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Tongues Speaking in the Early Church

Here is an article I wrote a few years ago for The Biblical Illustrator.             

In 1 Corinthians 12-14 Paul provides the first record of the Christian practice of speaking in tongues, or glossolalia.  Those who study Scripture and early Christianity find the practice a bit baffling for a number of reasons.  First, the earliest, firsthand description of speaking in tongues depicts a church divided over the practice with Paul urging restraint on the part of those who do and tolerance by those who don’t.  In the final analysis to forbid tongues speaking is no better than flaunting it (1 Cor 14:39).  Second, it is not at all clear how pervasive the practice is.  pentecost_crossAlthough Paul wrote thirteen letters in the New Testament, the practice is mentioned only in 1 Corinthians.  Moreover, in the two other places where Paul catalogs spiritual gifts–Romans 12 and Ephesians 4—tongues fails to make the list.  Some have concluded the practice is so widespread it is hardly worth mentioning except when there was a problem (as at Corinth).  Others read the evidence to say there was little or no tongues speaking going on in Paul’s other churches.  Third and perhaps most puzzling, it is also not clear whether Luke’s account in Acts of the disciples speaking in tongues is of the same sort as what we find happening in Corinth.  In Acts 2 Luke recounts the coming of the Spirit on the followers of Jesus in Jerusalem during Pentecost after Jesus’ crucifixion.  When the Spirit comes, they see visions and begin speaking in tongues.  Those Jewish pilgrims who have come to Jerusalem for the festival hear the disciples praising God in their own languages (Acts 2:1-11).  Some interpreters have understood this not so much a miracle of speaking as it is a miracle of hearing for the pilgrims say: “Why, are not all these who are speaking Galileans?  And how is it that we each hear them in our own language to which we were born?” (Acts 2:7-8, NASV).[1]  Despite this way of reading the text, it may well be that Luke meant to describe miraculous speech.  Therefore, let the reader understand that Galileans began speaking the native languages of Parthians, Medes, Cappadocians and many others although they had never studied or learned those languages.  The other accounts in Acts which describe speaking in tongues (Acts 10:44-48; 19:1-7) occur with the newly converted but no mention is made whether these “gifts of the Spirit” should be understood as real, human languages.  Paul’s description in 1 Corinthians 12-14, on the other hand, points to the fact that tongues speaking does not involve a known, human language; rather it is Spirit-inspired speech directed toward God not other people (1 Cor 14:2).[2]  For these and other reasons, the origin and practice of tongues speaking in the early church lays shrouded in mystery.

The situation is complicated to some extent by the fact that similar practices are found in other religions.  The Old Testament records that some early Hebrew prophets experienced episodes of ecstasy and inspired speech which may border on glossolalia (1 Sam 10:5-13; 19:18-24; 2 Sam 6:13-17; 1 Kings 20:35-37) although not all are agreed on this.  Perhaps more to the point is the pagan phenomenon known as mantic prophecy.  In mantic prophecy a divine spirit so possesses a prophet (known as a mantis) that the person falls into a trance-like state and speaks messages from a god.  Evidence suggests the language used was inarticulate and had to have an interpreter to be understood by the one seeking the oracle.[3]  Similar phenomena appear in the ancient cults of the Dionysius and Cybele.[4]  The relationship of early Christian glossolalia to any parallel phenomona is not self-evident.

Even if the origin and practice of glossolalia in early Christianity remains obscure, Paul’s stance on the matter could hardly be clearer.  He addresses it straight on in 1 Corinthians 12-14 in response to a question raised by the congregation. .  We can read Paul’s “answer.”  The problem is: we don’t know the exact question.  What we do know is that Paul offers a corrective to the abuse and misuse of the gift of tongues in the church. 

Above all, the apostle is concerned to order the worship of the community.  Because of its significance worship must be protected.  Disordered worship had led to disunity within the fellowship.  Tongues apparently is at the heart of that disorder for some tongue speakers valued their gift above all others and possessed an elitist attitude which excluded rather than included the otherwise gifted.  For Paul ecstatic experience and what appeared to be inspired speech is no guarantee of spirituality.  Indeed the pagans practice ecstasy and forms of prophecy.  The true test of inspiration is a confession, that is, “Jesus is Lord” (1 Cor 12:1-3).  For the apostle this meant that Jesus is the God of Israel manifest in human flesh and now exalted to the highest rank in heaven (Phil 2:6-11).

 To those who ranked tongues first as the most important spiritual gift, Paul counters by mentioning it last (1 Cor 12:4-11; see also 12:28-31).  In fact it is Paul’s point to highlight the diversity of grace gifts sovereignly distributed on the church by the Holy Spirit and to downplay tongues.  It is also crucial to his argument to point out that the manifestation of the Spirit is given to each believer for the common good (1 Cor 12:7).  Although tongues is a legitimate gift which Paul himself used, it is good for the church only when it is practiced decently and when there is an interpretation.  Gordon Fee states it well when he says that for Paul there is an absolute need for intelligibility and order in worship.[5]  Otherwise the church is divided.  Intelligibility is provided when there is an interpreter (1 Cor 14:4-5).  Order is ensured when tongues speakers wait their turn (1 Cor 14:26-33).  Evidently Paul believes that their ecstatic experience and speech is under their control for he writes that the spirits of the prophets are subject to the prophets and God is not a God of confusion but of peace (1 Cor 14:32-33). 

 If any gift should be sought, according to Paul, it should be the gift of prophecy.  Whereas those who speak in tongues speak to God and not to men, those who prophesy speak  to men words of edification, exhortation and consolation (1 Cor 14:1-3).  Whereas the one who speaks in tongues build up only the self, the one who prophesies builds up the entire congregation.  Prophecy therefore is the better gift (1 Cor 14:1, 5) because it is already intelligible to any who hear it.   Though Paul did speak in tongues, he preferred five intelligible, prophetic words to ten thousand unintelligible words in a tongue (1 Cor 14:18-19).  The Corinthians should follow his example.

If prophecy is the greatest gift, love is the surpassing way.  In the midst of Paul’s discussion of spiritual endowments he places a beautiful bit of prose to signify that all the gifts must be practiced in love.  First Corinthians 13 is certainly one of the most memorable chapters in the entire Bible   Paul begins: “If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but do not have love, I have become a noisy gong, or a clanging cymbal” (13:1).  The rhetoric is unmistakable.  Tongues speaking is nothing but noise when carried  out without.  When it comes to the church and its worship, love for one another will make all the difference.  Paul then celebrates the qualities of love (13:4-8), concluding with the observation that “Love never ends.”  In contrast, prophecy, knowledge and tongues will end “when the perfect comes” (1 Cor 13:10).  The question arises: what is “the perfect”?  Some have concluded erroneously that “the perfect” refers to the Bible, in particular, the full revelation of the New Testament.  They say when it is complete, tongues and prophecy cease.  According to these interpreters, the New Testament was complete around the end of the first century.  Therefore, they conclude, tongues cease with the close of the apostolic age.  The problem is this; no where in Paul’s writings does he anticipate the completion of our New Testament nor would the Corinthians have been able to understand that..  Furthermore, there is no perfection for Paul in this present age.  The “perfect” quite clearly refers to the time when God’s purposes are fulfilled, namely, at the second coming of Christ.  What Paul means is rather straightforward.  The spiritual gifts, including tongues, prophecy and gifts of knowledge, are for the present time.  They edify the church until the second coming of Christ.  When he comes, what we have seen and heard and known “in part” is fully realized.  Prophecy, tongues and gifts of knowledge—to name only a few—become obsolete when we see Christ face to face.  Love, therefore, is of a higher order.  It never ceases.  It is a permanent part of the life of the church on both sides of his appearing.  For Paul the truest manifestation of the Spirit’s work was not inspired speech but love.pentecost 3


[1] Luke Timothy Johnson, Religious Experience in Earliest Christianity (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1998), 111.

[2] Gordon Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians NICNT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987), 598.

[3] Johnson,  113-4.

[4] E. Andrews, “Tongues, Gift of,” in The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible (Nashville: Abingdon), 4:671-2.

[5] Fee, 571.


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