accounts of people who spoke in tongues in association with the baptism with the Holy Spirit is not to be discarded, but neither is it to be elevated to theological dogma. Truth certainly can be gleaned from historical narrative, but one must be careful not to draw universal, conclusive norms based on occasional happenings within the historical narratives. Luke’s account seems to indicate that speaking in tongues is a normal Christian experience, but the account does not provide an adequate exegetical basis to make it a norm” (“The Speaking In Tongues Controversy”, Rick Walston, p.152)
In fact, Luke’s record indicates that only about 12% of those who were saved in the book of Acts are recorded as speaking in tongues. Speaking in tongues as a normative Christian experience is a doctrine that cannot legitimately be established from the book of Acts. Furthermore, even if every instance of conversion recorded in Acts did describe accompanying tongue speaking, proposing tongue speaking as normative experience based upon this evidence alone would be a non sequitur. In such a hypothetical scenario (recorded tongue speaking in 100% of conversions), Luke may have intended us to view tongue speaking as normative, but he could just as easily have recorded these particular events because they were exceptional. The point is, we are not told. Such is the nature of historical narrative.
In regard to whether speaking in tongues is normative, we are, however, given a clear doctrinal statement in 1 Corinthians 12:30; “Do all speak in tongues? No.” While the word “no” is not printed in all English translations, the inclusion of the implied “no” (in Greek, “me”) is present in the Greek text at the end of each of the rhetorical questions asked by Paul in that passage. This was a common Greek grammatical convention employed when a writer wanted his readers to understand that the answer to a rhetorical question was “no”. The International Standard Version Bible renders this passage best:
Not all are apostles, are they? Not all are prophets, are they? Not all are teachers, are they? Not all perform miracles, do they? Not all have the gift of healing, do they? Not all speak in tongues, do they? Not all interpret, do they? (1Co 12:29-30)
Here we have a clear Biblical doctrine; not every Christian is given the gift of tongues. In the same way, not every Christian has the gift of healing. Not every Christian has the gift of miracle working. Not every Christian has the gift of interpretation. Those who single out the gift of tongues from this list of gifts and insist that this one gift is available to, or even essential for, every Christian are disregarding the obvious meaning of this passage.
The clear teaching of 1Corinthians 12:29-30 enables us to interpret the historical narrative of the book of Acts. From this we can conclude that speaking in tongues may be normal Christian behaviour, but it is definitely not normative.
Although the gift of tongues was normal in the New Testament church, it was certainly not normative. If the historical narratives are taken at face value, tongue-speaking was quite rare. Indeed, the inclusion of tongue-speaking accounts in the narrative appears to indicate their exceptional nature. An argument can be mounted that if tongue-speaking is still a valid gift for the church today, we should expect it to follow the same pattern of exceptional and rare occurrence, rather than the apparent universality of the gift as proclaimed in some churches. Tongues are not the essential sign of conversion or of baptism with the Holy Spirit.
The elevation of the gift of tongues in some churches today is concerning. It’s apparent prevalence in these churches causes one to wonder whether the endemic pressure and expectation for tongue-speaking in those fellowships has produced sincere, but self-deluded, manifestations of the gift amongst many Christians. The unscriptural pre-eminence afforded the gift in these churches is also disturbing.
We would do well to follow Paul’s advice to “earnestly desire the greater gifts?” (1 Corinthians 12:31).
How Was Tongues Speaking Exercised?
In 1 Corinthians 14:26-40 Paul gives eight principles for the exercise of the gift of tongues:
- Public tongues-speaking was for the purpose of blessing and building up the body (v.26).
- Only two or three were to speak in tongues in a service (vv.27, 30).
- They were to speak in turn (vv.27, 30).
- Tongues were to be spoken publicly only when interpretation was possible (vv.27, 28).
- Discerning people were to weigh the message to determine its validity (v.29).
- Women were not to speak in tongues (v.34).
- Tongues were not to be forbidden but should be given a lower place than prophecy (v.39).
- A proper and orderly atmosphere in church services was to be maintained (v.40).