Understanding tongues in church

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WITH John Wesley and John Calvin, we share in the belief that the gifts of the Holy Spirit have not ceased.

Preaching at Telok Ayer Chinese Methodist Church on Nov 16, 2003, Bishop Dr Robert Solomon addressed an issue that has been of deep interest to many Christians, Methodist and others - the question of "speaking in tongues" and its authenticity. A summary of his sermon follows.

However, the Scriptures indicate that speaking in tongues is only one of the many gifts. There are nine charismatic gifts (1Cor 12), seven ministry gifts (Rom 12) and four or five office gifts (Eph 4:11), as well as many other spiritual gifts not specifically mentioned by Paul, but which we have a good idea of.

Theologically speaking, only Jesus Christ can have all of these gifts, and although Christians have some, no one has all of them: "Now to each the manifestation, each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good."

These gifts are given by the sovereign will of God, the Holy Spirit deciding who will be given what gifts (1 Cor 12:11), not by church committee or preacher. They are to be used in humility, for building up the church, not dividing it. Paul was concerned that the Corinthian church was facing divisions, and that they should understand that the gifts should strengthen, not divide, the church. Competition was probably what rent the Corinthian church.

Coming to the question of speaking in tongues, although the prophets made some ecstatic utterances, the Old Testament makes no direct reference to it, nor the New Testament books, except in a few verses of Mark's final chapter (not found in original older texts), where Christians perform spectacular feats in the final days, and in 1 Cor 12-14. Here is concentrated the only teaching on tongues, as Paul recognised the problems of the Corinthian church, its many partisan groups, its moral problems, its disorderly worship services - and believed that tongues was an issue that created a lot of confusion.

Linguistic phenomena

What, then, are these tongues? "Glossa" means languages, and therefore "tongues" means languages, and the first possibility is that it means speaking in other languages, a gift which we recognise in people who have a special linguistic skill. New missionaries who show a gift for new languages are speaking "in tongues" other than their own. This may not be spectacular, but there is danger in pushing the Holy Spirit to only the spectacular.

Another possibility is that "tongues" refers to angelic language, which Paul had in mind in 1 Cor 13, and which is probably devoid of grammar or vocabulary.

A third possibility is what some people would say is gibberish - syllables put together without any linguistic meaning, though they may have some emotional meaning, the result of ecstatic utterance moved by the Spirit.

Researchers on human speech have discovered that various races speak differently: if your language lacks consonants or sounds, then you don't normally speak in that way. Also, tongue-speaking is usually imitative, with one or two leaders who start it, followed by clusters who follow with favourite syllables, leading to the view that there can be several ways in which tongues are interpreted today.

Then, there is the view that tongues are a psychological medium of expression - when you run out of words and want to express deep-felt feelings, the result is regressing into a more primal kind of language - the kind of language we spoke as infants - to express our feelings to God in that way.

Finally, there is also the possibility that tongues can be of demonic origin. A story is told of how a CIM missionary in China who tried speaking in tongues in a church group that was practising it wondered if he was resisting something that God was doing. For a while, he let go and found that he was uttering some syllables like the others, and for a while felt excited. Then he felt his body experiencing strange experiences, and warmth coming up his legs.

Suddenly, he realised it was coming from down, not up, and immediately realised something was wrong, figuring that if it was from the Holy Spirit, it must be something that came from above. He stopped short, and asked for forgiveness: "Lord I am sorry about this," and began to pray for the other people.

This might suggest that the devil can also counterfeit many of the gifts, but that the only thing he cannot counter-feit is love.

Apostle's teaching

Paul's teaching on tongues is clear: he recognises their benefit, especially when used in private for personal edification, but in the church, "I would rather speak five intelligible words to instruct others than ten thousand words in a tongue." (1 Cor 14: 18).

He was, however, concerned with the abuses of tongues in public worship, and therefore, advised that "if anyone speaks in a tongue, two or three at the most should speak, one at a time, and someone must interpret". (1 Cor 14:27). Worshipping God must be done in a fitting and orderly way as God is a God of order.

By reference to Isaiah 28:11-12, he indicates that tongues are not for believers, but for unbelievers who if they don't understand what you are saying, there is no point speaking in tongues in church, as there should be an interpreter, thereby fulfilling its true purpose.

We are thus, not to forbid tongues, but they must be practised in a proper way in church.

They continue to the present day, but we must have the discernment to know when it is an authentic spiritual gift, useful in private use, but when used in public, to be used within scriptural restrictions.

Certainly, it should not be used because it is spectacular, bearing in mind John Wesley's comments: "Believe not every spirit but try the spirits whether they be of God. Try all things by the written Word and let all bow down before it."

John Wesley's guidance

Wesley also warned of the danger of pride by those who have certain spiritual gifts, as when several of his flock "were favoured with extraordinary revelations and manifestations from God. But by this very thing Satan beguiled them from the simplicity that is in Christ ... [that] they were led to value these extraordinary gifts more than the ordinary grace of God."

Wesley's sermon, "Scriptural Christianity", teaches that even in the infancy of the church, God divided the leaders with a sparing hand - not all were prophets, workers of miracles, possessed the gifts of healing or spoke on tongues - except for a few teachers in the church.

Paul wanted them to have the mind which was in Christ, "those holy fruits of the Spirit whosoever hath not, is none of his to fill them with love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness with meekness and temperance to enable them to crucify the flesh with its affections and lusts".

Wesley believed that the fruit of the Spirit whose chief characteristic is love, is much more important than the gifts of the Spirit and cannot be counterfeited by the devil.

Methodist Message, February 2004

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