Thursday, March 7, 2013

To Speak In Tongues Or Not Too

I saw this statement by Joseph Prince advertised on Facebook the other night, which got me thinking:

"Want to live stronger, healthier and wiser? Well, you can! Discover how you can live just such a victorious life, at peace with God and yourself. The key is the tremendous God-given gift of tongues. Through it, you allow the Holy Spirit to move more powerfully in your life, equipping and enabling you, helping you discern even between life and death. So listen and lock onto this incredible gift today. You will see your powerful Helper assist you in praying perfect prayers, and the wonderful works of God—constant wholeness, wisdom and perfect peace—manifest in your life!" - Joseph Prince

I want to preface this post by making it clear that it is not written against the ministry of Joseph Prince or the Pentecostal tradition, rather as an alternative reflection on a spiritual gift that has polarised many in the Christian church. My own spiritual journey has been deeply impacted by Joseph Prince through his book 'Destined to Reign' and by the leadership and ministry of a number of Pentecostal pastors and theologians.  The above quote simply provides a platform to express my biblical understanding of the gift of tongues and its relationship to being filled with the Spirit.

The elevation of the gift of tongues as the primary sign of being filled with the Spirit and somehow giving more spiritual power than the other gifts or being a means of getting closer to God, creates a tension for Christians who do not possess this gift.  I have encountered many Christians that don't speak in tongues who doubt the presence and power of God in their lives because they feel they are viewed by those who do speak in tongues as second class Christians.  In some churches, such is the importance of the gift of tongues, people are encouraged to manufacture or mimic the gift until they have it!

When key passages of Scripture about the gift of tongues are interpreted through the lens of a personal experience of this gift it is easy to see how this would shape a persons theology about tongues.  Those who have the gift of tongues and who agree with the above statement by Joseph Prince, naturally want others to share the same glorious experience that they have had.  However, experience alone is an inadequate foundation to form a theology that places a spiritual expectation on other Christians to possess the same gift and share the same experience. As someone who does not have the gift of tongues, but is very much filled with the Spirit, I interpret the same passages of Scripture about the gift of tongues through a different set of lenses than those who do.

Below is a brief summary of how I biblically understand the gift of tongues, not to dismiss its validity as a spiritual gift, but to keep it in proper perspective to the other gifts of the Spirit.

Acts 2:4-6 - "All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began speaking in other tongues (languages) as the Spirit enabled them.  Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven.  When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard them speaking in their own language."

The events of Pentecost form the foundation for an incorrect understanding of tongues as a sign of being filled with the Spirit based upon what I believe to be a misinterpretation of what was actually going on at this event.  At the beginning of Acts, Luke reminds his audience of the words of Jesus who said, "Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about.  For John baptised with water, but in a few days you will be baptised with the Holy Spirit." (Acts 1:4-5)  Acts 1 provides an important context for Acts 2.  The 'gift' Jesus referred to was not a specific spiritual gift but the gift of the Holy Spirit.  The baptism of the Spirit would empower the disciples to fulfil the Great Commission through the continuing presence of the Spirit of Jesus (see Luke 24:49), which is why they were to wait in Jerusalem until they received His power.  This power is the presence of the Holy Spirit Himself which enabled them to spread the gospel in a language that could be understood, not keep it to themselves in an unintelligible language.  If there was any specific spiritual gift manifested at Pentecost, it was more likely to be prophecy than tongues, as the disciples were speaking in the power of the Spirit to those they were commissioned by Jesus to reach with the gospel message.  In dealing with the misunderstanding and misuse of tongues in the Corinthian church, Paul's response is consistant with this viewpoint, "For anyone who speaks in a tongue does not speak to men but to God.  Indeed, no one understands him; he utters mysteries with his spirit.  But everyone who prophesies speaks to men for their strengthening, encouragement and comfort.  He who speaks in a tongue edifies himself, but he who prophesis edifies the church" (1 Corinthians 14:2-4).

This leads to the second passage that is used to interpret the gift of tongues as the 'greater gift'.

"But eagerly desire the greater gifts." (1 Corinthians 12:31)

Here is an example of where the NIV translation does an injustice to the text and to Paul, who is incorrectly interpreted as suggesting there are greater gifts that should be desired and pursued.  Let me begin explaining by giving a more accurate translation of the text:  "And yet some of you keep competing for so-called “important” parts" (The Message). Far from Paul exhorting the Corinthians to desire any gift, let alone so-called greater gifts, he is correcting the wrong thinking of the Corinthians towards spiritual gifts, which makes sense of his introduction to chapter 13 - "Now I will show you the most excellent way" - putting tongues in its correct place in the very next verse.  The structure of Paul's letter to the Corinthians is to highlight their wrong thinking and then to rebut it in the next verse.  We see a very similar pattern of teaching by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount - "You have heard it I tell you..."  In Paul's letter he does this three times (another example is 1 Corinthians 14:22 [Corinthian belief], followed by 14:23 [Paul's rebuttal]).  Paul is very clear in teaching that the Spirit gives the spiritual gifts "just as he determines" (12:11) and that not all possess the same gifts nor is any one gift more important than another, which is well argued by his illustration of 'one body, many parts' (12:12-30).

While there is so much more that could be said about this subject, the point I am making is that spiritual gifts are given at the prerogative of the giver, the Holy Spirit, to fulfil the purposes of Jesus and to glorify the Father.  Being filled with the Spirit is all about belonging to Christ and manifesting His likeness - the fruits of the Spirit - and not about what gifts we have.  I believe we dishonour God and grieve the Spirit when we make the spiritual gifts about something we do or have rather than who we become in Him.  The key to a victorious life is not striving to possess any one gift but submitting to the presence of the Holy Spirit who comes with power upon ALL who confess Jesus Christ as Lord!

“The one thing needful is to remember that to be filled with the Spirit is to be conformed to the image of the Son, and to be conformed to the image of the Son is to be filled with the Spirit.”  (Federick Coutts, “The Splendour of Holiness”)

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