Over the Easter weekend, a group of about 50 students from Christian Union (the campus ministry where I serve here in Christchurch) went away together for a conference on love, sex and marriage. While we were there, some of our members found themselves being aggressively ‘evangelised’.
Upon arrival, we found ourselves sharing our campsite with members of a ministry known as ‘Revival Fellowship’. You can read more about their emphasis and their beliefs here – but suffice to say, several members of Christian Union were told that, frankly, if you don’t speak in tongues, you’re not really a Christian.
It’s not an uncommon claim. It’s also not a biblical claim. So I thought I’d pose a few questions. Some of these are questions I asked our new ‘friends’ when we met at Easter. Some are the questions I would have asked at the time if I were more quick-witted, but which I’ve since thought might be helpful for people who want to consider these claims, or who’ve been confronted by the same kind of claim at some point over the years (or possibly even for people to share with friends who’ve made similar claims to them over the years).
Before launching into these questions, it’s worth saying that this is not the only (or even the best) approach that we should take when thinking through important theological issues. That is, we need to beware of ‘proof-texting’: finding isolated verses that support our point of view, or rebut someone else’s. It’s really important to read the Bible as a whole, to allow the Bible’s big categories of thought to shape our thinking. A much longer article would be needed to do that for the kind of ‘charismatic theology’ represented by Revival. However, given the way certain passages were used in our conversations (and are often used by charismatic thinkers), pointing out the weaknesses and inconsistencies in how certain passages are read is also important.
Most of my questions look at the Bible passages that were quoted by the members of Revival Fellowship to ‘support’ their claim. If you only have the time (or the inclination) to read one question, read the last one. It’s the most important question – and the one that I think could most helpfully apply to other situations that arise in the Christian life.
- If your views about speaking in tongues are based on the ‘disputed’ verses at the end of Mark 16 (verses 9-20), have you looked carefully at the evidence for whether or not these verses should be considered an authentic part of the Bible (originally written by Mark), rather than a later addition? More importantly, these verses do mention speaking in tongues, but they don’t stop there. They also mention that believers will pick up serpents with their hands, and that any believer who drinks poison will not get sick (v. 18). So do snake-holdings play an important part in your Christian life? And when was the last time you drank deadly poison and claimed the promise of Mark 16?
- Acts 2 records the events of the Day of Pentecost. So if the tongues-speaking that took place on that day tells us what all Christians will (or at least should) expect today, what about the other things reported in that passage? For example, did ‘divided tongues as of fire’ appear on you when you received the Holy Spirit? When you speak in ‘tongues’, are they human languages that you’ve never learnt? Because that’s clearly what happened in Acts 2. If not, does that mean you don’t really have the Spirit? Or does it mean that maybe Acts 2 is not prescriptive of our experience of the Spirit, but is rather descriptive of a unique, unrepeatable day in salvation history?
- In Acts 2, when Peter is filled with the Spirit, he doesn’t tell his hearers, “Listen, we’ve just had this incredible experience where we could speak foreign languages that we’ve never learned – and you really need to have this experience too so you can know that you’re saved!” Instead, he preaches the crucified and risen Jesus as Lord and Christ! And when his audience is cut to the heart and asks what they must do to be saved, he doesn’t say ‘Speak in tongues!’ He says, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” (v. 38). So aren’t you in danger of ignoring Peter’s model and preaching your experience of tongues instead of preaching Jesus?
- In 1 Corinthians 12:3, Paul says, “No one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except in the Holy Spirit.” Doesn’t that undermine your claim that the definitive mark of having the Holy Spirit is speaking in tongues? I don’t speak in tongues, but Jesus is my Lord – so isn’t that the real evidence that I have the Spirit after all?
- 1 Corinthians 12:4-6 says there are ‘varieties of gifts … service [and] activities’. In verse 10, ‘various kinds of tongues’ is certainly listed as one of these ‘gifts’. But each gift listed (in verses 8-10) is given to ‘one [or] another’, not to all in the same way. So don’t these verses teach that ‘various kinds of tongues’ are given to some Christians as one possible ‘manifestation of the Spirit’, rather than being a manifestation of the Spirit that will be given to all Christians?
- Is every Christian also an apostle? Is every Christian also a prophet? The reason I ask is because of what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 12:28-29. In verse 28, Paul lists several types of people / gifts that God has appointed in the church (apostles, prophets, teachers, etc. – including ‘various kinds of tongues’). Then in verse 29, he asks a series of rhetorical questions (eg: ‘Are all apostles?’), including the question, ‘Do all speak in tongues?’ Are you claiming that Paul’s implied answer to all these rhetorical questions is, ‘Yes, absolutely and non-negotiably!’? If not, then why is the answer to the rhetorical question about tongues ‘yes’, but the answer to the others is ‘no’? Both the list in verse 28 and the questions in verse 29 seem to clearly indicate that, in fact, none of these gifts should be expected for each and every person. (Bearing in mind that the presence of the Greek particle μη, as used by Paul throughout verses 29 and 30, indicates that the answer to rhetorical questions is expected to be ‘no’.)
- When Paul says that, ‘The one who prophesies is greater than the one who speaks in tongues’ (1 Cor 14:5), doesn’t this indicate not all Christians speak in tongues? (Otherwise the sentence makes no sense, because ‘the one who prophesies’ would be greater than himself, since he would also have to be ‘the one who speaks in tongues’.) Doesn’t it make much more sense to see Paul describing two kinds of people?
- In 1 Corinthians 14:18-19, Paul says, “I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you. Nevertheless, in church I would rather speak five words with my mind in order to instruct others, than ten thousand words in a tongue.” So granted, no one can say tongues-speaking in itself is bad. Paul rejoices in it, and so should we. But when compared to words spoken with your mind, the ratio of importance is 2000:1. So why so much focus on tongues, when you could achieve more by saying, ‘Jesus is Lord and Saviour’ (or any other helpful five-word combo of your choice)?
- When tongues-speaking happens in your public gatherings, are you sure to cap the number of speakers at three (and each in turn)? And do you make sure that there is always someone to interpret what’s been said (and if not, do you make sure that tongues-speakers remain silent)? If not, what part does 1 Cor 14:27-28 play in your thinking about tongues?
- Last of all, and most importantly: What are you trusting? What is the basis of your assurance? Do you trust the subjective experience of speaking in tongues, or whatever other powerful manifestation of the Holy Spirit that you’ve experienced? Or do you trust the sufficient, complete, perfect, once-for-all death of the Lord Jesus Christ in your place? Is your confidence in the blood of Jesus shed for you, or in your personal experience? When sharing your faith, where will you point others: to your experience, or to the cross of Christ and the forgiveness of sins that God offers for all who turn to Jesus?
In itself, speaking in tongues is not something that I feel passionate about. Clearly, it can be helpful, but our experience of God’s goodness and (especially) our salvation don’t depend on it. But when you insist on it, when it becomes an essential part of a person’s salvation, that’s a totally different ballgame. For that is a different gospel. It’s ‘Jesus-plus’. The maths of the gospel says that to add anything to Jesus is to subtract from his finished work for us. And when you read what Paul says about preaching a different gospel in Galatians 1:6-9, no questions are needed.
 For those not familiar with the idea of ‘speaking in tongues’, essentially it’s the phenomenon of speaking either foreign languages that the speaker hasn’t learned (the technical term for this is ‘xenoglossia’) or angelic / indistinct languages (‘glossolalia’) as a manifestation of the power and presence of the Holy Spirit in one’s life.