Monday, April 18, 2011

Tongues: The Problem Gift ( a testimony and sermon on 1 Corinthians 14)

This is the text of  a sermon I preached a few years back as part of a series on the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Interestingly some students have been asking me about this very issue of tongues recently so I thought I'd just post it here

Today I want to focus on the gift of speaking in tongues. I want to start by giving a testimony of my experience of this particular gift, then look at what Paul has to say about it in the passage we had read out to us today, where it does seem to be the problem gift in the church at Corinth. Not a problem because Paul didn’t think it was a genuine gift, but because of the way it was used in particular in public worship.

the first time I encountered speaking in tongues was at the Presbyterian Church I grew up in. It was an evening service and during a silence in at the forefront of the Charismatic movement at the time. During  the worship time one of our elder spoke in tongues. A little while later another elder at the other side of the church spoke a short word (sorry charismatic shorthand happening here). after the quite time our minister asked if the person who had spoken in tongues believed that the other word that was spoken was an interpretation. the answer was 'yes' they believed it was. Then the wife of another elder spoke up and said that she had taught in Tonga for many years and that the message in tongues sounded like a pacific language and she understood some of the words and that they occurred in round about the right place in the word that was spoken in English. Now it was interesting to see this sort of thing happen in a very orderly , you could even say stayed Presbyterian way.

Since then I've had some interesting experiences of my own.
I’d been a Christian for about six months when I went round to a house where a group of people from our church in Titirangi were flatting together, sort of like a community.. They had been very instrumental in me becoming a follower of Jesus and one of the guys had been asked to mentor me in the Christian faith. They asked me if I’d ever been prayed for to be filled with the Holy Spirit and I replied no I hadn’t so they asked me if I’d like to be and I said yeah why not. They prayed for me and after a while started speaking in tongues and in what was the Pentecostal practise of the day suggested that I should just start praising God and maybe even try and say the things they were saying and if God wanted to give me that gift it would come. I had a real sense of God’s presence as we prayed and believe that God did give me the gift of tongues. So in my personal prayer time and other times I will pray using that gift. Like Paul I want to pray and praise using my mind but also i find a real intimacy with God as I pray in this other language.

I hope I am a thinking person and after that time I’d always wondered about the validity of that experience. One evening at a healing meeting, with Dolorous Winders, who Presbyterian renewal ministries had bought out to New Zealand, a Maori man I’d never meet before asked me to pray for him. He was going into hospital for an operation and wanted me to pray for healing. I said yeah sure. But actually wasn’t the confident, after a while I sensed the spirit say pray for him in tongues and I asked him if that was OK and he said yes he was comfortable with that. So I did. When I finished praying he looked at me and said ‘do you realise what you’ve just done?’ Now being an over sensitive white guy I thought that I’d just done something cultural inappropriate. So I gasped and in trepidation said no. I didn’t. But was ready to apologise. He replied ‘Well I speak my language and you just prayed in fluent Maori and I understand every word you just said. Now I don’t speak Maori, I did it in the third form and can say hello and name bits on a Marae but that’s about the size of it.

I was a bit worried about what I had said; it could just have been a new recipe for Seafood chowder or something totally satanic. So I asked what I had been saying. He told me that I had been giving praise to God and praying against powers and principalities. I don’t know if Dallas was healed that day. But in a profound way I know that he knew God cared about him. Kind of blew me away.

I was the youth coordinator for Auckland Presbytery for four years and the first youth service I attended was at St Giles out at Te Atatu and a Cook Islander was speaking. His message really struck a chord with where I was at and I knew I needed to go up in response to the altar call. So I did. After Alfred had prayed with me I again sensed the spirit say Howard pray for Alfred in tongues so I asked him if it was Ok and did, he told me he didn't speak his own language fluently but had heard enough to hear God say "I know you by name"  He told me that at the Bible College he was at that he felt he  was losing his cultural identity, the thing that really epitomised it for him was the way in which his name was being butchered and mispronounced. So to hear God saying to him in a pacific language that he knew him by name was important. Alfred became a strong leader in the PI community at college .

There have been other times when I have prayed in tongues and had people understand what I have said.

So experiential I have no problem with the gift of tongues, nor do I biblically. Even in the passage that we had read out to us today, Paul does not put this gift down or write it off he instructs the church at Corinth about its proper use and the purpose of public worship.

The church at Corinth seems to have been a church split into different factions. One of those groups believed that they were spiritual people that the sign of their spirituality was that they spoke in tongues ‘the tongues of men and angels. When they gathered for worship, they would speak in tongues. It was like they used it as evidence that they were spiritually superior to other people. So Paul spends a lot of time arguing against that.

• One Spirit, One Body a diversity of gifts

In 1 Corinthians 12, he says that while there is one body and one spirit that that spirit gives a whole array of different gifts, not just the one. He says that the church is the body of Christ and just like a body needs different parts and for those parts to function properly so it is with the church. The spirit has given different gifts to all of us and we need to use all those gifts properly for the body to function properly.

• The only context for using gifts is Love

Secondly, he has to tell them that the context for using any gift is the context of love; 1 Corinthians 13. That love is the sign of spiritual maturity and that the gifts are to be used for the common good. Seeing them as a badge of spiritual superiority wasn’t very loving. Neither, he says, is using a gift that does not build up the whole body in public worship.

• In public worship Gifts need to be Intelligible

He spends the chapter we had read out to us today saying that prophecy is a more loving gift in public worship because it seeks to build up the whole body and that despite the fact that he speaks in tongues more than any of them, it’s almost as if Paul has to defend himself to the spiritual faction in the church here, he would rather speak five intelligible words that a thousand that no one understood.

• It should be orderly

In the second half of the chapter he focuses on the fact that public worship should be orderly, it seems that this spiritual group were speaking in tongues all over the place all together and it was dissolving into chaos. It should be orderly and one person speaking at a time. Paul tells them that unlike in pagan worship where prophets and people who manifested had no control because they were possessed, That it’s not the case for the believers, they were in control of their own spirit, and could wait and do things at the right time. He says that chaos is not the way it should be, worship should reflect the God being worshipped and our God is a God of peace.

It’s almost an aside to what we are talking about but in this chapter Paul says that part of that orderly worship is that women shouldn’t talk in church. Now this has been used by many to say that Paul says women shouldn’t have any leadership role in church but that is not the case. In 1 Corinthians 11:5 in a passage that is hard to understand and has a lot to do about not abandoning gender identities in the surrounding culture, Paul had already said that women can pray and prophecy in public worship. What is in mind here ( and this is one possible interpretation) and in keeping with the idea of one person speaking at a time, is that women were not to talk amongst themselves. In Jewish worship women and men were segregated and in the Jewish faith women were not given an active role. They simply were there and probably zoned out and chatted to each other. Here Paul is saying No don’t do that be involved be attentive if there is anything you don’t understand well don’t call out and ask hubby then and there do it afterwards. In a time when women were not given a religious education being told to ask their questions and get answers and understanding was liberating.

So to insure order Paul sets out guidelines for the use of Gifts, so that they and in particular prophecy could be used to build everyone up. People speaking in turn, not all at once, being willing to yield the floor to one another. Tongues are OK as long as it is interpreted. Then it becomes prophecy. Even in Acts chapter 2 when the spirit is poured out at Pentecost the gift of tongues is not just a babbling of voices together but it says that people from all over the then known world heard God being praised in their own language. Even though they all spoke at once It was intelligible and a prophetic sign that the good news of Jesus Christ the kingdom of God was to be preached and proclaimed to all the earth.

So what does Paul actually say about the gift of tongues

• Tongues is speaking to God

Paul says that the gift of tongues is first and foremost speaking to God.

• It is private prayer and praise It builds up the individual

It is a private prayer and praise language where the Holy Spirit prays through a person. Paul calls it praying by the spirit, and singing in the spirit, it’s an expression of intimacy between someone and God. When used in public it needs to be interpreted.

It builds up the individual believer.

• It is the Spirit praying by the Spirit

It is the spirit praying to God. In Romans 8;26 Paul says In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express. I wonder if this isn’t where the gift of tongues doesn’t fit. It allows our spirit by the spirit to cry out to God without having to process it into our own words. Paul says that he prays both in the spirit and with his mind. In public worship he prays with his mind in an intelligible way so that people can add their amen to what he is saying. He praises with his mind so people can agree with him.

John was a youth group leaders of mine when I was a teenager and like a second father to me. He had attended a 'Life in the Spirit' seminar and overzealous people had prayed over him for about 30 minutes to receive the gift of tongues. In desperation to escape from these well meaning people he began reciting the names of welsh railway stations he had learned as a boy. This seemed to satisfy the ‘spiritual ones’ and they let him up. Then one night his son came into his room and woke him up. His son was going out with a girl who had some very strong gang affiliations and said to his father Dad "I can’t tell you what’s happening with my girl  friend  but please pray" right up there with every parent’s worst dream right. At that stage John said he prayed and asked God to give him the gift of tongues so the Spirit could pray through him for the situation. John says he started speaking in a way that he felt was a different language a really heartfelt prayer its the only time he ever did. He never found out what the situation was but in the morning his son said yeah dad it’s sorted.

It’s strange but there are the same problems with the gift of tongues as there were in Paul’s day. How is it to be used in public worship? Pentecostals and Charismatic’s would say that it’s OK to use it in public worship, they have a time of what they call singing in the Spirit. I enjoy such times but do question their place in public worship for the very reasons Paul does. What is the effect on non believers, they will think we are mad. Is it the most loving. There has been an emphasis on tongues as the gift, both positively and negatively both of which put people off seeking and using spiritual gifts. It’s been seen as the sign of the Spirit's infilling. While people can point to occurrences in Acts where this is the case, it doesn’t actually line up with the whole of scripture. The first people filled with the spirit in exodus were given wisdom and knowledge. Throughout the rest of the Old Testament it is that they prophesied. It’s not even mentioned in peters sermon at Pentecost, again the focus is on prophecy and dreaming dreams and having visions. It’s sad that it was used in the past to sort of sort out the spiritual from the non spiritual, hard really when it a gift given by grace and to be used in the context of love.

Paul says that speaking in tongue is not to be discouraged but to be used properly. A tongue edifies the one speaking and there is nothing wrong with that to edify the body of Christ it needs to be interpreted. A tongue is about mystery and an intimate relationship with God. Public worship is about edifying the whole body and for that to happen it needs to be in order and intelligible. You are the body of Christ, we often don’t listen to the voice in our own culture we need a voice from outside that culture, tongues is a way God can speak to us all, when it is interpreted . You are the body of Christ and the Spirit dwells within you and wants to build you up, you are the body of Christ and the spirit wants to enable a Deepening relationship with him, the gift of tongues is one way he can use to do that. Paul’s wish for his readers was that they all spoke in tongues he found it that beneficial. I am always happy pray for anyone and everyone to be filled with the Spirit and be given this gift along with the others.


  1. Dear Pastor,
    I just want to thank you so very much. I grew up in the Seventh-day Adventist church and I was taught that speaking in tongues was demonic. I came into contact with a Seventh-day Adventist Christian friend who had received the gift of tongues and told me about it. I was very skeptical but I prayed about it and I prayed for God to give it to me if it was for me. Well, I attended a demonic movie, and after I left I felt a presence with me. And then the next day I spoke in tongues, but it was kind of scary and it scared others around me. I didn't understand what happened but I felt "possessed". The people around me got me to some spiritual leaders and this scared me away from ever speaking tongues again. Then after that I would praise and worship God and pray and when I would do these things I would break forth in tongues. Every time I wanted to praise God I would feel as if I was going to speak in tongues and I would stop worshipping because I was afraid. I have been very confused about this topic for the past 10 years because I believe that I have spoken tongues from God as well as demonic tongues. To this day I still get stirred to speak in tongues when I praise God. I think the main key is for me to remain surrendered to Jesus Christ and to God's will for my life. I had a time in my life when I was not surrendered to Christ and I attended a numerology seminar. I asked God to cause me to speak in tongues if I should accept numerology. I asked God in my head, not out loud, and before I finished the request I broke forth in tongues apart from my own volition. Reflecting on this later, I realized that by engaging in an unscriptural practice, I most likely gave permission for demonic activity in my being. This is why tongues is such a hard issue for me because it can swing both ways, and it's really important to stay committed to Christ because evil spirits CAN trick believers.

  2. Thank you so much pastor. Your blog has just ended a decade of confusion. I finally get it. Tongues are not demonic in and of themselves. It is the spirit behind them. God's Holy Spirit works in order and calmness. The Holy Spirit always allows you to retain your own will. On the other hand, a demonic imitation spirit works when people are frenzied, and can be quite controlling (I have heard of people waking up out of sleep speaking in tongues) and feel like a rude force. The Holy Spirit is never rude. Jesus stands at the door of our heart and knocks, asking for entry. If there is any spirit that is rude and controlling, it is NOT the spirit of Christ. The tongues produced by both types of spirit may sound similar, but the spirit of God will work in an orderly fashion, and will enable the believer to maintain his/her God-given dignity. Also, the spirit of God will enable holy living, spur the believer on regarding the truth of the Bible, and enhance the believer's relationship with God. If a believer finds him/herself getting "high" off of a spirit and seeking an experience, I would be wary of that particular spirit. Because God wants us to be grounded in our faith and not in our feelings. Wow pastor. You have really helped me have a breakthrough. God bless you. You have no idea how this blog has just helped me. Over the years I have fasted, prayed, tirelessly sought the Lord, translated 1 Corinthians 14 from the original Greek twice, and have still remained confused. God led you to write this blog, Praise His holy Name.