Monday, June 11, 2007


Tongues - It's Not a Language, It's Not Prayer, and Now It's Not Private Either

Dr. Hershael York a wise and sagacious lecturer at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary has written a tremendous article on the gift of tongues. This is a necessary read for all.

Tongues was dead, to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of its burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner. Southern Baptists signed it. And the Southern Baptist name was good upon 'Change, for anything he chose to put his hand to.

Old Tongues was as dead as a door-nail.

Mind! I don’t mean to say that I know, of my own knowledge, what there is particularly dead about a door-nail. I might have been inclined, myself, to regard a coffin-nail as the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade. But the wisdom of our ancestors is in the simile; and my unhallowed hands shall not disturb it, or the Convention’s done for. You will therefore permit me to repeat, emphatically, that Tongues was as dead as a door-nail.

And then it made a reappearance. Not a resurrection such as God performs, but a hollow, emaciated, transparent apparition of its former self. No longer the powerful means of gospel proclamation God intended, but now a self-edifying self-gratification of a self-centered self-indulgent generation. The gift that God gave as a sign to unbelievers has given way to the ecstatic gutterances of the prayer closet more enamored with emotion than expression.

I hope to make a clear statement with the goal of accomplishing several things. First, I will lay out the textual case against so-called private prayer language. Exegetically, that is not what the text says. I will not here make the case for the cessation of supernatural gifts because I am agnostic on that issue. I cannot say with all confidence that the proper understanding of the New Testament inexorably leads me to conclude that tongues have ceased. What I can say with certitude is that what Southern Baptists are debating today is NOT the tongues of the New Testament, but only the poor imitation of it, the only benefit of which is the emotional experience of the practitioner. In addition, I am going to walk through those verses that most use to defend this practice and show that they actually indicate the opposite.

Second, I will show that the use of tongues in private prayer negates the stated biblical purpose of tongues. Evangelistically, that is not what the world needs.

Third, I will argue that this is a new phenomenon and that makes it suspect. Historically, it is not what Baptists have believed, and the fact that today 50% of SBC pastors consider it a valid gift is cause for repentance, not rejoicing.

Finally, I will argue that the IMB policy is precisely correct because we are not charismatic. To open this door a little is to open it all the way. Under no logic, biblical or philosophical, could one argue that tongues are acceptable in private but not in public. How could we consistently affirm missionaries that believe in speaking in tongues, but censure or eliminate those who believe they have the gift of prophecy? Philosophically, that is not what Southern Baptists need.

The Exegetical Case

I was incredulous when I read Dwight McKissic's blog in which he argued that the primary motivation for rejection of tongues was emotional prejudice that needed to be abandoned like the SBC's former affirmation of slavery. He wrote: "How could a convention that is usually biblio-centric (sic) and exegetically accurate reject plain, clear, scriptural, authoritive (sic), inerrant and infallible biblical truth regarding the Spirit’s gifting of some believers to pray in tongues in private according to the sovereign will of God (I Corinthians 12:7,10, 30; 14:2, 4, 5, 13-15)?" Don't charismatic denominations ask that same question with regard to public tongues in a worship service?

But before I examine these verses, I am going to be a fool. I feel like Paul felt when he compared his resume with those of his opponents. I don't think that my academic credentials are necessary for proper biblical interpretation. In fact, I think the obvious and natural meaning of the words and their context are readily intelligible, but just in case someone may put stock in such things, I will share that I am well schooled in Greek and the New Testament. I studied Greek for two years as an undergraduate at the University of Kentucky. Twice I won the National Greek Examination Award. In my senior year I won the Classical Award from the department. Then I did a master's degree in Classical Languages, concentrating entirely on Greek. By the time I got to seminary I already had more Greek study (approximately 50 hours) on my transcript than any of my seminary professors (not counting their years of teaching it, of course!). It was classical Greek, however, and not koine, so my MDiv and my PhD in Greek and New Testament helped me make the transition to the Greek of the Bible and I have applied myself to studying it, reading it, and teaching it ever since. I am currently writing the commentary on 1 Corinthians for Kent Hughes' Preaching the Word series published by Crossway, so I have no light interest in these things.

Now with that out of the way, let's look at Paul's argument. He is clearly writing to a church that has abused, misused, and misunderstood the gifts God has given them. The gift of tongues was perhaps the most misused of the Corinthians' gifts. In response, Paul reminds them of certain parameters within which the gifts should be used. Three truths about the gifts emerge: first, a sovereign God gives them to whomever He chooses. Consequently, one should find no reason for either boasting or jealousy in one's gifts or lack thereof. Second, Paul makes it clear that the one who has the gift is in control of the gift, or else prescribing the way to use it would be nonsensical. "The spirit of the prophets is subject to the prophets" (1 Cor. 14:32) means that no one ever falls into a trance and is uncontrollable or merely passive in the use of the gift. Third, the purpose of the gifts is the edification of the church. After explaining the prerogative of God in dispensing the gifts (1 Cor. 12:1-11), he immediately launches into the purpose of God, which is to be used in the body (1 Cor. 12:12-31).

But what is the gift of tongues? Simply put, the gift of tongues is the ability to speak in a human language that one has never studied or learned. The gift of tongues is clearly defined in Acts 2:4-12. People from all over Europe, Asia, and Africa were present, and each one heard some of the 120 members of that first church preach the gospel in their own language. Paul affirms this as the purpose of tongues in 1 Corinthians 14:22 when he writes, "Thus tongues are a sign not for believers, but for unbelievers." Speaking ecstatic utterances in a personal devotional setting simply does not meet this biblical criterion. With Corinth's unique position on the isthmus between mainland Greece and the Peloponnese, sailors and citizens from all over the Mediterranean world would either live or work there. Ships would often dock on one side of the isthmus, have their cargo carried four miles overland to be put on other ships in order to avoid the treacherous sailing around the land mass. The world came to Corinth, and God graciously gave many in that church the gift of tongues for the purpose of spreading the gospel. The problem arose when they began to use their gifts indiscriminately and for their own benefit. They would speak in tongues when no one else there could understand. They would pray in tongues.

So Paul's correction can be summed up as 1) you must never use tongues when no one can understand you. Either be quiet or make sure an interpreter is present. 2) You must use tongues to proclaim the gospel to unbelievers.

I am trying to be as understanding as possible, but I confess I cannot fathom how someone who reads 1 Corinthians 14:13-19 can reach the conclusion that Paul is saying exactly the opposite thing. If words have meaning at all, Paul says that praying in tongues without understanding makes one's mind "unfruitful" (v. 14). Is that what we're going for? He further says that he chooses to pray with his spirit and his mind. Now if he just said that praying in a tongue makes his mind unfruitful, and if he now says that he chooses to pray with both his spirit and his mind, the only conclusion one can draw is that Paul is saying it's better to pray with words and a fruitful mind than to use the gift to express what you don't understand. He even goes so far as to call them "children" in their thinking for their use of the gift in this way. Bro. McKissic often interprets Paul's rather sarcastic statement of the situation (in 14:2, for instance) as a prescriptive or normative statement with almost imperative force. That simply doesn't jive with rest of the chapter, especially after he just told them to grow up in chapter 13!

In all candor, Paul's statement in 14:4 that the one who speaks in a tongue edifies himself ought to be enough to settle the argument. In the verse immediately preceding it and in the phrase immediately following it, Paul contrasts this use of tongues with the superior motive of edifying, encouraging, and comforting others. Where in Scripture are we ever told to use our gifts to edify ourselves? Isn't this akin to Satan's first temptation of Christ, that He use his power to satisfy Himself? Yet Jesus' life was so other-centered that He never got angry for how He was treated. He never asserted His rights. He never used His miraculous power to satisfy or comfort Himself. Why would we ever think that God has given us gifts to give us the warm fuzzies? By the way, I am not alone in this understanding of the passage. John Stott, John MacArthur, and many, many others see it exactly this way, which makes the charge of exegetical ignorance rather absurd.

Forgive the fingerpointing, but I am sensitive (as well as dubious) of Bro. McKissic's criticism that the IMB policy and those who agree with it lack "exegetical precision." I doubt he means to be arrogant when he says that, but he paints with so broad a brush that it just feels like he thinks we don't take the Scripture seriously--and he does. Now, I don't mind anyone disagreeing with my view of a text, but don't suggest I am not doing my best to derive my view from Scripture.

If Bro. McKissic or anyone who is seriously searching this issue wants me to deal with a text about this subject that I have not done here, please let me know specifically and I will do my best to oblige within the limits of my schedule.

I have a few questions to ask of those who uphold speaking in tongues in private. If God gives the ability to some to pray in tongues in private, does He also give some the gift of prophecy to use in private? Does He still give the entire list of gifts in 1 Cor. 12:8-10? Why the preoccupation and prominence of this one? And if you claim to have this gift, how will you deal with those who claim to have some of the other gifts?

At the core of this whole issue lies a big exegetical and practical question. Is there just one kind of tongues--i.e. known human languages--or are there two, also ecstatic utterances that defy any linguistic analysis? Since the Bible never clearly states that tongues in 1 Corinthians is different from the tongues in Acts, I accept only one kind of tongues. I usually go with the law of first mention as a hermeneutical principle. In other words, when something is defined at its first occurrence or mention in the Bible, you can take it that same way in all subsequent mentions unless otherwise explicitly stated. I don't need to know what baptism means in 1 Corinthians, for example, if I know what it means in the gospels.

But for the sake of argument, let's just say there are two. Let's say that God does both. Let's suppose that somewhere between Acts and 1 Corinthians, God also allowed believers to speak in tongues when no unbelievers are around and they themselves don't know what they are saying. Let's also say that He still gives this gift today. My question is this: why do we hear exclusively about this one? Shouldn't we have a few missionaries that we don't have to send to language school. Wouldn't it seem odd that God gives this unverifiable and unintelligible gift so often and seldom bestows the gift that makes even unbelievers sit up and take notice as they did in Acts 2? I think I would find it more plausible to accept the lesser phenomenon as a continuation of New Testament practice if I still saw the more patently miraculous phenomenon on occasion.

To summarize, Paul rebukes the Corinthians for their self-edification and reminds them that the focus of the gift of tongues should be on reaching unbelievers. That was the purpose then and if that gift is still given today, that is its purpose even now.

The Evangelistic Case

When I was a child, I could not wait until my father let me mow the yard. We lived in a parsonage next door to the church he pastored and so the church had a riding mower to cut both yards. That was their idea of taking care of the pastor, I suppose. Anyway, I used to love to drive it. After I got old enough to mow the yard, mowing lost its appeal. I still loved to ride the tractor around though; I just hated using it for its intended purpose.

Speaking in tongues to oneself or to God is to enjoy the ride without fulfilling the purpose. Again I ask, even if one were allowed a self-edifying use of tongues, shouldn't he at least use it for an evangelistic purpose some? If tongues has two purposes, why are we arguing about it for only one use, and that one the most easily self-induced? That leads one to the strong suspicion that this alleged speaking in tongues is a learned behavior, a phenomenon duplicated around the world in many cultural and religious contexts. Preaching the gospel in a language you've never studied--now THAT is impressive and undeniable, exactly what God intended on Pentecost.

Every time Christians use the gift of tongues in Acts, unbelievers of some kind are present. Jewish Christians who didn't believe Gentiles should be saved or unregenerate people who didn't believe in Jesus would see this miraculous gift bestowed and it would give them pause. God even used it to speak to Peter's heart at Cornelius' house. When Peter realized that God was giving them the same experience and gifts that he had enjoyed on Pentecost, he knew it was of the Lord (Acts 11:15. Note that tongues aren't specifically mentioned, but Peter says the Holy Spirit fell on them "just as on us at the beginning.").

Everything in the book of Acts and in 1 Corinthians points to the inescapable conclusion that the purpose of tongues is evangelism, and the need is no less desperate today. People throughout the world need Christians who can declare the mighty acts of God in their heart language more than they need Christians who have just had a warm, if incomprehensible, experience.

The Historical Case

My father used to warn me that if I thought I discovered something in the Scriptures that was new, something that no one had ever seen before, I had better be careful. "Don't run too far ahead of the pack," he would say, "or you might discover that you aren't even on the right trail." That was and remains good advice. Though our practice is determined and regulated by Scripture and not experience or history, we nonetheless need to ask why a fence is where it is before we tear it down. Should it not trouble us that none of the founders of the SBC claimed to have a private prayer language? I am not much of a church historian, but I suspect that very few ever claimed such a thing before the Azusa Street revival. Baptists have always been wary of charismatic claims, sometimes to the point of disregarding the Holy Spirit, to be sure. But on the other hand, Baptists theologians have either ignored or rejected speaking in tongues since it made a reappearance in the early 20th Century.

So what are we to make of the fact that 50% of SBC pastors seem open to speaking in tongues in private? Well, we have to take a historical look at that. The real question is, "What changed?" I doubt anyone would seriously dispute that at the inception of the SBC almost no one of the founders would have looked favorably on the claim that one could pray in tongues. Likewise at 1900 or 1950. So what has happened in the past six decades? In the same way, I am confident that if Lifeway cared to do the research, they would find that a startling number of church members and even pastors today are inclusivists, believe that people who never hear the gospel don't go to hell, and don't think it terribly wrong for a couple who love each other to have sex before marriage. I shutter to think that one or more of those beliefs would make it into the majority category. In my own Association is a pastor who denies the Trinity, mocks the notion of a substitutionary atonement, and believes in a postmortem offer of salvation for everyone.

That fact that we have strayed so far from our historical position on this issue is cause for alarm. Amazingly, some of the very ones who are so intent on leading the convention back to the beliefs of the founders don't mind innovating in this area.

Let's illustrate it another way. Imagine that the issue is not speaking in tongues in private, but snake handling in private. Now I understand that it's not the same thing. I know the justification for snake handling comes from a spurious passage in the longer ending of Mark. I also know that no one in the SBC is clamoring for this practice. But bear with me. Since none of us believe it nor have we encountered it much, we haven't explicitly denied it in any statement of faith. The IMB probably doesn't have a policy against it for candidates. But let's imagine that it begins to catch on, not with uneducated Appalachian Pentecostals, but with some of our best friends. They are people we love and respect. They aren't pushing it as a mandatory practice; they just do it in private as a personal demonstration of faith and as a discipline of trust in the Lord. They are sincere, godly people with a heart for the Lord and a love for His Word. They express that if God has something more for them, then they want it, because they want all that He has for His people. One sincere pastor who does it speaks in a Southern Baptist seminary chapel service and says that God has used it in his life.

What would we do? He appeals to a text of scripture in his KJV as evidence. He has a great track record as a pastor and a godly leader. We like him. Well, I know what we ought to do, but I also know that some, perhaps many, would think that perhaps God does give this man that gift. Who are we to sit in judgment on him?

But we cannot let personality and friendship dictate our understanding of Scripture or our practice of it. If Southern Baptists haven't seen this as a legitimate practice for nearly 150 years, we probably don't have much of a case to start now. It's either right or it's wrong, but it's not seasonal.

The Philosophical Case

The IMB did exactly the correct thing when it adopted the guidelines forbidding missionaries from speaking in tongues unless it is a supernatural gift of God enabling them to preach in a known human language. Imagine the money we could save on the language schools and the year of study we make missionary families endure! The question is certainly not whether or not God can do it, but whether or not He chooses to. To my knowledge, all of our missionary candidates who go to non-English speaking countries have learned their languages in the conventional ways.

Had we experienced a missiological crisis with indigenous Baptists as a result of sending missionaries who accept and advocate this practice the Board would have been reprimanded by Southern Baptists for being asleep at the wheel. By using foresight and vigilance, however, they are criticized for trying to come up with a workable policy before the crisis occurs.

Again I ask each reader to go down the road of imagination with me. Imagine this time that the IMB allows SBC missionaries to speak in tongues in private. Let's just pretend for a moment that the IMB agrees that a biblical case can be made and we should not forbid the practice. Please tell me by what logic, exegetical or ecclesiastical, we could then forbid its public use or the use of the other gifts by those who claim they have them? At that point we are simply charismatics who believe in eternal security. Missionaries certainly have a right to that opinion, but they shouldn't go to the field as Southern Baptist missionaries if they do.

I love the Holy Spirit, and I do not want to do anything to cheapen His marvelous work. I long for revival, for an outpouring of the Spirit to deluge our convention and sweep our churches into the streets with a heart to reach the lost, to cool fevered brows, to lighten heavy loads, to mend broken homes, and to feed hungry bodies. I would love to see the Spirit work in an undeniable tidal wave of gifts that are truly supernatural. But when that flood comes, it won't be private and it won't be personal. I would do nothing to quench the Spirit, but neither am I going to attribute to Him that which I can easily explain by the power of man. I want to see an outpouring of God in our day, but I'm not going to call a puddle an ocean just so I can pretend I'm at sea.

My apologies to Charles Dickens for ripping him off in my first three paragraphs.

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