The Charismatic Movement (8): The Passing of Tongues

Some things are inevitable, we often say, like death and taxes. Of course that doesn’t make it so, but unlike ourselves, when God speaks, the thing that He has declared will surely come to pass. And when it comes to the gift of tongues, God has made Himself abundantly clear:

“As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away” (1Cor 13:8 ESV).

Assuming, then, that the reader accepts the absolute veracity of God, there is no legitimate question about the inevitable cessation of tongue gifts; there is only the question of when God’s Word was (or will be) carried out.

The Chronological Argument

The chronology of the New Testament, while not entirely or perfectly understood by scholars, does yield some broad clues regarding the general ebb and flow of early church history. A careful ordering of known events brings some facts about tongue gifts into sharp focus.

Beginning with the Gospels, a subtle but interesting detail is found in comparing the two records of the great commission. Matthew and Mark both record the words of the risen Christ to His disciples. It is of more than passing interest that Mark, who alone records the use of signs (Mark 16:15-18), omits Matthew’s benediction: “Lo, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matt 28:18-20, Newberry). Preaching the gospel, baptizing converts, and teaching the Scriptures are to be permanent fixtures of the age. The initial sign gifts (including the gift of tongues) were, at least by inference, temporary.

The book of Acts records three events in which the use of tongue gifts is evident. The first, and best known, is the dramatic event on the Day of Pentecost, 50 days after the resurrection of Christ. God’s approval of this weighty event was seen in the exercise of a unique gift; the Spirit-given ability of men among the 120 disciples to speak in 12 or 15 (or possibly more) different foreign languages. How amazing! For those who mocked, it was the promised sign of national judgment (Deut 28:49; Isa 28:11, 33:19; Jer 5:15). For those who would hear, it fulfilled Christ’s promise of “new tongues” (Mark 16:17), a harbinger of the new dispensation in which the Lord was “confirming the word with signs following.”

Leaving aside the second event, described in Acts 10:46, the last mention of tongues, the gift of speaking in an actual foreign language, is in Acts 19:6. The careful reader will note that this closes the topic, so far as the historical books of the NT are concerned. Even the overview of the church age, intimated by the letters of Revelation 2-3, has no hint of any ongoing exercise of sign gifts.

Moving forward to the epistles, it is of great interest to us that the events of Acts 19 and the first letter to the Corinthians are historically analogous, both occurring very early in the church age (c. 55 – c. 56). In the only epistle to address the historical operation of tongue gifts, Paul underlines the inferiority of this gift (he lists tongues and the interpretation of tongues last in both lists in 1Cor 12:10, 28-30), and teaches the folly of its exercise outside of very limited parameters.

Here’s the important part: we must note that no subsequent epistle, including 2 Corinthians which was written mere months after the first letter, mentions tongue gifts. Even in the later gift lists found in Romans 12 (written c. 57) and Ephesians 4 (c. 61- c. 62), there is no mention of tongues. Paul wrote at least eight epistles after 1 Corinthians and never mentioned tongues again; neither did Peter, James, John, or Jude. Odd indeed, unless they had ceased to function.

For those who wish to dig deeper, we might add that the author of the book of Hebrews, (written c. 68), implies that the corroborative work of the sign gifts was completed. A careful look at the tenses used in Hebrews 2:3-4 indicates that by that date, both the role of the eyewitnesses and the sign-confirmation were completed and were in the past.

To state the case simply—we know of no Biblical evidence to deny that the activity of tongues was fulfilled by the end of the first century. The day of language gifts had ceased.

The Historical Argument

Turning to the events that follow the end of the New Testament record, we listen to the words of the Christian leaders who were the spiritual descendants of the Apostles. Justin Martyr, midway through the second century, listed the spiritual gifts operating in the contemporary church; unsurprisingly, there is a total absence of any reference to tongue gifts.

As is well documented, Origen in the third century, Chrysostem in the fourth, and Augustine in the early fifth century, all concluded that the gift of tongues, as legitimately practiced in the Acts, had ceased. It is Chrysostem who first gave us the word “cessation,” and Augustine who said that “[tongues] were signs adapted to the time [of the Apostles] … and it passed away.”

So does that mean that there were no subsequent instances of speaking in tongues? Actually, there were many, but it is important to note that they were judged by Christian leaders to be unorthodox and heretical. Irenaeus (c. 180) and Tertullian (c. 207) both mention them, but as we will see, they were not the Biblical tongue gifts of the New Testament.

One of the first major errors to arise after the death of the Apostles was the heresy of Montanism in the second century. Named after its founder Montanus, a convert from Phrygia in Asia Minor, he was linked with two women, Prisca and Maximilla, who joined in his error. Despite a large following, he was denounced as a false prophet, based on the reports that “he would fall into a frenzy and convulsions … and prophesy contrary to that which was the custom from the beginning of the church. Those who heard him were convinced that he was possessed, a demoniac in the grip of a spirit of error” (Eusubius). Sadly, his “raving and babbling” are now claimed by some to show that the gift of tongues was still operating. To all but his devoted followers, his contemporaries judged him heretical and deranged. Reports of his suicide by hanging, along with Maximilla in a spirit of frenzy, led many to conclude that he was not unlike the traitor Judas.

While there are isolated reports of outbreaks of so-called tongue gifts throughout history, the next major era that we want to examine is the nineteenth century. It is evident that this was an era when God was working mightily in restoring Biblical truth. Men like J. N. Darby, William Kelly, and C. H. Mackintosh, as well as Donald Ross, Donald Munro, John Ritchie, and others were powerfully used by God. Around the world, the gospel was preached, converts were baptized, and local churches were formed.

But when God is active, the devil is also busy with spiritual counterfeits. In Great Britain in the 1830s, a Church of Scotland preacher, Edward Irving, was introduced to speaking in tongues by Mary Campbell of Fernicarry and Margaret McDonald of Port Glasgow. These young women attracted a large following, so much so that early brethren like J. N. Darby and Benjamin Newton personally investigated the phenomenon (they concluded that they were demonic). Having fully embraced this new doctrine, Irving was forced from his Regent’s Square Church in London and founded his own Catholic Apostolic Church where speaking in tongues and other ecstatic behaviors were on full display. Though popular for a brief period, the simplest summary by the Church of Scotland might be the best: “[He] altogether presents a melancholy and fearful exhibition of mental derangement and presumptuous infatuation.”

In the United States, nineteenth century movements presaged today’s interest in the gift of tongues. Both Joseph Smith of the Mormons and “Mother” Ann Lee of the Shakers, who claimed to speak 72 foreign languages, embraced this gift. The Shakers, a radical English Quaker sect who came to the US in 1774, felt a spiritual connection with the Montanists of post-apostolic times. Like the earlier heretics, they had perverse views of Christ; Ann Lee claimed to be the “female aspect of God’s dual nature as the second incarnation of Christ” (whatever that means!). Contemporary observers were not sympathetic; they described the Shaker practice of speaking in tongues as “unintelligible jargon, mere gibberish, and perfect nonsense.”

Lastly, and most importantly for us today, is the beginning of the modern Pentecostal Movement. At its foundation is Charles Parham, who purchased “Stone’s Folly,” in Topeka, KS., and there founded a Bible School in October 1900 to teach his theories of “divine healing” and to encourage missionary work. On January 1, 1901, during an evening Watch Night service, a 30 year-old woman, Agnes N. Ozman, claimed to lose her ability to speak English and spoke in “Chinese” for three days. This was followed, two days later, by 12 ministers who claimed to speak in tongues, and later by Parham, himself. He said “right then and there came a slight twist in my throat, a glory fell over me and I began to worship God in the Swedish tongue, which later changed to other languages and continued so until morning.”

This teaching rapidly spread to the Azuza Street Mission in Los Angeles, and the modern Pentecostal movement was underway. Ironically, Parham’s own profound mental, moral, and sociological disorders robbed him of the leadership of this movement, but his assessment of the Azuza work was particularly acute. Dismissing it as “fanaticism,” he wrote “I found hypnotic influences, familiar spirit influences, spiritualistic influences, mesmeric influences, and all kinds of spells, spasms, falling in trances, etc.” It was not a glowing endorsement from a man who certainly knew disorder when he saw it.

Oddly, none of Parham’s missionaries ever tested their “tongues” in foreign fields. In spite of some early (and unreliable) reports of independent testing of their ability to speak a foreign language, the movement quickly devolved into the meaningless babble of ecstatic speech, and any claims of genuine foreign languages were quickly forgotten. One can hardly square these events with the carefully prescribed gift of tongues described by the Apostle Paul.

One more point. While it is seldom, if ever, mentioned in the literature of this subject, the history of post-apostolic tongue gifts has a remarkable theme; in almost every instance, women are found at the root of the practice. In ancient Montanism, it was Prisca and Maximilla, who abandoned their husbands and claimed to see Christ “in female form.” In more modern times, we find Mary Campbell and Margaret McDonald at the heart of the Irvingite movement in Great Britain. Here in North America, the Shaker movement was founded by “Mother” Ann Lee, and the modern Pentecostal movement, ostensibly the birthright of Charles Parham, cannot conceal the foundational role of women, particularly Agnes Ozman.

Against all this is the simple fact there is no record in the New Testament of women speaking in tongues. Like all public gifts, the divine order of headship in the local church reserves their operation to males. Of course, our feminist-driven society has seized on the account of Philip’s daughters and their prophesying (Acts 21:9) as a pretext for overturning this truth, but even a casual reader can discern that there was nothing public about their gift. They evidently ministered to each other, and possibly to other women, but a broader exercise cannot be imagined from the text. The need for Agabus to come from Judea to prophecy to the Apostle clinches the argument.

Neither the Biblical record nor the historical one gives any hint of a legitimate, Spirit-filled exercise of the gift of tongues after the first century. The promise that “tongues will cease” has been fulfilled in exact detail. May God help us to evaluate all modern claims in that light, and “hold fast to that which is good;” the eternal, unchanging, inerrant Word of God.