The Charismatic Movement (7): Parameters of Tongues

The meeting is about to start. All the church members look like sprinters in the block. Each one has come with a psalm, a doctrine, a tongue, a revelation, or an interpretation (v26). First, a brother leads everyone in a hymn. Quickly, another follows with prayer. Before he finishes, another breaks into some strange language. Then a woman begins praising in a second language. The fervor spreads and soon it sounds like a bunch of radios playing, but all on different stations. Likely the Corinthians would have left the meetings feeling “spiritually energized” while visitors would walk out frightened, confused, or, even hoping these Christians could get some psychiatric help (v23).

Today, many sincere believers feel their charismatic experiences are of God, sensing the spiritual “baptism of fire.” However, visiting believers or unbelievers may find charismatic gatherings a bit scary, disorderly, and confusing. Some would claim it is all emotion and not of God at all. Who is right?

When opinions differ, we must be like the Bereans who “received the Word with all readiness of mind, and searched the Scriptures daily, whether those things were so” (Acts 17:11). One overriding principle is that the Holy Spirit CANNOT and thus WILL NOT guide a believer to do anything that would be against the Word of God.

Reasons for Speaking in Tongues

Reason 1: Upbuilding

In 1 Corinthians 14:1-12, Paul introduces the first reason for the use of all gifts: “that the church may receive edifying” (v5). He contrasts prophecy (revelation taught in the language of the people), with tongues (revelation taught in a foreign language). The first would build up the church because it is in their language, whereas the second, even if it were the speaking out of a mystery, something previously unrevealed (v4), because it is in an unknown language, would have no edifying influence whatsoever. He then uses the illustrations of pipes, harps, and trumpets, each with a distinguishable sound unlike the cacophony of participant voices in Corinth. Messages sent to military troops by the trumpet had to be clearly identifiable. By contrast, divinely sent messages were being lost in all the noise in the Corinthian meetings. Paul then segues to human conversation and the equal value of all human languages, but speaks of the frustration and futility when the message cannot get through due to language barriers. Therefore, he concludes that regardless of what participants might feel or experience, “seek that ye may excel to the edifying of the church” (v12).

Reason 2: Understanding

When a believer participated in Corinth, many times he did not even understand what he himself was saying. Paul stresses understanding so strongly that he says this believer should first pray to be able to interpret (v13) because it would be a waste of time to be speaking something that not even the speaker understands much less anyone else (v14). Thus, whether a participant is praying or singing, he must achieve understanding by being able to interpret it himself or by the Lord providing an interpreter. The goal is that everyone should be able to be in agreement and say, “Amen!” However, no one can intelligently say “Amen!” to what sounds like childish gibberish (v16). Thus, Paul appeals for spiritual maturity, “but in understanding, be men” (v20).

Regulations for Speaking in Tongues

Paul then gives a very clear list of requirements that must be met if it is to be Spirit-directed participation. We can and must apply these tests to all religious gatherings today where people claim to be speaking in tongues.

First, Paul says, “If any man speak in an unknown tongue, let it be by two, or at the most by three” (v27). Speaking by interpretation requires greater concentration, so, to maintain the focus of understanding and upbuilding, the first guideline is to limit the number of participants to two or three. Any more participants in a foreign language would put in doubt if the messages or prayers were really of God. Why? The Spirit would not contradict His Word on this guideline.

Secondly, He would not contradict the next regulation which is, “… and that by course” (v27b). Not only was there to be limited participation in foreign languages, but when there was, they were to take turns. God knows that humans cannot multitask when it comes to hearing. When God picks up human instruments to convey truth in an assembly, He may use a variety of men, but He will always use them one at a time.

The third stipulation is “and let one interpret” (v27c). If a man did not know what he was about to say because it was in a foreign language, first of all he was to pray for understanding for himself. If he did not receive that understanding personally, then he would have to check to make sure someone else could interpret it. Spiritually-given gifts never imply that men lose control of themselves and the Spirit turns them into robots so that they cannot stop what they are saying. The teaching is that “the spirits of the prophets are subject to the prophets” (v32). If there is no interpreter, let them keep silent (v28). The Spirit would never force someone to speak when there is no interpreter; the Spirit would never violate this inspired guideline.

The fourth limitation is equally important today. Paul writes, “Let your women keep silence” (v34). This is not a cultural norm or an insult to women. Paul’s teachings to women and about women elevate them, allowing their maximum usefulness and fulfillment in their divinely given role. The Holy Spirit would never motivate a woman to take part in a public service of a New Testament church because it would be in violation of His own Word.

If you took this simple four-point checklist to any modern charismatic gathering today, you would find violation after violation. Participants can speak of how good it feels, how much power they sense, or how beneficial it is, but our responsibility is to be Biblical. Being assured that the Spirit cannot contradict the Word of God gives us clear discernment in these cases.

Results of Speaking in Tongues

Craziness or Conviction?

Paul delineated three categories of people present at the general meetings of an assembly: members of the church, unbelievers, and believers who have not yet learned or accepted the apostle’s doctrine. In all assembly gatherings, we are being observed. If someone has little understanding or is an unbeliever, what will they think if they hear people speaking in languages or sounds they do not understand? Will they think it is a conviction of God? Paul warns that more likely they will think the believers in the local church are crazy (v23).

But if they were to hear and understand the truth by someone speaking (prophesying) in their own language or speaking in tongues with interpretation, the Word of God in all its power might make them fall on their faces in worship and say, “God is in you of a truth (v25).” The result we seek is conviction of sin and ignorance, rather than confusion or questioning if church participants are mentally stable.

Glorification or gratification?

Paul said he would sooner speak five words with understanding rather than 10,000 words in an unknown tongue (v19). For him, it was never about self-gratification or to make him feel in touch with God or empowered by the Spirit. Instead, it was a means to reach unbelieving souls with the gospel, especially his own Jewish people (vv21-22). Ultimately, Paul longed that God should be glorified through assembly believers being edified, unbelievers being saved, and unlearned believers being instructed.

Blurring or Blessing?

Assemblies are to be like mirrors that reflect the character of our God. Since “God is not the author of confusion, but of peace” (v33), the Corinthian assembly was not accurately representing God with all the noise and disorder in their meetings. To properly reflect their God of peace, Paul warns, “Let all things be done decently and in order.”

First Corinthians 14 then provides specific and objective criteria to evaluate the modern speaking-in-tongues movement. May God give grace and courage to not substitute feelings or experiences for divine standards and to bow to what is right – church participation in agreement with the Word of God.