Tongues in public worship

The gift of tongues has frequently been a source of disorder and division in the church. This article is an attempt to show how it should be tested and evaluated.

The need for discernment

With anything good that God gives us, Satan attempts to substitute a counterfeit. There are false converts, false leaders and false doctrines. There are also false spiritual manifestations. This is not a reason to avoid spiritual gifts. There would be no point in the devil's counterfeiting something that was not good. However, it is a reason to exercise spiritual discernment.

Spiritual discernment depends first of all on knowing God's word and being obedient to God. Those who do not know or do not care about His word will disobey it, and those who are disobedient are liable to be deceived. 2 Thessalonians 2:10-11

In the church of today, most fellowships are in some degree disobedient because they do not operate according to the model given by the bible. They are therefore at risk, even if they have a full understanding of all the bible says. If you are in such a fellowship, you will need to be more than ever on the alert, because some of the protections that Jesus designed for his church will not be working properly. In particular, the lack of a functioning eldership will expose a church to deception. So many churches have one-man leadership, which is utterly unbiblical. The leadership ought to be plural and male, and all elders ought to be of equal standing. They act as a check on one another as well as looking out for error in the fellowship. A leader without equal peers will not only be liable to be deceived, but can easily lead the whole fellowhip into deception.

Spiritual gifts

The main source for information about spiritual gifts is Paul's letters, in particular that first letter to the Corinthians. Ironically, this is because he wanted to correct them in their use of the gifts. The word "gifts" does not actually occur in the Greek of Paul's letter; he talks about πνευματικα -- "spiritual[ thing]s" and then about χαρισματα -- "graces", though of course these things are given to us.

There are several lists of gifts, but the one in 1 Corinthians is a list of nine supernatural gifts, which naturally attract a lot of attention. From the way Paul writes, it seems that every Christian potentially has at least one of these, but all can have more. The gift of prophecy is to be desired in particular 1 Corinthians 14:1-5. The reason is that prophesy in particular is a gift that builds up the church. All the gifts are to be used for that end, but prophecy is especially useful because it enables God's words to be applied directly and relevantly to the fellowship's particular circumstances and to the lives of particular people who are present.1 Corinthians 14:24-25

Whatever gift someone has, it is to be used in an orderly fashion, not disruptively; it is to be used for building up the church, rather than for individual gratification; and it is to be tested by the fellowhip as a whole, and especially by its elders (who have the function of watchmen to guard the fellowhip from error).

The gift of tongues

The gift of tongues has received what may be thought an undue emphasis, largely because it is somewhat spectacular. Someone who has this gift speaks in a language that is unknown to him, but is a real, functional language. The chances of there being someone present who will understand it is normally low (there are around 6,000 living languages today and an unknown number that have become extinct) but there are a number of anecdotal accounts of people who have spoken in a tongue unknown to them but have been understood by someone whose native language it was. The first occurrence of this phenomenon was at the first giving of the Spirit, at Pentecost, when Jews from all around the Roman Empire heard the 120 disciples, all Galileans, praising God in their hearers' own native languages. Normally, however, this does not occur. The language is not understood either by the speaker or by any of his hearers.

Because no-one understands what is being said, one of the other supernatural gifts, the interpretation of tongues, is required whenever tongues is used in public. An interpreter will receive an impression of what the Spirit is saying in the tongue and will speak it out so that everyone can understand what is being said. This enables the fellowship to be built up by a tongue that would otherwise be useless to them.

Any meeting where people are permitted to speak in tongues without their being interpreted is not being properly conducted.

Fake tongues

As with every gift of God, tongues can be false. A false tongue has two possible origins: either it is manufactured by the person speaking it, or it is demonically inspired. This article and the comments on it show that there is a real possibility of demonic tongues; and an unscriptural view of tongues may be enough to lay someone open to one. There is also a large incidence of manufactured tongues, produced by people who are possibly not even truly converted in response to the pressure in Pentecostal churches for everyone to speak in tongues. A manufactured tongue is produced by the person himself, probably unconsciously.

Testing tongues

First, someone with the gift of discerning spirits may be shown that a tongue is not of God. This gift is very important to any church and must not be discouraged. Very likely, someone who has it will be in a minority of one or maybe two. It is essential that such people should be encouraged to speak out, the more so since they are likely to make themselves very unpopular by doing so. (At least they may fear that.) This is one of the reasons why churches should be kept small: in a small group, it is far easier to speak out than in a large one, not only because of logistics but because each person knows and trusts each other one.

Second, the method described in the last cited article may be tried. I am not convinced that it could be relied on, because you cannot easily know whether the spirit or the person is taking the test.

Thirdly, I believe that a genuine tongue will sound like a proper language. I suggest that if someone is merely repeating the same few syllables over and over, that person is manufacturing a tongue rather than being a channel for the Holy Spirit. However, that can only be a first approximation. It may turn out to be truly a gift from the Holy Spirit in spite of what it sounds like.

In this as with other gifts, I think that the gift of discerning spirits is the most likely to be helpful; elders especially should pray to be given that gift.

Testing interpretations

What should we expect a message spoken in a tongue to say? For the one speaking in a tongue does not speak to people but to God, for no one understands; he is speaking mysteries by the Spirit. But the one who prophesies speaks to people for their strengthening, encouragement, and consolation. 1 Corinthians 14:2-3

The first and obvious thing, then, is that a tongue is addressed to God, whereas a prophecy is addressed to people. We should expect the interpretation to reflect that. When a tongue is spoken in an assembly of the church, it will be prayer or praise to God and will therefore set the correct tone for a meeting by drawing all to concentrate on God. This is why it seems that tongues are to be spoken first, before prophecy. 1 Corinthians 14:27-29

If, therefore, the interpretation of a tongue is presented as a prophecy, addressed to the church, I suggest that this is not the correct interpretation. It is probably a prophecy that someone spoke too soon. A correct interpretation will usually be praise or prayer to God.

If a tongue has been spoken and people are waiting for an interpretation, the person who has a message of praise or prayer come to mind is the one who should speak out. The one with a prophecy should wait. I do not say it is impossible for God to bring a prophecy through the interpretation of tongues, but the nature of tongues strongly suggests that this will be a rare exception. If such an exception does occur, it will need to be tested like any other prophecy.

It will be fairly easy to test the validity of an interpretation which does praise God. First, it will be biblically correct, of course. Then, it will lift the spirit of each believer present and set the tone of the meeting. (Remember that every meeting should be led by the Holy Spirit of Jesus, and since he is the head of each man, no other leader is needed.)

Other articles

Oliver Elphick

26th May 2009

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