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Answering Your Questions About Speaking in Tongues
By LARRY CHRISTENSON
Bethany House PublishersCopyright © 2005 Larry Christenson
All right reserved.
Chapter OneWhat Does This Mean?
The Significance for the Church of the Widespread Occurrence of SPEAKING IN TONGUES in Historic Denominations
A Typical Testimony
As a young teenager I accepted Christ's forgiveness, received salvation, and was baptized. This experience did not give me the ability to completely rely on God. I sought security elsewhere, but there remained an empty incompleteness, finally a despair. I turned to God in helplessness. He met me by increasing my faith and hope slowly.
I attended a prayer group obediently for a year and a half, longing for a closer walk that would enable me to experience the things the Bible says a Christian should experience. Again God answered my prayers: Through the testimonies of others and searching God's Word, His Spirit convicted me to humble myself to ask for prayer to be baptized with His Spirit and take that step of faith necessary to receive Him. I did, with the Lord's help, and He granted me a tongue with which I could praise Him continually.
I have experienced a superabundance of joy and peace and comfort that no one can take away from me.... He also makes me painfully aware of "myself" that offends and hinders His growth in me. How blessed to confess these things, be cleansed, and granted more strength to stand. The enemy is more real, too, but through God's Word, which has come alive, Christ sets me free from Satan's power....
He is my Comforter, as His language of prayer and praise flow through my mind silently at any time, anywhere, in any situation; or aloud, through my lips and voice, when alone.... God speaks to me everywhere: in the liturgy, hymns, sermons, Scripture. His Spirit witnesses to the truth I feel in my heart. I long that all may share this blessed oneness in Christ Jesus, who sustains us in His power.
Return of the Charismata
The details will differ. One testifies to a new joy in his Christian faith; another witnesses to a deeper and more constant awareness of the Spirit's indwelling presence; some have found a new freedom to witness to others of what Jesus means to them; another says that he has a far keener sense of the Spirit's guidance than he did before; many testify to an awakened interest, indeed a deep hunger, to study the Bible; a keener awareness of one's own sins and shortcomings is frequently mentioned. The common denominator in all of these testimonies seems to be this: The experience of "speaking in tongues" has intensified the sense of the presence of God; the Word of God has become more contemporary, believable; Christ the Lord has become more real-in a word, faith has been strengthened.
A teacher of a high school Bible class came into this experience, and several months later one of his students remarked, "He's changed: he believes it more now than he used to." This is not the kind of change one learns out of a book. It springs from deep personal experience. This teacher does not make any extravagant claims in regard to his own experience. "I realize," he says, "that many people have come into blessings similar to mine without speaking in tongues. But this is the way God chose to lead me into a deeper walk with Him, and I thank Him for it."
What is "speaking in tongues"? Why has it appeared in many historic Christian denominations? Why haven't we heard about it before? What kind of an experience is it? Is it something any Christian can experience? Should one seek after it? Is it some kind of gimmick that could detour the Church from her main task of proclaiming the Gospel? What, exactly, is its value to the individual and to the Church?
These are thoughtful and earnest questions that people in many Christian congregations are asking. Until about 1960 the average church member associated present-day speaking in tongues with Pentecostal groups, often dismissing it as a purely emotional phenomenon. But in more recent years an increasing number of people in historic Christian denominations-clergy and laity alike-have come into this New Testament experience.
However we may analyze or explain it, we cannot escape the fact that traditional church people now numbering in the millions-Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Roman Catholics, Lutherans, Baptists, Methodists, to name a few-witness to having experienced this New Testament phenomenon. National magazines, both secular and religious, have carried articles on it.
McCandlish Phillips, in a feature article for The New York Times, wrote, "A movement emphasizing a restoration of 'charismatic' or spiritual gifts to the Christian ministry has lately been spreading through the nation's Protestant denominations. It is marked, among other things, by glossolalia, or praying in unknown tongues. Glossolalia is the practice of praying, singing, or speaking in fluent accents whose meaning is not known to the speaker.
"Across the United States, hundreds of ministers and thousands of laymen in about 40 denominations have adopted this strange prayer form. Most of them have also begun to practice a variety of other spiritual 'gifts,' especially healing by prayer with the laying on of hands.
"These and other phenomena are part of a random but pervasive movement called the Charismatic Renewal.... Its recent appearances in such august settings as the Protestant Episcopal Church and Yale University have caused Protestants to take a rather startled new look at the phenomenon.
"The movement had already gained a foothold in a score of seminaries and colleges when word was published that 19 Yale students, including graduate students with Phi Beta Kappa keys, were praying in tongues and finding it meaningful.
"At Princeton Theological Seminary, 20 students claimed to have had direct experiences with the charismata, and another 35 attended student meetings at which they are exercised."
Rev. Arnold Bittlinger, Director of Evangelism and Stewardship for the Lutheran Church of the Pfalz, Germany, encountered the phenomenon during a study-tour of American churches in 1962 under the auspices of the Lutheran World Federation. His official report carried the following comments:
"During my stay in America, in different Lutheran churches, I came across a new kind of Spiritual Awakening in which the New Testament charismatic signs have come into evidence and are practiced with great discipline and order. I had opportunities to take part in different worship services in which these gifts of the Spirit were in evidence. I was impressed with the solemn liturgical beauty of these services. Everywhere they hold themselves strictly to the instructions of the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 14:26ff.
"The life of the congregation is made fruitful in unexpected ways. That which otherwise functions through excellent organization, occurs among those involved in the Awakening very spontaneously and independently. The members of the congregation visit one another, they manifest a personal concern for those outside the Church, they pray for the sick, and they contribute their money and their time to the ministry of the Church. A pastor pointed out to me that one of these congregations that has experienced the Awakening had shown a new recognition of social problems and set about solving them.
"One of the chief impressions is the ecumenical disposition of the Movement. For instance, one Lutheran congregation had refused to join the newly formed American Lutheran Church. They were determined to remain as an independent congregation. After this congregation had experienced some of the effect of the Awakening, the same members of the congregation who had been most strongly opposed to joining the ALC, voted to join it. The congregation today belongs to the ALG. It was also gratifying that I nowhere found evidence of legalism or undisciplined enthusiasm (Schwaermerei); on the contrary, the teaching of the Confessions, especially the doctrine of 'grace alone,' infant baptism, and the Lord's Supper have found among these 'awakened Lutherans' a new and deeper meaning."
In a day when serious historians are beginning to characterize our times as the "post-Christian era," we see this strange counter-phenomenon: the return of the charismata. People in significant numbers are turning to the Bible and personally experiencing some of the phenomena that marked the origins of Christianity.
We would serve the Church ill to whisk these manifestations aside without a hearing, slapping on it the label of "fad" or "emotionalism." And especially is this true here, for it does not involve merely a new church "program," "approach," or "technique": It involves a supernatural manifestation of the Holy Spirit, which is clearly spoken din the Bible. This is holy ground, where a snap judgment or an ill-informed opinion could truly grieve the Spirit. One even writes about it with some qualms. But where silence runs the danger of conceding the day to fear and uninformed prejudice, one should speak. So in the spirit of a Christian brother and a fellow searcher of God's Word, I would share with you my understanding of speaking in tongues-and its significance for the Church-as it has come to me in prayer, study of the Bible, and experience over the past years.
What Is "Speaking in Tongues"?
The Bible tells us that speaking in tongues is a manifestation of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:4; 10:46; 19:6; 1 Cor. 12:10). St. Paul warns that the tongue can have a false note-like a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal-if the speaker does not manifest the gift in love (1 Cor. 13:1); it may be used out of turn (1 Cor. 14:27), or at the wrong time (1 Cor. 14:28). But not even in Corinth, where tongues were greatly abused, does St. Paul suggest that it has degenerated into a purely human phenomenon, the product of excess emotionalism. His plea, rather, is that precisely because this is a manifestation of the Holy Spirit, it should be manifested "decently and in order" (1 Cor. 14:40), for "God is not a God of confusion but of peace" (1 Cor. 14:33). He does not tell them to stop manifesting this gift. On the contrary, he tells them to continue manifesting the gift (1 Cot. 14:5a), but in a proper way (1 Cor. 14:13, 28), and with a proper regard for the other manifestations of the Spirit as well (1 Cor. 14:5b).
This must be the framework for any biblical discussion of speaking in tongues. We want to seek a clearer understanding and appreciation of the purpose the Spirit has in manifesting this gift in the Church. We dare never lose sight of the fact that speaking in tongues is a manifestation of the Holy Spirit. We miss St. Paul's point altogether if we begin to search out reasons why we should not speak in tongues, why we don't need this gift in the churches today, how much better we can do without it, and so on. It is well to be alert to the dangers of abuse that St. Paul points out, but we cannot depreciate the gift as such, for it is of the Holy Spirit. Scripture simply does not support an argument against speaking in tongues-only against its abuse. When once we grasp this basic truth, our whole discussion of tongues is cast in the positive framework that St. Paul himself reflects when he says, "I thank God that I speak in tongues more than you all" (1 Cor. 14:18). The cure for abuse is not disuse, but proper use.
Now what, specifically, is the nature of this manifestation of the Spirit called "speaking in tongues"?
On the Day of Pentecost, the dwellers in Jerusalem heard the Galilean believers speaking a variety of Mediterranean and Near Eastern dialects. They were amazed, just as you would be amazed if you were an American-born Jew who had returned to Israel and heard an uneducated Jew from Yemen begin to speak English with a Brooklyn accent!
Some commentators suggest that this was God's way of breaking the language barrier so that the Gospel could be proclaimed to all nations. But this is unlikely, since there was no language barrier in Jerusalem oil the Day of Pentecost. The men who heard the believers speaking in tongues had become permanent residents of Jerusalem, and were Jews besides, so they all had at least one language in common, and possibly two.
The situation would be similar to a group of Norwegian immigrants living in South Dakota who suddenly hear some migrant field hands speaking the various dialects of Norway. There would be no language barrier, since all could speak English (the Jews in Jerusalem could all speak Aramaic, and doubtless Greek as well), but the sight of migrant field hands speaking perfect Norwegian would certainly fill those immigrants with amazement!
The tongues were given not primarily as a means of communicating the Gospel, but as a supernatural sign that God was in the midst of these believers. This is doubly witnessed to in what follows: Peter immediately stands up and begins preaching to this same crowd (Acts 2:14ff.), and not in tongues, but obviously in a language that they all had in common.
In Corinth Paul says that those who spoke in tongues were not understood (1 Cor. 14:2). But the implication is not that they were speaking gibberish or ecstatic speech, but in languages not known to any of the fellow worshipers (1 Cor. 14:10-11).
Some commentaries have tried to establish an essential difference between the various occurrences of speaking in tongues in the New Testament, e.g., between the occurrence on the Day of Pentecost and the experience in the Corinthian church. It would seem, however, that the manifestation of tongues in Acts and in First Corinthians is essentially the same. In his History of the Christian Church (Vo]. 1, 230-31), Philip Schaff says, "The glossolalia (speaking in tongues) on the Day of Pentecost was, as in all cases where it is mentioned, an act of worship and adoration, not an act of teaching and instruction, which followed afterwards in the sermon of Peter. The Pentecostal glossolalia was the same as that in the household of Cornelius in Caesarea after his conversion, which may be called a Gentile Pentecost, as that of the twelve disciples of John the Baptist at Ephesus, where it appears in connection with prophecy, and as that in the Christian congregation at Corinth."
The difference on the Day of Pentecost was not in the essential nature of the manifestation itself. It was rather that God, for a special purpose, on this occasion gave the believers languages that would be understood by the bystanders. In Christian congregations, such as the one at Corinth, God gave languages that were not generally understood.
This is borne out by present-day experience as well. A speaker in tongues is seldom understood. (In a group meeting his utterance will be "interpreted," but "interpretation" is also a manifestation of the Spirit, and is not the same as translating a foreign language with the mind.) Occasionally people report an experience similar to that which occurred on the Day of Pentecost: Someone speaks in tongues, and the utterance is understood by another as a known language-though the speaker himself did not know the language nor understand what he was saying.
Doesn't the speaker himself know what he is saying? No, to his own ear and understanding it is simply a stream of sounds. St. Paul says specifically, "If I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays but my mind is unfruitful" (1 Cor. 14:14, emphasis added). When you speak your native tongue, or any language that you have consciously learned, your mind controls what is said. But speaking in tongues is a speaking forth prompted not by the mind but by the Spirit. The speaker does not "decide" what sound will come out next: He simply lifts up his voice and the Spirit gives utterance (Acts 2:4).
Thus speaking in tongues is a supernatural manifestation of the Holy Spirit, whereby the believer speaks forth in a language he has never learned and that he does not understand.
Is It Really a Language?
A woman in our congregation had never heard anyone speak in tongues. When she went to a meeting where someone spoke out in tongues, she leaned to the person next to her and whispered, "That man is drunk!"
This is a rather natural reaction. Not understanding an utterance, one jumps to the conclusion that the speaker is mumbling a drunken gibberish. That is exactly what happened on the Day of Pentecost.
Excerpted from Answering Your Questions About Speaking in Tongues by LARRY CHRISTENSON Copyright © 2005 by Larry Christenson.
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